Posts Tagged ‘Mountains’

Charlie Arrives and Swartberg 4×4, South Africa – September 2013

The new family preparing to leave Vincent Pallotti Hospital and head home

The new family is ready to leave the Vincent Pallotti hospital and embark on the adventure of a lifetime

The absolute highlight of late August was the birth of Charles Ethan Cunliffe.  After nine months and two days, Katherine and I were blessed with the arrival of a beautiful healthy little boy.

Baby Charlie on day one

Weighing in at  3.77kg at birth, the little guy was out of hospital in a couple of days and keen to prove to everyone that he’s destined to be an absolute legend. He is super-chilled and adventurous (just like his dad!) so it was no surprise that before he was even two-weeks old, he was already looking to head out and visit his first national park!

The flower-rich Postberg section of West Coast National Park (www.sanparks.org/parks/west_coast/default.php) is no more than a stone’s throw from Cape Town, making it the perfect day-trip destination for young Charlie to stretch his wings and get an early taste of nature; and although he slept soundly through much of the colourful wild flower spectacle, he seemed to thoroughly enjoy his first major outing with the eland, zebra and ostriches in flower-land!

It was a real privilege to share a sunny spring day picnic with my wife and son while appreciating the West Coast wild flowers and I have no doubt that there will be many more fun-filled family adventures in the great outdoors during the months and years to come…

The Postberg section of West Coast National Park boasts stunning wild flowers during Aug and Sept

The second half of September saw me take a VW Amarok – along with an old friend, Sancroft Damant – to tackle a rugged, overnight 4×4 trail through the seldom-explored Swartberg Mountains. Preserving an elongated 184 000ha tract of mountainous habitat, the sprawling Swartberg Nature Reserve lies in the Oudtshoorn district between the Great and Klein Karoo.

"Ram rock" exhales

“Ram rock” exhales at dawn

The access-restricted 4×4 trail began from the Swartberg Pass midway between Die Top and Ou Tol hut, roughly 19 km before the village of Prince Albert. From the gate we wound our way through deep ravines and over rocky necks as the trail traced a snaking route east across the high northern slopes of the impressive Swartberg range. These wild mountains form part of the contorted Cape Fold Mountain range and extreme local weather has sculpted many of the sandstone rocks into bizarre-looking geological formations that demanded we stop regularly to appreciate our picturesque surroundings.

As the scenic 4×4 route meandered its way through this largely unknown and rarely visited Cape Nature wilderness, we soon discovered that it was precisely the mountainous region’s isolation, potent wilderness vibe and limited visitor numbers that proved to be its greatest attractions.

With the Swartberg comprising a lengthy chain of largely undisturbed habitat, seemingly perfect for leopards, I caught up with the Cape Leopard Trust’s Gareth Mann to get a better understanding of the current situation regarding the leopard population in the area:

The VW Amarok dominated the trail

VW Amarok dominating the 4×4 trail

“The local leopard population has undoubtedly benefited from the safe haven provided by the rocky, mountainous terrain. I calculated an overall population density of approximately 0.75 leopards per 100 square kilometres for the Little Karoo, which gives you an idea of the minimum size of the Swartberg population, although the actual leopard population is probably a bit bigger than that.”

While the secretive cats eluded us, the ubiquitous klipspringer, grey rhebok, chacma baboon, large grey mongoose and rock hyrax were all out in full force during our daily forays into the mountains.

If it’s pristine wilderness and a rejuvenating nature escape that you’re after, then I can wholeheartedly recommend a multi-day hike or 4×4 adventure to explore the Swartberg range.

Check out the Swartberg link on www.capenature.co.za, email reservation.alert@capenature.com or call 021 483 0190 to find out more about the activities and attractions of the secluded Swartberg Nature Reserve.

The vista from Bushman's Nek over De Hoek towards the distant Outeniqua Mountains

The spectacular Swartberg vista from Bushman’s Nek towards the distant Outeniqua Mountains

 

Cape Town and Table Mountain Hiking, South Africa – April 2013

The Sea Point Promenade view from our Three Anchor Bay apartment in Cape Town

In comparison to the start of 2013, April was a somewhat less hectic and travel-intensive month.  Rather than disappear on another trip, we decided to concentrate on enjoying the epic late summer weather in Cape Town.

Training at the 3.2km Llandudno Cold Water Swim

Another good reason for staying close to home was to enable me to train hard for our Robben Island swim, which is on the cards for early next month.  Along with five friends, I’ll be swimming the traditional 7.8km ocean crossing from the island to Blouberg. It’s an official swim under the watchful eye of the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association (www.capeswim.com) so that means no wetsuits allowed… Yikes!

The stunning weather at this time of year also got us back walking on the beautiful mountain that resides in our backyard with regular trips up Lions Head and couple of overnight hikes with friends and family to the delightfully rustic Hoerikwaggo Trail Tented Camps and luxurious Overseers Cottage on the back table. Everyone who lives in Cape Town should make a point of getting onto the mountain at least once a summer to sample these affordable weekend escapes that lie in easy striking distance within the city limits (www.sanparks.co.za/parks/table_mountain).

Two Oceans Trail Run finish

After an enforced five-month layoff from trail running thanks to a Wild Coast Wildrun induced knee injury, I finally got the all clear from the doc to start running again and celebrated my return to fitness by taking part in the Two Oceans Trail Run (www.twooceansmarathon.org.za/events/trail-run/general) on Good Friday. The knee held up well over the mountainous 22km course, the weather was great and the Devil’s Peak scenery spectacular … It was fantastic to be back running in the mountains again!

March was also a productive month on the magazine front with a number of exciting new stories hitting the shelves.  Africa Geographic ran a big feature on Khaudum, Namibia’s wildest national park, and its elephants, which you can check out at: www.stevecunliffe.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/Africa-Geographic-Khaudum.pdf

While on the trail running front, Explore South Africa published Transkei Trailblazing – the last in our series of epic mullti-day Southern African trail runs – and you can view the story here: www.stevecunliffe.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/Explore-South-Africa-Wildcoast-Wildrun.pdf

The Overseers Cottage atop Table Mountain overlooks the hustle-and-bustle of the Southern Suburbs

Overnight Hiking on Table Mountain, South Africa – Oct 2012

The idyllically located Overseers Cottage boasts unrivalled views over the Peninsula and False Bay

After six months of training, October was supposed to be a hardcore trail running month with media invitations to take part in three big races. The Chappies Challenge (http://www.energyevents.co.za/) was a 21km warm up for the main events: the inaugural Retto Edition of the 42km Otter African Trail Run (http://theotter.co.za/) along the mountainous coastline of the Tsitsikamma National Park followed by the epic 250km Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon (http://www.extrememarathons.com/). Unfortunately, acute patellar tendonitis in my left knee – courtesy of all the beach running in last month’s Wild Coast Wildrun – forced me to withdraw from all three events and instead embark on a six-week rehab and strengthening programme at the Sports Science Institute in Newlands.

To pull out of the Otter and KAEM was absolutely gutting, but at least the doc encouraged me to do lots of walking and hiking as part of the recovery process.  This provided the catalyst for a month of regular table mountain hiking excursions with one particular weekend of multi-day hiking standing out above the rest…

Friday the 19th of October saw our group of 11 friends hire out the 12-bed Orangekloof Tented Camp (http://www.sanparks.org/gallery/index.php/parks/table_mountain/ht_orange_kloof/).  Located barely a hop, skip and a jump from Constantia Neck, this eco-friendly and thoughtfully-designed bush camp is one of the four Hoerikwaggo trail’s camps scattered across the mountain chain. All camps offer bathrooms with hot water showers, comfortable beds, fireplaces, fully equipped communal kitchens and self-catering dining areas. Guests need only provide their own bedding, towels and food.

Spring flowers bloom on Table Mountain

Orange Kloof Tented camp lies tucked away within an ancient restricted-access Afromontane forest that was until recently closed to the public. The result is an old-worldly forest and tranquil setting that combine to ensure a superbly relaxing wilderness getaway right in the very heart of Cape Town!

After a rather damp Friday night braai, Saturday dawned bright and clear with deep blue skies overhead as we set off to tackle the hike up the restricted Disa River Gorge. Despite having grown up in neighbouring Hout Bay and nearby Llandudno, this was the first time any of us had ventured up this magical mountain trail.  The scenic route traces the river into a steep sided gorge all the way to the base of Hely-Hutchinson dam wall and then continues across to above Kirstenbosch before arriving at the idyllic Overseers Hut perched on the edge of the Mountain.

The beautifully furnished and ultra-comfortable Overseers Cottage provided an incredible opportunity to enjoy a night atop one of the New Seven Natural Wonders of the World.  Accommodating up to 16 people, it was a real privilege for us to settle into this stylishly renovated old stone cottage. Comfy couches, a big fireplace, gas-heated hot showers and big soft beds with crisp linens ensured we slept like babies even as thick mist enveloped the mountain outside.

Sleeping high above the city proved a truly memorable and highly recommended experience.  To find out more about hiking trails and overnight accommodation on Table Mountain, click on the following link:  http://www.stevecunliffe.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/Explore-SA-Table-Mountain1.pdf

Katherine and I will be headed to Botswana next month on an incredible sounding 8-night &Beyond itinerary to experience Chobe Under Canvas and Nxabega Okavango Camp – two of the finest luxury tented camps in all of northern Botswana.  More on this exciting assignment in next month’s blog update…

Hermanus, Plett and the Wildrun, Lesotho – April 2012

Perched high atop the Hermanus cliffs, overlooking Voelklip Beach and accommodating guests in the utmost luxury, the opulent Birkenhead House (www.birkenheadhouse.com) gazes out onto the whale watching paradise of Walker Bay. Katherine and I belatedly accepted an extremely generous wedding gift and spent three nights soaking up the luxurious, pampered splendour of Birkenhead House. After completing the Two Oceans Trail Run (www.twooceansmarathon.org.za/events/trail-run/general) on Friday morning, we savoured the delicious food, fine red wine and cosy atmosphere of this irresistible seaside lodge for the remainder of the wet Easter weekend. Situated barely an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Cape Town, Birkenhead House proved an idyllic spot to celebrate the second anniversary of our Franschhoek wedding festivities.

The Lesotho Wildrun (www.lesothowildrun.co.za) is an amazing 112km stage-race through the pristine, undulating landscapes of a remote mountain kingdom that lies right in South Africa’s backyard. An epic three-day wilderness journey takes runners through the magnificent and truly wild Ketane Ha Mothibi and Thaba Putsoa mountain ranges in the very heart of Lesotho. With the generous support of sponsor Adidas (www.adidas.co.za/running/), the folks at Wildrunner (www.wildrunner.co.za) pulled out all the stops to make sure everyone enjoyed an incredible, ‘never to be forgotten’ trail running experience.

I fell into step with the similarly paced Stephen Kriel (a seventh generation butcher from Darling) and Guy Jennings (an advertising executive from Joburg) to form a well-matched running trio that became known as ‘Team SSG’ by the race crew. Our triumvirate officially crossed the final finish line a couple of hours behind the overall winners in 17 hours 20 minutes and 27 seconds, but finishing times fade into relative insignificance when compared to the incredible mountain scenery, intriguing Basotho culture and camaraderie of newfound friends. These factors combined to ensure the Lesotho Wildrun was a truly memorable experience for everyone privileged enough to participate in this unique event. And whether you see yourself as a king of the mountains or a more social 33-hour finisher, this tough race has an appeal to trail runners of all ages, stages and abilities. Yes you need to be fit, but this is – above all – a rewarding wilderness journey with likeminded people: a life experience that you’ll find yourself savouring long after the race is done.

Our good friends from India, Bryony and Matt Greenwell, brought their six-month-old daughter Alice on her inaugural visit to South Africa. It was great to have them to stay for a few nights in Cape Town, but the highlight of our time together was undoubtedly the five-day long weekend we spent up the Garden Route. Located only a few kilometres from the bustling seaside resort of Plettenberg Bay, The Waves (www.thewavesatplettenbergbay.com) is situated right on the long white-sand expanse of picturesque Keurboomstrand. The luxuriously appointed contemporary villa, located a stone’s throw from the sea, was an incredible place to be based.  Generously loaned to us by Bryony’s former boss, we revelled in the villa’s comfort, Enrico’s seafood lunches, nightly braais and daily dolphin visits that dominated our stay at Keurboomstrand.

There is also some great news to share regarding the Zambian conservation initiative I’m working on … the Sisheke Conservation Project (www.sisheke.com) website went live this week, so take a moment to check out this link for an overview of what currently appears to be Africa’s most exciting and dynamic conservation and sustainable development venture, taking place within the KAZA TFCA.

Glacier NP, New York, South Carolina and Minnesota, USA – July 2011

Scenically spectacular Glacier National Park (www.nps.gov/glac/) is a very special place.  Impressive mountain panoramas, snow-capped peaks, icy blue glacial lakes and dense lodgepole pine forests come together and produce jaw-droppingly beautiful landscapes that demand you get out the car and go hiking.

Especially memorable moments in the mountains of northern Montana included drifting off to sleep after lunch on a large flat rock in the middle of picturesque Snyder Lakes under a big blue sky surrounded by towering snowy peaks.  Hiking through the snow to reach Granite Peak chalet and enjoying the wrap-around mountain vistas from the lodge.  However, the roundtrip hike to Iceberg Lake definitely took the cake and topped my list of must-do walks in Glacier.  Scenic mountain terrain and excellent wildlife viewing – grizzly bear feeding, moose, bighorn sheep and mountain goats – combined to produce an extraordinarily rewarding hike that culminated inside an amphitheatre of mountains at a snowmelt lake peppered with drifting icebergs.  Didn’t I mention … Glacier is a pretty special place!

After eighteen days exploring three of America’s finest national parks it was time for the long drive back east with a final overnight stop in Teddy Roosevelt National Park to check out the Badlands of North Dakota.  After a hectic week playing catch up back in Minnesota we embarked on our next sojourn as we tackled the skyscrapers and unfamiliar territory of New York city.  We flew out to NYC primarily to visit my sister Nicki, followed that up with a family reunion at the beach in South Carolina and finished off a whirl-wind month of high adventure with a Pennsylvania road trip to see Katherine’s alma mater and attend her Bucknell college reunion.

It was an action-packed month of fun travels and exciting magazine assignments that took me from the wilderness and forests of the American West to the concrete jungles and beaches of the East.

The Annapurnas, Nepal – April 2011

Regardless of all the hype, the Annapurnas somehow still managed to exceed both Katherine and my expectations.  Our 29 days of trekking proved to be nothing short of spectacular.  Despite recent road building, the Annapurna Circuit remains one of the world’s greatest treks: a truly epic hiking destination surrounded by innumerable snow-capped peaks.  A plethora of ‘tea houses’ in the villages en route offer decent food and hot showers ensuring that this is anything but hardship trekking!

After departing Bhubhule we soon left the road behind and slowly climbed up the Marsyangdi River towards Pisang and some of the best views on the entire circuit.  We fell in love with the quaint Buddhist village of Braga and ended up staying at the New Yak tea house for three nights before finally rousing ourselves to move on!  After passing through Manang (where Katherine visited the Himalayan Rescue Association doctors to get some medicine for her cold and hacking cough) we ploughed through a snow storm to reach Thorung Phedi Camp at 4500m.  After a cold night we were greeted by idyllic conditions and a picture-perfect day for the long climb over Thorong La and down to Muktinath.  It was hard work slogging over the 5400m pass, but the views were incredible and well worth the effort.

After detouring to Kagbeni at the entrance to the restricted Upper Mustang Valley, we slowly descended along the Kali Gandaki River taking numerous detours along the way to avoid the Jomsom road and visit hilltop gompas (monasteries).  We spent a rest day in the apple-growing village of Marpha where we celebrated the one-year anniversary of our South African wedding celebration before making our way to Tatopani and climbing up an exhausting 1900m in 24 hours to reach the famous view point atop Poon Hill.  We then met up with family in Gandruk for the week-long ABC trek into the Annapurna Sanctuary.  Annapurna Base Camp, surrounded by an amphitheatre of high snowy mountains, is difficult to describe and words fail to do justice to this special area … it’s an incredible place with views to die for stretching up towards the heavens on every side!

After 29 days of trekking we descended (narrowly avoiding a monstrous hailstorm) to Pokhara where we could enjoy some well-deserved steaks and cold beer.  We learned that on our lengthy walk our cumulative ascent was equivalent to climbing Everest from sea level – twice!  No wonder we felt a little tired and like we had really earned our first beers in over a month!

Next on the itinerary is a white-water expedition down the Karnali River in Nepal’s wild west, followed by four days of luxury at Tiger Tops lodge where we go in search of rhinos and tigers before returning to Kathmandu and moving northeast to Everest.  We can’t wait for May and the chance to get stuck into the next exciting chapter of our Nepal adventure!

Ladakh Floods & Climbing Mountains, India – August 2010

Two days before I was supposed to depart for Leh and an expedition through the Grand Canyon of Asia on the Zanskar River, disaster struck Ladakh.  The torrential rain that had uprooted millions across Pakistan spilled over the border into northern India.  Massive thunderstorms and heavy rain triggered flash floods across Ladakh.  Villages were washed away, landslides blocked roads, bridges were destroyed and hundreds of lives were lost.  The runway was even submerged and all flights into Leh were cancelled.  Aquaterra Adventures was forced to take the extreme decision to abandon our river trip as tour operators and travel agents across India scrambled to cancel their Ladakh departures and expeditions.

A week later the situation in Leh had stabilised, a massive relief effort was underway and I climbed aboard my Kingfisher Airways flight to check out the situation on the ground for myself.  Vehicles wedged inside building, massive boulders and collapsed buildings provided irrefutable evidence of the scale and ferocity of the water by the time it reached the downtown areas of the city.  Higher up in the tourist zone, there were virtually no signs of the calamity that had ravaged the city just a week earlier and the Ladakhi people were unanimously happy to see the few tourists who had stuck with their holiday plans to visit Ladakh.  The words of a local shopkeeper summed up the viewpoint of locals in the face of the terrible situation that had befallen them: “We all survive off the tourists.  Visitors come here and spend money and that is what sustains us during the long cold winter.  Now everyone is staying away because of the flood and we don’t know what we will do.”  I estimated that tourist numbers had plummeted to 20% of what they were in August last year.  The bottom line is that people who cancelled their visits out of respect for the Ladakhi people, not wanting to burden them during a difficult time, were actually exacerbating the problem and perpetuating their woes.  Now is the time to go to Ladakh and by spending your money up there, you can really  help the locals get back on their feet.

After a couple of days acclimatising and exploring monasteries, we headed for Zingchen and the start of our trek.  During the course of the following days we crossed the Stok La pass at 4890 metres before making our way to Stok Kangri Base Camp.  The campsite had a picturesque setting on a high altitude meadow next to a stream in the shadow of towering snowy peaks.  This was our base for the next four days as we adjusted to the challenges of walking and climbing at altitude.  During these ‘rest days’, we practiced walking in snow shoes with crampons and tested our climbing equipment on the Stok glacier above camp.  It was necessary preparation for the summit bid that lay ahead.

On Friday the 20th of August at 10pm we set off from camp on what would prove to be a 14 hour round trip slog to the summit.  We reached the foot of the glacier at midnight and stopped to attach crampons and rope up for the journey across the ice.  Under the expert guidance of two seasoned Stok Kangri climbers our group of four intrepid amateurs concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other and not falling onto any of the crevasses.  It was hard work as long snow sections were interspersed with tricky obstacles of slippery ice and exposed rock.  Throughout the night we continued climbing upwards in the dim glow of our headlamps.  Just before dawn we reached an exposed ridge with steep drops on either side that demanded a careful traverse.  A final push over treacherous rocky outcrops and deep snow carried us onto the 6,153 metre summit.  Our celebrations on reaching the peak were anything but raucous as everyone collapsed exhausted and it took real effort just to gather the tired troops for a victorious summit photo before we retreated to a more hospitable altitude.  After a half hour on the top of Kanglacha, we turned and retraced our steps towards home.  Descending in the daylight we enjoyed spectacular views down onto the glacier bowl and noticed that our route descended between the debris of two recent avalanches!  Climbing Stok Kangri was a seriously exhilarating and exhausting adventure.

Finally, on the subject of my Indian admin woes… After six weeks of trying I still don’t have approval for opening a bank account, but at least I am legal.  Thankfully my visa extension finally went through on the 25th of August allowing me to remain in India until the end of January 2011.  An Indian friend recently told me that India is officially rated the sixth most difficult country in the world for foreigners to conduct business in… I have no plans to try and track down any of the top five!

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