Category Archives: trekking

Bron and Claire’s jungle day of fun

Bron and Claire playing Rambo in the jungle Bron and I bade farewell to the others and caught what has tho be the best, most comfortable public transport in the whole of SE Asia along wide, wonderfully smooth tarmac highways up to Jeratut where we had a scenic three hour boat ride along the fringes of Taman Negara National Park where we’d decided to stop for a day en route to the islands. As we only planned to spend one full day in the park we decided to get our money’s worth and have a jam packed jungle day of fun. After breakfast on the floating restaurants down on the river we caught a boat over to the entrance and set off through the jungle to the world’s longest canopy walk. It is a fantastic swaying bridge suspended in the canopy about 40 metres above the ground and the sections are 450m in total length, worthy of an Indiana Jones movie certainly and with fantastic views across the jungle canopy from the platforms. Canopy walkway in Taman NegaraTaman Negara is the world’s oldest rain forest which makes it roughly 130 million years old, give or take a millenia or two. Huge trees tower above you, giant ants scurry around the forest floor, the sounds of geckos and birds echo through the dense foliage and far away from prying eyes tigers and wild boar lurk about. Sadly we didn’t see a tiger but we did spot two wild pigs trotting through the entrance area as we were eating cookies outside the souvenir shop! After the canopy it was only a 2.6km walk to Ear cave. Somehow, due to the steep up and down paths riddled with tree roots, a torrential downpour, a prolonged photo stop by on the park’s largest trees and several slides it took us nearly 90 minutes to reach the cave. Sunset over the rainforestBy this time we were absolutely filthy, covered in mud and thoroughly damp but with that wonderful dismissive-ness that comes from being dirty enough not to care. It was a rough and slippery scramble to get into the cave with our torches. We went in just far enough to see the colonies of cute furry bats clinging to the overhangs with tiny clawed feet and inhale the unmistakable stench of piles of guano! It was getting late so we made our way out and managed to get back to the village before dark. Bats in Ear CaveI must have picked up a few leeches on the way back as when I took off my trousers my feet and leg were covered in blood – nice! That evening after dinner we went on a night walk with a guided group. Sadly the six or so British 18-year old backpackers could not grasp the concept of walking and talking quietly to maximise the chances of spotting the wildlife. After the guide had asked them repeatedly to be quiet I asked them rather curtly to attempt to talk a little more quietly and the girl just rolled her eyes at me. Seriously, youngsters these days have absolutely no respect! We did see a green tree snake, a viper about a foot above my head, wood scorpions, huge furry spiders, massive stick insects and a beautiful flower called a one night stand which only blooms at night. It was 11pm by the time we made it back to our little dorm bungalow, muddy, damp, dishevelled but nicely jungled out!

smiles and sunshine on the walk to Sin Chai

Photos from the two hour walk that Jordan and I took to Sin Chai on our last day in Sapa…

Sin Chai Jump shot! Kids in Sin Chai Hills around Sin Chai Terraces in Sin Chai

Piglets up to no good in Sin Chai Kids in Sin Chai Bamboo, Cat Cat Village 

Sapa Fat Adult Pig, Sin Chai

the dangerous drinking games of the Black H’mong

Boozing at Hanoi BackpackersJames and I spent the weekend at the Hanoi backpackers, mainly drinking, well if they will offer free kegs of Bia Hoi on the roof. And besides those Sunday afternoon beers were purely to settle the hangover from the previous night. Apart from drinking we did manage to go and see the water puppet theatre by the river which I loved. The puppeteers are concealed behind bamboo screens and skillfully manipulate the wooden puppets by bamboo pools concealed in a deep pool of water on which the performances take place. There were farmers riding buffalos, dragon boat races, a mating dance of brightly coloured phoenix and two golden segmented dragons that shot fire from their mouths. Red Zao, SapaI think I was more captivated than half the children present! Finally on Sunday it was time for James and I to separate, partly as we wanted to go off to different places and to stop us potentially killing each other in the future, so now I have no chance to redeem myself at cribbage. I left him in the company of three lovely Irish girls and took the rather luxurious tourist carriage on the night train north to Sapa.

Afternoon mist in Sapa, Vietnam I arrived in Sapa at an ungodly hour of the morning with an American guy called Jordan and our new Welsh friend Marina. We spent about two hours eating breakfast in the hotel restaurant watching the changing white grey mist shroud the entire town and countryside…so much for the fantastic views! The rest of the day in the mist was amusing, it was impossible to see more than about 10 metres. Sapa is a tourist town with steep streets surrounded by villages of various ethic minorities of Vietnam, particularly the Black H’mong and the Red Dzao whose women frequent the town in large numbers smiling broadly in their traditional dress and try to persuade you to buy handcrafts from them. They are lovely though once you get chatting and I brought earrings from a woman called Mai, and her friend Mai (same word, different pronunciation that we all failed to get after 10 minutes) Mai and her baby boy, Sapaand we ended up swapping some of her embroidered wrist bands for my Indian bracelets which she loved! We had sizzling local meat dishes for dinner and played cards and drank mulled wine before Marina and I totally failed to get the fire going in the room, it is pretty chilly up here.

Rice terraces, SapaThe next day Jordan and I left on a two day trek into the valley with our guide, a 19 year old H’mong girl called Za. All the local guides are women, they all speak amazingly good English and they are highly amusing. The men have no contact with tourists and don’t speak English, where as the women pick up the language and sell handicrafts in the markets and basically end up supporting their families. In the villages of the H’mong, the women are most definitely in charge!

Za and G, Black H’mong guidesWe got dropped off 10km from Sapa and walked down through the rice terraces that literally cover the hillsides like huge green contour lines. In places we were side stepping along the edges of the terraces our hands being held by tiny local women to stop us falling in. We passed ducks bathing in the water, splashing buffalo, women working in the fields and the clouds swirled and drifted over the tops of the hillsides as we passed. The final part of the walk took us down a steep but scenic path into the pretty village of Ban Ho at the bottom of the valley in a crook of the river.

There were about 16 of us spending the night in the homestay in Ban Ho run by a Black H’mong woman called Lam, five months pregnant with two twinkling gold teeth and a wicked laugh. We had the most amazing dinner of beef, chicken, tofu, cabbage and spinach dishes with heaps of white rice. Me downing another shot of rice wineAfterwards we’d all had a few beers and the girls came out with three litre bottles of rice wine, “Happy Water,” announcing we were drinking all of it. And they helped. I don’t know what I expected of a homestay, but playing cards and drinking games and getting pissed with a group of women from a north Vietnamese ethnic minority was maybe not one of them. When any of the boys refused a shot B and Lam would accuse them of being lady boys and burst into hysterical laughter. I told B she had to keep eye contact when saying cheers otherwise she would have bad sex for seven years. She went bright red, the started laughing saying. “I don’t know these things, I’m not married yet!” She then told all the other women and ever time we said cheers they kept opening their eyes wide and laughing. It was a hugely entertaining evening.

Buffalo on the terraces, SapaThis morning we were all not too bad considering the amount everyone drank the night before. Jordan, myself, Za and another couple went for a long walk around the village past the thermal spring pools (we had an almost hot dip in them the previous night) and around to a tiny waterfall falling into a large green pool and falling over the rocks down to the village bridge. Vietnamese pot bellied pigThen we had a long walk uphill back to the main road. It had rained heavily overnight and as a result the path was a total mud bath. It was messy and slippery work getting back to the top but amazingly I managed not to fall over. After a noodle lunch we got taken back in a jeep to Sapa and to a warm shower and clean clothes!

ups and downs in the hill tribes of Chiang Dao

Mum and her elephantDay one – Elephants, bamboo rafts and bartering
We started our three day journey in Chiang Dao, about two hours north of Chiang Mai where we met Dan and Amber, a really lovely couple from the gold coast in Australia who were also on our trip. Just as well really, three days with just us Linneys and who knows what could have happened. The first day was mainly a lot of the more fun activities and not so much trekking which was cool. Limestone hills, Chiang Dao areaWe had a very funny guide called Tory who laughed at absolutely everything he told us, whether it was serious or not and sang us the cutest kids song about elephants in English and Thai! We started off with a quick visit to the local market which was a mishmash of cheap clothing, herbs, large bush knives and retro US army t-shirts. Then we headed off by jeep to where three large Asian Elephants were waiting to take us the one hour journey to the first hill tribe village, Palaung.

Lisu KidThe hill tribes live generally around 1000m in Thailand and originally came from China, Tibet, Laos or Burma in the 19th and 20th centuries. They are being discouraged from their slash-and-burn agriculture and now much of the area is protected or being planted. The government also stopped their very lucrative trade in opium so now their main income is via tourism, hosting trekking groups and selling handicrafts.

Mum managed to get the biggest elephant all to herself and it spent most of the scenic leisurely ride trying to overtake Dan and Amber’s in front. On the final steep path down to the Palaung village James and I nearly slid off the front of ours and gripped onto the seat for dear life as we teetered down the path. Lisu Tribe WomanThe villages are a group of bamboo houses on stilts, most with solar panels outside and lots of squealing piglets, chickens and half fox/half dog breeds running around. The women were all waiting for us round in a circle on the ground in traditional colourful dress displaying their handicrafts to buy. I’m sure they go and change into jeans the minute the tourists leave. They were really lovely though and every time they smiled you got a sight of red and black stained teeth from all the betel they chew.

Mum barginning!After a tasty lunch we took the jeep onto visit a few more villages seeing on the way lots of bamboo houses, banana plants, a baby monkey riding on the back of a local dog, the men in their very kitsch blue velvet baggy pants, pigs and roosters. Mum brought a bag from one Lisu tribe woman and I don’t think the woman was quite prepared for the bargaining technique. Mum just kept leaning her head on one side and hugging her around the shoulders saying, “Go on, 120 Baht!” To the amazement of us all it worked far better than our bartering! When we reached the Akka tribe the women were waiting for us and practically jumped us with hats, bags and jewellery. It was surprisingly good natured though and they keep laughing and smiling even when we didn’t buy anything. James simply said,

“Look this is all women’s stuff. There are only two women in my life, and they are both over there.”

Raft hitchhikersWe finished the day with a long relaxing bamboo rafting trip down the river on literally sticks of bamboo bound together. We each had a go pushing the rafts through the shallow water with the long bamboo poles before letting the guide take over whilst we enjoyed the scenery. At one point three local boys in their underpants hijacked Dan and Amber’s raft and spent the next twenty minutes jumping and somersaulting off the back before finally disappearing up the banks. The Thai people really do seem to be laughing and smiling pretty much all the time! It was just before dark when we reached our bamboo hut in the Lisu village we were sleeping in. An almost full moon was shining above the limestone hills, we had a gorgeous dinner of sausage and chicken curries with rice and were all in bed by 9 o’clock.

Mum in the cavesDay Two – Extreme caving, claustrophobia and Thai whisky
The village roosters were rather over-enthusiastic and had two rather loud rehearsals in the middle of the night before finally timing their vocal announcements with actual daylight. As a result we were all awake fairly early and sat outside our hut watching small male piglets running after the larger females and trying unsuccessfully to mount them until breakfast was ready! For the day we had our very own velvet-trousered guide, who spoke no English but who none-the-less turned out to be a bit of a joker, to take us first caving and then to a local waterfall. The caving was fantastic, we spent about 90 minutes crawling, walking and scrambling through passageways to different chambers with immense stalactite and stalagmite formations. I’d forgotten, however, that James is considerably more claustrophobic than I am and when we finally got outside he was a good deal more relieved than the rest of us to be once more in the fresh air. Chiang Dao Mountain from Lisu NalaoWe trekked along the river side over some Indiana Jones-Style bridges to a small waterfall before making our way back up over the hill sides until about 4pm we came to our second Lisu village for the night. This time our bamboo hut had a terrace overlooking the whole valley to Chiang Dao mountain on the other side. Dan and the whisky man, Lisu NalaoThe villagers were a lot more friendly, within 10 minutes of arriving we all had a large bottle of Chang beer in hand and shortly afterwards the village drunk (?) arrived with a large bottle of home brewed whisky and a few small glasses and insisted that we spend the next hour drinking with him. The whisky was pretty strong, actually you could probably have got drunk just inhaling the stuff. After a few whiskies, beers and the luxury of a sit down toilet we were all feeling very relaxed as we sat down for a Thai dinner and watched the sky darken over the mountains.

Local ShamenDay three – Shaman, Blind caves and Mum is pushed to the limit
Our final day was the toughest hiking but some beautiful scenery and our guide for this day, a fifty-nine year old Lisu man with clipped words in English, a very peculiar sense of humour and a huge beaming smile. He was hugely surprised that Mum was old enough to have had James and I, he spent the rest of the day calling her Mama to our amusement! We stopped for lunch in a small village and were given some strange tea to drink by the local shaman in the cut off stems of bamboo trunks. We all then had to take a brightly coloured woven wrist band for luck. Dan and James were slightly horrified at the un-manliness of the orange ones they picked and announced they were taking them off the minute we got back to Chiang Dao! Village pigletWe trekked down steep paths through teak and bamboo forests, the earth changing colour from sand, to yellow-orange, to deep red clays. Huge brown fallen leaves lined the track and crunched underfoot and the sunlight filtered through the yellow and orange ones still on the trees. Our guide kept merrily kicking huge Buffalo turds out of the path and frequently hopped off to hack down bamboo shoots with his huge knife to make us walking sticks. He also cut down a huge stem which his assistant guide-in-training later made into long bowls for our lunch!

Cutting Bamboo for lunch bowlsBefore lunch we explored one more cave that cut right across the rock-face in front of the path. Even though this one had no crawling James wisely elected to stay outside. It was then we realised all our torches were in our packs which we’d left to be driven to our pick-up point. So we went in with the guide’s not-very-bright torch and Dan’s even-less-bright torch. The chambers in the cave were huge and though it wasn’t nearly as hard going as the previous cave it was more unsettling as we could hardly see where we were going. It was like the blind leading the blind. Lunch was rice and vegetable with chilli tuna in our very cool bamboo bowls. By now Mum was starting to have a dodgy stomach, probably from the Thai whisky the night before. Unfortunately we still had over two hours of particularly steep uphill trekking to do to reach our pick up. Mum made it but only just with a little help from James and I along the way. Then our truck broke down taking us to Chiang Dao to pick up the rest of our stuff so we had to wait another hour to get rescued.

“See this is the real travelling,” I joked to Mum, “food poisoning and transport breaking down when you least expect it.” She didn’t look amused!

Tri Yaan Na Ros, Colonial House, Chiang MaiTwo hours later we were back in Chiang Mai, dropped Dan and Amber off at their hotel and then we headed to the Tri Yaan Na Ros. To say this place is beautiful is the understatement of the year. It’s small, cosy, gorgeous, lovely, picturesque and amusingly costs about the same as a travel lodge in the UK! James disappeared immediately into his room and found the sports channel and Mum and I collapsed onto two huge dark wood four poster beds draped with maroon silk and white mosquito nets. Our room opens onto a balcony that overlooks a turquoise green swimming pool lined with white columns and palm trees. Sadly Mum is still in bed recovering from traveller’s diarrhea today but at least it’s a pretty fantastic bed to be ill in. This wasn’t quite what I had in mind when planning a lovely holiday for her with James and I in Thailand!

Mr India’s balls and other camel stories

The biggest reason for many people to come to Jaisalmer other than the beautiful Jain temples, Havelis, and sandstone town surrounding a fort cut into the rock rising above the rooftops glowing in the setting sun, is to go on a camel safari and I was no exception.

Me and SheruI went on the safari for three days, beginning with a jeep trip 30km out from the town. The desert is not all sand dunes, it’s a mixture of rocky and sandy scrub land full of sprawling multi-fronged cacti, low bushes, short prickly trees, herds of goats and cows from tiny mud-wall villages dotted around, wild camels, and areas of isolated sand dunes rising up out of the vegetation. I had a lovely and (apart from a few bottom biting incidents) relatively well behaved camel called Sheru. It’s mating season at the moment, and our camels, being boys, kept making these bizarre rumbling throaty sounds (like a Desert kidshelicopter whirring under water) and then they’d pucker their lips blowing their tongues, pink and gooey, out of the sides of their mouths in a sort of gobby fart. This apparently is the camel mating call. How the females find that attractive is beyond me, but each species to their own!

We got to drive our own camels, which consisted of basically holding the reigns while they did and went exactly as they pleased at pretty much whatever speed they chose but giving you the wonderful illusion of control. Ocaisionally I started feeling smug that my prodding and clicking noises had finally got Sheru to manage a slow run or to hurry up, when I would see Dhurgan, my 12 year old camel wallah, running along side nudging him with a stick!

We visited the villages, spent the heat of the day resting under trees eating lunch and lounging around on mats chatting, and in the evening made a camp on the dunes, had dinner around a glowing fire with the camel wallahs singing traditional songs and beating out rhythms on the empty water bottles. We slept on thin mattresses under blankets with the unadulterated nights sky above us showing a brilliant array of stars, the odd shooting one briefly flashing by. Canadians in the sand dunesIt was cold, but very cool. The first night we were a big group of Canadians, French, Americans, Spanish, Turkish, Colombians and Brazilian backpackers, giving me a chance to practice my ailing languages a little although Fatim, the Turkish girl was horrified at all the Turkish swear words I knew!

Dhurgan and the camelsThe others were all heading back for the second day leaving Eric (Denver) , Pierre (California) and myself riding Simon the camel, Sheru and Mr India. Mr India, the biggest camel, had the largest balls of all the camels, so large that they swang out from under his tail from side to side as he walked. Following behind him for a few hours I became quite hypnotised by those swinging balls! We had a really peaceful day, swaying along on the top of our steeds, taking in the scenery, low hills, scrub-land and streaks of white cloud radiating out across the horizon. We came back to the dunes that night and were joined by two Taiwanese guys and a couple from Korea. That night we had desert folk songs, Korean children’s songs and Taiwanese music whilst Eric, Pierre and I contributed ‘American Pie’ and ‘She’ll be coming round the Mountain!’The boys, the camel and I

img_8135.JPG By the time we got back to the jeep on the final afternoon it had been great but my bottom and inner thighs had begun to protest, although according to the boys it was far worse for them having had their nuts squashed for the past three days. We got back to Jaisalmer to hot showers and soft beds and I went out for dinner with the boys to have pizza and wine to celebrate being back in civilisation.

Desert skyToday after visiting the network of Jain temples in the fort, Pierre and I set out on a very innocent trip to buy train tickets from the station outside town. Somehow we ended up meeting a group of very entertaining guys staying in the station’s retiring rooms. They invited us in for food and shots of Old Monk, my favourite Indian whisky. After helping them to drink the best part of a bottle Pierre and I decided it was definitely time to leave, getting pissed in the early afternoon is definitely not a good habit. I do have a pretty bad cold at the moment though, so for me the rum is purely medicinal! This is the bizarre and best thing about India, it is so wonderfully unpredictable. One minute you are being poisoned by carbon monoxide fumes in a huge city, the next learning to fly kites on Rajasthani rooftops or sleeping under the stars in the sand dunes; being surrounded by business-hungry touts one second who view you as a walking cash machine and then being welcomed into the poorest family’s home to share their dinner.

to base camp and back

jump shot in Ghorepani Fishtail morning shadowA tale of trekking, mountain volleyball, Indiana Jones-style-bridges, making momos, leeches, midnight runs in the rain to the outdoors toilet and soaring snow capped Himalayan peaks…interested? Let me elaborate…for the past twelve days I have been hiking the Annapurna Sanctuary trail in Nepal to Annapurna Base Camp. My guide, Sunita, was lovely, really friendly and very funny, especially on our last night when I made her share two beers and a Mustang coffee, turns out Nepalese women, not so used to alcohol! As I was the elder, certainly not the wiser, I became didi (older sister in Nepalese) and she was bahini (younger sister). I’m almost at a loss as to where to begin, it has been such a brilliant twelve days.

the route

Map of the route Fishtail (Machhupuchhre)
We began at Naya Pul and from there trekked up via Hille to Ghorepani, over across to the sanctuary route and via Chhomrong up past Doban, Deurali and to Machhupuchhre Base Camp (MBC) and finally Annapurna Base Camp (ABC). The heights given for the various villages and guesthouse stops are hugely misleading on the map. For example when you look at Ghandruk village at 1900m and then Landruk at 1595m, you think, great, only 400m to descend for the morning. Only once you actually look at the path it turns out that actually you are going to be descending about 850m to cross the river at the base of the valley and then climbing all the way up the other side. Chhomrong flowersMy knees are currently looking in to divorcing the rest of my body for malpractice! The scenery however was fantastic, climbing up and down stone pathways through small Gurung villages, getting occasionally jostled out of the way by munching Buffalo or run over by hoards of locals carrying huge bundles. Sunita thought it was hysterical to get me to try carrying the local’s baskets or huge mounds of grass every now and then whilst taking photos, I thought I was doing pretty well lugging my 10kg rucksack, nothing to what the villagers carry around! We also trekked through Rhodendron forests, groves of bamboo trees, across mountain streams, along hillsides, passed terraces of rice and millet and finally up through the scrubland and boulders to 4130m which is ABC.

the guesthouses

Ghorepani guesthouses Tadopani route
This is my idea of trekking. You walk four to six hours in the day and when you reach your destination there is a friendly guesthouse with stone rooms, clean (usually) sheets, toilets, occasional hot water and meals on request. For twelve days I have eaten large steaming bowls of porridge, pancakes, pizza, momos (Sunita persuaded the cook at the guesthouse in Chhomrong to let us watch (and help) him make momos for lunch so I could see how it was done!), dal bhat (Nepali rice and curry), noodles, rosti (fried potato pancake things topped with cheese and egg) and drunk a hot cup of Mustang coffee every evening. Now Mustang coffee is basically the Nepalese perversion of an Irish coffee. It contains the local alcohol made from Millet, smells and tastes like paint stripper with caffeine but definitely puts fire back into the body after a hard day’s walk. On our last evening Sunita and I drank cold beers whilst overlooking the hills surrounding Pokara and I then I suggested we both had a final cup of Mustang Coffee. Turns out Sunita is not as used to booze as myself and got quite tipsy! We were sitting in the smoky kitchen of the family who owned the guesthouse, listening to Hindi songs on her mobile phone and trying to get their 15 month year old son to mimic our Bollywood dance moves!

the dark side of trekking

Hungry hungry leech beetle
It wasn’t all fun and games, we had four days of torrential rain, whatever the weatherman says the monsoons have definitely not left Nepal. It takes some will power to get out from inside a warm sleeping bag when you can hear the rain of the corrugated roof of the guesthouse and you know that all your trekking gear from the day before is still damp and cold. Plus when you venture out onto the path, the earth has turned into a bog of squelchy mud, the stone steps have become slippery steps of doom and the leeches are out and looking for blood. I’m not joking these buggers get everywhere, in your socks, onto your walking poles and I even found one particularly big one having a grand old time sucking on my neck.

friends and family

The gang in Chhomrong
Even though the season has not fully begun we met a fair number of people along the way, villagers, porters, other tourists and Sunita is extremely friendly to everyone and as the all-female trekking group she belongs to most people had heard of her, or know who she was! Chhomrong was one of my favourite places, I ran into three Israelis and an Irish girl; Aviv, Sagiv, Ben and Jenny with their guide Bush for the second time when I arrived at a beautiful guesthouse overlooking two valleys. Local lady in KimrongPersuaded by the nice rooms, excellent food, stunning views and, I like to think, first class company they decided to spend the afternoon and night there instead of hiking down to the bottom of the valley. So we sat drinking beers and eating Pizza on the terrace, looking out over the mountain sides and relaxing away the afternoon. They had all come from the Annapurna circuit so had been going for nearly three weeks…actually I think Jenny’s magic red pills (whatever they were) had been keeping Ben going at least! My guide Sunita (Bahini)In Deurail at 3100m Sunita and I arrived early and were staying overnight to acclimatise to the altitude (she was carefully monitoring my water intake to make sure I got through at least three litres and wasn’t letting me have any Mustang Coffee that evening!) so we ended up playing mountain volleyball with the other guesthouse owners for a few hours. Mountain volleyball is just the same as regular volleyball only it’s played on the side of a mountain, figures! Gurung lady!The Nepalese Sunita’s been teaching me on the trek definitely came in handy although most people seemed hugely amused by my blundering attempts at the local lingo. Still it got us free tea and corn at one teahouse and when in Ghandruk we dressed me up in the traditional Gurung dress and I asked one old lady how she was doing in Nepali, I thought she was going to choke on her cigarette!

the destination

Lunch at MBC mountains
The day walking up to ABC was definitely one of my favourites and at the risk of waxing lyrical, here is what I wrote in my journal at the end of the day:

“This morning we awoke again to brilliantly clear blue skies and after my usual breakfast of strong black coffee, porridge with apple and chapatti we set off to climb the two and a half hour path to reach MBC at 3700m. The trees had all but disappeared by now, occasional small ones cropped up between the ferns, wild flowers and scrub. About one hour from MBC we got our first sight of the awesome peaks of the Himalayas, Fishtail spearing up into the blue sky and the achingly white peak of Gangapurna straight ahead of us. By the time we reached MBC after a short detour to take photographs of me posing by a huge ice bridge over the mountains stream, the sheer circle of the mountains was unbelievable. How can I describe the feeling of standing surrounded by moss and grass covered hills with snow and ice covered peaks reaching up around you? Route to MBCIt’s enormous, magnificent, beautiful, nature on a truly awe-inspiring scale, totally untouched, unaltered, and in the case of Fishtail, unscaled by mankind. We spent about two hours at MBC eating garlic soup and Gurung bread. As we sat warming ourselves in the sunshine the clouds began curling and rolling their wag in again over the mountain tops. Two ravens briefly soared overhead before disappearing down the valley. Around 1pm we said farewell to the English couple I’d been chatting with and started up the final path to ABC. The shrubs had now gone, replaced with thick, white-tipped grasses rippling and flowing in the wind. A gushing noisy stream tumbled and tripped down its rocky bed to our left, tiny brown sparrows jumped up from out of the grass beside us. In-between the grasses grew tiny violet buds, tall dark purple flowers like foxgloves, large yellow wild daises and red and green wild con. Huge boulders lay strewn across the valley as if disguarded by giants. In the distance through the white clouds rapidly overtaking us, we could just make out the outlines of the guesthouses ahead. As we got closer they seemed to tantalizingly slip further and further from view. The altitude had begun to kick in now and although my legs felt fine my head felt compressed by a prevailing dizziness and it was possible to walk only at a snail’s pace, putting one foot in front of the other as slowly we climbed the track. Finally the entrance sign bidding us welcome to ABC appeared and a short flight of stone steps brought us into base camp.”

Sadly the following morning began the two and a half days of torrential downpours so we didn’t get to see the final views from ABC but all in all I was still pretty damn chuffed!

back to civilisation
The way home

Today was the hardest trekking, partly because it was the final day and mainly because it rained like the very final monsoon last night and the steep steps all the way down to Phedi were slick as the sweat on my skin. But we made it and I am now showered, smelling less like I’ve been wearing the same sweaty t-shirt for two weeks (I have), and relishing the prospect of a comfortable warm bed tonight, I might even go and find myself a real Irish coffee!

from blessings to boating

Deciding we needed a little more cultural insight into life and religion in Nepal, other than that provided by the Lonely Planet, Kristy and I decided to spend a day with a guide, Krishnu, visiting a few places in and around Kathmandu. We started off at the rather unsocialble hour of 6.30am, but then Nepal truly is an early to bed, early to rise kind of country. We caught the morning prayer crowds working their way clockwise around the Bodhnath Stupa, one of the biggest in the world. It is almost totally hidden from the road, you walk through an archway and a huge area is cleared from all the mish mash of houses and this enormous white domed stupa covered in pigeons appears (it is so wrong that they are sacred here!). We also went to peer at the monk’s college and saw them all at their morning meditations dressed in dark red and bright yellow robes, looking very serious for teenage boys! From monks to monkeys, we then went up to Pashupatinath, one of the most important Hindu shrines in Nepal, and for Indians as well, as supposedly it is the birthplace of Shiva, the most important of the hindu gods, creator and destroyer (depending of course on which side of the bed he got out of that morning). It is a beautiful complex of temples, houses for the slightly hippy, dreadlocked holy men, cremations along the river that runs through the centre with burning funeral pyres and the whole place is totally overrun with glossy haired, quizzical looking Rhesus macaque monkeys.

Cow festival, Bhaktapur
We spent the rest of the day in Bhaktakpur outside Kathmandu for the Gai Jutra, or cow festival. Legend goes that an ancient King of Nepal lost his son, and his wife was so overcome with grief he began to think she was being overly indulgent. He ordered all his subjects to parade for one day in the Durbar square showing tributes to all their family members that they had lost throught the year so his wife would see that she was not the only one. But he also asked them to make it entertaining and humourous. So in present day Bhaktapur, by midday, every temple and step and rooftop cafe was covered to overflowing with locals and the odd tourist and a huge never-ending prcoession was weaving its way through the crowds. Families with decorated towers showing photos of their loved ones, burning incense, plaster cows on platforms, brass bands, young children dressed up in gold outfits (supposedly to resemble cows) and lines of boys and teenagers dancing with sticks…also, bizarrely the odd man dressed up in a saree with make-up on, just to get attention. It was loud and colourful and completely crazy but great fun to watch!

Blessings in Bandipur The following day (don’t ask me which day of the week, that has gone totally out of the window again) Kristy and I headed off down a bit and East a bit to a small hill top town called Bandipur about four hours from Kathmandu. We got dropped off on the main road after a mildly nailbiting bus ride and, with two Irish girls, got picked up in a rusty old jeep to drive the 10km up the hill to the town. Bandipur has a bizarre feeling of a old English market town. The cars can’t get into the centre due to the paved steps along the road. Wooden buildings have knarled old columns holding up the overhanging first floors, geraniums and pot plants adorn the side of the road and into the valley there are beautiful views of the terrraced rice fields and nearby villages. The place also seemed to be full of school children who unashamedly loved having their photos taken! We walked up to a tiny hindu temple at the crest of a hill and sat chatting with Rasu from our guesthouse and listening to him sing us Nepalese pop songs! That night as we slept in a our tiny brick walled room, the rain started pourring down outside the window, gently lulling us to sleep. School kids, Bandipur

Rain was less amusing the following morning when we had to leave and catch the bus to Pokara. Actually, we didn’t get too wet and by the time we caught stuck in the 90 minute traffic jam outside the town, it was lovely and sunny and we got a chance to chat to our bus drivers and a few passengers, people here really are lovely! Pokara is a total tourist pre-trekking hang out, but very endearing none the less and the lakeside views are absolutely beautiful. Being the end of monsoon season although the sky is clear and blue, the fluffy white clouds are tending to stick very closely to the mountains and the result is that those pesky himalayas have not shown so much a snow capped peak since we arrived! It is still a lovely view, with the jungle covered hill slopes rising up from lake, the rice paddies squeezed into gaps between the restaurants and the waterline and the hills turning blue black to grey in the distance until they are swallowed by the clouds. In the evening we were playing cribbage after dinner (which I have introduced Kristy to although my constant victories are, I feel, getting a little boring) when we got invited to play Knockout whist with an Irishman, an Englishman and a Belgium (no, this is not the start of a bad joke!) Despite getting nicknamed ‘Ruthless’ after the first 10 minutes I lost all the games so Kristy finally got to have her card revenge!

This morning we got a taxi up to a viewpoint called Sarangkot and sat drinking tea watching the early morning cloud rise up from the valley, the river Seti cutting through the gorge and the early morning sun just breaking through the clouds. On the two hour walk back down to Pokara I managed to slip and fall on my arse three times, put my hand in stinging nettles and get leech bites on my ankle…oh and yesterday a crow shat on my arm from a tree. I seem to have temporarily become a walking diaster magnet!

View from SarangkotDespite this however, after spending a few hours relaxing with drinks in a riverside cafe called Boomerang, Kristy and I decided to hire a wooden boat and go paddling around on the river before sunset. Even perched precariously on the back with both feet dangling in the water I managed not to fall in so maybe I back in the karma good books…

searching for that most elusive of beasts, the air conditioned bus

Having spent the last six days sheltered from the tropical heat in the comparative cool of the hill country, the coastal climate has hit me like a large red hot steam train smashing into a small limp goldfish!

Beautiful Ella Soaring view from Ella Rock
I spent two days up in the beautiful little village of Ella, tucked into the hillside and looking over the immense views of Ella Gap that stretch all the way towards the sea. The guesthouse I stayed in, the Rawana Holiday Resort, was lovely, the couple running it were adorable and the garlic curry that I had for dinner was the most wonderful meal I’ve had yet in months! I did sweat out the garlic for the next 36 hours but no mosquitos came near me during that time so totally worth it! The second day I got up early to explore the route up to Ella Rock, a large area jutting out from the forest on the very edge of the valley. The most exciting thing had to be the first 2.5km which was walking along the train tracks, mainly because it’s precisely the kind of thing you’d never be allowed to do in England. The wooden planks were just shorter than my stride so I felt like I was doing a Geisha-walk as I tottered along them. I did run into one of the trains en route, but as there is a 15kph speed limit along most of the area, I had plenty of time to squeeze myself out of the way before it trundled slowly past! After the tracks the path wound its way up through tea plantations, past waterfalls and random buddist shrines until I popped out of the forest at the top next to a huge eucalyptus tree and simply gaped at the view. Ahead the layers of green hills slowly faded into greys and blues until they merged with the sky and behind me I could see all the greenly forested hills and tea plantations surrounding the village far below. Really stunning.

45 minutes of self-portrait taking and banana eating, I headed back down stopping to give knowledgable directions to the two of three tourist couples I passed on their way up. Turns out I was the only one sensible enough to ask their guesthouse for a detailed map before setting off (or maybe just because I know just how bad my sense of direction is!) I spent the afternoon chatting to a British couple on the terrace about their two years of working for VSO in Rwanda, some more food for thought for the post-travelling life crisis…

The hot and sweaty ride to Deniyaya and the kindness of strangers
There are air conditioned buses in Sri Lanka, and I haven’t managed to find a single one. So it was a very sticky and crowded local bus which took me three and a half hours from Ella to Pelmadulla (30 minutes of which I was standing until thankfully a few seats became free) and a further four hours from Pelmadulla south to Deniyaya, the distances are pretty small but the road is wigglier that a twisted worm and only about one and a half buses wide which produced some amusing stand offs with trucks and buses coming the other way. Couple that with a steep, certainly fatal, drop on one side of the road and you have all the ingredients for a thoroughly white-knuckle ride. Also from my seat I could appreciate just how often our driver leant all the way out of the window to spit a stream of red liquid from the tobacco he was chewing into the road, taking his eyes off the oncoming traffic for a good five seconds. I buried myself in my book and told myself it was bound to be okay. I wasn’t reassured by the amount of Buddist decoration around the driver either, in my experience the more religious the driver, the more reckless! We arrived in one piece however and Suresh, the guy next to me who I’d been chatting to for the last half hour very kindly dropped me at my guesthouse in his tuk-tuk before saying goodbye.

Three lizards, one cobra and leeches-a-plenty
Deniyaya is the nearest big village to the untouched Sinharaja Forest Reserve, a name which translates literally as the Lionking forest, there aren’t any lions of course but Sri Lankans are fairly obessed with naming everything, even the national beer, after the large maned cats. I set off with two dutch couples, a Englishman named Jim and our guide, Pali, who was lovely, entertaining, if a bit smelly due to eating garlic and onion sandwiches all day. He was, however, an expert on every bush, shrub, insect, bird and tree that we passed and it was one of the most enjoyable days I’ve had in the country so far. We stopped by a waterfall in the early afternoon to swim and have lunch and got chatting to a family from Negombo who were very entertaining. We saw golden orb spiders, which are pretty damn big and surprisingly the photographer in me is bigger than the aracnophobe in me and I managed to inch close enough for some good shots. Golden orb spiderThere were tiny kangaroo lizards, horn nosed lizards, fisher owls, black eagles, yellow headed bulbuls (small birds), huge millipeeds, giant red hornets, a spectacularly lazy cobra streched out on a tree log, spice plants and the lovely little leeches. Actually it was a dry day (despite the fact we were in the rainforest) and the leech count was pretty low. They are tiny thin black creatures that don’t do any harm but draw a little blood and I was rolling my eyes at our guide as the others squealed everytime they saw one…and then I looked down to see two of the wee blood suckers burying their way into my socks, I screamed like a litle girl and hopped around like a madwoman until I calmed down sufficiently to flick them off! Apart from the leech attack, a really good day, rounded off with dinner at Pali’s of chicken rice and curried aubergine, carrot and lotus plant stems with buffalo curd and palm honey for desert…mmmm!

Ants on the wild orchids

Onwards and southwards
So now I am back in the immense heat in the pretty dutch fort of Galle on the south coast, fighting off offers from tuk tuks drivers. I finally finished my book “Shantaram” by Gregory David Roberts which is one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read. It’s the true life autobiography of a heroin addict who escaped from an armed robbery jail sentence in Australia, fled to Bombay where he lived in a village, started a slum clinic, worked in Bollywood and for the Bombay mafia and fought during the Russia Afghanistan war. I actually finished it for the first time a few days ago and it’s the only book I’ve ever read where, upon turning over the final page, I closed the book, opened it again at the beginning and started reading it all over again. However the time has come to move on and since the Sri Lankan bookshops firmly favour the classics, I have brought Treasure Island to entertain me on the beach.

return to the wild

My unique trekking styleI have a feeling my knees may never talk to me again. When I decided to go trekking for three days I think they should have warned me that rock climbing and gorge walking would have been a more accurate description. The day before I had a wonderfully relaxing day with Cris, Cristiano and Birger visiting a nearby natural pool with a huge rocky slope leading into it, covered with water. You climb up the side, edge across on your bottom and then slide at great speed all the way into the pool below, I have never screamed so much in my life. Very entertaining though and we thought we were pretty cool until we saw the local guys doing it standing up!

Chapada trekking, day one

So, the trek began on Tuesday morning and I was very proud of my minimialist, light weight rucksack until I was given my tent, sleeping bag, roll matt, and share of food at which point it became rather more weighty. The first day we walked from Lencois, crossing the river at about calf depth and grade 3 rapid speed before heading out across and up to the first of many peaks. Our guide Flor powered ahead in his battered old flip flops explaining (in Portuguese) that Havainanas were the best shoes in the world so why would he need hiking boots. Then Robert, a guy from Holland who’d spent four months doing physical labour on a Brazilian farm followed and a lovely middle aged couple from Sao Paulo that are trekking guides in their own region. And then there’s me, who hasn’t trekked with a big rucksack at length for about five years…splendid! Actually I managed fine and I loved it. We had the most spectacular views across the park, saw poisonous brightly coloured caterpillars, hummingbirds, palm trees, banana trees, mico monkeys, ate raw sweet potatoes found by Flor, swam in waterfall pools, camped under rocky overhangs, had porridge for breakfast, scaled unbelievably steep paths (I use path is the loosest sense of the word), climbed up rock faces, down rock faces, waded through rivers, slipped and fell heavily on our bottoms (well just me actually), slipped and stepped in the water soaking our shoes (again, just me) and sipped emergency cachaca by the campfire (okay that was just me too but I really needed it!).

Suffering from Vertigo at Cachoeira Fumaça

The second day we hiked for two hours along the river, doing the kind of bouldering I have only previously attempted with a rope and harness, to reach the base of the Cachoeira Fumaca, Brazil’s highest waterfall at 400m. It’s so tall that even the ample flow of water had transformed into a series of drifting sprays by the time it finally hit the pool at the base looking like smoke (hence the name Fumaca, answers on a postcard as to how long it took me to figure that out) Even on a cloudy day it was fairly awe inspiring.

The Flying Dutchman

Then today we trekked around and up to the very top of the same falls. Given the great height, and the tendency for the path to favour the direct route up the mountain, I was exhausted when four hours later we reached our goal. This time it was brilliantly sunny and looking down the dizzy drop to the smoke-like spray, intermittant rainbow and green valley stretching out below even I conceded it was well worth the effort.
View from Cachoeira Fumaça

Then it was a mere two hour walk down, what I guess could creatively be described as steps, to the village of Capon where we got our car back to Lencois. So although I now hurt everywhere imaginable I am clean and feel pretty damn hard, and pleased with myself…in the words of our guide, Flor, let’s boogie!

our friend Enrique

Finally reached Salta in the North of Argentina, a really beautiful and lively town with a gorgeous central Plaza and amazing churches and buildings. I arrived just after midday on Sunday to find Craig, my friend from Buenos Aires, waiting at the bus station for me! So we spent the rest of the day exploring the town and catching up on the past three weeks since I’d left him in Mendoza and then went to see Pirates of the Caribean 3 at the cinema. For once the film was acutally dubbed into Spanish but luckily there wasn’t really enough of a plot to require me to understand more than the basics.

Yesterday Craig decided that his 11 year old fear of horses had probably come to an end so we went out to one of the Estancias 40km south of Salta to go horse riding for the day and finish up with an asado. It turned out there was an English girl, Sam, working at the Estancia so the three of us and a gaucho guide set out across country. It was a lot of fun as we got to do some galloping aswell across the fields and the scenery was lovely. Craig did pretty well although he has been complaining all day today that his backside is rather sore!

We got back to have a huge asado with the owner Enrique, a whole table full of food. Enrique was thrilled that both of us spoke reasonably good Spanish although spent the first 20 minutes refusing to believe the two of us were just friends and said it was only a matter of time before we became a couple as men and women cannot be just friends. Apparently a very common belief in Argentina. Anyway, somehow we drank a lot of wine and Enrique just kept producing more bottles. By the time our car came to take us back into Salta, I was pretty hammered and trying to play a Peruvian flute and failing utterly. I fell fast asleep in the car all the way back to Craig’s amusement. We were still drunk when we got back to the hostel and spent most of the rest of the evening sobering up. I think we were in bed by about 10pm! Such an amusing day.

Today I made Craig and his sore bum do some serious walking in the Qubrada de San Lorenzo, a gentle gorge through the hills about 11km west of Salta. Again the landscape continues to surprise me. The whole area was lush, green, forested jungle, rocky mountain streams, condors and loads of bright green parrots chattering away. We sort of followed the path but ended up walking up the river bed before spending an hour climbing up one of the hills to see spectacular views of the valley in the distance and had a picnic lunch by a steep drop back down into the gorge.  We got back in time to take the cable car up to a view point over Salta called Cerro San Bernardo before walking leisurely back down the hill and into town. Definitely ready for a few beers and some good empanadas!