Posts Tagged ‘Trekking’

The most curious travel combo, Philippines & Ethiopia – Nov & Dec 2017

Child-friendly Philippines is an unbeatable destination for beach-loving young families

The ultra child-friendly Philippines is an unbeatable destination for beach-loving young families

Sixteen years after it first came onto my radar screen, I finally got the opportunity to visit and explore the Philippines with my family. They say good things are worth waiting for… And the Philippines is just that. With three weeks at our disposal, we could only select a handful of the most alluring islands and exotic attractions. Nonetheless, the Philippines dramatically exceeded our collective expectations and proved itself to be a country we certainly hope to return to in the years ahead to continue our island hopping adventures.

Thresher sharks at Monad Shoal

Thresher sharks at Monad Shoal

Our first stop was little Malapascua Island, eight kilometres off the northern tip of Cebu. Situated at the quieter end of Bounty Beach, Evolution (http://evolution.com.ph) was our home-away-from-home for the first week. Owner, Matt Reed was our friendly host, sharing his local knowledge of the island, surrounding dive sites and other must-see attractions in the Visayan Sea. Aside from the great accommodation, vibe and dive set up at Evolution, the three highlights of our time on Malapascua were diving spectacular Monad Shoal at dawn to see the iconic thresher sharks that visit the cleaning station at sunrise. In fact it was such a unique and enjoyable experience that I dived it three times during our stay! Highlight number two was the day boat trip to idyllic Calanggaman Island – a narrow strip of alluring sand surrounded by turquoise water and some decent wall diving. A final culinary high point was Angelina’s pizza and their real Italian gelato – a decadent dessert that left you wanting more!

Chocolate Hills

The iconic Chocolate Hills on Bohol Island

From Malapascua, we retraced our steps south to Cebu City and onto a ferry to Tagbilaran city on low-key Bohol Island. We opted to stay at the Oasis Beach Resort (http://seaquestdivecenter.com/oasis/) on neighbouring Panglao island. Located on beautiful Alona beach, Oasis is just that: a. peaceful refuge at this popular beach destination. Apart from wiling away the days building sandcastles and swimming in the enchanting ocean, we took a day trip to explore Bohol. We spent the morning admiring the world-renowned Chocolate Hills – 1268 conical hills that are believed to be the product of coral and limestone deposits sculpted by erosion – before moving on to track down the endangered cousin of the lemur. The diminutive primates look uncannily similar to bush babies with their sloth like behaviour thankfully ensuring we got some great sighting of the little critters.

Exclussive Sangat Island

Picture-perfect Sangat Island was a highlight

A spectacularly scenic flight then took us west to Busuanga Island: gateway to Coron and the Calamianes Island group. Wanting a Robinson Crusoe-like experience away from the crowds, we splurged on a week at the private Sangat Island. Craggy and imposing Sangat Island (http://sangat.com.ph) – with its beachfront cottages built on stilts –  is the quintessential tropical island retreat. A 300 metre long white-sand beach, lapped by azure waters and hemmed in on three sides by towering cliffs and jungle-clad peaks, creates a simply sublime setting and mesmerising scenery.

Sangat Island Dive Resort markets itself as a premier destination for eco-conscious paradise seekers and scuba divers: an apt description for this enchanting island retreat. The scuba diving focuses on eight nearby World War II Japanese shipwrecks sunk by American aircraft during the Battle of Coron Bay in 1944. The most interesting and notable of the four I explored was the wreck of the Akitsushima (a sea plane tender with some impressive guns) lying at thirty metres close to Manglet Island. Above-water, circumnavigating Sangat in sea kayaks and a boat trip to the white-sand beach of Pass Island for a day of swimming and sandcastles with a picnic lunch were perfect excursions for the whole family.

Boat Excursion Seven Commando Beach

El Nido boat excursion to Seven Commando Beach

The grand finale of our Philippine adventure was four days at friendly Mansion Buena Vista (https://mansionbuenavistaelnido.com/) in El Nido in northwest Palawan with daily boat cruises to admire the wonders of the Bancuit archipelago. The boat cruises are affordable, popular and consequently the best natural attractions, such as the (not so) secret beach and small lagoon (two personal favourites) can get busy, especially in the prime season of December. But there is good reason for their popularity: the ubiquitous towering limestone islands, their beaches and azure surrounding waters are jaw-dropping to say the least. To the north, Nacpan beach – rated the best beach in the Philippines – is wild, beautiful and the perfect complement to the tourist-trafficked island tours that run from El Nido.

Hidden Beach

Family photo at Hidden Beach

But perhaps the greatest accolade that I can pay the Philippines – and specifically the country’s friendly people – is that of the 75 countries I’ve been fortunate enough to visit to date, the Philippines undoubtedly rates as the most family-friendly place of them all. The Filipino people simply adore children and go out of their way to greet and assist the kids all the time.

An unexpected bonus for a young family that loves to travel like ours… And this in itself is reason enough to go back to this fantastic country.

Undiscovered Nacpan Beach is a massive expanse of sand with few tourists

Undiscovered Nacpan Beach in northern Palwan boasts a huge expanse of sand with few tourists

 

The Northern Circuit – Ethiopia

Lalibella

Church of Saint George

After three weeks of sea, sunshine, snorkelling and sublime beaches in the Philippines, it was time to mix things up with some culture! Our flight routing between Tanzania and the Philippines took us via Addis Ababa, so we decided to spend ten days exploring Lalibela, Gondar and the Simien Mountains in northern Ethiopia. It was a big ask for our little boys, but they adjusted really well despite being outside their comfort zone with unfamiliar food, questionable hygiene, cooler temperatures in the mountains, and visiting cultural and religious sites that often necessitated they be quiet and respectful.

In Lalibela, we stayed at the curiously-named Top Twelve Hotel (http://www.toptwelvehotel.com) with a convenient location that was within easy striking distance of the many rock-hewn churches for which the Lalibela region is known. With the on-going political strife in Ethiopia there were few tourists and we had the whole place almost to ourselves as we explored the impressive rock churches cut into the mountainside or chiselled from solid granite underground.

Castles of Gondar

Castles of Gondar

From Lalibela, we made our way to the ancient royal city of Gondar and Lodge de Chateau (http://www.lodgeduchateau.com). It was a clean and basic place to stay, but it had a wonderful upstairs restaurant and was located right up against the old city wall, meaning that it was within easy walking distance of the castles. Exploring the old castles and fortifications of Gondar was great fun and also afforded the boys the opportunity to run around and burn off some energy. But, by the end of the final castle tour, little Ollie (all of two years old) turned to his mom and politely said, “No more castles mom, OK?”

Aside from its diverse array of cultural and religious tourist experiences, Ethiopia is home to some unique wildlife, including a number of endemic species as well as prolific birdlife with 861 species recorded. So the final stop of our Northern Ethiopia exploration was the spectacular cliff-top Limalimo Lodge (http://limalimolodge.com) on the edge of the Simien Mountains National Park (https://simienpark.org).

Dominant male Gelada monkey displaying

Dominant male Gelada monkey displaying

Situated 100 kilometres north of Gondar on the eastern side of the Axum road, the Simien Mountains are one of Africa’s largest mountain ranges sporting at least a dozen peaks above the 4,000m mark. Frequently referred to as the Grand Canyon of Africa, the Simien Mountains were deservedly declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the area’s extreme natural beauty, jaw-dropping escarpment vistas, alpine meadows and unique indigenous wildlife. Hemmed in by villages and farms on every side, three endemic Ethiopian mammals survive within this highly pressured protected area: the gelada monkey, Walia ibex and Ethiopian wolf.

Trekking in the Simien Mountains is spectacular with arresting views around every bend in the trail. The park is also home to Ras Dejen – the highest mountain in Ethiopia and the fourth-highest peak in Africa at 4,533 meters. With limited time and small children in tow, I chose to focus my mountain climbing attention on Ras Bwahit – the second highest massif in the Simien Mountains at 4,430m.

Climbing Ras Bawit with Chennek below

Climbing Ras Bwahit with Chennek below

We left our vehicle at Chennek and initially found ourselves climbing through grasslands peppered with giant lobelia where large troops of Gelada monkeys were a common sight; we even glimpsed Ethiopian wolves out foraging at sunrise in this area. Later, the vegetation rapidly gave way to a more windswept alpine type landscape dominated by rock and ice, but the views and picnic on top were worth every lung-busting step to get there!

Whether on a short half-day hike, or multi-day trekking adventure, exploring the Simien Mountains is best done on foot. But be prepared for some energy sapping ascents, undulating plateaus traverses amidst groves of giant lobelias, and staggering escarpment views… Imagine sheer rocky cliffs, plunging waterfalls (such as the exquisite Jinbar waterfall) and rocky towers rising from the forested valleys below.

The stunning views and spectacular trails of the Simien Mountains, combined with the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, impressive castles of Gondar, otherworldly Danakil Depression, and a night-time odyssey to meet the hyena men of Harar should also feature high on the bucket list of every adventurous African explorer.

Gelada monkey surveys the Simien Mountains National Park from atop the escarpment

Gelada monkey enjoying the first rays of morning sunshine from atop the Simien escarpment

The Karnali River, Bardia NP and Everest, Nepal – May 2011

Like a fine red wine Nepal just gets better and better the longer we spend savouring this impressive country!  It is certainly proving to be an incredible and varied little Himalayan kingdom and the prefect playground for a couple of outdoor lovers and adventure sport aficionados.

After a gruelling two-day bus ride west, we reached the end of the road at Sauli Bazaar on the banks of Nepal’s biggest river – The Karnali.  We were part of a ten-man crew (including two ladies!) for a week-long river trip with Equator Expeditions (http://www.equatorexpeditionsnepal.com/).  It turned out to be a fun group and we had endless laughs on the raft as we skirted some big rapids and camped on sandy beaches next to the river.  Sleeping around a campfire under the star-studded heavens was a definite highlight for both of us.

The expedition ended at Chisopani on the boundary of Royal Bardia National Park and after a week on the river the comfort that awaited us at Tiger Tops’ Karnali Lodge was just what the doctor had ordered.  We soaked up the luxury, devoured great food and thrived off the quality wildlife experiences.  I was desperate to catch a glimpse of my first Indian one-horned rhino, so to end up having numerous close up sightings of five different rhinos feeding and swimming was very very special indeed.  Crouching in a bush watching a seven month old calf suckling from its mother while I was on a walking safari was the ultimate high of our wildlife-viewing extravaganza.  We topped the safari off with two tiger sighting – a young female with a hog deer kill and a handsome male escaping the pre-monsoon heat by sleeping in a pool of water.  What a great place Bardia turned out to be!

After a couple of days recuperating in Kathmandu we boarded a plane for Lukla and the start of our two-week Everest trek.  We chose a circuitous route to base camp via the sacred emerald green lakes of the Gokyo valley and over the Cho La pass to Gorakshep and Everest Base Camp. The weather gods smiled on us and we were treated to some idyllic weather for the epic Himalayan views from the summits of Gokyo Ri (5357m) and Kala Pattar (5545m).  Sitting on the top of these rocky vantage points gave us ringside seats to a jaw-dropping wraparound vista that defied belief … a host of snow-covered 8,000m+ peaks (Cho Oyu, Everest, Lhotse, Nuptse, etc) rubbed shoulders and seemed almost close enough to touch.  These scenes of raw beauty exuded an overwhelming sense of mother nature’s awesome power.

After living in India for three years and enjoying nine weeks adventuring through Nepal, the Tenzing Hillary Everest Marathon (http://www.everestmarathon.com/) proved the genuine grand finale to our time in Asia.  It was with a combination of great excitement and a little trepidation that I approached the start of the race.  The 29th dawned grey and cold.  Mist swirled through Everest base camp (5360m) and thick grey clouds hung ominously overhead.  When I cracked the ice off my tent zips, I was greeted by a white world of snow and ice.  When the start gun fired at 7am the temperature was well below freezing and the unrelenting snow refused to let up until we were 16km into the race!  The start took place inside the infamous Khumbu Icefall and after jumping a small crevasse we ran over the frozen rocks and ice of the glacial moraine for 8km while my lungs continuously screamed for more oxygen.  My plan was simple – and borne of necessity – run everything that is flat or downhill but walk/climb the hills.  As we slowly descended towards the half-way mark at Dingboche the conditions improved and I found it a little easier to breathe.  Reaching the half-way stage in 3h10, I truly believed a six-hour finish was on the cards, but two viciously steep hills between the 32 and 37 kilometre marks killed that idea and in the end I was more than happy to finish in 6h34, which put me in a respectable 6th position out of 68 international participants.

With the tiny Himalayan nation of Nepal wowing us in so many ways, the final chapter in our Asian sojourn has proved to be an absolute cracker!

The adventures for June appear to be somewhat tamer … our next stop is London to visit my sisters and then it’s onto Iceland and USA.  The journey continues and we’re loving the ride…

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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