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.
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!
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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!
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.
There were many zen moments on this little trail run.
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.
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.
(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.
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).
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.
Brendan comes of “biking” age
We exchanged goodbyes with Chaem and set off on our way from Mae Chaem to Mae Hong Song.
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.
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!
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 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.
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.
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!
We rode all the way to a Chinese-style village by the border between Thailand and Burma, while temporarily joining a parade en route.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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!)
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!)
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.
Ricky to us: “you guys are from Hong Kong?”
Our response: “Yes, we’re marathon runners there. “
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.
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”.
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.
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 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!
You’re in an exclusive 5-star luxury resort that boasts fine cuisine, two tennis courts and a glamorous swimming pool. You’re surrounded by greenery and hiking trails. And, if you prefer water sports, not a problem, you’re also one of the proud owners of a spectacular private beach. Oh, did I say that you’re the owner of a 1500 square foot house (not apartment, but house!) which has extra high ceilings and a spacious balcony for ultimate comfort?
So, how much would you pay for this privilege? Before you answer that, let me tell you that I recently heard about a 400 square foot apartment being sold in Sai Ying Pun at a “good” price, which was HKD 7M. Well, lo and behold, the privilege above will only cost you HKD 2.5M. That’s right — not HKD 25M but 2.5M for a 1500 sq ft house! How?
Well, like all the things that are too good to be true, so is this. There’s indeed a catch. To start off with, you know that “fine cuisine” and “two tennis courts” and that “glamorous swimming pool” I told you about? That was how it was sold in the 1970s but, right now, they sort of, well, they don’t exist! As a matter of fact, there is no shop in this place much less a restaurant! No schools, no shopping, no 7-11 and no McDonalds. The developer, however, puts a positive spin on this on their website.
The nearest shops are on Cheung Chau Island, 15 minutes by boat from the resort. There are no shops at the Sea Ranch. Cheung Chau has supermarkets such as Wellcome and Park ‘n’ Shop, chemists such as Watsons, and convenience stores. There is even a McDonald’s ! For more sophisticated food shopping the staff at the City Super supermarket at IFC in Central will carry your groceries to the Cheung Chau ferry at Pier Number 5 after you complete your purchase.
There’s even a McDonalds!! Are you sold or what? And for more “sophisticated” food shopping, the staff in Central will carry your groceries to Cheung Chau. Very sophisticated indeed.
Where is this place I am talking about?
It’s in Chi Ma Wan on Lantau. Once upon a time it was touted as a luxury development called “Sea Ranch” but soon after its launch, it got entangled in legal quagmires because of massive debts. Their website was last updated in 2010. The Club House and Swimming Pool and Tennis Courts were shut down in 2002. The only way in and out of this place is by ferry. First you need to take a ferry to Cheung Chau which is supposedly “free” and then you’ve got to take another ferry to Central from Cheung Chau, if that’s where you work. The management fees they charge the few inhabitants who live here is a whopping HKD 3200 a month! (Why do you think the ferry service is “free”?)
So, we hiked from Mui Wo to get here. The other “easy” access to this place is a 5km hike from Pui O. If you decide to buy here, remember that each time you go on vacation and return to Hong Kong, you can take a taxi from the airport to Pui O and walk 5km from there with your luggage (down a fleet of stairs too) to get here. There’s no greater pleasure than to haul suitcases down a trail on your way back to Hong Kong.
Should you or should you not buy here?
1. It’s spacious and cheap
2. It suits a hermit lifestyle. If you want to stay clear of people and want your own space, well, this is it! There are no shops here. I hardly saw a single child
3. You’ve got your own beach which is very, very exclusive indeed
1. Be prepared to shell out some big bucks for renovation. Some of the concrete slopes looked rusty, as though it was waiting to fall apart
2. You better like the ferry. You’re looking at two ferries to get to Hong Kong and they don’t operate 24 hours!
3. Be prepared to shell out HKD 3,200 in management fees
4. Don’t expect the club house or a restaurant to open up anytime soon!
5. You better be of sound health. Nearest medical facilities are at least an hour and a half away!
More info at this website. It makes a nice touristy spot to visit in Hong Kong when you want a relatively short hike.
Garmin to get to this place from Tung Chung is here (I ran from Tung Chung to Mui Wo but you can obviously start at Mui Wo).
And, before I finish, we met Michael at the end of our hike in Pui O who told us about a dead dog in one of the Sea Ranch houses. Apparently, it’s lying in the hall of one of the uninhabited houses there and was photographed last year. Still want to buy?
Hong Kong 100 (2015 edition) – The debrief
I’ve done it 3 times before (14.xx, 13.26, 12.51) and decided to do it a 4th time this year. It’s remarkable how this race has evolved! Back in 2010, the Race Directors (Janet and Steve), were handing out flyers for “the first ever solo 100km race in Hong Kong”. I don’t think very many joined! And, my 14.xx time put me in the top 20 of overall finishers. This year, my finishing time of 13 hours and 35 minutes made me 47th overall! The popularity of HK100 has soared and the number of fit people out there — simply incredible!
Ok, so, this is what happened yesterday. But, first, a line or two on how I prepared for it.
Every ultra-runner has rituals before a race. And, invariably, one of them will include what I call “a dump sequence routine”. Meaning getting up early enough to dump at least two times. I can go into details (upon special request and I am sure you’ll want to know) but I’ll refrain for the sake of suspense. Suffice to say, the public toilets near the Starting Point are probably the most sought after resource before a run.
The second routine is what I call “the pedicure routine”, i.e. taping the leg, applying Vaseline on the sole of the feet and so on. I had a grand total of 10 band-aids all over the sole of my feet to prevent blisters.
The last routine is what I call the “lubricating the body routine” to prevent chaffing. Every runner, I am sure, will have a tub of Vaseline somewhere in the apartment! I learnt my Vaseline lesson the hard way. Back in 2006 I think it was, when I did the Oxfam Trailwalker for the first time, I completed the 100km course in 27 hours wearing Bermuda shorts and ended up walking like Donald Duck for 3 days after the event. All this because, I didn’t know the value of Vaseline. Vaseline rocks. Again, more details upon special request. (I am sure you’re dying to know).
The atmosphere was electric as ever. I have to applaud Janet and Steve for their choice of music. Cold Play, Oasis and other cool bands. Very cool. Unfortunately, as I found myself a nice seat by the speaker, I missed my special spot in the “Elite” section and ended up behind the elites which meant I had some overtaking to do!
Pak Tam Chung (the start) to Hoi Ha
Soon after starting, the overtaking process began. I said ‘hi’ to many of my friends, Nick (from South Africa), Mark, Lloyd (who started despite a leg injury) and eventually bumped into Marie. She’s becoming a legendary ultra-runner. I told her that I was going to overtake her but that she’d be overtaking me in 4 hours or so. And, boy, was I right. She’s like the ultimate pacing machine, similar to my friend Tilly.
After the usual “dude, passing left, dude, passing right” routine, I found the right place for me. As I approached the dam, I saw Nic and M up ahead. I did the right thing for mankind and humanity and decided to stop them for a “random” gear check. They wouldn’t hear any of it.
Dom was waiting by Sai Wan beach, I said ‘hi’ to him and smiled for the numerous cameras that were there. Btw, I have to say this – there are so, so many cameras on the course that you feel like some sort of a celebrity when running!
On Mac Stage 2, I saw Chris behind me. He told me what a beautiful day it was and that his time target was the same as mine – 13 hours. He said he’d be following me. I heard him behind me for a while but I think he stopped at the next check point longer than I did.
On the way from Mac Stage 2 to Hoi Ha, I was with a girl called Wayan who I later learned was some sort of a legendary female runner! She jumped and screamed so much at the sight of photographers that I thought she’d run out of energy more from posing for the cameras than running! The motivation was great though! I tried following her as much as I could so I could share her enthusiasm and motivation but she gave me the slip soon after Hoi Ha. I just couldn’t keep up with her. (She finished around 12.40 I think). Retha was there at the Hoi Ha checkpoint and helped me with food.
Hoi Ha to Kei Ling Ha
Soon after I left Hoi Ha and headed up on the road, the boring part of the course began. There was this non-stop undulating technical section all the way to Yung Shue O. Here’s where I gave myself an instruction to “stay in gear”. I pretended I was a car (yes, I can be weird) and told myself to stay on Gear 1 and just keep jogging. I saw Wayan in the distance every now and then but she was more like a car on 3rd gear! Soon, she disappeared from my view. I kept a consistent pace all the way to Yung Shue O which is where I met the legendary female runner Claire. The fact that I saw her meant something was wrong with her.
“Shouldn’t you be way up ahead?” I asked her.
“I am not sure. Should I?” she replied.
She told me that her TNF victory had taken a lot out of her. I overtook her (will probably never happen again), and eventually, I was back on my favorite Mac trail climbing up Rooster Hill. There was this guy coming from the opposite side who said “Hi Vince, I’ll read about this tonight [on your blog]”. I wished I was him instead of the guy who had 60 more kms to run! Eventually at the top of Rooster Hill, I saw two or three guys who were cheering me on and said “Vince – hikeinhongkong”. I was surprised they knew who I was and even more surprised that they’d heard actually heard of my blog!
The run down from Rooster Hill to Kei Ling Ha was great. I saw Dom taking photos on the last downhill stretch. When I reached the checkpoint, I saw Tilly and Retha there who were helping me fill my Hydrapack and getting me stuff to eat. It felt great to see them.
Kei Ling Ha to Beacon Hill
Mac Stage 4 started off well but I found myself losing it on the climb up Ma On Shan. I slowed down and tried to recover but something didn’t seem right. It was getting more and more tired. Stage 4 was a pretty low point for me. I had to tell myself that my time did not matter (I was trying to get rid of the 12.51 target in my mind that I wanted to beat). I kept telling myself that all that mattered was that I completed the run. And, I knew I could do Sub 14 even if I slowed down quite a bit. Plus, I wanted the HK100 jumper they give out at the finish! Despite all this, I found it hard to concentrate.
I saw Cynthia by the flat stretch on Stage 4 where all the paragliders land. She asked me how I was feeling and I said “very tired”. She told me that I was NOT feeling tired and asked me to keep going.
Eventually, I reached Gilwell Camp, said ‘hi’ to Tim and saw Denise who told me that Vic was also waiting for me near the support point. It was great to see my 5-time OTW teammate Vic who gave me some much needed words of encouragement. Marie then went by (just as anticipated). She looked strong and focused. I told her that she was an awesome runner and added that I’d see her at the finish line.
Vic left me at Sha Tin pass and I started plodding up Stage 5. Beacon Hill was a struggle. I felt incredibly sleepy as I was going up Beacon Hill. In fact, I got so sleepy that for the first time during the race, negative thoughts of aborting entered my mind! I told myself the usual – “Be a man! Rise to the occasion! Time doesn’t matter, kill speed, finish the run and enjoy the race”. As I was having this pep talk with myself, I saw Brendan come by. He looked strong and focused. We reached the checkpoint on Beacon Hill and saw the kids there who were great! One of them got me tomato soup and told me that I looked strong and was doing a great job! Haha! I certainly didn’t look that way. The kids certainly got me into a positive frame of mind. After seeing them, I hit the gas again and went downhill as fast as I could to Tai Po Road.
Tai Po Road to Tai Mo Shan
By the time I got to Tai Po Road, I succeeded in pretty much squashing all negative thoughts of aborting and was less worried about my time. I just plodding away all the way until Shing Mun. I traded places with Brendan but I was quite sure he’d overtake me for good on Needle Hill!
Upon reaching Shing Mun, I yelled out “Vivien” in the dark! Vivien came by, offered me some encouragement, and gave me some hot chocolate (powder sourced from Australia!) I sipped on that and started going up Needle Hill. As expected, Brendan overtook me, and I told him I’d see him at the finish line. Normally, I run nonstop all the way from Needle Hill to Grassy Hill but not today. I was too tired. The leg wasn’t too comfortable either. I just fast walked most of it which I am sure cost me some time.
Grassy Hill somehow reenergized me and the trail down to Lead Mine Pass, though not-so-enjoyable today, ended quickly. I reached Tai Mo Shan at about 8.05pm and decided to just continue without stopping to try and complete the course in Sub 13.5 hours.
Tai Mo Shan to the finish
I was only wearing my sweaty and cold tee shirt. I thought the cold weather would make me run faster. It did but the body was tired and wobbling. At one point, during one such wobbly experience, I banged my knee against a rock! That woke me up. Then I told myself to “stay in gear” and jogged as much of TMS as I could.
At the very top of Tai Mo Shan, two runners overtook me – Nicole and some other guy. I didn’t quite have the motivation or the energy to get back at them. I told myself “may the best man win” and kept going at my usual pace — until I reached that turnoff which is essentially only 5kms from the finish. I started on Gear 1 and saw the flashlight from the two runners who’d just overtaken me around 1 minute ahead of me. Before I knew it, I was on Gear 4, accelerating and clocking in 14kmh. I overtook both of them. The guy said “well done” as I passed him.
In what seemed like a pretty short time, thanks to the 14kmh acceleration, I saw the finish lights. The announcement came from the speakers “Vince from India has just finished”. But, I knew to take that announcement with a pinch of salt! The first time I did the race, I was flattered that they somehow seemed to know who I was which kind of puzzled me. (Come on, I can’t be that famous!) Upon further investigation, It turned out that they have a computerized system, that reads the tag on the bib and displays the runner’s name and nationality on a computer screen in front of the announcers! Neat! In any case, it was great to hear my name and even greater to know that I had actually finished! I completed the course in 13 hours and 35 minutes.
Peter, Dom, Bei, Anne were all there at the finish and helping me! It was great to see all of them! Peter got me my bag, Bei got me hot soup and Anne told me when the next bus was going to leave! I was chatting to super runner John Ellis who completed the course in 12 hours!! Impressive! Brendan finished in 13.10 and Marie did 12.51. Amazing runners. What I loved about all of them was how they were so strong, enthusiastic and happy at the finish. I felt like I had just gone over burning hot coal and my body was so tired that I would have fallen asleep that very instant. Plus, I was walking like Donald Duck. Not, not a Vaseline issue (thank goodness) but more because I pulled a nerve on that last downhill stretch as I was going all out to overtake Nicole and the other guy!
The race was (as usual) superbly organized and the support from friends was supreme! It was a fabulous social get-together on the trails.
1. I read in the book “Failing forward” by John Maxwell that one needs to manage energy, not time. Capacity is a person’s ability to spend and recover energy. The “recovery” today wasn’t good. Also, one of the criteria by which I judge myself on how well a run went, is to ask myself whether I feel absolutely fantastic at the end of the run. Today, I didn’t. Why? I am not sure. Perhaps, I should have gone out with a 13.30 target instead of a sub 13 target and accelerated during the 2nd half of the run depending on the extent of recovery.
2. I am glad I persisted and completed. The ability to squash negative thoughts by turning them into productive thoughts was good. Mac Stage 5 was my lowest point but I was strong enough mentally to reframe those useless thoughts and detach myself from them. (The kids on Beacon Hill really helped!)
3. Double Au before the next HK100: I need to do a two solo Double Aus (Mac 3 to 8) to test the body and mind, as well as to determine realistic targets, before the next 100km race.
Oh, btw, this report won’t be complete if I don’t tell you what I learnt on the Science Podcast I was listening to. Unfortunately, my Mp3 player stopped working as my sweat entered the player during the run (doh) but here’s something cool I listened to just before the player went bust. Apparently, back in the day in the 1600s, they were trying to investigate the use of blood. One scientist did an experiment: They had a docile sheep and a madman in a stadium with many onlookers watching. They slit the sheep’s jugular and cut the man’s wrist to exchange their blood. The hypothesis was that the man would turn docile, and the sheep would become mad! Nothing happened!
In another experiment, they gave an old person a young man’s blood and vice versa. It turned out that the amount of neuronal activity went up in the old man as soon as he received the young man’s blood and the neurons in the young man were not firing as rapidly when he got the older man’s blood. In other words, if you want to stay mentally sharp at an old age, you need to transfuse yourself with some young blood!
And, here’s something that shocked me. You know how donating blood is considered to be such a noble act? Well, that isn’t exactly the case. Apparently, it’s a billion dollar industry and the blood that is donated is actually sold to other blood banks and hospitals. There is a market for blood and the ones who get jibbed are the donors who don’t get their fair share of money for their “noble” donation!
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