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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!

 
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1500 Square foot resort-style house in an idyllic setting – only HKD 2.5M!

Picture this:
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.

SHOPS
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.

This is where it is on the map

You can see the Macau ferries go by from the Sea Ranch pier

The clean Sea Ranch beach — it’s probably one of the cleanest beaches in Hong Kong

Some of the houses looked good on the outside but others looked dilapidated

Some of the newer houses. The old ones looked abandoned

The lobby

The outside lawn area

A ferry to Cheung Chau is the only mode of transportation from in and out of here

A notice from 2014. The management fee is HKD 3200 per month

The beach is actually quite stunning!

Should you or should you not buy here?
Pros:
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

Cons:
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).

After going to the pros and cons, Dom’s all ready to pour his life savings into this place

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?

 
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Hong Kong 100 (2015 edition) — The debrief

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.

The preparation
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 start
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.

On the way to Hoi Ha – Courtesy All Weather Kwok

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.

At the checkpoint – courtesy Yan

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.

The finish
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.

The takeaways
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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The North Face (Hong Kong) – 100 solo

Wow! What a tough course! Keith warned me about it and he wasn’t kidding. The last 3-4 hours were especially brutal! I usually try and recce courses in advance, but, with this one, I decided to surprise myself (and I felt shocked at the end). Well, to be fair, I’ve done bits and pieces of the course before but one part I should have done before but didn’t was the bit from Tai Mo Shan to Lead Mine Pass. Long, technical and undulating. If you’re doing the race, recce this bit for sure!

The pre-race preparation
I read this in Bravo Two Zero (Andy McNab). The 7 Ps of success: Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance. I’d give myself a 7/10 for my planning. I made a last minute change the day before the race. I swapped by light Redlaight bag for a much bulkier bag. The reason I gave myself was that I couldn’t fit the Goretex jacket in my Redlaight bag (which I guess is true but I could have squeezed it in), but what was also an important consideration was that my Redlaight bank smelled like a big pig had pooed in it (this is what happens if you forget to stuff your bag in the washing machine after training).

It’s also amazing what a bit more space in a bag does. I read this in the book 4-hour workweek by Tim Ferris: “Time is wasted in the proportion that it is available”. I discovered yesterday that this also holds good with space! With a bigger bag pack, I now had more space and so carried more junk. An aluminum flask was one of them! Well, at the time of packing it seemed like a good idea (I figured I’d carry hot chocolate and have it on top of Pat Sin Leng) but, on the actual race, I felt like a donkey carrying more than its share of load. Trust me, after 90km, you don’t want to carry an aluminum flask up a 600m hill.

From The Start (Tai Mei Tuk) to Luk Keng
Ok, as a word of caution, I am usually bad at describing courses so please don’t use this post as any definitive guide!

Anyway, after our photos at the start, we set off at around 8am. I was at the back and started overtaking many of the slower hikers/runners soon as the race started. I somehow lost Vic in the first 2-3 minutes.

Group photo at the beginning – Courtesy Vic

The part from Tai Mei Tuk to Wu Kau Tang was full of “Dude, passing left. Dude, overtaking from right” and so on. I finally found myself behind some runners who were running at my speed and I used them as pacers.

On the way from down to Wu Kau Tang for the second time (you do TMT – WKT – WKT – Luk Keng), I saw Tilly and Nic up ahead. “You look like my teammate from the Oxfam Trailwalker”, I told Tilly. We got talking briefly and then I took it upon myself to stop Nic for a “mandatory gear check”. After exchanging some banter, I heard a voice behind me “Vince, this is Mr. Guinness. Aren’t you happy Dawson isn’t here today?” It was Sam Guinness, the team behind us on the Oxfam Trailwalker who kept entertaining us on Stage 2. I chatted with Sam for a while before he turned on his boosters and disappeared into the horizon.

At Luk Keng, I saw Dom, Brendan and Hannes who were there supporting me. Brendan helped me with the water while Dom gave me coke. I also took some potatoes from Hannes. It was great to see them. Provided that energy boost I was looking for. I knew deep inside that the course was going to get much tougher from Luk Keng.

Luk Keng to Fan Ling and from Fan Ling to Kadoorie Farm
I remember having to take a little trail to the left of my favorite restaurant at Luk Keng. I also switched from rock music to some serious Science Podcasts to keep the mind active. I learnt so many things on this bit to Fan Ling thanks to the Podcasts. For example, did you know that the Mantle Shrimps can see more colors than a human being? Did you know that dogs can’t see the color red? Did you know that when newborn babies stare at you, they only see a white ray of light as they can’t see yet? The Podcasts made me forget about the running — that is, until we reached this super steep uphill, overgrown bit near the top of Cloudy Hill. I knew we were going to climb up Cloudy Hill later on in the day so I wondered why we couldn’t just do it now as we were so close to it! That steep bit and the technical downhill slope that followed was tough on my legs. Then came a long concrete stretch to Fan Ling. I saw Vivien there who high-fived me while Brendan/Milos and Dom were helping me with food and water. As always, it was great to see them.

Dom offering me hot chocolate (not Bloody Mary) in Fan Ling – Courtesy Philip

Dom showed me the way up Tai To Yan and off I went munching on Milos’ cookies and sipping on Dom’s hot chocolate. Some girl overtook me here but I just didn’t have it in me to get back at her. This is where I think I made my second mistake — I should have eaten more. I had stuff in my bag but was too lazy to turn the bag around, get something out and eat it. I felt more tired going up Tai To Yan and saw Chor Kin at a distance looking equally tired. He did well to make a relatively quick recovery. Then, on the way down to Kadoorie Farm, I saw Rupert taking photos using his big camera. He said something like “where are the pants?” He was reminding me of M’s “pant bet”. He challenged me to wear his Bangkok pants for the race (M’s a mysterious man — he’s got unique taste).

Rupert turned me into a model – Courtesy Rupert

Dom, Milos and Brendan were waiting at Kadoorie Farm and Dom told me to focus on Tai Mo Shan and not worry about what followed. It was good advice and I did just that. I tuned onto the next Podcast. Did you know that when you sleep, the brain deletes all unwanted stuff, removes noise from the data that is stored during the day, and performs various permutations and combinations on the remaining data in the form of dreams? This is why you get those awesome ideas when you sleep and wake up the next day.

Dom, Milos, Brendan helping me at the checkpoint – Courtesy Milos

Kadoorie Farm to Lead Mine Pass via Tai Mo Shan
Believe it or not, Tai Mo Shan wasn’t all that hard. It was a steep climb for sure but it wasn’t as hard as I had expected it to be. Maybe because I was prepared for it. It was cold for sure though. My Goretex jacket came on and so did the balaclava. I caught up with Chor Kin again (who had since passed me) in the Tai Mo Shan checkpoint. I had some corn soup there, put on my torch and went running down that Shing Mun Section.

This is probably where I lost time on the race — Shing Mun. Combination of not eating enough (even though stomach was fine) and not knowing the route meant I was robbing myself of energy. The technical Shing Mun bit is usually what I excel at but I also had a slight problem with my knees on the downhill bits. I wanted to preserve them for Pat Sin Leng. I lost quite a lot of time on the way to Lead Mine Pass. Chor Kin and two others overtook me here.

Lead Mine Pass to The Finish
After Lead Mine Pass came that terrible Wilson Section to Tai Wo. I don’t know why but I have never been a fan of that. Again, I slowed down on this bit mainly because of a lack of energy than anything else. But, I ran all runnable bits and eventually reached the start of Cloudy Hill. Another girl, Nikki, I think her name is, overtook me at the top and she was moaning as she passed me. She was probably in pain. She did very well though. She was way up ahead of me as I was trying to catch up. The part down to Sha Lo Tung also cost me some time. I couldn’t run down as fast as I had hoped. I kept my pace steady as I approached the bottom of Pat Sin Leng and switched onto yet another Science Podcast to take my mind off the steep climb. Did you know that at the age of 4, something happens in the human brain that allows you to exercise self-control? Those who develop this at that age tend to do much better later on in their lives. Malcolm Gladwell ascribes this more to the year in which you were born in his book Outliers.

Pat Sin Leng killed me. I should have eaten more. I was wobbling around like a drunken sailor and lost momentum when climbing from one stair to another! Ricardo overtook me here and asked me if I was okay. I told him I was tired while somehow extracting a bit more energy from the body. I think I was thinking HK100 style energy (enough juice to last 13-15 hours) but I should have made sure I was prepared for (16-18 hours). Anyway, shoulda woulda coulda. After I reached the top, I used gravity to largely guide me on the downhill bits. The moon shone beautifully up above in a yellowish whitish color. Every now and then, I stole a glance at the moon which humbled me. The stars shone and the sky was clear.

I was elated when I ran down the last steep bit of Pat Sin Leng but it certainly wasn’t over then. That 3km stretch back to Tai Mei Tuk seemed to go on forever and, even after reaching Tai Mei Tuk, there was yet another steep bit left which I didn’t know about! Kind of like the icing on the cake!

Finally, 17 hours and 37 minutes later (27th overall), I reached the finish point. I spent less than 30 minutes at the finish in order to get back on my motorbike asap as I feared falling asleep. I increased speed on the motorbike to stay awake but instead landed myself a speeding ticket! DAMN.

Special thanks to Dom, Brendan, Milos, Hannes and Viv! Great to see all of you on the course!

As hard as this course was, it was beautiful! And the markings/organization was fantastic!

Executive Debrief:
1. In the future, know the course (I guess I know now)
2. Carry enough energy and consume it, especially during the 2nd half. Force it down, military style
3. Don’t carry the kitchen sink during a race. Oh, and btw, wash your hiking bag well in advance!

 
2014-11-14_start

Oxfam Trailwalker 2014 — The debrief

Trailwalker is not just about 4 guys running a 100kms. It’s much more than that. It’s about running and finishing as a team while making sure that the bond in the team is strong from start to finish. The success of finishing tastes sweeter because of this team bond. Trailwalker is also an exercise in logistics. The support crew’s role is crucial. Without the help of a solid support crew and a plan/strategy to help the runners with required logistics (food/water and so on), the team is unlikely to succeed in its goal of finishing as a team in the least possible time. The team does not just comprise of the runners but also comprises of the support crew and the numerous well wishers who are on the trail cheering the team on. This is the reason why I do the Trailwalker every year. It’s a social event, a chance to exchange banter with fellow runners and it teaches you that unity is strength. I read this somewhere: “Alone we go fast, together we go far”. When you have a great team, you can go really, really far.

This was my 7th consecutive Trailwalker and Rupert’s (my teammate) 18th Trailwalker. He turned from a minor to a major today.

Our Support Chief was Dom who coordinated all the logistics on a whatsapp group. Two motorbikes, 5 mules, water, food, checkpoint preparation — the entire spectrum. Not easy. Everyone had to be on time in remote parts of the trail with the required supplies that us runners wanted.

Emilie made us pose at the start

Stages 1 & 2
The start seemed less crowded than usual. Probably because we only had around 110 “S” teams starting at 0830. After the usual “are you ready?” pep talk blazing out of the speakers in Chinese and English, the countdown began. Tilly, Rupert, Michael and I set off to a good start and were accompanied by Gilles who was our first mule for the day. He pretty much carried all our stuff and took orders from us for food and water. By the way, running as a mule and supporting 4 demanding runners is not easy. It’s not just about the heavy bag pack containing 3L+ water that the mule has to carry around; it’s also about running a little faster than the team (while carrying everything) and coping with each individual runner’s demands for water and food. Meaning stopping to fill up water into hyrdrapacks whenever required and then running fast again to catch up with the runners. The mule also has to update the team’s status on the whatsapp Support Group for the Support Crew.

As we were jogging on bits of Stage 1, I took a mini-break to answer nature’s call. After finishing my business, I ran back up on the concrete “trail” towards my team which is when I heard some abuse from behind. In a thick and loud Australian accent someone gave me some abuse about being the “slowest guy in the team”. The voice urged me to run faster and stop fooling around. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a good look at the source of this voice so I couldn’t come up with any witty retort.

We moved past the dam completing 10% of the OTW (10km!) and entered Stage 2. The climbing began as we started going up Chek Keng. That’s when I heard that familiar abuse again. This time the abuse got louder and I got a good look at the source of the abuse. It was Dawson who continued to be our major source of entertainment on Stage 2. His loud, entertaining voice and slick comments were a welcome distraction. His energy was also contagious. But, I am sure not everyone will agree with me. I could almost see his teammate Sam going faster than everyone else on the team in a vain attempt to run away from Dawson! It was quite interesting watching Dawson in action. He’d make his smart ass comments and be engaged in a serious conversation but just as some random hiker would pass from the opposite direction, he’d turn his head 90 degrees and greet this person with a loud “Hi Mate”, almost startling the innocent hiker! Some of his comments were gold. He told us that his original teammate, John, who had to be replaced this time around because of an injury, was a “pacing machine” but, in terms of company, this new teammate “was certainly an upgrade to John”.

Such quality entertainment and a first class mule service from Gilles, got us through Stages 1/2.

As we reached Pak Tam Au, we had a big gang cheering us on. I remember seeing John, Rachel and Emilie who had our support kits (food mainly). We thanked them and left to start the first major climb on Stage 3.

Stage 3 and Stage 4
All we had to carry at Pak Tam Au was 500ml of water. After about 500m of that initial steep climb, we had two new mules on Stage 3 waiting for us. Dom, our Support Chief who doubled as a mule (a man of many facets) and Nick. Stages 3 and 4 are the harder sections of the Maclehose trail. Muling for runners is more challenging as the mule needs to negotiate the steep trails, carry heavy gear and go back and forth to service the runners. Nick and Dom received frequent requests from us for water and were also responsible for picking up dropped poles and handing it back to us whenever we wanted them.

In order to optimize and average out our team speed, we started using the tow rope. Michael and I started to tow Tilly. It was largely overcast on Stage 3 which was very different from what it was an year back. The cloudy weather certainly helped us keep a consistent pace. It felt great to be on the trails, talking to other teams and exchanging banter with our mules. That’s what makes the Trailwalker so special. It’s one big party on the trails! It’s a social event in nature.

After Stage 3, we hit Sai Sha road and heard a bunch of well wishers supporting us. I saw John again who was busy with his camera taking photos.

This is me posing for John’s camera and Tilly wondering what I was doing! – Courtesy John

Our support crew was waiting for us a little further up from the checkpoint. Rom was there and he had all our food ready. He asked us if we had “special requests”. I told him I wanted something hot and he made me tea! I also saw Cynthia and Irena there. Irena told me that J-Luc had fallen of his bike as he cramped up while turning it around. He came all the way to Sai Kung on his bike just to give us water so I felt sorry to hear that. As we continued on the trail, just a little bit ahead, I saw J-Luc cheering us on and limping a little bit. He pooh-poohed any talk about his fall, telling us that “it happens”. He kept encouraging us to stay strong and run fast!

Again, these are times when you learn that the Trailwalker is really a team event and that the team just doesn’t comprise of the runners. As Michael later said at the finish, the winner is the team, the team that comprises of the runners/support crew and everyone else who encourages the team along the way. This is also why quitting becomes difficult. You feel like you are letting down a big group of people by throwing in the towel early. This is why there are probably more DNFs in solo events and not as much in team events.

We owe a big thank you to this guy — Rom, our mobile support person. Courtesy – Jean Luc

The sun made an appearance on Stage 4 as we were climbing up Ma On Shan, but only briefly. The canopy of trees was illuminated when the sun shone upon them which was beautiful to watch.

Leaving Stage 3 and getting onto Stage 4. Courtesy – Jean Luc

After we got to the top of Ma On Shan, the skies turned overcast again and a gentle breeze kept us cool. The conditions for running were ideal.

Nick left us after an excellent muling service near Pyramid Hill and Dom serviced the 4 of us all the way up until Gillwell camp. We kept trading places with a Cosmoboys mixed team on Stage 4 and this little exchange of places continued all the way until the final moment on Stage 10!

From Gilwell camp, we ran to Sha Tin pass to a loud welcome from our Support Crew. I saw John taking photos again. Hannes handed me a pack of one of his special Swiss potatoes and told me to share it with everyone! (He probably thought I would devour them all by myself). I also saw Cynthia and Rom who offered us one of his special cups of hot tea again. Running through a checkpoint with so much support made us all feel like celebrities!

Our team coming into Sha Tin pass – Courtesy John

Nice run down to Sha Tin pass – Courtesy Fuse Choy

Stage 5 and Stage 6
Dom was supposed to leave us after a grueling muling session on stages 3/4 and Milos, our tall and strong mule, was supposed to take over from him. Despite niggles with his foot, Milos still showed up, all set to run Stages 5,6,7 and 8 with us. Knowing that Milos had a problem with his foot, Dom decided to continue running Stage 5 despite having muled through the tough stages 3 and 4.

Milos has prior experience muling and taking orders from exhausted and demanding runners. Last year, he was our mule on the same set of stages and I remember feeling particularly bad on Stage 5. I ordered him around, asking him for water, food, etc. He complied like a good mule. This year, I was still going strong so we actually managed to have a proper conversation on Stage 5.

I also gave Tilly some of Hannes’ potatoes and much like an advertisement for a new pack of chips, she went “yummm” and even took some more! (Tilly is quite selective of what she eats). Hannes’ potatoes got its thumbs up from Tilly which takes feedback for his culinary skills to a whole new level.

We overtook the Cosmoboys mixed team somewhere near the end of Stage 5. I saw Hannes again on Tai Po road and duly took another pack of his coveted potatoes. He said he’d send me the bill later.

As we were going up Stage 6, I gave some of Hannes’ potatoes to Michael who, much like Tilly, went “yummm” after eating them. I told Michael to send an email to Hannes complimenting him on his Swiss culinary skills. I told him that Hannes will never forget a compliment to his Swiss heritage, whether that’s potato-making-skills or his impeccable Swiss punctuality.

It was still bright when we got to Shing Mun which was an encouraging sign. It meant that we were running at a Sub 15 hour pace.

Support crew arranging all our food before we got there. Courtesy – Milos

Stage 7 and Stage 8
Our support crew was waiting at Shing Mun and gave us our supplies of food before we set off to do Stages 7/8. Dom made a reappearance, now as a static supporter, only to have his legs tested by us again. One of us forgot our headlamps and he had to make an Olympic Sprint dash to give it to us as we continued jogging on the road to Needle Hill.

Michael towed Tilly all the way up Needle Hill and Rupert started using his poles for the climb. I was falling behind as I couldn’t keep up with Michael’s energy (despite him towing Tilly) and Rupert’s poles-enabled climbing speed.

Going up Needle Hill – Courtesy Milos

I was engaged in a conversation with Milos and waiting patiently for the downhill stretch from Needle Hill to Grassy Hill trail. I closed the gap there and we plodded up Stage 7. I saw Sophia supporting a really fast team. She was super strong and very chatty which was a welcome distraction. She also offered me sweet potatoes. I felt like my energy levels were running low but that’s never a problem when there’s a mule around. I asked Milos whether he had something exciting to eat and he offered me a choice between Caramel flavored Gu, Chocolate Gu and something else. He recommended the first one. I had a bit of that and my energy levels came back up to normal levels almost instantly! Not sure what they put in those things but it did the trick today.

We went down Grassy Hill and checked in to CP8 where Rupert’s friend Ben was waiting for us. He was our surprise 2nd mule for Stage 8. I took over from Michael and started to tow Tilly up Tai Mo Shan to keep the team together. Although Tai Mo Shan is at 950m or so, it’s not all that difficult a climb. It’s got this unique terrain which makes it a pleasure to climb up. As an added bonus, you also get great views of Tsing Ma bridge near the end.

As we neared the top, the headlamp started illuminating a strong mist and it felt like the temperature went down 3 degrees or so. The concrete road down to Route Twisk from from Tai Mo Shan was a little hard on Tilly (stitches) and Michael (knees) but neither of them let it bother them!

Upon reaching Route Twisk, we were greeted by a loud enthusiastic voice. “Vincenzo!” yelled Peter which was great to hear! A little further down we had Spiderman (Vic surprised us with his Spiderman costume) and cheerleader Jinha showed up in her pink skirt. Apparently, there was talk of Vic wearing the skirt. Thankfully, he refused.

Peter, Jinhwa and Vic’s combined enthusiasm and all the checkpoint support crew helped us get plenty of energy back!

Stage 9 and Stage 10
We thanked Milos for his excellent muling skills. He told us he’d take a taxi to the finish and meet us there! We half-hoped we could have been in that taxi!

Before leaving Stage 9, I had a special treat from Retha and Hannes who offered me a slice of Margarita Pizza! It couldn’t have come at a better time. I was devouring it like a hungry lion while watching a tired Rupert gulping on his liquid energy from a bottle. He looked like he was having some trouble but it seemed like nothing he couldn’t overcome.

It was a treat to run with Jinhwa and Vic. Their muling enthusiasm kept us in high spirits and they were shouting words of encouragement at us in regular intervals. Vic was taking care of Rupert and Michael while Jinhwa took care of Tilly and I.

We went back in memory lane and remembered our Trailwalker team in 2010! Jinhwa, Vic, Steven and I were part of the Jinhwaboys team and finished the Trailwalker as a team in around 18 hours! Jinhwa, Vic and I gave a shout out to Steven and engaged in chitchat. We eventually approached our penultimate checkpoint, CP9.

Stage 10 saw us slowing down a little bit. We were still running but the fatigue brought down the pace slightly. I had music playing out of my iPhone speakers while Vic and Jinhwa were running back and forth encouraging all of us. Michael was towing Rupert to average out the speed while I continued to tow Tilly.

Somewhere along the long and seemingly never-ending reservoir section, we overtook the HK100 team. One of them was clearly hurting. I asked him if he was okay and he replied “okay, okay”.

Michael had a special surprise waiting for him after we got back on the road from the reservoir stretch. His girlfriend Emilie decided to run the last 5km with us. She joined Vic and Jinhwa in encouraging us. Fueled by this additional source of motivation, we jogged as fast as we could as a team to get to the finish line.

The final 1km stretch seemed like it was longer than usual. We grouped together and ran as a team eagerly waiting for the cameras at the finish line. Jinhwa, Vic and Dom were right behind us shouting out words of encouragement and Vic played The Final Countdown on his phone.

After 14 hours 41 minutes and a taunting, extra 100m run to the finish, the energy of the finish line lit us all up again! We saw Gilles, Milos, Dom, J-Luc, Irina and so many more of our friends at the finish line! My friends from the Hong Kong Trampers — Ringo, Tim, KW, Xiaofung (who flew in from Beijing) were all there congratulating us (as they have always been doing for the past 7 years). The atmosphere was electric!

HKTR’s new record — a fantastic team performance!

Our support team — without these guys, we couldn’t have finished

Despite Rupert and Michael stinking a lot, we still did a team hug

Our thanks
What can I say! Again, the Trailwalker is not just an experience in running. It’s a lesson in caring for each other in the team and operating as a team. It’s a lesson in eating and drinking to stay fueled, managing and coordinating logistics and a lesson in knowing how lucky you really are for a truly awesome support team!

Special thanks to my teammates and our support crew! Together, we created a new HKTR OTW record!