Posted in travel

Matara: Surfer Paradise

From Katharagama to Matara

After a long night’s sleep, mercifully under a mosquito net, as Katharagama is blanketed by bugs at nighttime, I walked to the bus station and looked for a bus to Matara. It didn’t take long to find one, but once I was on the bus, it certainly took its time in getting on the road. I sat in the overcrowded vehicle for more than half an hour, waiting to get going.

Eventually, we did get moving and the bus took off on a long, winding journey along the coast, occasionally moving inland to visit small villages, before returning to the “highway” that leads past white sand beaches and sleepy fishing villages. The bus seemed to stop at every tiny settlement along the way, picking up old women and monks and schoolgirls in their all-white uniforms, so that the bus was never less than entirely crowded. Occasionally, men with tambourines would get on and the blaring rhythmic music from the speakers would cease as the men droned ancient songs for the passengers. At one point it stopped parallel to another bus down a dusty back alley and all the passengers got off and settled into the new bus, which looked almost exactly the same. With no ability to speak the local language, I was left baffled and frustrated.

Some three hours after leaving Katharagama, the bus stopped in Matara and I struggled to get off through the densely packed aisle, practically falling into the bus station. The journey had not been pleasant, and as I stepped out into the heat, I knew I had to choose between a long walk to my next homestay, or else an expensive tuk-tuk ride. I suspected that, as the homestay was in a fairly isolated area, I would be heavily gouged for the ride, so I decided to walk it in spite of the heat and the distance. Annoyingly, the bus had driven right past the street on which my homestay is located some five minutes before reaching the bus station.

I made my way along the waterfront, which was pleasant enough. The beach was very quiet, whereas in town it had seemed rather busy. A number of tuk-tuks stopped to offer me a ride, but I waved them away. After Yala, I needed a few cheap days at the beach to balance my budget. I stopped halfway at a little tea shop and had a sandwich and a pot of tea, which thankfully cost just $0.50 altogether, and then set back out on my long walk. I tried following the beach but it came to a rocky outcrop which, without bags would’ve been possible to climb, but with my luggage was certainly impassable. Instead, I followed a busy road with no pavement up a long, steep hill, with cars and tuk-tuks throwing up dirt and dust.

Finally, exhausted and sweaty, I arrived on a long, narrow street that led down to a white beach. The street had a few hotels and restaurants, but not much else. It seemed like a sleepy suburb that had been half taken over by surfers. Most of the businesses had “surf” in the name, although my destination was called Guillet Beach Homestay. The few people walking up and down the road all held surfboards under their arms, except for one lonely tuk-tuk driver who just grinned stupidly at everyone who passed him.

As with previous accommodations, this was a pleasant little house run by a local family. The chief English speaker was the young daughter, probably about twelve years old, who would talk endlessly whenever prompted. She attended school each day, but in the mornings and evenings she would talk with guests and, as a result, her English was excellent. The rest of the family were friendly but quiet and the father, a tuk-tuk driver called Lucky, was apparently in Colombo for the week. At the house there was a polite young English couple, and a large group of Swedish girls who spent nearly every waking moment on their surfboards.

I spent the late afternoon and early evening walking about the local area. There wasn’t much to see except for the beach, which was clearly the big attraction for the area. The horseshoe bay was beautiful and also funneled waves in constantly at a medium size, making it perfect for surfing. In fact, walking around, I found myself about the only person who didn’t have a surfboard. I sat and watched the sun go down as the stars popped out and began to move across the sky. The waters emptied first and then the beach, and soon it was perfectly quiet.

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Surfing Beach, Matara

Walking Around Matara

The following day, after yet another giant Sri Lankan breakfast, this time eaten in a surprisingly English dining room, covered in floral patterns and dolls, I set off for a walk back into town. This time I intended to follow the coastline all the way around, rather than taking the unpleasant road route. I set off early and clambered over hot, sharp rocks, but enjoyed the peace that came being between the town and the surfers’ beach, completely alone. Even without bags I ended up with bloody hands and knees from the challenging climb.

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Isolated beach, separated by two jagged outcrops

I walked around the bustling little town, admiring the Dutch colonial architecture as it clashed with modern shop fronts, but there really wasn’t much of any interest to see there. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it also wasn’t particularly exciting, and so after a visit to the Star Fort and taking a few photos of the Buddhist island temple, I walked back along the beach to my part of town, getting back by 1pm. I’d expected the trip to take up a whole day.

Finding myself back by lunchtime, I ventured next door to a small restaurant called “Chillz” and, after ordering some reasonably cheap food, I enquired as to whether there was any beer available off the menu… The owner smiled and said, “Yes, today we have.” I was beginning to realize that beer is heavily taxed in Sri Lanka and most businesses simply don’t advertise that they have it in order to avoid certain legal requirements. It had been about five days since I last had a beer and even though this one, called Lion, tasted like crap, it was cold and alcoholic – good enough for me.

After lunch I walked along to a quiet part of the beach (not that any part was particularly busy) where the waves were slightly smaller than elsewhere and swam for an hour or two, soaking up a bit of sun. It had been a long time since I’d swam in the sea. The last time had been in Indonesia during the summer. A few small groups of Sri Lankan men walked by, always friendly, shouting, “Hello, sir, how are you today?”

I returned to Chillz for more cheap food (a roti sandwich) and beer, and then sat on the sand watching the stars until the sandflies drove me to return to the homestay, where I taught Hironi, the little girl, English until her bedtime.

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Surfing Beach at sunset

Matara had proven a nice place to spend a day, but it wasn’t someplace I wanted to stay much longer. Unless I learned to surf, there wasn’t much for me to do. With so much coastline, I figured that there would be better places for me to spend my last week in the country, so I picked a destination and planned on going there the next morning: Hikkaduwa.

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Hiking Around Ella

From Kandy to Ella by Bus

I awoke on my second day in Sri Lanka at the Backpackers’ VIBE hostel in Kandy. On my first day I had seen all I wanted, and it was time to move on to someplace new. I decided on Ella, which lies about 140km south of Kandy.

Walking through Kandy in the early morning, I noted how many people were up and about already, walking quickly to work. Everyone was well-dressed in either traditional or modern attire, and most people took time to turn and bow to the various Buddhist deities that dot the little city.

I found the bus terminal, which was busy and confusing. There were so many buses, and only half had the names of their destinations in Roman script, while the rest were only in Sinhalese. I could see none that were going to Ella. Eventually, I asked a few people who pointed me towards a bus heading south to Badulla, with the promise that from there I could transfer to Ella.

As I sat waiting on the bus, numerous vendors came on board selling mangoes, soy beans, samosas, oranges, ointments, and spices. It was getting crowded when a middle-aged Austrian woman took the last remaining seat – the one next to me. She told me that she was relieved because Sri Lankan men could be quite inappropriate. There are some things you never have to worry about as a male traveler.

The bus took a long, circular route to Badulla, taking almost five hours, but there was a curtain blocking out the harsh sunlight that also obscured my view of the scenery, so I simply engrossed myself in a book I had been given by a friend. All I could see when I tried to look out the window were mountains, and I was sure it was a beautiful scene. On the bus, we were packed in like sardines with absolutely no room to breathe, and right in the middle of an aisle a man beat a tambourine and sang sad songs.

At Badulla we changed to a new bus heading towards Ella. While waiting in the bus station I tried some sort of curry wrap, which I was then convinced was the greatest thing I’d ever eaten, though I never did learn its name. The final leg of the journey only lasted about thirty minutes and the bus was only half full. This time I could see out the window as we passed mountains and valleys and forests and rivers, with great fields of rice and tea. In the middle of one rice paddy I saw a huge peacock standing with its tail feathers fully displayed.

We arrived in Ella, which I was slightly disappointed to find was a very touristy little town. In fact, it seemed every business was entirely devoted to providing for foreign travelers. I set out east for Izuru Homestay, following the map on my phone. Very soon I was out of town, following a windy road through the hills. It seemed that the walk took forever, even though it was only 2km. The heat was intense, despite this being high in the mountains. Eventually, I found the house at the end of a long dirt track, surrounded by tea fields and forests. It was totally isolated.

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Izuru Homestay, Ella

I settled in and soon met all the family. Like most Sri Lankans, they were very shy and quiet, but friendly. The owner works for the government, but the place is mostly run by other family members, including his elderly parents. All of them would ask questions in broken English and then hurry away in embarrassment. They brought me cups of tea, papaya juice, and biscuits as I read on the veranda, looking out on a peaceful hillside that was disturbed only by birds and squirrels and chipmunks.

Trekking Ella’s Train Tracks

Despite being tired and having sore feet from walking so much over the previous days, I set out to find a local landmark called 9 Arch Bridge. On a map it looked like it was close, yet in fact the convoluted route that I took wound its way over many kilometers of hillside. I got lost once and a small child guided me through dense vegetation and a few backyards to a road, and soon after I found the train tracks. In Sri Lanka, it is common for people to walk on the tracks as trains move very slowly and noisily, so there is little chance of being hit.

At the 9 Arch Bridge, there were too many tourists – both Sri Lankan and foreign – and although it was a pleasant enough sight, I quickly continued my way, aiming to follow the train tracks back to town, carrying me in a long circle through the middle of Ella to the homestay. Just before dark, I arrived at Ella train station, which is a charming, picturesque little building that even has a friendly station cat. Flanked by a cricket field, it could well have been somewhere in England rather than Sri Lanka.

I spent the evening in Ella, walking around and eating curry at a small restaurant. As it is a tourist town, everything is grossly overpriced. In Badulla, my little lunch had cost 30LKR, but in Ella I could find nothing less than 300LKR, and most menus listed items around 1000LKR. After dinner, I walked back along the now very dark road, and sat on the roof of the house looking at the stars. After the choking pollution I’d endured in China, it was a huge relief to sit out and see the galaxy through the clear mountain air.

Hiking the Mountains and Valleys

The clear mountain air could also be surprisingly cold. Although Sri Lanka has a tropical climate, at night temperatures can get pretty low, and when I awoke in the morning I was glad of the few items of winter clothing I’d brought with me from China. I sat on the veranda reading and watching the shadows cast by the sun move across the valley, and the light hitting Little Adam’s Peak to the south. Occasionally, beautiful, colourful birds flew about, sometimes coming very close to where I sat. One was a grey hornbill.

A young man brought me my breakfast – a large pot of tea, six pieces of toast with butter and jam, fried eggs, bananas, papayas, watermelon, and roti. It was probably the biggest breakfast I’ve ever encountered, filling the entire table in front of me. Did all Sri Lankans eat this way, or was this just put on for tourists, I wondered.

At 9am, I took a much needed walk to recover from breakfast. I didn’t really know where I was going, but I decided I’d walk until I could walk no more, and hopefully see as much of the beautiful countryside as possible. I started out eastward, heading away from the town, and ended up at the Newburgh Tea Plantation. It seemed you could get a tour of the factory, but I wasn’t interested. Instead, I took a nearby winding road and ended up walking through tea fields for a few hours, where little old women with leathery brown skin worked on the steep tea-covered hillsides, wearing potato sacks for clothes and filling hemp bags with tea leaves. I followed winding paths down through the tea fields and between small houses where women bathed children from buckets and shy, skinny dogs lazily slept in the shadows.

Eventually, I turned and climbed back up the rather large hill to where I had begun, and from there set off for a hill known as Little Adam’s Peak. This refers to the more famous Adam’s Peak, which is further west and a renowned Buddhist pilgrimage point. Little Adam’s Peak looks similar but it is much smaller. I climbed quickly to the top, but found there were many tourists here. After the peace and serenity of the tea plantation and adjacent valley, I continued moving along the top of the mountains to where the tourists had given up, and found three empty peaks that I could call my own. I lazed in the sun for a few hours, acquiring a bit of a burn, before realizing that I was not entirely alone. There was a family of black-faced monkeys (which Google tells me are, in fact, gray langurs) occupying one of the only tall trees on the hillside. They seemed very afraid of me, despite there being a big distance between us, and any time I moved nearer to take a better photo, they seemed ready to flee.

I spent most of the day on the top of the mountain, enjoying the fresh air which allowed me to see for miles in every direction. To the east, and far down below, was Ella’s Gap or Ella’s Pass – a steep, winding road running between Ella Rock and Little Adam’s Peak, and behind it a giant waterfall. Elsewhere were forests and tea plantations. To the south the land flattened out with just a few small hills rising here and there. Just about everything you could see was green, despite there reportedly having been no rain for several months.

On my way back down the hill, I found a small shack selling coconuts, and stopped to buy one and speak with the owner. He was friendly and full of advice. I told him I was going to go to Yala National Park soon, and he warned me not to go. “Too many tourists,” he said. “You never seen any animals. All the people come here and complain, ‘Yala is no good!’” He went on to tell me that I should instead go to Udawalawe, where he said you are practically guaranteed to see an elephant.

With that in mind, I continued my walk back to the homestay on tired legs. Along the dirt path, I saw an old man sitting cross-legged and looking very disheveled. He shouted at me, “Hey, look here!” and opened a little wicker basket. I stopped only momentarily to see what he was doing, and saw as he slapped his hand into the basket, withdrawing it very quickly as an angry cobra emerged. It reared up, hissing loudly and striking this way and that, before the man pulled out an instrument called a pungi, and played his song, putting the snake into a trance. It was clear he wanted me to take a picture of him (he was sitting carefully so that Ella’s Rock was visible in the background) and of course to pay him for the privilege. I immediately continued me walk and tried not to make eye contact, for I felt very conflicted. My initial reaction was amazement. Snake-charming is something I’d only ever seen in movies and on TV, and I had associated it with the exotic setting of ancient India. It filled me with a bit of boyish excitement, even nostalgia for a time I’d never experienced. Yet, another part of me was keenly aware of the cruelty most probably involved. Although I’m no expert, I was pretty sure it was common practice to defang the snakes, or to drug them. In any case, the snakes probably don’t much care for being confined and slapped on the head, and I would give no financial assistance to anyone harming an animal.

When I got back, the old woman made me dinner – a huge spread of curry, dhal, pickles, poppadums, rice, and roti. Sri Lankan food, I decided, is among the greatest in the world.

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New Year at Jiuhuashan (九华山)

Although Chinese New Year is the most important celebration in the lunar calendar, the Gregorian New Year is also important and so January 1st – 2nd is a public holiday in China. As such, I decided to take my girlfriend to Jiuhuashan (Mount Jiuhua, 九华山) for a few days.

Jiuhuashan is one of the best-known mountains in Anhui Province, and is considered one of China’s four sacred mountains because of the number of Buddhist temples dotting the landscape. As China’s transport network has developed and its middle class has grown, Jiuhuashan has gone from being a point of traditional Buddhist pilgrimage to a major holiday destination, although it remains far less visited than its neighboring Huangshan (Yellow Mountain, 黄山).

We left Huainan on Sunday evening and took the bullet train directly from Huainandong to Chizhou – a small city on the banks of the Changjiang River (probably better known in the West as the Yangtze River). Chizhou is the nearest town to Jiuhuashan, and after a night spent in a bizarre hotel, we took a taxi for 80rmb to Jiuhuashan.

When you arrive at Jiuhuashan by taxi or bus, you really arrive at the entrance to the Jiuhuashan National Park, and from there you need to take another long bus up the winding mountain roads to Jiuhuashan Town. Entrance to the park costs 160rmb and the bus is 50rmb return.

Unfortunately, it had become apparent from the taxi that our visit might be spoiled by smog. Most of Eastern China is currently engulfed in yet another “airpocalypse” as a massive bank of thick air pollution blankets large swathes of the country. In Chizhou – which my students had informed me the air is “always fresh” – the air was almost unbreatheably bad and visibility was only about 100 meters. However, as we climbed the mountain roads on the little tourist bus, it failed to improve. It is tempting to thick of these smog banks as low lying, but evidently they stretch up for hundreds of meters as well as going on for hundreds of miles.

When we arrived at Jiuhuashan Town, we set out to look for a hotel before doing some hiking. Yet we were immediately hit by another disappointment. The tiny town was crammed with Chinese tourists. Anyone with experience around Chinese tourists knows that they are absolutely the worst, and sadly they behave even worse at home in China than they do abroad. The roads were crammed with honking cars and people shouting and spitting and doing all kinds of unfathomably stupid things.

Our first turn of good luck came when we saw a hotel and inquired about rooms. The sign said all rooms were upwards of 1000rmb, but the manager told us that was just for the holiday, which had ended that morning. Rooms were now just 250rmb.

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After a quick lunch, my girlfriend and I set off hiking, and quickly realized that although the it was January and we were way up in the mountains, the temperature was really quite high – sometimes around 12 Celsius. Our winter clothes were not needed, and soon we were just hiking in t-shirts, with sweaters and coats stuffed into our backpacks.

We planned our route to take us as far from the town as possible, and also to avoid the one road that leads through the park. It was a steep climb up into the hills, and thankfully as we climbed the noise from below subsided and we met fewer and fewer people. Alas, the smog didn’t dissipate, and although it was at times possible to catch a glimpse of a mountain top, we were virtually blind to the scenery. All we could see was the path ahead of us. That was bitterly disappointing, having come to such a famously beautiful place, but more worrying was the fact that with every deep breath we took we were breathing in dangerous toxins.

Of course, it wasn’t all bad. Despite the disappointment of the view, it was still nice to be in the forest and away from the city. We could see the trees around us for at least a few hundred meters, and everywhere we went there were cats of all kinds, and even a few beautiful birds. In fact, the higher we went, the more cats we saw! For a cat lover like myself, it was paradise.

The temples, too, were beautiful. We stopped off at many of them on our long trek, and admired the stonework and big metal incense burners. Generally, the monks were pretty friendly, although quite a few of them rudely begged for money. At a small village in a little valley we saw monks taking care of dozens of cats, and realized that’s why the felines had proliferated to such an extent, whereas throughout most of China they aren’t nearly so common. The village also had giant walls of dried meat hanging outside every house, and the cats we so well-fed that they didn’t even seem tempted by the veritable feast hanging above them.

Near Baisui Palace, which is home to a mummified priest whose body supposedly didn’t decompose over the hundreds of years since his death, we saw monkeys. I think they were short-tailed macaques. These were by far the most interesting wildlife I’d seen in China, and I could hardly believe they lived wild in the same dull, lifeless province that I live! At first they were very shy, but as my girlfriend and I stood quietly and watched them for half an hour, they become bolder and walked very near to us. These monkeys are huge, and seem only to live on the highest parts of the mountain, foraging food from the bins and from the scraps that the monks leave out.

As we climbed down the mountain and sought out some dinner, we reflected upon the day and decided that the monkeys had made everything worthwhile. Having grown up in China, on the edge of a city, this was my girlfriend’s first experience with real wildlife. She was absolutely delighted not only to have seen the animals, but to have had them come so close to us. It was a transformative experience her.

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The next morning, we set off hiking again, this time with full backpacks as we’d checked out of the hotel. We headed back to Baisui Palace, hoping to trek down into another valley and climb a higher peak. However, our legs at this point were very sore and the extra weight of the bags made it a slow and difficult climb. We were put to shame by the old men and woman carrying giant bags of cement up the steep mountain path for repairs at the temple.

After a few wrong turns that took us on a rather circuitous route up the mountain, we followed a trail heading towards a place called “Tiger Cave” (yes, many places in China are named for tigers and dragons – it’s not just your local Chinese restaurant that follows this custom). We found that along this trail there were absolutely no people, and as it followed the crest between two peaks we were afforded quite impressive views of the valley and mountains beyond. Fortunately, the smog had dissipated a little, and although the view was far from perfect, it was now possible to see the other side of the valley, whereas on the previous day it had been entirely invisible. As we were both very tired, we kept interrupting our walk to stop and take in the view, and soon gave up on the idea of continuing. It seemed that Tiger Cave was actually way down in the valley, and a return up the mountain was a bit unappealing.

We returned to Baisui Palace and nearby we found a troop of monkeys eating from a pile of discarded fruit. There were no people about and we stood in silence, watching the monkeys. A few cats came by, apparently unafraid of the giant simians, and all was peaceful.

After that, we looked around Baisui Palace (really just a temple) and its five hundred gold Buddhas, before descending the mountain and attempting the journey back to Huainan. Alas, as is so often the case in China, the relatively simple trip back was made quite difficult, and it took eight hours on a combination of buses and trains and taxis, arriving home about 11pm. However, after an inauspicious start to the trip, we both agreed that our time at Jiuhuashan had been overall enjoyable – two days very well spent.

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The clearest view during the trip
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Dodging the Tuhao in Dali, Yunnan Province

I had wanted to visit Dali for years. Friends had told me it was perhaps the most beautiful area of China – and not just possessing a physically beautiful landscape, but an atmosphere of peace and tranquility that could not be found throughout the rest of this giant, and often overcrowded land. It is a bastion of bohemianism in a decidedly unhip nation.

Dali is located in Yunnan Province, in the southwest of China, which borders Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar. It is rural, mountainous province, with a very different culture and landscape from what you’d find anywhere else in China. I’d mostly travelled around Anhui Province and the east coast of the country – Beijing, Qingdao, Shanghai, Suzhou, and Nanjing. I knew Yunnan promised an entirely different experience.

Last week I had four full days’ holiday for China’s Dragon Boat Festival (端午节) so I took my girlfriend to Dali for a short visit. We set off by taking the wonderfully cheap and convenient airport bus from Huainan’s Xinjinjiang Hotel to the new Xinqiao Hefei airport, and then flew to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province. Unfortunately, as is often the case in China, our flight was delayed by about two hours, and so we arrived in Kunming too late to catch a night train to Dali.

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Kunming skyline

Instead, we found ourselves walking around Kunming at midnight, looking for a hotel that would allow foreigners, whilst trying to figure out early morning routes to Dali. When eventually we did, we realized we’d be arriving in Dali mid-afternoon, effectively losing a half day of our already short holiday. It was the first of what would be many small irritations.

In the morning we headed to Kunming South Bus Station and took an express bus north to Dali. The scenery along the trip was largely impressive. I’ve been to all three neighboring countries and Yunnan was pretty similar – low-hanging clouds over sharp mountains roaring up out of the ground, covered in tiny villages surrounded by terraced rice paddies.

After almost five hours we arrived in Dali’s new town and needed to head to the old town. When the taxi drivers at the bus station tried to rip us off I lost my temper as I was already out for an unexpected night’s hotel stay and bus tickets that cost more than the train. I didn’t realize that the rest of the trip would be largely comprised of unscrupulous people attempting – with a high level of success – to extract as much money from me as possible. But therein lies one of the first problems with travel in China: if you go near any major tourist spot, you will be ripped off. The key is to budget for it, and roll with the scams.

We eventually got into the old town and checked in at the Jade Emu Hostel. The Jade Emu is centered around an old courtyard in which there’s a bar and lounge area with pool table and dart board. The staff were very friendly and helpful, and the room was pretty comfortable for the price. After our long journey, we headed out for lunch and found Bad Monkey, the best-known drinking hole in town. I tried their own IPA, which was pretty good, although the food took more than an hour to prepare even though there were no other customers.

In the evening we walked out to the Three Pagodas and then circled the whole of the old town on foot. Dali certainly is beautiful, and it was fascinating to see a genuinely old part of China. Everything in China changes so fast, and history and nature are given short shrift. There are numerous “ancient towns” dotted around Anhui Province, but they’re all restored and appear very plastic. In Dali there were crumbling walls held together by mud, and old cobbled paths that had clearly been used since before Mao Zedong came to power.

The next morning we awoke and found breakfast at Bakery 88, and then stocked up for a picnic. We walked to the entrance of the Cangshan mountain range and began a long walk. We never did reach the top, as our path seemed to terminate at the Cloud Pass pathway which meanders for a long way around the eastern side of the range. The scenery was stunning, as we walked just below the actual cloud banks, looking up at the often hidden peaks and down at the old town and Erhai lake. There were a few interesting birds and some squirrels, but unfortunately all the wildlife seemed to have been long since removed. Chinese people have no respect for or interest in nature except for human exploitation. There were signs warning us of leopards and bears, but clearly no such animals have existed here for decades.

Our walk was serene and peaceful but occasionally interrupted by degenerate Han tourists from elsewhere in China. These people seem to hate quietness, and make as much noise as possible wherever they go. In China they are called 土豪 (“tuhao”), which translates loosely as “nouveau riche.” These people dress idiotically, believe that the world exists as a stage for their own moronic desires, and generally act like animals with severe behavioural problems. Although their behavior was not as bad as usual, it was enough to ruin any moment of tranquility before too long.

Still, in spite of the other tourists, the mountains were impressive, and after years in the comparatively flat regions of Huainan and Hefei, it felt good to be at altitude, walking among trees instead of apartment blocks, beside streams that were clear instead of brown. The Chinese may ruin every place they visit, but Dali hasn’t been entirely ruined just yet.

We spent another night in Dali and planned to do a final day, but alas all the night trains were booked up and we were forced to spend almost a whole day of our holiday on a cramped bus back to Kunming, where we were again forced to wander around for a hotel, and again ripped off wherever we went. The whole trip had proven far more stressful and expensive than anticipated, yet I had finally seen Dali – perhaps the part of China I’d wanted to visit more than any other. And I’d learned another lesson, one that I’d already known, but which was reaffirmed in my mind – whenever I have the time and inclination to travel, I need to leave China. This place is too crowded and too uncivilized for me, even in the very best places it has to offer.

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Climbing Table Mountain

After an amazing five weeks touring Southern Africa I found myself in Cape Town with one day left before my flight back to China. What would I do? There were so many things from which to choose – touring the wine lands, paragliding, surfing… or climbing Table Mountain.

I love to hike, and throughout my African adventure I averaged 12.5km per day. That’s an average of 12.5km per day for about 40 days. I had bought a new pair of hiking boots before arriving and worn them nearly into the ground over some 500km of walking across some of the most amazing landscapes on earth. In Swaziland in one single day I hiked 53km. I genuinely believe it’s the best way to see a new place, in spite of any potential dangers.

So really it was a no-brainer when Table Mountain stacked up against the other options. I’d already seen the sharks and the penguins. Besides, it was visible from my hostel, from the road from the airport, from the train to Simon’s Town… everywhere I went I could see this behemoth looming large and inviting me, nay, daring me to climb it. I couldn’t resist the challenge.

I set off from my hostel on Kloof Street and headed towards the mountain with only the GPS program on my iPhone and the intention of getting to the top. I’d tried to Google hiking trails and failed due to a lack of wifi. Oh well. Exploring is more fun.

At the bottom of the mountain, in the pass between Table Mountain and the Lion’s Head, I took a small path leading along the bottom of the mountain, on the east side. I didn’t want to trudge along busy paths or take the cableway. I sauntered along quietly for almost an hour, seeing not a single person, just enjoying the views out over the Atlantic as I slowly wound up the side of the mountain, following a gentle incline.

Things turned from pleasant to difficult when the path came to an abrupt end. I looked about and couldn’t see where it led, and then I realized that I was meant to climb. There was a small sheer cliff face of maybe two and a half meters. I couldn’t see that the path continued above, but there appeared to be a gap in the vegetation, so I assume that it did. I tossed my bag up and climbed to the next level.

I’m not great with heights. I love climbing, ironically, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve found it harder to cope with heights and so I don’t really climb any more. I find that my balance is now poor and I fear falling. Thus, climbing that small cliff posed a real challenge, and when I got to the top and continued on the path, I was elated. I’d conquered that small obstacle.

As I continued along, it dawned on me that I really needed the path to continue in its present state, with no more cliffs. If I came to one that I couldn’t climb, I’d be in trouble. At the top of the previous one I realized I wouldn’t be able to get back down without real difficulty, and maybe a broken ankle.

Unfortunately, I soon came to another small but tricky climb. Hoping it was the last one, I climbed it and persevered. Then there was another. And another. With each climb I realized the chances of me going back were slimmer and slimmer. I didn’t want to risk climbing down because it seemed so much more difficult and dangerous than climbing up, and also it would take so long that I’d likely never reach the summit.

Pretty soon my hike ceased to be a hike interspersed with little rocky faces to climb, and became a serious climb up a seriously difficult rocky escarpment. Every fifteen meters or so my knees buckled from vertigo and my head spun. I was, for the first time on the whole trip, terrified. I became certain I would die on that cliff face.

And that’s when it started to rain.

I continued on slowly, on the slick wet rock. I kept taking my backpack off and throwing it up to the next level, then climbing up myself, leaning in as closely as possible, aware that any slip by my hands or feet, or any loose rock, would result in me falling not just a few feet and breaking an ankle. Now the stakes were higher – I’d surely go a few hundred meters to my death.

Finally I could see the top. The path, however, branched in two. One way was steep and the other gentle. I chose the gentle path. I followed it as best I could, but it wound its way around the side of the mountain, on thin, worn paths above giant drops, to yet another stupidly difficult climb. Time and again I stopped to get my head together. I was so dizzy that even standing still I felt I’d likely topple over the edge, and each climb became harder and harder.

It was only when I saw the lip at the top of the mountain and knew finally that I’d made it that I got my act together and climbed harder and faster. When I finally reached the summit I was exhausted, having done hundreds of meters on my hands and feet.

I staggered around the top of Table Mountain and then headed down Skeleton Gorge to the Kirstenbosch Gardens. I tried to walk home but by that point I’d walked 20km on a completely empty stomach, had long since run out of water, and ended up finding a taxi back to town.

Posted in Photography, travel

Into the Okavango

In Maun I was staying at the Old Bridge Backpackers largely because I’d read online that they operated community-run mokoro trips into the Okavango. As a child, I grew up watching BBC documentaries about African wildlife and, it seemed, half the time those documentaries were shot in the Okavango. It was a place I couldn’t have pointed out on a map, but whose name was etched into my brain; a place synonymous with beauty and wilderness.

I got up early one morning and was driven by jeep way out to a small village right on the edge of the Okavango Delta. I met my guide, a lifelong mokoro poler, who pushed us out onto the waterways. He was very quite, almost alarmingly so. But then, so was the world around us. We were miles from the nearest road, miles from the nearest town, and heading further into the wild.

From the offset, we were surrounded by wildlife – namely birds. I don’t know much about birds but they were stunning, as they had been all through my African trip. Some of them were like pterodactyls – impossibly large creatures beating the air violently with their massive wings.

I lay on the mokoro – a small, dugout canoe, as he stood, pushing us through the water. We spent about two hours travelling through the shallow channels of this bizarre inland delta, birds all around us. Occasionally the guide would tell me to stand up and we would see zebra or wildebeest beyond the reeds.

Eventually we arrive at what would be our camp for the night. It was only late morning by this stage, but we were to spend the afternoon hiking. First, though, the guide wanted to take a nap. Fair enough – it must have been tiring pushing the mokoro in heat approaching 45 degrees.

While he slept, I walked out into the wild to explore. I didn’t go far, but far enough to find myself walking across plains, surrounded by zebra, wildebeest, and one elephant. It was thrilling. There is no better word. Everywhere I looked there was wildlife that until recently I’d only seen on TV or, sadly, in zoos. The long grass was lion-coloured and I couldn’t help but imagine I was being watched.

A huge storm came in quickly and I soon found myself sheltering from thunder and lightning and torrential rain, which the parched lands badly needed. I went back to my tent and sat watching the lightning all around, and listened to the rain on the tent.

After a few hours my guide awoke and we set out on a 15 km hike through the surrounding area. We tracked animals on foot, coming upon a few lion kills (and even a dead lion), and getting close to a few elephants, dozens of giraffe, and some smaller game. The feeling of walking through that incredible landscape was humbling. This is how humans felt thousands of years earlier, walking through the landscape as a vulnerable speck, hoping a lion doesn’t come running from the treeline.

At night we made a fire and watched the stars. They were so bright and innumerable, and shooting stars shot across and over the horizons.  I walked around in the dark, flashing my torch to see if eyes would shine back in the night. Giant catfish flopped about in the shallow water.

In the morning, I awoke at 5am and watched the sunrise over the baobab trees and mist hang in the long grass over the waterways. We set out walking again – 20+km this time. My boots soon filled with water from the dew. On this walk we saw much of the same as the day before, but got altogether far too close to a large elephant, which charged at us and sent us running. Thankfully, it was a warning charge and it chose not to pursue us further into the trees.

I wish I could have had more time to spend walking through the Okavango. There really is no place I know of which is like it. It is the wildest place on earth and, I think, the experience of simply walking there – even over a hundred or so meters – puts so much into perspective. You feel so small and insignificant on that great landscape, so much at the mercy of the world around you, yet entirely filled with awe at its power and beauty. And that is how life should be lived.

Posted in travel

Mantenga Falls and Mlilwane Park

After staying in Komatipoort for a few days, and visiting the magnificent Kruger National Park, I took a combi bus to the border with Swaziland at Mananga, then another to Manzini. On the South African end of the journey I saw witchdoctor shops offering spells to cure your “broken penis, smelly vagina, and unwanted pregnancy.” How that is legal to advertise, I don’t even want to know. In Swaziland I was taken in a loop around the country as the bus stopped here and there, giving me a good insight into “Africa Time.”

At Manzini I found another bus heading towards Ezulwini, but had to swap buses halfway and get one towards an area called The Gables. I finally arrived, after a very long day of travel, at my destination. As the bird flies, The Gables and Komatipoort are only a little over 200km apart, but it took me almost a full day to get there.

I checked in at Legends Backpackers, feeling thoroughly exhausted. The place was quiet, and in my large dorm room there was only one other person. It’s a nice place – clean, with new toilet and shower facilities, and surrounded by trees. They do, however, have a dog which is fond of biting customers. Be warned.

In the morning I hiked out, intending to climb Execution Peak. It’s a large and prominent landmark in the middle of Ezulwini Valley, where prisoners of ancient times were forced to jump to their deaths. It looked too beautiful and impressive not to climb.

I didn’t have a map other than the GPS on my iPhone, so I just set out following the roads on that. It took me first to Mantenga Falls, at the nearby Mantenga Park. Here there were many signs warning of crocodiles in the river. But I didn’t see any. The water with chocolate-colored, so it would be hard to see anything move. I did, however, see a big snake shooting across the top and into some reeds.

I walked to Mlilwane National Park (pronounced closer to “Milan” than “Lil Wayne,” if you’re wondering). Getting there took a few hours, but took me on winding little back roads through villages and farms, where people always smiled and waved.

At Mlilwane I just walked into the park, and the guard said it was okay to walk. By this point I was badly burned and dehydrated, but managed to cover up and found a shop in a nearby camp to buy water. The shop had been closed but evidently I look pitiful enough for them to open up for 5 mins.

In Mlilwane I was able to walk freely across the plains and through the forests. No one else seemed to be doing that, but there were hiking paths here and there, so evidently it’s not uncommon. I was stunned that I could walk amidst the wildlife as it went about its ways. Antelope with huge horns looked at me and turned and ran, when they could easily have gored me to death.

I followed trails and eventually made it to the top of Execution Peak, thoroughly exhausted. It had been a long day. By the time I’d gotten home it was getting dark, with nine hours having passed and 53 km gone under foot. I’d be nursing blisters for a while, but it was a hell of an adventure. Additionally, from the top of Execution Peak, the view had been spectacular – Sheba’s Breast to the north, the Valley of Heaven stretching out to the east, and mountains and forests all around.

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Confronting my fear of heights at Execution Peak.

Sadly, in Swaziland, tours of any other national park proved prohibitively expensive, as did any other activity, and so I chose to leave the next day and move on to another part of South Africa.