Mission: Accomplished

Friday August 3rd,  2017

Somewhere between Puerto Montt and the Argentinian border

I’ve just left Puerto Montt, Chile, for a seven hour bus ride over to Bariloche, in Argentina, where I’ll spend the next week skiing. After a few bus rides of similar duration in Asia, one might be reluctant to hop aboard, but I think this one will be a little better: the seats are comfortable, they recline, and there are even little leg rests. I have a window seat on the second deck of the bus, and the views once we get into the national parks east of here are meant to be great. And Carlos, the bus equivalent of a flight attendant,  just handed out small breakfast trays with some sweets, tea, and coffee. Maybe bus travel can be nice!

I arrived in South America a week ago now, first landing in Buenos Aires for a short night, and then a quick hop over the Andes to Santiago. There were great views of Aconcagua (the highest mountain in the world not in the Himalayas) on the way.

The first couple days in Santiago provided perhaps the most stressful moments of this entire trip (including all those moments spent on shit-your-pants terrain in Chamonix): driving in the city. I wanted to have a little flexibility to explore Chile so decided to rent a car for the first few days here.

I’m sure driving in Santiago is no worse than many North American cities, it’s just that all the road signs are in Spanish only, the exit signs are completely un-related to the directions I was given from Google, and street signs are nothing more than a post-it note on a telephone pole. On the drive in from the airport I managed to: miss my exit for the hostel (which caused an hour long detour through the city, in the dark); turn the wrong way onto a one way street (fortunately someone outside yelled at me and I clued in to pull a quick Uey before I drove into an oncoming car); and get stuck in the middle of a large intersection on a red light. When I did finally find the hostel (with only my psyche a little damaged) there was no parking available. So, I had to pay off the night attendant at the gas station down the street to keep an eye on the car while I left it in the 30 minute parking zone for the entire night. The conversation took way longer than it needed to, but I can hardly speak Spanish, and he could hardly speak English.

Things went a little better the following morning (Sunday) for the drive out to El Colorado ski area, about 50 km east of Santiago. It started with finding the rental car still in the parking lot, with windows and tires are still in tact.

The drive to the hill was pretty neat. Santiago sits in the bottom of the north-south running valley between the Andes and the Pacific Cordillera. As you drive east, the Andes look like a giant, snow-capped wall, offering no way out. Once off the highway and onto the ski access road, one must complete 40 hair pin turns (they are numbered on the road) in order to climb up to the base of the hills. At times I wasn’t sure if my dinky little rental car would make it. The approach was somewhat similar to Morocco, as I passed through dry, desert like slopes, with cactuses lining the road shoulder.

Excitement started to build once I safely arrived to the parking lot and put on my gear. The price tag of a one day lift ticket caused me to flinch a little bit, but I was more than happy to splurge, hop on that first lift, and accomplish what I set out to do when I left Vancouver over six months ago.

After riding up a couple slow double chairs and then a T-bar to get to the top of the mountain, I dropped in for my first run in South America.  It was the best run on garbage snow  that I have ever had. Of course the snow quality in that particular moment was totally irrelevant. Sure it would have been nice to make fresh tracks the whole way down, but the feeling of accomplishment at the bottom was greater than the feelings at the bottom of some of the best powder runs I’ve had elsewhere. With the exception of Antarctica (which is an adventure for another day), I had now skied on every continent in the world. On the t-bar ride up for run #2, I couldn’t hold back tears of joy.  It was one of the coolest moments I’ve experienced, maybe ever.

I continued to ride the lifts and run laps for longer than I would normally do, riding the high of being able to say “mission: accomplished”. By mid afternoon I was literally falling asleep on the slow double chairlift, still being a little jet-lagged from the long flight over from New Zealand. I packed it in for the afternoon, had a nap in the car, and then mentally prepared myself for the drive back into the city.

After Night #2 of paying off gas station attendants, I was eager to get out of Santiago. And because it was Monday morning, I had to have the car gone by 8:00am, otherwise it was going to be “big problemo”. So I packed up and headed south out of the city, without making any wrong turns.

Apparently Chile is home to roughly 10% of the worlds active volcanoes.  Although I’ve technically already skied on volcanoes near home (Baker, Rainier), I thought it would be a cool experience to ski some Chilean ones. The nearest place to do so from Santiago was about 5 hours south at Nevados de Chillan, which is where I decided to head for a couple days of skiing.

I was more than happy with my decision to make the trek south. The ski resort at Nevados de Chillan offers easy backcountry access to the slopes of several volcanoes, one of which was actively smoking.

With absolutely no snow having fallen in the last two weeks, and freezing levels having gone through the roof (which helps consolidate the snowpack), I decided to venture out into the backcountry on my own (not a practice I would recommend). But given the current conditions, and the generally mellow terrain, I figured I was more likely to be buried in volcanic ash than in avalanche debris.

The terrain was really interesting, with rolling slopes and gullies carved out from previous eruptions. In areas of low snowpack, you could see all sorts of volcanic rocks that had been deposited. And on my second afternoon I even skied into one of the small volcano craters, which was a pretty neat experience. All with Volcàn de Chillan Nuevo smoldering in the background (there was actually no snow near the crest of the volcano, presumably having been melted away).  The views north and south were some of the most spectacular of the whole trip, with distinct volcano cones visible as far as the eye could see.  If I had more time, I definitely would have spent a few more days there. It would be a great place to ski with some fresh snow.

Speaking of fresh snow, it looks like Bariloche is going to get a bunch of it in the next few days, so (fingers crossed) it should be a great few days. After a week in Bariloche it’s back to Santiago and out to Portillo for, unbelievably, the very last week of this unbelievable journey.

Standing On My Last Leg

July 28th, 2017

Auckland Airport, International Departures

Both of my legs are fine.  It’s just a figure of speech.

Once again I’m sitting in an airport terminal, on my own, waiting for another flight.  Another month has just blown by and I now find myself with six months down and one month to go in this round the world trip.  I am about to fly across the Pacific Ocean to start the very last leg. There are all sorts of emotions running through me.

Perhaps oddly, I’m not entirely sick of sitting in airport terminals.  The time I’ve spent in so many airports in so many places has offered some of the most memorable moments of this trip.  It’s in those instances where the reality of what I am up to really hits me.  It’s a chance to reflect on how far I’ve come since the beginning of the trip, to be excited about what’s ahead, and to just let everything sink in.  It’s a pretty amazing feeling.

These last few days in New Zealand have been great.  After our little adventure up the Matukituki Valley, we got a couple more days of fun touring around Wanaka at Cardrona Resort and The Remarkables ski areas, to make for an even 10 days of skiing on the South Island.  Overall the skiing was a lot of fun, with some good powder days and some crazy adventures that you wouldn’t otherwise get into in Canada (i.e., crossing rivers in bare feet).  It was tough flying back to Auckland the other morning, as lots of snow was in the forecast and the season really was starting to ramp up (when I arrived at the beginning of the month it was still a little early in the season).

On Wednesday morning I flew back to Auckland and rented a car for a short trip down to Tongariro National Park, with hopes of skiing off Mt. Ruapehu, the highest mountain on the North Island and also an active volcano. Thursday was the only day I had to ski, and though the forecast didn’t look great, I decided to head out anyway. Maybe whatever storm that was forecast would get stalled somewhere and give me that little weather window.  Plus it would be cool to explore a little of the North Island.

I arrived to the park on Wednesday afternoon to a bluebird afternoon with great views of Ruapehu and its two other sister volcanoes, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro. Mount Ngauruhoe was the film location of “Mount Doom” in the famous Lord of The Rings movies, and is one of those perfect, symmetrical volcanoes. The whole area looked quite desolate. Things were looking promising weather-wise.

On Thursday morning I awoke a total pea soup whiteout, in classic New Zealand fashion, so the skiing was obviously scrapped. So much for skiing volcanoes in this country.

Today I took most of the day to drive back to the airport here. Shortly after leaving Taupo I stopped to check out the small “Craters of The Moon” park. A large part of new Zealand’s North Island, from Ruapehu in the south all the way to the Bay of Plenty in the north, is one of the most geologically active areas in the world. There are tons of geysers, geothermal pools, craters, and volcanoes to explore. The Craters of The Moon park is just one of those places and included a short walk to see steaming fumaroles, boiling mud pools, and historic craters from previous volcanic activities. Pretty neat.

After a couple more hours of driving north, I arrived in Matamata, the filming location of “Hobbiton”, also from Lord of The Rings/The Hobbit. You can’t actually see any of the movie set without paying the big bucks for a tour (it’s located 3 km off the main road on private property). But, I still made the detour (mostly for Kim’s benefit) out to the setting off point for the tours to take a few pictures. Whoever owns the land on which the film was set must now be a millionaire with the amount of people coming and going to see the set – it was a zoo when I arrived. Understandably so, I suppose, as the whole area was very scenic, with rolling green hills dotted with sheep, small lakes, and forests. Just like in the movies – amazing!

Similarly to the time spent sitting in airports, the hours driving the last few days provided plenty of time for reflection. These last few days have seen a wave of emotions.

When I got to New Zealand I was worried about meeting the right people to go touring with and that not meeting people would prevent me from doing as much touring as I would have liked. But by the end of my time on the South Island I was really happy with the team I’d met, and it was sad to say goodbye to Jamie and Manu the other day.  It would have been easy to spend another month here with them, touring around and enjoying the winter.  It was a good little crew, with others, like my friend Federico (who I connected with through Facebook), joining here and there.

On the flip side of sadness of leaving New Zealand, is the excitement of the next stage of the trip.  Chile and Argentina seem to having a good winter so far, and conditions are looking good. Plus it is the last continent of the trip.  Federico has connected me with some folks in Bariloche, Argentina, and in two weeks three of my best friends will join me for what should be an epic week of skiing at iconic Portillo.  I can’t wait.

And amidst all of that is this overarching feeling that the finish line of this whole thing is in sight.  I wouldn’t say that I am homesick, but I certainly miss the people who are close to me.  I’m starting to picture what it will look like when I land in Montreal in a few weeks. How is it going to feel?  How am I going to react to being home?  Lots of thoughts that, until now, have just seemed so far off in the future.  But thoughts that, in their own way, are also really exciting.  I’ve had to remind myself a little bit the last few days to simply keep enjoying the present, because before I know it, it will all be over.  Right now, the present means getting on an 11 and a half hour flight to Buenos Aires.  Hurray.

Is This Skiing, Or Am I Just Crazy?

July 19, 2017

Wanaka, New Zealand

A German, a Scot, and a Canadian decide to go ski touring for the day.  They drive out of Wanaka, to the end of the paved roadway, and then along a dirt road.  When they get to their “destination”, they pull over to the shoulder, out of the way of traffic that may pass while they are out in the mountains.  They pack up all of their gear for the day and get ready to go.  Instead of clipping their skis onto their feet, they strap them to their backpacks, because there is no snow anywhere near the car.  Instead of putting on their ski boots they clip them into their bindings, on their packs, because the first few hours of the day will be spent hiking. And instead of putting hiking boots on they put on crocs, or don’t bother with any footwear at all, and pull ski pants and long johns up as high as they can go.  That is because the first step of the day is to cross the glacier-fed waters of the Matukituki River.  In the middle of the New Zealand winter. The water isn’t deep (except when the river is crossed in the dark at the end of the day), but it moves quickly and it is freezing.

What a hilarious joke.

Perhaps not all that surprisingly, such is the extent of ski touring in New Zealand that Manu (the German), Jamie (the Scot), and I (the Canadian) have gotten into the last few days.  On this particular day (yesterday as it was), there was actually quite a bit of snow to be skied, some of the best of my time in New Zealand so far.  It’s just that in addition to crossing the freezing cold river, we also had to hop over half a dozen barbed-wire fences, cross a couple tussock (large, mounded clumps of grass) fields that were filled with sheep and cow manure, climb about 700 vertical metres up an old, slippery four wheel drive track (which I did wearing crocs and soaking wet socks) to get to snow line, and then finally put on boots, skis, and skins and climb another 1000 m to the top of some unnamed peak. All the while the helis buzzed overhead, ferrying skiers in minutes to the same powder lines that we were attempting to get to before the sun went down.  If only this trip had a bigger budget.

Not that I am complaining.  It was a beautiful day out, and anytime we looked up from the manure-filled trail, or the eventual skin track, we were rewarded with incredible views of Mount Aspiring and the surrounding National Park.  Plus there is something very satisfying about completing big days out in the mountains, like this particular one.  What exactly that satisfying thing is, I am not sure.  But it’s what keeps us coming back for more.

The peak we were attempting to get to on this day of touring – Mount Alta – turned out to be a little too lofty for a simple day trip (I think the river crossing slowed us down).  So instead we aimed for a high point in front of Mount Alta, which still provided some fun skiing in boot deep powder.  By the time we got there, the sun was already on it’s way down.  We spent a bit of time at the top, soaked in the amazing views, and then enjoyed 1000 m vertical metres of skiing back down to the aforementioned, um, “obstacles”.  By the time we got back to the car it had been dark for over two hours, and we were once again drenched, this time having crossed the river in a somewhat deeper spot because we couldn’t figure out exactly where we’d crossed in the morning.  It took Manu all of about 2 minutes to fall asleep in the camper part of the van, on the drive back into town.  What a great day.

Yesterday also marked my last day with my campervan.  It was so much fun having it that I actually extended the rental period by a couple days, despite the crazy cost of gas.  Apparently $2 NZD/litre is a bit of a deal for gas down here – and the Canadian and New Zealand dollars are roughly equivalent. Ouch.

For the last two weeks Jamie and I, and Manu in the last few days, toured around the island to wherever there was snow.  Generally, we didn’t bother carpooling to save on said expensive gas, because each of our vehicles were not simply a ride to the hills, but were also the bedroom, the kitchen, the gear storage locker, and the drying room.  And I don’t think any of us wanted to subject each other to wet boot liners drying on the dashboard.

After our attempted hut trip near Ohau, Jamie and I explored and skied the mountains near Aoraki/Mount Cook for a few days, and spent a night at the Mueller Hut, where we got to enjoy maybe the brightest full moon that I have ever seen.  We skied some fun lines, with the highest point in New Zealand serving as the backdrop.  We got snowed in in Lake Tekapo for a few days (and spent most of it fighting off a nasty cold/flu bug).  Daily trips to the local hot pools and sauna were in order as we waited out the storm and recovered.  When the sun finally came back out when we enjoyed the fresh powder at Roundhill and learned exactly what the “nutcracker” is at the nearby club field, Fox Peak.

Before getting to New Zealand I had rather optimistically set an objective of 20 ski days in a little under a month.  Realizing that I was unlikely to achieve that, thanks to no snow when I got here, snowstorms and lousy weather, and being sick, I decided after we left Lake Tekapo to pack up the skis for a couple days and explore some different parts of the island, while I had the freedom to do so.  I made a bee line towards the south coast, via Queenstown, and drove through farmlands, along rugged coastlines, and dipped my toes into the edges of the incredibly scenic Fiordland at Te Anau.  At Te Waewae Bay, I stared out to the stormy waters and wondered how long it would take to get to Antarctica, the next point of “land” to the south.  Neat experiences.

And now I’m back in Wanaka (I spent a few nights here at the beginning of the month), at the relaxing Mountain View Backpackers hostel.  Jamie and Manu went off on another adventure today, while I returned the van in Queenstown this morning.  We’ll likely get back out there the next few days, weather and conditions permitting, of course.

The touring here has been a bit of an exercise in patience.  Unlike in Canada, or other places I’ve been to, there is very little skiing to be done below tree line.  That means that when it’s storming out, which it has been doing on a fairly regular basis lately, there is nowhere to go and hide and still have a good day skiing.  So you sit around and wait it out.  And the storms have been pretty crazy.  One day it’s blowing a gale from the northwest, and two days later it’s blowing a gale from the southeast.  The high, variable-direction winds, combined with significant snowfalls, have created a pretty touchy snowpack on most of the South Island. Combined with various different weak layers, the fresh snow and winds have created some prime conditions for sizeable avalanches.  Over the next few days the forecasts are predicting a high danger just about everywhere, so we may be stuck indoors for longer than we’d like.  Unless of course the weather changes suddenly, which it often seems to do.  All part of the fun and games.

Take Me Back to The Snow…

July 7, 2017

Twizel, New Zealand

I’ve been in New Zealand for just over a week now, and it was really only yesterday that I started to fully enjoy and embrace being here.  After spending five months travelling with two of the most important people in my life, my brother and my girlfriend – I mean my girlfriend and my brother (Kim is probably reading this) – it was a bit of an adjustment suddenly being on my own, Month 6 into this trip, as far away from home as I will get.  My arrival was made easier by having a place to stay with a fellow Canadian (thanks to my colleague Lindsay’s brother Oscar), and I met plenty of people at the hostel in Wanaka the last few nights, but it isn’t quite the same feeling as traveling with someone.  That, and I’ve been cold since I arrived in Queenstown.  Maybe going from the equator straight to 45 degrees south latitude was a bit of a miscalculation. I imagine it was part of the reason I got sick for two days. Oh well.

All of that changed yesterday though when I picked up my “wicked” camper van in Queenstown.  Despite the wacky paint shop and crude language painted in block letters for tailgaters to read (the rental company has actually been in some trouble down here because of the not so family friendly graffiti), the van will provide me with two weeks of freedom and flexibility to head to wherever the snow looks good.  And even though it was about minus 10 outside last night, I was nice and cozy inside the van with my sleeping bag and extra blankets that were provided.  I’m ready to do some ski touring!

Because backcountry skiing is not an individual sport, and because Matt got sucked back into work, I’ve had to find some touring buddies for my time down here.  So far, it hasn’t been the easiest thing to do.  I put up a post on some of the Facebook groups down here, and our friend Gavin that we met in Nepal connected me with some of his friends in Wanaka.  But people work for a living, and have other things to do, so despite trading a few numbers I haven’t done any touring yet.  Not really the end of the world, because there isn’t a whole lot of snow as it is. That being said, I did have quite a bit of fun night skiing at Coronet Peak the other night with Oscar and a few of his buddies – continent #5 is in the books!

In the last couple days I’ve connected with Jamie, an avid backcountry skier from Scotland, of all places. Jamie, like me, has better things to do than work five days a week.  So he and I met up yesterday, here in Twizel, and hatched out a plan for the next few days. Despite the more than a dozen-year age difference between the two of us (me being the elder), we both have only one common objective for the next few weeks:  to ski until our legs fall off. Or at least come close.

We got off to a great start towards that objective today when we drove up to the Ohau ski field and loaded up our packs with three days worth of food and overnight gear.  Jamie has been in New Zealand since last October, on a working holiday, so knows his way around the South Island pretty well.  Our plan was to tour up the ski field and drop off the back side of the hill and down into the next valley to stay at the Snowy Gorge Hut.  We checked in with the ski patrol at the top of the hill, gave them the car keys and filled them in on our proposed itinerary for the next few days.

Skinning up the ski field’s cat track was a little slow, given the big pack I was carrying, as well as the fact I hadn’t been out touring for over two months. But it felt great to be touring again.  And when we did finally make it to the top ridge of the ski field, we were rewarded with great views of the Southern Alps, including Mount Cook/Aoraki (New Zealand’s highest peak), and Lake Ohau to the east.  We toured along the ridge towards Mount Sutton to look for a place to drop into the valley.

As we had a break and enjoyed some lunch, looking down into the valley we planned to ski, it started to dawn upon us that Snowy Gorge wasn’t really that snowy.  In fact we probably wouldn’t even be able to ski all the way to the hut.  The snowline looked like it was 300 – 400 m below the ridge where we were sitting, and the hut was another few hundred metres below that! With time and flexibility on our side, we decided to simply turn around and ski back down to the parking lot.  Somewhat sheepishly, with our big overnight packs. The ski patrol was a little surprised to see us so soon, but we got to enjoy some nice turns down the ski field, with Lake Ohau framing the backdrop.

And now we are back at the Wild Buck Pub in Twizel.  Funny little place. Last night when we were in here there was a raffle/bingo game in which you could win household cleaning products and/or canned soup (among other foodstuffs).  We’ve poured through the latest weather and snowforecast.com outlooks to come up with a new plan.  It seems like there is lots of snow up near Mt. Cook, as well as a nice hut that we could base ourselves in for a night or two, so we’ll head there in the morning.  Then later in the week it looks like a fresh storm will pass through, further north at Lake Tekapo area, so we’ll probably try to chase that.  In the meantime, we’ll head out to one of the free campgrounds nearby and park the car for the evening.  I can definitely get in to this routine.

Happy Birthday To Me…Oh, and Dragons

June 24th, 2017

Somewhere on the Flores Sea, Indonesia

It was my birthday a couple days ago.  A tough one this year – 33 years old, yikes.  I insisted to Kim that she not tell a single other person that it was my birthday, mostly because the thought of 25 strangers – many of whom are likely 10 years or more younger than me – singing me happy birthday would be enough to make me want to jump overboard.  And by overboard, I mean overboard of the 60 foot “yacht” that we are currently sitting on, motoring towards Labuan Bajo.

Today is the last of a four day boat cruise we signed up for, from Lombok to Komodo National Park.  Kim and I had always intended to visit Komodo National Park as part of our travels in Indonesia, but we’d initially planned to fly from Kuta, Bali, to Labuan Bajo and sign up for a trip from there.  But while hanging out on Gili Meno, we discovered these 3 night/4 day boat cruises leaving directly from Lombok.  It seemed like a much more relaxing way to get to Komodo, and avoided more than one trip into Kuta, so we signed up.  It’s been perhaps the best part of our time in Indonesia.

Our little cruise got started three days ago at the port town of Labuan Lombok, on the east coast of the island. Years ago I read Carl Hoffman’s book “The Lunatic Express“, in which he describes his travels on the statistically most dangerous modes of transportation in the world.  I distinctly remember reading the chapter about the slow, overcrowded ferry boats in Indonesia, which apparently sink not quite as frequently as the tide goes out.  So we did our homework and read some reviews before deciding on anything. (Seriously, one TripAdvisor review we read said “don’t do the 4 day Lombok to Komodo tours, because when I did my trip last year our boat sank and we spent four days on a life raft”.) The tour group we finally landed on is celebrating it’s 23rd anniversary this year, so we figured they must be doing something right.  And we’re still afloat with the end of the trip in sight – bonus!

The specs and photos of the boat on the company website described a 20 to 25 metre long vessel, with multiple decks, windows and open space to sit under the sun.  It looked quite comfortable and not unlike some of the private yachts we sometimes see moored in the bay in Tadoussac.  When we arrived at the pier in Labuan Lombok, we were greeted by the run down, shabby-looking Mona Lisa 3. The crew enthusiastically welcomed us aboard, while Kim wondered aloud what happened to Mona Lisa 1 and 2.  I chuckled to myself, realizing that we should have known better than to take the website photos at face value.  But on the bright side, Mona Lisa 3 was in much better shape than the ship behind her which, with the exception of the wheelhouse, was completely underwater. As we headed out of the harbour Kim asked if we had reached our top speed. I suspected we hadn’t, given that most boats go quite slowly when heading out to sea. It was only an hour later, when we were well into open waters and still puttering along at the same speed, that I realized we really were on the slow boat to Komodo.

Not that there is anything wrong with a slow boat.  It’s actually been very relaxing.  Each day the crew prepares our meals, and there has been plenty of food for the 26 backpackers on board.  Every so often we stop in a bay, the crew throws out the anchor, and we all jump in the water with snorkeling gear to explore the beautiful coral and numerous types of fish. And beyond that all we have to do is sit on deck, enjoy the sunshine, read, snooze, and set the timer for when we can open our next Bintang (sadly we ran out of Bintang yesterday evening, despite bringing way more than any of the other passengers).

Given the sweat box that is the sleeping quarters onboard, Kim and I decided after Night 1 that we’d spend the remaining nights sleeping under the stars. Surprisingly we were the only ones who opted to. So after the last stragglers crawled into the oven, we pulled out our mats and blankets onto the open upper deck, curled into our meat sacks (the literal translation of the French word for sleeping bag liner that I’ve been using since Matt and I bought them in Chamonix), and fell asleep watching shooting stars and trying to identify Southern Hemisphere constellations. A novel way to get some rest.

Despite the lack of happy birthday songs and candles to blow out, my birthday was actually a really great day, and likely one of the more unique birthdays that I’ll remember.  It was nice to spend it with just Kim.  After waking up to watch the sunrise, and scarfing down a quick breakfast, we swam ashore to Moyo Island, and wandered into the forest to a series of waterfalls and pools to swim and splash around in. Later we moored again at Satonda Island where we spent time snorkeling and walking on shore to visit a salt water lake.  At Satonda we saw a little group of clown fish (the Nemo ones) darting in and out of an anemone.  So neat and colorful.

Two nights ago, we motored through the night and yesterday morning woke up to flat calm waters inside the boundaries of the incredible Komodo National Park.  After a pit stop at Gili Laba to stretch out the sea legs, we carried on to Manta Point, where we got to “swim with giant manta rays”.  Being in the water in the vicinity of manta rays is probably a more fitting description than swimming with them.

The whole scene was quite comical, and reminded me somewhat of the chaos that often ensues while whale watching on the St. Lawrence.  As we approached the observation zone, where a half a dozen boats were already milling about, the crew started shouting to the other boats to see if any mantas had been spotted.  Shortly after, our guide spotted one and yelled “Go!”, and then 25 of us literally jumped overboard and swam after the manta. Not wanting to get kicked in the face, or have our snorkels ripped off by an overzealous swimmer, Kim and I decided to hang back and swim the other way.  We were rewarded for our decision and for about 30 seconds we were able to swim behind a single, beautiful manta.  I even got Kim in the GoPro frame!  Without flippers we were unable to keep up to the animal and soon it was out of sight.  We swam back to the boat and repeated the whole jumping overboard exercise two or three more times before motoring off for lunch and some swimming at Pink Beach.

Last night we moored in a beautiful bay just off shore of an island (I think it was Komodo Island, but I’d have to look at a map). Someone thought they saw a tiger shark swimming around, so there was no going in the water – even though a couple miles around the corner it was just fine!

Today was the “big” day of the trip – walking through to the forest to hunt Komodo dragons (with our cameras, as the tour brochure states).  The morning included two stops – one on Komodo Island, and a second on Rinca Island.  The islands are two of four islands in the world that the dragons call home.  Beforehand we were cautioned that it is currently mating season, and so actually seeing a dragon might not be all that likely.

Fortunately luck was on our side, and before even walking under the “Welcome to Komodo National Park” sign on Komodo Island, we spotted a dragon along the beach.  The thing could have been mistaken for an oddly-shaped piece of driftwood, because it was lying there doing nothing, but it was close enough to the walkway that it was obviously a dragon.  As the crowd started to grow the dragon rose from its slumber and wandered off into the woods.  Pretty strange looking animal, that moved rather slowly, but can apparently run up to 20 km/h if it wants to.

After an hour-long walk through the forest and savannah, which yielded nothing but a few nice views of the island, we arrived back at the ranger station to see a second dragon snacking next to the ranger shacks.  The second one was a little more active, and the rangers warned us all to stay behind them in case they needed to fend off the dragon with their wooden poles.  What is it with wooden poles to fend off dangerous animals?

Our experience on Rinca Island was similar to Komodo:  a few dragons spotted within 100 feet of the ranger cabins, but none on the jungle walk.  Interestingly, I guess, we witnessed a couple dragons engaging in the early stages of dragon-mating.  According to our guide the whole episode can last up to several hours.  Our boat was leaving soon, and so we didn’t get to witness the whole deed.  What a drag…

After one last swimming stop a little earlier, we are now within sight of Labuan Bajo, the harbour town on Flores Island and the end of our four day trip.  We’re spending a couple nights in Labuan Bajo and then will fly back to Kuta, on Bali.  Hard to believe that our time together is winding down.  In a few sleeps Kim will head home and back to work, and I will fly south, back to winter, to ski the slopes of the Southern Alps in New Zealand.

Bangkok, Beaches, and Bintangs

June 17, 2017

Amed Coast, Bali

First I traded in my ski boots.  Then I traded in my hiking boots.  And most recently, much to Kim’s delight, I’ve traded in my super practical crocs.  For snorkeling flippers. Or, when we aren’t in the water, bare feet.  Might as well get to work on my summer callous, despite the abbreviated summer that I am now in the middle of.

After saying our goodbyes to a wonderful month in Nepal, we headed south for Indonesia, but not without a not one, but four night stopover in Bangkok.  There was nothing particularly appealing about Bangkok that made us want to visit, but there was no additional cost to adding a stopover on my round the world ticket and Kim’s flight deals were such that BKK is her travel hub for our time together. Plus it’s also where the film Hangover Part 2 is based, so we decided to see if we couldn’t re-enact a few of the scenes.

For our stay in Bangkok we opted for the (swanky?), four-star Royal Bangkok Hotel, complete with roof top pool, in the Chinatown District.  It was a nice place to base ourselves, with a lively Chinese night market (delicious fresh seafood and street dishes), right outside the hotel front door.  It was fun to wander around the neighbourhood and taste some different foods.

Despite our best attempts to avoid one scam or another, we lasted only a half day when a tuk tuk driver approached us outside the Royal Palace.  For about two bucks, he would drive us around to see three different temples, including the giant, standing Buddha.  All we had to do was make one quick pit stop at the tailor shop – with no obligation to buy anything.  It was a win-win!  Of course the pit stop wasn’t that quick and after much hemming and hawing, feigned polite persuasion from the tailors, we walked out of the store having put down a deposit on a tailor made suit for me (navy blue to match my McGill tie) and a winter coat for Kim.  On the one hand I was kicking myself for getting sucked into buying a suit, but on the other I’d been thinking about getting one made while in Bangkok.  As soon as we got back to the hotel we googled the tailor shop and sure enough all sorts of terrible reviews came up.  One guy claimed that he looked “lopsided” when he put his suit on.  Another said they use lousy materials to make everything.  All of the positive reviews seemed made up and fabricated.  We were skeptical.  After two return trips to the tailor for fittings and final touch ups, we were happy (I would say more relieved) to walk out of there with finished products that actually turned out pretty nicely.

For the remainder of our time in Bangkok we stayed out of trouble, for the most part, and enjoyed some of the city sights. We cruised up and down the Chao Phraya River on the local ferry boats, visited several of the city’s famous temples, and checked out the Sky Bar (one of the scenes from Hangover II – fortunately no one got arrested as is the case in the movie). Also, apparently, the highest open air bar in the world.  And likely most expensive cocktails. By our fourth morning in the city we were ready to move on, which is exactly what we did when we boarded our flight to Denpasar, Bali.

The pace of life really seemed to slow down when we arrived in Indonesia, and it hasn’t really changed in the two weeks that we’ve now been here.  After three months of pretty intense skiing, followed by almost a month of trekking in the Nepal Himalaya, I was definitely feeling ready for some serious relaxing.  Our time here has been just that.

The days have revolved heavily around the beaches, which have generally been within a stones throw of our bed.  The beach activities change depending on our mood and location, and have included snorkelling, surfing, walking, sleeping, reading, watching the sunset, or a combination of several of those in no particular order.

And how could I forget the Bintangs?!  Bintang, a cool, refreshing beer, which may also be the unofficial symbol of Indonesia, has been a daily staple.  They come in two sizes (small or large, though we typically only go for the large ones), and taste fantastic after surfing or snorkelling, with grilled fish, or in the morning on one of the inter-island fast boats.  We’ve also used the price of Bintang on the restaurant menus to help choose our evening dinner location (if it’s more than 5 bucks for a large Bintang, we usually move on!)

After landing on Bali we quickly transferred over to Gili Meno, an island just off the west coast of Lombok.  It was a small island, not more than a couple square kilometres, but the five nights we spent there were exactly what we needed to really get in to the island life.  Wonderful reefs, tons of tropical fish, and sea turtles to watch while snorkelling just off-shore; perfect white sand beaches to walk and go swimming, and just far enough away from party-central Gili Trawangan (Meno’s bigger island sibling a little further west).

From Gili Meno, we pulled ourselves together just long enough to get over to Kuta, a small surfing village on the south coast of Lombok.  Each morning there we’d wake up, have our breakfast, and then make our way out to Selong Belanak, a beginner’s surf break a half hour ride west of town.  On our first morning there we met Aldi, one of the local surf pros who set us up with boards, a nice beach umbrella, and offered us a few tips.  The next day he hooked us up with a two-hour lesson and before long we were both hopping up on some small waves.  Despite flailing around far more on a surf board than I do on skis, I can see how the two sports can be similar and addicting.  I’m hooked!

In the evenings in Kuta we would wander into the village and literally choose the fish that we wanted grilled for dinner.  Each day the fisherman would bring in the day’s catch to many of the restaurants, who would then prepare them as part of a delicious meal with rice and veggies.  It has been great tasting so many different types of fish: marlin, red snapper, barracuda, and parrot fish, to name a few.

And now we are back on Bali, in the little village of Jemeluk, on the northeast coast of the island.  It might be our favorite place to date.  The patio door of our hotel room opens right onto the black sand beach and 10 metres into the water there is a healthy reef packed with all kinds of fish. Elderly ladies peddle 7-dollar, hour-long massages (pronounced “massaze” by the ladies), which we have both enjoyed, and the lounge chairs have provided the perfect napping venue.

We even tried our hand at fishing this morning, as part of a pre-sunrise fishing trip with one of the locals.  While having lunch up the beach yesterday, the restaurant host told us his brother could take us out for a couple hours this morning.  So shortly after 5:00 am we stumbled out the door in the pitch dark and waited for our skipper to arrive.  After about 20 minutes he did finally show up, and we piled onto his boat:  basically a deep canoe with long outriggers to prevent the thing from capsizing.  It was actually a quite stable and comfortable ride.

But there were no fish to be found, or caught.  We trolled back and forth under the shadow of Gunung Agung and watched the sun rise over the Bali Sea (a beautiful way to start the day), but not a single fish was hungry for breakfast.  On the way in, right before the skipper rammed his boat onto shore, Kim suggested perhaps we just fish in the reef. It seems to be the only place where the fish actually hang out!

We’ve got a couple more nights here in Jemeluk, and then it will be time to move on once more.  From here we will head back over to Lombok to begin our trip to Komodo National Park, in the eastern part of the country. If we are lucky we’ll get to see the famous Komodo dragons!

We Made It, Without a Scratch

May 31, 2017 – 8:00PM

Kathmandu

It is our last night in Nepal tonight. We are back in Kathmandu, at the same hotel where we stayed before heading off on our trek.  Amazingly, my giant ski bag (and a few other pieces of luggage) survived in the hotel storage while we were away. Tomorrow morning, we’ll have just a bit of time for once last wander through the Thamel before heading to the airport for our flight to Bangkok.

The last few days have been eventful, exciting, and enjoyable. After flying back to Kathmandu from Lukla, we spent a few days in Chitwan National Park to see some of the amazing wildlife that calls Nepal home.  Getting back to Kathmandu, and to and from Chitwan, were adventures in themselves.

Rewind to May 27th, the day we flew out of Lukla.

The Lukla airport is without doubt the scariest airport that I have flown out of.  When we arrived in Lukla a few days ago, we walked over to the airport to re-confirm our seats for the flight (a box-ticking exercise that seemed totally redundant) and we watched a couple planes takeoff.  The runway is about 500 m long, has a 12 degree slope, and aims straight at the mountains a short distance away on the other side the valley. The whole thing looks like one of those scary roller coaster rides that you see at amusement parks, except that it’s not.  It’s real.  Flights in and out of Lukla are notoriously cancelled due to bad weather, and crashes are not uncommon.  The days leading up to our flight were no different.  Multiple flights were delayed the day before we left and some friends that we had met along the trek didn’t fly out until a few hours before us (a day later than scheduled).  And then literally only a couple hours after our plane took off, an inbound aircraft missed the landing strip on the final approach and crashed.  The plane only had three people on board, but sadly the pilot died on the scene and the two others suffered serious injuries.

Our flight (flight number 7 of the day) was a bit of a waiting game.  First we had to wait for the day before’s backlog of passengers to fly out, and then cross our fingers that the weather stayed clear enough for the pilots on our flight to see the other side of the valley.  Eventually we boarded, about two hours later than planned, but in good enough conditions to fly.

The takeoff was as exciting/nerve-wracking as it looked while watching the day before.  The Lukla airport doesn’t really have room for planes to “taxi” out to the runway, so the planes basically turn around in the boarding area and then promptly rocket down the downward sloping runway.  The guy beside me had one hand on the seat in front of him and the other clutching his own seat. I watched him catch the odd glimpse out the window and then quickly return his gaze to the seatback in front of him. I think he was a little nervous.

The flight itself was not that bad.  A little bumpy initially, to get through some of the clouds, and at times it looked like the dual props were going to trim some of the tree branches on the hillsides below us, but eventually it smoothed out and within about half an hour we were already back in Kathmandu.  I can’t remember why we decided not to fly to Lukla.

After spending a night Kathmandu, during which we both enjoyed a first real hot shower in over three weeks, we headed to Chitwan.  Chitwan is 160 or so kilometres west of Kathmandu and home to a wide variety of animals including rhinos, crocodiles, tons of different birds, and elusive Bengal tigers.  It is also the first national park founded in Nepal, and has been a World Heritage Site since the 1980s.

One would have thought that a single, long-distance bus ride in Nepal would be enough to confirm it as a “challenging” mode of transportation. However, we decided that at least two rides were needed and booked tickets on one of the larger and supposedly comfier “tourist” buses to get ourselves to the park.  We assumed it couldn’t be any worse than the ride to Shivalaya, especially considering the bulk of the driving would be along Nepal’s main east-west highway, and our handy travel agent near the hotel booked us “good” seats near the front.

Unfortunately for us, and perhaps conveniently for others, nobody bothered to tell us that the main highway was undergoing major construction works until after we had paid for the bus tickets.  To make matters worse, when we boarded the bus at 6:30 am the conductor informed us that our “good” seats at the front were already booked and so invited us to enjoy the very last seats in the bus, about 8 feet behind the rear wheel axle.  Guess what? The ride to Chitwan was worse than the ride to Shivalaya.  Bus travel in Nepal is indeed challenging.  The whole ride clocked in around 8 hours, and every little pothole we went over was amplified by the fact we were basically sitting at the end of a diving board.  Had it not been for the price tag of a 25 minute flight back to Kathmandu, we likely wouldn’t have endured a third bus ride in Nepal, but that is another story.

The dreadful bus ride was redeemed by another delicious lunch-stop dahl bhat meal, and the quiet lodge that we checked ourselves into in the village of Sauraha, on the northern park boundary.  For a little more than the cost of a six pack of craft beer in downtown Vancouver, we settled into a nice little bungalow next to a fish pond and tried to spot some of the many birds that could be heard in the trees.

The lodge was very peaceful and offered a variety of jungle activities to explore the park.  We opted for a full day trip into Chitwan, which included a two-hour canoe ride down the Rapti River, followed by a jungle walk for the remainder of the day.  It seemed like a nice way to get a good perspective of the park.

Our guide, Bishnu, was excellent.  Before we even stepped foot in the canoe – a long, wooden boat carved from a single tree trunk, that sat pretty low above the water – he pointed out a rhino taking a bath in the river upstream, at least three crocodiles lying not far from our launching point (presumably waiting for a free breakfast), and a half a dozen different kinds of birds.

“I think my work here is done for the day”, Bishnu said.

He then went on to explain the difference between the Gharial crocodiles (the ones with long skinny snouts, who feed primarily on fish), and the other, aptly named “mugger” crocodiles (who, according to Bishnu, prefer to snack on white tourists)! Then we all hopped into the canoe and floated off.

The canoe ride was very pleasant. None of us actually had to paddle – there was a boatman at the back who guided us down the river with a long pole and a paddle when he needed it. Bishnu sat at the front and rhymed off different bird species – kingfishers, egrets, cranes – faster than any of us could spot them; we stopped and took pictures of a couple of rhinos that were eating in the reeds; we spotted a couple wild boars; and every so often the assistant guide sitting behind me would whisper “crocodile” in my ear and quietly point to the lazy looking animals lying on the shore nearby. Awesome.

Towards the end of the canoe ride, we came around a corner in the river and Bishnu loudly whispered “TIGER!”  There was another couple in the boat with us and I was the only one who didn’t see it.  The guy in front actually got a great picture of the beautiful animal before it darted off into the woods.  Instead of carrying on our way down the river, Bishnu quickly commanded the boatman to head ashore so that we could follow the tiger into the forest.  So. That. We. Could. Follow. The. Tiger. Into. It’s. Natural. Habitat. Kim and I gave each other a kind of “WTF?” look, and then shrugged it off, feeling safe in the knowledge that both of our guides were carrying six foot long bamboo poles. Surely enough to knock out a grown Bengal tiger should we come around the corner and meet it face to face, get into a staring contest, and piss the thing off.

Shortly into the forest, Bishnu sniffed a wet spot on one of the sal trees – “Tiger urine, fresh“, and then pointed out a couple tracks in the mud.  We continued to tip toe along the path in utter silence, bamboo poles and cameras at the ready, to see if we could catch a closer glimpse.  I felt just a little bit vulnerable, especially having read John Vaillant’s book “The Tiger“, where he explains how the Bengal tigers relatives, the Siberian tigers, literally hunt humans.  Fortunately (I think?!) there was no further sign of the great animal and soon after, Bishnu, seemingly dejected, led us back to the boat to finish the rest of our canoe ride down the crocodile-infested Rapti River.

Later, back on shore and out of range of chomping crocodile jaws, Bishnu led us down game paths and jungle roads in search of rhinos (not lions), tigers and bears, oh no.  The heat was sweltering, and the 5 litres of water we brought for the two of us seemed a little underestimated, but wandering through the jungle was exciting and had an adventurous feel to it. Of course that didn’t stop us from looking over our shoulders on a regular basis.

Given the heat, animals were tough to spot, but we were fortunate to get a few sightings:  a rhino up close, hanging out in the reeds, two different kinds of deer, and even a second look at the beautiful tiger that we’d seen in the morning.  This time I spotter her – if only for long enough to process the fact it was a tiger.  But amazing nonetheless!

And of course there were the crocodiles.  After lunch we started following some tiger tracks to a regular watering hole where Bishnu told us that animals often go to escape the heat.  As we came out of the woods and arrived a stream, Bishnu invited us to take off shoes and socks off and wade across the stream.   “There are no crocodiles here”, he assured all of us as we looked at him as if to say “are you effing crazy?!”.  He was right as usual, however, there were no crocodiles and we all crossed with feet, legs, and toes still attached.

As we continued towards the watering hole, Bishnu hung a right down a small path back towards the stream, which seemed to be not more than 100 feet up from where we just crossed.  Apparently here was a place that the crocodiles sometimes hung out!  Sure enough, there was one hiding in the water with only its eyes to be seen – the other girl with us couldn’t believe we’d crossed the stream nearby.  Bishnu approached and soon the crocodile started moving towards us.  Then it started coming out of the water.  Then it hissed at us and opened it’s mouth to say get lost.  I started running away and hid behind Bishnu and Krishna (the assistant guide), while the two of them laughed and thrashed their bamboo poles in the bushes next to the pissed off croc. Of course it was only after we started walking away that Bishnu told us the crocodile sometimes nests in the very sand we were standing in!

The rest of our time in Chitwan provided some much needed rest after our weeks of trekking (and the jungle walk, for that matter).  We wandered through the village, enjoyed sunsets along the river, and visited the elephant bathing area.  It was nice to experience a different part of Nepal – it’s not just all big mountains and glaciers!  This morning, or rather all of today, we toughed out the bus ride back to Kathmandu and are feeling ready for the next stage of the trip.

It has been an incredible month, with wonderful company, and an adventure that will certainly get added to the bank of lifetime memories.  I hope to come back again someday.