A post I wrote last year about my time spent in the land of the long white cloud..
Before I start, I’ll admit I’m one of the first to give the Kiwis a bit of shit. Beside their ridiculous accents, their religious like infatuation with rugby and their reputation for romance with the population of local sheep, they also flood into Australia by the planeload, annoying us while bragging of how good things were comparably ‘back home’.
I always took this with a grain of salt, the last time I visited, being 8 years old, I don’t really remember a lot of detail. Having just spent a few weeks over here and with a greater appreciation of the world at large I can honestly say, begrudgingly, they do have a lot to brag about. I will use a few highlights of my trip to show you why..
The highlights of my trip
New Zealand has a reputation for world class hiking tracks and when you get here, it’ easy to see why. The scenery is pretty special and the diversity of landscape offered not only on the different tracks, but on different sections of an individual track, is quite unique. One of the 3 most famous, theAbel Tasman was right on my doorstep and I would have been a fool if I didn’t take advantage.
Although summer is the preferred period for most trampers (and for good reason, winter is bloody cold..), I put on my woollen socks and enjoyed having the track basically to myself. I still met few people along the way, including a French couple I helped cross a river at 5am in the morning (low tide) and a couple of German backpackers, one of which knew of Perth due to there having been ‘a Malaysian plane crash’ near the city.. I think we’ll be stuck with that one for a while.
The track itself is well maintained, even in winter, and winds over and around a hilly coastline consisting of golden sand beaches and crystal clear waters. There is accommodation in the form of serviced huts every 10km
or so where you can lay your head for a small fee, or if you’re a little sneaky like me, for free. I spent just over 2 days on the track, walking from Marahau to Totaranui and although it can be achieved quicker, it’s worth slowing down and enjoying it.
The other hike I did on this trip was called the Tablelands circuit, running up and behind the Mount Arthur range overlooking Motueka. Personally, due to the novelty factor of having practically the whole track covered in snow, I enjoyed this even more than the Abel Tasman. This is where New Zealands diversity truly comes into play. Less than 50km from the sunkissed coastline I experienced in the Abel Tasman a few days before, I was transported to a scene which could well be at home in the Artic Tundra. At the far end of my walk, I was balls deep in snow for a good couple of kms and that pure whiteness is all that could be spotted within eyesight (bar the Salisbury Hut, with the best view I’ve ever woken up to in my life..)
Something that has been near the top of my busketlist for a long time now (as I’m sure is the case with most busketlists) I finally took the plunge and got it done. The Deadat30 mindset has held me accountable to a lot of self-made promises over the last 6 months and this is a prime example.
I won’t go into much detail as I think the only way you can understand what its like jumping out of a perfectly well functioning plane at 14,000 feet is to actually do it yourself. I’ll admit I wasn’t actually nervous on the way up but the minute we left the plane, I entered a state of shock which I only really snapped out of after the shoot had been pulled.
Given the challenge I have set myself, this was the perfect opportunity to get a bit of practice and build some fitness from my Kilimanjaro climb later this year. There is a reason some of the worlds best climbers hail from the South Island of New Zealand, there are literally mountains everywhere.. Although not as high as many places in the world, they are pretty treacherous, every year taking the lives of those who attempt to tackle them ill-prepared.
As I was climbing solo and was lacking in ice-capped mountaineering experience, I stuck to some of the easier climbs around where I was staying, spending 6 hours on Mount Campbell on my first day and tackling Mt Lodestone as a finale to the Tablelands circuit hike. Both presented unique experiences for me, Mt Campbell being the first time I’d ever climbed in snow, snow falling for the top few hundred metres, Mt Lodstone being steep and full of ice, making it pretty bloody hard at some points.
I did three types of fishing on this trip, the good old rod and reel setup, a small net used to target the infamous whitebait and shellfish hunting on the coastlines rocky outcrops.
We didn’t have a great deal of success with traditional line fishing, hooking mostly pesky sand sharks on the day we went out. To be fair it was the wrong season, summer producing bountiful numbers of snapper around the top of the south island.
The town I was staying in predominantly, Motueka, gets a pretty serious case of whitebait fever when the season rolls around in mid-August, giving me a prime view of the obsession over these little bastards. I say bastards because they are hard, very hard, to catch.. Not only are they nearly invisible in the water, they’ll swim right into the mouth of your net then freak out and take off again, leaving some very frustrated Kiwis. We did manage to snag about 2 cupfuls of them which were dispatched to the frying pan with egg and salt. There’s a unique flavor to them, not as strong as regular fish but still with that distinctive taste. Not bad at all.
Finally came the shellfish hunting, the region I was in containing mussels, a couple of varieties of oysters and the unique to New Zealand paua. I encountered a pretty unique occurrence in that the moon was the closest it had been to that part of the Earth since 1930. As such, the tides were going through some radical swings and when we chose to target mussels, the water was basically as low as it would go. This allowed us to check under some otherwise submerged rocks and crevasses which normally would have required getting very wet.. We pulled out about 50 green-lipped mussels which provided a quality feed at very reasonable prices!
Like mountains, caves are literally everywhere in the South Island, indicators being displayed all over in the form of sinkholes and large holes in the Earth appearing at random. A few weeks before I arrived, a woman and her friend were walking around the hillsides when one of them suddenly disappeared 6 meters into the ground. Luckily she was ok and they managed to get her out safely.
I visited the Ngarua cave up at Takaka, containing stalactites & stalagmites 10’s of millions of years old as well as Moa fossils 25,000 years in the making (an extinct New Zealand bird, the biggest the world has known). It’s pretty crazy seeing the remains of these creatures of a bygone era and made me feel like a curious kid again as the guide rolled through his list of facts.
In the same vicinity is Harwoods Hole, thought to be the deepest natural drop in the southern hemisphere. It’s about an hours to get to the site and it’s surprisingly open.. no barricades or fences to prevent you from getting too close, not that you could accidentally stumble into the 357 metre drop, its pretty well blocked off with large boulders. I made full use of those boulders and avoided getting too close to the edge. There’s a strange magnetism that feels like it’s drawing you in as you get closer, quite an unsettling feeling.
Despite giving the Kiwis a lot of shit, most of what I say is in good natured jest and its certainly reciprocated. At the end of the day, there are a good bunch of people over here and they will always help you out when they can. Although I didn’t personally try it, a number of travelers I spoke to hitchhiked everywhere and remarked that New Zealand as one of the best places in the world to do it. If you’re ever so inclined to head to the South Island, check out Motueka, a little character town on the doorstep of the Abel Tasman and with plenty of places worth checking out in the surrounding region. I highly recommend Motueka Backpackers for a place to stay, right in the heart of town. Most importantly get out and enjoy nature. There are few better places to do it.
*This is a post I wrote for another blog over at deadat30.com. I used this ride as fitness training for my first summit, Mt Kilimanjaro. Was quite an adventure so I thought a few of you may be interested in having a read.
“So what are you guys getting up to while you’re in Vietnam?” asked the sensible traveller
“We’re thinking of riding from Saigon to Hanoi,” I replied
“Wow that sounds amazing! Hard though.. Make sure you get a good bike and get it checked. I’ve heard a lot of people have motor problems with the older ones.”
“Oh no we’re going to cycle, should be able to avoid any motor trouble ;)”
“I thought you said you were going to Hanoi? I assume you mean on a motorbike?”
“Nah just a bicycle, as in one that you have to peddle”
“What, are you mental? You realise how far that is right? It would take months..”
“We’ll see how we go, should be a blast”
So it began..
As I was doing a bit of research on traveling around Vietnam I came across a couple of blogs and sites that mentioned cycling from Saigon to Hanoi. Most were done through an organised tour, laying out a set itinerary and charging a small fortune to get you from point A to B, even though you were the ones cycling. I then saw a blogger that detailed his journey, solo, from Hanoi to Saigon on a bicycle, in 26 days. Since starting this site, I’m constantly on the lookout for new challenges. My curiosity was instantly piqued.
I started throwing the idea around to a few travelers, most responses being similar to the one above. Then while galavanting around in Siem Reap, I ran into an American fellow by the name of Jonah who not only liked the idea, he said he was thinking of doing the same thing himself. After a quick chat to make sure we had a similar idea of what it would involve, we locked it in on the spot.
Making our way independently to Hanoi (mine involving a 5 hour-turned-10 hour van/bus ordeal to Phnom Penh) we met up and went hunting for our modes of transport. Mountain bikes were the only option and after much bargaining at a range of different stores, we settled on 2 for a total of 9 million dong (about $430 usd) Price included all accessories- helmets, spare tyres, chains, sexy little lycra shorts etc.. I wasn’t entirely convinced in regards to the lycra initially, however after only 2 days of cycling,our asses copped such a hammering, the extra padding was deemed essential. With bikes and attire in hand, we determined to set off the next morning, with no plan whatsoever.
That was a theme throughout the entire journey, no real plan (besides eventually arriving in Hanoi). Each night, lying in our respective rooms, completely stuffed, we had a quick check of the map and set a target of where we wanted to get to, sorting out accommodation there when we arrived. We did find a great blog with a full itinerary that gave us a rough route to work to but for the most part we made it up as we went along.
Strapping our packs on the bike racks we kicked off from the intersection of the 2 main roads in the city. We were on our way. For the first 10 days we made our way up and along the Ho Chi Ming highway. I have to be honest, it was HARD. From day 2 on was a constant progression of long, steep and dusty hills. If you’re thinking of giving this a go, mountain bikes are essential. The roads are rough, full of potholes and there’s glass, nails and all kinds of other crap lying all over the place. Amazingly I didn’t get 1 puncture.. Jonah managed 3…sucker.
Without doubt the most hillarious and also the most frustrating part of our journey was the interaction with the locals. Given the route we travelled and our mode of transport, it’s fair to say a lot of the people we encountered had never layed eyes on a westerner before. Besides Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi and Hoi An we never saw any either.
In the main cities you tend to get a bit of attention, mostly from people trying to sell you something but often just spurred by a little curiosity. Once you’re in the rural areas it’s a different ballgame..
At first it was all friendly, yet fairly timid hullos. We heard them called out every few minutesand we’d wave and return the greeting, happy to be amongst such hospitable people. As we got deeper and deeper into the heartland of Vietnam the polite hullos turned more primal in nature. The timidy soon disappeared and the hullos were yelled out, often repeated with more and more force until we responded or we were out of eyesight. Then the hullos slowly turned into a ehh type sound then into an oooo, oooo (similar to the noise a spider monkey would make) then finally into a loud grunt. This usually occured once every 20 seconds or so, about every second building we rode passed. The thing that suprised me most was the fact that, although children got pretty excited and often had a good laugh yelling at crazy foreigners riding through their country, most of the noise came from adults. Grown men were our main audience and they often wouldn’t let up until we finally responded. This left them satisfied and they often had a chuckle then returned to their hammock and half finished beer.
The feeling of being a touring zoo animal was even more pronounced when we stopped riding. Every time we sat down to eat, the entire restaurant/street would stop what they were doing (usually drinking) and stare. This would continue until they got bored, we finished eating and left, or we stared them down. This usually lasted about 20 seconds until they finally looked away. When we went back to eating, the staring would recommence. If ever we stopped on the side of the road to grab a drink or buy something, a crowd of 10-20 people would gather within about 45 seconds. It’s put me right off the idea of ever being famous..
By day 10 we were in need of some motivation, nothing would serve that purpose better than a refreshing dip in the ocean. With that in mind we cut across to the coast, arriving at the beautiful seaside town of Hoi An (After a night in a private island resort. It was very romantic).
The 1 day of rest we planned in Hoi An soon turned into 4 as the laid back nature and excessive drinking sucked us in and made it very hard to get back on the bikes. There are a few crazy stories from Hoi An but ill save them for another time. One word of warning- if you think renting a houseboat off a barman at 12am is a good idea that won’t end in chaos, think again.
When we finally got underway we were on fire. Our recovered legs pumped out 120km our first day back and we made it to Hue, another of the mid-sized cities scattered all over Nam. One fact that blew my mind is that, despite a population of some 90 million, there are only 2 cities with more than a million people. As such, the rural population is the majority.
Our muscles, particularly our legs copped a hammering cycling up to 9 hours a day so pain & soreness was a constant over the entire journey. Massages would have been a tremendous help. I say would have because the 4 or 5 times we went in to a ‘massage’ parlour we were very courteously offered a little hand relief after 15 or 20 minutes. They are set up to look ‘legit’, the only way you can tell is when the massage itself starts.
To be honest it’s shit.. usually kicking off with some vigourous rubbing, some skin pinching then a bit of chopping and slapping (this is the massage..). Then after 20 minutes or so they’ll stop, roll you over and point to your pathway to pleasure, giving a quick jerking motion. I don’t know what happens after as I quickly departed at this point.
Believe it or not, the most ridiculous massage experience did not actually occur at a poorly disguised brothel. In Hue we we were led by an eccentric ex war veteran to a blind massage centre. This is where blind people give you a massge.. a pretty well known charity established all around the world (I’m too lazy to look up the name). So here we are stripped down getting more terrible massages (from a worthy cause though-happy to oblige) hoping this wasn’t going down a familiar path. About halfway through this old man bursts out of what appears to be a closet off to the side of the room. He starts wandering around the room, yelling in Vietnamese and absolutely reeking of alcohol. He stumbles over to Jonahs table, assesses the situation for a few seconds then, without warning, grabs a handful of his meat and potatoes. I heard Jonah let out a yell then burst out laughing. Assuming it was due to the massage I didn’t pay any attention until he called over “yo watch that dude”. By the time the warning registered, it was too late. The grabber had his second victim of the evening firmly in his grasp. After assessing my crown jewels he decides to test out his skills as a masseuse. I try and push him away but I was laughing that hard I had no strength. The ordeal lasted about 10mins when the grabber, satisfied with his work, returned to his cupboard to await the next victims.
From Hue it was a fairly uneventful 10 days (relatively..) as we made our way north along highway 1. Just grinding out long, hot and tiring days as we sought out the finish line. Although Ho Chi Minh was rougher, less organised and less civilized than the 1, we would take it any day of the week. It’s a MUCH more enjoyable ride. Traffic is slower and more courteous and the locals make it an entertaining journey. Although we never really felt in danger on the roads over in Nam it was slightly more nerve racking on the faster paced coastal road where trucks were missing you by inches.
It was a very very sweet moment when we finally reached the Hanoi city centre. Hugs were distributed and hotel rooms were immediately booked. We even managed to get a legitimate massage finally. My god was that painful. Without doubt the hardest thing either of us had done and certainly one of the most rewarding. I stayed in Hanoi about 4 days eating like a champ and checking out the city. Awesome place, definitely tops Ho Chi Minh in my book. The local food is just incredible.
If anyone has similar plans and wants a little more info or advice feel free to shoot me an email. I haven’t included a lot of detail in this post as I’ve tried to keep it as brief as possible.
This is just a short post to give my opinion and a little insight into the Singalila national park that I recently trekked. If you are considering it or just curious and want a little more information, I recommend this post: http://indiahikes.in/trek-sandakphu/ Served me well. (Don’t pay attention to trek times though. They must be catered to retirees or individuals over 300 pounds.)
The trek is starts in a small village called Maneybhanjan, about an hours drive north east of Darjeeling. You main know Darjeeling from the world famous tea it produces. I’ve been told there’s also a movie sharing the name. I spent quite a bit of time there working on this project and enjoying the quality Indian cuisine. Well worth a visit.
Darjeeling therefore, is the point of call to embark on the trek. You can book an all inclusive package through an operator stationed in Darjeeling, or you can hire a guide in Maneybhanjan and buy food and accommodation along the way. Although not necessary for the route itself, guides are compulsory and a set cost of 1,000 rupees per day is the price foreigners will have to pay. There are 2 prices for everything in India and I’ve found although most developing countries charge more for foreigners (particularly westerners) they don’t have it as an official policy, as in India.
From Maneybhanjan (2134) you commence a very steep ascent until you reach the first crest of the hike, at Tanglu.
You can spent the night at Tanglu, although we decided to keep pushing on and reached Gairibas after about 7 hours or so. This made an easier second day to the highest point of the circuit Sandakphu (3,636m). There is a range of accommodation options here, unlike other locations where a dormitory is the only option. There seems to be a mix of dorms, private rooms and guesthouse stays right through, it depends on where you choose to stay.
I was told we were to be up at 5am the next morning as there were some pretty decent views to be had. The man wasn’t kidding.. Without doubt the most spectacular sunrise I have ever witnessed.. the array of colours as the sun peered through the low lying cloud. The light reflected off the snow drenched peak of Kanchenjunga. The distant view of the worlds highest point slowly coming into focus.. Amazing is all I can say. I don’t usually get too excited over the suns sneaky activities but the trek was worth it just for that half hour..
Once the show was over and the sun was in full view we marched down and up and down and up again until we came to Sabarkum. Here we turned right instead of carrying on to Phalut and began the continual downward descent down to Rammam. We spent the night in a great little hillside guesthouse there (and ate some amazing fresh roasted corn) continuing our journey the next day to our destination and a 4 hour jeep ride back to Darjeeling. Word of advice: if you are even remotely tall, hire multiple seats for these excursions. I’d read about this trick before and so decided to hire 2 seats thinking I’d be ok. Little did I know they squeeze 4 pint sized Indian men onto a seat that would normally hold 2. Even with my 2 seats booked I was still crammed in with 2 others and enjoyed a lesson in body contortionism while we rode the rocky road back to civilisation.
Overall, the Singalila trek wasn’t the greatest in the world but it’s worth spending a few days on it if you enjoy mountain scenery, of which there is an abundance. I used it as a bit of a fitness booster in the lead up to Kilimanjaro and it served that purpose nicely.
We were on the way to Nayapul, the starting point of the Annapurna Trek when we heard reports of trouble on the Annapurna circuit. Supposedly there were 2 fatalities and a number of others missing. The guide told us a mule had been sent down from the Thorong Pass with a note attached. The note had simply read “help, we are in trouble.” A blizzard had rolled through and hit the Thorong Pass, over 5,000m above sea level, the highest point of the popular route. Unfortunately, those first reports we received were well off the mark… As I write this, 39 have been confirmed dead and the tragedy has gone down as the worst of it’s kind.
The basecamp trek starts in Nayapul, a 90 minute drive from the charming lakeside city of Pokhara. I found Pokhara to be one of those places that draws you in and ensures you have a hard time moving on again. It’s a relaxed, friendly environment with some great food and even better scenery. I was there about 8 days longer than expected once I returned from the trek.
Once arriving in Nayapul we had a quick brekkie and began the slow ascent up the route. I was suprised to find large steps in place of a rough dirt track I’m used to when trekking. This continued for pretty much the whole trek and certainly made things easier on the ankles and knees. Despite a mass gathering of trekkers rolling into Nayapul when we arrived, I found for the most part overcrowding wasnt an issue. Sure there were a lot of people but there was never a problem with accommodation or moving at your own pace along the track.
We made our way up to Ghangruk for the first night before a fairly hard up-and-down journey to Cinuwa for night 2. From personal experience, I definitely recommend this route on the way up rather than the Landruk/hot-spring way. I went down that way and it was 95% downhill. Saw some very tired souls marching up there grunting at me as I passed. Looked like a rough task.
From Cinuwa (lower) we gained 1,000m vertically on our way to Deurali (3200m). This is where it first started to get cooold. After a hearty dinner of Dal Bhat I crawled under the covers, fully clothed, and stayed there until morning. Speaking of food, I was pretty impressed with the variety and quality. You could get anything from cheese omelletes, momos, tuna sandwiches, fried potato, even pizza right the way along the trek. I noticed at each village the price went up the higher you went. Tea and drinks went up by about 10 rupees each stop while dal bhat went from 200 to 450 rupees at the top. Guess its pretty hard getting all that produce up when you have to carry it on your head.. Fair enough.
Setting out from Deurali at 7:30 I finally arrived at the destination at around 11:30, just in time for lunch. What a truly incredible place it is.You are completely surrounded by towering, snow drenched peaks and can’t help but sit down and soak it in.. for hours. Its’ hard to believe you are at an altitude of nearly 4,200m when you see how far above the surrounding peaks extend. I can’t even imagine Everest up close..can’t wait for that one!
No-one in my group really suffered from the altitude and it didn’t seem to be a big problem for anyone else we talked to up there. Cold was another stroy though! It got down to about -6 that night and I was very lucky to snag 2 blankets. I’d highly recommed taking a 4 seasons sleeping bag with you if trekking during the winter months or those leading in to winter.
After getting up at 5am for the much-hyped sunrise (over-hyped in my opinion) I started off without the group and began the much quicker descent. A long but casual day followed and I made Cinuwa by 4 or so that afternoon. Next day, after a very steep climb into Chomrong, it was practically all downhill (as I had mentioned before). I got down to Nayapul about 3 and hoppe in a taxi to ferry me back to Pokhara. The taxi happened to be a 1973 Corolla and the driver was a complete nutjob. He decided it wasn’t necessary to slow down when faced with oncoming traffic but simply to swerve off the road into the gravel and within inches of the cliff-edge. Was an interesting one.
Overall the best trek I’ve ever one and one I can’t recommend highly enough. I skipped the Poon Hill side-path but have heard good things. If you decide to stick to the main route like I did, you certainly won’t feel like you’re missing out. One final word- you can easily do this trek without a guide. If you only take a day-pack, like I did, you don’t need a porter either. I met a number of people along the way who didn’t have either and they didn’t have any trouble. Just do a bit of planning as to where you’re going to stop each day and you’ll be sweet!
I’ve listed my 6-day Itinerary Below
*Times are walking times, not including lunch breaks.