Kick Ass vacation to Annapurna Base Camp (April 2016)

The prelude:
  • Switch on the news and you would hear *THOSE* times being mentioned over and over again. What times? Bad markets, bad economy, etc, etc, etc. All this pointed to one thing. It was time to climb a mountain
  • Enter my friend Milos. We sat down for hours together and plan. (Read: have two Tsing Taos by Mui Wo Ferry Pier)
  • The Annapurna idea is born
  • We immediately call in a favour and found ourselves a CPO (Chief Planning Officer). Enter Ramesh.
  • We created a whatsapp group where millions and millions of messages are exchanged. (Most of them irrelevant and junk, especially the ones from Roger)
  • Enter the final list of participants. Roger, Hannes, Dominic, Milos, Tilly and yours truly
Ramesh sends us the itinerary: 
 
  • 15 Apr – Arrive Kathmandu
  • 16 Apr – Depart for Pokhara By Road 7 hrs Tourist Bus or By Air 25 mins Flt and Arrange Trekking Permits
  • 17 Apr – Trek to Banthati 2000m
  • 18 Apr – Trek to Ghorepani 3500m
  • 19 Apr – Short Trek to Poon Hill Sunrise Breakfast and Trek to Chomrong 2500m
  • 20 Apr – Trek to Dovan 2700m
  • 21 Apr – Trek  to Annapurna Base Camp 4000m
  • 22 Apr – Trek back to Chhomrong
  • 23 Apr – Trek Back to Ghandruk Base and By Road to Pokhara
  • 24 Apr – By Road or Air To Kathmandu
  • 25 Apr – Sightseeing in Kathmandu morning and afternoon . Depart Kathmandu for Hong Kong
 
RECOMMENDED KIT :
  • 1.   Trekking Shoes
  • 2.   Walking poles
  • 3.   Light Down and Light Jacket
  • 4.   Track Suit – 1 pr
  • 5.   Thermo T Shirt/Inner
  • 6.   Basic medicines
  • 7.   Camera
  • 8.   Medium Thick Socks
  • 9.  Medium Carry Pack
  • 10.  Water Bottle
  • 11.  Energy Bar
 
RECOMMENDED START/END TREK TIMINGS :
 
  • 0600-0630 – Breakfast
  • 0700 – Trek Start
  • 1100-1200 – Stop for Lunch
  • 1300-1700 – Afternoon Trek
 
  • Trek to Ghorepani/Poon Hill Upfhill
  • Trek to Chomrong Uphill/Downhill
  • Trek to Annapurna Base Camp Uphill
  • Trek from Base Camp – Downhill
 
SCENERY :
  • From Ghorepani Poon Hill – Mount Dhaulagiri-Annapurna Ranges
  • From Chhomrong – Annapurna Ranges and Fish Tail
  • You will also see the national flower of Nepal Rhododendron blooming
As you can see from the strict schedule, Ramesh is an ex military guy. After we agreed on this itinerary, a million more of whatsapp messages were exchanged. Most of them (again) are useless and irrelevant. And, yes, many of them from Roger. (History repeated itself). Suddenly, we were there and it was April 15th 2016.

 
15th April 2016
  • I got a text from Milos: “Vince, I checked the bags from John, you want the bag with bras or the bag with bras ? your pick :-)“. Our man John Ellis form Gone Running sent us a bunch of used sports gear to carry to Nepal to donate to the community there. I got handed the bag with the most bras
  • Meanwhile we had news from Ramesh that our 5th member in our Nepal expedition, Tilly had successfully arrived in Kathmandu from Geneva. “TILLY COLLECTION” read the subject of the email. With Dominic already in Nepal on a “pre-vacation” vacation, our team was complete
  • Kathmandu airport was crowded and it took us almost 90 minutes just to get our luggage. The conveyor belt started and stopped and looked like a meandering river. Eager passengers starting crowding around every visible edge of the belt in keen anticipation of their luggage
  • Kiran, our guide and Ramesh’s tail running student, waited for us outside the airport to take us to our hotel. Unwanted helpers carried our luggage to the van and demanded a tip. We mistakenly thought they were Kiran’s friends. We departed with 120 HKD. Roger giving away 100 and I gave away 20
  • Ramesh called Kiran who passed the phone onto Milos. He made sure we had arrived safely
My artistic photo of the wing

My artistic photo of the wing

4 clowns leaving Hong Kong for ABC

4 clowns leaving Hong Kong for ABC

Kathmandu airport baggage carousel

Kathmandu airport baggage carousel

16th April 2016
  • 0540 was the assembly time at the hotel reception
  • Tilly bought some bananas and apples on the way to the bus stop and got ripped off. 50 HKD for some bananas and oranges. Even more expensive than Hong Kong. She really amazed me when she went back to the vendor after realizing this and got her money back after returning the apples and oranges. I would have been too scared to do that!
  • Bus journey was spent yapping a lot and boring Tilly. We saw a gruesome sight of an accident which made me recall how fickle life can be. One really needs to cherish every moment of it
  • Upon reaching Pokhara, we met Ramesh who took us to Hotel Pokhara where we were briefed. We got permits done for the upcoming Annpurna trek and enjoyed a warm dinner reception which Ramesh hosted for us
Taking an evening walk in Pokhara to the park

Taking an evening walk in Pokhara to the park

We are smarter than we look

We are smarter than we look

17th April 2016
  • We assembled for breakfast at 7am after a good night’s sleep – well, all except for Milos, who inadvertently happened to volunteer to be dinner for mosquitoes. He woke up with many mosquito bites on his hand and face
  • We bid a temporary goodbye to Ramesh and boarded our team jeep at 7.30am to get on our way to Birethanti (1050m)
  • Then came a steep stair climb all the way to Banthanti. Hannes, despite experiencing hip pain, converted some of his Swiss pride into muscle power and made it all the way to our humble abode for the night – The Green Hill View lodge. Which by the way isn’t a misnomer. Not like our Hong Kong style naming of buildings. Think “Chung King Mansion”. Mansion?
  • Hannes’ pain dwindled to the point where he even enjoyed locking me out in the bathroom
  • The view from our lodge was scenic. Very green and soothing
  • We had a sumptuous dinner in the lodge with ample servings of ginger tea. There was even an intense (and heated) debate about Hong Kong politics which took our sleeping time to 1030pm
Mint plant in Banthanti

Mint plant in Banthanti

Milos has some biting friends

Milos has some biting friends

Met Mr. Horsey in Banthanthi

Met Mr. Horsey in Banthanthi

18th April 2016
  • Ghorepani, I.e., “white water” at 2820m was the destination for the day. It took us less than 3 hours to reach this place. Our residence for the place was a cleverly named guesthouse called “See You” guesthouse
  • Having reached Ghorepani as early as 10am we took a little side trip upto Poon Hill at 3100m. It took less than an hour to reach
  • We saw a sign that read “Poon Hill” which reminded Roger of his most favorite topic – “poo”. Springing into action, he immediately hid the ‘N’ in “Poon Hill” to satisfy himself
  • We were back at our guesthouse at around 12pm and decided to order food from the menu. Roger had to warn Tilly about refraining from “outward expression of affection” as instructed by the last page of our menu
  • Dom and Tilly went for a bit of a walk afterwards while the rest of us decided to spend the afternoon taking it easy and relaxing. Their timing was a bit off because a thunderstorm wasn’t too far behind them! Fortunately, they made it back before the skies exploded
  • After yet another sumptuous high altitude dinner (I had rosti but Hannes told me with great conviction that his homemade version of it would put this one to shame), I went to bed while the rest of the gang played cards. The clouds cleared up revealing the bright moon and stars which meant that our 6am sunrise viewing plan from Poon Hill was back on
Nice tree in Ghorepani

Nice tree in Ghorepani

Our Ghorepani hut

Our Ghorepani hut

Hannes' suffers toe issues

Hannes’ suffers toe issues

Tilly has a new friend - Srijana (guesthouse lady's daughter)

Tilly has a new friend – Srijana (guesthouse lady’s daughter)

Started raining all of a sudden

Started raining all of a sudden

Beautiful rhododendrons on the way to Poon Hill

Beautiful rhododendrons on the way to Poon Hill

Met this guide on the way to Ghorepani

Met this guide on the way to Ghorepani

View from Poon Hill

View from Poon Hill

Swiss lady brought this Alphorn to Poon Hill

Swiss lady brought this Alphorn to Poon Hill

Group Pic on Poon Hill

Group Pic on Poon Hill

19th April 2016
  • Got up at 5am after close to 8-something hours of sleep. Felt like I was back in boarding school – the sound of someone yawning in another room, creaking of beds, shuffling of plastic bags and so on
  • I switched to military precision for my upcoming dump sequence. I was expecting a dirty toilet but it was surprisingly clean so I could put down my guard. I’ll stop describing the rest of the processes here
  • We went up race pace to the top of Poon Hill. The views were majestic – Annapurna 1/2/3, Daulagiri, Fish Mountain (Macchapuchhere). Spectacular
  • After a heavy breakfast (pancake with peanut butter), it was time to walk to Tadapani. Initially, it was a downhill course but boy did that change. The stairs we climbed put Lantau Peak and Sunset Peak to shame
  • Our lunch spot was another spectacular scene. And the lunch (macaroni with cheese) was yummy
  • Then came a longish walk to Chumrong. “Five minutes” was the theme of the day. Our next stop was always “five minutes” away. We left at 8am in the morning, reached Tadapani at about 12pm and it took us until 5pm to reach Chumrong which was at 2050m. Kiran suggested that we add another “5 minutes” to our day which meant that our stop was at Sinuwa, also at 2050mhumrong. “Five minutes” was the theme of the day. Our next stop was always “five minutes” away. We left at 8am in the morning, reached Tadapani at about 12pm and it took us until 5pm to reach Chumrong which was at 2050m. Kiran suggested that we add another “5 minutes” to our day which meant that our stop was at Sinuwa, also at 2050m
  • On the way to Sinuwa

    On the way to Sinuwa

    Flowers everywhere!

    Flowers everywhere!

    Roger suddenly borrowed my camera to take this great selfie

    Roger suddenly borrowed my camera to take this great selfie

    Want a hit man?

    Want a hit man?

    Poon Hill becomes POO HILL

    Poon Hill becomes POO HILL

    Walking through many green villages

    Walking through many green villages

    Our scenic lunch spot in Tadapani

    Our scenic lunch spot in Tadapani

    More beautiful rhododendron trees

    More beautiful rhododendron trees

  • Hannes’ pain got worse but he still managed to do the whole route without  any external help
  • During dinner, the conversation mainly revolved around Roger’s favorite topic again – poo. Tilly tried desperately to have the topic changed many times but invariably, as Milos put it, “all topics lead to s**t”. Roger’s need for a clean toilet outweighed his urgency to go for a dump
 
20th April 2016
  • The original plan was to hike up to Duerali (3100m) but Kiran was told that they had no rooms there. So, insead, we decided to go to Himalayan (2800m)
  • After a 7am breakfast (Muesli with fruits), we started making our 4-hour journey to Himalayan
  • The poo experience that Roger was after continued to ellude him until the afternoon, but soon after an intense hailstorm, Roger proudly announced that he had successfully relieved himself of some unnecessary cargo
  • We played poker in the afternoon and watched out the window as the rain continued its onslaught
  • After a heavy dinner (macaroni with cheese) it was time to retire for the day
Carpet of leaves

Carpet of leaves

We crossed many of these suspension bridges

We crossed many of these suspension bridges

While Hannes was stretching, bad boy Roger tripped him

While Hannes was stretching, bad boy Roger tripped him

Our humble abode

Our humble abode

Express mule

Express mule

Mary had a little lamb...

Mary had a little lamb…

Taking a pitstop

Taking a pitstop

First sight of snow

First sight of snow

21st April 2016
  • We were hoping for some bright skies after the intense rainfall the previous day
  • I woke up at around 5.30am and went outside. Fortunately, the skies were an azure blue. Roger woke up shortly after and greeted us with a morning fart. (When Milos farts he fondly refers to it as his “jet fuel exhaust”)
  • Today was the highlight of our ABC base camp expedition. The scenery was simply mind blowing. We left around 7.30am and reached Machupuchere Base Camp (MBC – 3700m) around 10.30am
  • The skies continued to be blue so we made the 1.5 hour trip to Annapurna Base Camp (4130m). Awesome. Magnificent.  Pick your adjective
  • On the way back to MBC (Fishtail Mountain), it looked like it was going to pour down but we luckily avoided the rain. At around 2.30pm, it rained cats and dogs. Great escape!
  • Lunch was a heavy rosti and post lunch it was time to play poker again and retire for the day
Wild flowers on the way to ABC

Wild flowers on the way to ABC

The beauty was amazing

The beauty was amazing

Stunning

Stunning

Had to cross this glacier on the way to ABC

Had to cross this glacier on the way to ABC

The view was spectacular

The view was spectacular

Majestic mountains

Majestic mountains

Dark side of mountaineering - Anatoli Boukreev is remembered

Dark side of mountaineering – Anatoli Boukreev is remembered

On ABC. Japanese expedition attempt to climb the south face of Annapurna

On ABC. Japanese expedition attempt to climb the south face of Annapurna

The high altitude hut

The high altitude hut

Unbelievable landscape

Unbelievable landscape

The remote hut

The remote hut

22nd April 2016
  • The plan was to descend all the way to Chumrong at 2800m
  • The mountains were beautifully illuminated by the sun as I woke up and stepped out at 5.30am. Part of me wished I had gotten up at 4am and made it back up to ABC for the view
  • We made the 24km walk back to Chhumrong beginning 7.30am
  • As we made our way, the skies behind us blackened. We got lucky again with the weather. It felt like we were taking the sunshine with us wherever we were going
  • Roger, while talking about an Australian guy who had fallen off Annapurna while attempting to change his camera battery, ironically, also fell down a slope when attempting to change his camera battery. Luckily, all he had was a minor scratch
  • The final stage from Sinuwa to Chhumrong was a tough stair climb but otherwise, it felt like a pretty easy day – especially as we are going from a freezing 3700m in elevation to a balmy and green Chhumrong at 2100m
  • The view from our guesthouse “Kalpana guesthouse” was lush and green! Cabbage plantations grew below and potato farms were planted all around
  • It felt amazing to note how a mere 20km of waking changed everything. From the views of tall, towering mountains to that of green and lush valleys, from frigid temperatures where you need several layers of clothing to that of balmy weather where a tee shirt and a pair of shorts would suffice. It felt like a journey from survival mode to living comfortably. Mountains are majestic but living there is another cold matter!
  • I thought about those guys attempting to climb Annapurna (apparently one in ten die). They must feel like what we just did (the hike to ABC camp) was pure baby stuff
  • Milos came out of the squat toilet (the only option we had) and declared that “he wasn’t sure where he was aiming”. Which made me conclude that I would defer jetissoning my excess cargo by one more day until we would reach Pokhara
  • The rest of the day was spent in a Swiss bakery shop and playing poker. Hannes was close to winning the game in the MBC hut but we found an excuse to stop the game before he could win it all
Morning view from MBC

Morning view from MBC

Eating at a bakery in Chhumrong

Eating at a bakery in Chhumrong

Mountains are beautiful but hostile terittory

Mountains are beautiful but hostile terittory

Great green views (and Roger)

Great green views (and Roger)

Chhumrong valley

Butterfly hovers around

Butterfly hovers around

From 3700m to 2500m in Chhumrong

From 3700m to 2500m in Chhumrong

23rd April 2016
  • Woke up to the sight of the beautiful Machapuchare (Fishtail mountain) at about 5.45am for our last 4-hour day of walking. Thought to myself how magnificent it looked from the comfort of our guesthouse in Chhumrong but as you go near it, the discomfort of being there rises with the altitude
  • We left the green Chhumrong at about 7.30am and reached Birethanti at about 11am, just in time for our taxi pick up back to Pokhara
  • Leaving Chhumrong and arriving at Pokhara felt very different. Difference between heaven and earth! It all meant one thing – our holiday was coming to a close!
  • The afternoon was spent eating and shopping. We went to a Tibetan market where Milos was pointing at a photo of the Dalai Lama and said that he had many interesting things to say. Then, all of a sudden from behind, a small Tibetan lady approached and said “he’s cool, right?” We nodded
Walking back to the jeep to get back to Birethanti

Walking back to the jeep to get back to Birethanti

Leaving gardens for Kathamandu city

Leaving gardens for Kathamandu city

About 40 mins away from our finiish

About 40 mins away from our finiish

This guy is a pro

This guy is a pro

24th April 2016
  • Headed back to Kathmandu by bus after a 6.30am breakfast
  • Some more shopping and plenty of eating ensued after an 8-hour bus drive that featured many close traffic accidents
Monkey Swayambhu Temple, Kathmandu

Monkey Swayambhu Temple, Kathmandu

Not every day may be good but there is something good in every day

Not every day may be good but there is something good in every day

A "cross" spider

A “cross” spider

Dom gets a cheap shave

Dom gets a cheap shave

Where's the wire? There is a method in maddness

Where’s the wire? There is a method in maddness

Spot a pigeon - Durbar square

Spot a pigeon – Durbar square

I'm buyin' one of these babies

I’m buyin’ one of these babies

25th April 2016
  • It was time to return to the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong for us and to Geneva for Tilly
Goodbye Kathmandu

Goodbye Kathmandu

When in doubt, have a burgur

When in doubt, have a burgur

What about 'em Taliban Soups?

What about ’em Taliban Soups?

Interesting things we observed in Nepal:
  • Villages were very, very clean. I was expecting some garbage near the villages but there was none. Most villages in the mountains were spic and span
  • Prices in guesthouses were fixed and controlled. No matter which guesthouse  you go to, the prices were the same for guesthouses at that altitude
  • People were nice and friendly. Largely,  there was no real attempt to ripoff tourists. This was more true after Banthati
 
Trip rating: 
  • Truly kick ass style. Great place, great company and a truly kick ass break
  • Learning lessons:
    • One week in the Annapurna region and another in the Everest region would have had more kick ass power
    • Never carry more than you need. 7 tee shirts weren’t necessary. Light but good rain gear and winter gear are necessary. Most other things are dispensable
    • A private car for 6 people would have saved time instead of the long bus ride to Pokhara
    • A small day pack and a normal rucksack would have helped to carry ad hoc stuff instead of just a big rucksack

Overall, another great adventure in another great place! Our planet is really beautiful!

 
Sapa village

The Vietnam Adventure (Sa Pa / Cat Ba / Ha Long Bay) – December 2015

Photos are here.


 

2015-11-29 (Sunday)

  • took a plane to Hanoi which landed around 2000 HKT. Vietnam is one hour behind Hong Kong
  • took a USD 5 cab ride to the train station. Met lady from the travel agency who had our tickets to Lao Cai. After our struggle to find veggie food, I got her to say veggie food in Vietnamese and recorded it on my iphone for future use
  • took the train (Orient Express) headed for Lao Cai (50km from Sapa)
  • got ourselves into what looked like a fancy compartment. Very comfy. USD 80 for 2 people. Private cabin. We expected two more but that wasn’t the case
This is how you say “No Meat” in Vietnamese
Very comfy train

Very comfy train

2015-11-30 (Monday)
  • I learnt that Cai in Vietnamese is pronounced “Kai” and not “Chai” like Chinese
  • I learnt that Vietnamese doesn’t have any pictorial representation of the language. It’s pretty much like English with fancy up/down intonations. Kind of like the German Uberlong
  • got off the train nice and early at 0540, took a ripoff 200,000 Duong minivan ride to Sapa (only 50km away). Almost dozed off most of the way. Sapa struck me as one of the classic Indian hill-stations. Pretty, pristine yet chaotic because of traffic
  • soon after exiting the minivan, got accosted by countless locals who were getting us to buy homemade purses, bracelets, and so on. They also wanted us to go hiking in their respective villages. “Come to my village, most beautiful” was the broken record for the day
  • checked in into Phuong Nam hotel and went for a walk to nearby village called Cat Cat
  • Cat Cat was quite scenic and serene. Except for the constant “come to my village” and “please shop” sales pitches which just wouldn’t stop. One even waited for us to have lunch and almost twisted my arm into buying something. I refused but felt quite guilty after a while. (I still feel guilty as a matter of fact!) Should have simply made her day. Only a matter of HKD 20 or so after all! There was no need for a hard “I cannot be moved” stance
  • took a scooter (USD 5) and rode around. Saw clouds dangling above a valley. Looked spectacular

Check out this Hydro Grinder

Cat Cat Village

Cat Cat Village

Cat Cat Village

Cat Cat Village

Cat Cat Village

Cat Cat Village

Cat Cat Village

Cat Cat Village

Who is this handsome guy?

Who is this handsome guy?

Cat Cat Village

Cat Cat Village

2015-12-01 (Tuesday)
  • got up at 0700, went down to the reception and booked tickets to Ha Long Bay for Thursday evening on a sleeper bus. Also, booked our guide for the hike up to Fancipan (3100m) for Wednesday
  • had a sumptuous breakfast (again) and hired two scooters (again!)
  • first stop: Ta Phin. Very scenic and harmonious BUT (as usual) we got frequently accosted by local villagers who wanted to us to buy various things from them. To avoid them and to enjoy some peace and tranquility, we stopped at various lookout points on the meandering road where there was no one
  • After a pretty heavy lunch, we headed towards the next village for the day called Su Pan. More villages, more serenity, more picturesque landscapes. Ride was awesome
  • after Su Pan, we headed for our final village of the day called Topas. A gang of villagers tried to get us to buy something. We somehow escaped without departing with money
  • stopped at a Vietnamese style rural “cafe” and ordered some Chinese style tea. Some old looking guy invited himself over to our table and helped himself to some tea. I replenished his cup, Dom’s cup and my cup. Drank plenty of tea and left after an hour. Tea lady didn’t want money for tea (people are good and not everyone is greedy!) but to reciprocate I insisted on giving her something and gave her 20k Duong
  • my scooter then stopped because of mechanical problems. The old guy I had been serving tea happened to be riding his scooter and saw me. I gave him a “I-am-in-trouble-please-help” look and he immediately stopped, took a look at my scooter and discovered the broken spark plug. He removed his own scooter’s spark plug, made my scooter work and only asked us for HKD 20 for a new spark plug for his scooter. I was thinking to myself how goodness exists in the world when we look for it. Amidst all this news of terrorism, people killing people, etc, there is a lot of goodness that still embraces the society!
  • learnt that “Pho” is noodles in Vietnamese and “Bho” is beef. Had another great dinner and hit the sack for the relatively early start on Wednesday (7am Facipan trek)
Handsome guy...

Handsome guy…

Sapa village

Sapa village

Sapa village

Sapa village

Tea guy comes to the rescue to fix my busted bike

Tea guy comes to the rescue to fix my busted bike

Above the clouds

Above the clouds

2015-12-02 (Wednesday)
  • had a quick breakfast and met our guide Sam at 7am. Took a cab up to the starting point of the Fancipan Trail (pronounced the same way you’d pronounce “Fancy Pants” minus the “ts” at the end)
  • our guide Sam turned out to be the Vietnamese equivalent of a Nepali Gurkha. Went up and down slippery slopes like a friggin’ mountain goat. I had no hopes in hell of catching up to him. He was amazing!
  • met some tourists along the way who were going to do the hike in 2/3 days!!! It’s about five times as hard as Sharp Peak but anyone with a resonable level of fitness can do it within 10 hours!
  • took us a total of 3.15 hours to get to the top. It was a cloudy experience but we did have a trigonometric station to tell us where we were! One item checked off the list!
  • On the way back down, saw a couple of guys of guys from Australia who had just summited. “Beautiful view” the guy said to me referring to his summit views. I drilled further into his comment and figured out that all he saw was what we also saw – a blanket of whiteness!! But having come all the way from Syndey for this, it HAD to be beautiful!
  • took about 2.30 hours to come back down and we finished the whole thing in 6.42 hours. Got a medal and a certificate at the end!!
Met. Mr. Goat on the way to Facipan

Met. Mr. Goat on the way to Facipan

Dom and Sam (guide)

Dom and Sam (guide)

Dom and I

Dom and I

Hut 2: 2800m: On the way to Facipan

Hut 2: 2800m: On the way to Facipan

Up, up and away

Up, up and away

Fancipan: Construction site plus trigonometric station (they are building a cable car now!)

Fancipan: Construction site plus trigonometric station (they are building a cable car now!)

Coming back down to Sapa from Fancipan

Coming back down to Sapa from Fancipan

We got a cert plus medal for going up 3130m to Fancipan

We got a cert plus medal for going up 3130m to Fancipan

Coming back down to Sapa from Fancipan

Coming back down to Sapa from Fancipan

What a great looking guy

What a great looking guy

Fancipan: Construction site plus trigonometric station (they are building a cable car now!)

Fancipan: Construction site plus trigonometric station (they are building a cable car now!)

Hut 2: 2800m: On the way to Facipan

Hut 2: 2800m: On the way to Facipan

Hut 1: 2300m (on the way to Fancipan)

Hut 1: 2300m (on the way to Fancipan)

2015-12-03 (Thursday)
  • chilled out the first half of the day and took a sleeper bus to Ha Long bay in the evening. Destination: Cat Ba island which is off the coast of Ha Long Bay
Chilling out

Chilling out

View of Sapa town

View of Sapa town

Yes, the Amazing Hotel

Yes, the Amazing Hotel

Our hotel Phnom Penh

Our hotel Phnom Penh

2015-12-04 (Friday)
  • the sleeper bus to Ha Long Bay was a nightmare! Well, comfy sleeping berth but we had a noisy crowd with phones going off all the time. I could even smell cigarette smoke
  • the bus dropped us off in Ha Long Bay at 0330 whereas we were told it would take until 0500 for us to reach Ha Long Bay. Well, early to bed, early to rise I guess. We took a cab at some ungodly hour and reached the ferry pier to Cat Ba island at 0400. Next couple of hours were spent in the pier staring into the darkness and feeling the cold wind brush against our body. We could also hear the rain hammering the roof above us in steady intervals
  • I learnt that the town of Mong Cai was nearby and it bordered China’s Guang Xi province. Technically, I think we were just one hour away from China!
  • by 0600, darkness turned into daylight and it stopped raining which gave us our first views of Ha Long Bay
  • the “cruise” to Cat Ba island from Hang Long Bay was scenic – reminded me a lot of the jagged peaks of Guang Xi (like what you see on the RMB 20 note’s backdrop)
  • Cat Ba island by itself was serene, pristine, lush and soothing. Probably the highlight of the trip for me thus far. The air was refreshingly fresh and crisp and the landscape was invitingly spectacular. Jagged peaks surrounded the distant backdrop and mangrove trees occupying the foreground were resting beautifully in whitish-blue colored waters
  • the island was relatively big and the small town centre looked quite fancy with many 3-storey buildings and hotels
  • we checked into Bayview hotel by the seafront and rented scooters to ride around the island. It was drizzling rather heavily at times but still, this scooter ride was one of the best rides I’ve done. There’s no greater source of rejuvenation than to smell the fresh scent of air after rains have blessed the lush greenery. It took in as many deep breaths as I could
  • we stopped by a cave which doubled as a rather large hospital for wounded Vietnam soldiers who served during the war with America. According to an ex army guy who now runs a restaurant by the side of this cave, many bombs were dropped on Cat Ba and Ha Long Bay during that war. He also told us that many more such secret caves still exist all over Vietnam but the government won’t reveal their locations as that information is classified
  • day ended with some sumptuous dinner (as usual)
Arriving at Halong Bay at 0330

Arriving at Halong Bay at 0330

Welcome to Cat Ba

Welcome to Cat Ba

From Halong Bay to Cat Ba

From Halong Bay to Cat Ba

Cat Ba's greenery

Cat Ba’s greenery

Entrance to the hospital cave

Entrance to the hospital cave

I used to train with John Rambo back in the day

I used to train with John Rambo back in the day

Long entrance in the war museum cave

Long entrance in the war museum cave

War museum in cave. Wounded soldiers were brought in here during the Vietnam war

War museum in cave. Wounded soldiers were brought in here during the Vietnam war

Cat Ba's greenery

Cat Ba’s greenery

This guy served back in the day during the war but left soon after he found himself a chick (behind every man's success...)

This guy served back in the day during the war but left soon after he found himself a chick (behind every man’s success…)

Cat Ba's beauty

Cat Ba’s beauty

Cat Ba's beauty

Cat Ba’s beauty

Cat Ba's beauty

Cat Ba’s beauty

Cat Ba's beauty

Cat Ba’s beauty

Riding scooters through beautiful Cat Ba

Riding scooters through beautiful Cat Ba

Life is good

Life is good

2015-12-04 (Saturday)
  • today was the kayaking day. Checked into Outdoor Adventures at 0800 and got on kayaks at 0900
  • the scenery was amazing. A combination of Milford Sound views plus Guilin views. Spent quite sometime admiring the views and exploring secret lagoons. Kites were flying overhead and adding to the feel of the place. Loved it
  • after a day of kayaking, it was time for another sumptuous dinner plus a Vietnam adventure closing beer
Goin' kayaking

Goin’ kayaking

Where are my Hollywood offers

Where are my Hollywood offers

Dom enjoying his kayaking

Dom enjoying his kayaking

More kayaking

More kayaking

Another secret lagoon

Another secret lagoon

View of the bay

View of the bay

View of the bay

View of the bay

Cat Ba's Milford Sound like beauty

Cat Ba’s Milford Sound like beauty

Cat Ba's Milford Sound like beauty

Cat Ba’s Milford Sound like beauty

Floating village

Floating village

Kayaking

Kayaking

Floating village

Floating village

Loved the kayaking

Loved the kayaking

Cat Ba's Milford Sound like beauty

Cat Ba’s Milford Sound like beauty

Cat Ba's Milford Sound like beauty

Cat Ba’s Milford Sound like beauty

Cat Ba's Milford Sound like beauty

Cat Ba’s Milford Sound like beauty

Cat Ba's Milford Sound like beauty

Cat Ba’s Milford Sound like beauty

2015-12-05 (Sunday)
  • it was time to bring the Vietnam vacation to a close. Boarded a bus at 9am which took us to the pier. From Hai Phong Bay, we took another bus to Hanoi. We then cabbed it to the airport
  • a plane back to Hong Kong concluded our little jaunt in Vietnam
Sunny day photo of Cat Ba

Sunny day photo of Cat Ba

What a great looking guy

What a great looking guy

Bye Bye Hanoi

Bye Bye Hanoi

Summary:
  • stunning rice terrace, beautiful villages, serene islands and spectacular scenery. If this isn’t reason enough to visit Vietnam I am not sure what is!
  • my suggestion to fellow travelers would be to avoid the night buses if you don’t like cigarette smoke!
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Kick Ass Motorbiking Adventure in Ladakh (July 2015)

After eight long years, the mountains of Ladakh, India beckoned again. The motorbikes were calling out our names. High altitude passes, river streams and meandering roads were waiting to be crossed yet another time on a motorbike — this time on Royal Enfields. And so began the planning of our motorbike trip to Ladakh from Manali. Prashant, my friend and travel mate on our two previous motorbike rides in Ladakh organized this one too. Bold Swiss motorbike rider and fellow Hong Konger, Hannes also joined us for our kick ass motorbiking adventure in Ladakh during July 2015.

Photo courtesy: Hannes (he’s a better photographer than I am). All photos are here.

Hannes’ PowerPoint collage

2015-07-13, Chennai to Manali

  1. I took a flight into Delhi from Chennai. Flight landed 5 minutes early (Go IndiGo Air!) and met Prashant and Hannes at about 1945 outside the airport
  2. Took a pretty long taxi ride (saw India Gate, Red Fort on the way) and reached a super crowded ISBT (big intercity Delhi bus stand) at about 2100. Bus stand was a cacophony of activity
  3. Took a bus to Manali. Had front row seats. Hannes even helped fix a puncture en route at 3am while Prashant and I were asleep despite the rather uncomfortable seats
At ISBT bus stand

At ISBT bus stand

15-hour bus ride. Fixing a puncture at 3am

15-hour bus ride. Fixing a puncture at 3am

2015-07-14, Getting bikes plus permits in Manali

  1. reached Manali at 1.15pm (left at 2200 the previous day) making this the longest bus ride of my lifetime. 15 hours on a bus that stopped almost everywhere and even had puncture problems
  2. got the motorbikes from the Trip Advisor rated bikerentalmanali.com. Their shop was in a place called Vashisht in Manali. Luckily, the gears on the Enfield were on the left side. I got the new Thunderbird 350cc which was only a month old. Prashant and Hannes had classic Enfield 350cc bikes. Bike guy whose name was Abhinav Sood, seemed to be running a pretty lucrative business. Reliable guy but made us sign a million forms to indemnify his company against this, that, etc (guess he needs to). Bikes were in great condition
  3. got the permits done to cross Rohtang Pass at the SDM (not sure what that stands for) but it’s a pretty dull looking bureaucratic office in Manali City by the bus stand. We then tested the bikes out and slept like a log for 8 hours to recover from the 15-hour bus ride
Room in Manali

Room in Manali

Hannes with his "Black Beauty"

Hannes with his “Black Beauty”

Prashant and his Enfield

Prashant and his Enfield

Suited and booted and ready to go

Suited and booted and ready to go

Loading up on gas

Loading up on gas

2015-07-15, Manali to Jispa

  1. set off on our kick ass bike journey at 7am in the morning. Meandering roads, slushy terrain and dust-filled air greeted us on the first half of our ride. That and plenty of careful overtaking of heavy tucks that stirred up dust straight into our faces. The challenge of riding on slushy mountainous roads blended with the magnificence of the mountain itself
  2. the new Thunderbird 350cc I was riding definitely looked old after I crossed the muddy roads of Rohtang pass (about 3800m). The shock absorbers were put to good test during and after crossing Rohtang. We averaged around 16km per hour until Sissu (after Rohtang). It was rather an amusing sight to watch tourists dressed up in full blown snow suits when there was very little snow to see! It was like wearing a raincoat for protection from a small puddle of water in the remote distance
  3. we continued on after Rohtang and eventually reached Jispa at around 4pm (9 hours later) covering about 110km on Day 1 of our kick ass riding
  4. Jispa was quite beautiful. We found tent like accommodation with a proper toilet. It started to rain as soon as we were parked and settled! I even caught a rainbow from the toilet window
On the way to Rohtang Pass

On the way to Rohtang Pass

Little but of snow en route. Tourists wore a full snow suit for this!

Little but of snow en route. Tourists wore a full snow suit for this!

Hannes enjoying a Kingfisher in Jispa

Hannes enjoying a Kingfisher in Jispa

This is Jispa

This is Jispa

2015-07-16, Jispa to Pang

  1. Quite a hard day! We left Jispa early but got stuck at Baralacha La Pass. Two vehicles got stuck in a rather ominous looking river crossing. We waited for two hours for the army to clear the road using something called a JCB (some big crane). Later, Hannes was the first one among us to attempt to cross that stream. He rode through the bouldery stream crossing like a daredevil punk and succeeded in his first attempt! I needed help and almost fell. Prashant followed suit and made a successful attempt. More such stream crossings appeared and demanded some heavy motorbiking skills
  2. The lake at Baralacha La pass at 4927 meters was dazzling. Serene and picturesque. I remembered seeing this lake 8 years back in June when it was frozen. Now it appeared vast and was quite a sight. After the lake, came two very beautiful high altitude passes. Nakeela La at 4961m and Lachung La at 5097m. I almost lost control of the bike while negotiating a slope after Lachung La. Prashant had his first fall which resulted in a minor knee injury
  3. We finally ended up at a place called Pang at 4.30pm, which was at about 4500m above sea level. Although we did not want to stay at such an altitude, we were out of time and could not continue riding. Staying at Pang was a nightmare. We had basic tent like accommodation with many others. It was super cold and noisy (I also contributed to it through my occasional snoring). All the three of us had an altitude headache. Hannes didn’t sleep a wink. The previous two times I had stayed at Pang was in 2008/2009. Both times, I vomited and felt like someone had beaten me up. This time, the lady at the place gave me some ginger tea which really helped. I managed to spend the night at Pang without puking. I even ventured out quickly during the night to look at the stars. It was quite a sight! But, my visual treat was interrupted by my olfactory senses which detected the pungent smell of human excreta nearby! I gave the stargazing a rest and went back into the tent to try and resume my sleep despite the sharp high altitude headache
Truck stuck in Barlacha La pass

Truck stuck in Barlacha La pass

We had to wait for the army JCB to clear this mess

We had to wait for the army JCB to clear this mess

Prashant and Hannes wondering what to do next

Prashant and Hannes wondering what to do next

JCB tows away the van

JCB tows away the van

Hannes readies to cross

Hannes readies to cross

Finally made it through

Finally made it through

Barlacha La pass

Barlacha La pass

This is Barlilacha Lake. Usually frozen in winter

This is Barlilacha Lake. Usually frozen in winter

Nakeela Pass

Nakeela Pass

Pang - our resting abode for the night

Pang – our resting abode for the night

2015-07-17, Pang to Leh

  1. with much difficulty, we got out of our horrible tented accommodation in Pang. I got out to look at the toilets and immediately averted my eyes! First of all, I had trouble deciding where exactly the toilet was. The pungent smell my nose detected seemed to come from pretty much everywhere! Pieces of feces lay strewn around like landmines beyond a distance which was hardly a stone’s throw away. I decided that my own excreta was best contained within the confines of my intestines. Hannes proudly announced that he had gotten a nice one out the previous day on the mountains just before we got into Pang. Anyway, we got back on the bikes, happily left Pang, and it was then one relatively fast ride into More Plains, a 50km stretch of flat roads in the high altitude plains. We then hit another high altitude pass called Tanglang La pass at 5353m. Stunning. There was a temple there but I didn’t have enough energy to remove my shoes and go in, so I skipped going inside
  2. after Tanglang La pass, there was a meandering road that took us to Rumtse (4300m). Then we hit Upshi after another 50km of riding. The roads all the way from Pang were very good
  3. riding into Leh from Upshi was such a pleasure! There was a river hugging the winding road and I managed to hit 90kmh on the Enfield on many occasions
  4. upon reaching Leh, we found good accommodation in a hotel called Grand Willow (finally had access to a good toilet again!) After checking in, showering and getting rid of intestinal waste, we walked around to try and get permits done to visit Nubra Valley and Panagong Lake. (Since these places are close to border regions, one needs to get permits). Getting permits for Hannes seemed like a struggle initially. Apparently, non Indians can only get permits if there is at least two of them traveling together! I am not sure what a solo non Indian traveler would do! Anyway, some money and a travel agent up the road solved this problem for us by combining Hannes’ permit with some other non Indians. It was funny to see that they wrote down that Hannes was from “Swaziland” and not Switzerland in the permit!
The Moray plains

The Moray plains

Tanglang La pass (5300m). Couldn't go into the temple here

Tanglang La pass (5300m). Couldn’t go into the temple here

On the way to Leh

On the way to Leh

This is in the outskirts of Leh

This is in the outskirts of Leh

Our hotel put on a cultural show in Leh

Our hotel put on a cultural show in Leh

Not sure what these two gentlemen are laughing at

Not sure what these two gentlemen are laughing at

2015-07-18, Leh to Pangong Lake (aborted Nubra Valley attempt)

  1. armed with permits, we set off for Nubra Valley at 7am. However, around 10km into the journey, we were stopped by some local punks who insisted that we could only go to Kardung La (we had to cross this 5400m pass to get to Nubra Valkey) on Jammu and Kashmir rented bikes, not Manali rented bikes. Hannes unleashed a slew of verbal abuse at the guy which made him get on the phone to his boss. (For a couple of minutes, I thought Hannes was going to get himself killed!) However, the punks won and although illegal, they managed to turn us around
  2. after having been turned around, we decided to attempt Pangong Lake, although we felt we would be turned around there too by the punks there. As we were riding, at some point during the initial ride to Pangong lake, some local punks shouted at us and asked us to stop but we continued on regardless. After several hours of hardcore biking and several stream crossings which rendered by feet numb, we reached Chang La (5378m). As usual, there was a temple there but I couldn’t summon the energy to take my shoes off in that altitude for a quick note of thanks to God!
  3. the ride into Pangong Lake wasn’t easy. Although it was only around 50km from Chang La pass, the road was super busy and we had to cross many more mini streams. There was also some occasional desert like surface, and a lot of bouldery bits which proved to be a bit of a challenge for me on the bike. Hannes seemed to have no problems and even gave his beloved Enfield a pet name, “Black Beauty”. The desert like surface sent my bike and I dancing dangerously on many occasions
  4. eventually, we reached the beautiful Pangong lake after several hours of riding and found ourselves a nice warm Swiss style hut with a proper toilet. Upon Hannes’ insistence, we took a cold shower (my butt froze)
  5. it took me a while to get myself warmed up again as I had wet feet from not wearing proper biking boots. I was wearing Gorerex running shoes and all the streams en route were no match for these shoes. I was thinking of ways to make some makeshift poncho-boots for the next day’s ride to avoid getting frozen feet again!

PS. The irony of the day was that no one had asked us for our permits! All that time we spent getting a Swaziland permit for Hannes was unnecessary!

Chang La pass - on the way to Pangong Lake

Chang La pass – on the way to Pangong Lake

On the way to Pangong Lake - a wild yak

On the way to Pangong Lake – a wild yak

Pangong Lake - where 3 Idiots was shot. There is a Rancho Cafe there

Pangong Lake – where 3 Idiots was shot. There is a Rancho Cafe there

Our Swiss style hut in Pangong Lake

Our Swiss style hut in Pangong Lake

The hut even had a couch

The hut even had a couch

Three quarters of this lake is in Tibet and 1 quarter in India

Three quarters of this lake is in Tibet and 1 quarter in India

 

2015-07-19, Pangong Lake to Nubra Valley via a challenging shortcut!

  1. we decided to take a shortcut to Nubra Valley from Pangong Lake. The shortcut was questionable as the road conditions were unknown but it promised to save us around 50km of riding as we would directly end up at Nubra Valley instead of going through Leh again
  2. the “shortcut” started off with a stream though which half the bike got submerged. Again, hero Hannes somehow managed to cross the stream without killing his engine. My bike stalled. I waited for Prashant and Hannes to rescue me. My feet got totally wet. It took me a while to get the engine going again. Then I met two army guys who told me that the road ahead was extremely bad and that it would be wise to turn back to avoid punctures. We dismissed his suggestion and rode on
  3. at some point, the “road” was non existent. Each boulder I guided the bike over felt like the next sureshot setting for a fall. And, fall I did. Two times. First one was in a stream where I misjudged the size of the boulder. Luckily, it was a minor fall. The bike was still standing although my right mirror broke. What I found harder was to gather myself and recover in the high altitude conditions after each fall!
  4. I have to say – the shortcut was beautiful no doubt but to admire the beauty was a challenge, especially when I felt like I was losing control of the bike. On serval occasions, it felt like I was on a camel, not an Enfield. Fortunately, the bike behaved and it seemed like we were somehow going to make it to Nubra Valley but just a mere 5km from Nubra, we had our first major unstoppable force of nature greeting us. A part of the road was blown away by a recent Made by Nature stream and the resulting deluge meant only two things (1) stay there and wait for the army guys to clear the stream (2) ride back!!! I definitely didn’t want to go back. No way in hell was I going to go through those boulder roads again (I had just narrowly escaped falling down more times than I could recall!) Staying there was a questionable idea as well as there was no guarantee of a foreseeable fix. The army guys couldn’t divert the stream channel as some sacred tree was in the way. So, we improvised on (2) and decided to get to Leh via a “Wari La” pass. Some random truck driver told us that the road condition to Wari La pass was “ok”
  5. I was expecting a puny 4300m pass but Wari La turned out to be the mother of all passes. At 5300m in altitude, it was snowing on top, there was ice on the road and quite some streams were pretty hard to negotiate. My hands were frozen. The views were simply superb but only when admired in hindsight! I saw two gigantic vultures but didn’t have the energy to get my camera out! Hannes managed to get some pictures of them
  6. we lost daylight and had to ride back into Leh in the dark. I was blinded by the powerful headlights of oncoming traffic in the night but it was manageable
  7. we reached Leh at 9pm and covered roughly 254km in one day and went over a 5300m pass where it was snowing! Quite a “shortcut”. We were finally back in Room 403 of Grand Willow hotel in Leh
On the way to Nubra Valley

On the way to Nubra Valley

Some of the road junctions were impossible to cross

Some of the road junctions were impossible to cross

We were stuck here! No way we could cross this stream

We were stuck here! No way we could cross this stream

Deciding on Wari La Pass while perched on this log

Deciding on Wari La Pass while perched on this log

More streams to cross

More streams to cross

A marmut

A marmut

 

Vulture on the way to Wari La Pass

Vulture on the way to Wari La Pass

It was snowing on Wari La

It was snowing on Wari La

My hands were frozen. Wari La was at 5300m above sea level

My hands were frozen. Wari La was at 5300m above sea level

2015-07-20, Leh (rest day)

  1. today being our well deserved rest day, we got up late and went on a leisurely walk to a donkey sanctuary. Some kind person set up a place for old and injured donkeys where they could spend the last few years of their lives in comfort instead of letting them die a painful death outside
  2. we then visited a rock museum which was quite impressive. I had no idea that Ladhakh was home to so many precious minerals
  3. the evening was spent watching a movie about Ladhakh. Quite a good introduction to Buddhism and the beauty of Ladhakh. Did you know that Ladakh comes from the Tibetan word “La Dags” which means Land of Passes? After the movie, I went to the market to buy rubber boots. My goretex running shoes were no match for the intense stream crossings!

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Leh Market place

Leh Market place

Downtown Leh

Downtown Leh

Leh Marathon! Will do this someday!

Leh Marathon! Will do this someday!

2015-07-21, Leh to Manali (first attempt)
1) the plan was to get up at 6am and head back towards Manali. We did that and left at 7am. I learned that the trouser goes over my newly purchased rubber boots, not under. My boots got wet as I rode the bike through a deep puddle of water. We reached Upshi (50km from Leh) at around 9am when Murphy’s law (what can go wrong will go wrong) greeted us

2) the guy at the checkpoint told us that “Brandy” bridge near Sarchu has been washed away by the torrential downpours the day before. Hence the road was closed. We needed to turn back. We still waited. And waited. Many other bikers and cars were stopped and given similar news. What followed then was a melee of mixed messages. Some guy said that the road would open at 1pm and another guy insisted it would take three days for a new bridge to be put in place. Messages were as confusing as they were ample. Everyone had supposedly heard something. We turned back towards Leh at 1pm after being told by the police guy at the checkpoint that “there was absolutely no point in waiting”

3) having lost our backup day and without any signs of anything improving, we decided to explore buying our way out of the situation. Meaning, we had to book expensive flights out of Leh and pay our bike rental guy many more thousands to get the bikes back to Manali on trucks. We reached the airport at 3pm or so to explore buying tickets but only to discover that it was closed (all planes fly in the morning only). Murphy’s law struck again as Prashant’s bike stopped working. We then split up. We used the remaining two bikes to get to the local mechanic. The mechanic went back with Prashant to the airport to fix his bike while Hannes and I went to the sole travel agent in Leh with a working internet connection to inquire about flight prices. It was INR 25k for a fight to Delhi!

4) after lunch, we asked several more people (police headquarters, Manali taxi stand) about the road condition and eventually, there seemed to be some sort of consensus on the latest news, which was that small vehicles were now being allowed to go through!

5) with this newfound information, we decided to leave at 5.30am the next day to attempt to get to Manali one last time before considering the expensive flying option. To add to the confusion of the route being open, we had another fresh problem to deal with. Apparently, Leh was going to be on strike the next day from 6am to 8pm. No vehicles were to be allowed on the road during this time. To tiptoe around the Leh lockdown, our plan was this: we would leave at 5.30am the following day and reach Upshi by 6.30am. If the road to Manali would be open, we’d take it. If not, we would hang out outside Leh, wait for the lockdown to end, somehow book flight tickets in the interim and come back into Leh after 8pm to try and make a Thursday/Friday morning flight!

6) nature, strikes, breakdowns… We had seen it all in one day! Getting out of our room 403 at Grand Willow hotel was a challenge!

We had a hard time leaving this place

We had a hard time leaving this place

We visited the Leh Palace in the afternoon

We visited the Leh Palace in the afternoon

The old Leh palace

The old Leh palace

The Gongpa

The Gongpa

2015-07-22, Leh to Manali (second attempt)

  1. We got up not at 5.30am but even sooner, at 4.30am ready to take on the 450km ride to Manali. We said another sly goodbye to the hotel room and hoped we wouldn’t see it again anytime soon
  2. Less than 25 minutes into the ride which started at 5.20am, we saw many bikers signaling us to turn around. We eventually figured out that the guys who were striking had created a road block up ahead. No vehicle could leave Leh! It was not even 6am (the supposed beginning of the lockdown) but the striking hooligans seemed to have gotten themselves an unfair early start. About turn. Hello again Room Number 403 in Grand Willow Hotel. Looks like we’ve met before! Time: 6.15am.
  3. We had lost our contingency day and one day of our actual journey to Manali! Now, we had to do the ride to Manali in a mere two days to make our Hong Kong flight in time. And, that didn’t allow any room for error at all. A breakdown, a fall, more road blocks and we would get stuck in India! Our flight out to HK was on Saturday night and we still had to get to Delhi from Manali
  4. we thought up a series of plans. Plan B, Plan C, Plan D, etc, etc. We again opted to buy our way out of the problem by purchasing air tickets to Delhi and paying the bike guy to send someone to Leh who could take the bikes back. New challenge: there were no flights available until the week after! Our only other solution was to ride back to Manali in two days. No room for error
  5. In order to while away time, we visited Leh Palace in the afternoon
  6. Thanks to the strike, we had one less day to return to Manali

Target: Time: Two days. Distance to cover: 450km

2015-07-23, Leh to Manali (third attempt)

  1. Get up time was 0330. Departure time 0400. We were ready to kick some serious butt today. Two days of intense riding through to Manali to get us the heck out of Leh! Thirty minutes into our cold and damp morning ride, I almost got caught in a muddy section of the road and my front wheel got ensnared. I was revving my engine real hard and real loud at 0430 to extricate myself and my bike from this newly formed slush. Prashant did a dance tune on the slush while Hannes almost ran into a cow!
  2. the day seemed fine and we were all ready to do around 200-something km on the bike. We reached Upshi with bated breath and were quite surprised to see a bunch of Enfields waiting before us! They managed to get up even before 3.30! One of them told us that she had gotten up at 2am in the anticipation of a long day ahead! BUT… Nature had its final say! There are two ways out of Leh. One of them got hit by a landslide (road via Tso Moriri) and the other one had a section of the road swept away! (Road via Rumtse – the way we came). Meaning, we were once again (for the third time) stuck in Leh! The Tso Moriri route might have not been an option to begin with as it was 170km longer. Not something we could do in two days anyway!
  3. three days, three attempts. Three failures. Stuck in Leh. Stuck in Leh. Stuck in Leh. We had to come up with a Plan D to get us out of Leh and in time for our Hong Kong flights. We didn’t sit at Umshi waiting for the roads to get fixed (as we did two days back!) Instead, we rode to the airport to check for available flight tickets out of Leh. None was available. We then went back to our usual hotel where the staff once again greeted us with a smirk on their faces. “Never has someone been unsuccessful so many times”, said the hotel guy. It didn’t make us feel better. What did make us feel better was the news that Ladakh was experiencing a “cloud burst” which only happens once in about 5 years. At least, we weren’t carrying any jinx. It was not our rotten luck but it was Leh and the unique weather that was to blame for our inability to escape from our beloved hotel room!
  4. after showering and “downloading” at Room 403 of Grand Willow hotel, we went to a travel agent hoping for last minute cancelations. Finally, Lady Luck smiled at us and we got three tickets out of Leh for the next day at an exorbitant price of INR 24,000 each ticket. The price of freedom!
  5. we negotiated with our bike rental guy to send someone over to our hotel to pick up the bikes. Then we went for our final joy ride on the bike to a place called Nimmu on the national highway #1. We saw the Indus Valley river and a hill called Magnetic Hill which is somehow supposed to pull vehicles upwards against gravity, towards its peak. It seemed like a bunch of baloney
  6. we came to know later on that the landslide on the Tso Moriri route wasn’t fixed until about the evening. So, waiting at Rumtse would have been a waste of time as we would have been out of time anyway. We had made a good decision by choosing to return quickly upon discovering that the roads were closed. That way, we at least got the last few seats on the plane to Delhi the following day
  7.  we concluded what seemed like our final day in Leh (this time for real) with some sumptuous dinner in celebration of our bike ride into Leh and our three attempted rides back! Hannes added that “if I come back to this hotel room tomorrow, I will hang myself”
On the way to Village Nimmu

On the way to Village Nimmu

Indus Ruver

The Indus River

The Indus River

This river runs from Tibet to Pakistan via India

This river runs from Tibet to Pakistan via India

2015-07-24, Leh to Hong Kong, via Delhi

  1. we got up at 4.30am to catch our 7am fight out to Delhi. Hannes asked if he should leave some luggage behind just in case. We had come back 3 times in the past 3 days anyway. Would we really be able to leave Leh?
  2. I wanted to get the pilot to do a low flying pass over Upshi. If we could see both roads to Manali open, we could always parachute down to ride the bikes back to Manali
  3. all the three of us said goodbye to Room 403 at Grand Willow hotel and hoped that the plane wouldn’t get canceled! If the roads can shut two times in two days and if a strike can stop us on the third day, then a plane cancelation isn’t really far off the realm of imagination
  4. the sky was clear blue outside and the day was perfect! It probably was a good day for riding but … it was also one for flying! We were ready to fly home!
  5. we reached Delhi without incident at 8am and said bye to Prashant. Hannes and I flew out to Hong Kong in the night
Goodbye Leh, for real!

Goodbye Leh, for real!

I almost thought we wouldn't be able to leave Leh

I almost thought we wouldn’t be able to leave Leh

A nice statue of the sun in Delhi airport

A nice statue of the sun in Delhi airport

Summary:

Snow capped mountains, lakes, desert like landscape, ice, snow, high altitude passes… we had seen it all by riding 1255km around Ladakh on Royal Enfields. We’d also seen man made pollution, landslides, experienced plans being forced to change due to nature’s intervention and plans being disrupted due to man made strikes.

This trip has definitely had the hallmark of yet another kick ass adventure in our beautiful Planet Earth. The more I travel and immerse myself in the beauty of nature, the more captivated I become with what our planet has to offer! I will miss my Royal Enfield. And, next time, I think we should avoid biking in Ladakh during the July monsoons!

Thanks to Hannes for the photographs.

Julley. (That’s some kind of greeting in Ladakhi).

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Motorbiking in Chiangmai (and drinking plenty of coconut water) – April 2015

Photos are here.

A 4-day window of public holidays in April could mean only one thing. Actually, wait. It could mean two things: (1) Run around in the hills of Hong Kong (2) Take a plane to wherever and explore the beauty of this “wherever” place.

Well, that “wherever” place in April 2015 happened to be Chiangmai, in Northern Thailand.

My Kiwi travel companion Brendan, thanks to the perks of being a teacher, was already in Thailand about a week ahead of me. Given both of us are rather easy going and couldn’t be bothered to do much of research, we had originally settled on a touristy style 4-day itinerary with a tour group. Something like spend-the-evening-in-an-exotic-village on the first day, visit-an-elephant-camp the next day, and so on – you get the picture. Of course, an obligatory elephant ride was also very much on the cards. These activities all sounded good but the “tour group” part was a bit of a dampener, because deep down inside, neither Brendan nor I, is a big fan of something that is too touristy. So, given Brendan’s teaching perks and the extra week he was spending in Thailand, he decided to do a bit of research on motorbiking around Chiangmai, all the way to the border of Burma. Now, that got me excited. As much as I love elephants and “an exotic village”, some boilerplate Tour #1 isn’t as fulfilling as a motorbike ride around Thailand, soaking in the scenic beauty of the picturesque landscape and feeling the gush of the mountain air.

Brendan’s research revealed this:

“The roads around Chiang Mai are some of the most scenic in the country.

One of the best known is the Mae Hong Son Loop, a 600-kilometer journey that starts from Chiang Mai, and, traveling counterclockwise, passes through Pai, Mae Hong Son and Mae Sariang before returning to the starting point.

Driving yourself is the best way to do this multiday excursion — car and motorbike rental shops are found all over the city — allowing you to stop to admire the mountainous landscape, visit small villages and swim beneath waterfalls.”

Now, we’re talkin’.

April 2nd, 2015
I landed at Chiangmai airport and quickly zipped through the immigration queue (thanks to the APEC card). I grabbed a shared taxi from the airport to Spicy Thai backpackers (my intended humble abode for the night).

I met Brendan there who looked a tad tired but was still in high spirits. He was talking to a tall tourist. Judging by the length of that guy’s beard, it looked to me like he must have been spending quite some time on the move.

Air Asia doesn’t lose an opportunity to make money – advertisements on the overhead compartment

Our first stop was Tony’s Big Bike shop and Brendan revealed his true personality by showing off the girly bicycle he had rented. (It even had a little flower basket). I naturally made fun of him and told him that I didn’t buy his “this was the only bike available” excuse. The joke was on me though because after lunch at the equivalent of a Thai Cha Changeng, I had to sit behind that girly bike and ride with Brendan all the way to Tony’s Big Bike shop. What a debut! Two dudes on a girly bicycle setting off to rent big motorbikes from a Big Bike shop!

Brendan and his girly bike

Lunch at Thai Cha Chanteng

The owner was too busy smoking his cigarette so luckily, he didn’t notice our grand not-so-macho entry.

After some negotiation, we were the proud renters of two motorbikes. A Honda 250cc for me and (the next morning) a semi-automatic bike for Brendan who was making his debut on his first road trip.

We then headed for a monastery on top of a hill. I called the place “The Stoop” but it was really called Doi Suthep. It was a Buddhist monastery which had this calming and serene feeling to it. Feeling there and listening to the chants felt as though time was slowing down.

Doi Suthep monastery – a very serene atmosphere

The Buddhist temples are remarkably similar to Indian temples

You can donate to any cause you choose — quote innovative instead of having a one-size-fits-all donation box

There was a “Phuping place” sign everywhere. Wonder what that means. Place to poop?

I also started my coconut drinking spree after our visit to Dui Suthep. As legend would have it, by the end of our little adventure in Chiangmai, I would have gone through around 20 coconuts in 4 days! And, not to forget Thai street food. Very cheap. I ate so much that for the first time among all of my little getaways, my eating expenses exceeded my accommodation expenses!

To conclude the day’s affairs, Brendan went for a little test ride on the 250cc Honda and had his very first minor accident as he fell off the bike while trying to turn without putting his foot down.

Our guesthouse – Khaosung in Chiangmai

April 3rd, 2015
It was time to begin the 600km Mae Hong Song loop under scorching weather.

Riding around 40kms away from Chiangmai, we took a little detour from the Mae Hong Song loop and reached Mae Tang National Park. I thought one could enter these parks for free but being “foreigners”, we were charged 300 bucks each. (Had I learnt the two Thai words that I know now, we may have passed off as locals.)

Getting ready to ride 600kms

Our loyal vehicles

Mae Tang National Park

The first stop within Mae Tang National Park was a very interesting geographical formation called “Pha Chor”. I found it rather hard to believe that it was all natural formed. The symmetry was stunning. Brendan put his photography skills to good use by looking for “a natural frame”. He used other cool phrases which I don’t remember now. But, I blame any rubbish pictures that I’ve taken on my camera, not my knowledge of photography or lack of thereof.

Pha Chor — These are natural geographical formations, not an old construction

Brendan admiring the formation

Anyway, after Pha Chor-ing, we headed for yet another National Park called Doi Inthanon National Park. We were greeted with the usual “300 bucks foreigner fee” but two magic words meant we could go in for free. No, not “pretty please” or “thank you” but “Mae Chaem”. Allow me to explain. Doi Inthanon has two entry points and two exit points. One is near Chiangmai and the other is near a place called Mae Chaem. So, for some reason, if one were to enter at Chiangmai and exit at Mae Charm, it’s free! All you have to tell the lady at the check point is that you are headed towards Mae Chaem. There’s a 300 buck saving tip.

10 coconuts a day, keeps the doctor away

So, what’s in Doi Inthanon National Park? Three things mainly: waterfalls, the highest point in Thailand (the Doi Inthanon summit at 25xx meters) and some cool treks. By the way, on the subject of treks and air quality, I have to mention this – around Easter, the farmers burn a lot of rice fields so there is this prevailing smog in the air in Chiangmai. The air tends to clear up following rains in late April. So, if you’re traveling to Chiagmai in the first week of April to benefit from the public Easter holidays, don’t expect sunshine and crystal clear skies. Well, you will get sunshine but not crystal clear skies!

Doi Inthanon National Park

Wachirathan Waterfalls

You can feel the water splashing past you!

We went for a little trail run by the summit when all of a sudden a lady appeared and pointed towards a document that read “going without a guide is dangerous”. She, of course, wanted 200 bucks to escort us to safety. Given we had saved 300 bucks in entrance fees, we paid this 200 but disappeared into the wilderness before she could catch up with us.

Going on a trail run

The sub-alpine meadow starts at a much higher elevation here

There were many zen moments on this little trail run.

Words of wisdom: The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even heard. They must be felt from the heart

This tree has to learnt to survive without leaves as it very windy up here

The trail


Listen to nature’s voice.

Be still, be quiet, close your eyes and listen to the sounds of the forest. Listen to the sounds of the falling leaves, the restless wind, the swaying branches, the trickling stream, sweet chirping of birds, humming of insects’ delicate wings. Not the variety, subtlety and complexity of the forest symphony. Immerse, absorb and enjoy.

Brendan experiencing a moment of serenity

There was a guest book at the end of the trail and I wrote “Thailand Rocks!” and drew a nice smiley face next to it. I then passed the pen to Brendan who was beside me. Enlightened by the newfound serenity in the forest, Brendan added his little poetic touch to their guest book.

“The restless mind is harnessed in the symphony of the forest. Lonely, wandering, tortured souls are brought peace” – Brendan Lee

(I would have written something more deep than “Thailand Rocks” had I known he was going to write something as beautiful as that!)

After the trail run, we headed towards the summit Doi Inthanon.

The highest spot in Thailand – it was about 15 degrees over here and 33 degrees centigrade at ground level

After our adventure in Doi Inthanon National Park, we descended down scenic, windy roads into Mae Chaem.

We searched for a guesthouse and a very friendly lady pointed us in the right direction. She also invited us to her coffee shop. We politely declined and continued to search for the guesthouse.

Eventually, we found one by the back alley of the town. We had one big bed in a super hot room with one rather noisy fan. Hmm… “could have been worse” is what I was thinking, but then it did get worse! (Murphy’s law!) The toilet was located in mosquito land and had lizards and cockroaches for guests! Well, not a deal breaker. I knew I could “hold it in”. (After all, I did survive almost a week in Xin Jiang simply by “holding it in”). The “shower area” was also… let’s say “interesting”. It was essentially a shower (which I was grateful for) in an outdoor area. In place of a tiled or a concrete floor, there were rubbles. Anyway, no biggie.

Mosquitoes and lizards were omnipresent and occasionally a leaf would fall from high above, giving this bathroom setting a sort of eerie feel to it. And, taking a few more steps from the designated shower area would mean that you would come under plain view of the residents in the upper storey. So, before I could go in for a shower, I carefully admired the lizards in the backdrop and switched the light off. My thinking was that in case a lizard were to jump on me, I would leapfrog to my right but would still maintain my manly dignity as the residents upstairs wouldn’t be able to see me in the dark. Thankfully, I did survive my shower and happily reatined my dignity, although a falling leaf from up above in the darkness got me a little uneasy. Bold Brendan claimed that he had “nothing to hide” and went for his “shower” but he almost banged his head against the thatched roof above as he couldn’t quite see in the dark! (I didn’t tell him that I had switched off the light and given the primitive state of the “shower”, I don’t think he was expecting a light there).

A nice drawing welcomes us to the guesthouse at Mae Chaem

Interesting washbasin

This is the shower area. Home to the person taking the shower and also home to cockroaches, mossies and lizards. In plain view of the residents above

The toilet. The washbasin was home to several dozen red ants. The toilet was home to mossies and cousins (flies/lizards/roaches)

April 4th, 2015

Motorbike loses “motor”
In my growing enthusiasm to say goodbye to that questionable shower and toilet, I got up early, took my “goodbye” photos of the shower and toilet and waved a bigger goodbye to the guesthouse as I sat on the motorbike. And then, Murphy’s law struck like a hardened hammer on a fragile nail.

I inserted the key into the motorbike’s ignition, turned it to ‘On’ position and nothing. Nada. Zilch. The motorbike seemed as dead as a fish out of water. This situation called for superb mental state management, not just because I had no idea how to fix the bike, but because I also had to get back into the very guesthouse that I had so enthusiastically just said goodbye to!

Biting the bullet, I had a déjà vu as I went back into the guesthouse to deposit my rucksack, then Brendan and I got on his bike to see if we could find someone in town to come and fix mine. That didn’t go so well. One guy we met who looked like he could fix stuff couldn’t understand a word of English. Sign language – too complicated. Time – 6.45am when everything was mostly shut.

As the odds were against us, the lady who invited us for coffee the previous day suddenly showed up. She spoke good English and suggested that we go to her brother’s house – her brother was a mechanic of sorts. She came with us on her bike, introduced us to her brother, who in turn, came with us to inspect my broken down bike. He then announced that he had to take my bike to his home garage to take a closer look. How would you move a broken down bike? Perhaps in Hong Kong on a truck, but in Chiangmai, Chaem’s brother pulled a little James Bond style trick. He asked me to sit on my bike, he then briefly disappeared and then reappeared on my rear view mirror. He was riding his scooter using his left hand and his right hand pushed against the back of my bike and all of a sudden, I was “riding” my bike. Defunct engine, but mobile! It worked like a charm. At one point, it seemed like we could do the entire Mae Hong Song loop that way!

As Chaem’s talented brother got to work on my broken down bike, Brendan and I started talking to Chaem to learn more about her. What a kind person she was! Not only did she come in at the right time to find a solution to my broken down bike, she also invited us to have a free coffee tasting session at her shop once the bike was fixed. She was one of those inviduals who you meet and never forget. Kind, selfless and giving. Our conversation with Chaem was interrupted as my bike suddenly sputtered to life in the background. Chaem’s brother had somehow fixed it! What a relief that was.

We went back to our guesthouse to pick up my rucksack but this time, I refrained from expressing enthusiastic goodbyes to ward off any more surprises or unintended manifestations of Murphy’s law. I inserted the key into the motorbike’s ignition, switched it to ‘On’ position and heaved another big sigh of relief to see the LCD dashboard spring to life. We then took up Chaem on her coffee offer. I’ve never felt so welcome in a shop before! Her caring attitude towards people and life was enlightening.

Chaem’s brother fixes my motorbike

Chaem’s coffee shop

Our group photo

Brendan comes of “biking” age
We exchanged goodbyes with Chaem and set off on our way from Mae Chaem to Mae Hong Song.

Makeshift petrol station

We asked a couple of people here and there for directions and eventually hit a dirt road. The road had many steep turns and there was a lot of lose gravel on it. During one such sharp bend on the road, I saw Brendan making the sharp left turn, then came a loud noise of chassis hitting hard ground and the engine sputtering to a stop.

Panic surged through me. My mind was racing with thoughts like the traffic on a busy highway. I quickly parked my bike and ran up to Brendan and saw him groaning with pain, trapped under his bike. His leg was stuck under the weight of the chassis. I feared the worst and tried to calm my mind down before considering my next moves. I lifted his bike freeing his leg from underneath the chassis, then I pushed the bike to the side of the road, parked it there and went back to Brendan to see him still lying down on the road in agony. I helped him get up, made him sit by the side of the road and did a quick check on him. He was bleeding but, fortunately, all his wounds were superficial. Phew! I can’t even recall the last time I felt that relieved. The motorbike fix in the morning didn’t even come close.

Knowing that Brendan was fine, I forced him to smile and declared that he had finally come of “biking” age. I told him that every biker at some stage of his life, has probably fallen of the bike and learnt a lesson. This first fall is crucial to becoming a pro biker. And, what was Brendan’s lesson? Never take a sharp bend on the road on the third gear. Important lesson.

Bleeding but smiling Brendan. It was very scary to see him lying down in pain!

An off-road adventure leads to more falls
Falling of the bike became the norm as we somehow ended up motorbiking on a never-ending off-road trail which really isn’t meant for motorbiking. It all started when we asked two kids for directions to Mae Hong Song. They accompanied us on their own bikes for about a kilometer and then disappeared. I was pretty sure that they had sent the two of us into unchartered territory on a wild goose chase because the “road” didn’t quite exist. Imagine riding a motorbike on Plover Cove trail in Hong Kong. This was pretty much like that! Brendan came of biking age many times! And, as for yours truly, sometimes even experienced monkeys fall from trees, or as in this case, fall from bikes. (I’m not a monkey though). We rode up what looked like steep scree slopes as our engines whined and cried. Then we held our nerves with bated breath and prepared ourselves for the dangerous ride down the other side of the slope. We were on first gear trying to delicately balance the bike by avoiding the lose gravel and large stones on the slippery surface made of loose rocks. Tightrope walking must have been easier. In fact, I can sum up our experience in this tailor-made version of Police’s song.

Every slope you take
Every move you make
Every time you brake
Every fall you take
I’ll be watching you…

At one point, I decided to turn data roaming on on my phone to figure out where we were on the map. Alas! Despite my rare and desperate move to pay ridiculous roaming charges, there was no signal. And then, history repeated itself. Brendan fell. I fell. And our version of the song from Police.

Every slope you take
Every move you make
Every time you brake
Every fall you take
I’ll be watching you…

I’ve got to say this though – neither Brendan nor I complained despite the predicament we found ourselves in. We were both looking for a solution to the problem and willing to weather any storm, or in this case, any slope. Ok, fine. You got me. Maybe I complained a little bit. But, Brendan didn’t!

These slopes got harder and harder and never seemed to end

Brendan trying to calm himself down following more falls

The Gods of mercy finally smiled upon us after we had just barely survived yet another grueling rubble slope. We saw a village and more importantly, the dirt road that lead us out of there. After what we had been through, looking at dirt road instead of something like a scree slope felt like a big treat to the eyes. That dirt road eventually lead us to a proper Tarmac road. I would have almost kissed it.

We finally extricated ourselves out of the off-road mess!

We then rode up to the first store we could find to fix Brendan’s injuries. As we applied Hydrogen Peroxide on his leg injuries, he let out a shriek much to the amusement of the two kids in the store who lovingly fanned some air onto his legs to alleviate his pain.

Brendan gets his leg injuries fixed

The day’s adventure finally ended once we reached Mae Hong Song. And, as always, I went on my coconut water drinking spree. The day’s affairs meant at least 5 coconuts to recover.

And, by the way, I asked Brendan if he’d do by himself what we did on the bike today if someone were to give him USD 10M for it. “No”, came the unequivocal response but being the kind guy he is, he did say that he’d give it a go if doing it would mean that he could solve one of the world’s biggest problems.

By the lake in Mae Hong Song

April 5th, 2015
Thanks to the intense off-road adventure from the day before, I made sure that we knew exactly where we were going today. No scree slopes. No off-road adventure. Just road biking!

The day naturally started with coconut water plus street food

We rode all the way to a Chinese-style village by the border between Thailand and Burma, while temporarily joining a parade en route.

We participated in this parade briefly

Ban Rak Tai – A Chinese village by the border of Thailand and Burma

The border between Thailand and Burma

Brendan is in Thailand and I am in Burma

Brendan is in Burma and I am in Thailand

Apparently, there were trenches on both sides and quite of lot of soldiers had died there during the wars from the past. We asked the soldier on the Thai side if we could take a couple of pictures in the No Man’s land between Thailand and Burma. He let us. I was extra polite with him as has had a huge M16 by his side!

The soldier guarding the border

After bidding goodbye to Burma, we rode to a “Fish Cave” on the way to our destination for the day, Pai.

The Fish Cave – hmm, Brendan seemed to enjoy feeding the fish some insects! Basically, it was a puddle of water with some large fish in it! The glorified title “Fish Cave” is a bit of an exaggeration. The only eventful thing happened here when I accidentally dropped my motorbike keys into a large pond with several hundred fish in it. Luckily, the fish didn’t eat my key and even more luckily, a kind lady picked up the key for me! Had a fish eaten my key, that would have been tragic for both the fish and I!

The Fish Cave

We came all the way here to this “Fish Cave” to feed some fish in a puddle of water?

Pai seemed pretty westernized compared to the other places we had been to on the loop thus far. There was plenty of street food and the contents of a couple of more coconuts found their way to my stomach, along with some grilled corn and yam.

Welcome to the Hotel Pailifornia….

Aiya! No Hong Konger will rent a motorbike from this place!

PaiHollwood – this is where the Hollywood actors train

April 6th, 2015
No trip to Thailand can be complete without an elephant ride. These mammoth creatures are vegetarian and need to eat 250kgs a day!

We rode to Noy’s Elephant Camp for a ride on the back of a very docile elephant called Mai. Brendan helped out the elephant by swatting a mosquito on its back.

our elephant Mai

This is how you board an elephant

Feeling quite powerless on top of an elephant

This is what the elephant would see had it had a rear view mirror

To say “thank you” to the elephant, we gave him several dozen bananas. He gobbled them up almost as fast as I’d swallow coconut water on a hot day.

A dozen bananas gets eaten in 10 seconds!

The other thing to do in Thailand is of course, to swim in natural waterfalls. This was next on the agenda to conclude this 5-day adventure.

Mork-Fa Waterfalls – on the way from Pai to Chiangmai

And, once we reached Chianmai, the final onslaught of eating came in the form of noodles, veggie rice, ice creams, veggie snacks, coconut water and more coconut water. In fact, we had worked out that we could drink 17 coconuts on the 500 Bahts that I had remaining.

No trip to Thailand is complete without a tuk tuk ride

To justify this much eating, Brendan suggested that we do some exercise in the park to get rid of all the accumulating fat. And, that’s exactly what we did. About 5km of running interspersed with exercises in between. I thought I’d have the Strava record for this run but I could only manage the second fastest time!

Anyway, that run (plus more coconut water) concluded a truly awesome, kick ass 5-day motorbiking road trip around Northern Thailand.

I will finish with a quote:

“There is a sunrise and a sunset everyday. You can choose to be there for it. You can put yourself in the way of beauty” – From the movie Wild

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Hiking, kayaking and biking in South Island, New Zealand

Hiking, kayaking and biking in South Island, New Zealand

All photos are here.

Traveling and getting away from the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong is always a relaxing experience. The small things are priceless. Things like letting random thoughts float around in the mind, observing tourists in the airports and trying to guess where they’re from and what they’ve been doing, drinking hot chocolate at every available opportunity whilst reading an insightful book and so on. All this while getting to remote places to do a lot of outdoorsy things — that’s the best part.

My choice of book for this adventure trip was “The Alchemist”. A short and insightful book that I finished reading during my layover in Kuala Lumpur. This travel blog is going to be interspersed with meaningful quotes from the book! I am going to start with this one:

“It is the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting”.

Now, over to the dream of hiking and kayaking in North Island.

13th February 2015

I boarded a plane from Melbourne to Queenstown to rendezvous with my travel crew for this NZ adventure, Dom, Adrian and Tilly. As passengers boarded the plane with a lot of carry on baggage, the overhead compartment in the plane was quite full. I was in an aisle seat and suddenly I saw a flight attendant’s foot right next to my bum. She stood on top of this little footrest beside my seat and gave the baggages in overhead compartment a big shove, so she could squeeze another bag in.

“Sorry I am getting close to you”, she said with a broad smile on her face, and continued, “making room for one more bag in the overhead compartment is the best part of my job”.

“Definitely, sounds exciting”, I replied.

On that note, here’s another quote from the book The Alchemist.

“Your eyes show the strength of your soul”.

What that has to do with the flight attendant and the overhead compartment, I don’t know. But, you’ve got to admit – it’s a pretty neat quote so I thought I’d stick it in anyway.

Reaching Queenstown immediately put me in the “I love nature” mode. Getting off the plane, breathing in the fresh mountain air, and looking at all the beautiful mountains that surrounded the runway — it was a wow moment.

Also, very cool was the fact that I got picked up by Dom at the airport in our rental car! Beats queuing up for some bus! (He got in a day before me and had picked up the car just in time to pick me up).

After checking in to Bungi Backpackers, we set off to do a short hike called the Mount Chrichton loop which took about 2 hours.

This is Dom by Lake Wakipitu

Old hut in the Mt. Chrichton Loop

Trail with full of tall trees

The day was concluded in fashionable style with a massive 20″ pizza. We couldn’t finish it so the last two slices became my breakfast for the next day.

By the way, on the subject of food, I do have to mention the name of a certain burger joint called “Fergburger” (or something similar). The queues for a mere burger seemed over an hour long! I just couldn’t believe that anyone would bother queuing up that long for a burger when there were so many other nearby places. Their marketing must be truly kick ass.

Speaking of which, this may be the right time for another The Alchemist quote.

“When someone makes a decision, he is really diving into a strong current that will carry him to places he had never dreamed of when he first made the decision”.

So, if you truly decide to have a Ferg Burger, you will find yourself in that strong current (read: queue) that will carry you to places you’ve never dreamed of when you first made the decision (read: to the front of the queue in about an hour).

14th Feb 2015

The last two pizza slices for breakfast meant one more hike before Dom and I drove down to the airport again to pick up Tilly and Adrian.

The choice of hike was Lake Dispute. Why it’s called that, ich weis nicht (that’s “I don’t know” in German — just showing off the few words of German that I know).

Lake Dispute – check out my pro camera angle with the beautiful flowers in the foreground

Super big mushroom – you find them in the Alps too

Super thick spider web. I hear you can use them to make bullet proof vests

After Lake Dispute, we greeted Tilly at the Airport Arrivals. Tilly looked tired and seemed to have several bite marks on her hands and legs. (The culprit was something called a sandfly – more on that evil creature later). She had done a 100km race the week before and spent about two days in the North Island wilderness which was the reason for her sandfly decorated hands and legs. Adrian came in after Tilly, looking fresh and animated, all set for a kick ass adventure in South Island, New Zealand.

Embarking on a South Island adventure

The kick ass plan

It was simple, at least in theory. We’d route march the whole of the Milford Track the following day (15th). The thing is that, conventionally, the Milford Track needs to be done in 4 days and huts need to be booked well in advance (something like 6 months in advance). We definitely didn’t do that, and, well, we felt that 4 days was really a bit of an overkill for a 53.8km track (including soaking in the nature, taking photos, etc). The track can really be run in around 7-8 hours or so on a clear summer day. Route marching it would mean 12 hours at most. During summers, the sun sets at 9pm or so which meant we had plenty of time on our hands. But there was a catch – we had to arrange transportation to and from the track. Being zillionaires in our own right, we thought we’d charter a plane from Te Anau to Glade Wharf (where the track begins) and have a boat pick us up at Sandfly Point (where the track ends). The boat would then drop us off at Milford Sound where we’d have our car parked. So, we’d leave all our unnecessary items in the car and only carry our day packs on the track. This meant that we had to drive all the way to Milford Sound (which is after Te Anau) on this day, leave the car there and hitch a ride back to Te Anau. Foolproof plan.

Which brings me to another quote from The Alchemist.

“When a person really desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person to realize his dream”.

What we desired was simple: we’d drive to Te Anau, drop the newly arrived Tilly and Adrian there so they could get some rest, then Dom and I would drive all the way to Milford Sound with all the unnecessary items in our heavy backpacks, leave the car there and hitch a ride back. The “conspiring universe” (read: Firendly Car Guy) would help us hitch a ride back to Te Anau. Simple.

On the way to Te Anau from Queenstown

Our rental car

Dom goes dolly

In order to help the conspiring universe though, Dom and I had to look attractive enough for Mr. Friendly Car Guy to give us a lift at Milford Sound. Needless to say, I look quite handsome, in fact, very handsome. The problem, of course, was Dom. So, it was decided through an important team vote that he’d dress up like a girl (which would naturally suit him better). He’d put on a Hello Kitty tee shirt, some makeup (for what it’s worth, not that it would make him look that much better), wear a skirt and some pink lipstick. I will have to admit that it wasn’t the best solution but Dolly Dom was our best bet.

Dom himself (or should I say “herself”) wasn’t fancying his/her chances of being attractive enough to hitch a ride back. When we reached Te Anau and dropped off Ad and Tilly, he went up to the Reception of our hostel and asked them what our chances were of hitching a ride back from Milford Sound. “Not impossible”, was the very diplomatic and noncommittal answer. Perhaps the receptionist didn’t believe that the Dolly Dom idea would work.

In any case, Dom and I set off for Milford Sound after dropping off Tilly and Adrian at Te Anau. It took us about 2 hours to get to Te Anau from Queenstown and the time was already 5pm. We had another 1.5 hours to get to Milford Sound and hitch a ride back.

As we were driving to Milford Sound, we saw this one lone guy on our side of the road trying to hitch a ride. Judging by his beard, it looked like he had spent quite some time in the wilderness. Dom asked me if we should stop for him. I said “yes” to boost our karma balance. After all, I read in The Alchemist that “every blessing ignored becomes a curse”. This was the Law of Karma telling us that “thou who shall give lifts, shall get them”. We picked up that bearded chap and reached Milford Sound at around 6.45pm. The drive was picturesque and the scenery was stunning. We parked the car as per plan at the Milford Sound Lodge and went back to the road to try and hitch a ride back to Te Anau.

This is the stunning Milford Sound

It was 6.53pm and Dom went into his Dolly Dom mode and lifted his tee shirt up a bit for some spicy effect. Unfortunately, the only living creature that was interested in Dom was a sandfly. Later on, one car passed by without stopping.

When hitching ride back into town, you need an attractive girl by your side. Not this guy

Another one came and the driver told us that he wasn’t going to Te Anau. Then another. Same story. Which reminded me of another quote from The Alchemist.

“Everything that happens once can never happen again. But everything that happens twice will surely happen a third time”.

Our third driver who stopped wasn’t going to Te Anau either. Given it was close to 7.45pm, the roads were empty and all we were attracting was a large congregation of hungry sandflies. It was time to beat it or get bitten. We went back to our parked car and decided to drive back to Te Anau! So much for the conspiring world and Dolly Dom.

On our way back to Te Anau, just near the spot where we had been waiting for the longest time for a ride, there stood a guy trying to hitch a ride! We offered him one. Our karma balance was high for the day and it looked like we had driven to Milford Sound and back from Te Anau just to give two guys a lift! Such is the world of karma!

Meanwhile back at the hostel in Te Anau, we had a worried Tilly and Adrian wondering why we were so late.

A concerned Adrian had in fact tried messaging us: “We are starting to get worried about you guys, is Dom’s dress not working?! Try showing more leg?”

More leg, very much like Dom’s hip region, would have just attracted even more sandflies.

After close to two hours more of driving, we were back in Te Anau and it was time to sleep!

Very useful advice in our hostel in in Te Anau

15th Feb 2015

Our brilliant Milford Sound plan was put into motion as early as 6.30am. The four of us got up and walked towards our private chartered airplane. It’s not often I get to say this so I will say it again. The four of us got up and walked towards our PRIVATE CHARTERED AIRPLANE. Ok, I am done bragging. Unfortunately, this wasn’t an Airforce One or a Gulfstream Jet where the pilot gives you a pizza and a beer as you board the plane. This was a water plane which seats only 4 and costs about NZD 140 per person for a 15-minute fight to Glade Wharf from Te Anau.

Our “Gulfstream Jet”

This is where the first class passengers sit

The flight was incredible. There’s something about taking off from water, flying over coves, lakes and trees and landing in a remote destination, again on water. It was a short flight but an exhilerating experience.

The flight

Upon reaching Glade Wharf, Adrian met what would become his best pal for the remainder of our adventure in New Zealand — sandflies. They seemed to like him so much that the fact that he had put on a generous amount of Deet (a hardcore repellent that repels pretty much any insect) was good, but still not enough. Tilly, who already looked beaten up by sandflies, was getting even more bites. So were Dom and I. We were largely bathing in Deet yet being bitten by adamant sandflies that somehow always seemed to find chinks in our Deet armour.

While Adrian was spraying himself with Deet, Tilly was brushing her teeth!

The track in itself was like a dense forest track for the first 10-15km. Mosses, ferns and lichens were omnipresent. The floor of the forest felt like a carpet of foliage. We crossed several suspension bridges and soaked in the beauty of the wilderness (minus the sandflies).

You get these amazing reflection shots in many places on the track

There are many such suspension bridges on the track

A typical forest track

We had lunch at a place called Mackennon Pass (around 1300m high and at the 30km mark) which presented beautiful views of the valley. Those scenic views from the track that you find in the Lord of the Rings movie were probably shot from here.

Near Mckennon pass

This bird is not a kia or a kiwi. It’s called a Wahi (or something like that!)

Mckennon pass

A group selfie

The four of us are also known to come up with very clever questions during a long hike, especially when we run out of food during the hike (which happened on Milford Track). Dom and I only had carrots and cheese (and some nuts) but there’s only so much cheese one can eat during a day! Adrian carried some yucky stuff he didn’t even want to eat (despite being hungry) and healthy Tilly seemed to have also run out of her healthy food too! Anyway, back to our insightful trail questions, they were:

1) if dolphins and whales are mammals, do they also produce milk? (Can you produce milk under water?)

2) is the southern most part of New Zealand still further south of Capetown?

3) the shiny minerals we saw on the stones of the track which gave it a glittering look, what were they? Quartz or granite?

The track seemed more and more similar during the last 10km and we were growing more and more hungry from lack of food. So, the topic of conversation gradually gravitated towards food, the different kinds of food, and what a hungry man would want to eat. (Anything but cheese!)

Dom’s hungry

Waterfalls near the end of the Milford Track

When we finally reached Sandfly Point, a sense of relief grew over us. I was also a bit worried (ok, very worried) about the boat guy not picking us up at Sandfly Point. That area “sandfly point” is aptly named. The sandflies are a royal pain in the bum. They bite you and make you itch so much that only the very determined can refrain themselves from scratching. Tilly wasn’t one of them. She had sandfly marks all over her arms and legs. Adrian switched to his ninja warrior clothes in an attempt to avoid them but he wasn’t the least bit spared.

As we approached the hut, Tilly was the first to spot a radio in the hut which was tuned to channel 10. Like in the movies, I picked it up and tried a “hello, hello, do you copy?” There was radio silence. I flicked through to different frequencies in an attempt to get some sort of a response. Zilch. I started scanning for other frequencies. Zilch. Then Tilly switched it back to channel 10. Adrian suggested walking outside the hut into prime sandfly territory to try and get reception. He figured that moving closer to the pier might help. I walked with the radio into sandfly territory and tried my usual “hello, hello, do you read?”

All of a sudden, like in the climax of a movie, the radio sprung to life and a voice on the other side inquired “are you the 4 runners? We will come there and pick you up”. The rest is history.

Dom and Adrian showing off our life saving radio

Tilly in the hut by Sandfly Point – all covered up and for good reason

After we got picked up by the boat and checked in into our hostel in Milford Sound, we each found that we would have liked something from our bigger rucksack which was in the car back in Te Anau. Tilly looked at my towel and flip flops with green eyes. I wanted new clothes. Dom wanted his lipstick and girly stuff while Adrian missed his electric toothbrush (?!) Which is when Tilly asked why we didn’t just drive the car back to Te Anau the day before AFTER storing our luggage in the Milford Sound hostel instead of the boot of the car. Doh! You live and you learn!

The godsend boat!

And in the evening, there was a vote for the “best part of the day”. Dom won the vote, his “best part of the day” was when the boat guy came for real to pick us up! Yup, had he not come, we would have been food for the sandflies.

Now, it’s time for a quote from The Alchemist.

“People need not fear the unknown if they are capable of achieving what they need and want.”

I still think one has to fear sandflies. Those menacing creatures are probably the devil’s creation! Had we had a full blown sandfly attack though, we’d probably have let Adrian go first as he is the most expendable out of all of us.

Speaking of which, during the night, we constantly heard the sound of a gaslighter going “click”, “click”, “click”. It turned out that Adrian had brought with him this tiny gaslighter like gizmo which sends a spark down the skin when you push the lever, temporarily shocking the nerves under the skin where the insect has bitten. It’s supposed to alleviate that itchy feeling, at least for an hour or so.

That night in the lodge, I must have heard at least a 100 clicks!

16 Feb 2015

“Sweet ass” kayaking

We got up at 6.15am for a 20km kayaking trip down to the Tasman Sea. Our guide was someone called Ricky – a very cool guide who seemed to have key expertise in geology and in using the word “sweet” every other sentence.

“You ready team?” he’d ask.

“Yes”, we answered.

“Sweet!” came the response, invariably.

And, when we said something that seemed just a touch more exciting than the standard stuff, he’d have a whole new improvised term to express his awe.

“Sweet as!”

For example:

Ricky to us: “you guys are from Hong Kong?”

Our response: “Yes, we’re marathon runners there. “

“Sweet as!”

Tilly was particularly confused with his new phrase. “Sweet as what?” she’d ask.

The kayaking itself was, well, “sweet as!” We got suited and booted with thermal tops, Goretex jackets and something called a “water skirt” which is supposed to prevent water from entering the Amaruk kayaks. The guys could, of course, give the water skirts a more masculine name, something like “water trousers”. So, Dom put on the “water skirt” while Adrian and I put on our “water trousers”.

Getting suited and booted for kayaking

Armed with skirt/trousers and heavy cold weather gear, we set off into the Milford Sound waters.

Getting set to kayak!

Tilly in the front seat of the kayak

First stop was a gigantic 300m waterfalls called Sterling waterfalls. But, before that, we crossed a relatively junior waterfalls called “Lady Bowen” falls. Mr. “Sweet as” Ricky explained the history of the two falls to us. Apparently, there were two gentlemen (Mr. Sterling and Mr. Bowen) who first discovered the two waterfalls. After that, they had a dispute among themselves to see who would name which one. It so transpired that Mr. Sterling got to name the bigger waterfalls. Mr. Bowen, who at the time had marital troubles, had the intuition to name the slightly shorter waterfalls after his wife, hence the name “Lady Bowen falls”. Ricky surmised that naming the falls after the wife put him in good stead again.

Sterling Falls

And, speaking of intuition, here’s another quote from The Alchemist.

“Intuition is really a sudden immersion of the soul into the universal current of life, where the histories of all people are connected, and we are able to know everything, because it’s all written there”.

Hmm, deep.

Anyway, going back to the kayaking, we then passed by Seal Rock where we saw, you guessed it, many seals, and what you probably did not guess is that we also saw a chamois trying to run up a mountain. Now, chamois is not pronounced “sham-o-is”, the very sophisticated French name demands that it be pronounced “sham-wah”. Why? That’s French 101 for you. The language where the way you write is most definitely not the way you read! This animal, unlike the seals, was shy and scared. It quickly disappeared into the forests.

Seal Rock

The elusive chamois

We then saw two rocks that looked like turtles that were about to kiss each other but not quite. “Their relationship is on the rocks”, said Ricky, which I am sure was followed by “sweet” somewhere in the next sentence.

After 20km of kayaking, we were in the open Tasman Sea. Looking back on Milford was spectacular.

The Tasman Sea

A boat picked us up from there (the same one that picked us up from Sandfly point) and we had a thrilling ride back to Milford Sound.

We still had to go get our car back from Te Anau, so this time, it was decided that Tilly and Dom would go while Adrian and I would stay behind. (The argument was that given Dolly Dom’s unfortunate luck with hitching rides, with Tilly by his side, they may just be able to hitch one). Adrian and I, meanwhile, enjoyed a two course meal and went plane spotting at the Milford Sound airport.

Adrian and I went plane spotting in Milford Sound

In the evening, we saw a successful Dom and Tilly who had managed to hitch a ride from an Australian couple (thanks to Tilly I am sure) and we finally had our car back with all our stuff in it, which meant we could happily shower!

And, history repeated itself during the night in the lodge. Adrian woke up several times and went “click”, “click”, “click” with his tiny mosquito-bite-numbing gaslighter machine while the rest of us used our fingernails to scratch our itchy skin which by then boasted several red spots due to sandfly bites.

More pictures of the beautiful Milford Sound

17 Feb 2015

Another “sweet as” plan

Milford track taught us two things. (1) carry enough food for the long route matches (2) taking a small plane to or from a walk is very cool. So much so that it can be categorized as a “sweet as” experience.

The plan was to do the 72km Hollyford Track in two days. We’d get to the start of Hollyford road by taking a bus from Milford Sound, walk 18km to the road end to where the track begins, start route marching until we’d reach Lake Mackerow hut, spend the night there, finish the track the next day at Martin’s Bay and take a plane back to Milford Sound. Potential hitch in the plan was a very obvious one: our pilot could be a no show if the weather turned bad. (We were having clear blue skies for the past couple of days and the forecast predicted storms). In which case, we’d be stranded in Martin’s Bay with sandflies for company!

But, as it says in The Alchemist, “Don’t give in to your fears. If you do, you won’t be able to talk to your heart. There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure”.

Alright, so we spoke to our hearts and it strongly suggested calling up our pilot to ensure that he’d definitely fly over to Martin’s Bay to pick us up.

“Hi, is this Shaun?” I asked after dialing his number from our hostel in Milford Sound (I could only use the phone in the hostel. Milford Sound has no mobile reception.)

“Yes”, he said in his Kiwi accent.

“My name is Vince. We exchanged emails a couple of days back. Four of us are going to be doing the Hollyford Track in two days and just wanted to let you know that we are confirmed to be there at 3pm tomorrow. If the weather turns bad would you still be able to pick us up?”

“Two days? The second half is much worse and that’s a lot of walking.”

“Yes, but don’t worry. We’re trained marathon runners. If the weather changes, would it still be alright for you to come pick us up?”

“I don’t see a problem there but two days for the walk is going to be tough.”

“Oh, please don’t worry about that. We will see you at 3pm tomorrow.”

Hmm, that left me wondering if we were taking on too much in two days. Our pilot, Shaun, seemed more concerned about doing the track in two days than he was about being able to pick us up in bad weather.

Anyway, as the famous Chinese saying goes, “A journey of a 1000 miles begins with one step”, our journey of 56km began with a bus ride to the start of the Hollyford road.

Group picture at the beginning of lower Hollyford Road

We started walking on dirt road while discussing the meaning of life and other philosophical matters en route, which is when we suddenly got a lift for 5km from a nice lady driving a van with many tourists in it. That shaved off about 5km from our first 17km walk to the road end, which is where the Hollyford Track begins.

The road was ominously punctuated with many signs depicting death. “Deadman creek”, “dead horse creek”, “dead valley”, etc. Reminded me of Coolio’s song, Gangster’s paradise. “As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”

And, it reminded Adrian of, well, death. He was apprehensive about our route.

There were many such ominous signs en route

We did however manage to eventually reach the beginning of the track alive and there began our long route marching through beautiful forests and windy tracks.

The plan called for us to reach Mckerrow Hut (which is a standard hut) but we wanted to get to Demon Hut (a serviced hut). Reason was simple yet powerful. Adrian, who now viewed sandflies as his only and most powerful enemy on the planet, thought that a serviced hut would somehow not have any sandflies. Dom had a better reason. He was cognizant of what the pilot had said about the second half of the trail and figured that the more distance we could cover the first day, the better.

There were many such suspension bridges in the first 15km

And many beautiful streams

And waterfalls

And gigantic trees and ferns

There were also many such wire bridges!

Adrian did have a concern about Demon Hut though. “The name is a concern”, he said in a worrying tone. “It should be called that for a reason”.

But, we never got there. We somehow got a little lost and had to cross a technical path when the time was around 8.30pm. We decided that it would be best to spend the night at Mckerrow hut.

We missed a sign somewhere near here and got lost

We saw an Irish an American couple in the hut. The hut was basic but sandfly free. After introductions, we played monopoly with everyone there and eventually tried going to sleep.

Our home for the night — Lake Mckerrow Hut

We exchanged stories and played monopoly which Adrian won

Adrian’s miniature gaslighter went “click”, “click”, “click”, as he continued his war with sandfly bites while I quickly stepped outside to look at the stars on a clear blue sky night. It was, to say the least, absolutely spectacular. The sky glittered with millions of stars which made everything and every problem of life feel distant.

Which takes me to another quote from The Alchmist.

“The darkest hour of the night comes just before the dawn”.

When it comes to star gazing, the darkest hour is the best! And, come dawn, we’d be shuffling through our backpacks, dumping all our stuff including our precious sleeping bags back in there in order to begin our route march through the supposedly difficult second half of Hollyford Track.

18th Feb 2015

0530. That was the wake up time. I felt sorry for the friendly Irish couple who were still sleeping (or trying to). The hut was a giant exercise in repacking. The plastic bags were making ruffling noises and the bunk beds were creaking with the slightest movement. By 6.15am, we were out the door.

We somehow missed this sign the previous day

Then came a trail, aptly named “Demon Trail”. Slippery, technical and mossy. Those three words should conjure up your imagination. The undulating trail was filled with creaks, wire bridges, stream crossings and huge boulders. It was a true forest track. Again, we got lucky with the weather. The supposedly impending storm never came. Otherwise, I can see how much of a nightmare it could have been to try and cross those overflowing streams.

Our friend Keith in Hong Kong, did warn us about this. “What will you do if Vince twists an ankle and can’t cross the streams?” he inquired, preparing us for contingencies. Unfortunately, Dom’s contingency plan, in case of such an event manifesting itself, didn’t bode well for me. “Simple. We’ll just leave him behind”, was his solution. Reminded me of an old proverb, “keep your friends close and your enemies closer!”

Two hours and several wire bridge crossings later, we found ourself at Demon hut. The hard technical bits were now behind us. Our new challenge was then to find a way to cross a large stream which had a pretty strong water current. I read in the guestbook back at Mckerrow hut about how trampers had to call in search and rescue after being stuck on the trail under heavy thunder and lightning. Today, we luckily had another clear day but, still, this crossing wasn’t all that easy to negotiate. The wire bridge had been swept away and we had to find the correct route after crossing the stream with wet feet. Had the impeding storm really arrived, we would have probably been in trouble. That stream crossing would have been very challenging to cross. Apparently, there was an Indonesian girl who tried crossing the stream after it had rained and got swept away.

More wire bridges

We managed to find the right route (thanks to my clever navigation abilities) and were on an easier track again which took us to the “airport” at Martin’s Bay.

The final stream crossing — looks easy, but the current was strong

Group picture at Martin’s Bay

We stopped for a minute to check out the dirt road which doubled as the runway but a new delegation of highly biteworthy sandflies got us moving to a luxurious hut at the far corner of the runway. A guy at the hut came out in an attempt that made it seem as though he was trying to prevent us from entering his classy hut (perhaps we stank too much, or maybe it was Dom). He told us that we were at the right spot for an airplane pick up but asked us to seek shelter at another tent which was on the other end of the runway.

We are walking on the runway

However, in the short conversation we had on the doorsteps of the luxurious hut, the sandflies had declared a full blown war on us. Adrian’s miniature gaslighter had no effect. We were thinking about packaging a sandfly and gifting it to our enemies (worse than killing them).

The luxurious hut which were not exactly welcome to enter

The not-so-luxurious hut where we waited until our plane arrived

We spent about an hour at the hut, took our final group photos in Martin’s Bay and emptied out all our last stash of food. A plane then swooped above us and landed at the airstrip in front of us. Excitedly, I ran out and had a déjà vu from two days back — the time I saw the small water plane that took us to Glade Wharf on the Milford Track.

Our group picture inside the hut

“I am more excited to see you than you are to see me!” exclaimed Shaun, our pilot.

He added that a lot of walkers underestimate the difficulty of Demon Trail and end up making him wait much longer than originally planned! (We didn’t dare to be late! The last thing we wanted was to get stuck in prime sandfly territory without a way out!)

A 15-minute plane ride took us back to Milford Sound. We then took much needed showers and drove straight to Wanaka (4-5 hours). As we were leaving, it started to drizzle and we heard that a thunderstorm was imminent! We got lucky with the weather!

It was a great relief to see this plane!

The first class passengers

Flying into Milford Sound was such a thrilling experience with the small plane banking hard on occasions!

And, back at Milford Sound!

I need to insert two meaningful quotes at this point. The first one is something you have heard before from The Alchemist but it’s worth repeating for two reasons (1) it’s deep and has some good meaning to it (2) I am running out of quotes.

“When a person really desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person to realize his dream” – The Alchemist.

“Wherever you go, bring your own sunshine” – not sure who said this! But, in the context of Milford Sound, it means carry your rain gear because that’s the norm in this part of the world. We somehow lucked out! The stream crossings on Hollyford would have proven too big a challenge otherwise.

We slept well in Wanaka, at least mostly well, and we could still hear Adrian and his portable gaslighter clicking every now and then!

Wanaka Time: 19th/20th Feb 2015

Wanaka – what a beautiful place! Doesn’t have the “in your face” like hustle and bustle of Queesntown and is not as deserted as Te Anau either. It’s somewhere in between. It has ample running and biking tracks and the sunrises and sunsets behind Lake Wanaka are absolutely stunning. I could see myself retiring there — except for the fact that winters will probably be too cold for my tropical blood.

Wanaka — the perfect place for retirement

There is a Roy’s Peak and a Rob Roy’s Peak which is above Rob Roy Glacier. The two peaks are in different locations, although they carry similar names. And, btw, it’s probably not possible to ever reach Rob Roy’s Peak. The glacier and the avalanches en route are probably going to be a show stopper!

Kiwi traffic — plenty of sheep blocked our way when we where driving to the start of Rob Roy’s Peak

Good advice – “If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine!”

I am trend setter when it comes to trail fashion

We went up to a look out point below Rob Roy’s glacier on the 19th. The vast expanse of the receding glacier was quite incredible to watch.

As we stood there gazing at the glacier, we also finalized our Photo Competition rules for the trip. Each of us would have to send our best photo to master photographer Claus by March 2nd. Claus would then pick the winner and the rest of us would have to buy the winner a beer (or another drink of choice). Naturally, having been trained by Claus himself, I had an unfair advantage. Especially in the art of taking selfies. Once upon a time, back in the great Swiss Alps, Claus had entrusted me with his smaller camera and instructed me to take several photos of runners near Chompex and Trient in the French speaking part of Switzerland. What he got in return for his trust in me was a truck load of selfies. There was me doing a smiley face, me sporting a serious look and a variety of other mes. Since then, Claus hasn’t contacted me for a second gig. I wonder why.

Rob Roy Glacier — looks much more spectacular in reality. My photo taking skills don’t justify its beauty

Probably my entry for our Photo Competition. Look how cleverly I’ve captured the lone tree and the waves. It’s called “The Art of Photography”

Dom tried to ruin my photo when I trusted him with my camera. He only got a photo of my bum instead of me posing like a model in front of that lone tree

On the evening of the 19th, wine connoisseur Adrian wanted to make a little trip to Chard valley but we settled for the local winery in Wanaka. He used words like “Pinot” and “Ortago” which sounded like Latin and Greek to me. My theory on wine is simple. If the wine is hard to pronounce and has a long name, it’s supposed to be expensive, and sadly, by virtue of being expensive, it is also supposed to taste good. If it’s easy to pronounce and has a short name, don’t pay the top dollar for it. And, if the name is neither long nor short, then it’s probably “old wine in new bottle”.

Beautiful tall coniferous trees flank Lake Wanaka

Our local vineyard in Wanaka

The boys copied my photo taking style on this one. The vineyard in the foreground and the lake in the backdrop

Dinner in an Italiano restaurant on the 19th

On the 20th, we went mountain biking on a fantastic track by Lake Wanaka. We rode our bikes all the way to a place which had a name that rhymed with Hawaii, I think it’s called Hawae. We went with the aim of creating a ruckus in Keith’s house there but were distracted by a plum tree that stood outside his house. Hundreds of plums were hanging on the tree waiting to be eaten. Adrian warned us about excessive plum gorging, “if you eat too much, you’ll get diarrhea”, he said. Those warnings didn’t stop Tillly and I from going on a plum eating spree. The outer soles of my shoes were dark red in color from stepping on plums.

Lavender trees — what a beautiful smell

Our friend Alice from Hong Kong probably has a shop in Wanaka

Awesome biking day — the tracks were such a pleasure to ride on

Crossing a suspension bridge on the bike

Tilly by Lake Hawae

A selfie – my specialty. Given my handsome looks, selfies automatically turn out well

They built this artificial “rafting thing” (not sure what it’s called) on Lake Hawaii for river rafting and surfing practice

Gorging on plums

After all the eating, we finally concluded the day by sitting on a bench outside our hostel, reminiscing about the events and the adventure of the past week. All the walking, kayaking and plane rides were now memories. But, we still had tangible evidence of our outdoorsy experience in the form of sandfly bite marks which were now all over our itchy legs and arms.

Wanakabakpaka — our cleverly named hostel

Concluding our week long trip with a group photo

21st Feb 2015

It was time to part ways after a week long adventure in South Island.

Adrian and I were the last to leave. We had a sumptuous lunch by the pier in Queenstown and then decided to go to a shopping centre by the airport called The Remarkables.

The strange thing was that it cost $6.50 to go to The Remarkables by bus which was one stop AFTER the Airport and $7.50 to go to the airport. When Adrian boarded the bus with his heavy backpack (much bigger than mine) and told the driver that we were headed for The Remarkables, the driver looked stunned. “Not the airport, are you sure?” he asked with the look of disbelief in his eyes. “Yes”, Adrian replied. At that point, the smirk on the driver’s face was priceless. He thought Adrian was trying to save a dollar by getting off at the next stop! The driver made sure neither of us got off at the airport and when Adrian disembarked from the bus with his heavy backpack at The Remarkables, he let out another priceless smirk which read “what a cheap guy!”

And so ended a week long adventure of hiking, biking and kayaking in South Island, New Zealand. There’s only one more thing that I would have liked to do in this part of the world which is to have climbed Mitre Peak in Milford Sound. But, on my next trip to New Zealand, I think North Island is on the cards.

Goodbye South Island

And, one final quote from The Alchemist to conclude this blog post.

To put this in the right context, in the story, an English man tries desperately to convert the metal lead into gold through purification. He somehow crosses paths with this boy who is himself on a destiny fueled odyssey in search of treasure. (I won’t tell you the rest of the story, you should read the book).

“This is why alchemy exists. So that everyone will search for his treasure, find it, and then want to be better than he was in his former life. Lead will play its role until the world has no further need for lead; and then lead will have to turn itself into gold. That’s what alchemists do. They show that, when we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too” – The Alchemist

Read the book and make your own interpretation of the philosophical quotes in the book! And, of course, go to South Island, New Zealand for what I am sure will be, a “sweet as” experience!