Home of the Yeti

Cautionary signs warning against the symptoms of Acute Mountain Illness stand like sentries at the gates of every village along the Sabche Khole river valley. We couldn’t help but be well-versed in the altitude protocols by the time we climbed up out of the valley onto a dry, crisp, windswept plateau in the early afternoon on day seven of our trek. We had reached the relatively populous village of Manang – a place that offers luxuries such as mini-bakeries and a “boutique” cinema consisting of a stone-walled room with a dozen wooden seats and a cathode-ray television. The cinema was running a nightly showing of ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ and I was impressed that such false irony found its way this deep into the mountains. Manang is also home to the Himalaya Rescue Association’s medical base and school, where volunteer doctors give daily lectures on safe trekking at high altitudes. We saw their red medical helicopters cruising down the valley at least once every day, reminding us that although we were on a well-groomed trail the mountains could still take their toll on the hasty or unprepared.

Most trekkers spend two days in Manang acclimating to the altitude, gorging on freshly baked apple tarts and taking dutiful afternoon hikes up the nearby hillsides. We chose to visit dwelling of the hundred-rupee monk (so named for his habit of collecting alms of 100 rupees per blessing) and were rewarded by top-down view of the valley that rivaled any eagle’s perspective. The days were warm enough but in the evenings the mountain chill would keep us captive under yak-wool blankets. Let me tell you that it requires a certain amount of desperation to leave the warmth of a yak-wool blanket for a pre-dawn trip to the toilet in the dark. Worse still to discover that the toilet bowl is a frozen into a solid block of ice and completely dysfunctional until the morning thaw…

We trekked in slow-motion for the next few days in state of semi-consciousness brought on by a chronic lack of sleep and headaches that sometimes ebbed but never went away entirely. On the night before our big ascent we stayed at the frigid encampment of Thorang Phedi, taking our meals in a crowded shack around a long table under which a hissing kerosene heater threatened to burn the tablecloth. A knock on the door at 3:30 a.m. the following morning let us know that it was time to pack and join the voices gathering outside near the kitchen. We fell into place among the peculiar procession of headlamps that snaked up the mountain, taking cautious crunchy footsteps in the dark.

The light of dawn crept up the valley towards us until as we tried to maintain a thermal equilibrium between freezing and sweating – a delicate balance known all-too-well by anyone who has worked outdoors in the cold. As we stopped to rest between every 6 or 7 grueling steps I considered the great wisdom of the trekkers who had opted to ride a yak up to the pass instead. We reached the pass around 10 a.m. but with a harsh wind and a long descent before us we stopped only for a few frost-bitten photographs. Filled with a sense of elation that burst our weary trance like a piñata, we plunged down the other side towards the sun-filled valley, laughing and skiing on our boots.

 

– The Annapurna Circuit part II of III –

 

Guidelines for altitude sickness.

Guidelines for altitude sickness.

Lunch in Hunde.

Lunch in Hunde.

Ancient village of Bhraga.

Ancient village of Bhraga.

Most villages have a sketched map near their entrance.

Most villages have a sketched map near their entrance.

Exploring the alleyways of Manang.

Exploring the alleyways of Manang.

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Observing the tourists.

Observing the tourists.

On our afternoon acclimation hike to see the 100-rupee monk.

On our afternoon acclimation hike to see the 100-rupee monk.

8. View of Manang from Praken Gompa home of the 100 ruppee monk

Up the Chulu valley to Yad Kharka.

Up the Chulu valley to Yad Kharka.

Yaks abound.

Yaks abound.

Tea break in Jumsay.

Tea break in Jumsay.

Yaks authenticating the hotel name.

Yaks authenticating the hotel name.

The slow climb to Tharong Pedi.

The slow climb to Tharong Pedi.

Last Yak, I promise.

Last Yak, I promise.

Visiting High Camp on our acclimation excursion.

Visiting High Camp on our acclimation excursion.

The euphoria of Throng La pass.

The euphoria of Throng La pass.

The snow is always whiter on the downhill side of the pass.

The snow is always whiter on the downhill side of the pass.

Looking across the Mustang Valley.

Looking across the Mustang Valley.

It's all downhill from here.

It’s all downhill from here.

Eyes on the Mekong

Once upon a time on the lower Mekong river, a beautiful young princess was sailing to meet her betrothed when, in the middle of the night, she was snatched from her bed by an evil river monster who carried her off into the night. All the ships in hailing distance were called upon and they searched the river for days but, alas, the princess was never to be seen again. Fearing for their lives, the people of the river painted eyes on their boats, big and small, so that they might fool the sea creature into thinking the boat was a watchful giant and, in doing so, spare any further kidnappings. The fishermen, however, painted no eyes for they were in the business of catching, not hiding. They did not want to discourage the creature from approaching but rather they wanted it to come close enough as to be caught in their waiting nets.

If you don’t believe that, perhaps you will believe that once upon a time crocodiles were a regular part of river life (this part, at least, is true although crocodiles are largely now extirpated from the delta) and so people painted eyes on their boats to scare crocodiles away. The fishermen did not, because they preferred to catch the crocs (which they were evidently quite successful at). Whichever story you prefer to believe, the eyes persist. Let me tell you that it is mildly unnerving the first time you see the unblinking eyes of a large cargo ship leering down at you as it chugs by overhead.

Life on the delta is, in a word, hot. The daytime temperatures during our visit maxed out at a forgiving temperature of thirty seven degrees Celsius. Our arrival last week was in early May which marks the onset of the rainy season and relatively cool weather compared to the forty five degrees commonly reached during the peak of the dry season. This might, in part, explain why we received scrutinizing looks from the locals (who were comfortably dressed in full-length trousers and jackets) every time we stepped out of the sanctum of our air-conditioned hotel and attempted to melt our way down the promenade for an evening stroll, wearing as little clothing as foreigners should dare.

The local culture has adapted to thwart this heat. It is not uncommon for rural Vietnamese in the delta to wake at 3 a.m. and begin daily chores, set up stands for the market, or launch their lychee-laden longboats intended for watery commerce. A local chef, who guided us on a market tour prior to a cooking lesson, explained that it is simply too hot to hold markets during the day so many growers, grocers, and distributers will conduct all of their market needs prior to 5 or 6 a.m. There is still a cornucopia of produce on the stands, thankfully, for house-hold shoppers (and foodie tourists like us) for the second-wave shopping spree around 7 a.m. By late morning, the markets are all but empty while the shaded hammocks and iced-coffee stands are all full.

We visited a few little grass-roots industries along the river which were mildly touristy but seemed genuine nonetheless and all of them interesting. We saw a brick factory that fires hand-formed bricks in hand-made kilns stoked with mini-mountains of risk husks. We saw a local noodle factory where workers soaked rice, pressed the milk, condensed the milk to flour, reconstituted the flour to batter, fried giant rice-batter-crepes over wood stoves, and finally laid these cooked rice-crepes in the sun to dry before slicing them to noodle shapes and wrapping them in 5 kilogram packages. This entire process is done by hand, of course, while toddlers toddle around and dogs lounge on empty rice sacks and the workers take turn smoking, chatting, eating meals, and generally just carrying on with life whilst cranking out ton after ton of ridiculously cheap and labour-driven food. I was in full tourist mode here, gawking amazed at the ingenuity of their tools, the efficiency of the process that wastes not a single gram of rice, the resolute work ethic of the people, and the complete and utter lack of food safety standards.

The floating markets were another major draw. Dozens of boats on a bad day, hundreds on a busy day, cram into certain areas of the river where many intersecting canals and a slower current make for a convenient and secure mooring spot at which to market goods. Everything from watermelons to charcoal to live pigs and venomous snakes are loaded onto boats which rally together in a frenzy of trade and sale that reminded me of a big-city stock exchange, but without the noise. Pineapples, jack-fruits, or who-knows-what were displayed on tall poles attached to boats’ sterns indicating what a particular boat was buying or selling. Small boats driven by local farmers sell their wares to wholesalers on larger boats who, in turn, distribute the goods to big-city buyers. The small boats also trade both amongst themselves and with the big boats to acquire saleable goods that they can sell amongst the small canals back in their local community.

The Mekong Delta is a massive and truly meritorious component of the earth’s architecture. If you peer down at southern Vietnam from a satellite you can see the enormous scale over which the delta operates as the sullied coastline is visible even from space. Down at the waterline, you might instead see a young girl dressed for school stepping from the bow of a small wooden boat while her mother idles the motor patiently. Be it a force of nature or just a simple way of life, this corner of the world seems to be stitched together by these chocolate-coloured waters.

Eyes on the Mekong.

Eyes on the Mekong.

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Typical homestead on the river.

Typical homestead on the river.

Brick kilns with piles of rice husks in the background.

Brick kilns with piles of rice husks in the background.

Men are typically busy working the fields, so the women do everything else.

Men are typically busy working the fields, so the women do everything else.

Bustling Cai Rang wholesale market.

Bustling Cai Rang wholesale market.

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Suspended goodies indicate what the boats want to buy or have to sell.

Suspended goodies indicate what the boats want to buy or have to sell.

This kind lady sold us our morning iced coffee at Cai Rang.

This kind lady sold us our morning iced coffee at Cai Rang.

Rice is ground up and mixed with water before the milk is pressed.

Rice is ground up and mixed with water before the milk is pressed.

Sun-dried rice crepes.

Sun-dried rice crepes.

 The noodle machine process.

The noodle machine process.

Vesna liked these sprouting coconuts.

Vesna liked these sprouting coconuts.

A chicken in every pot and a papaya tree in every back yard.

A chicken in every pot and a papaya tree in every back yard.

Trying hard not to look like a tourist.

Trying hard not to look like a tourist.

Mostly smaller boats give the Phong Dien floating market a cozy feel.

Mostly smaller boats give the Phong Dien floating market a cozy feel.

No room for sitting in the mountain of melons.

No room for sitting in the mountain of melons.

Bustling early morning market in Can Tho (on terra firma).

Bustling early morning market in Can Tho (on terra firma).

A giant jackfruit rides shotgun.

A giant jackfruit rides shotgun.

The chef  explaining the merits of each of a zillion kinds of weird ingredients.

The chef explaining the merits of each of a zillion kinds of weird ingredients.

Soup, anybody?

Soup, anybody?

Expert spring-roller.

Expert spring-roller.

The tasty meal we cooked.

The tasty meal we cooked.

Sumatra

Our late-night shuttle bus pulls up to a dark set of steps leading down to an even darker pathway that trails off in the direction of the sound of a roaring river. A middle-aged Indonesian man, who was leaning on the handle bars of a moped parked at the base of the steps pulls on his clove cigarette and says “Welcome to Bukit Lawang, we’ve been waiting for you. Just follow me, okay?” Before we can reply, he slings our two backpacks onto the seat of the moped in front of his lap and drives away. We’ve been on the road long enough to not even question these sorts of scenarios, so we cast each other a glance and start off down the path in the direction of the fading glow of his tail light.

This might be the only place in the world where you can see wild orangutans in their native habitat and sip coffee that has recently taken a trip through the intestines of a nocturnal, cat-like mammal. The Asian Palm Civit (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus) is a small, adorably cute creature that is native to Sumatra. This clever little fellow eats the only the ripest of the coffee fruit without chewing up the beans, which pass intact through the animal’s gut, gaining flavour all the way. This “in-house” fermentation is akin to oven-roasting the beans, and imparts a strong, pungent and somewhat fruity flavour to the coffee. The coffee is quite rare (you can imagine that it is a labour-intensive job to follow civits around the jungle hunting for their poop) and fetches upwards of $300 dollars a pound in North America. Here, in Sumatra, it is not uncommon for people to keep a “pet” civit, and harvest the daily coffee as do chicken farmers collect eggs.

Marching through the steamy Sumatran jungle, my wandering thoughts of keeping a pet civet of my own were interrupted by the sight of our first Orangutan. We had joined a small group of travelers for a 2-day jungle trek, on safari to hopefully spot Orangutans (primarily) and any number of unknown creatures inhabiting this leafy, noisy, sticky biome. We were a total of seven – a pair of Austrian fellows, a young woman from Denmark, and our two local guides. I can fairly comfortably say this was the most trepidatious activity we’ve tried on our adventure so far – not for the remoteness or the lack of any safety standards but for the sheer uncertainty of our immediate fate with which we marched off into the jungle. Our itinerary was simple: one full day trekking, pitching camp on the shore of the river, followed by a rafting trip back downstream to Bukit Lawang. In reality, warm, torrential rains combined with the steep topography and earthen (mud) paths turned the trekking into a full-body activity. Clawing for roots and vines and toe-holds, with hair and clothes saturated with sweat and rain, socks and shoes squishing with mud and the occasional leech, we ascended and descended the hillside all afternoon in search our quarry. It was absolutely grand.

Our shelter that night was a sheet of thick, black plastic wrapped around a bamboo frame, long enough to sleep all of us side-by-side on foam mats. We shared a candlelight tofu curry dinner and played cards on a large tarpaulin spread out on the rocks and I went to sleep trying not to think about how easy it would for a green viper to slither between the folds of plastic and cozy up next to me during the night. The following afternoon, after a little more trekking in the morning, our guides constructed our river-worthy vessel for the trip home. Our raft consisted of a half-dozen tire tubes tied together in a row, with the foam pads we had slept on strewn across the tops of the tubes as a sort of make-shift decking. In the bow and stern, equipped with  long bamboo poles to keep us from bashing rocks along the way, our guides navigated the white-water back to Bukit Lawang while we took in the jungle scenery. Soaked, filthy and thoroughly satisfied, we made our way back to the hotel where we had left our backpacks for safe keeping. By the time we had each showered, the afternoon rains had set in so we sat down to relax on the porch overlooking the glistening jungle and the river we had just floated down. Vesna ordered fresh passion-fruit juice and I a fresh-brewed cup of civit-poop coffee. It was, incidentally, delicious.

I can only say that standing 10 feet from a huge primate staring into your eyes is an experience that defies words.

I can only say that standing 10 feet from a huge primate staring into your eyes is an experience that defies words.

This mature female is affectionately known to the guides as "Suma".

This mature female is affectionately known to the guides as “Suma”.

One of the oddest-looking turtles I have ever seen.

One of the oddest-looking turtles I have ever seen.

A Thomas Leaf monkey poses for the camera.

A Thomas Leaf monkey poses for the camera.

Our jungle camp.

Our jungle camp.

Jungle camp kitchen.

Jungle camp kitchen.

A large monitor lizard came by to check out our camp in the morning.

A large monitor lizard came by to check out our camp in the morning.

Lizzie scored some breakfast.

Lizzie scored some breakfast.

The boys catching a ferry ride across the river.

The boys catching a ferry ride across the river.

Prepping the raft.

Prepping the raft.

A different group floating back to town on familiar transport.

A different group floating back to town on familiar transport.

The village of Bukit Lawang.

The village of Bukit Lawang.

A cozy place to sit and watch the rain.

A cozy place to sit and watch the rain.

a domestic civet coop

A domestic civet coop.

Dried feces full of beans, then cleaned, then roasted.

Dried feces full of beans, then cleaned, then roasted.

Small-batch coffee roasting.

Small-batch coffee roasting.

A tasty cuppa.

A tasty cuppa civet coffee.

I am a donkey, you are a monkey.

A woman steps onto the crowded bus with a chicken under one arm and a cell phone pressed to her ear. Understanding that she is too preoccupied in conversation to mindfully navigate, the chicken begins scanning the bus for a vacant seat. An hour later, the stifling monotony of the ride is punctuated by alarmed Nepalese banter because somebody noticed that the chicken appeared to be dead. Cool water was poured over its beak and crackers waved in front of its nose and eventually it was successfully revived and the bus ride carried on as per normal. In the conversation that followed, we learned that it was vitally important that the chicken survive the journey, because it was scheduled to be sacrificed as a holy offering the following day…

It is with some relief that we left the craziness of Kathmandu two days ago on the wings of this ‘chicken-bus’ towards Besisahar – the regional hub of the Lamjung district and the launching point for our trek through the Annapurna range. Our ride followed the winding valley of the Marsyandi River, whose surrounding canyon walls were absolutely verdant with spring growth that draped over the entire valley in folds and terraces like a thick, green canvas. Unassuming villages cropped in various stages of disassembly along the road and, try as I might, I couldn’t tell if the huts, shops, and ramshackle garages in these little communities were in the process of being built, or in the process of falling down.

Besisahar was quaint enough and offered us the first glimpse of things to come. Whist sipping lime soda in the common room of our hotel we had checked into for the night, our guide offered to bring us a bucket of water to the room. This struck me as a generous but curious offer. As we discovered upon retiring to our room after dinner, it turns out that there was a hotel-wide outage on both electricity and water. Although this was a bit shocking at first, “No Power, No Shower” became almost a mantra on the trail, and we soon recalibrated our sense of what was necessary in order to be comfortable.

Over the following few days we gradually hiked to an elevation of 2160 meters over a distance of 29 km. Our tea house in Bahunanda boasted a glass-enclosed eating area perched on knoll overlooking the village that reminded me of an old timey railway car diner that had been transplanted into the hills. Our first glimpse of Grey Langurs in Chamche was a thrill and a full day of walking through marijuana-lined pathways in the vicinity of the village of Tal offered loads of jokes. Apparently, hashish (marijuana oil) production is big business in the area, and entire valleys are given up to its cultivation. Our official guide map even marks an area labelled “fields of marijuana!” The plants carpeting our pathway were not the smokable kind (all leaves, no buds), but rather crop up as perennial weeds because of the goats who defecate pot seeds up and down the valley!

On day 5, over a long lunch in Thanchowk, I finally learned the marching chant sung by porters along the trail – “I am a donkey, you are a monkey, resham fee ree ree.”. This parody of a classic Nepalese love song initially sounds cute and has a very catchy melody, but after one porter explained that the meaning has something to do with half of the porters carrying loads like donkeys, and the other half being objectified like monkeys, I had mixed feelings about its widespread chorus. Nonetheless, being able to sing along to a few verses was a great social currency, which broke the ice around many evening cups of tea along the trail.

By day six we had climbed just under 80 km to 3250 meters and overnighted at Lower Pisang. I had my first altitude headache here, superimposed on a brief but gnarly fever. Vesna and I scrutinized our safety pamphlets for details on the symptoms of acute mountain sickness, and eventually decided that the fever was just a freak thing that would right itself through an afternoon of rest. We thus spent the early afternoon sipping lemon tea next to the wood stove in the cozy tea house. We were kept entertained by the local ‘psychic’ lady who held the complete and mystified attention of all the porters with her stories and premonitions, and who would read your palm for the bargain price of 100 rupees. We took a short hike to Upper Pisang before dinner to get some air and to gain a little elevation before bed (it is prudent to hike a little higher than you sleep each day). The next morning was crisp and sunny, and we both woke feeling spry and rested. We gathered our socks from the drying line, packed our backpacks quickly, and ate a rustic breakfast. The snow-covered mountains were waiting on the horizon, and we were anxious to climb higher into the belly of those Himalayas.

– Annapurna Circuit part I of III –

Marsyandi river valley.

Marsyandi river valley.

Strolling through Besisahar.

Strolling through Besisahar with our trekking guide.

Boys conspire over a new toy.

Boys conspire over a new toy.

A grassroots distillery for rice-wine moonshine.

A grassroots distillery for rice-wine moonshine.

You cut I choose.

You cut, I choose.

No power, no shower, but a decent view.

No power, no shower, but a room with a view.

One of the more rickety suspension bridges we crossed.

One of the more rickety suspension bridges we crossed.

We must have crossed the river 20 times a day.

We must have crossed the river 20 times a day.

Carpets of marijuana.

Carpets of marijuana.

Main street Chamche.

Main street Chamche.

One water tap for everybody in town.

One water tap for everybody in town.

Occasional roadsigns allowed us to chart our progress on the trek.

Occasional roadsigns allowed us to chart our progress on the trek.

Village of Tal

Village of Tal

Making momos in the kitchen of a small cafe.

Making momos in the kitchen of a small cafe.

These were the momos, and they were delicious.

These were the momos, and yes they were delicious.

Inquisitive cow wanted to join us in the courtyard.

Inquisitive cow wanted to join us in the courtyard of our tea house in Bagarchap.

Almost every sizable villages had it's own small buddhist stupa.

Almost every sizable villages had it’s own small Buddhist stupa.

Climbing up out of the valley.

Climbing up out of the valley.

Himalayas in the distance motivate us.

Himalayas in the distance motivate us.

Washing wool for the market.

Washing wool for the market.

Donkey train.

Donkey train.

Upper Pisang village.

Upper Pisang village.

Each wheel contains a scroll of Buddhist prayers.

Each wheel contains a scroll of Buddhist prayers.

Our cozy common room at the Lower Pisang tea house.

Our cozy common room at the Lower Pisang tea house.

Kathmandu

Three days in and we’re not even remotely at ease with the bustling mass of humanity that fills every space of this city. In the early morning, we linger over pastries and a small pot of coffee on a roof top café near the famed Kathmandu Guest house. As the sun rises higher the streets below slowly come to life. Soon, the brief repose of dawn becomes the hot, hazy cacophony of trinket markets, laundry shops, and peddlers hawking Tiger Balm for their ‘good luck’ morning sale. Moped riders – zipping around wearing  surgical masks against the dust – form an ever-present chorus of horns and throttles.

We browsed Thamel’s busy streets betwixt spending hours in internet kiosks trying to track down our gypsy laptop that decided to go rogue back in Delhi. A few blocks south of the tourist district, the streets acquiesce somewhat to a calmer, less artificial state, and gems of ancient culture are hidden among the produce markets and retail shops. A tiny statue integrated into the curb behind an electronics vendor would be barely noticeable except for the cosmetics of red powder and marigolds which were applied in a recent festival. It turns out that this miniscule statue of Buddha is actually over 1500 years old, and is revered by the community as an important holy shrine. Kathmandu’s labyrinth is comprised of myriad alleyways and mysterious stone doorways that reward exploration with ancient monuments, religious icons, artisanal window carvings, banisters and shrines. It’s easy to understand the value of these artifacts to everyday cultural preservation. Any given curbside shrine on which a clothes line might be tied might be touched by passersby reverently during prayer, from shrine to forehead with palms pressed together, a thousand times a day.

We explored a few of the nearby ancient city-states that dot the Kathmandu valley in the days before and after our big trek. One fine morning, we were feeling particularly clever as we chartered a rickshaw on the cheap by initiating a “bidding war” between the young rickshaw driver and an older nearby taxi driver, both of whom desperately wanted the fare. What we did not realize at the time is that the rickshaw (a meager passenger carriage towed behind a bicycle) was modeled after the movie “Premium Rush”, as the bike had no brakes and no gears!  It was full speed or full stop all the way, through disturbingly congested commuter traffic. I spent the better part of our 30-minute ride leaning as far over  into Vesna’s side of the buggy (the sidewalk side) as my left butt cheek would tolerate, trying earnestly to counter-ballast the wobbly buggy that seemed to be ever-leaning towards the traffic (on my side) raging within arm’s length. On our final ascent up the long hill leading to old Patan, our weary young driver had to stand and grunt against the pedals with his full body weight. With some chagrin, he reluctantly asked us to get out and walk beside the rickshaw for the remaining half kilometer to the gates. We were more than happy to climb out. When the dust settled (literally), we tipped him generously, and bought a soda for all three of us – next time we’ll take the taxi.

We also toured some of the most prominent parts of Bhaktapur, Patan, old Kathmandu, and the Boudhanath temple. These were a goulash of impressive architecture and iconography, seasoned with twists of contemporary human activity. Take for example the face-painted Sadhus (wandering holy men) who renounce worldly possessions in a life-long spiritual quest in the worship of Shiva yet will not allow themselves to be photographed without a donation…  In any case, these World Heritage sites inspire wonder and stir the imagination – if humans are living on the moon in another thousand years, will these ‘living museums’ still be around, and what might they look like then?

Thamel in the quiet morning.

Thamel in the quiet morning.

A Nepalese fuel tanker.

A Nepalese fuel tanker.

An unusually well-organized shop in Thamel.

An unusually well-organized shop in Thamel.

Can you find the 5th century statue of Buddha?

Can you find the 5th century statue of Buddha?

Afternoon market in old town Kathmandu.

Afternoon market in old town Kathmandu.

Looking down on Kathmandu's Durbar square from Maju Dega temple.

Looking down on Kathmandu’s Durbar square from Maju Dega temple.

Veggies in the shade of  the Maju Dega temple.

Veggies in the shade of the Maju Dega temple.

Impoverished lady in Kathmandu's royal square.

Impoverished lady in Kathmandu’s royal square.

A modern day Sadhu working the crowd.

A modern day Sadhu working the crowd.

Kal Bhairav statue. It was once used as a place to swear oaths.

Kal Bhairav statue. It was once used as a place to swear oaths.

Ladies queue for water at a public spigot.

Ladies queue for water at a public spigot.

Innovative flowerpots in Patan.

Innovative flowerpots in Patan.

Man feeds pigeons. Boys pose for photo. Boys demand payment. Coincidence or intricate scam?

Man feeds pigeons. Boys pose for photo. Boys demand payment. Coincidence or intricate scam?

Krishna Mandir and other temples in Patan's Durbar square.

Krishna Mandir and other temples in Patan’s Durbar square.

preparing for the festivel of chariots in front of nyatapola in taumadhiat backtapur

Preparing for the chariot festival in front of Nyatapola temple.

Erotic carvings on Pashupatinath temple.

An example of the erotic scenes carved on the Pashupatinath temple.

Hand-made potter at Talakwo square.

Oodles of hand-made pottery at Talakwo square.

Dogs patiently waiting for their next reincarnation at Bhaktapur.

Dogs patiently waiting for their next reincarnation at Bhaktapur.

The setting sun over Boudhanath temple.

The setting sun over Boudhanath temple.

Beets are the new Bacon.

I can’t really put my finger on exactly what kiwi cuisine consists of, but I can certainly wrap my hand around what it generally consists of. The best burgers this side of the equator. And beets, lots of beets, on these burgers. Don’t get me wrong, the ubiquitious fish & chips are great, and I enjoy a three-day-old-sitting-in-the-heat-lamp turkey pot pie as much as the next bloke, but the New Zealand burgers are truly world class.

Fish burgers with a piece of battered sole as big as my shoe, slathered in coleslaw. Ground chicken and turkey burgers, with satay sauce, pesto, or blue cheese. Burgers as big as my face. Juicy and succulent. But the tell-tale sign of a good New Zealand burger is that it comes with a fried egg and slices of beet. I even ordered a veggie burger in some small diner thinking it might be a light lunch, and the sucker came with chicken (because chicken is clearly a vegetable) fried mushrooms, a fried soy patty, onion rings, beets, a fried egg, and half a pound of salad. Normally I take pride in my proficiency at eating whilst driving but, so help me, I had to pull over.

Other noteworthy items on the kiwi cuisine roster are the amazing espresso-based coffee creations that are found everywhere. A caffeine fix is never more than a flat white away. Also, in National Park village near Mount Tongariro, I discovered that the locals are nuts about sweet chili sauce, and have derived a sort of poutine-esque dish consisting of melted cheese, sweet chili sauce, sour cream, and big fat fries. Poutine and sweet chili goodness – talk about my kind of culinary convergent evolution.

Burger Fuel in Aukland.

Burger Fuel in Aukland.

Fergburger in Queenstown.

Fergburger in Queenstown.

A random delicious burger in Christchurch.

A random delicious burger in Christchurch.

Burger Bliss.

Burger Bliss.

An extremely well constructed "flat white".

An extremely well constructed “flat white”.

Sweet chili wedges.

Sweet chili wedges.

Hello, sandflies.

Golden sands and seal colonies and mark a popular hiking track along the northwestern coast of New Zealands’s south island. It is a level, 55km long, pristine beachfront hike filled with equal parts of sunshine and sandflies. Appropriately, sunscreen and insect repellant are the two mandated comfort items outlined in all of the Abel Tasman information brochures. As we were well-stocked with sunscreen of various sorts, but completely lacking in bug juice, it took top priority on our gear-prepping day in Nelson prior to the hike. All the other backcountry commodities were actually quite pleasant to shop for including the top discoveries of freeze-dried ‘coq-au-vin’ and giant bars of kiwi-infused dark chocolate. Insect repellant, however, was tricky. Besides being alarmingly expensive, the most effective types are loaded with DEET, which is a notorious sleeping-bag melter. Fearing for our sleeping bags, we opted for a roll-on “natural” repellant, with lemon verbena, melaleuka oil, and a host of other wholesome ingredients. The pharmacy had a sale – two sticks for 17 dollars, which was a steal. The compromise between bag-melting DEET and actual repellent efficacy turned out to be a poor decision, as we discovered our first evening on the trail. It turns out that the sweet smelling, lemony-herbal repellant was like crack cocaine to dive-bombing bumblebees, who appeared in droves out of nowhere the instant we tried to take the roll-on canister out of the top of our pack. Applying the stuff to our legs meant running around in zig-zags waving our arms to try and shake off an ever-pursuing posse of bees. Every evening around dusk we went through this familiar routine of bee-avoiding calisthenics during the buggiest time of day….

On the eve before our trek, after gathering supplies and lunching street side on pumpkin frittatas, we headed back to the YHA hostel for a test-run of our packing prowess. Satisfied that it all fit and was ready, we stepped out to sample some of the fabled Nelson nightlife. This is a town where backpackers dream of settling down and opening a café, where ex-surfers set up roofing businesses to finance their life-long wave cravings, and where expat-hippies-turned-famous-artists form coalitions of weekend craft markets, and the surrounding hills are filled to the lees with micro breweries. I had to at least have a beer or two. Our first stop was the Free House, a late 19th century cathedral retrofitted to a local brew-haunt and outdoor beer garden. The kitchen was closed, but the chocolate coconut porter kept us sated (imagine a cream ale with undertones of burnt marshmallows dipped in in fine Italian espresso). The Free House is full of community-style tables, and before long we were engaged in conversation with a middle-aged kiwi couple who worked in educational social services and were adamant about the rising costs of food prices. As the conversation about food and our rising hunger finally over-rode our decision-making cortices, we cajoled over to the only open kitchen at the Fern & Firkin around the corner, where nachos, chalkboard trivia, and a dance floor filled with locals unpretentiously rocking out to CCR enticed us to stay until the doors closed around 2 or 3 a.m.

It seemed like a good idea at the time…

The alarm clock rang at 6.25 a.m., giving us about 20 minutes to get outside for our hour-long shuttle bus to Marahau where we lingered over a flat white (coffee with milk) and a cheese omelet being somewhat reluctant to shoulder our packs and start a day-long walk.  On this first day, we were both tired and walked quietly along the 12 km to Anchorage hut campsite. Emerald inlets held azure waters and soft incoming tides that contrasted against pink and golden quartz sand beaches. Through the hot and heavy-headed day, these refreshing views somehow perfectly balanced the lingering hangover for a surprisingly pleasant and reflective walk. We set up our tent in a shady spot amongst the trees, which filled quickly with the tents of fellow campers. One of these was a retired Aussie named Kevin, who proudly displayed a weather-worn hat full of mussels he had collected at low tide. A group of Argentinean girls struggled to set their tent in the dark. In the days to follow, we shared a few more campfires with these same campers along the route.

On day two, we walked about 12 km through the sleepy village of Torrent bay, decided against attempting the crossing at a mid-day high tide, and took the overland route to arrive at our campsite in Bark Bay in the early afternoon. We pitched our tent along the first row of dunes fronting the beach, and took up a vigil on the beach to try and spot Orcas that fed on the rays in shallows of this oddly rectangular harbour. That evening, Kevin showed us how to distinguish the constellation of the Southern Cross ( which looks like a kite that is laying on it’s side) in the star-filled sky, and use it to find true south on the horizon by taking a perpendicular between the cross and two nearby pointers. Useless to us northerners, but utterly fascinating on the middle of a star-filled night on Bark Bay.

We took a casual lunch on the beach on day three at Onetahuti bay where I spent an hour trying to take a picture of a crab on the beach while waiting from the crossing to clear. Stingrays cruised along the shallows of the outgoing tide, filling the bay with giant, shadowy polka dots. We arrived at Awaroa hut in the late afternoon. Although the expansive inlet was an impressively surreal sight at low tide – a barren, muddy expanse of marooned fishing boats and drying shells – the campsite itself was mosquitoey and underwhelming. We hence decided to break camp before sunrise the following morning to make the crossing before high-tide. We waded through the bay in ankle deep water as the incoming tide began to fill the bay and the rising sun began to fill the horizon with amber and rose-coloured light.

Given the early start, we made it to Totaranui campground by mid-morning, set up our tent in a prime shady spot next to the ocean, and relaxed on the beach all day long. On the fifth and final day, our water taxi arrived and we cruised back south along the coastline enjoying a different perspective on the track we had walked. After brief stops to view the seal pups at a breeding colony in the Tonga Island Marine Preserve, and a tractor-boat-taxi ride through Marahau, we were back on the bus towards Nelson and rejoined our undetermined wanderings further down the south island.

Abel Tasman Map.

Abel Tasman Map.

Hangover-curing views on first day.

Hangover-curing views on first day.

Heading down to Anchorage campsite.

Heading down to Anchorage campsite.

Anchorage Bay.

Anchorage Bay.

Kayaks being delivered to Bark Bay.

Kayaks being delivered to Bark Bay.

Bridge over the Torrent River.

Bridge over the Torrent River.

Some dude crossing torrent bay a bit too late.

Some dude crossing torrent bay a bit too late.

Campsite at Bark Bay.

Campsite at Bark Bay.

walking along beach trail

Crab on Onetahuti beach.

Crab on Onetahuti beach.

Long-nosed shuttles for lazy hikers.

Long-nosed shuttles for lazy hikers.

Surreal expanse of dry inlet.

Surreal expanse of dry inlet.

Gourmet dinner.

Gourmet dinner.

Crossing Awaroa Inlet at low tide at sunrise.

Crossing Awaroa Inlet at low tide at sunrise.

Suspension bridge over Fall's river.

Suspension bridge over Fall’s river.

Campsite at Totaranui.

Campsite at Totaranui.

Fur seal colony at Tonga Island Marine Preserve.

Fur seal colony at Tonga Island Marine Preserve.

Marahau taxi.

Marahau taxi.

The Routeburn Track

This time it was not the  threat of  pyroclastic demise but rather simple logistics that persuaded us to tramp this mountainy track in two separate pieces. The track, in it’s entirety, runs 32 km over the high passes between Glenorchy and Milford sound. The problem is that the only road access between either ends is  6-hour windy bugger stretching all the way through Queenstown and Te Anau. The minimum cost for hiring a private company to shuttle your car is about 300 bucks, including fuel, or you can pay about the same amount for limited bus service from trail head to trail head. Under this scenario, the combined cost of the shuttle  ($300) and the cost of our rental car  sitting in a parking lot for 3 days ($175) would be over 6.5 times greater than our camping permits ($72)!! We decided that paying almost 600 dollars for a 2-night trek was absolutely ludicrous and opted to split the trail into 2 day trips instead. Admittedly, the frustration of trying to work out the shuttles caused us to momentarily begrudge the hidden costs involved with catching a glimpse of all this damn beautiful natural NZ countryside. Nonetheless, we economized by tackling either end of the tramp as we were traveling through that area, so unnecessary shuttling was circumvented, and this way we were able to cover most of the trail by staying only one night on the trail instead of two, saving an extra 36 bucks on permits. In hindsight, after having driven from Milford to Glenorchy we understood why the shuttles were so pricey – one must basically get from the middle of nowhere to the middle of nowhere, with a lot of mountains in between. Anyone interested in starting a helicopter shuttle service might consider this a lucrative business…

On the Milford end, we hiked up to the top of Key Summit, an 8 km round trip with elevation changes of roughly 300 meters. We were fortunate enough to have a clear sunny day (unusual for fiordland) and had 360 degree panoramic views down the lower Hollyford valley towards Milford sound, surrounded by the the jagged Humbolt and Darren mountain ranges. The sky was clear enough that even Lake Marion was visible in the distance cradled in a hanging valley at the leading edge of the Darran range. We did a brief walkabout around the top of the summit, admiring the contrast between the lush peaty carpet and crystal clear pools and the crisp high-altitude views around us. On the way up, I might add, I noticed what is probably the most scenic outhouse that I had ever seen, and wondered whether one guy I know (who is particularly outhouse-phobic) might even risk it, just for the view.

On the Glenorchy end, we started with a beautiful drive along lake Wakatipu at dusk, and stopped for a seafood pizza in Glenorchy (cheesy mussels are an acquired taste) before heading off through the night to set up camp at the trail head. We missed the road for the trail, however, and ventured 28 kilometers down an unserviced bush road before accepting our mistake and turning back (we were stubborn enough to drive through two stream crossings but the third would have been too much for our rented Nissan Tilda to handle so we decided if it was impassable then it must not be the right road). Our side trip did allow us to witness something I had never seen before – roving herds of rabbits! Literally dozens of rabbits stampeding across and along the dirt road in the moonlight, with the occasional confused possum stampeding with them.

We ended up pitching our tent around midnight at the Kinloch Lodge campground, and had an early start up the track. We trekked through the forest of towering beech trees over Sugar Loaf and Bridal Veil streams (Vesna counted nine suspension bridges in all that day) to arrive at the Routeburn flats hut around noon, and pitched our tent in the grassy meadow campsite. After a quick lunch of freeze-dried chicken tikka masala, we tackled the round trip up to Harris saddle and back. This was a decent slog up the Routeburn valley, but the landscape was beautiful beyond words – this was another “yup, we’re definitely in New Zealand” moment. In all, the hike that day from the carpark to Harris saddle and back was about 17 kilometers with an elevation change of 600 meters – sleep came easy that night. In the morning, as we were casually strolling back to the car Vesna recounted her previous night’s dream – one you’ll just have to wait to ask her about when you see her.

Along the drive to Glenorchy.

Along the drive to Glenorchy.

Routeburn Map.

Routeburn Map.

One of the many suspension bridges.

One of the many suspension bridges.

Routeburn Flats campsite.

Routeburn Flats campsite.

Looking down on Routeburn Flats on our way to Harris saddle.

Looking down on Routeburn Flats on our way to Harris saddle.

Another viewpoint along Routeburn valley.

Another viewpoint along Routeburn valley.

Routeburn valley.

Routeburn valley.

Almost at the saddle.

Almost at the saddle.

Harris Lake.

Harris Lake.

Taking the alpine chill like a man.

Taking the alpine chill like a man.

On the way up to Key summit.

On the way up to Key summit.

Prime real estate for a biffy.

Prime real estate for a biffy.

View down the Hollyford Valley towards Milford sound.

View down the Hollyford Valley towards Milford sound.

As the sign says...

As the sign says…

Vesna standing near the Key summit marker.

Vesna standing near the Key summit marker.

The Tongariro Circuit

By late august 1983 the Police had sold 18 million copies of their hit single “Walking on the Moon”. Truthfully, I have no idea how many copies they sold, but the song sticks easily in mind as one’s footfalls stretch across the barren alpine plateau of the Red Crater under the looming slopes of mount Ngauruhoe (filmed as Mordor and mount “Doom” in the Lord of the Rings).  Recent volcanic activity meant that the backside of the volcanoes were off limits due to threat of flying rocks and pyroclastic flows, so we had to do this loop in 2 long in-and-out days. Our first day was a breezy 17km return from Whakapapa village up to Taranaki falls and through delightful alpine meadows to the upper and lower Tamu Lakes formed in old explosion craters. The landscape was a rolling ascent through alpine flowers with many fine views of Mt. Ruapehu, for a total altitude gain of only 200-300 meters. We underestimated the alpine sun here, and reaped some pretty gnarly tank-top tan lines in spite of all the time we spent on the Coromandel beaches earlier in the week. The following day we slogged up the 19 km return trip up across the Mangatepopo saddle between the summits of Mt. Tongariro and Mt. Ngauruhoe, to the top of the Red Crater basin, and up to the hanging emerald lakes. It was quite comical to be a part of the gaggle of onlookers who took seats in remarkably even rows in the hot shale in order to eat their squished sandwiches and granola bars in view of the lakes as if it were a natural cinema theater. Today’s hike was grueling with total elevation changes of roughly 600 meters, and ended with a 2 hour wait for the return bus to National Park village in the blazing sun. After a shower, a hot meal and a few cold ciders we decided that the spectacular moon-scape views were worth every blister.

 

The Tongariro Northern Circuit Route Map

The Tongariro Northern Circuit Route Map

Looking down on Lower Tamu Lake

Looking down on Lower Tamu Lake

Mount Ruapehu

Mount Ruapehu

This is where you have to run to if the lava is chasing you...

This is where you have to run to if the lava is chasing you…

Laundry hanging in our hostel room in National Park Village

Laundry hanging in our hostel room in National Park Village

Mount Ngauruhoe and the barren expanse of the South Crater

Mount Ngauruhoe and the barren expanse of the South Crater

Volcanoes in every direction!

Volcanoes in every direction!

Spectacular views from the saddle.

Spectacular views from the saddle.

Hiking up to Emerald Lakes

Hiking up to Emerald Lakes

IMG_0784 IMG_0786 IMG_0791

Lunch stop at the Emerald Lake "Cinema".

Lunch stop at the Emerald Lake “Cinema”.

Lower Tamu Lake

Lower Tamu Lake

Mount Ruapehu

Mount Ruapehu

Taranaki Falls

Taranaki Falls

Vesna climbing to Upper Tamu Lake

Vesna climbing to Upper Tamu Lake

The Great Walks

Backcountry hiking is popular in New Zealand and the national Department of Conservation does a great job at maintaining loads of trails across both islands. These trails, affectionately referred to as “tramping routes” or just “tramps”, can take anywhere between 2-7 days to walk along,  and provide various camping facilities ranging from rustic backcountry campsites to relatively modern huts with gas stoves, filtered water, and cold-water showers. The prize jewels of these tramps are dubbed “great walks” and pass through some of the most spectacular natural sites in New Zealand. We had the fortune to do three of these – the ‘Tongariro Northern Circuit’ in the center of the north island, the ‘Abel Tasman Track’ along the south island’s northwestern coastline, and the ‘Routeburn Track’, through the south island’s rugged mountain and fiordland terrain in the southwestern corner. Look for a separate post for each of these three little tramps coming soon to a wheat-grinding blog near you.