Purple Peak Adventures: Blog http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog en-us (C) Purple Peak Adventures eramaptec@gmail.com (Purple Peak Adventures) Mon, 22 Jan 2018 22:41:00 GMT Mon, 22 Jan 2018 22:41:00 GMT http://purplepeakadventures.com/img/s/v-5/u975909155-o631242802-50.jpg Purple Peak Adventures: Blog http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog 90 120 'Off-Grid' in Arctic Sweden: Trekking the Dag Hammarskjöldleden http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2017/12/off-grid-in-arctic-sweden-trekking-the-dag-hammarskj-ldleden The Tjäktjavagge Valley SwedenThe Tjäktjavagge Valley SwedenThe vista back down the Tjäktjavagge Valley from near the top of the Tjäktja Pass

The Call of the Wild: Nikkaluokta to Kebnekaise (19 km)

Last September (2016) we visited Arctic Sweden for the first time, trekking part of the 425 kilometre Kungsleden Trail. We were so impressed by the raw beauty and tranquillity of this unspoilt region that we made a decision to return the following autumn. Twelve months later we are back in Kiruna, gateway to the Swedish Arctic, waiting for a local bus to take us to Nikkaluokta to begin a trek along the Dag Hammarskjöldleden (The Dag Hammarskjöld Way), albeit in reverse ending, rather than starting, at the small settlement of Abisko.

The bus glides past the outskirts of Kiruna, the sprawling iron ore mining town which is being moved block by block to a new location due to subsidence, and passes into the alpine tundra resplendent in its autumnal shades of russet, yellow and gold. An hour later carrying my 17 kilo backpack, I’m passing beneath the wooden structure resembling a Sámi tent just outside the small settlement of Nikkaluokta which marks the Dag Hammarskjöldleden.

The day is still and somewhat overcast and the air cool with a tincture of earthiness as we set out along the trail through scrubland and birch forest. I feel a sense of relief mingled with exhilaration to be escaping into the Swedish wilderness for the next week. Off-grid. There will be no mobile phone signal. No electricity. No Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. No traffic. No neighbours’ dogs barking at ungodly hours, young children screaming over the garden wall...

Out here in the Arctic wilderness the extraneous white noise of life – the ceaseless cacophony of banal urbanity - is filtered out. In its place, the great symphony of nature - the faint buzz of an insect’s wing, the light whoosh of feathers, the wind whispering through the grass, the roar of a distant river – brings an inner calm, a rare opportunity to readjust the vertical hold in one’s life, to take stock of what is truly important, what really matters. This trek was to be particularly cathartic for me as I had just suffered the loss of my father to cancer, and the void he had left in my life seemed too vast to contemplate. That we are trekking the Dag Hammarskjöldleden (Dag Hammarskjöld Way), a ‘pilgrimsleden’ named after a Swedish diplomat who died before his time, is somehow very fitting.

Dag Hjalmar Agne Carl Hammarskjöld (1905-1961) served as the second Secretary-General of the United Nations from April 1953 until his sudden death in a plane crash in September 1961. Described by President Kennedy as 'the greatest statesman of our century', following his death a series of religious, spiritual and philosophical musings were discovered in  his New York apartment which were published posthumously as a collection named Vägmärken (Markings). Famous for quotes such as ‘the longest journey is the journey inwards’, in 2004 a 105 kilometre-long hiking trail between Abisko (where Hammarskjöld lived) and Nikkaluokta, was inaugurated to honour his memory. Along the trail which is intended to be a pilgrimage (‘a journey inwards’ perhaps?), are seven meditation sites with selected texts taken from Markings that are inscribed in stone in both Swedish and Sámi.

We are walking in the direction of a line of distant snow-covered peaks etched against a steel-grey sky which offer a stunning contrast to the rich tapestry of autumnal colours woven by the trees and shrubs – saffron-yellow, burnt-orange, cinnabar-red – which skirt the naked grey rock of the nearby hillsides. Our pace is brisk as we are en route to the shore of Lake Láddjujávri where we must arrive in time to catch the 1.30 pm boat that will take us across the lake, saving us about 6km of walking through boggy terrain. The trail which runs above the Láddjujohka River is surfaced with gravel for much of this section making walking easy and provides a great warm up for the days of trekking that lie ahead. A couple of kilometres from Nikkaluokta we encounter the first of many metal bridges that enable trekkers to safely cross the scores of ice cold rushing rivers in this region. The blue-green water framed by saffron-coloured trees is especially pleasing to the eye.

We arrive at the lake fifteen minutes or so before the boat leaves, and at a small wooden kiosk pay the 350 kroner each (35 euro) for the 20-30 minute trip. Unfortunately, being the very fag end of the season means we are to be denied the experience of a juicy ‘Lap Dånalds’ reindeer burger, the booth for which is now closed for the winter!

Lake Láddjujávri JettyLake Láddjujávri Jetty The boat cuts through the still surface of the chalky turquoise water like a knife through butter, bringing us closer to the mountains wreathed in cloud beneath leaden skies at the far end of the valley. As if on cue, the cloud lifts a little permitting views of Kebnekaise, Sweden’s highest mountain. Its name is derived from the Sámi Giebmegáisi which means ‘Cauldron Crest’. This mountain has two main peaks, of which the southern, glaciated one is highest at 2,097.5 metres above sea level (as of August 2014). The northern peak is 2,096.8 metres and free of ice. Due to the shrinkage of the glacier surrounding the southern peak, it is possible the northern peak will assume the title of the highest point in Sweden; as of summer 2016 the difference in altitude was just one foot. However, it’s the conical shape of Doulbagorni that really steals the show, resembling a hard-boiled egg with its top loped off; in the gaping glacial crater at its summit lies a yolk of pristine white snow.

Swedish mountains from Laddujavri LakeSwedish mountains from Laddujavri Lake At the far end of the lake, glacial sediment deposits have resulted in a maze of shallow channels and the boat carefully meanders its way around partially submerged sand banks colonised by dwarf willow, and up into the main river before coming to a halt at a small jetty.

The trail becomes far more rugged and stony hereafter as it weaves its way below the imposing fortress-like rock walls of Darfaloalagis and passes by the seventh and last meditation point along the Dag Hammarskjöldleden (if you were approaching from Abisko). The route then climbs gently towards the canyon cut by the Darfáljohka River which flows through the landscape like a thumping, throbbing artery.

Doulbagorni and the Darfáljohka RiverDoulbagorni and the Darfáljohka River Once past the suspension bridge over the canyon, the birch trees begin to thin out and are replaced by scrub. Here and there, patches of harebells cling on as memories of summer past, surrounded by ember-red leaves of bilberry and crowberry.

Trekking to Kebnekaise FjällstationTrekking to Kebnekaise Fjällstation

Late-afternoon, a wooden boardwalk brings us to the Kebnekaise Fjällstation, base camp for those climbing the mountain which bears its name, but which ironically cannot be seen from here. It is teeming with people, which strikes us as unusual for the time of year as there is less than a week to go before the station closes for the season.

Kebnekaise FjällstationKebnekaise Fjällstation The facilities here are excellent, with the usual well-stocked shop, climbing gear hire, sauna, bar area with an open fire, and a restaurant serving three course evening meals; craft beer aficionados will appreciate the wide range of Swedish and other beers on offer! Our buffet dinner includes a starter of reindeer soup with zingy lingonberry relish and/or cured meats, pickled herring, cheeses and a variety of salads, followed by poached salmon with seasonal root vegetables, and rounded off with a desert of raspberry and dark chocolate mousse. After a night cap in the bar in the gammalstugan (old cottage), we settle into our private two person dorm where, after the last shower we will have for a week, we sleep like logs.

 

In the Shadow of Behemoths: Kebnekaise to Singi (14km)

The next day does not appear to hold much promise weather-wise, and from our dorm window I can see that the nearby mountains, beribboned with snow, are partially shrouded in cloud. After a hearty breakfast, and hut chores complete, we hit the trail heading towards Singi and into the wilderness where our mobile signals soon die. Around here the birch and dwarf willow lie lower to the ground than those in the denser birch woodlands we passed through yesterday. Hunkered down to give a lower profile to the wind which in this northern corner of Europe often howls without mercy day and night, they are stunted and twisted. Eventually they thin out to nothing, and the raw beauty of the alpine tundra is laid out like an inviting blanket before us.

En route to Singi from KebnekaiseEn route to Singi from Kebnekaise We cross a metal bridge over a roaring river that leaps joyously down the hillside from a distant glacier in a series of small waterfalls. The trail leads on over great grey slabs of exposed rock, past boulders as big as houses, before entering the narrow Láddjuvággi Valley where it follows the bank of a river and becomes progressively rockier.

Waterfall near KebnekaiseWaterfall near Kebnekaise The mountains, Siŋŋičohkka, Liddubákti and Skarttoaivi with their huge, near-vertical walls of naked rock, rear upwards as if to challenge the sky itself, and from their craggy flanks waterfalls drift downwards like skeins of white silk. Passing below these 1,000 metre high rocky behemoths, I feel very small indeed.

All day the fine mist hanging in the air has threatened to give way to light rain, and finally it delivers. Cloud flows down from the mountaintops like liquid nitrogen, flooding the valley bottom with a ghostly-grey haze. Out here the sensation of soft rain on my face does not feel like an inconvenience, and I'm energised by its refreshing caress. We stop briefly to don our waterproof jackets and press on along the stony trail past pools and lakes of burnished silver, the still surfaces of which are blurred by the concentric rings of raindrops.

The ground rises gradually to the Singi Pass which provides the watershed for the valley. The rain has now stopped, the mist has dissipated somewhat and the sun is making an effort to peer through the cloud, enabling us to finally catch a glimpse of the wide Tjäktjavagge Valley. As we begin the descent towards Singi the landscape is less rugged and more undulating, and passes close to the shore of the ribbon-shaped Lake Liddubákti. Looking back, the jagged west ridge of Liddubákti now resembles an enormous pyramid, its ice-streaked slopes gleaming in the feeble autumn sunlight.

With this mountain riding the horizon, we decide to search for a place to camp in order to enjoy the view. About a kilometre above the Singi Hut we settle for a spot on a small plateau on the cushion-soft mossy tundra which has a small stream close by for water. In the broad valley bottom, I can see the wooden STF Singi Huts and several Sámi settlements which these days only hum with life at the annual round-up and marking of the reindeer calves in early summer.

Wild Camp above Singi Hut, SwedenWild Camp above Singi Hut, Sweden Sunset is a dull affair, the sun swallowed in a bank of thick grey cloud which spreads slowly across the sky with malevolent intent. There is to be no celestial light-show tonight and before long the percussive pattering of rain on canvas signals it’s time to crawl into our sleeping bags for the night.

 

Traipsing Through Tjäktjavagge: Singi to Sälka (12 km)

It rained on and off throughout the night and the morning dawns grey and overcast; mist is swirling in the valley below and the atmosphere is pregnant with rain. I feel somewhat reluctant to leave the warmth of my sleeping bag.

A steepish descent down off the plateau over a track of friable calcareous ground brings us to the Singi Hut. This is the point where the Dag Hammarskjöldleden meets the Kungsleden (King’s Way), a very popular 425 kilometre route running from Hemavan in the south to Abisko in the north. The hut is quite quiet with only a few days to go before it will close for the season. We hear the sound of someone chopping wood, the warden, and exchange a few words with him before availing of the toilets and hitting the trail which runs north through the broad bottom of the Tjäktjavagge Valley.

Singi HutSingi Hut As we gain height, skirting the slopes of Siŋŋičohkka, the view back down the valley towards Kaitumjaure is epic. The Tjäktjavagge River and numerous chilled-mercury lakes gleam fiercely under battleship-grey cloud which seems to bear down on the Singi Hut and the Sámi settlements which look diminutive set against the enormity of the landscape. Yet even on such a dull day the tundra is bursting with colour, and I marvel at a capillary of blood-red bilberry leaves fanned out against a steel-grey boulder mottled with pale green lichen.

Tjäktjavagge Valley and RiverTjäktjavagge Valley and River Autumnal bilberry leavesAutumnal bilberry leaves The trail sweeps round towards the emergency shelter at Kuopperjåkka above the Tjäktjavagge River which has braided into myriad channels which wriggle through the russet bog in the broad valley floor like scores of silver eels. It begins to rain lightly just as we approach the triangle-shaped wooden shelter which is equipped with a small wood burning stove, table and benches. We stop here for lunch. The rain has passed over by the time we hit the trail again, and after about a kilometre we cross the foaming, seething Guobirjohka River via a metal suspension bridge. The river, fed by meltwater from the Rabots Glacier on Kebnekaise, has carved quite a canyon here and the roar of its water as it squeezes through the narrow cleft of rock is exhilarating.

Suspension Bridge over the Guobirjohka RiverSuspension Bridge over the Guobirjohka River Cloud rests softly on the nearby mountain peaks like a cloth draped over pillows, smothering the views we would have had of the Rabots Glacier on Kebnekaise to the east. A cruel wind whistles down through the Čuhčavággi Valley to our west, sending us hurrying along towards one of the meditation points. Shortly after, we pass through a reindeer fence marking the boundary between two Sámi villages. One of the most rewarding sights in the Arctic is seeing the reindeer skipping across the open tundra. But today there is no sign of them and we trudge on, crossing a couple of new bridges over the Gaskkasjohka River which has split into two channels.

Eventually we spot the chocolate-brown huts at Sälka, built on a slight knoll above a brook flowing down from Stuor Reaiddavaggi and off the slopes of nearby Gaskkasnjunni which lies opposite Sälka Mountain, reflected in the still waters of a nearby lake fringed with orange reeds. Its glacier however, is lost in the cloud.

Sälka MountainSälka Mountain We pick a camping spot about 500 metres away from the huts close to a bend in the brook where we can source water for cooking. Again, the low cloud banishes any hope we have of seeing the northern lights, or indeed the Milky Way, and we retire to our tent before nightfall.

 

The High Point of the Trail: Sälka to Tjäktja (12 km)

As we break camp the sun is rising behind the mountains, bulldozing great warm avenues through the billowing clouds in a forget-me-not blue sky. The weather is hopefully about to change for the better. Sälka Hut has a small shop and we stop by for some supplies: drinking chocolate, sachets of coffee, a few extra packets of dried food and some salted liquorice (it’s impossible to visit Scandinavia without trying this!), before hitting the trial towards the Tjäktja Pass, which at 1,150 metres is the highest point along the Kungsleden.

Dawn at the Sälka HutDawn at the Sälka Hut The sun is warming our backs as we pass along a snaking boardwalk through whispering bog grass. With the improving weather, a multitude of spiders seems to have flooded the tundra. Clutching their snare strings tightly which shimmer and tremble as we pass by on the wooden boardwalk, they flee ahead of our footfall.

A pair of trekkers in the Tjäktjavagge ValleyA pair of trekkers in the Tjäktjavagge Valley The trail begins to climb gradually bringing us to a sweeping plateau studded with lakes. Great mats of lemming droppings are strewn across the bare patches of ground where we stop for lunch in the shelter of a bank of moraine, but they do not make an appearance. We watch cloud gambolling over the bald mountaintops and huge shafts of light radiating down through the breaks in the churning cloud. The pewter-grey lakes glare lividly in the autumn light. Far off in the direction of Sälka great curtains of rain are falling, an ethereal sight backlit by the sunlight.

Lakes in the Tjäktjavagge Valley, SwedenLakes in the Tjäktjavagge Valley, Sweden The trail continues to rise gently weaving its way alongside the Tjäktjavagge River which in places forms pretty deep blue lakes. As the valley narrows towards the pass, the cold air sinking down from the Tjäktjatjåkka Glacier condenses as it meets the warmer air in the valley, causing cloud to pour downslope like a fluid. A shimmering rainbow hanging in a majestic arch is reflected in the still surface of one of the lakes, adding a touch of sheer magic.

Tjäktjavagge Valley RainbowTjäktjavagge Valley Rainbow The trail now climbs steeply up to the pass. Near the top we stop at the fourth mediation spot which offers grandstand views down over the valley we have just traversed. The panorama hits me square between the eyes as if an invisible fist has punched me. My world is abruptly catapulted into wide angle, my eyeballs stretched around vast spaces. The landscape is very much like the Highlands of Scotland. The mountains share the same geology, the land has undergone the same glacial transformations and the flora and fauna bears similarities. But here in Arctic Sweden everything is amplified; the mountains are bigger, the corries still hold ice – remnants of the last glacial age - and the sense of isolation and solitude is profound. I close my eyes, stretch out my arms, and exhale. Sheer bliss.

Fourth meditation point on the Dag HammarskjöldledenFourth meditation point on the Dag Hammarskjöldleden Twenty minutes later we arrive at the Tjäktja Pass. A hut and an outhouse are perched on an exposed rocky shelf above a small pool. We go inside out of the wind to celebrate gaining the highest point on our 105 kilometre trek with a nip of Norwegian Linie from our hip-flasks.

Tjäktja Pass (1,150m) highest point on the KungsledenTjäktja Pass (1,150m) highest point on the Kungsleden The terrain on the other side of the pass is completely different: a barren lunar landscape of shattered grey rock interspersed with wiry grass, now weary and desiccated in the approach to winter. Here and there amid the chaotic tumble of glacial debris we spot Glacier crowfoot (Ranunculus glacialis), a white buttercup-like flower, quivering on delicate stalks. Long stretches of boardwalk relieve the monotony of walking over angular boulders and before long we spot the Tjäktja Huts.

Barren landscape near the Tjäktja PassBarren landscape near the Tjäktja Pass A metal suspension bridge over a small river canyon containing a spectacular waterfall brings us to the warden’s hut. We decide to camp and find a level spot some 200 metres away with grandstand views down over the Alisvággi Valley. This is the highest hut on the Kungsleden and with the sky now virtually clear, it’s decidedly chilly up here. Large crescents of dirty snow still cling to the river canyon walls below our camping spot, and as the sun slips behind the imposing sheer cliffs of Lulip Muorahisčohkka above our camp site, the wind picks up and the mercury plummets.

I flee into our tent as the first stars begin to wink in the purple firmament. Sipping a hot chocolate and nursing a Nalgene bottle of hot water to keep me warm, I lie in my sleeping bag with the tent flaps open as the Milky Way soars overhead and ethereal and eerie faint green luminous light begins to shimmer across the heavens. Billowing and swaying, stretching and undulating, the Northern Lights rise and fall in mesmerising intensity for almost two hours before, as suddenly as they had arrived, they vanish. With the sight of this celestial light show which is on every traveller’s bucket list indelibly seared onto my eyeballs, I fall fast asleep in smug contentment. Wild Camping under the Northern Lights, Kungsleden, SwedenWild Camping under the Northern Lights, Kungsleden, Sweden

 

Over the Mountain Moors: Tjäktja to Alesjaure (13 km)

I’m woken by the cold tent skin touching my face. The canvas is hard and heavy. As I raise myself up on my elbows I hear the tinkle of ice breaking and sliding off. I am thankful for my four season sleeping bag and down booties which shielded me from the savage cold of last night. Although the wind has subsided, our tent is thickly silvered with frost and our boots are frozen stiff in the porch as winter’s frigid fist has begun to tighten its grip across the land which is steel hard and hoary with frost. But the sun saves the day for now. It finally swans up over the ridge opposite our tent, flooding the autumn landscape with gorgeous golden light, bringing instant warmth which sends Jack Frost fleeing.

Wild Camp at Tjäktja, SwedenWild Camp at Tjäktja, Sweden As we hit the trail that descends fairly steeply at first into the Alisvággi Valley, we tread carefully to avoid areas of black ice, betrayed only by hypnotic patterns of water flowing slowly underneath. Trekking the Dag Hammarskjöldleden the opposite way around means that we avoid the harder, steeper slog up to the Tjäktja Pass from the Abisko direction which would be tough carrying a heavy pack. It also means you are not walking into the sun each day.

Tjäktja Hut, Kungsleden, SwedenTjäktja Hut, Kungsleden, Sweden After about 3 kilometres, the ground levels a little near a reindeer guard cabin sitting forlornly out in the tundra. The view up a side valley to the west which boasts a series of lakes strung out like a dazzling sapphire necklace is delightful.

Heading towards the distinctive brown hulk of Bossosváráš, we cross several shallow rivers, some without bridges or boardwalks, then peer up the lonely Bossosjohka Valley where mountains upon mountains line up in icy splendour, before coming to the large metal suspension bridge over the Bossosjohka River. The deep bellow from this milky-green river full of suspended glacial silt belies the deep canyon it has bitten down into the rocky plateau.

River crossing, Kungsleden, SwedenRiver crossing, Kungsleden, Sweden Bossosjohka Valley, Kungsleden, SwedenBossosjohka Valley, Kungsleden, Sweden

Just past this we climb up to the third mediation spot on the Dag Hammarskjöldleden, located on a rocky promontory giving sweeping views down over the braided Aliseatnu River and its extensive russet wetlands studded with scores of blue lakes. While the lower mountain slopes wear a rich cloak of tawny-brown, the grey peaks away to the northeast are each crowned with a headdress of gleaming ice. Little wonder these are known as the Abisko Alps. Far off in the distance I can see the Alesjaure Hut perched high on a rocky shelf. Trekking through the Alisvággi Valley, Kungsleden, SwedenTrekking through the Alisvággi Valley, Kungsleden, Sweden

Hereafter, the walking across flat brushwood moorland is very easy. But in the clear arctic air it can be difficult to judge distances accurately and the hut is deceptively farther away than it appears. A large metal suspension bridge over the narrow channel where the Aliseatnu River leaves the wetland delta system to flow into Lake Alisjávri eventually brings us to the pathway leading up to the hut. This is surely one of STF’s most spectacularly placed on the whole Kungsleden. Perched high on a promontory between Lake Alisjávri and the Alisvággi Valley, the views in all directions are just jaw-dropping.

Alesjaure Hut, Kungsleden, SwedenAlesjaure Hut, Kungsleden, Sweden

Looking back up through the valley, the rounded mountains on the west are not as high as those on the east – Unna Visttasčohkka, Påssutjåkka and Gaskačohkka - which line up behind each other. To the north is Lake Alisjávri, an indigo-blue ribbon of water which stretches for many kilometres, and to its northeast are the gleaming crushed diamond-dust of glaciers clutching at Njuikkostak which seem to scrape at the azure blue sky. Almost opposite the hut and hugging the shoreline beneath Visttasvárri is the Sámi settlement of Alisjávri, its windows glinting in the low sun angle of late afternoon. It’s ghostly quiet there now, but the place comes to life once a year at the annual round-up and marking of the reindeer calves in early summer.

View of Alisvággi Valley from the Alesjaure Hut, SwedenView of Alisvággi Valley from the Alesjaure Hut, Sweden Tonight we decide to stay in the hut with half a dozen other trekkers, mainly Scandinavian. We raid the well-stocked shop and our haul includes fresh eggs, salami sticks and chilled beer which are greedily consumed after days of freeze-dried food!

Across the lake, long shadows encroach over the deserted settlement of Alisjávri, and as dusk falls I spy two rough-legged buzzards in a nearby valley circling in rose-tinted columns of cloud that are slowly churning in the setting sun. After dinner we are sitting around the wood burning stove in the candlelit mess sipping hot chocolate when from a window we spy tell-tale luminous green trails streaking across the sky from the north. We rush outside to witness an amazing aurora display which flashes across the star-strewn sky and floods the surface of Lake Alisjávri with an eerie green hue. After only about 20 minutes it suddenly disappears, which is just as well as the deep-freezer cold has seeped into my very bones and I cannot feel my feet!

Northern Lights over Lake AlisjávriNorthern Lights over Lake Alisjávri

 

The Sound of Waves: Alesjaure to Rádujávri (8 km)

As I make my way to the toilet block, my shadow falls long across the frozen ground bathed in the soft amber glow of the newly risen sun. The air is clear, cool and refreshing and it promises to be another gorgeous day for trekking. Right now I can think of nowhere I’d rather be.

Early morning at Alesjaure Hut, Kungsleden, SwedenEarly morning at Alesjaure Hut, Kungsleden, Sweden

Having made the decision not to trek the 21km to the next hut at Abiskojaure, opting instead to wild camp somewhere near the emergency shelter at Rádujávri, we’re in no hurry to hit the trail this morning.

The first part of the route offers easy walking close to the shore of Lake Alisjávri and passes several small inviting beaches. We simply can’t resist walking along the shoreline enjoying the gratifying crunch of our boots on the smooth pebbles and the sound of the tiny crystalline waves lapping ashore.

Pebbly beach at Lake Alisjávri, Kungsleden, SwedenPebbly beach at Lake Alisjávri, Kungsleden, Sweden

A little farther on across the lake we spot the impressive Fantomen Falls, a silver tear-track on the wrinkled face of Visttasvárri. Sections of the trail hereabouts are muddy, and dwarf willow festooned with soft fluffy down as incandescent as candle flame in the strong sunlight, encroaches on sections of boardwalk. Next year’s precious seed is sent on its way in the gentlest of breezes as we brush by.  

We soon encounter the sun-bleached upright timbers of a conical Sámi lavvu constructed close to a small wooden jetty. From 1 July to 31 August, scheduled boat tours leave here for the Alesjaure Hut at a price of 350 knoner per person (35 euro), which saves trekkers six kilometres of walking. 

Frame of a Sámi lavvu at Lake AlisjávriFrame of a Sámi lavvu at Lake Alisjávri Just past here the trail takes us close to a small series of rapids, a loom of liquid silver, that form the boundary between the lakes of Alisjávri and Rádujávri. Crimson-red bearberries, deep-purple crowberries and midnight-blue bilberries pepper the shrubbery near the trail and we pause to help ourselves to nature’s bounty. A handful of stunted birch trees struggle to thrive at this altitude. Their golden leaves set against the cerulean-blue sky seem to honour the colours of the Swedish flag.

Eventually we spot the emergency shelter above Lake Rádujávri. We decide not to search for a camping spot near here, preferring a site with slightly more elevation for photography, and we leave the trail to bushwhack uphill though dwarf willow. On a shelf of rock with pillow-soft mosses and lichens, we find the perfect spot offering grandstand views down over Rádujávri. Opposite are the three peaks of Miesákčohkkas, great knuckles of grey rock thrusting skywards, with the conical peak of Kåtotjåkka gleaming pearl-white behind and the Godu Glacier just visible through the cloud.

Wild Camping above Lake Rádujávri, Kungsleden, SwedenWild Camping above Lake Rádujávri, Kungsleden, Sweden

Close by is a small crystal-clear brook of the sweetest glacial water imaginable and in our search for a level spot to pitch our tent, we discover scores of juicy pale-apricot cloudberries. With our tent erected, we raid nature’s larder enjoying the zingy, tangy berries before our freeze-dried dinner.

Cloudberries, SwedenCloudberries, Sweden

Wild Camping on the Kungsleden, Sweden, in our Terra Nova Voyager LiteWild Camping on the Kungsleden, Sweden, in our Terra Nova Voyager Lite By degrees the sun sinks in the western sky and the cloud racing up over the nearest peak of Miesákčohkkas changes from warm-apricot to pomegranate-pink as the water of Lake Rádujávri turns from inky-blue to the colour of obsidian.

Sunset over Miesákčohkkas, Kungsleden, SwedenSunset over Miesákčohkkas, Kungsleden, Sweden Sipping Linie from our hip-flasks to keep warm, we wait expectantly for another magnificent aurora display as the first pin pricks of stars begin to shimmer in the indigo sky. But patchy cloud is creeping stealthily from the west, eventually obscuring our views of the Milky Way. Tonight aurora activity is low with only a faint green smudge gracing the northern sky, and with a cruel wind blowing down from the nearby mountains, I’m happy to retire to my sleeping bag.  

 

A Chill Wind Blows: Rádujávri to Abiskojaure (13 km)

I reluctantly emerge from my sleeping bag this morning to find our tent yet again bespeckled with flecks of ice. Freezing fog has pooled in the valley bottom and the wind bears an icy chill, signalling its intent to carry snow. By the time we break camp, it’s sleeting. A gaggle of geese fly overhead straight as an arrow. I watch them recede from view over the nearby mountaintops heading south to warmer climes, knowing that winter’s cruel embrace is fast approaching. When the first snowfall visits this riotously colourful landscape, which is now only a matter of a few weeks away, the pyrotechnic show will cease and it will be smothered, mummified in a powdery silence.

A grey dawn over Lake Alisjávri, Kungsleden, SwedenA grey dawn over Lake Alisjávri, Kungsleden, Sweden Great columns of steel-grey mist churn above lakes of chilled mercury periodically illuminated by bright lances of sunlight as we once more join the trail where patches of sly ice lie in wait on the sections of boardwalk, and we must take care not to slip.

Cloudy morn at Lake RádujávriCloudy morn at Lake Rádujávri Passing through a section of elevated wind-blasted alpine tundra we spot a grouse feather snagged amid the stunted bilberry. We have seen very little fauna on this visit and are lamenting the lack of reindeer when, as if by magic, a herd of around a dozen makes an appearance close to the lake’s edge below us. Safely downwind from them, we watch them skipping across the tundra, moving ever closer to where we lie out of sight close to the ground. They pass by blissfully unaware of our presence until they are only some 50 metres from us. A beautiful brown and white bull reindeer with a magnificent set of antlers senses our presence, stops and stares intently at us, before bounding away briskly with a horde of females in his wake.

Reindeer, Kungsleden, SwedenReindeer, Kungsleden, Sweden Not long after our sighting, we cross the reindeer fence between the Sámi settlements of Gabna and Laevas by way of a wooden stile. The trail then traverses a bleak wind-blasted brushwood moor comprised of crowberry shrubs, dwarf birch and osiers before it begins to descend towards Lake Ábeskojávri. The birch trees resplendent in their autumn gaiety gradually reappear. Close to the second meditation spot on the Dag Hammarskjöldleden we spy the silver glint of a river in the broad valley bottom, and the mirror-like flash of Lake Ábeskojávri.

Autumn birch forests, Kungsleden, SwedenAutumn birch forests, Kungsleden, Sweden

View over Lake Ábeskojávri on the Kungsleden, SwedenView over Lake Ábeskojávri on the Kungsleden, Sweden After a steep decent to the valley floor, we cross over the seething, foaming Šiellajohka River by a metal suspension bridge and then encounter a sign delineating the Abisko National Park. Established in 1909, camping is not permitted inside the park away from specially designated areas, and crossing a wide tract of marshland via a boardwalk, we make for the Abiskojaure Hut on the shore of Lake Ábeskojávri.

Marchland in the Abisko National Park, SwedenMarchland in the Abisko National Park, Sweden We soon reach the channel where the Kamajåkka River flows into Lake Ábeskojávri, and crossing another metal suspension bridge we arrive on a small rocky knoll. It’s not immediately clear to us where the trial goes, so we follow our noses. The sweet perfume of wood smoke hangs in the air like incense emanating from a temple, guiding us to the Abiskojaure Hut where we seek out the warden.

Suspension bridge over the Kamajåkka River, Kungsleden, SwedenSuspension bridge over the Kamajåkka River, Kungsleden, Sweden Our stay coincides with the last night that this hut is open, and we share the facilities with a mere handful of very convivial trekkers from across Europe. This hut, like the previous one at Alesjaure, is well-provisioned (by helicopter) and we feast on cheese-filled tortellini, salami and beer!

There is also a sauna here, and as I’m demolishing my dinner I spy four naked Finns emerge from it, their flushed pink flesh glowing in the early evening sunshine as they gingerly run down to the lake to plunge themselves into the cold water. A chill runs down my spine at the mere thought! After lighting the wood burning stove in our dorm, I retire to my bunk bed to read. But woozy from a few cans of beer, I fall asleep almost at once.

 

A River Runs Through it: Abiskojaure to Abisko (14 km)

As I step outside the hut, the cold hits me like a sledgehammer and my breath is white in the still and frigid dawn air. Last night was surely the coldest yet and the faint trail leading to the lakeshore is frozen solid and white with hoar frost. There is barely a ripple on the pan flat surface of the water, above which a thin layer of translucent-white mist is slowly forming. The reflection of snow-crested Kåtotjåkka wedged between the surrounding peaks of Giron and Gárdenvárri and glowing sugar-pink in the dawn light, shimmers in the inky stillness like a mirage.

Dawn at Lake Ábeskojávri, SwedenDawn at Lake Ábeskojávri, Sweden We hit the trail through the beautiful riparian splendour of the Abisko National Park while it is still in shadow. The pale brown path that was rutted by scores of footprints in the soggy summer is now frozen and hard enough to twist an ankle. In each depression is a small frozen puddle. By the side of the path the vegetation is silvered, the ice-kissed crimson bearberries picked out against the deep cool-blueness of frosted heath. But on the opposite side of the valley the sun has made an appearance and the reflections of the birch forests glowing amber and gold shine lie like sheets of burnished brass on the inky-blue surface of the lake.

Autumn morning at Lake Ábeskojávri, SwedenAutumn morning at Lake Ábeskojávri, Sweden

Frozen berries in a Swedish autumnFrozen berries in a Swedish autumn The sun eventually erupts over the shoulder of nearby Giron and we immediately feel the warmth of its rays. After several kilometres the lake ends and we follow the deep blue Abiskojåkka River through glorious birch forests interspersed with scattered stands of pine. Ahead of me, a single golden leaf pirouettes down an invisible spiral of breeze as if making its final dance to the soft loamy bosom of Mother Earth rendered damp by last night’s melted frost. I scent the coming winter in the air.

Abiskojåkka River, Abisko National Park, SwedenAbiskojåkka River, Abisko National Park, Sweden A rest area with a toilet and lean-to is soon encountered near the outwash plain of the Nissonjohka River which has left an enormous cone of melt-water debris. A new metal suspension bridge takes us over one of the now virtually dry main channels of this river.  

Soon after we encounter the junction of the Abiskojåkka with the Kårsajåkka, and the river instantly assumes a bolder persona, throbbing and pulsating through the forest with a strident roar. The first, or in our case, final, mediation point on the Dag Hammarskjöldleden is dramatically sited on a small knoll of dolomite marble which was quarried nearby in the early twentieth century.

Confluence of the  junction of the Abiskojåkka and Kårsajåkka RiversConfluence of the junction of the Abiskojåkka and Kårsajåkka Rivers The pièce de résistance along this section of the trail must surely be the stunning canyon carved by the Abiskojåkka River. Warm bands of honey-coloured rock contrast with the aquamarine body of rushing water as it funnels its way between the narrow cliffs of the canyon with a deafening roar. We sit glued to the spot for ages, drinking in the majesty of the scene.

Abisko GorgeAbisko Gorge But all too soon we are walking towards the wooden entrance portal that marks the beginning (or end) of both the Kunglsleden and the Dag Hammarskjöldleden. As always, the completion of a trek is greeted with a mixture of elation tinged with regret. Elation at having successfully completed what you had set out to achieve; regret that such a wonderful, life affirming experience has come to an end.

Entrance/Exit point of the Kungsleden, Abisko, SwedenEntrance/Exit point of the Kungsleden, Abisko, Sweden To get to the Abisko Fjällstation we must cross the E10, an arterial route between Sweden and Norway. As we approach the road, the sound of an oncoming vehicle assaults my ears. The Volvo estate is the first car we have seen or heard for over a week, and I am stunned by the amount of noise it makes as it thunders its way past us on the highway. The insidious white noise of modern life begins to creep back in. I can’t say I’m impressed.

It was Scottish-American naturalist and author, John Muir, who stated, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity…”. This holds as true today as it did when he uttered those words well over a century ago. If you don’t believe me, go and walk the Dag Hammarskjöldleden and find out…

Watch the video of our trek in HD on Vimeo:

 

LOGISTICS:

We flew to Kiruna with SAS via Stockholm from Dublin and used the highly efficient local buses to get from Kiruna to Nikkaluokta and from Abisko back to Kiruna. We stayed at the STF Kiruna Hostel which is a ten minute walk from the town centre. As STF members, we received a discount at all STF huts.

We carried a 2-person Terra Nova Voyager Lite tent with ground sheet, 4 season Rab sleeping bags, Thermarest sleeping mats, small light-weight stools, stove and camping gas (and a back-up titanium Honey wood-burning stove), Light my Fire kit, kettle, titanium spoons and mugs, water bladders, small lamp, head-torches, personal hygiene items, loo roll and trowel, first aid kit, Expedition Foods freeze dried meals x12, snack bars, sachets of coffee/drinking chocolate, a hip-flask of spirit (each!!!), plus woollen base layers for sleeping in, down booties, spare underwear/socks/clothing, waterproof trousers and jacket, two pairs of gloves and hat, in 65 and 70 litre Osprey Packs.

A map, compass, camera equipment and batteries were carried separately, as was a GPS and DeLorme Satellite communicator in case of emergency. Our packs weighed roughly 17 and 22 kilos respectively. The huts at Kebnekaise, Sälke, Alesjaure and Abiskojaure have shops where supplies can be replenished.

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eramaptec@gmail.com (Purple Peak Adventures) arctic dag hammarskjöldleden europe sweden trekking wild camping wilderness http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2017/12/off-grid-in-arctic-sweden-trekking-the-dag-hammarskj-ldleden Fri, 15 Dec 2017 19:12:35 GMT
Trekking in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia: Sojourn in Svaneti http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2017/11/trekking-in-the-caucasus-mountains-of-georgia-sojourn-in-svaneti Adishi GlacierAdishi GlacierIncredible views down over the Adishi Glacier make the climb worthwhile We begin our final trek in Svaneti in the north west of Georgia, famous for its medieval stone towers which each stand sentinel over a cluster of balconied houses enclosed by defensive walls. The Svans are an ethnic subgroup of the Georgians and have their own unwritten language. Alluvial gold was once won from the mountain streams around Mestia by using sheepskins, giving rise to the ‘Golden Fleece’ legend. In the past the Svaneti region had something of a reputation for lawlessness; people were unused to outsiders and with numerous brigands roaming about, trekkers were sometimes robbed. But all that changed during the investment of the Saakashvili years, the region has opened up, and homestays have sprung up in even the remotest villages to cater to passing tourists. We are headed for Ushguli over 60km away from Mestia, the commercial hub of the region, and will be stopping at rural homestays en route, so we are carrying lighter packs for this multi-day trek.

We arrive in Mestia after a highly memorable journey from Tbilisi to Zugdidi by sleeper train which dates from the Soviet era. The temperature in Tbilisi was in the low-40s and incredibly humid, so it was hotter than Hades to begin with, but perishingly cold in the hour before the dawn and no blankets were provided, just a thin paper sheet! Our private carriage had long couch seats upholstered in claret velvet, and the narrow corridor was patrolled by a colossal uniformed lady with her hair scraped back in a bun. It was like something out of a Cold War spy thriller and at any moment I expected the door to our carriage to fly open and James Bond to be standing there holding a pistol! The three-hour journey from Zugdidi seemed far longer than it was in a cramped, breathless and very uncomfortable marshrutka which sped along the bendy mountain roads in the mother of all thunderstorms.

Sleeper train from Tbilisi to ZugdidiSleeper train from Tbilisi to Zugdidi Mestia is a curious blend of old and new, with all the tell-tale signs of recent development in its architecturally ‘innovative’ new buildings, some of which have been funded by the EU. This has arguably started to erode its distinctiveness and its main street has begun to resemble any other honeypot Alpine ski resort with its trendy après ski bars and expensive clothes shops, although the back streets where animals roam freely retain their authenticity. However, unbridled development throughout Svaneti could end up killing the goose that laid the golden egg, as the region has been inscribed onto the UNESCO World Heritage Site List because it is an exceptional example of mountain scenery with medieval-type villages and tower-houses and this is what draws many tourists.

MestiaMestia The morning is muggy after the thunderstorms of yesterday and a feeble sun picks at a slit in the ashen cloud rumbling about the valley as we head out of town. The steepish climb over the first pass traverses a mixture of meadows with knee-high wild flowers and wooded glens with impressive views down over the braided Mestiachala River and soaring peaks of the surrounding mountains gripped firmly by clutching fingers of glacial ice.

Mestia to Chvabiani trailMestia to Chvabiani trail After climbing some 500 metres we are greeted by the sight of another long valley dotted with tiny villages which sweeps up to the jagged snow crested peaks of the High Caucasus. The milky-grey Mulkhara River runs through it. We head for Chvabiani, one of the farthest of these settlements.

The Mulkhara River valleyThe Mulkhara River valley The trail weaves its way past villages bristling with tall towers, some of which show signs of imminent collapse. We pass right through Zhamushi where many of the old houses with wooden balconies are virtually falling down and some are mere shells. Bees buzz round scores of hives, pigs roam through the narrow village lanes, chickens scatter in all directions, and cows low in the flower-strewn meadows. It’s idyllic, but farming here is hard work for there is little mechanisation, and we spot a man and woman busy building a hayrick with pitchforks, while others are hoeing vegetable plots enclosed by wooden palisade fences.

Village in the Mulkhara ValleyVillage in the Mulkhara Valley It’s late afternoon and threatening rain when we finally cross the roaring Mulkhura River via a rickety wooden bridge and walk up a stone-walled muddy lane to Chvabiani where we are staying at Maia’s Guesthouse. Her son greets us warmly in passable English and we are led into a gated compound which includes a double-storied house with a large wooden balcony. A crumbling tower stands in a nearby field beneath which cows are contentedly grazing. Maia, a big hearted woman with a broad smile and a pair of mischievous brown eyes, brings us cold beers and in faltering Russian we manage to communicate. She informs us that dinner will be served in an adjoining building at seven. I warm to her at once.

Bridge over the Mulkhara RiverBridge over the Mulkhara River

After queueing for the only shower (there’s a family of four and two other couples staying here), we head for the dining room. Maia is in ebullient mood and immediately seizes on me to help her make kubdari (bread stuffed with meat, onion and Georgian spices), the signature dish of Svaneti. I’m soon handling the dough like a pro and she’s very impressed. The kitchen is filled with giggles as an assortment of her young grandchildren arrive to see me helping her.

Dinner is scrumptious and plentiful, made from home grown grains and vegetables and includes a herb-based soup, home-produced cheese, salads and my kubdari! Maia’s son arrives with some homemade cha-cha, the local firewater, which is something like grappa. This is a special variety, flavoured with honey from their own beehives. Never one to refuse such wonderful hospitality, with a hearty ‘Zazdarovje’ I knock back a small glass of the amber liquid. Maia fills it immediately with a wicked grin, and I imbibe once more to her squeals of laughter. I then point to an empty glass and suggest that she has one too. Arms linked, we knock back our glasses with great merriment. ‘Another’? No, Maia has other plans for me, as she leads me from the house by the arm across the darkening yard towards a cattle shed. She fetches a small stool and motions me to sit down. I then realise that I’m about to milk a cow for the first time in my life!

Drinking cha-chaDrinking cha-cha The docile animal is brought forward and taking an udder in each hand, Maia shows me what to do. Jets of milk shoot forth immediately into a bucket as she rapidly and rhythmically pulls on them. She makes it look easy, but it most certainly isn’t and all my efforts are virtually in vain as I manage just a dribble in the bottom of the bucket much to Maia’s amusement! I leave her to it, and slope off to bed, head full of cha-cha…

Milking my first cow at Maia's Guesthouse in ChvabianiMilking my first cow at Maia's Guesthouse in Chvabiani It rained heavily in the night and the morning dawns cool and grey and the nearby mountains are snuggled under a thick duvet of white cloud. After a hearty breakfast of porridge, bread, cheese, honey, fruit and salad, we bid a fond farewell to Maia and her son and begin the ascent out of the village for the 13 km trek to the next village, Adishi.

Chvabiani Village in the Mulkhara ValleyChvabiani Village in the Mulkhara Valley The trail that climbs steeply for over 700 metres through forest up to a dirt road servicing the new Tetnuldi Ski Resort isn’t well-marked and we stray off it more than once into slippery deeply runneled ground and dense thickets of rhododendron. Soft rain patters on our jackets and a million tiny raindrops shine like jewels on the horse-heal (Elecampane) growing in the meadows in the forest clearings. My left leg begins to give me some discomfort due to a suspected trapped nerve and I’m glad when we hit the dirt road just down from the ski station which is still being constructed.

Caucasian mountain sunflowersCaucasian mountain sunflowers By the time we climb a further 200 metres to reach the meandering trail that will take us from the road down to Adishi, the sun has made an appearance bathing the wet landscape in brilliant light. The rich meadow pasture all around us is a dazzling, buzzing insect carpet full of white ox-eye daisies, candy-pink snakeweed, scented lemon lilies, pink pyrethrum, mauve geraniums, flame-orange marigolds, speedwell blue forget-me-nots and saffron horse-heal.

The Tviberi and Dzinali GlaciersThe Tviberi and Dzinali Glaciers

Pink pyrethrumPink pyrethrum You don’t really see Adhisi, a remote village which is virtually cut off by snow for around six months of the year, until you are almost on top of it. Perched on a sloping hillside above the Adishchala River, I count around ten towers sprouting from amid the red corrugated roofs of nougat-coloured stone houses. It looks picture postcard perfect set against the backdrop of cloud draped mountains with a watery rainbow shimmering overhead.

AdishiAdishiThe remote mountain village of Adishi is cut off by snow for around six months in winter We find Elizabeth’s Guesthouse at the bottom end of the village, a large, somewhat ramshackle but characterful two-storied blue painted wooden house, the front of which is dominated by scores of small windows. Many guesthouses seem to be run and named after their female proprietors, for in Georgian society women have always had the role of both breadwinner and housewife. Elizabeth, our very affable hostess who speaks some English, shows us up an incredibly steep and rickety staircase to a room with bare floorboards on the second floor containing a large, sagging double bed, two single metal bedsteads and an enormous ancient-looking wardrobe. There are even made up single beds on the wide landing outside our room and the place is packed to the rafters with at least a dozen other trekkers.

Elizabeth's GuesthouseElizabeth's Guesthouse Downstairs on the veranda where the dinner table is being set, a small black lamb is skipping about and seems to enjoy being the centre of attention among several other trekkers. However, it soon disgraces itself by peeing all over the floor! None of the Georgians bats an eyelid, but one or two Europeans look on aghast! These village folk are used to living cheek by jowl with their livestock and they aren’t very fussy about hygiene. With only one shower in our part of the building we have to wait to wash as seems to be the norm in these homestays.

Dinner here is excellent consisting of a hearty soup containing huge pieces of tender chicken, followed by bread, mixed salads and potato fritters with herbs, washed down with cold Georgian beer. It’s dark when we retire to our room. From our window we spy the mere sliver of a moon soar from behind the nearby hills, and after the noise from neighbouring rooms abates, we drift soundly off to sleep.

I’m awoken by the loud lowing of a cow. The unsettled weather of yesterday has passed over, there isn’t a cloud in the unbelievably blue sky and it promises to be a scorcher. In one corner of the yard outside is the very rustic-looking kitchen where Elizabeth's aunt and grandmother wearing ankle socks, aprons and headscarves are busy cooking over a wood fire, the smoke of which perfumes the still morning air. Breakfast is delicious and I demolish a great doorstop of cheesy khachapuri (the best by far of those we have sampled), fried potatoes, homemade cheese and yoghurt and a tasty salad with herbs, washed down with a homemade fruit kompot.

The 20km trail to the next village, Iprali, begins near Elizabeth's house and runs up the valley parallel to the river. To walk through Adishi’s narrow maze of streets where pigs, cows and chickens roam freely amid a jumble of dilapidated houses with wonky wooden verandas is like stepping back to medieval times.

AdishiAdishi As we walk along the valley, the views back towards Adhisi are magnificent, while ahead, the dazzling snow-capped summits of some of Svaneti’s most significant summits fill our field of vision: Mount Shkhara, Georgia’s highest mountain, over 5,000 metres high; Ushba, dubbed the Matterhorn of the Caucasus because of its distinctive spire-shaped double summit; the pyramid-shaped Mount Tetnuldi. We can see the beginning of the route up the ridge that we have to pass over to reach the neighbouring valley, but first we must cross the Adishchala River.

Adishi villageAdishi villageSurrounded by the high Caucasus the Svan village of Adishi has around a dozen medieval towers and is a great place to overnight

View towards the Adishi GlacierView towards the Adishi Glacier Elizabeth told us to look out for her brother who has a horse on which he will convey us across the river for a couple of euro. He soon hails us as we approach the rushing milky grey river which is coming straight off the Adhisi Glacier, a huge wall of sloping ice which dominates the end of the valley. With my backpack and walking poles safely stowed on the saddle, I mount the horse and Elizabeth’s brother hops on behind.

Adishchala RiverAdishchala River The horse wades slowly into the swiftly flowing torrent, carefully negotiating the river cobbles that lie below. I’m glad that we didn’t have to wade this river as the water is freezing, fast flowing, and at waist height in its deepest section.

River Crossing Georgian styleRiver Crossing Georgian styleCrossing the Adishchala River on horseback Both safely across, we begin the 500 metre climb up to the top of the next ridge. It’s viciously steep in places, gruelling in the heat and humidity, and the horseflies are pestilential. But the bird’s eye view of the Adishi Glacier with its rushing waterfall and the peaks of the Caucasian Mountain chain are absolutely stunning.  I am aghast at the mountains’ raw physicality. Serrated fins of rock thrust up from gleaming glaciers and great fingers of ice like arthritic hands claw their way to the verdant valley bottoms.

Beginning of the steep climb out of the Adishi ValleyBeginning of the steep climb out of the Adishi Valley

Near the top of the trail leading up from the Adishchala RiverNear the top of the trail leading up from the Adishchala River Adishchala River and Adishi  ValleyAdishchala River and Adishi Valley

After a short rest we begin the very steep descent towards Iprali. My left leg is now incredibly sore and I find the gradient punishing as we plough on downwards through glorious flower-strewn alpine meadows to the Khaldechala River.

View over the Svaneti RangeView over the Svaneti Range Lilium szovitsianum (Lily)Lilium szovitsianum (Lily) Suddenly, a huge slab of snow and ice detaches itself from the Zaresho-Khalde Glacier and tumbles at great speed down the mountain in clouds of ghastly white before crashing into the valley below. The sound, a gut-churning rumble, reaches us shortly after the event and the silence that follows is spine chilling.

Avalanche off the Zaresho-Khalde GlacierAvalanche off the Zaresho-Khalde Glacier Although the terrain is benign, a grassy pathway for most of the way, I’m making a real meal of it and the thought of hobbling on to Iprali is unthinkable. So it’s a relief to spot the Khalde Guesthouse, literally the only un-abandoned house in a crumbling old village, which is run by one of Elizabeth’s cousins and has a reputation for selling good cold beer! Fortunately, the old lady who runs it, clad in a black headscarf and long black dress, has a room for us. Her kindly husband whose face is the colour of tanned leather, lights a wood burning stove to heat up some hot water for us to take a much-needed shower.

The beer taken on the patio outside tastes divine and I enjoy resting in the cool evening air as the sun slips down behind the nearby mountains. As dusk falls, we eat dinner with a few other trekkers – Austrian, French, Bulgarian and Russian - who are excellent company. The food is good too - the usual fare of soup, khachapuri, a variety of salads, fried potatoes and homemade cheese, and we sit around talking until quite late, toasting trekking in Georgia over numerous glasses of cha-cha.

Khalde GuesthouseKhalde Guesthouse Next morning, I’m sipping Turkish coffee at the breakfast table worrying about whether or not I can make it the 15km or so to Ushguli with my sore leg, when a delivery man pulls up outside. Half an hour later we are driving down the dusty dirt road to the valley bottom in his battered old jeep en route to Ushguli.

For a small fee he has dropped us right outside the Guesthouse Kachari, a large white wooden building at the top of the village surrounded by fields with a spacious garden in front and the monastery of Lamria with its distinctive tower on a nearby hill behind it. Our double room is very basic but spotlessly clean and typically there is one bathroom shared between several other guests.

Ushguli, located at an altitude of 2,100 metres, is a community of four villages (Zhibiani, Chvibiani, Chazhashi and Murqmeli) located at the confluence of the Enguri and Shavtskala Rivers. Mount Shkhara, Georgia’s highest peak, towers over these attractive settlements with their iconic towers, home to some 70 families who live in the highest continuously inhabited villages in Europe. The area is snow-covered for six months of the year, and the road to Mestia is often impassable; the area’s remoteness has helped to save it from the unwanton development that is beginning to blight Mestia. The authenticity of the villages are the reason they are an integral part of part of the Upper Svaneti UNESCO World Heritage Site and they are an increasingly popular day trip from Mestia.

UshgaliUshgali Our guesthouse lies at the top of Zhibiani, a maze of narrow winding streets running between honey-coloured stone houses with crooked verandas sporting ornate wood carvings. The houses, some of which are still pretty dilapidated, are built right above the Enguri River which flows from the enormous glaciers at the foot of Mount Shkhara.

The pace of life is slower here; old men sit chatting outside their homes; oxen and pigs wander along the muddy unpaved streets; an old woman is washing dishes in a tin bath in her garden and men are digging potatoes and making hay in small fields surrounded by wooden palisade fences. The smell of wood smoke perfumes the air, there are beehives in the gardens and piles of wood chopped ready for winter. It feels timeless and idyllic. But signs of development are creeping in here too, with the building of several enormous new guesthouses which resemble Swiss chalets and which stick out like sore thumbs.

Old men in UshgaliOld men in Ushgali There isn’t an awful lot to see or do in Ushguli and one day here gives ample time to visit a very interesting new museum which is spread over three floors of a renovated defensive tower. We’re more interested in visiting the inside of one of these iconic Svan towers than in the displays of icons and other religious paraphernalia displayed inside. Nearby is Queen Tamari’s Castle, a ruined medieval fortress and there is also a small privately run ethnographic museum displaying everyday artefacts from the region. Evening falls softy over the mountains above the village turning their peaks vermillion and blood red as we feast on a superb home-cooked dinner in the garden in front of our guesthouse.

Lamria Monastery UshguliLamria Monastery UshguliSunset over the Caucasus Mountains from Ushguli

Next day after an enormous breakfast, we walk down to the old bridge between Chvibiani and Chazhashi where marshrutkas leave for Mestia. There are over two dozen people - locals and tourists - haggling with several drivers over the fare. Amid the crowd a rather precocious young boy on horseback is barking orders at everyone in broken English and Svan. For a good price we, along with half a dozen other trekkers, manage to procure a lift from a lovely old local couple in their aged Mitsubishi Delica van, which has incensed the boy and the drivers who have missed a fare!

The 60km journey back to Mestia is along a truly horrendous unmade road that weaves its way through the Enguri Gorge with its fast flowing river. There’s no air conditioning in the van, it’s hot and stuffy so the windows are fully down and the interior is filled with clouds of choking talcum powder-fine dust thrown up from the road. Potholed and washed out in sections this road has claimed many lives judging by the number of alcohol bottles left in certain places where people have stopped to pay their respects to those who have met an untimely end. Our driver is sober, careful and obviously values his old vehicle, so there is no death-defying overtaking on blind corners! We eventually hit a new concreted section of the road which is being improved all the way to Ushguli. Doubtless this will be welcomed by local people as it will facilitate more tourism. But one can’t help but feel that this will not be wholly beneficial judging by the creeping commercialism in this popular tourist area.

Back in Mestia we sip a gorgeous glass of Saperavi wine on the small balcony of the Hotel Old House. As the sun sinks lower in the sky turning the distinctive peak of Mount Tetnuldi salmon-pink, we muse on our trek through the Svaneti region which surely ranks among the best we have undertaken anywhere. In a world of sanitised travel, this trek was an unforgettable Technicolor extravaganza of genuine experience where it was possible to truly interact with local people. And the landscape, with not a trace of barbed wire anywhere, was unspoiled, pristine and uplifting. It will be some time before the sight and sound of an avalanche, the deafening chorus of insects such as we never hear any more in Western Europe, and the settling sun turning the peak of Georgia’s highest mountain blood-red, fade from my memory.

 

USEFUL INFORMATION

We took the first class sleeper train from Tbilisi to Zugdidi which you can book online beforehand (about 12 euro each way per person). From Zugdidi we caught a marshrutka from outside the railway station for a few euro each. From Ushguli we shared a lift (along with several other trekkers) to Mestia with a local couple for about 2.50 euro each, but marshrutkas run from the bridge in the morning and late afternoon. At Mestia we caught a mid-afternoon marshrutka back to Zugdidi Railway Station in time for the sleeper train to Tbilisi. There isn't much in the way of food or services at this station which is like something out of the Soviet era. There is a bag drop if you want to venture downtown.

All accommodation (hotels and home stays) were reserved online using Booking.com before our departure. Be prepared to pay between 90-100 lari (30-33 euro) per night for two people including meals at homestays, more for hotels. Don't expect too much, as the standard is not similar to what people are accustomed to in most parts of Europe.

We ate mostly at Cafe Laila in Mestia which serves a variety of Svan dishes. The food and service is so-so, but its has a good vibe, is very popular with trekkers and features live Georgian bands.

The Svaneti area is covered by the GeoLand Trekking Map 9 (1:500000 scale) available for purchase at the GeoLand office shop in Tbilisi and online from Standfords (£9.99). In addition, excellent map sheets showing day hikes and sections of a number of trails from Mestia produced by the Svaneti Tourism Centre Union can be obtained at the Svaneti Tourism Centre in Mestia. We found the estimated distances to be slightly out on some of these though.

Do pack insect repellent. The horse-flies are horrendous and will bite through thin clothing!

Read our other blogs about hikes and tours around Stepantsminda and our multi-day wild camping trek across the Chaukhi Massif. Watch the video of our treks in Georgia at:

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eramaptec@gmail.com (Purple Peak Adventures) caucasus mountains europe georgia highest village in europe homestays mestia svaneti trekking ushguli world heritage site http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2017/11/trekking-in-the-caucasus-mountains-of-georgia-sojourn-in-svaneti Mon, 20 Nov 2017 18:06:19 GMT
Trekking in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia: Journey across the Chaukhi Massif http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2017/11/trekking-in-the-caucasus-mountains-of-georgia-journey-across-the-chaukhi-massif  

My eighteen kilo rucksack feels like a dead weight as I heave it onto my back in the remote village of Djuta (Juta) which is at an elevation over 2,000 metres at the end of a long dirt road that winds its way up the Sno Valley. This is an outpost of one branch of the Kevsur people who migrated here from further east and is built at the junction of two valleys. One of the valleys heads in a north easterly direction towards Chechnya, a restless republic in the Russian Federation which current geopolitics means is strictly off limits. The other heads south east up into the Chaukhi Massif. We’ve been dropped here by minivan from Stepantsminda and are about to undertake a multi-day trek up this valley and across the Chaukhi Pass (3,338 metres) to the village of Korsha in the province of Khevsureti on the other side of the mountains.

Before the off we tarry awhile at the Juta Guest House, where we indulge in a tar black coffee so strong that you could almost stand your teaspoon upright in it. This new and obviously expensive place to stay is built right above the bank of the roaring turquoise waters of the Jutistskali River. Its smart new façade and manicured gardens seem curiously out of place with the rest of the village of rustic wooden houses surrounded by overgrown country gardens with giant hayricks threaded together by muddy streets where pigs and cows roam freely. From the sunny terrace, I spy a man in a nearby garden intently tending to a score of beehives, while another riding a horse disappears up the pathway leading out of the village. We take the same trail some 15 minutes later.

Beekeeper in JuttaBeekeeper in Jutta It’s only mid-morning and yet the hot sun is beating down relentlessly as we make our way at what seems like snail’s pace up the steep zig-zag path which elevates us to the lush alpine meadows of the treeless valley. The weather has been rather unsettled in the region over the past few days and the road to the village of Shatili near the Chechen border has been washed away in severe thunderstorms and flooding, making travel there impossible. But today the neon-blue sky is threaded with silvery cloud and a carnival of scents is borne on the slightest of breezes. We soon spot a line of coloured Tibetan prayer flags fluttering in the breeze near some buildings which we discover is Zeta Camping, and beyond this the large double-storied wooden chalet of the 5th Season Guesthouse. Loud techo music blares from within which rather spoils the ambiance of the magnificent alpine meadow scenery and we are glad to leave behind it, and the collection of tents of noisy backpackers dotted nearby, which look like the spilled contents of a packet of M&Ms.

The pathway continues to gently climb on the left side of the Chaukhistskali River which wriggles its way through the bottom of the malachite-green valley misty with a dazzling display of summer flowers, their satin-soft petals landing pads for a bewildering variety of droning, buzzing insects. At the valley’s head the tips of the snow-streaked mountains soar heavenwards like a row of thorns scratching at a now misty sky. A man leading a couple of tourists perched awkwardly on horses clatter by us en route to the village of Roshka just over the Chaukhi Pass. It’s possible to take many single or multiday horseback trips in these mountains and with the weight of my pack, I almost wish I was riding one!

Near the valley’s end we encounter a vodka-clear stream leaping and bounding its way down the hillside from some distant glacier. One look at the eggshell-smooth boulders slick with algae around which the water is swirling at quite a speed, and it’s evident that we cannot jump it safely with our heavy packs. Donning a pair of plastic Crocs we wade into its crystal depths, the cold water biting into the very marrow of our shin bones.

Not far above this stream is a climbers’ hut where we plan to stop for a snack and we make a beeline up the rising ground towards it. A cool-aqua coloured lake floats into view as we crest a bank of moraine and perched on its shoreline is the makeshift hut of plywood with a red tin roof. It feels good to drop our heavy packs and sit down to feast on homemade cake washed down with a cool Coca Cola. The table is furnished with a large glass jar brim full of periwinkle-blue forget-me-nots. I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many. Close by a group of teenage Georgians are busy picking wildflowers, not something that tourists should ever be encouraged to emulate.

Climbers' hut near JuttaClimbers' hut near JuttaThe Chaukhi Massif looms over the makeshift climbers' hut It’s early afternoon by the time we hit the trail again and the sun, high over our heads, is a malevolent medallion pinned to the parchment-coloured cloud that is menacing some of the nearby mountain tops. The atmosphere is heavy and oppressive and the humidity tremendous, making the going tough. A duo of brown cows look solemnly at us as we wheeze past, a cloud of dreaded horse-flies bringing up the rear.

Caucasian Mountain cattleCaucasian Mountain cattle Past several enormous rocks used for bouldering we follow the right bank of a small river heading steeply straight up into the ribs of the slate-grey Chaukhi Massif which dominates our field of vision like a giant Baroque pipe organ. The pathway is indistinct and the terrain densely vegetated in places and quite rough underfoot.

Late afternoon we arrive at a point just below a large corrie where the trail climbs very steeply up to the Chaukhi Pass. We are right opposite the imposing organesque monoliths of the Chaukhi Massif which are highly reminiscent of the Dolomites in the Italian Alps. The near-vertical cliffs of this rock climber’s paradise look higher than they actually are (3,842 metres), and up this close and personal, I feel very small indeed. With grandstand views down towards the valley we have just traversed and of the massif which might be transformed into something truly photogenic at dawn or dusk, we immediately set up our tent on a grassy promontory.

Wild  camp beneath the Chaukhi MassifWild camp beneath the Chaukhi MassifThese mountains are called Georgia's Dolomites for good reason

Like a pair of eagles in a remote and lofty eyrie we are the masters of all we survey. Nearby a small stream trickling down a tiny gully delivers crystal clear and ice-cold drinking water and the ground is peppered with pretty wildflowers – blue gentian, mauve asters, mustard yellow doronicum, white ox-eye daises, and violet harebells. On a sheltered bank near the stream I spot the leaves of the dwarf Rhododendron Caucasium. Luckily at this altitude a few creamy white blooms still lift their faces to the sky long after those at lower altitudes have withered.

Rhododendron CaucasiumRhododendron Caucasium

The shadows slowly lengthen and sipping whiskey from our hip flasks, we watch the bruised-blue and sea-silver sky chasing the grass and rock into shadow at the coming of dusk as the cloud above the Chaukhi Massif blushes peach and the rock fades rapidly to chalky-mauve then cold-steel. Stars begin to wink in the firmament, the temperature quickly plummets and we retire to the warmth of our sleeping bags.

Next morning I awake to the glorious sight of the sun creeping over the tops of the snow-streaked mountains. In the valley below, huge columns of mist are slowly churning and dissipating into an azure-blue sky. It promises to be another scorcher.

Morning breaks over the Chaukhi MountainsMorning breaks over the Chaukhi Mountains Breaking camp, a steep climb up a shaly rock face brings us into a huge corrie still dappled with large patches of dirty snow. This area is only passable from mid-June onwards for the few short months of summer. Two routes are available to us, one to our left which sweeps up an arm of the corrie, and directly ahead, a zig-zag path which goes straight up a steep scree slope to the corrie rim. Both lead to the Chaukhi Pass. We choose the latter and after crossing several shin-deep snow patches, the wiry grass gives way to loose scree as we begin the brutal climb. My laboured breathing and pounding heart belies the altitude and the exertion of carrying a very heavy pack in temperatures far higher than we had expected. When I pause, which is often, I feel the blood thumping through the veins in my neck.

Approaching the top of the ridge near the Chaukhi PassApproaching the top of the ridge near the Chaukhi Pass After what seems like an eternity we reach a notch in the ridgeline. The rock is razor-thin here and care must be taken not to slip and tumble into oblivion through the cotton-white cloud which is billowing up the ridge face in a stiffening breeze. We sit panting in stupefied ecstasy as the breeze cools our sweaty faces. Like the view through a kaleidoscope, the picture instantly changes when the cloud parts to reveal tantalising flashes of blue glaciers, jewel-coloured lakes, the snow-covered peaks of the Great Caucasus, and endless waves of hills that look as if they have been draped in crumpled green velvet. To the north east are the troubled Russian Federation republics of Chechnya and Ingushetia, who few in the West had ever heard of prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and where deadly post-communist conflicts sadly simmer on. To the south east is Khevsureti, where we are headed, famed for its poetry and horsemanship.

Our objective is to find a place to camp beside one of the three Abudelauri Lakes which lie over 900 metres below us, accessed via a long grassy ridge which sweeps down from the Chaukhi Pass. To get to the pass involves an airy scramble along the knife-edge arête between two corries carved by long-vanished glaciers which have bitten deep into the rock. Cornices of snow cling like limpets to the shattered rock in several places, and a head for heights is desirable as we are forced more than once to put hands on rocks to steady ourselves in some very exposed sections.

Chauhki PassChauhki PassComing down off the ridge towards the Chaukhi Pass

We eventually descend about 30 metres from the ridge to arrive at the broad saddle which marks the Chaukhi Pass. From here we endure an excruciatingly steep descent of over 900 metres, which zig-zags over loose scree, then stubbly grass which gives way to lush thigh-high vegetation interspersed with rhododendron, the branches of which lie in wait to trap a weary ankle. I am mightily glad of my walking poles which prevent me from slipping.

Descent from the Chaukhi PassDescent from the Chaukhi Pass

Descent towards the Blue Lake from the Chaukhi PassDescent towards the Blue Lake from the Chaukhi Pass We’re delighted to find a flat and sheltered spot by some rhododendron bushes above an aquamarine pool, aptly named the Blue Lake, which peeks out alluringly from a mass of contorted limestone. With the tent erected, I sit outside to eat my freeze-dried meal of macaroni cheese where I am serenaded in the warm evening air by the fluty notes of a Great Rosefinch which is perched on a nearby boulder. As the sun slides down behind the Chaukhi Massif, the peaks of which from here resemble a spiny dragon’s back, their outline is etched for several utterly mesmerising moments on the cloud almost touching their tops.

The cold of night falls like a sledgehammer as the Milky Way soars over the crest of the nearby mountains, and warmed by several good slugs of whiskey, I snuggle up inside my sleeping bag.

I wake to shy, slanting sunbeams playing across the limestone cliffs of the nearby mountains that appear to be bearing down on our tiny tent. So picturesque and comfortable is our camping spot that we decide not to break camp, but instead to spend another night here which gives us time to explore the Chaukhi Glacier some 8km up-valley.

Wild Camp at the Blue LakeWild Camp at the Blue Lake Traversing banks of loose moraine and then following a tumbling ice-cold river which lower down is abruptly swallowed by the ground to vanish into some unseen cave system, our exertions are rewarded by the sight of an enormous amphitheatre of barren shattered rock with its crooked finger of ice.

The Chaukhi GlacierThe Chaukhi GlacierApproaching the Chaukhi Glacier and White Lake

We have entered a roughshod Arcadia of limestone, with colossal blades of grey rock clawing at the sky above the teardrop-silver lake below the Chaukhi Glacier. Known as the White Lake, it's chock full of sediment - ground down rock from the glacier. The tranquility and solitude are immense. The only sound, the occasional groan and creak of the glacier as it continues its inexorable downward journey, the musical cadence of the nearby river, and the chirping of birds and insects.

Chaukhi Glacier and the White LakeChaukhi Glacier and the White Lake The next morning is rather overcast, with low cloud touching the tops of the nearby mountains. It’s much cooler and this might account for the sudden activity amongst the nearby rocks. I spot a flash of brown as something darts across the top of a boulder only to disappear down a hole. My heart misses a beat as I think I’ve spotted a rat, but a little head suddenly pokes out from a gap beneath a neighbouring rock and two beady black eyes stare straight at me. It’s a stoat! In fact there are four of them and our departure is delayed by watching their antics as they circle our camp, with one emboldened individual approaching to within a few feet to inspect my rucksack!

StoatStoatSeveral of these small rodents visited our wild camp by the Blue Lake

We pause for one long, last lingering look at the Blue Lake as we climb away from our wild camping spot to begin the 8km gentle descent towards the small village of Roshka. Almost immediately we encounter the big brother of the Blue Lake. The hue of copper patina, unsurprisingly it’s named the Green Lake! Soft rain is falling as we follow the track down through the delightful Abdelauri River valley, but this soon abates and sunshine once more floods the landscape. Butterflies and bees dance between dog rose and blackberry bushes and brown cows with clanking bells wander in the lush meadow pastures strewn with a dazzling display of wildflowers. The croaking of crickets rises above the endless background drone of countless insects. The only thing marring this bucolic paradise is the presence of horse-flies that never miss an opportunity to feast on skin not slathered with insect repellent!

Blue LakeBlue LakeA last lingering look at the Blue Lake, the prefect spot for a wild camp

We soon spot the rust-red roofs of a cluster of small wooden houses that form the tiny village of Roshka which lies just below the confluence of the Abdelauri with another river. A huge glacial erratic nestled in the centre of the village sports a Georgian flag. Just above the village a new road is being cut through the pristine mountainside to connect an old village that was virtually abandoned during Soviet times. It leaves an ugly brown scar in the velvety verdure. Progress comes at a price.

There are a couple of guesthouses in Roshka, but we decide to make camp above the village in a meadow near a tall stand of sorrel which gives some protection from grazing cattle. From here, the hills towards Chechnya look like pillows of soft green velvet and we can see the tiny honey-coloured houses in the village of Gudani on the opposite side of the valley. We amble down to the village to source some water and find this at a fountain that has been erected in the memory of a young man whose face graces the exterior plaque with ornate Georgian inscription. The natural spring water pouring forth from its metal spout is glacier-cold and refreshing. As dusk creeps over the sky from the eastern horizon, the cattle are driven from the high pastures down towards the village by men and boys on horseback who return our waves with cheery smiles.

Next morning we are driven from our tent by the fierce heat of the rising sun. We hit the trail early and at the village search for a track that will take us down to the road leading to Shatili. No sooner than we begin to follow its sinuous route along the edge of the valley, the path is choked with giant hogweed. The bane of ever trekker in the Caucasus, this weed which grows higher than a man, is not something we wish to encounter. It looks attractive with its enormous umbrella-like white flowers which is why it was introduced to Ireland and other places in the nineteenth century by plant collectors and landscape garden enthusiasts. However beguiling it might look it is necessary to give it a wide berth, for brushing against any part of it with naked skin is likely to cause an allergic reaction. Its sap contains toxic chemicals which react in sunlight causing painful blistering within 48 hours. We therefore err on the side of caution and take the much longer dusty dirt track down to the Shatili road.

RoshkaRoshka After several kilometres of monotonous walking during which time only one old saloon car which has lost most of its paint and a man on horseback pass us, the road begins to descend steeply through forest in a series of zig-zags. Just before we hit the Shatili road, I almost step on a Caucasian viper which is curled up alongside the track. It’s apparently rather rare, so I feel privileged to have seen it even if it does make my skin crawl!

Crossing a small bridge on the road from RoshkaCrossing a small bridge on the road from Roshka The Shatili road is unpaved and not much busier than the road down from Roshka probably due to the fact that recent flash floods have rendered it impassable near Shatili. This is something of a blessing as its surface is like talcum powder. The road follows the bank of the roaring Aragvi River which has carved a deep gorge. The midday sun is burning as we pound along the dusty track sending tiny lizards scattering in all directions, and we are relieved when the sun slips down behind the nearby mountain ridge plunging some of the gorge into shadow. After several kilometres a jeep honks its horn and pulls up. A jovial Georgian man asks us where we’re going and it happens that he owns the grocery store and is related to the family with whom we are staying in Korsha. That’s the way of things in these mountain villages, where everyone seems to be related to everyone else! He kindly offers us a lift which we readily accept and in no time we are walking up the driveway of the Korsha Guesthouse, an attractive two-storied wooden building surrounded by lush gardens and beehives.

Korsha GuesthouseKorsha Guesthouse We are shown to our pretty basic room by a lovely lady named Marina who speaks passable English. The guesthouse is a delight, its rustic flagstone dining room furnished with hand-carved wooden furniture, and decorated with local costumes, mounted hunting trophies, bear skins and the stunning artwork of Shota, Marina's husband. The cold beer purchased at the store nearby tastes divine as we toast trekking over 40 km on the small balcony overlooking the gardens where Marina is busy digging up vegetables and picking herbs for our dinner. Georgia is the land of milk and honey, where orchards burst with fruit, and every house has its own beehives, livestock, vines and carefully tended vegetable patch, for people still have an attachment to the land - their food is all home-grown and prepared. And divine it tastes, after eating dried food for the last few days! We demolish plates of khinkali, herb soup, crisp salad and cheesy khachapuri washed down with Shota's homemade wine.

Dining room of the Korsha GuesthouseDining room of the Korsha Guesthouse After a sound night’s sleep, we are up early to catch the morning bus to Tbilisi which costs the grand total of six lari each. The route from Korsha to the main highway to Tbilisi is not tarmacked, and as our old and very battered bus painted with the Georgian flag bumps along and swings round corners, it contributes to the clouds of white dust that settle on everything in sight. Inside, we are the only Europeans crammed in like sardines among old men, black clad women with headscarves and several enormous digger tyres. There are no seat belts and the fact that the road is bumpy, the driver something of a maniac, and the rear suspension is shot, makes Martin feel decidedly queasy, and he is relieved when we hit the main highway to Tbilisi where we retire to the sulphur baths to revitalise our aching muscles.

Soaking in a private bath with ice cold beers, we reflect on an absolutely first class trekking and wild camping experience where we were totally free to commune with nature in wide open spaces unfettered by barbed wire fences, along rugged trails where we seldom encountered another soul during this, the peak season for trekking.  

 

USEFUL INFORMATION

We arranged to be dropped off at Jutta Village by the Mountain Freaks tour company in Stepantsminda for less than 10 euro each. In Khorsa we were accommodated at the Korsha Guesthouse which cost around 15 euro each per night, with the option of dinner which was extra. Our stay was arranged by telephone by a kind waitress named Nino who works at the Cafe 5047m in Stepantsminda.

From Korsha we caught the local bus to Tbilisi which cost 2 euro each and took a couple of hours.

The Chaukhi Massif area is covered by the GeoLand Trekking Map 3 (1:500000 scale) available for purchase at the GeoLand office shop in Tbilisi and online from Standfords (£9.99).

Camping gas can be purchased at the GeoLand office shop in Tbilisi. Do pack insect repellent. The horse-flies are horrendous and will bite through thin clothing!

Read our next blog about trekking in Svaneti and watch our film of our trekking trip to Georgia:

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eramaptec@gmail.com (Purple Peak Adventures) blue lake caucasus mountains chaukhi massif chaukhi pass europe georgia jutta khorsa roshka trekking white lake wild camping http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2017/11/trekking-in-the-caucasus-mountains-of-georgia-journey-across-the-chaukhi-massif Mon, 20 Nov 2017 01:51:28 GMT
Trekking in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia: Tbilisi and the Sights around Stepantsminda http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2017/11/trekking-in-the-caucasus-mountains-of-georgia-part-one-tbilisi-and-kazbegi Mount KazbegMount KazbegThe Gergeti Church looks diminutive silhouetted against the enormous mountain at sunrise

Georgia on my Mind

‘I’ve been drinking all day!’ exclaimed the chain-smoking taxi driver sticking his head out of the window to draw deeply on his third cigarette, ‘You know, Georgia is the land and home of the best wine in the world!’ We soon discovered that there was no reason to doubt this, but also that this inebriated taxi man who had collected us at Tbilisi Airport in the dead of night was not alone in speeding with wild abandon along the roads and tracks of this country…

Situated in the mighty Caucasus Mountains on a narrow bridge of land between the Black and Caspian Seas and occupying a unique geopolitical space betwixt Europe and Asia, not quite east or west, a visit to this conundrum of a country had been on my mind for thirty-odd years. Back in the late-80s working on a kibbutz in Israel, I had listened wide-eyed to tall stories told to me by Georgian Jews of remote mountain villages with enigmatic stone towers and rustic houses with ornate wooden balconies that were surrounded by picture-perfect alpine meadows in summer and cut off for months in deep-freezer winters. A place where boozy banquets went on for days, gun-totting bandits on horseback terrorised neighbourhoods, and few outsiders dared set foot. Add to this that Georgia is the land of the fabled ‘golden fleece’ that supposedly saw Jason and his Argonauts gallantly sally forth across the Black Sea in their quest to find it, my heart was firmly set on one day travelling to this out-of-the-ordinary country.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia’s subsequent independence in 1991, and the bloodless Rose Revolution of 2003 which set it firmly on a pro-Western footing, made a visit there seem finally possible. Despite simmering post-communist civil conflicts that included secessionist wars in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in 2008 I was busy drawing up plans to finally visit, only to be thwarted by the unexpected outbreak of the Russo-Georgian War.

Those plans languished on the back-burner for the best part of a decade before the post-Soviet anarchy and mayhem subsided sufficiently for Martin and I to decide that the time was ripe to finally book tickets to Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, where we now find ourselves one early-July night hurting through the streets in a death-wish taxi!

Tbilisi is our base for the start and finish of our treks in the northeast and northwest of the country. Because of its location on the crossroads between Europe and Asia and its proximity to lucrative east-west trade routes – it was a trading post along the Silk Road – it has been a point of contention between various global powers for centuries. Its diverse history is reflected in its eclectic architecture: a mix of medieval, classical, Middle Eastern, Art Nouveau, Stalinist and Modernist structures.

Today, this city with its leafy Paris-style boulevards is in the throes of a renaissance having undergone a rapid transformation in the wake of the Rose Revolution. Many old buildings have been swept away to be replaced by the sparkling Modernist architecture favoured by Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili. This includes the tubular steel Rike Park Concert Hall and Exhibition Centre, which gleams above the bank of the Mtkvari River, and the Bridge of Peace spanning it, amusingly dubbed the ‘Always Ultra’ due to its shape! It hasn’t yet cast off its era as a former republic of the Soviet Union which is reflected in buildings such as the post-constructivist eighteen-storey Bank of Georgia headquarters.

Mtkvari River and the Bridge of Peace, TbilisiMtkvari River and the Bridge of Peace, TbilisiThis new bridge has been nicknamed the 'Always Ultra' because of its shape! But scratch the surface and you will soon discover a palimpsest of ancient architecture. The predominantly brick-built old city of Tbilisi – Abanotubani - topped by the imposing Narikala Fortress, contains a warren of narrow cobbled streets lined with attractive Azeri teahouses. The city’s name means ‘warm location’ due to its hot sulphur springs, which prompted the construction of Persian bathhouses with facades of ornate coloured tiles which are still in use, and a visit to one is a must after a tiring trek.

Persian bathhouses in historic TbilisiPersian bathhouses in historic TbilisiTbilisi means ‘warm location’ due to its hot sulphur springs, which prompted the construction of Persian bathhouses which are still in use

The city is cosmopolitan and always has been: an Orthodox church, a mosque and a synagogue stand cheek by jowl in one road, and you can savour the flavours of many parts of the world in the wonderful Georgian cuisine served in attractive street-side restaurants, bars and cafes. As our taxi driver pointed out, Georgia prides itself on being the oldest known location of cultivated vines, and in recent years it has resurrected the 8,000-year-old kvevri method of production which involves storing wine, often underground, in clay vessels. Georgian wines are gaining increased attention from international connoisseurs and the Saperavi grape quickly becomes a firm favourite of ours. There are no shortage of shops in Tbilisi to purchase a bottle, and it is a delight to discover that tasting before you buy seems to be compulsory!

Azeri teahouses TbilisiAzeri teahouses TbilisiOne of the characterful streets in the historic part of Tbilisi and a great place for an ice cold beer on a hot and humid day

The juxtaposition between old and new in this happening city with its avant-guard heart makes for breath-taking vistas, and none more spectacular than that at sunset from the terrace of the Funicular Complex atop Mount Mtatsminda.

Tbilisi from Mount MtatsmindaTbilisi from Mount MtatsmindaOne of the finest views of the city is from the restaurant complex atop Mount Mtatsminda at dusk

Go-Gergeti: The Lightening Lada

After a day exploring and sightseeing in Tbilisi, we depart for the north-eastern Kazbegi region by private taxi through the outskirts of the city with its hot, fumy air, beyond the brooding Soviet-era apartment blocks lined up like rows of rotten teeth to where the Caucasus Mountains beckon. The aged Toyota taxi doesn’t have one panel that hasn’t been remodelled and the journey is another hair-raising experience, as the somewhat laconic driver with a mouthful of golden teeth breaks every conceivable road rule in the book. The seat belts are broken and my anal nerve almost fails on several occasions as, fag in mouth, he overtakes heavily laden trucks on blind corners, regularly speeds along at over 80km per hour on bumpy uneven roads, and dodges cattle and sheep which roam at will throughout the country. Georgia is dominated by massive mountain ranges with a limited road network that can make an inch on the map equal to two hours in a car. The road clings to the spiralling hillside as we climb higher into the jagged teeth of the mountains past the Gudauri Ski Resort after which it really deteriorates; the potholes could quite easily swallow one of the sheep wandering by the roadside!

I am relieved when we finally arrive at the Anano Guesthouse, our accommodation in Stepantsminda, 157 kilometres to the north of Tbilisi. Built on the Georgian Military Highway, an arterial route connecting Vladikavaz in North Ossetia (Russian Federation) with Tbilisi, it’s a small town of ancient stone and wooden houses in various states of dilapidation cheek by jowl with brand new three storey villas built by ‘new money’, the fruits of international tourism. Straddling the banks of the Terek River at an elevation of 1,740 metres above sea level, the village is named after a Georgian Orthodox monk named Stephan who constructed a hermitage here. During Soviet times it was known as Kazbegi, and is still informally referred to by this name. Hemmed in by enormous, jagged snow-capped mountains on all sides, Stepantsminda is one of the fastest growing tourist hubs for trekking and climbing due to its proximity to Mount Kazbek (5,337m) a dormant stratovolcano which lies immediately to the west of it.

StepantsmindaStepantsmindaFormerly known as Kazbegi, this town is an important hub for climbing and trekking

The main tourist attraction is the fourteenth century Gergeti Trinity Church (Tsminda Sameba in Georgian) which sits above Stepantsminda and the neighbouring village of Gergeti on the right bank of the river Chkheri at an elevation of 2,170 metres. Christianity arrived in Georgia early – its people were converted in the fourth century and have clung on to their faith fiercely ever since. This holy Christian site is dwarfed by the enormous conical hulk of Mount Kazbek in whose shadow it sits and has become something of a symbol for modern Georgia, overshadowed as it is by its larger neighbours, Russia, Iran and Turkey. The history of Georgia is all about invasions, yet this resilient little country has somehow defiantly survived with its own language, alphabet and Christian culture.

We have a bird’s eye view of this famous church from the balcony of our guesthouse and at dawn it cuts a truly formidable figure silhouetted against the snows of Mount Kazbek blushing rose pink in the rising sun. A late-afternoon visit is promptly arranged with our host, Georgi, who will drive us there to avoid a steep 430 metre climb. His battered white Lada, which looks as if it was driven hard all the way from Togliatti, Russia thirty odd years ago, seems barely large enough to contain the three of us. One glance at Martin suggests he is thinking the same as me: ‘how on earth is this old vehicle going to make it up to the church?!’

Our concern is soon set aside as we begin to power our way up the dusty, deeply rutted, unmade track, for this Lada is a souped-up 4X4 which passes a labouring convoy of brand new Polish-registered Toyota Land Cruisers with ease! ‘This car can go like a mouse,’ says Georgi laughing, ‘in between the holes!’ Fancying himself to be Georgia’s very own Lewis Hamilton, he prides himself on passing every other vehicle in a cloud of dust, while we politely endure Georgia’s version of the ‘African massage’; every bone in my body is jarred by the constant pitching and rolling, and by the time we emerge from the wooded track onto the broad grassy hillside below the church, we are coated in a thin film of red dust!

Gia's LadaGia's LadaNever laugh at an old Lada again. This car went where new Toyota Land Crusiers feared to drive!

The Gergeti Trinity Church is the only cross-cupola church in Khevi province and it cuts an imposing sight perched atop a grassy knoll. During incursions by Tbilisi Persians in the eighteenth century, precious relics from Mtskheta, including Saint Nino’s Cross, were brought here for safekeeping and it is perceived as something of a national treasure by Georgians who were banned from holding services in it during Soviet times. As we make our way up the steep cobbled pathway to the church and its separate bell tower, I can feel the effects of the altitude in my slightly laboured breathing.

The Gergeti Trinity ChurchThe Gergeti Trinity ChurchThe Gergeti Trinity Church (Tsminda Sameba) sits above Stepantsminda at an elevation of 2,170 metres.

We enter the church compound through the dark interior of the bell tower. In order to visit the church, women must cover their heads and be wearing a skirt; men must not be clad in shorts, so garments are provided. No photography is permitted inside. I enter though the ancient wooden doorway with its carved stone surround. Thin lances of light are cast down into the dark interior from the cupola creating an eerie half-light, and as my eyes adjust to the gloom I can see the opulent gold leaf of the numerous icons set ablaze by scores of flickering candles. In a corner, a bearded Orthodox monk is quietly reading a prayer book and the smell of burning beeswax hangs heavily in the air.

Outside we sit on the sun warmed slabs of the church terrace with its jaw-dropping view over Stepantsminda which is laid out like an architect’s model far below. Huge pillows of soft white cloud drift languidly over the face of the enormous snow-streaked mountains opposite and chords of watery sunlight trace intricate patterns across their runnelled face. This is our first real look at the mighty Caucasus Mountains. According to Greek mythology, as a punishment for teaching mankind how to make fire, the Titan Prometheus was chained to a mountainside in these mountains for all eternity. Being a land renowned for its myth and legend, Georgian folklore has its own version of the Prometheus story in the shape of the dragon-slayer, Amirani, who challenged God to a contest. God threw a staff into the ground which grew roots so deep that Arimani was unable to pull it out. As a punishment for his foolishness he was imprisoned in a cave 4,000 meters high on the icy slopes of Mount Kazbek, the huge mountain that glowers over this little church. This story somehow doesn’t seem too fantastical in such a fairy-tale environment.

All too soon we are being driven at breakneck speed down the mountainside in Georgi’s Lada, and by the time we miraculously arrive in one piece in the town square, a rather large glass of Saperavi wine is needed to calm the nerves!

 

Travertines in the Truso

Dust catches in the back of my throat as a beat up old van passes by on the powder dry unmade track leading deep into the remote Truso Valley. As the dust settles, above the road I can see a derelict square tower tapering skywards like a broken tooth. The vehicle which has just passed by the virtually abandoned old settlement of Kvemo Okrokana must be one of the shepherds who use the pastures to graze their sheep and cattle in this valley in the summer months, for few people inhabit the old villages hereabouts anymore. The Soviets finally achieved what even the formidable Persian army had failed to do for centuries: destroy and disperse the mountain people. In the 1940s and 1950s they were forcibly moved to lower valleys where they could be controlled and few have since returned.

We have been dropped at this semi-deserted settlement by minibus from Stepantsminda to undertake a 22 km return walk up this valley. It is a beautiful summer’s morning and the sunlight is dancing off the chalky grey water of the Tergi River which roars below us in the narrow Kasari Canyon. The deep green interlocking spurs of the mountains appear to soar for miles above us and the trackside is fringed with brightly coloured meadow flowers which nod in the gentle breeze.

Kvemo OkrokanaKvemo OkrokanaThe virtually abandoned village at the start of the Truso Valley trek

After several kilometres we come to a makeshift bridge which crosses over a small tributary of the river. Coming down the track towards us is a large flock of sheep being driven by a man who is leading a white horse and brandishing an enormous stick which he uses to good effect to keep the flock in order. Their bells clank loudly over the roar of the river as they hurry by. However, one animal becomes detached from the flock and misses the bridge. Faced with the rushing torrent it bleats forlornly on the bank of the tributary, reluctant to take the plunge. A man in a car who is bringing up the rear hops out and grabs hold of the terrified animal; he smiles at us as he throws it into the river. Thankfully the sheep emerges unscathed the other side and runs off to join the rest of the flock. Life is hard for both man and beast in these mountain communities!

Shepherd in TrusoShepherd in TrusoThe Truso Valley is used in the summer for grazing sheep and cattle A little further on the canyon ends abruptly and opens out into a broad boulder-strewn meadow. The road sweeps round to the right below a line of white and tan outcrops which are travertine formations. These sinter deposits are a reminder that the Caucasus Mountains are still geologically active and the presence of hot springs here in this valley and also in Tbilisi, hint at the volcanic forces still at work deep below the Earth’s crust. The water issues forth from mineral springs and flows like syrup down over sheets of pearly white rock shimmering in the sunlight, creating intricate lace-like patterns. Tiny concentric pools contain spherical pebbles named rock pearls, and in places the travertine takes on a visually striking ruddy hue due to the presence of iron carbonate. Upslope from the travertine outcrop we encounter an ornate stone cross bristling with orange lichen, which apparently marks a grave, and on the other side of the river can see the Abano Mineral Lake staring at us like a ghoulish aqua eye rimmed with blood red veins.

Rock pearls and travertine formationsRock pearls and travertine formationsTravertine formations in the Truso Valley, Kazbegi,Georgia An army truck rumbles by on the track and the Georgian soldiers inside wave cheerily at us. This is a reminder that the border with the disputed region of South Ossetia is not that far away, and as we continue along the track the full majesty of the Truso Valley is revealed. In the distance lie the jagged snowy ridges of the High Caucasus along the South Ossetian border. The Tergi River occupies the broad valley bottom and has braided into a maze of chalky turquoise channels. Handsome brown cows graze contentedly in the lush meadows dotted with a mind-blowing variety of colourful flowers. This is a wild land once inhabited by fierce tribes who engaged in blood feuds with their neighbours, hence the medieval watchtowers that were built for defence which dominate the skyline above the all-but-abandoned villages. At the head of the valley are two monasteries, one occupied by monks, the other by nuns, and beyond this, the ruins of the Zakagori fortress perched atop a grassy knoll above the Georgian border post. The scene is picture postcard perfect.

Past an outcrop of very red travertine the whiff of sulphur assaults our nostrils and we encounter a small rusty coloured stream with highly acidic water that is issuing from a pipe as a small geyser. We then enter the village of Ketrisi which occupies the ground above a sweeping bend in the river. The houses are in various stages of dilapidation, and most are unroofed with their timber trusses poking skywards like the exposed ribcages of dead things. Only one or two families live here now and their scruffily clad children eye us suspiciously as we walk past. A lone dog with its head down begins to shadow us as we pass by one of the houses which makes me feel decidedly uneasy, and I am relieved when an old woman clad in a headscarf and long apron who is working in a nearby field calls it off. She returns our thanks with a wave and a smile. Across the river we can see several blue tarpaulin tents below a pretty well-preserved tower in the middle of another abandoned village. A horseman is riding slowly along the river bank towards some cattle and we surmise that these are probably the temporary shelters for the shepherds who come here in the summer months.

Ketrisi VillageKetrisi VillageThe nearby abandoned village of Ketrisi in the Truso Valley

Once past the village the river turns sharply to the right and the nun’s monastery and ruined fortress dramatically float into view. Higher upslope above the track is the monk’s monastery with its mauve roof which harmonises with the colour of the round headed rampion that pepper the fields in front of it.

Truso Valley near South OssetiaTruso Valley near South OssetiaThe Tergi River and the Nun's Monastery in the Truso Valley The nun’s monastery is a little further on, tucked away behind a rustic stone hedge, and consists of an abandoned tower, a small church and an accommodation block built of stone with wooden balconies, a terracotta roof and a small courtyard. A large bell hangs from one of the balconies and a collection of crosses are sited in the overgrown grounds of the church which has been recently rebuilt having been destroyed during Soviet times. A nun clad head to toe in black is sweeping off the steps leading into the main building while another is leaning out of a window gazing towards the mountains. I imagine how challenging it must be for these women in the depth of winter when up to two metres of snow might lie in this valley and few people venture to visit. The solitude must be immense, but at least they are not entirely cut off from the outside world or without amenities, for several solar panels and a satellite dish are clearly visible .

Nun's MonasteryNun's MonasteryThe Nun's Monastery at the far end of the Truso Valley

We walk further along the deeply rutted dusty track towards the border post to take some images of the Zakagori fortress and unable to proceed further due to the political situation, we return the way that we came. We arrive back at Kvemo Okrokana an hour and a half later and are collected by minibus for the 45 minute journey back to Stepantsminda. Having worked up an appetite and a thirst, we dine on kharcho, khachapuri and khinkali, washed down with a bottle of fine Saperavi wine, and begin to plan the next leg of our trip, a multi-day trek involving wild camping across the Chaukhi Massif...

Zakagori FortressZakagori FortressThe abandoned fortress near the South Ossetain border. Hiking any further is not possible without a permit

USEFUL INFORMATION

To get to Stepantsminda from Tbilisi, it is possible to hire a pre-arranged private taxi at a cost of about 70 euro which is very expensive by Georgian standards, or to use a marshrutka (a kind of minibus taxi) which leave the Didube bus station roughly every hour and cost around 3 euro. Private car drivers will ask around for people going to Stepantsminda, at a fare of around 7 euro per person, and will leave when their car is full (usually 6 people). 

We used local tour company Mountain Freaks based in Stepantsminda for our day trip to the Truso Valley which cost about 10 euro each. It is possible to hire a taxi from Stepantsminda to take you there and collect you/or wait, but you need to be prepared to haggle hard to get a fair price.

Do pack insect repellent. The horse-flies in the Truso Valley are troublesome and will bite through thin clothing!

The Stepantsminda area including the Truso Valley is covered by the GeoLand Trekking Map 4 (1:500000 scale) available for purchase at the GeoLand office shop in Tbilisi and online from Standfords (£9.99).

We stayed at the Abano Guesthouse (listed on Booking.com) in a comfortable double en suite room; breakfast was an optional extra at 3 euro each. The cost was about 19 euro per night and the trip up to the Gergeti Church an additional 7 euro. Local restaurants we ate at include Cafe 5047m and Cafe Khevi.

Read the next blog of our wild camping trek across the Chaukhi Massif and watch the film of our visit to Georgia which features some of the places mentioned in this blog:


 

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eramaptec@gmail.com (Purple Peak Adventures) caucasus mountains europe georgia gergeti trinity church hiking kazbegi sightseeing stepantsminda tbilisi truso valley http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2017/11/trekking-in-the-caucasus-mountains-of-georgia-part-one-tbilisi-and-kazbegi Mon, 20 Nov 2017 00:17:30 GMT
‘The Chess Set of the Gods’: Trekking in the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2017/4/-the-chess-set-of-the-gods-trekking-in-the-simien-mountains-of-ethiopia The Simien Mountain Escarpment, EthiopiaThe Simien Mountain Escarpment, EthiopiaThe Greek poet, Homer, described the Simien Mountains in northern Ethiopia as 'The Chess Set of the Gods'. This incredible landscape is formed from an ancient super-volcano which has been heavily eroded in its northern half by millions of years of rain and wind, leaving the dramatic escarpment and spellbinding buttes and mesas of today

 

Day One: Africa’s ‘Grand Canyon’

I catch my breath as I peer over the edge of the terrifying precipice upon which I am standing that plunges vertically downwards for over a kilometre. To the north wave upon wave of sienna-brown peaks, pinnacles and spires are illuminated by great shafts of light radiating down from a bank of broken flint-grey cloud, before fading to sepia to be swallowed in a glassy haze. The rainy season ended some six months ago, the crops of sorghum, barley and sesame in the terraced fields far below have been harvested and the baked brown earth is bare and fallow leaving everything dusty and tinder-dry. An enormous grey curtain of rain slowly pulsates across this magnificent landscape which bears a striking resemblance to Arizona’s Grand Canyon. I suddenly realise I am not alone as I spot a solitary male baboon sitting silently atop the escarpment, staring, like me, towards the distant horizon. It eyes me knowingly before a cry from one of its kind is the signal for it to bound away to rejoin its troop.

Martin and I are in the Simien Mountains having just travelled from the dusty, dirty, ramshackle market town of Debark. Geared up for Easter which is just a week away, it resembles a scene from Biblical times and is teeming with turbaned men dressed in flowing white robes, brandishing wooden sticks driving heavily-laden donkeys, cattle, sheep and goats. Colourfully dressed women with goods balanced atop their heads, many with children ensconced in a cotton sling across their backs, line the busy streets of this gateway settlement to the Simien Mountains National Park which is situated in Ethiopia’s remote, northern hinterland: the North Gondar Zone of the Amhara region. Here we have registered at the park headquarters and our guide, Michael, has paid our permit fee for an eight-day trek which will see us cover almost 100 km. We have been joined by an elderly Amhara man with a lean and whipcord appearance whose spontaneous smile is infectious. Noursein is to be our compulsory armed scout and brandishes a battered Kalashnikov rifle which must be as old as he is.

Established in 1969, this park was one of the first sites to be made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. The spellbinding landscape of fertile valleys, Afroalpine grasslands and heathlands, is broken into towering plateaux, sharp precipices and deep valleys by a multitude of rushing rivers and tumbling waterfalls which have eaten away at the basalts and tuffs in the northern half of what was once one of Africa’s ancient super-volcanoes. Marvelling at the majesty of the towering spires, volcanic pinnacles, gaping gorges, gullies and vast rock formations, the Greek poet, Homer, fancifully imagined these to be ‘the chess set of the Gods’. Standing on the very edge of the vast escarpment that extends eastwards for some 35 kilometres, I can see why.

Simien Mountains National ParkSimien Mountains National ParkThe buttes and mesas form part of an eroded super-volcano. The escarpment plunges down around one kilometre creating an epic landscape

The Simien Mountains remain devoid of sealed roads, and there only a few unsealed routes that can take vehicular traffic, but they are criss-crossed by a multitude of footpaths linking remote Amhara villages. We will be using some of these ancient trails over the next week. This mountain wilderness is home to several critically endangered endemic species including the grass-eating Gelada baboon which I have just spotted, the enormous horned Walia ibex (a nimble shaggy-coated wild mountain goat), and the shy, russet-coated Ethiopian wolf which is considered to be the rarest canid species in the world.

Our cook Tigabu, an ebullient man nicknamed ‘Mr Fantastic’, and his assistant, Wondem, have gone on ahead by minibus to Sankaber to set up our first camp, leaving us to walk along a well-trodden trail that meanders along the edge of the vast escarpment for some five and a half kilometres. Although the pace is modest, I can feel the effects of altitude as we make our way along the undulating trail, for we are already well over 3,000 metres above sea level and many of the peaks in this range are over 4,000 metres high, including Ethiopia’s highest point, Ras Dashen, which soars to 4,620 metres.

We soon encounter a large troop of Gelada baboons busily foraging for grass roots and tubers in a thyme-scented meadow. They are herbivores and obtaining sufficient calories from grass, herbs and seeds takes a lot of work, so geladas spend most of their days rooting around on their buttocks. The males have striking lion-like manes and a large patch of crimson skin shaped like a fish tail on their chest which has lent them the name, 'bleeding heart monkeys'. The air is filled with squeaks and honks, and shrieks that resemble squabbling crows.

Male gelada baboon, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaMale gelada baboon, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThe gelada baboon is found only in Ethiopia. The males have striking lion-like manes and a large patch of crimson skin shaped like a fish tail on their chest

 

These extremely vocal primates do not appear to be at all concerned by our presence and we are able to get quite close to them and to observe their communal antics which include avid grooming! As dusk falls the gelada will retire to their sleeping cliffs, the narrow rocky ledges of the escarpment, where they will try to stay safe from leopards, hyenas and feral dogs. Overhead a lone lammergeyer soars on the thermals. Its haunting cry fills the air.

We arrive at Sankaber camp before sunset. We are the sole occupants and our cooks have commandeered a tulkul, a circular hut with a conical tin roof. A fire has been lit in the hearth at the centre of the hut which casts a thick column of choking blue smoke up into the roof. The firewood is eucalyptus which was introduced to Ethiopia from Australia in the late nineteenth century by Emperor Menelik who needed a readily available building material for his new city, Addis Ababa. The rapidly growing eucalyptus is now ubiquitous throughout Ethiopia, and is much used in building construction and as a fuel, even though it is responsible for negative environmental impacts due to it being a thirsty plant.

Sankaber CampSankaber CampThe round buildings, called tulkuls, are used by the cooks to prepare meals

Camp fire in a tukul at Sankaber, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaCamp fire in a tukul at Sankaber, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaWondem, our assistant cook, tends to the eucalyptus wood fire. Eucalyptus was introduced to Ethiopia from Australia in the late nineteenth century by Emperor Menelik and is now much used as a fuel and for construction purposes

After a hearty vegetarian meal washed down with spicy thyme tea, we retire to our tent under the watchful eye of our scout, Noursein. Away from the fire it is decidedly chilly and he is sitting outside the tulkul wrapped in just a cotton shawl. Later we discover that he has gone to sleep under a nearby bush with just a thin sheet of plastic sacking wrapped round himself; we wonder at his hardiness.

 

Day Two: Escarpment Exertions

I am woken by the loud braying of a mule. The muleteers must have arrived. Outside the tulkul several men are deep in conversation with Michael and a park ranger. Only one team will get the job of conveying our bag and the camping and cooking equipment for the next week. Competition is fierce. Yared, a slightly built man with high cheek bones and sunken cheeks is to be our head muleteer, assisted by a jovial young man named Miretu. They have two mules that comfortably convey our equipment.

The sky is cobalt blue and cloud free and we take breakfast next to our tent, eyed all the while by a couple of brazen thick-billed ravens, while a group of klipspringer are quietly grazing at the edge of camp. Today’s walk to Geech Camp is around 13 km and initially follows the edge of the escarpment eastwards promising panoramic views.

The thick-billed raven (Corvus crassirostris), Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaThe thick-billed raven (Corvus crassirostris), Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaThis corvid is endemic to the Horn of Africa. Its habitat includes mountains and plateaus between elevations of 1500 to 3400 metres

The trail passes through thickets of giant heather (Erica Arborea) which are heavily garlanded with wispy strands of greyish-green old man’s beard lichens. The ground is flecked with pale pink and aromatic wild thyme flowers, while amid the gnarled boughs of the giant heather, yellow St John’s wort flowers, delicate white sweet smelling jasmine flowers and pale pink Abyssinian roses bloom. Leaving the escarpment we descend steeply into a pocket of forest in the Kaba Valley which offers a welcome respite from the heat which is steadily rising. A scramble over a narrow, precipitous rocky ridge brings us to a scenic viewpoint where the Jinbar River plunges some 500 metres into the terrifyingly deep Geech Abyss. A thin, silver curtain of water is just visible in the black crease of rock leading from the river valley. This waterfall would be a truly impressive sight in the rainy season when the Jinbar is in spate.   

Jinbar Waterfall, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaJinbar Waterfall, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThe Jinbar River plunges over 500 metres in to the Geech Abyss in the Simien Mountains, Ethiopia

We now undertake a lung busting climb up a trail towards the unsealed road that runs from Sankaber to Chenek. The path weaves it way between African olive trees that trap the humidity making the going tough. Once on the road, the sun beats down with unrestrained brutality and the passing trucks and buses send up clouds of choking dust. I am relieved when we finally leave the dusty road to descend steeply towards the Jinbar River where we will stop for lunch. The route takes us down through a maze of small dusty fields where the barley has been cropped and where we encounter numerous children herding livestock who pester us for empty plastic water bottles which they can reuse to carry water to school. View from the Escarpment, Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaView from the Escarpment, Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaShort break to admire the view before the descent to the Jinbar River

Above the rocky river bed we manage to find a few spindly trees that cast just enough shade to sit under. Even in the shadows the heat still lingers and we derive no cooling benefit from the close proximity to the sluggishly flowing river with its brackish water. The terrain now changes as we begin our ascent out of the valley towards Geech Camp. The baked earth with its friable, multicoloured bands is clearly derived from volcanic deposits which reflect the heat. Just below Geech Camp was a Muslim village, betrayed now only by broken down stone-walled field systems amid partially felled plantations of eucalyptus. It is eerily quiet as we pass through what was once a thriving settlement. Population increase, deforestation, overgrazing and severe soil erosion led to the whole settlement being recently relocated to Debarq to help protect the National Park which was placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger by UNESCO in 1996. After protracted consultation the villagers reluctantly left, but before they departed they burned their tulkuls to the ground.

Jinbar RiverJinbar RiverWe derive no cooling benefit from the close proximity to the sluggishly flowing river with its brackish water

Mid-afternoon we arrive at Geech Campsite which is situated on a high windswept plateau of shivering yellow grasses studded with giant lobelia plants. There are only a couple of other campers here and the place is all but deserted. The cloud has banked up steadily during the day and the atmosphere is pregnant with rain. We only just make our group’s tulkul before the heavens open and great curtains of rain pulsate across the undulating plateau finally banishing the heat and humidity. I watch as huge raindrops are greedily swallowed by the parched earth which gives off a loamy fragrance. The rain is as refreshing as the Dashen beer which I am sipping!

The rainstorm quickly blows itself out and I wander off to a nearby long drop. On my way back to camp I spot a sleek fox-like animal moving swiftly across the plateau. It passes quite close by and seems to be as invigorated by the recent shower of rain as me. It’s an Ethiopian wolf and I call out excitedly to Martin who sees it too. Unfortunately, neither of us manages to get a photo of this rare creature which we are privileged to see, as there are currently only about 40 individuals in the park. We were planning to walk up to the nearby viewpoint of Kedadit to see the sun set from the escarpment, but a persistent thick bank of grey cloud on the western horizon scuppers this idea and we content ourselves instead with another beer!

A local chicken has been procured for our dinner tonight, but my excitement at having meat (which is at a premium on this trek and not just because the Christians are observing Lent), soon subsides. The flesh of this bird is rubbery and tough as hemp, and I struggle to eat even a small portion! Moreover, the eucalyptus wood is smeeching and a layer of acrid blue smoke hangs like a veil across the interior of the tulkul making our eyes smart, so we beat a hasty retreat to our tent. The cloud is now clearing and through the gaps we spy a sky teeming with stars. The warmth of the day is rapidly seeping from the earth as the mercury plummets and the rising moon bathes the shimmering grasses in a pearly luminescence. Moonlight over Geech Campsite, Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaMoonlight over Geech Campsite, Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaThe Milky Way can just be seen in the moonlit skies over Geech Campsite

 

Day Three: The Roof of Africa

The sun is hot on our backs as we breakfast by our tent. It’s going to be another scorcher. Our journey today takes us 20km to Chennek Camp which is at an elevation of 3,600 metres, the same as Geech, but the terrain between the two involves steep descents and ascents which make this day challenging. First we must climb around 300 metres to the rocky promontory, Imet-Gogo (3,926 metres). We set off across a wide tract of Afroalpine moorland beneath a cobalt-blue sky flecked with flour-white cloud. Trails that look as if they have been made by a one legged goat meander amid the knee high grass and the terrain is dotted with giant lobelia which lift their shaggy green heads high above the ground on palm-like trunks. The scenery is magnificent and quintessentially African.

Giant Lobelia, Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaGiant Lobelia, Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaThe Afroalpine moorland above Geech Camp

As the heat has not yet risen enough to create the disorienting haze that later in the day will obscure from sight the distant landforms, atop Imet-Gogo we have superb 360 degree views of the deeply incised valleys separated by razor thin ridges of rock, the enormous cliffs of the escarpment and the iconic buttes and mesas rearing up from the lowland plains where we will end our trek. From this high point we spot Egyptian vultures and lammergeyers soaring on the thermals and two black kites tumbling like fighter jets locked into a dog-fight. A steep descent following the plunging edge of the escarpment into the Jinbahir Valley offers incredible views up to Imet-Gogo, perched fortress-like above sky-scrapper high walls of rock.

The Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThe Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThis panorama was taken from the escarpment near Imet-Gogo and shows the massively eroded northern section of the ancient super-volcano

Lunch is to be taken atop the 4,070 metre Inatye Peak which entails a steep 600 metre climb out of the Jinbahir Valley. The cloud is beginning to boil up from the east and I am sweating profusely as we battle the altitude following the well-worn trail through stands of giant heather which instantly trap the humidity. I observe that Michael and Noursein barely seem to have broken a sweat. Their brown skin has only the faintest hint of moistness, resembling polished stone. Without warning we are suddenly pelted with small hail stones as gunmetal-grey clouds pass overhead, bringing a welcome drop in the temperature. Eventually the vegetation thins, the terrain becomes bare and rocky with scrubby grass interspersed with patches of snow-white helichrysum and the odd lobelia. Here we spot giant mole rats darting amid the rocks. The main food of the Ethiopian wolf, they flee into holes as we approach.

The descent from Imet-Gogo, Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaThe descent from Imet-Gogo, Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaA steep descent to the Jinbahir Valley is followed by a steep 600 metre climb to reach the 4,070 metre Inatye Peak which can be seen centre top

View down through a gorge, Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaView down through a gorge, Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaA gorge lined with giant lobelia plunges down from the escarpment plateau en route to Inatye Peak

After what seems like an eternity we reach Inatye Peak, our lunch spot, a rocky crown protruding high above the near-vertical cliffs of the escarpment. Inatye means something like Mamma Mia in Amharic, and peering over the vertiginous edge it's not hard to see why. Below, the contorted and eroded landscape of fantastical chess-set shapes stretching away into the hazy horizon brood under a sky of slowly churning cloud. A feeble sun picks at a slit in the ashen cloud which is disgorging huge veils of rain that sweep dramatically across the landscape. We are standing on the very roof of Africa.

Rain over the Simien Mountains, EthiopiaRain over the Simien Mountains, EthiopiaRain sweeps across the buttes and mesas visible from Inatye Peak (4,070 metres)

A loud crack of thunder suddenly rends the air breaking the spell. The wind begins to gust as a storm approaches from the east and we sense it’s time to beat a hasty retreat. The air is cooler now and we descend rapidly across the afroalpine heathland as large leaden raindrops begin to fall. Just as quickly as it arrived, the shower departs, sunlight once more floods the landscape amplifying the golden hues of the grasses, and we enjoy the steep descent towards Chennek Camp along a truly scenic trail which threads its way precariously along the top of the plunging cliffs of the escarpment.

Giant heather, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaGiant heather, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThe descent to Chennek Camp passes through stands of giant heather draped with old men's beard lichen

We arrive at the virtually deserted camp in the late afternoon and are instantly regaled with Dashen beer and popcorn. A large troop of Gelada baboons passing close to our tulkul entertain us with their grooming and foraging antics and we enjoy the spectacle of the setting sun turning the sky above the dramatic cliffs of the escarpment shades of apricot, violet and mauve. As soon as it gets dark in Africa people tend to go to bed, and Noursein has already staked his bush for the night close to our tent as we leave the warmth of the tulkul’s fire. It’s much cooler tonight as the sky is crystal clear and crammed full of stars. We marvel at the brilliance of the Milky Way that arches majestically above a ridge leading to Ras Bwahit which we will be climbing tomorrow.

Chennek Camp, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaChennek Camp, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThe escarpment we had just traversed as seen from Chennek Camp

 

Day Four: Bagging Ras Bwahit

It’s not yet 9.00 am and I’m already sweating profusely and sucking hard on my water bladder as we slowly inch our way up what has to be one of Africa’s highest roads which passes close to Chennek camp. Unsealed, it zig-zags its way upwards to a pass just below the shoulder of Ras Bwahit and is busy with traffic. We spot several trucks crammed full of people which bear the name ‘Obama’. Michael explains that these were brought into service at the time Barak Obama first took office and are named Obama Trucks in honour of the first African-American president. Great plumes of fine dust thrown up by the slow moving vehicles combine with choking blue diesel fumes which make me gag. The atmosphere is thick and hazy, the heat is reflected back off the parched roadway and each searing breath I take feels like I’m inhaling molten lava. I’m relieved when we leave the road to climb up towards the edge of the escarpment.

Obama truck, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaObama truck, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaA truck travelling on one of Africa's highest roads is named after Barak Obama who became America's first ever African-American president the same year this truck entered service

Almost immediately we happen upon a group of Walia ibex not far above the precipitous drop. A male with a pair of majestic backward curved horns, chocolate brown coat and a long Billy-goat beard standing amid the shivering yellow grass cuts a formidable figure. Close by are several smaller females with less impressive horns and lighter coloured coats. Some are grazing, but others lie in the long grass and are quite hard to spot. This wild mountain goat is found only in the northern mountains of Ethiopia and is on the IUCN’s endangered list. There are thought to be only about 500 individuals in the Simien Mountains National Park, so we are immensely privileged to have seen this group of about eight.

Living on the edge!Living on the edge!A group of Walia ibex graze close to the escarpment edge above Chennek Camp

The trail takes us along the edge of the escarpment with incredible views down over the farmland far below. From up here the burnt-sienna and golden yellow-coloured terraced field systems dotted with small farms look like an enormous and intricate jigsaw puzzle. On the road below we spot our muleteers rounding a hairpin bend and we wave to them and shout words of encouragement. They are making for the village of Arkazye where we will camp tonight.

Muleteers, Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaMuleteers, Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaOur muleteers, Yared and Miretu making for Arkazye Village

But first we have a date with the summit of Ras Bwahit, 4,437 metres above sea level, making it the third highest mountain in Ethiopia and the 14th highest peak in Africa. Back on the unmade road, we are slowly slogging our way upward battling the heat and altitude. At least the trucks are barely moving much faster than us!

One of Africa's highest roads in the Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaOne of Africa's highest roads in the Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaOne of Africa's highest roads threading its way upward above the Simien Escarpment as seen from the slope of Mount Bwahit

Leaving the road we strike out across the silver-hued terrain which is covered in helichrysum flowers which ape the surrounding rocks. The giant lobelia, not so giant anymore, eventually vanish as the route gets progressively rocky and steeper, and near the top we are forced to place our hands on the rock. We are moving a little faster now as the sun is obscured behind a bank of cloud and there is a refreshing stiff breeze. Combined with the natural fall in temperature due to the altitude, this makes climbing much more comfortable for us and I am somewhat surprised when Michael announces that we have reached the summit which is crowned with a rocky cairn.

As we pose for the obligatory summit pictures, Noursein hands me his aged Kalashnikov rifle to hold which is a somewhat surreal moment! Martin produces a 500 ml bottle of Tullamore Dew purchased duty free in Dubai which we have been quaffing each night and which contains just enough whiskey to toast our summit success! The views up here are magnificent. Below, Africa’s highest road switchbacks its way up the escarpment above the yawning void cut down some one kilometre by numerous ravines draining into the Tekeze River. The awe-inspiring ‘chess set of the Gods' is laid out beneath brooding gunmetal grey skies. Atop Mount Bwahit we are standing on the western rim of the enormous ancient super-volcano, the eastern counterpart of which is Ras Dashen, Ethiopia’s highest mountain. As the crow files Ras Dashen is only about 20 km away from the summit of Bwahit, but an incredibly deep gorge containing the Meshaha river lies between.

Atop the summit of Ras Bhwait (4,437 metres), Simien Mountains, EthiopiaAtop the summit of Ras Bhwait (4,437 metres), Simien Mountains, EthiopiaOur guide, Michael (holding the Kalashnikov), and our scout, Noursein, celebrate our summitting Ras Bhwait

Rainstorm over the Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaRainstorm over the Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaAfrica’s highest road switchbacks its way up the escarpment above the yawning void cut down some one kilometre by numerous ravines draining into the Takkazzi River

Our Ethiopian friends are feeling decidedly chilly and reluctantly we bid farewell to the summit, but only after buying a few painted ceramic birds from a hawker who has made his way to the mountain top to sell his wares. We have been well and truly overcharged for these, but I took pity on the poor ragged fellow with bad teeth who now proves his usefulness by showing us a route he uses to quickly descend to his village, Arkazye, where we are camping tonight.

Descent from Ras Bhwait, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaDescent from Ras Bhwait, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThe long descent from the rock strewn northern slope of Ras Bhwait to the village of Arkazye was gruelling

We descend through a field of loose rock and boulders. Michael, who has drained the last vestiges from the plastic whiskey bottle which is now residing in Noursein’s jacket pocket (it’s a useful receptacle for water for his pre-prayer ablutions!) instructs us to take care not to fall. He stumbles twice, but we’re in our element - it’s just like hillwalking in Ireland! The route threads its way steeply down through a small gorge and then traverses the eastern side of a great fin of rock. Distances are farther than they look and progress is slow due to the roughness of the terrain - the dusty trail is comprised of loose, jagged rock. We pass another herd of grazing Walia ibex and lower down, numerous Christian villagers on their way to a shrine sited somewhere in the mountains. The rocky terrain eventually evens out, field systems begin to appear, then the odd thatched tulkul surrounded by yellow hay ricks and tall, conical piles of dried dung pats. Ragged, dirty children, many barefooted, stare at us. Some smile and shyly return our waves, while others rush forward eager to greet the ferenji (white foreigners) and to parrot the few English words they have learnt at school. Their tiny hands outstretched in greeting are ingrained with dirt and grime and rough as sandpaper.

Tulkul near Arkazye, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaTulkul near Arkazye, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThatched tulkul surrounded by yellow hay ricks and tall, conical piles of dried dung pats above the farming village of Arkazye

Eventually Arkazye Village comes into view, and a steep climb down brings us to rows of rectangular huts constructed of wooden stakes and daub with galvanised roofs. Our tents are erected on a flat, dung strewn area right above the dirty river that runs below the houses upslope. Our arrival attracts quite a crowd of children who take up position to stare at us just metres from where we are seated enjoying a cool beer. I find their presence quite unnerving and they are eventually dispersed by Noursein who senses our unease.

The village of Arkazye, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThe village of Arkazye, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThis settlement of 1,000 people rely on subsistence farming and raising livestock

Arkazye Villagers, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaArkazye Villagers, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaOur arrival in the village attracted many curious onlookers. Many were hoping that the ferenji would be able to give them some pills

A young man, the only other white person in the village of about 1,000 people, leaves a game of volley ball that is going on nearby and comes across to greet us. A medical graduate from Oxford, he is one week into his month’s stay as the guest doctor of a charity running the clinic here and is clearly delighted to see us. He paints a grim picture of life in this settlement which has no electricity and no running water, where most people are infested with parasites and typhoid fever is currently doing the rounds. ‘They have no concept of the faecal-oral route of disease transmission’ he says, shrugging his shoulders as a young boy drops his trousers to relieve himself on the bank of the nearby river. ‘I hope you have had your typhoid fever jabs and have plenty of sanitising hand gel with you!’ We learn that the communal toilet is so disgusting that the villagers practice open defecation, and the doctor kindly offers us the use of his ‘pit in the ground’ at the clinic.

Just as dusk is falling we are ushered into a nearby hut which has chickens running about inside. A candle stub is burning dimly in one corner where a woman is hunched over a small fire which is lit on the dirt floor. We are seated on a low bench covered in goatskins. East Africa is the home of coffee and the woman is going to perform Ethiopia’s famous coffee ceremony for us. She takes up handfuls of green beans and washes them thoroughly. She then places the beans into a cast iron pan and roasts them gently over the fire. Her face, illuminated by the light of the fire, is etched in concentration as she moves them briskly about the pan. They soon begin to let out a rich aroma which blends pleasantly with the frankincense which is burning in a small charcoal brazier. The coffee beans, now emitting a thin blue smoke, are wafted beneath our noses for us to savour the smell before they are placed into a deep wooden mortar. The woman then proceeds to pound the roasted beans with an iron tipped pestle before tipping the coarse powder into a ceramic pot called a jebena. Adding water, she places this atop the glowing embers of the fire.

The Coffee Ceremony, Arquzye Village, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThe Coffee Ceremony, Arquzye Village, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThe green beans which have been thoroughly washed, have now been placed in a pan to be roasted over the fire

As we are waiting for the coffee to brew, a large platter of injera with shiro is served. Injera is the national dish in Ethiopia and resembles a grey-coloured crepe, but with a much spongier texture. Made primarily of teff and/or barley flour mixed with water, it has a slightly sour taste as a result of the batter being left to ferment for several days. Small heaps of various dishes are placed upon the injera which is always consumed communally, with each diner using only their right hand to tear off strips of the doughy pancake to scoop up portions of food. Shiro, a spicy dish made from minced onions and garlic mixed with ground chickpeas and berbere (Ethiopian spices) is a favourite during Lent which is being religiously observed in this Christian village. We, however, are quietly told by Michael not to eat the injera or drink the coffee, as previous clients have become sick after doing so due to the poor hygiene here. The coffee is finally ready and the woman dramatically pours it from the jabena from a height of about one foot into a collection of small handleless cups lined up on a tray without stopping until each cup is full. The coffee is rich and intense, and I can’t resist a tiny sip. Dinner complete and washed down with a rather good bottle of Ethiopian red wine to toast our summit success, we head back to our tent where Noursein, who has prepared his bed close by, has ensured that the curious onlookers of earlier have been banished and we enjoy a sound night’s sleep.

 

Day Five: Back to School!

The crowds are back! I’m greeted by shouts of ‘Allo Ferenji’ as I emerge from the tent. Scores of snot-smeared ragged children too young to attend school are joined by numerous old people who are sitting quietly in the dust just feet from our tent. Michael tells us that the elderly villagers are hoping that the ferenji will be able to give them some pills to relieve their pain. I look on in despair. I have no idea what afflictions these people are suffering, but an ibuprofen pill is unlikely to bring them much respite. The children have now edged closer and are staring at us as we attempt to eat our breakfast and then to perform our ablutions. Tired of being ignored, one of them throws a small stone which lands on our breakfast table. Feigning anger, Noursein runs over to them brandishing his Kalashnikov and they flee.

The village is slowly stirring to life; smoke emanates from each hut and hovers in a thin blue layer over the rooftops. People make their way uphill to tend their fields and young men drive their livestock up into the high pastures for grazing. The sun commands a clear blue sky - it’s going to be another incredibly hot day. I can’t say I’m sorry to be leaving this village, as being constantly stared at and pestered by children has been quite an intimidating experience and the risk of contracting a helminth here is very real.

Camping at Arkazye Village, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaCamping at Arkazye Village, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaBlue wood smoke hangs like a veil over the roof tops of Arkazye as the village stirs to life

Today we have a much shorter distance to travel which is welcome news after the rigours of yesterday. The route out of the village is along a valley of afroalpine grassland dotted with giant lobelia which is heavily eroded due to overgrazing. Atop a ridge above the village we stop to admire the view of Ras Bwahit and the length of the escarpment towards Sankaber close to where we started our trek five days ago. Laid out below us is hectare upon hectare of rolling farmland dotted with thatched tulkul, each ploughed plot of crumbling earth hugging the next in an unbroken sea of agriculture. It is an idyllic scene that does not hint at the hardship endured by the farmers who live literally hand to mouth in the Simiens where rising population levels, chronic overgrazing and soil erosion has caused environmental degradation that now threatens livelihoods.

The Simien Mountain Escarpment, EthiopiaThe Simien Mountain Escarpment, EthiopiaMount Bwahit (far left) and the length of the escarpment towards Sankaber close to where we started our trek five days ago

Farms in the Simien Mountains, EthiopiaFarms in the Simien Mountains, EthiopiaHectare upon hectare of rolling farmland is dotted with thatched tulkul, each ploughed plot of crumbling earth hugging the next in an unbroken sea of agriculture. This idyllic scene does not hint at the hardship endured by the farmers who live literally hand to mouth

We eventually approach a compound on a hillside surrounded by a wooden palisade containing several rectangular buildings with galvanised roofs. The Ethiopian national flag and that of the Amhara region flutter on flagpoles over the buildings. Scores of children are running about inside the compound which we discover is the primary school of Sona Village. Inevitably we are mobbed as we enter the compound where our tents have been erected close to the ramshackle accommodation used by the teachers. Noursein, who seems to command the respect of everyone he meets, keeps them at a reasonable distance as we sit down to enjoy a beer. One by one the children depart for their homes as the school day is now over, and peace of a kind eventually descends over the compound.

Sona Village Primary School, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaSona Village Primary School, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThe compound housing the Sona Village Primary School that local children attend until the age of 14

Sona Village Primary School pupils, EthiopiaSona Village Primary School pupils, EthiopiaA group of curious schoolchildren greet us on arrival at the primary school

Sona Village Primary School, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaSona Village Primary School, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThe school office

Sona Village, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaSona Village, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThatched tulkul close to the school in Sona Village

Or cook, Mr Fantastic, has set up shop in one of the schoolrooms and we wander over to take a look inside. Like most buildings in Ethiopia, the walls are made of eucalyptus stakes and mud, the earthen floor is uneven and the roof is galvanised. Slits let in just enough light to see the grubby handwritten chart of the Ge’ez alphabet, some mathematical tables and the attendance register for the morning and afternoon sessions nailed to the wall. The pupils of this school, which number over 300, sit on rickety wooden benches that aren’t half a foot wide. There isn’t any comfort in this wretched schoolroom at all; how a child can learn anything in such an environment is beyond me.

Classroom at the Sona Village Primary SchoolClassroom at the Sona Village Primary SchoolInterior of one of the classrooms which is basic to say the least

By late afternoon the sky is once more dark and angry and we are reclining in our tent when the heavens open. This time the swirling battleship-grey clouds spit out hailstones along with buckshot rain. Within minutes the surrounding ground is white and rivulets of water run in all directions, including into our tent which has holes in the groundsheet! After half an hour the storm has passed over leaving the eastern slope of Ras Bwahit frosted white. The sun once more floods the landscape and the ground in the compound steams and emits a loamy odour. As dusk approaches we stroll half a kilometre to a vantage point over the sepia and smoky grey pinnacles and spires of the lowlands to watch the sun set in an apricot haze. Inevitably, we attract a posy of squealing children from the nearby farms who are eager to have their photo taken.

Ras Bhwait from Sona VillageRas Bhwait from Sona VillageThe hailstorm turned the northern slope of Ras Bhwait white

Sunset over the Simien Mountains from Sona VillageSunset over the Simien Mountains from Sona VillageThe smoky grey pinnacles and peaks of the Simien Mountains just after the sun has set as seen from Sona Village

Chicken is on the menu tonight and is far more edible than that of a few nights ago. Inside the schoolroom, warmed by a roaring eucalyptus fire, it is warm and cosy. But the cold hits us like a sledgehammer as we return to our tent. The stars are incredible, the best yet, the Milky Way etched in pin sharp clarity above Ras Bwahit. However, the biting cold causes me to quickly seek the warmth and comfort of my four season sleeping bag.

Milky Way over the Simien MountainsMilky Way over the Simien MountainsThe Milky Way is etched in pin sharp clarity above Ras Bhwait as seen on a bitterly cold night from Sona Village

 

Day Six: Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink!

Last night was bitterly cold and I am grateful for the warmth of the morning sun on my shoulders as we begin the gruelling 1,600 metre descent to Mekarebiya Village in the lowlands. Noursein does not seem to be himself this morning, he is not moving as steadily as usual, and he carries his rifle as if it is a dead weight across his shoulders. After a few kilometres he slows before announcing that he does not feel well and asks for some water. Pressed by us all, he says the bitter cold of last night has affected his chest which is causing him pain. I immediately give him two painkillers and we make him rest while they take effect. I have grown immensely fond of this kind Muslim man with his ready smile and wicked sense of humour who has spent every minute of this trek looking out for us and our belongings. I feel guilty that because of us, a 61 year old grandfather lay down last night in the open in sub-zero temperatures with just a thin sheet of plastic sacking to cover him. I am relieved when he rallies and announces with a broad smile that the mountain lion is ready to roar once more!

The farmland gradually peters out until we are standing at the top of a deep river valley with thickly forested slopes. Through the blue haze I can see the serpentine coils of a river far below. On its bank under the shade of a large fig tree we will stop for lunch. The zig-zag trail is brutally steep and rough underfoot, comprised of loose, angular rocks, and the heat is tremendous causing us to flee into any available patch of shade at regular intervals. Tiny rivulets of sweat trickle down from my brow and sting my eyes. My hair is stiff with sweat and dust. Yared and Miretu, our muleteers, pass by us in a cloud of dust, spurred on by words of encouragement from Michael and Noursein. Even the mules seem to be weary from the oppressive heat.

Simien Mountain EscarpmentSimien Mountain EscarpmentThe farmland eventually peters out until we are standing at the top of a deep river valley below the imposing Simien Escarpment

The steep trail from Sona Village to MekarebyaThe steep trail from Sona Village to MekarebyaTo reach our camp at Makarebya meant a gruelling 1,600 metre descent from Sona Village with the mercury soaring to the mid-30s

After what seems like an eternity, we spot the beautiful green boughs of the fig tree where we will stop for lunch. I’m relieved as I have almost drained the two litres of water from my bladder. We pick our way carefully across the river with its turbid waters and make for the welcome shade of this venerable old tree that must have stood on the sandy river bank for over a century. People from the nearby farms are busy washing their clothes in the river and local women have spread a variety of ceramic pots and basketry on the ground in the hope of making a sale to passing ferenji. I look about for a water vendor. Everywhere we have been we have encountered some enterprising soul selling mineral water, Coke, Fanta or beer. But not here, and at a time when obtaining water is critical. We still have two hours to walk until we reach our camping ground; I’m out of water, Martin’s bladder is almost empty, Michael has a mere dribble in his half litre bottle and the temperature has soared into the mid-30s. One look at the human faeces scattered about the river bank tells me that the water here is totally undrinkable and our Steripen is on the mule!

On the trail from Sona Village to MekarebyaOn the trail from Sona Village to MekarebyaHere we are with our trusty scout, Noursein, the lion of the Simiens!

Basket sellers near MakarebyaBasket sellers near MakarebyaThere were plenty of baskets for sale by the river, but not one bottle of water!

Michael assured us that we would be able to buy water here, which is why we didn’t carry an extra bottle each. We come up with a solution: Michael must go on ahead to get someone to meet us half way with water. He scoots off at once and we set out slowly along the trail that wends its way above the river under the watchful eye of Noursein, who ensures that we make regular stops in the shade. Eventually we see our assistant cook, Wondem, and Miretu the muleteer, running along the trail with several bottles of water. To say we are pleased to see them is an understatement! I eagerly gulp down almost half a litre in one go. So far we have managed to maintain proper hydration and haven’t suffered any ill effects of the altitude or the heat. No matter how much water you drink in this climate, the thirst continues to gnaw at you until the sun slips below the horizon and the sky explodes in welcome shades of scarlet and tangerine which usher in the sweet relief of cooler night air.

On the trail near MakarebyaOn the trail near MakarebyaWondem and Miretu come to the rescue with bottles of water. The park rangers also put in an appearance!

Having slaked our thirst, we set off towards the camp only to be met by a rescue party of six park rangers bearing AK-47s! Told there was an emergency, they seem surprised that there are no casualties, but we had enough experience to ensure that this did not occur. Everyone looks relieved when we finally arrive at our camp in Mekarebiya Village, and we treat our team to cold drinks after what has been a very eventful day! Yared is particularly delighted as I offer him a second Walia beer, and prostrates himself on the ground. He’s quite a character! Hemmed in on all sides by jagged spires and peaks, dotted with red hot pokers and fringed with tall palm trees, the camp setting is very scenic and we enjoy our beers as we watch a young man plough a nearby field with a team of oxen as the sun sinks lower in the western sky. It's a scene that could have been lifted from the pages of a children's Bible. We turn in immediately after dinner as we have to be up at 4.00 am to make an early start to avoid the heat as we traverse the lowlands en route to our final camp.

Mekarebiya CampMekarebiya CampFringed with tall palm trees and hemmed in on all sides by jagged spires and peaks, our camp setting is very scenic

Ploughing with oxen, MekarebyaPloughing with oxen, MekarebyaThere is little mechanisation in any of the farming communities of the Simien Mountains where animal and manual labour persist

 

Day Seven: Letting the Chat out of the Bag…

Never before have I breakfasted under such an impressive starry sky. The moon has set and the Milky Way arches overhead in a blaze of brilliance across a deep purple sky. It’s pitch black and the air is cool as we set off for a very steep descent over a badly eroded trail to a dried up riverbed which we follow up a valley for several kilometres. Walking over and around the river cobbles and through patches of deep sand is tedious. The eastern sky is brightening and there is now enough light to see a group of vervet monkeys cavorting in a large fig tree overhanging the river bed. Just before we begin our ascent into a neighbouring valley we pass a group of people splashing about in a series of shallow pools. They are catching small fish which they will sell at tomorrow’s market.

Dawn en route to MulitDawn en route to MulitThe sun has risen but the dried up river valley we are walking up is thankfully still in the shade

Catching fishCatching fishThese people are busy catching small fish before it gets too hot. They will sell them at tomorrow's market

By now the sun has risen but the valley we are walking up is still in the shade and the trail is busy with people, who like us, have risen early to beat the heat. Suddenly a large party of men run by us bearing an animal hide stretcher. A woman is being rushed to the hospital in Addi Arkay. She has recently given birth, but has post delivery complications. Her eyes are rolling to the back of her head and the poor soul looks delirious. With no vehicular access and no helicopter service from her village, her journey to the hospital will be a long and uncomfortable one. I hope that she arrives there in time for treatment.

The sun that was a throbbing orange orb only an hour ago, casting its warming rays upon the night-chilled soil, has now become an angry incandescent inferno which radiates its relentless heat down onto us as we begin a gruelling climb of over 400 metres up a rough zig-zag pathway to a wooded plateau. The scenery is magnificent and we marvel at a tall pinnacle of rock called God’s Finger (Ye’Ab Idj) which comes into view as we approach the top of the trail. This spectacular landform is a volcanic plug. Near the top of the trail we spot Hamadryas baboons, who are aggressively grunting and shrieking at each other, and a black and white Colobus monkey swinging through the undergrowth. Nearby basalt outcrops glowing golden in the early afternoon sun rise from the surrounding valley, sculpted into crooked spires and monumental buttes by centuries of wind and rain.

Before God's FingerBefore God's FingerThe reward for a lung busting climb of 400 metres in temperatures soaring into the mid-30s is this view of the iconic 'Ye’Ab Idj' a volcanic plug

It’s now the hottest time of the day and we stop at a café in the palm fringed village of Haweza. The proprietors are a Muslim family so there’s no beer to be had, but we are regaled with bottles of soft drinks. Our hosts, who are distantly related to Noursein, are very kind and friendly, and the lady performs the coffee ceremony for us and gives us a free meal of injera and wat (stew).

Cafe in Haweza VillageCafe in Haweza VillageNoursein tucks into injera and wat

Grinding roasted coffee beans, Haweza VillageGrinding roasted coffee beans, Haweza VillageOur hosts' daughter grinds the roasted coffee beans in a wooden mortar

Coffee Ceremony, Haweza VillageCoffee Ceremony, Haweza VillageOur hostess pours coffee for us

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We stay with them for several hours and greatly enjoy their company. The woman asks us how many children we have, and throws back her head and laughs when we tell her three between us. ‘That is why you are rich and I am poor,’ she says, ‘I have ten children!’ She might be financially poor compared to us, but she and her family are rich in many other ways. I doubt she has ever sat down to eat alone in her life. A large mat is placed upon the floor so Noursein and his relative can perform their afternoon prayers and a small bag of green leaves is then produced. They are going to chew chat, a flowering shrub native to the Horn of Africa.

Afternoon prayers in HawezaAfternoon prayers in HawezaOur Muslim host performing his afternoon prayers

Chat leaves contain a monoamine alkaloid called cathinone, an amphetamine-like stimulant that causes mild euphoria. As the chat begins to take effect on Noursein and his relative, an ancient MP3 player is produced and devotional music soon fills the room. Several generations of the family sit around chanting and clapping and I can’t help but smile as I see Noursein drinking Fanta orange mixed with water from the Tullamore Dew whiskey bottle! Everyone looks so happy and contented, and I will long remember the beautiful smile on Noursein’s face as he catches my eye. The chat session ends with copious prayers for our safe return home which are met with a chorus of Amens. I am slightly sad when we say our goodbyes to this lovely family and hit the trial for the short walk to the village of Mulit where we will spend our last night.

The chat's out of the bag!The chat's out of the bag!Chat leaves contain a monoamine alkaloid called cathinone, an amphetamine-like stimulant that causes mild euphoria

Chat time in Hawaza VillageChat time in Hawaza VillageNoursein, an observant Muslim, drinking Fanta orange mixed with water from our discarded Tullamore Dew whiskey bottle!


Scenery near MulitScenery near MulitThe road between Haweza and Mulit is very scenic

Our tents are erected inside a small walled compound under the shade of an African olive tree. Long horned cattle and goats roam the interior and a huge pile of golden sorghum stalks has been stowed in a tree which is reached by a ladder. A plastic cup stuck on the end of a stick at the main gate advertises the fact that tella, home-brewed beer is sold here. Our muleteer, Yared, has taken up residence on a wooden bench outside the beer house along with several local men, and jovially raises a cow horn cup and implores me to join him. I opt for a bottle of St George’s beer instead!

Mulit CampMulit CampOur final campsite was a compound in Mulit Village which contained a beer shop where tella is brewed

The lady who runs the beer house is preparing coffee and injera and we are invited to join her. A couple of chickens scatter as I enter the beer house with its earthen floor. A calf is tied up next to one of two large conical ceramic tanks containing the fermenting liquor. The tella is usually made from teff and sorghum, but in some regions, barley, wheat or maize are used instead, and spices may also be added. Dried and ground gesho leaves are used for fermentation. Due to the addition of bread and use of a fermentation vessel which has been smoked over dried olive wood or Abyssinian rose wood, tella may have a smoky flavour. The alcohol content of unfiltered tella is usually around 2–4 percent volume with the filtered variety being stronger. We decline a cup of tella, opting instead for the coffee which is rich and delicious and we take three cups as is the custom of the country.

The Mulit beer shopThe Mulit beer shopOne of two large conical ceramic tanks containing the fermenting liquor. Tella is usually made from teff and sorghum

Mr Fantastic provides a true feast for our final night, a huge platter of injera with a variety of delicious dishes piled on top which we devour with gusto. Michael tells me that at Haweza he bought a bag of chat leaves for me to try. I take a few of the green leaves and place them into my mouth and chew on them before adding more, all the while working the mass to one cheek with my tongue and sucking out the juice. It’s not unlike chewing coca leaves which we did in South America; indeed, chat has a similar tannin-like taste. Eventually I spit out the wad of green gunk and drink plenty of water. The effect of the chat comes on gently but slowly intensifies. I find it to be stimulating like coffee, but slightly more pleasurable and the conversation with Michael flows readily as we drain the remains of the second bottle of Tullamore Dew! We turn in early as we plan to rise early to catch the dawn. Perhaps it is the effects of the chat keeping me from sleeping soundly, but I am woken in the small hours by animated conversation emanating from the direction of the beer house. It sounds remarkably like Yared…

A starry night in Mulit VillageA starry night in Mulit VillageThe incredible buttes that we had seen in the distance from Sankaber a week ago are now just a stone's throw away

 

Day Eight: Market Day

Martin has already left the tent when I wake up. I join him just outside the compound walls where there is a fantastic view to the east over landforms that really resemble Homer’s ‘chess set of the Gods’ behind which the sun will rise. We wait patiently as the eastern sky turns crimson, pulsating and radiating streaks of fire, before the glowing white orb of the sun erupts dramatically between two iconic buttes.

Dawn from Mulit VillageDawn from Mulit VillageThe eastern sky turns crimson, pulsating and radiating streaks of fire

Dawn over the Simien Mountains at Mulit VillageDawn over the Simien Mountains at Mulit VillageThe glowing orb of the sun erupts behind 'the chess set of the Gods'

Breakfasting back in the compound I spy Yared walking across to his mule, Chai. I wave at him, but I get no response. Red-eyed and unusually silent, it’s obvious that he’s nursing a bad hangover! We set off along a well-worn and typically rugged track that zig-zags its way steeply down to the town of Addi Arkay, the end point of our trek. It seems everyone else is on the move too, and the walk reminds me of a scene from The Life of Brian! Today is Easter Saturday and there is a big market in the town where people are hoping to get good prices for their wares. Men, women and children hurry by driving goats and heavily laden donkeys. Most are carrying all manner of goods: eucalyptus poles, huge wicker baskets, hessian sacks, bundles of leaves and grasses, and live chickens tied by their feet and hung upside down. Lent is broken across Ethiopia by consuming one of the nation’s most famous dishes, Doro Wat (spicy chicken stew), and these chickens are destined for the pot. In the human flotsam sweeping by are our muleteers. I catch Noursein’s eye and we share a laugh as Yared passes us still wearing the glazed look of someone who is suffering the day after the night before!

En route to marketEn route to marketPeople from Mulit and Haweza hurry by on their way to the Easter Saturday market in Addi Arkay, the end point of our trek

En route to Addi ArkayEn route to Addi ArkayThe lady who runs the beer shop makes her way to the market with two of her daughters

Children off the Addi Arkay MarketChildren off the Addi Arkay MarketChildren grow up quickly in the Simien Mountains and these young entrepreneurs are hoping for good prices for their produce which includes a live chicken!

Yared and NourseinYared and NourseinYared and Noursein are from the Amhara tribe, one is a Christian and one a Muslim, and both are unforgettable characters!

Addi Arkay, shimmering in the heat haze on a plain below, doesn’t appear to be getting any closer and like all the tracks in Ethiopia this one is dusty, brutally steep in places and full of broken loose rock. Local people however make light of this, and as I trudge heavily downwards like a cart horse in my leather walking boots, they spring over the rocks like gazelles in their flimsy plastic shoes, every one a Mo Farah in the making! I marvel at their agility and endurance.

Addi ArkayAddi ArkayAddi Arkay, shimmering in the heat haze on a plain below, doesn’t appear to be getting any closer!

As we enter the outskirts of Addi Arkay we are mobbed by small children shouting 'Allo Ferenji' and trying to shake our hands which are clasping our walking poles firmly. Everyone is imploring us to buy trinkets. Noursein to the rescue again! Eventually we reach the sanctuary of a small café where our group convenes and we order cold drinks for everyone. Martin stands to make a speech thanking our team for all their help and hard work in taking care of us for the past eight days. We then present them with tips before we board a minibus that will take us to Axum to begin a week’s exploration that will end with a visit to the world famous stone churches of Lalibela. As we pull away, I spot Yared among the throng of people on the pavement and wave vigorously at him. Wearing a look of utter dejection, he seems to be in another world! I laugh when Michael says that Yared is convinced he has been swindled out of some money by one of the other team members. The price one pays for drinking too much tella!

Arrival at Addi ArkayArrival at Addi ArkayAfter a week, it was a real relief to finally leave the rough, dusty trails for a tarmac road in the market town of Addi Arkay!

Drinks all round!Drinks all round!L-R: Michael, the guide; Miretu, muleteer; Wondem, assistant cook; Noursein, scout; Yared, muleteer; Tigabu aka 'Mr Fantastic', the cook, and Gimbe, our guide for Axum and Lalibela

This has been by far the most challenging multi-day trek we have ever undertaken due to the climate, the altitude, the brutally steep ascents and descents, and the unrelentingly rugged trails. Yet walking amid the breathtaking scenery of ‘the chess set of the Gods’ through vibrant farming communities where life is little changed since Biblical times has been a rewarding, eye-opening experience. For this is a country far removed from the barren, famine-ravaged, poverty-stricken nation oft portrayed in the western media. Quite simply, Ethiopia is one of the most friendly, welcoming, culturally fascinating and inspiring countries we have had the pleasure of visiting.

Watch the video of our trek on:

 

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eramaptec@gmail.com (Purple Peak Adventures) africa ethiopia simien mountains national park trekking world heritage site http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2017/4/-the-chess-set-of-the-gods-trekking-in-the-simien-mountains-of-ethiopia Tue, 25 Apr 2017 10:27:02 GMT
The Kingdom of Cod: Winter in Norway’s Lofoten Islands http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2017/2/the-kingdom-of-cod-winter-in-norway-s-lofoten-islands Hamnøy, Moskenes after sunsetHamnøy, Moskenes after sunsetBlue hour at the fishing village of Hamnøy on Moskenes island in Lofoten The coccyx-shaped Lofoten archipelago defiantly juts out into the frigid waters of the Norwegian Sea. Situated north of the Arctic Circle, winter in this chain of mountainous islands rising straight out of the roiling ocean like an impenetrable wall of rock, is utterly spellbinding, an otherworldly wonderland of frosted glass etched against constantly changing skies that range from steel-grey to candy-pink.

Comprised of a multitude of various sized islands, according to Norse legend the Lofoten archipelago was created by the hammer-wielding god Thor, who flung fistfuls of rocks into the sea. The population of 24,500 is concentrated on four main islands running from Austvågøy in the north through Vestvågøy and Flakstadøya to Moskenesøya in the south. The E10 highway now links these four islands via a series of bridges and sea tunnels.

We fly into Kiruna in neighbouring Sweden where a 4X4 vehicle hire is half the price of that in Norway, and where we are able to avail of much cheaper provisions for our week’s self-catering stay in Lofoten. A six hour drive brings us to our first accommodation at Lyngværet in Austvågøy, a cosy and beautifully furnished wooden cabin above the island’s rocky shoreline. After a three night stay we drive south to Moskenesøya and the fishing village of Å (pronounced ‘aw’ which means ‘rivulet’ in Old Norse), a cluster of rust-red and ochre-yellow houses overlooked by a formidable range of snow-frosted mountains, a film-maker’s dream. Here we settle into a rustically furnished traditional fisherman’s cabin jutting right out over the cellophane-clear water in the harbour. The harbour at  ÅThe harbour at ÅThe rorbuer and Fishing Museum on the harbour at Å

Everywhere the raw salt-laden air is pungent with the unmistakable stench of fish which constantly assaults the nostrils. Lofoten is the world’s largest cod fishery. For centuries fishermen from near and far have converged on these islands in midwinter, chasing great shoals of skrei (Arctic cod in their prime) that have migrated south from the Barents Sea to spawn. Cod has long been the lifeblood of this archipelago, and the ubiquitous rust-red rorbuer - wooden huts on spindly stilts projecting over the sea and connected by wooden walkways that were once the temporary homes of the migrant fishermen - are among the islands' most characteristic sights. Formerly painted with a mixture of fish blood and cod-liver oil and sporting grass roofs, many, including those we stayed in, have now been converted into tourist accommodation. For the fishing industry has witnessed a drastic decline from its zenith at the turn of the twentieth century. In those days something like 25,000 fishermen would descend on the Lofotens from late-January for the three month cod-fishing season.

However, despite this decline, the islanders remain firmly wedded to the fishing industry and as ubiquitous as the rorbuer are the enormous wooden drying frames (hjell) that seem to occupy every windswept rock. These are used to produce stockfish, cod that have been decapitated, gutted, split along the spine and hung over poles by their tails to dry in the salty Arctic air from February to May, when cold weather conditions protect the fish from insects and prevents uncontrolled bacterial growth. After this, it is removed from the hjell to be matured for another two to three months indoors in a dry and airy environment until it is around a fifth of its original weight. Losing none of its nutritional value in the drying process, the Lent-friendly stockfish is much-prized, particularly in the Catholic countries of southern Europe, and also in Nigeria where demand has risen sharply and in 2014 eclipsed exports to Italy.

Cod heads drying in the cool, dry, Arctic air of LofotenCod heads drying in the cool, dry, Arctic air of LofotenRacks of fish heads drying near Myrland

A more macabre sight are the racks of severed cod heads bound for the West African market. Their mouths wide open as if gasping for their last breath reveal grisly rows of razor sharp teeth but no tongues - these are a local delicacy and have been cut out. Strung together in snow-dusted bundles, their swim-bladders hang down like limp balloons from beneath blackened gills, while overhead cawing crows and wailing seagulls wheel in the wind, awaiting their chance to swoop down to peck out their glazed and lifeless eyes.

Severed cod heads drying on racksSevered cod heads drying on racksThese cod heads will be exported to West Africa where there is s huge demand

The Lofoten archipelago is also the centre of the country’s whaling industry. Norway is one of just three nations, along with Japan and Iceland, that continue to hunt whales against the tide of public opinion. Setting aside the opprobrium of those who wish to see whaling banned, we dine out at the upmarket Paleo Arctic restaurant in Svolvær which draws inspiration from a time when we lived as hunters and gatherers. Here we feast upon smoked fin whale with a soft poached egg, organic sour cream and Norwegian crisp bread. This is followed by a succulent grilled fillet of wild reindeer with mushrooms, mountain cranberry, pickled raisins and seasonal root vegetables, rounded off with a divinely spiced panna cotta and washed down with a hearty Rioja. The food didn’t stick in my croup, but the bill most certainly did!

The weather at this latitude is mercurial and unpredictable and can change in an instance; our mid-February photography trip unhappily coincides with a period of bitterly cold unsettled weather. For days on end a cruel Arctic wind howls through the narrow streets of the fiskevær (fishing villages) and lifts great columns of whirling spindrift that tear malevolently across the frigid landscape. The mercury plummets to sub-zero temperatures draining every last vestige of warmth from our bodies, the blinding spindrift blasts our faces which sting with the eviscerating cold and our fingers are too numb and frozen to operate a camera. On such days a shot of Linie, the famous Norwegian aquavit matured at sea in oak sherry casks, is a very welcome antidote against the deep-freezer climate.

A wild winter's day in LofotenA wild winter's day in LofotenThe sun momentarily breaks through the churning cloud highlighting the spin-drift blowing across the landscape

The grey-green sea seethes, the pounding surf slams onto ice encrusted shorelines and waves lash against the stilted rorbuer that are somehow anchored firmly enough to shelves of rock to resist the relentless onslaught of the ocean. As I watch a brightly lit fishing boat making for shore near Reine at dusk, I think of the fishermen of yore heading back through storm-tossed waters to land their catch, drawn ashore by the welcoming warm glow of candlelight from the windows of these rorbuer in the fiskevær dotting the coast. Many did not make it, and every fishing community has its share of tragic stories of men pitched to a watery grave by the merciless sea.

Indeed, American novelist Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, A Descent into the Maelström, tells the story of a man who survived his ship being drawn into and swallowed by the Moskstraumen, a system of tidal eddies and whirlpools between Lofoten Point on Moskenesøya and the islet of Mosken. The words of William Whiting’s hymn, Eternal Father, Strong to Save, could have been written for the folk of Lofoten who, for centuries cut off from the mainland and surrounded by the sea, were forced by necessity to place their fate in the hands of the elements:

‘Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!’

For hours at a time heavy falls of snow blow by the windows of our hut in a horizontal blur. The thick flakes quickly bank up against the door and gather in the corners of the window frames, shrouding the surrounding landscape in an even blanket of pillow-soft whiteness. There is something mesmerising and deeply relaxing about watching the falling snow from the comfort of a cabin warmed by a wood burning stove, and time appears to stand still. The lacerating and whining winds eventually blow themselves out, leaving a profound but temporary stillness until the next weather front sweeps in. The great cloak of whey-white snow seems to muffle most sound save the constant shrieking of the seabirds. As we sally forth into this white wonderland, the crunch and squeal of the freshly fallen powdery flakes beneath my boots is deeply gratifying and the creation of pristine boot prints seems to bring out the inner child in me!

Between these squally weather fronts the sun appears fleetingly, at times a match-head blazing white hot and amber, splitting the flint-grey sky into patches of speedwell-blue interrupted by billowing cloud in shades of pale-apricot, smoke-yellow and chalky-mauve; minutes later it is a wan disc floating in an immense misty greyness like a Chinese lantern. And all the while the monochrome landscape exudes a pearly-grey opalescence and seems to gleam with surreal lucidity against these extraordinary kaleidoscopic skies.

Reine, Lofoten, NorwayReine, Lofoten, NorwayOne of Norway's best known fiskevær: Reine in Lofoten

In the feeble sunlight the reflections of the rorbuer and the mountains appear to float and shimmer with a mirage-like quality in the becalmed waters of numerous inlets; the snow glitters in the low sun angle as if it was pulverised diamond dust and glistening icicles drip like candle wax from the eaves of the huts.

Derelict farmhouse near YttersandDerelict farmhouse near YttersandA derelict snow and ice-encrusted farmhouse near Yttersand

The blackened naked boughs of the birch groan under the weight of their newly acquired white finery, while conifers look as if they have been lifted straight from the pages of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy story. Then there are truly enchanting evenings when the sky is tinged with a candy pink blush which announces the settling sun.

Ramberg BeachRamberg BeachA winter's day at dusk on Ramberg Beach

Haukland Beach, LofotenHaukland Beach, LofotenA wild, winter's day on Haukland Beach

Even on the dullest day, the near-shore has an aquamarine hue which fades into bottle-green which then gives way to the petrol-blue yonder of the deep sea speckled with white horses, all of which serve to enhance the deep gold of picture-postcard perfect sandy beaches. In the blue hour, the chilled lavender landscape contrasts with the warm amber rectangles of light emanating from the windows of the rorbuer, and the settlements hemmed in between mountain and sea resemble a string of fairy lights which are reflected in the inky-blue water. 

Blue hour at SakrisøyBlue hour at SakrisøyThe warmth emanating from the lit windows of the Sakrisøy Rorbuer contrasts with the lavender-blue chill of the surrounding landscape

These brief interludes between the storms are rewarded with dramatic views of mountains of the kind only young children draw – spiky, sky-piercing, majestic - and attract scores of other photographers all jostling for space, as eager as we are to commit these breathtaking vistas to film. Unfortunately, the constantly cloudy skies mean that we are not treated to the celestial light show of the Aurora Borealis which is undoubtedly the main draw to this northern region in winter for many photographers.

Rorbuer near ReineRorbuer near ReineTraditional fishermen's huts (rorbuer) near Reine

Our stay in Lofoten has been a mere prelude, the place has permeated my very soul. As we drive away from our final photo stop in the heritage-listed Nusfjord fishing village, we are already imagining an autumn return, when the mountains will have cast off their snowy apparel opening up a whole new world of walking, trekking and photo opportunities amid the unparalleled beauty and splendour of this, The Kingdom of Cod.

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eramaptec@gmail.com (Purple Peak Adventures) Arctic Europe Lofoten Norway Nusfjord Reine stockfish Å http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2017/2/the-kingdom-of-cod-winter-in-norway-s-lofoten-islands Sun, 26 Feb 2017 15:07:24 GMT
An Autumn Trek in Arctic Sweden: The Kungsleden Trail from Saltoluokta to Kvikkjokk http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2016/9/an-autumn-trek-in-arctic-sweden-the-kungsleden-trail-from-saltoluokta-to-kvikkjokk The Aurora Borealis over Arctic SwedenThe Aurora Borealis over Arctic SwedenWe finally got lucky with the weather and were treated to a spectacular celestial display

 

In the far reaches of Northern Europe there is a land of cold rushing rivers, vast forests and snow-capped mountains. A wild and timeless land where huge herds of reindeer roam and the Northern Lights electrify star-studded skies. This land is called Sápmi, ancient homeland of the People of the Sun and Wind, the indigenous Sámi Nation, who are also known as Laplanders. We are planning to trek along part of the Kungsleden (King’s) Trail in Sweden’s Arctic. This runs from Abisko in the north to Hemavan in the south, crossing 425 km of Europe’s last remaining wilderness, including the Laponia World Heritage Site, inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1996. The middle section we are going to to traverse, from Saltoluokta to Kvikkjokk is about 85 km, and includes three lake crossings which should take us around five days. We have chosen early-September for three main reasons: firstly, the colours of the Arctic autumn are fantastic; secondly, the route will be less crowded with other trekkers; thirdly and most importantly, there will be few, if any, mosquitoes and midges which plague the Arctic summer, as we discovered to our cost last year in Greenland!

 

Getting to our start point: the Saltoluokta Fjällstation

We begin our journey in Kiruna, a sprawling mining settlement cheek by jowl with the iron ore workings that gave rise to it. There are regular SAS flights from here to Stockholm and daily connecting flights to Dublin. The Svenska Turistföreningen’s (Swedish Tourist Board or STF) Malmfältens Folkhögskola on the outskirts of town offers excellent double rooms in small, self contained units, with the option of a hearty buffet breakfast. It’s a good idea to become STF members while here (about 45 euro for a family per annum), as you will get a decent discount on your stay, and also at other mountain stations, huts, hostels and on boats operated by the STF, which we plan to use during our trek.

This is a different kind of trip for us, as we will be totally dependent on public transport and have travelled here with the bare minimum needed, contained in our rucksacks and a small bag each. We have left these small bags containing our travelling clothes at the hostel. Everything we need for the next five days, including food, tent, sleeping bags and mats, stove, cooking utensils, spare clothing, and a fair amount of photography equipment, are in our rucksacks which are pretty heavy. We board an early morning bus to Gällivare which departs from Kiruna Bus Station opposite the Town Hall. The bus doubles as a post van, which, with typical Scandinavian efficiency, leaves bang on time. We have a couple of hours to wait at Gällivare for the next bus that will take us to the quay at Kebnats where we will catch the STF boat to Saltoloukta, the start point of our Kungsleden trek. We make ourselves comfortable inside the nearby railway station listening to the deep rumble of the cars of iron ore pellets from the nearby mines passing by.

Again, the bus leaves smack on time and our journey takes us through open, sparsely populated countryside of rolling forests which is flooded with golden autumnal light and studded with deep blue lakes. As we draw closer to Kebnats, hills and mountains float into view, some still snow streaked. The STF ferry has just arrived as our bus sweeps into the unmade car park, and is disgorging its passengers which are mostly smiling, grungy backpackers who look like they’re having the time of their lives.

I notice that the boat is flying an eye-catching yet unfamiliar flag of red, green, yellow and blue vertical stripes, intersected by a circle which is half red and half blue. I guess correctly that this is the flag of the Sámi nation, Europe’s only recognised indigenous minority. I later learn that the vertical colour stripes are commonly used on gáktis - the traditional Sámi dress - and the circular motif is inspired by the sun/moon symbol which appeared on the Sámi shamans’ ancient drums. The blue half represents the moon and the red half, the sun. During the course of our stay we will learn much more about the fascinating life of the Sámi people as we pass through part of Sápmi, which stretches across areas of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula in Russia.

We walk up the sun-bleached wooden decking to the boat and clamber aboard (SKF members get a discount). There’s only a handful of other passengers heading to Saltoluokta as it’s the fag-end of the season and many of the mountain stations and huts will close within the next week or fortnight. As the boat glides across the inky blue lake, from the sun-drenched bow we feast our eyes on the majesty of the surrounding valley sweeping up to snow-dappled mountains. The wind blowing over the surface of the lake lifts the water into little white crested waves. I zip my jacket all the way up to my chin as there’s a definite autumnal chill in the air. Indeed, the snow glistening on the nearby mountaintops is a reminder that winter never quite released its icy grip on the uplands this far north.

About ten minutes later we are disembarking at the wooden jetty at Saltoluokta and begin the short walk up a wooded track leading to the STF Saltoluokta Fjällstation. Yellow birch leaves are strewn on the path like confetti after a wedding, and the ground nearby is flecked with blood red lingonberries, deep purple bilberries and scarlet fly agaric mushrooms. The air is pleasantly pregnant with the heady, musty smell of the woodland, and a great wave of excitement for our forthcoming adventure washes over me. Sunset at SaltoluoktaSunset at SaltoluoktaSunset over the lake below the STF Saltoluokta Mountain Station

The STF Saltoluokta Fjällstation nestled amid the woods of a small Sámi settlement is unlike any mountain hut I’ve ever stayed at. An historic wooden building dating from the early twentieth century, it’s more like a high end lodge offering fine dining, comfortable accommodation, a sauna, laundry facilities and an incredibly well-stocked shop selling a wide range of useful items. After settling into our comfy two-bed dorm, we take lunch in the elegant Scandinavian inspired dining room with its rustic wooden tables and chairs. The food is distinctively Sámi and we ravenously demolish bowls of sorrel soup with boiled eggs and rye bread.

Dinner is a very grand affair indeed. With candles twinkling on the wooden tables bathed in the dying rays of the autumn sun streaming in through its windows, the atmosphere in this historic building is enchanting. Each course is announced by the chef with a dramatic flourish and is a veritable feast. We leisurely polish off plates of crisp seasonal salad; deep bowls of rich reindeer soup with a dressing of magenta lingonberries and hunks of freshly baked rye bread; lightly smoked Arctic char with roasted root vegetables, and a creamy white chocolate mousse with a red berry coulis, followed by strong coffee. After dinner we sip fiery local schnapps next to a roaring fire, which rounds off a truly memorable evening. I can only imagine the sheer pleasure of arriving at this magnificent mountain station after trekking the Kungsleden for days on end to find a clean and comfortable bed, a hot shower, and gourmet food and drink! Belly full and feeling comfortably numb from the schnapps, I fall asleep at once and sleep like a log.

 

Hitting the trail: Saltoluokta to Sitojaure, 20km

After a hearty breakfast and having completed our house-keeping duties as all guests are expected to do in STF accommodation, we hit the well-signposted Kungsleden Trail which leads up through the birch woods past the back of our dormitory. The day does not seem to hold much promise weather-wise, but the overcast skies fail to dampen our spirits as we climb steadily out of the woods to gain a vast and barren plateau across the alpine tundra which offers good walking. The landscape is moody and brooding; the lakes shine like burnished steel, low cloud skirts the top of Sjäksjo mountain and the cinnabar-red bilberry leaves seem to set the ground ablaze. In places where the ground is boggy or rocky, we encounter wooden boardwalks, some of which are in a poor state of repair. The bridges over leaping vodka-clear streams are worse, and some are quite dangerous. I traverse them with great trepidation, as one slip could lead to a lower leg injury, or an unwelcome dunk in ice cold water!

The Kungsleden Trail near SaltoluoktaThe Kungsleden Trail near SaltoluoktaThe Kungsleden Trail crossing the alpine tundra between Saltoluokta and Sitojaure

Patches of Arctic bog cotton which have refused to give up the ghost of summer past, trail their wind-ravaged ragged heads in the russet bog, and the spindly branches of dwarf willow have encroached on the boardwalk in places and snatch at our ankles like demonic fingers as we pass. After a few hours walking we see a triangular building looming in the distance, the emergency shelter at Autsutjvagge above the river valley of the same name, where we stop for lunch. We share the space with a trio of elderly Swedes who are hiking to Saltoluokta from Sitojaure.

Shelter at Autsutjvagge on the Kungsleden TrailShelter at Autsutjvagge on the Kungsleden TrailA strategically placed emergency shelter about halfway between Saltoluokta and Sitojaure provides a perfect lunch stop

Refreshed, we push on towards Sitojaure. The wind has picked up and squally showers pulsate in great curtains across the barren alpine tundra. Small groups of reindeer seem etched in monochrome, lost in the enormity of the great undulating plateau. We trudge along for miles across this great windswept wilderness, our packs feeling heavier with every step, before beginning a steady descent back into woodland surrounding Lake Sitojaure. Walking into the wind all day has been tiring and we are both quite wet from the persistent light rain, so we’re mightily glad to see the STF hut loom into view amid a stand of birch trees above the lake’s edge. We announce our arrival and the warden, a very jovial, chatty middle aged female, immediately offers us a cosy two bed dorm for the night which Martin eagerly accepts!

The STF hut on Sitojaure LakeThe STF hut on Sitojaure LakeThe warden's hut at the STF Hut at Sitojaure

There is no shop at this hut, so he takes a 15 minute walk to a nearby Sámi homestead which sells beer, dried fish and reindeer meat. Anna, the lady who runs this informal 'shop', will be taking us the 4 km across the lake by boat tomorrow as there is no STF service here. Because she and her family are herding reindeer, regular boat transfers across the lake have now stopped, meaning it’s necessary to pre-arrange transfers or you will be rowing yourself, not something to be relished in ageing, poorly maintained boats. We have instructions not to be late!

The hut, which we have to ourselves, has an excellent drying room and as paying guests we are free to use the gas rings in the kitchen, meaning you could get away with just carrying a small wood burning stove for camping nights (we brought along our titanium Honey stove). In guttering candlelight and warmed by the heat of a birch wood fire, I greedily wolf down a packet of freeze-dried curry. Darkness falls like a shroud over the silvery lake and it’s monastery silent as I wander across to the toilet block. Overhead, a few watery stars are struggling to put on a performance, and I hope for better weather tomorrow.

 

Sitojaure to Aktse, 14 km

The morning dawns deadly still and only the peaks of the nearest mountaintops are poking out above a dense layer of white mist which lies many metres thick above the lake. It has barely a ripple on it as we hurry along the rough and muddy track leading to the small jetty by Anna’s blue weatherboard homestead amid the trees. She is hopping about impatiently waiting our arrival and we can see she’s not best pleased that we are about 5 minutes late! As we power our way across the lake, she warms to us as we ask her questions about her family’s way of life as reindeer herders. Round faced with glasses, she’s quite a character, very chatty and amiable, and drives the motor boat round submerged obstacles like a racing car! She has to be tough up here in the Arctic, where women must shoulder all manner of chores. Her family have about 4,000 head of reindeer (I cheekily asked her this, which is about the same as her asking me how much money I have in the bank!), and in the autumn they are rounded up to select those for sale. This is an arduous task undertaken on foot with the aid of a lasso. The people of her commune own upwards of 15,000 reindeer, and each family knows their animals by special cuts made on their ears. She and her family will spend until late-November by the lake, then they will move down to Jokkmukk for the winter, returning to the lake again in spring. Her children have a Swiss au pair who helps with the family chores and takes her eldest son to and from school in Tjåhke.

Anna drops us at the jetty on the other side of the lake where a party of four trekkers plead with her to take them across to Sitojaure. She hesitates, then agrees, as the prospect of earning 800 krona (just over 80 euro) to add to the 400 we have just paid her, is too temping even for a busy reindeer herder! We set off up the gently rising terrain through a birch forest interspersed with mountain ash for around 3 km before emerging into the rugged alpine tundra. By now we have entered the cloud that has filled the whole valley and the views of the mountains of Sarek National Park remain hidden from us. The ground gets progressively steeper and we catch fleeting glimpses of herds of reindeer moving about in the grey mist. Gaining the top of a plateau at about 950 m high, we pause for lunch. Every so often the cloud lifts and thins, revealing a watery sun that casts thin lances of light onto the vast expanse of forest below. These beams trace kaleidoscopic patterns in dazzling autumnal shades from vermilion through flame-orange to canary-yellow.

Autumn colours in Arctic SwedenAutumn colours in Arctic SwedenSitojaure Lake and surrounding landscape bedecked in autumnal finery

With the mist billowing like smoke around us, we cross the plateau passing great herds of reindeer that dance across the landscape out of our way. Along the way we encounter a homemade sign for Anna’s boat service – the only spot where it’s possible to get a mobile phone signal to book your boat ride to Sitojaure! I certainly wouldn’t fancy rowing the 4 km across the lake in an ageing wooden boat! Moreover, if there is only one boat there, you have to row back again towing another to replace the one you have taken, and then return to Sitojaure, which would probably near kill anyone not used to rowing 12 km! We have our mobile phones as well as a satellite phone with us for any emergency calls, and we are also carrying a DeLorme InReach satellite device which we can use to send an emergency distress signal, and to check the daily weather forecast.

Reindeer in Arctic SwedenReindeer in Arctic SwedenReindeer along the Kungsleden Trail which passes through one of Europe's last great wilderness areas

We learn to our disappointment that the weather for tomorrow is absolutely vile, so we ditch our plans to climb to the summit of Skierfe (1179m) where we had planned to camp out overnight. Skierfe has spectacular views of Rapadalen (Rapa Valley) with its braided river which leads into Sarek National Park. Suppressing our disappointment, we begin to descend steeply from the plateau towards the Aktse hut, past rutting reindeer. As we emerge from the cloud, we are greeted by a stunning panorama of chalky turquoise lakes set amid vast expanses of golden birch forest studded with the emerald-green spikes of conifer. Flowing from Rapadalen is a tangle of gleaming little rivers wriggling their way through olive green and russet bog that sweeps majestically up to the imposing battleship-grey walls of Tjahkelij mountain, atop which a line of white cloud is moving like a slow tsunami. I catch my breath. Even on a dull and overcast day, this landscape literally oozes magic.

RapadalenRapadalenThe Rapa valley is over 35km long and is the largest within the Sarek National Park

The descent to the hut through the forest is very steep over slippery rocks and I’m glad to see a thin column of blue wood smoke rising from the warden’s hut. We pay the 100 krona camping fee which gives us access to the drying room, kitchen and communal areas, and select a sheltered level spot that has grandstand views down into Rapadalen. Being one of the main entry points into Sarek, this hut is far busier than the last and only offers 5 bed dorms, so I’m glad we have our tent. We wander over to the warden’s hut to ask about the boat to cross Lake Laitaure tomorrow and are told the STF one leaves at 9.00 am and will cost 100 krona. There is a shop here, but being late in the season, it has sold out of things like crisps, beer and chocolate bars! I notice that someone has collected a large bag of fine looking mushrooms for their dinner, permissible under the law of Allemansrätten (the everyman’s right), which gives people the right to walk, cycle, ride, ski, and camp on any non-private property, or land that is not restricted in any way, and to forage for mushrooms, berries and wood for a camp fire.

Dusk arrives and by degrees the camp falls silent, the glowing shapes of the other trekkers’ tents fade and we clamber into our sleeping bags. Inside the tent, I manage to dispatch the few resilient midges who obviously haven’t yet cottoned on that it’s autumn, along with one of only two mosquitoes I saw during the trek. We have insect repellent with us, and have taken the precaution of treating all our trekking clothes with Permethrin, but one pesky midge still managed to take a chunk out of one of my little fingers!

 

Akste to Pårte, 21km

I poke my head out of the tent to see a cloud inversion in Rapadalen. The autumn trees are aflame with colour against the background of cotton-soft whiteness. Only the grey top of Tjahkelij mountain is clear, rising from the cloud like the great prow of a sinking battleship, but even this is soon enveloped. The air is pregnant with rain as a low front stealthily approaches.

Rapadalen from the Aktse STF HutRapadalen from the Aktse STF HutA cloud inversion just after dawn in Rapadalen leaves Tjahkelij Mountain poking out above the pillow-soft whiteness

We set off down through the campsite toward the lake where we will catch the boat at 9.00 am. We come to a fork in the track with a wooden signpost that points out two different routes to the lake and the boats, which we find confusing. We decide to take the more well-trodden pathway through a meadow past a Sámi hut and along a board walk through a flat boggy area. It’s gone nine when we arrive at a jetty to find the place deserted and a motor boat still moored at the end of it. Wraith-like fingers of mist hover above the lake’s mercury-grey surface and the little waves lapping at the shore only serve to heighten my unease. Expletives fill the air as the awful realisation sinks in that we might be at the wrong jetty! Miss the boat and we’ll either have to row the 3 km across the lake, or be stuck here another day. Moreover, the forecast for tomorrow is for very high winds, meaning it’s unlikely the boats will be able to operate. We could be delayed another day and will not get back to Kiruna in time for our flight to Stockholm. With my anxiety rising, I leave Martin unsuccessfully trying to get through to another boat operator on our satellite phone, and begin to march back to the fork in the track to make for the other jetty.

The STF jetty at Lake LaitaureThe STF jetty at Lake LaitaureA, still grey and misty morning at Lake Laitaure where we caught a motor boat the 3km across the lake

I am thundering along the boardwalk when I meet the STF warden who apologies for being late. To say I am relieved to see him is an understatement! Minutes later we are donning life-jackets and heading out across the misty lake. At the other side we see a white flag flying which means that there are people ready to make the journey across to Akste. As we disembark, two middle-aged female trekkers take our place on the boat. Today will be a long one, the first section passing through dense forests with few views which leads onto another alpine tundra plateau. Rain is forecast by late-morning and we want to cover as many kilometres as we can while it’s still dry.

Boardwalk on the Kungsleden TrailBoardwalk on the Kungsleden TrailMany of the boardwalk sections are in dire need of repair on the Kungsleden Trail

We pass through a gateway in a deer fence and begin a long climb up through mixed forest. We cross bridges where ice cold streams foam and dance over small rapids, and others where deep, dark and mysterious rivers flow silently through the russet bog. Although the day is overcast and damp, curiously the colour of everything seems to be amplified: the deep cushions of dewy sphagnum moss give off a viridescent sheen; the fallen yellow birch leaves littering the pathway are like tiny specks of mottled sunlight; the claret-red leaves of bilberry resemble millions of drops of spilled wine; the crimson foliage of the mountain ash sets the forest canopy ablaze. Rain-pearled berries, the fruits of the forest, shine with surreal lucidity, each droplet a dazzling jewel, and the gleaming leathery white flecked scarlet fly agaric mushrooms look as if they have been lifted straight from the pages of a fairy story. The forest air is loamy, pregnant with the sweet odour of decay.

Arctic Sweden in AutumnArctic Sweden in AutumnA fast flowing river glides between the autumnal foliage in Arctic Sweden

Fly agaric mushroomsFly agaric mushroomsThe forest floor is enlivened with the colours of fungi and berries in the Arctic autumn

Having covered around 5 km, it begins to rain and the remainder of the day is spent in full waterproofs. As we emerge from the forest onto the alpine tundra plateau the visibility is down to around 20 metres. The eerie forms of reindeer shift in and out of the mist as we plod along, heads bent forward against the rain. The terrain offers good walking and at least we have the wind at our backs. After several kilometres we drop down into a wooded glade, startling several reindeer who melt away into the mist close to the distinctive triangular form of an emergency shelter. It’s a relief to get inside, dump our heavy packs and get out of our wet waterproofs. We decide to fire up our stove for a hot lunch, having on previous days just eaten a high calorie flapjack to save time. I’m feeling cold and clammy and a slug of Talisker whiskey, brought earlier in the year on our visit to Skye, immediately raises my spirits! After a spicy chicken korma washed down with hot ginger tea, we’re ready for the off.

The rain is falling steadily from a graphite-grey sky as we climb out of the glade and battle our way over an exposed stretch of the route which takes us across a huge metal bridge spanning a small gorge through which a fast flowing river is roaring. The metal frame of the bridge looming up suddenly in the mist looks like something from a sci-fi film. Typically, the wind has changed direction and is now lashing us side on with horizontal buckshot rain as we weave our way through a boulder field, picking our way carefully over and around the slippery angular rocks.

Bridge on the Kungsleden TrailBridge on the Kungsleden TrailThis metal suspension bridge looked like something from a Sci-Fi movie as it loomed out of the mist

Boulder field crossing in heavy rainBoulder field crossing in heavy rainThe section of the Kungsleden Trail between Akste and Pårte crosses an exposed boulder field. Not a good place to be caught in horizontal buckshot rain!

After what seems like an eternity, we begin to drop steeply off the plateau back into dense forest. The pathway is rocky, muddy, waterlogged and horrid, progress seems interminably slow, and I begin to count down the number of kilometres left until we reach the Pårte Hut. Finally we emerge from the forest which has mutated into a malevolent, dank and shadowy twilight world where leaden raindrops fall with percussive regularity on the hood of my Gore-Tex jacket. We now enter a stretch of bogland at the head of Lake Sjábttjakjávrre, one final unwelcome obstacle! The wooden boards soon peter out, rotted and drowned in the brackish water, and it’s safer to walk on the bog than attempt to cross them.

It’s sheer unbridled joy to see the soft welcoming glow of a candle illuminating the window of the warden’s hut. So far we are the only guests, and we commandeer a dorm to ourselves, just before a couple of Swedish men arrive from Kvikkjokk soaked to the gussets to claim the other. We rally round helping each other; I light candles in the communal area and the wood burning stove in the drying room, Martin tackles the one in the kitchen and the Swedes fetch water and boil it to make hot drinks for everyone. It’s a relief to don dry clothing and climb into a warm and welcoming bunk, where I sleep like a baby.

 

Pårte to Stuor Dáhtá, 5 km

Sunlight creeping in under the window blind casts a line of golden light on the wooden floorboards of our dorm. I peek out behind the blind to see a shower of gilded leaves fluttering past the window like confetti. The wind is high, sending the nearby birch trees into a frenzy, tearing the golden leaves from their silver boughs and scattering them in all directions. In the not too distant future, these trees will stand on the bank of the ice-covered lake, naked in the frozen air, bereft of their autumnal gaiety.

STF Pårte HutSTF Pårte HutThere is no sight as good as that of the warm and welcoming glow of a lit candle in a hut window as night falls in the Arctic forest What a difference a day makes! There isn’t a cloud in the cerulean-blue sky, and after the gift of a sound night’s sleep I’m feeling good! All of our clothes and our boots have dried out overnight, and, since we did not climb Skierfe as planned and have a spare day, we’re in no rush to get to Kvikkjokk, taking a leisurely breakfast of porridge and numerous mugs of coffee. Our Swedish hut-mates are in no rush either and we enjoy chatting to them and the hut warden, a young willowy woman, who with her partner, has just one more week to spend at Pårte before their 5 weeks of duty as wardens is complete, and the hut closes for the season. Our hut chores complete, we set off mid-morning towards Kvikkjokk past the lake. The wind creates a swell that makes the reeds fringing its shore sway and back and forth as if in a trance.

We’re less than half an hour away from the hut when Martin, who is a couple of metres in front of me, suddenly slips on one of the partially rotted boardwalks and keels sideways into a pool of brackish water. Weighed down by his 25 kilo pack, like a floundering beetle he finds it difficult to right himself and crawl back up onto the boardwalk! The warden bemoaned the fact that this section of the trail is particularly badly maintained and in need of repair, and poor Martin is now soaked down one side and has a sodden boot!

Indeed, the route deteriorates further, becoming rockier and most of the small bridges over rushing streams are rickety and broken down. We pass a small lake where the reflections of the autumn trees shine like burnished bronze in its indigo-blue still and shallow sheltered reaches, and then pass through a deer fence onto a broad russet-coloured plain. In the distance we spy the snow streaked mountains of Vállevárre. We soon encounter Stuor Dáhtá, a large inky-blue lake surrounded by dense green and yellow forest overlooked by Tjoallta, a rocky knoll. The wind has agitated the surface of the water into a series of white-crested waves that crash onto boulders ringing the shoreline in showers of spray. With a day to spare, we immediately decide to find a camping spot to spend the night.

Wild camping at Stuor Dáhtá on the Kungsleden TrailWild camping at Stuor Dáhtá on the Kungsleden TrailOur wild camp at Stuor Dáhtá

We select a perfectly level site just above the lake, and judging by the size of the fire ring, it has served as a camp for numerous other people. We pitch the tent and begin to forage for some wind-dried wood for our evening campfire. Everything on the ground is absolutely sodden from yesterday’s rain, and we range far and wide to select various sized dead pieces that have caught in tree branches. We then sit in the warm autumn sun listening to the crash of the waves on the rocky shore, taking in the majesty of the surroundings. Set against the deep blue of the lake, the autumn leaves of the fireweed look remarkably like flames leaping into the air. Much altered in appearance from its summer incarnation, I can finally see why this plant has got its name. The nearby shrubs are peppered with the red and purple of bilberry, lingonberry and juniper, and the low afternoon sun causes the forest leaves to burn with a golden and flame-orange intensity.

Fireweed growing beside Stuor DáhtáFireweed growing beside Stuor DáhtáIn autumn it is clear how this plant acquired its name

By early evening the wind has fallen just as the weather forecast predicted, and tonight will be dry and clear. Martin checks for Northern Lights activity and we are delighted to learn that the auroral oval should be over the Swedish Arctic. The sun is setting over the lake in a line of burnished gold, the sky gradually darkens and one by one the stars peep out of the firmament. Sunset over Stuor DáhtáSunset over Stuor DáhtáImproving weather meant we enjoyed a sunset over Stuor Dáhtá from our wild camp

Before it gets totally dark, I gather up a handful of birch bark shavings and use my fire-steel to ignite these and a cotton wool pad smeared with Vaseline. Orange flames lick up through the pen-sized twigs and larger pieces of wood that let out a low hiss as the remaining moisture is driven from them. After some gentle coaxing due to the dampness of the wood, we finally have a campfire warm enough to sit around. An after dinner drink of whiskey is enjoyed before the fire dies down and the chill stealthily emanating from the lake drives us into our tent.

Campfire beside a lake in Arctic SwedenCampfire beside a lake in Arctic SwedenWe enjoy whiskey and hot ginger tea beside a roaring campfire at Stuor Dáhtá

Martin goes out at around 11.00 pm to check for Northern Lights activity. We’re in luck! I poke my head out of the tent to see the thin vapour-like tendrils of light playing in the sky over the hill behind. Martin sets up the camera to capture our illuminated tent set against this shimmering ethereal backdrop for a time-lapse sequence. The results are fantastic. We have committed to film a sight that will forever remain seared into our memory.

 

Stuor Dáhtá to Kvikkjokk, 11 km

A grey dawn breaks. The lake is still and mirror-flat. The mountains with their piebald snow patches and the broken cloudy sky are reflected in its mercury-cool surface which is disturbed every so often by the faint concentric circles of raindrops. We break camp, walking roughly opposite the direction of the risen sun along a rugged track that weaves its way along the lakeside until it climbs steeply into a forest strewn with carpets of gold and crimson leaves. The track meanders its way up and down over small hills and crosses several streams via rustic wooden bridges and across boggy boardwalks.

Stuor Dáhtá at dawnStuor Dáhtá at dawnThe snow streaked mountains of Vállevárre beyond the mirror still Stuor Dáhtá

The cloud gradually breaks up and blue sky peeks from between flour-white cloud. A Siberian jay seems as uplifted by the weather’s change in mood as we do, and puts on quite a performance in the tree canopy. We pass though many greenish glades of conifer and birch where the shrubs are laden with berries and the sun beams shining through the moisture laden air look misty and enchanted. 

The Kungsleden Trail towards KvikkjokkThe Kungsleden Trail towards KvikkjokkThis section of the trail becomes progressively stony and rough underfoot as it begins to descend towards Kvikkjokk making progress tedious

After a fork in the track which leads into Sarek National Park, the path begins a gradual descent toward Kvikkjokk and gets progressively rougher and stonier. We reach the Kvikkjokk Mountain Station in the early afternoon and have time to check out the rapids on the Gamajåhkå River which provide a spectacular backdrop to the hut which is perched high on the bank above. The roaring, foaming white rapids look as if they’ve been lifted straight from the pages of National Geographic.

The rapids on the Gamajåhkå RiverThe rapids on the Gamajåhkå RiverThese picturesque rapids are right beneath the STF Kvikkjokk Mountain Station

The mountain station serves hot snacks to order, craft beers and offers an a la carte evening menu in the restaurant. We chose the traditional and truly delicious Sámi dish of souvas as a starter (salted and lightly smoked reindeer meat which is thinly sliced and served with a creamy horseradish sauce on toast) followed by elk (moose) patties with root vegetables. A hot shower and comfortable beds make for a pleasant night’s sleep.

 

Reflections

The following day we are up at stupid o’clock to catch the 5:30 am bus to Jokkmokk which leaves opposite the church. The morning is vault-still and pitch-black as we board the bus. By degrees the sky begins to lighten and we are treated to one of the most magnificent dawns I have ever experienced. For ages the sky seems to be literally on fire, glowing crimson-red, through magenta to rose-pink and mauve before the sun erupts above the horizon bathing everything in soft golden light. The bus suddenly slows and I am fortunate to spot a wolverine fleeing into the dark forest nearby. At Jokkmukk we visit the Ájtte museum which is devoted to the history, culture and heritage of the Sámi nation. The museum is excellent and is worth a few hours of anyone’s time and certainly helped to put into context all we had learned about the Sámi on our passage along the Kungsleden. After a hearty lunch, we catch onward busses to Gällivare and Kiruna. We spend our last night back at the STF accommodation in Kiruna before our early afternoon flight to Stockholm.

As I sit on the plane back to Dublin, I reflect on our trip. We have traversed windswept rocky plateaus lashed by buckshot rain; glided over mirror-still lakes in little motor boats; stood over crystal-clear rushing rivers; stumbled upon silent valleys filled with cotton-soft cloud, and walked through sun-drenched forests of birch ablaze with the colours of autumn. The landscape is utterly beguiling, I have totally fallen under its spell and, like an addict, I know that I simply must return again to this place where the sun, rain and wind reign supreme and it feels simply good to be alive. Above all, I appreciate that to wander through this majestic landscape is to understand, as the Sámi people do, that the Earth does not belong to us, we belong to the Earth.

 

 

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eramaptec@gmail.com (Purple Peak Adventures) arctic europe kungsleden trail lapland sweden trekking wilderness world heritage site http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2016/9/an-autumn-trek-in-arctic-sweden-the-kungsleden-trail-from-saltoluokta-to-kvikkjokk Fri, 30 Sep 2016 19:33:00 GMT
‘España Verde’: Spain’s Green and Pleasant Wonderland http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2016/7/-espa-a-verde-spain-s-green-and-pleasant-wonderland Sunset over the Picos de EuropaSunset over the Picos de EuropaFrom a spot above the tiny village of Asiego, the entire Macizo Central is laid before us in a stunning panorama

 

The cliffs of craggy limestone tower over our convertible as we power our way up through a deep gorge carved by the Cares River that is taking us into the heart of the Picos de Europa National Park, a 647 square kilometre wonderland that straddles Asturias, Cantabria and Castile and León. This does not feel like Spain, that parched and arid land so beloved of British tourists who head to the southern costas to soak up the Mediterranean sun in their droves each summer, for everything here is green. A thousand different shades of green...

Lush vegetation blankets this part of northern Spain. Its golden sandy beaches and craggy cliffs are pounded by the surf rolling in from the cool Atlantic Ocean and forests of chestnut, hazel, holm and sessile oaks, birch and beech, sweep up towards the towering limestone monoliths, spires and peaks that crown the Picos de Europa National Park. Many of these are twice as high as anything in Britain or Ireland. Above the forests, dazzling displays of flora await discovery in lush alpine meadows threaded together by ancient mule paths and transhumance routes, used for driving cattle to summer pastures.

Here crème caramel coloured cows graze and small shepherds’ huts with red ceramic roof tiles dot the landscape. The area is home to vultures, wolves, wildcats, chamois, wild boar and Cantabrian brown bears. Foodies will be sent into salivating raptures, for this region is famed for its variety of cheeses and its cider brewed from indigenous crab-apples; its gastronomy ranges from wholesome home cooked fare served in rustic siderias, to avant-garde Michelin starred restaurants. Culture vultures will delight in visiting ancient settlements with pre-Romanesque architecture recognised by UNESCO as of World Heritage, in a part of Christian Spain never conquered by the Moors.  

Shepherds' hutsShepherds' hutsThe route to the Naranjo de Bulnes passes above these huts on leaving the Refugio de la Terenosa

It’s early July and everything feels inexplicably fresh here, for the proximity to the Atlantic creates a temperate climate more akin to that of the British Isles. Summers are mild and numerous days see cloud and mist creep over the tops of the dramatic limestone peaks like a slow tsunami. This region has long been known to wealthy madrileños who head north to holiday homes from the dusty arid plains of the south, for here they are ensured a welcome respite from the searing summer heat. But foreign travellers have yet to discover the Picos de Europa in large numbers.

 

Europe’s Patagonia

We base ourselves at the small settlement of Arenas de Cabrales. This lies at the foot of a winding road that weaves its way deep into the Macizo Central, the middle of three massifs that comprise the Picos which form part of the Cantabrian Mountain range. The alpine scenery is face-slappingly good. To visit one of the park's most famous viewpoints, we drive to the top of a series of hairpin bends which peter out at Camarmeña, a cluster of small stone houses with rust red ceramic tiled roofs and a tiny church clinging like limpets to the side of a mountain. In front of us, and crowning the top of a smoky blue triangle of land wedged between the steep sides of the Bulnes Gorge, is Europe’s version of Patagonia.

Naranjo de Bulnes (Picu Urriellu) from CamarmeñaNaranjo de Bulnes (Picu Urriellu) from CamarmeñaNaranjo means ‘orange tree’ in Spanish. The mountain is named this because it turns orange at sunset

Known as Picu Urriellu in Asturian, the 2,519 metre high Naranjo de Bulnes, a towering chimney of grey white Palaeozoic limestone soaring above its spiky neighbours, is on every Spanish rock climber’s wish list. Thin veils of cloud in the valley below churn slowly in the early evening heat and the weakening rays of the sun bathe the mountain in a honey coloured glow. Naranjo means ‘orange tree’ in Spanish, the mountain so named as it turns this colour at sunset. A further scenic viewpoint just down the road in Póo de Cabrales offers yet another jaw-dropping opportunity to gaze upon this climber's dreamscape. From a spot above the tiny village of Asiego, the entire Macizo Central is laid before us in a stunning panorama, and we gaze in wonderment as the setting sun turns the peaks apricot, then pink through to chalky mauve, and a creamy half moon floats heavenward.

 

Whatever the Weather

There are days when we awake to a strange luminescent grey cloud that envelops everything down in the valleys making it feel decidedly cool and clammy. This is quite normal in the Picos and we are advised to head up into the mountains. As we climb the narrow winding road above the Rio Duje en route to the mountain village of Sotres, the churning cloud thins, becomes almost translucent and the watery disc of the sun shimmers through it. The cloud suddenly melts away, the fortress-like cliffs of the Peña de Maín float into view and the smoky blue peaks of Los Urrieles still streaked with snow, soar into an impossibly blue sky.

In the dead of the night, we escape the ethereal mist shrouding Arenas de Cabrales to return to a favourite spot above Sotres, where we are treated to a moonless sky literally stuffed full of stars. The Milky Way arches majestically overhead, and the spiky peaks of the Macizo Central etched against the purple heavens are bathed in silvery starlight.

Milky Way magicMilky Way magicThe the spiky peaks of the Macizo Central are etched against the night sky

By day the sun is hot on our backs as we wander along old shepherds’ tracks that criss-cross the mountains, stopping to admire the astonishing variety of flora in every colour imaginable. The silence is broken only by the constant chorus of insects and the melodic clanging of bells that are tied around the necks of cattle, sheep and horses that use the high alpine pastures for summer grazing. The hillsides are dotted with clusters of small stone built red tiled huts, many now gaunt empty shells, which once served as the summer homes of shepherds. Transhumance is still practised in the mountains and some farming methods abandoned elsewhere cling on here. One afternoon we pass an elderly man with a weather-beaten face who has a scythe slung across his shoulder. He is heading out to mow a meadow in a scene straight out of the middle ages. However, as elsewhere, modernity is creeping in and the old ways are vanishing. Down in the valleys, we see numerous square granaries typical of the region. Named hórreos they are built of wood with red tiled pyramid hipped roofs and are raised several feet off the ground by a series of four stone pillars capped with staddle stones to prevent vermin from getting in. These are now disused and many are sadly falling into dilapidation.

It goes without saying that such a lush green land does not flourish without a healthy rainfall, and we experience days when thick grey cloud rolls in from the Atlantic and the mountaintops don’t reveal themselves at all. Rainwater pours in tiny rivulets off the roof tiles of the small cottages in the high mountain villages of Tresviso and Sotres and mist blows forlornly along their narrow cobbled streets. The weather front eventually moves away, the clouds lift and the mood of the mountains changes instantly. But there is something utterly beguiling about the way the cloud boils and rumbles through the mountain passes on rainy days; everything is wet and dazzles with a lurid light, and the air is heavy with the scent of wood smoke.

A wet day in TresvisoA wet day in TresvisoRainwater pours in tiny rivulets off the roof tiles of the small cottages in this high mountain village and mist blows forlornly along its narrow cobbled streets

 

Glorious Gastronomy

On such days, the region’s signature dish, fabada, a rich stew of broad beans, black pudding, cured pork shoulder and sausage, provides warming hearty comfort to offset the damp and chilly atmosphere. The Peña Castil is an eatery in the mountain village of Sotres where a 3 course menu del dia will set you back just 12 euro. This tiny place, which doubles as a hotel rural, oozes rustic charm with its dark wooden furnishings and rustic earthenware crockery, and it’s packed to the rafters with gregarious Spanish tourists. A rich earthy fabada is followed by slow cooked, unbelievably tender and fragrantly seasoned wild boar stew, and topped off with a desert of creamy junket drizzled with local honey. This very memorable meal is washed down with a rather fine Rioja.

There are no shortage of excellent tapas bars and restaurants to sample yet more local dishes, including fabes con amasueles, a hearty stew of broad beans simmered with a pinch of saffron and fresh clams. We also enjoy ox hot pot, braised kid goat, roasted roe deer delicately flavoured with aromatic wild mountain herbs, and cachopo. This resembles a schnitzel and is made of three kinds of meat sandwiched between two types of local cheese which is dipped in egg, breadcrumbed, and then fried in olive oil until golden brown. It certainly packs a terrific calorific punch and I never succeed in clearing my plate! Spain's a country not really renowned for its cheese, so with over 40 types produced from cow's, sheep's and goat's milk, or even a combination of all three, Asturias has been dubbed el pais de los quesos (the land of cheeses). Several have been granted Denomination of Origin status including the piquant cabrales, a pungent blue variety that is aged in caves close to where we are staying.

With a love of fine dining, we push the boat out and take lunch at the 2* Michelin restaurant, Casa Marcial in Arriondas, whose chef, Nacho Manzano, has acquired quite a reputation for serving fine contemporary cocina asturiana. We plonk for the menú tradicional: eight courses of taste and visual sensation, washed down with a fine white Rioja. The hors-d'œuvre include a feather light corn soufflé and crispy seaweed drizzled with lemon mayonnaise served on a lichen covered branch. These are followed by delights such as fabada, smoked sardine and onions, limpets and seaweeds in cider cream, and red mullet cooked in salt on a hot rock at our table. We round off a exquisite meal with the most famous of all Asturian deserts: a dreamy rice pudding.

Lunch at Casa Marcial in ArriondasLunch at Casa Marcial in ArriondasInventively presented hors-d'œuvre

Asturias is not a wine producing region: here cider reigns supreme. Even the smallest village seems to have a bar selling sidra, while the larger towns have siderias, establishments specially devoted to this local beverage, so you cannot fail to try it while here. It comes in a wine-sized bottle and consuming it is something of a ritual performed with much aplomb in the siderias. In the pretty town of Cangas de Onís, I watch as a waiter uncorks a bottle, then with a dramatic flourish holds it aloft over his head and pours the amber coloured liquid escanciada into a narrow glass in his hand. It’s a skill he has obviously honed and he hardly spills a drop. The ritual of ‘throwing’ the sidra not only aerates it, but enhances its bouquet. He hands the glass containing a couple of inches of liquid to Martin with the instruction to gulp it down in one. Any dregs are thrown out of the glass and onto the floor. Martin enjoys the refreshing taste, but not being much of a fan of apples, I find it to be astringently dry and the sour taste isn’t to my liking.

 

Getting Around

A network of mountain roads, the major routes paved and well maintained, now run between many of the mountain villages which are also connected by a plethora of ancient transhumance trails, making multi day treks imminently doable. A network of dirt roads take you deeper into the mountains and are handy for trekkers walking to the remoter trailheads created by ancient shepherds. The dirt tracks are a legacy of the significant lead and zinc mining industry in the Picos and were originally used to transport ore by teams of oxen. The industry dates back to Roman times and only ceased in the latter decades of the twentieth century. High in the mountains are the visible remains of several abandoned mines, including the Mazarrasa, Evangelista and Providence. The former of the three is sited in the Vegas de Andara area at a height of around 1,800 metres and the refugio there is actually a former mine building. Nearby is an open socavón (access tunnel) named the Canal de los Vacas (the cows’ channel) a name that should come as no surprise in cattle country such as this! A rail emerges from its dark interior upon which a battered rusting wagon is abandoned.

The refugio’s caretaker shows us several mineral specimens he’s collected from the area which include galena, blende (famed for its translucency), fluorite and cinnabar. We head off to a valley above the refugio that once harboured a large lake, the bed of which was accidentally holed by a mining company which has virtually drained it. Betrayed now by a marshy discoloured patch, the cliffs above it are pock marked with open socavóns and early lode back workings, while above its former shore is evidence of nineteenth century dressing activities and most interesting of all, a number of dark, dank troglodyte dwellings which may or may not predate the mining activities. Working here would have been quite challenging, especially in winter, and local lore has it that some of the miners actually slept in the galleries to keep warm. The whole place is wreathed in veils of white mist during our visit and I find the atmosphere to be rather unnerving.

Maintaining access to some of the remoter mountain villages with dwindling populations is a struggle, but the village of Bulnes, virtually hanging off the hillside at the top of a subsidiary branch of the main Cares Gorge, has found a solution. Connected since 2001 by a funicular railway that runs for some 2 km up through the mountain, this remarkable feat of engineering ensures that the 30 odd permanent inhabitants of this picturesque mountain village, formerly reachable only on foot or mule, remains accessible all year round. The journey takes around 7 minutes and is free to inhabitants, while visitors must pay over 22 euro return to use it.

Bulnes BajoBulnes BajoThe pretty mountain village has been connected since 2001 by a funicular railway that runs for some 2 km up through the mountain

On the southern side of the central massif, and 23 km west of the charming market town of Potes, Fuente De’s main attraction is its cable-car, which in less than five minutes whisks you up to 1,800 metres. Get there early as waiting times to ascend and descend are long. Here the mattoral characterised by brilliant swathes of bright yellow broom (Echinospartum horridum) and occasional bursts of purple heather, makes way for a maze of limestone pavement that harbours an astounding variety of alpine and Mediterranean flowers. This in turn gives way to a lunar landscape of broken, shattered rock sweeping up to jagged snow streaked peaks of grey limestone glaring luridly in the bright sunshine. Griffon vultures whirl on the thermals above them, eyed nervously by alpine choughs that frequent the refugio near the cable car station. Far below in a blue haze, the rich green pastures of Cantabria stretch out into infinity.

 

Garganta de Cares

Cares Gorge WalkCares Gorge WalkThe Garganta de Cares (the Throat of the Cares) is one of the most popular walking routes (the GR-202) within the Picos de Europa We breakfast on the sunny terrace of a small hotel built right above the Cares River in Puente Poncebos. This is the starting point for the trek up the Garganta de Cares (the Throat of the Cares), one of the most popular walking routes (the GR-202) within the Picos de Europa. The route up the gorge ends at Posada de Valdeón in León, but we plan to go only as far as the village of Caín and then walk back, making it a round trip of over 26 km. The Cares River has sliced and scoured its way through the limestone of the heart of the Picos range, splitting it into its central and western massifs, creating a chasm well over a kilometre deep in places. The river has been partially diverted to generate hydroelectricity and the route follows a water channel chiselled into the hillside, a real feat of engineering. The narrow track we will follow is the old access way servicing the channel and it is literally hewn out of the vertiginous cliff face and tunnelled through solid rock. It’s certainly no place for those who suffer from vertigo, and care must be taken at all times as there is no fencing to prevent what would certainly be a fatal fall if one were to slip.

The track climbs steeply from Poncebos taking us high above the gorge, which at this point is still quite wide. The river lies coiled far below like a silvery serpent. It’s an airless morning and the heat is already radiating off the bare limestone. After a couple of kilometres and a 300 metre plus climb, we reach the highest point on the route. The imposing fortress-like walls of the Murallon de Amuesa lie opposite and ahead we can see the dusty track wending its way down through the gorge like a thin thread, disappearing around a bend where the gorge turns to run south-north.

Now descending, we pass a large wind sculpted pillar of rock which we name the árbol de piedra for it reminds us of a petrified tree. The gorge begins to narrow; from far below comes the muffled roar of the river fed by a foaming cascade gushing from a cave in the limestone. The heat is tremendous and we’re glad of the number of tunnels which don’t just offer shade, but also cool down the air that passes though them. Peering up, I see verdant gullies soaring upwards towards snow capped mountain peaks glistening in the summer sun, above which the dark shapes of several griffon vultures slowly circle on the thermals. In the lower reaches of the gorge where sunlight seldom reaches, a whole microclimate of large ferns and cool cushions of moss drape the rocky walls.

Cares Gorge WalkCares Gorge WalkOne of many tunnels carved through the limestone cliffs

The approach to Caín is spectacular. The gorge, now a mere slit, is crossed twice by suspension bridges, the route then passes through a series of dark dripping galleries before descending right alongside the river where we stop to splash our sunburnt faces with cool clear water. The tiny village of Caín, hemmed in by towering mountains, has a range of tapas bars offering a reasonable menu del dia and the all important cold beer!

After a leisurely lunch of zingy gazpacho, veal escalope with cabrales cheese sauce, salad and fries, rounded off with an ice cream, we begin the long trek back to Poncebos. By now some of the route lies in the shade and the cooler temperature has brought out several feral goats with enormous horns who lie indolently across the dusty track and are in no hurry to move as we pass by! We arrive back at Poncebos in the early evening. This is by no means an easy walk in the summer heat and you need to allow at least 7 hours to hike to Caín and back. And be sure to add a few extra hours for stupefied gazing!

 

The Orange Tree of Bulnes

We save ourselves at least an hour's climb by taking the funicular railway from Poncebos to Bulnes. A picture postcard village of two halves - Alto and Bajo - the cobbled streets and tapas bars of the latter hug the bank of the small river that rushes down towards the Cares Gorge. On a stiflingly hot day, we pass through the lower half of the village and begin the very steep ascent up an old paved transhumance trail towards the rich pastures of Vega de las Cuerres. At first, beech woods obscure the mountain views and the rough track is fringed with waist high ferns. But higher up the vegetation thins and we catch sight of deep green pastures blanketing the plunging slopes below the massif which is crowned by the iconic Bulnes de Naranjo. We have arrived at the majadas, where handsome brown cows graze amid the ruins of ancient shepherds’ huts.

Majadas en route to Collado PandébanoMajadas en route to Collado PandébanoHandsome brown cows graze amid the ruins of ancient shepherds’ huts.

Never mind the amazing views, this is a flower spotter's paradise, and every few feet I find myself stopping to admire the breathtaking colourful assemblages of flora in the small stone walled meadows that border the track. I spot include kidney vetch, ox eye daisies, bloody crane’s-bill, pale flax, meadow buttercups, musk-mallow, greater yellow-rattle, white asphodel, maiden pink, rock cinquefoil, round-headed rampion, as well as the prickly lilac-flowered ‘thistle’ Carduncellus mitissimus, several species of orchid and the beautiful purple English iris. The chorus of insects is deafening and I note several species of butterfly and moth feeding on the nectar of these wild flowers. Higher up we encounter ling heather which lends a delightful mauve blush to the thousand shades of green.

Burnet moth on Carduncellus mitissimusBurnet moth on Carduncellus mitissimusThe flower meadows of this region harbour an incredible variety of flora and insects

Near the top of the Collado (Col of) Pandébano we pass right through a herd of docile cows and their calves, their bells clanking loudly as they graze contentedly on the lush grass. If we continued on, we’d reach Sotres, but we branch off towards the Refugio de la Terenosa nestled amid several old shepherds’ huts where we plan to stay the night. The refugio is run by a whippet-thin bearded man who speaks no English. He runs a very tight ship and the place is spotless. He does not want our mucky boots to dirt the floor he was vigorously sweeping as we arrive, and we are ushered outside to a sunny terrace where he brings us tapas of crispy bread, cabrales cheese and stewed kid goat, plus the all important cold beer to quench our raging thirst!

Refugio de la TerenosaRefugio de la TerenosaComfortable lodging, good food and cold beer can be had at this well-kept mountain refuge

We watch in silence as white cloud gathers and slowly churns in the valley below and the clear sky above the nearby mountain tops turns warm apricot as the sun sinks lower. A couple of mules laden with rubbish from the refugio we will climb to tomorrow clatter up to the hut, the muleteer stopping for a quick beer before heading down to Sotres. As night falls, it turns chilly quite quickly and we retire to the equally spotless dormitory where we sleep like logs.

The morning is cool and crisp, there’s not a cloud in the sky and no mist in the valley. We make a reasonably early start to avoid the crowds, but also because the air temperature is still cool and part of the trail is in the shade. From the refugio, the path climbs a long, gentle slope to a distinctive cleft in a ridge. The delicate aromas of wild thyme and dianthus periodically fill the air and we spot many alpine plants including harebells, alpine aster, rock rose, mountain avens and alpine toadflax. Behind the peaks of the Peña del Maín, the Atlantic Ocean finally floats into view and one realises why these mountains got their name: they were the first land seen by sailors returning to Europe from the New World.

A number of wild goats are blocking the path through the cleft in the ridge and I’m momentarily distracted by them so don’t instantly see the view that makes all walkers stop and grab their cameras. I gaze in awe at the trail threading its way round the edge of a huge couloir above which piles of barren limestone sweep up to a dragon’s back of limestone peaks, chief of which is the iconic chimney of rock, the Naranjo de Bulnes. The path rises steadily upward in what becomes a tough ascent up a series of zig-zags. The air is hot, dry and thin, and the dust kicked up by the passage of our feet lodges in the back of my parched throat.

The Naranjo de BulnesThe Naranjo de BulnesThe path threads its way along the top of a rocky couloir

Eventually the trail levels out and the Refugio de la Vega de Urriellu looms into view. It looks somewhat lost and diminutive below the towering majesty of the Naranjo de Bulnes, in which shadow it sits. The scenery is stark but awe-inspiring with piebald patches of snow still clinging stubbornly to the flanks of the jagged mountains and craggy ridges all around. The only sound is the bleat of sheep and the constant clanking of their bells. We find a spot to pitch our tent which is permissible above 1,600 metres between the hours of sunset and sunrise. Patches of deep blue gentian dot the wiry grass, I’m elated to spot the scarlet and grey flash of a wallcreeper and we spend the afternoon walking in the immediate vicinity while watching a number of rock climbers attempting to scale the sheer face of Picu Urriellu.

Gentian flowersGentian flowersThe ground near our camping spot at the Refugio de la Vega de Urriellu was covered with these pretty flowers

After a hearty dinner at the refugio, we retire to our tent to set up our photography equipment and wait for the mountain to do its magic. A herd of rebecos (chamoix) suddenly become visible against a large patch of snow and we watch as these graceful and agile little animals dance their way across a shelf of rock behind the refugio

Fortunately, the ‘Naranjo’ lives up to its name. We are treated to a marvellous light show as the dark shadows of the mountains opposite race up its face as the sun sinks lower in the sky. The towering monolith turns shades of gold, apricot, orange, rust red and finally black, as a full moon floats up behind it and a shower of stars erupt across the heavens.

Naranjo de BulnesNaranjo de BulnesThe setting sun turns the rock orange, hence its name

The return the next day to Bulnes, where we catch the funicular back down to Poncebos, involves a 1,300 metre descent in searing heat. We are grateful for the cold beer at the Refugio de la Terenosa and a tasty meal of wild boar eaten with gusto on a shady flower scented terrace of a tapas bar in the chocolate box pretty village of Bulnes.

 

The Costa Verde

We round off our stay in the region with a few days on the coast where craggy limestone cliffs cascade down into the cold, wild waters of the Bay of Biscay. First stop, Oviedo. This bustling city is the capital of the Principality of Asturias and has been described by Woody Allen as 'not of this world, like a fairy tale'. We visit the magnificent ninth century cathedral. Stepping from the searing heat of the plaza into its cool, dark interior eerily lit by coloured light filtering through the stain glass windows set high in the walls above, is like entering another world. This bastion of Christendom in a kingdom that spearheaded the Reconquista, and which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, simply reeks with history. It's intimately tied to generations of Asturian royalty; all added their own flourishes to the building over the centuries, resulting in an array of architectural styles, from Pre-Romanesque, Baroque, Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance.

The altar with its carved, colourfully decorated and gilded figures depicting the gospels and the life of Jesus is astounding, but it is the Cámara Santa (sacred chamber) that everyone wants to see. Contained in a series of exquisitely decorated boxes in wood and metal encrusted with precious stones, are a number of relicts, the most famous of which is the Sudarium of Oviedo (Shroud of Oviedo). This bloodstained cloth is believed to have been wrapped around the head of Jesus after his crucifixion and has brought pilgrims to the city for centuries. Crammed into a vaulted chamber with numerous other tourists speaking in hushed tones out of reverence, I can feel the spirituality of the Cámara Santa seeping out of its ancient stonework.

Some seven kilometres from the quaint fishing town of Ribadesella is Playa de Vega, a gorgeous stretch of golden silky sand, and a favourite haunt of surfers. It’s a world away from the crowded, tacky coastal resort eyesores for which most of Spain has become infamous. Only a handful of smart restaurants and chiringuitos line the top of the beach. Here the music is cool, the clientele bohemian, and the frutos del mar, superb. Al fresco dining as the sun slips down over the Bay of Biscay is the perfect way to end a day spent lounging on the beach or exploring the rugged Asturian coast.

Wine time!Wine time!What better than a glass of fine for two as the sun goes down over the Costa Verde at Playa de Vega?

One of the most unusual features of the area are the Bufones de Pría, a series of blow holes in the limestone cliffs near Ribadesella. Undoubtedly on a winter’s day, when the wind turns the Atlantic into a snarling frenzy and the sea becomes foaming milk, the Bufones would be magnificent, spurting several metres into the sky. Today these jesters have the last laugh, for they are indolent and half-hearted; at high tide only one bothers to sporadically manage a misty belch. The fine spray it emits creates transient shimmering rainbows. But they put on quite a sound show. They hiss, growl and bellow, while one inhales and exhales like a sleeping monster as the tide surges in and out of caves hidden far below.

Sunset over the Bay of BiscaySunset over the Bay of BiscayOur final sunset from Playa de Vega, an unspoilt beach on the Costa Verde The feel of cool sand between my toes is delectable as I sip my glass of wine and stand on the shore of Playa de Vega watching the vermilion orb of the sun sinking over the Bay of Biscay. Behind me the magnificent Picos de Europa are turning a gorgeous shade akin to the ripe flesh of a guava. The rock pools in front of me flame orange like liquid fire as the sunset enters its grand finale. I feel a sense of remorse, the end of another day, our last in Asturias. But as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, I know that one day we will return to the green and pleasant wonderland that is España Verde.

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eramaptec@gmail.com (Purple Peak Adventures) Asturias Costa Verde Europe Picos de Europa National Park Spain camping hiking trekking http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2016/7/-espa-a-verde-spain-s-green-and-pleasant-wonderland Thu, 28 Jul 2016 23:15:00 GMT
‘Nature’s Coliseum’: Exploring the Cirque de Gavarnie, Pyrenees Mountains http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2016/7/-nature-s-coliseum-exploring-the-cirque-de-gavarnie-pyrenees-mountains Cirque de GavarnieCirque de GavarnieFrom the popular 'Dung Route', the main tourist route, this formidable scene of the Cirque de Gavarnie becomes visible

A Five Star View

The modest two-starred Hôtel des Cimes in Gavarnie is a world away from the flea-ridden Pyrenean hostelries described by Hilaire Belloc who travelled through the region at the turn of the twentieth century. It’s most certainly not The Ritz, but our first floor ensuite room has a five star view up the valley to the Cirque de Gavarnie, a vast glacial bowl gouged out of the Pyrenees Mountains. Probably the most famous corrie in the world, this 1,400m high and 890m wide wonder described by the novelist Victor Hugo as ‘nature’s coliseum’, lies within the Pyrénées-Mont Perdu UNESCO World Heritage Site which straddles France and Spain.

The early-July scenery is a true salve for the soul. Woodland sweeps up to the yawning ice and snow frosted corrie with its wedding-veil waterfalls. In the distance I can hear the roar of a river carrying away the snowmelt. Flower-scented meadows that look as if they have been lifted straight from the pages of a fairy story are dotted with crème caramel coloured cows dining on a salade verte so green as to be unbelievable. The melodic clanking of their bells is carried on the wind drifting languidly across the landscape. A chattering alpine swift chasing insects darts across the sky like a tossed away scythe in a mesmerising dance of life and death. If it wasn’t for the tacky souvenir shops, this place would be a paradise.

The sun slips down behind the nearby mountains plunging the Cirque into shadow, and the horses that ply the route up to it are being led away by their keeper for the night just as the village church bell gently tolls for evening prayers. Tomorrow we plan to climb into the mountains above ‘nature’s coliseum’, but thunderstorms are forecast for the area and with an abundance of caution we have revised our plans for a four day wild camping trek across the mountains.

 

Beers Beneath La Brèche

The Brèche de Roland (Roland’s Breach) at an elevation of 2,804m marks the Franco-Spanish border, and ascending to this point is undoubtedly one of the finest climbs in the Pyrenees. From the car park at the Col de Tentes (2,208m) we stroll along an ancient mountain track fringed with electric mauve thistles that rises gently above the Vallée des Pouey D’Aspé to the Puerto de Bujaruelo. Here we feast our eyes on a dragon’s back of snow-capped mountains sweeping up from the verdant Valle de Ordesa. This green and pleasant land is Spain, and we fill our lungs with the warm air wafting upwards which is scented with the unmistakable aroma of wild mountain thyme. Tiny butterflies float from one flower head to another and a chorus of insects drone the lazy song of summer. The percussive sound of fallen rock alerts us to the presence of a marmot busily foraging amid a grassy swathe misty-blue with gentian flowers. It lets out a loud whistle when we approach too close and darts away into a chaotic tumble of rock.

 

Foraging marmotForaging marmot near the Franco-Spanish border

We then thread our way up a steep rocky path on the shoulder of a mountain on the opposite side of the Vallée des Pouey D’Aspé towards the first of several patches of dirty snow which bear the scars of countless feet. The summer breeze carries the musical clank of sheep bells, the whisper of dried grass, the distant cry of a vulture and the hiss of water cascading over rock. We cross tumbling streams swollen with snow melt, cellophane-clear water as cold as ice, and scramble up a rocky ridge which leads into another ravine with a noisy waterfall bouncing down the mountainside. The ground ahead is steep and uncharacteristically snow-choked for the time of year and we stop to don our crampons. The track passes very close to the waterfall and is treacherous; chains that would help upward traction lie buried under feet of snow and the hot sun gives it the consistency of caster sugar. In places verglas smears naked rock and the diamond dazzling treachery of slushy snow on ice makes progress difficult. We can hear water gurgling beneath our boots and in places have to carefully negotiate rivulets fleeing through melted runnels in the compacted snow.

Above the waterfall is a large glacial bowl where the snow has drifted many metres deep. Great layers of sedimentary rock have been upended in the sheer cliffs that erupt through the blanket of whiteness like the bones of the Earth picked bare. The sun is high and commanding a sky which bears no menace, but the heat saps our energy. A steep climb out of the bowl brings us to a rocky ridge where we finally catch sight of the Refuge des Sarradets (2,587m) which is named after the col located below it. Currently undergoing renovation, a large crane hovers over the stone built chalet-style building which is perched on an outcrop of rock commanding jaw-dropping views.

The Refuge des Sarradets (2,587m) The Refuge des Sarradets (2,587m) perched on an outcrop of rock below the dramatic Brèche de Roland

Below we can see the top of the vast Cirque de Gavarnie, the layers of rock surrounding it squeezed and contorted into swirls and whorls as if modelled in plasticine. Waterfalls resembling curtains of white silk tumble over its side, and snowcovered scree slopes above it sweep up to a monumental wall of rock that soars into the sky, broken only by the Brèche de Roland, a dramatic gap-toothed void in the corrie’s rocky smile. A steep and at times slippery descent from the ridge over loose snow brings us to the refuge. We find a shady spot on the balcony facing the corrie and fire up our stove for lunch, eyed all the while by a couple of cheeky alpine choughs. Above the Pic de Sarradets we catch sight of a sole lammergeyer gracefully circling on the thermals.

The Col de Sarradets The contorted sedimentary rock above the Cirque de Gavarnie as seen from above the Col de Sarradets

Lunch complete, we climb a steep switchback snowcovered track towards the Brèche de Roland, stopping briefly to plunge a couple of local craft beers into the snow to chill. The sun beats down relentlessly from an azure blue sky, broken only by some cloud boiling up beyond the Brèche, which would have been the gateway to Spain for us on our now abandoned four day trek. Yet the storm that is forecast seems an absurdity on a day such as this, and we wonder whether we should have thrown caution to the wind and done the trek after all. From the towering 100m high void in the cliffs, we feast our eyes on the verdant Valle de Ordesa shimmering in the blue haze of a hot afternoon. According to Medieval legend ‘Roland’s Breach’ was cut by Count Roland with his sword Durendal in an attempt to destroy it after his defeat during the epic late-eighth century Battle of Roncevaux Pass. After savouring our much-awaited cool beers below the remnants of the Glacier de la Brèche, which like many European glaciers has all but vanished, we head back down to the Col de Tentes.

The Brèche de RolandThe Brèche de Roland above the Cirque de Gavarnie is the gateway to Spain's Valle de Ordesa

Back in Gavarnie, the moonless night sky is juniper-purple and the bejewelled arch of the Milky Way soars across the heavens as we leave Les Cascades restaurant. Despite the fact that a fine four course French meal is a far better deal than a packet of freeze dried food, we curse the fact that we are not sat in our tent high in the mountains on such a still and perfect night.

 

‘Dung-Ho’ to the Cirque…

The next day dawns hot and sunny with scarcely a cloud in the sky. But with the inclement weather forecast still lurking in the back of our minds, we opt to take the main tourist route up to the Cirque de Gavarnie. We join a throng of other walkers heading up the aptly nicknamed ‘Dung Route’ which follows the rushing chalky-turquoise waters of the Gave de Gavarnie, our nostrils constantly assaulted by odeur de cheval! The three and a half kilometre route crosses an ancient stone bridge and passes pretty meadows starred with thousands of colourful flowers before it climbs gently, threading its way through mixed woodland which offers some reprieve from the relentless heat of the sun. We emerge blinking in the fierce sunlight from this woodland to a wondrous view of a riparian scene fit to grace the lid of any biscuit tin. The Gave de Gavarnie flows languidly through the broad gravel-strewn bottom of the valley. In places it has braided, its turquoise channels meandering round small islands studded with trees. Ahead the view is dominated by the massive corrie that looms behind the interlocking spurs of the surrounding mountains which sweep down dramatically to the valley floor. One can’t help but feel humbled and insignificant set amid the enormity and grandeur of this landscape.

The route now descends to greet the gravelly valley bottom before climbing steeply towards the Cirque. Sweaty red-faced walkers lean heavily on large wooden staffs in the stifling humidity, while the indolent clatter by on horses hired at Gavarnie. After about an hour we arrive at L'Hôtellerie du Cirque. This nineteenth century building, dwarfed by the vast glacial amphitheatre beyond, is somewhat faded in its majesty and now only functions as a restaurant in the high season. But what a view it commands! Weeping waterfalls topple from atop a semi-circle of vertical cliffs gleaming with snow and ice below a cerulean blue sky streaked with angel-white cloud. Here France’s highest waterfall plunges 422m in a display of misty majesty. We grab a shady table on the restaurant’s terrace, glad to avail ourselves of ice cool beer and a platter of delicious local meats and cheeses. A veritable honey pot, this site attracts about a million tourists every year. It’s not hard to see why - it’s a sight to send poets and artists into raptures.

The Cirque de GavarnieThe Cirque de Gavarnie as seen from the L'Hôtellerie du Cirque

Too many beers later, we begin the climb up into the Cirque. Most people don’t venture much farther than L'Hôtellerie, and after half an hour we find ourselves quite alone to commune with the majesty of the glacial landscape. The rocky ground is flecked with meadow flowers and the passage of our feet kicks up the heady aroma of wild thyme. The towering cliffs, their strata laid bare like a layer cake, appear to be bearing down on us, while soft white clouds sail above their snow-streaked heights. The only sound is the constant roar of the waterfalls, the clanking of sheep bells and the periodic chirping of crickets. We might have been the only two people left in the world, so deep is our sense of solitude.

 

At the Mercy of the Elements

But the sky is changing. The flour-white pillows of cloud rapidly mutate into something dark and vengeful, boiling masses coiling and writhing in shades of battleship-grey and tar-black that swallow the sun. We quickly turn tail towards L'Hôtellerie where the waiters are hurriedly packing away the terrace umbrellas. A faint acrid whiff of chlorine sends us fleeing past it in a tide of other walkers hoping to reach Gavarnie before the storm breaks. Our efforts are in vain. As we stop to don our waterproof jackets, the wind begins to gust, rising to a frenzy as a mighty thunderclap rends the air and ricochets round the valley.

The Cirque de GavarnieThe 422m waterfall at the head of the Cirque de Gavarnie

All at once the thrumming clouds begin to spit out hailstones and torrential rain. Large puddles appear almost instantaneously and connect rapidly to form a swirling mass of water which floods the gravel track now dancing with spray. The hailstones are huge and send people shrieking for cover under a canopy of pine trees close to the track. Tall and upright, they line up around us like silent sentinels as lightning luridly illuminates their blackened trunks and the earth seems to shudder with each clap of thunder. Leery of sheltering under a group of isolated trees, we decide to seek somewhere more suitable to ride out the storm. Through buckshot rain and hailstones that deliver a vicious sting with every strike, we brave the unending downpour through ankle deep water past battered meadows reeking with petrichor, and eventually arrive back at our hotel soaked to the gussets.

Summer storm clouds over the Cirque de GavarnieSudden storms can strike the Pyrenees Mountains during summer

The next morning dawns still and damp. A watery sun is shining feebly through columns of slowly moving mist, casting weak lances of light across wind-beaten meadows where steam is rising steadily from the grass. The vaporous tendrils drift upwards to join a bank of thickening grey cloud lying angrily atop the Cirque. The atmosphere is pregnant with rain. A distant rumble of thunder confirms that the forecast was accurate after all and that we had made the right call to abandon our four day trek. The weather has set in and our walking in the Pyrenees is unfortunately over.

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eramaptec@gmail.com (Purple Peak Adventures) Cirque de Gavarnie Europe France Hiking Pyrenees Mountains World Heritage Site http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2016/7/-nature-s-coliseum-exploring-the-cirque-de-gavarnie-pyrenees-mountains Tue, 05 Jul 2016 15:45:00 GMT
The Journey to 'Middle Land' Narsarsuaq, Greenland: Or There and Back Again http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2015/10/the-journey-to-middle-land-narsarsuaq-greenland-or-there-and-back-again Qooqqut Fjord, Middle LandQooqqut Fjord, Middle LandThe ice floes from the Qooqqup Glacier choking the Qooqqut Fjord

Our flight from Reykjavík to Narsarsuaq Airport took us spell-bindingly low over the immense Greenland ice cap and then down a narrow valley hemmed in by jagged snow covered mountains. Below lay Mellem Landet (Middle Land), a 30 km long and 6 km wide rocky peninsula pincered between two enormous glaciers containing vast volumes of water frozen aeons ago. The area screams remoteness; there are no roads out of Narsarsuaq, the small settlement at the far end of the deep turquoise Tunulliarfik Fjord, nothing but a vast white wilderness - the snowfall of millennia - all around.

Narsarsuaq AirportNarsarsuaq AirportThe airport at Narsarsuaq with Middle Land and the Kuussuup Glacier in the distance

As we set out from the Narsarsuaq Hotel on a late-August morning, the immensity of the landscape we had seen from the air is evident. We are walking along a vast out-wash plain created by the Kuussuup Glacier. Built on the flat terrain caused by its retreat is the Narsarsuaq Airport. This was originally constructed in WWII by the USA as a transit base (called Bluie West One) for flights to Europe. The base was superseded after the opening of the larger Thule air base in North Greenland which still operates as a US base today. Bluie West One closed in 1951 and reverted to Danish control in 1958. The population of Narsarsuaq is only about 160, with the airport and tourism being the main sources of employment. Not much happens in this place with a mere handful of weatherboard houses, a small supermarket and a couple of drab blocks of Soviet-style flats. Indeed, the largest building is the Narsarsuaq Hotel, with a façade like something out of 1960's communist Eastern Europe. When a flight is due in or out, Narsarsuaq temporarily buzzes with activity before sliding back into a state of torpor.

We are beginning a 2-day trek to Mellem Landet which we had spied from the airplane on our approach to Narsarsuaq Airport. Sounding for all the world like something straight from the pages of a Tolkien novel, 'Middle Land' is a popular area for a one day hike to see the Kuussuup Glacier which lies on its western flank. It is now a 'dead glacier' miles inland from the Tunulliarfik Fjord and it is possible to get right up close to its terminus. But we have opted to do a longer hike across to the eastern flank of the peninsula to view the Qooqqup Glacier which is a tidewater glacier actively calving into the Qooqqut Fjord, rather than visit a pile of dirty melting ice!

We stride out along an old tarmac road which takes us NE for several kilometres through an area named Hospital Valley. Here the US 188th Station Hospital was sited, betrayed now only by the sight of the gaunt and skeletal stone chimney breast of the Officer’s Club and some crumbling concrete foundations. After this we hit a rocky track. This passes through a picturesque out-wash plain named Blomsterdalen ‘the Flower Valley’, dominated by the chalky turquoise coils of the Kuusuaq River. The flowers are long past their prime; just a few straggly harebells and the withered stems of fireweed sporting fluffy seed pods line the side of the track. The hand of autumn lies quietly across the landscape and the bilberry, dwarf birch and grasses are turning eye-pleasing shades of gold, russet and red.

BlomersdalenBlomersdalenThe pathway leads down to the 'Flower Valley' before climbing up a rocky cliff face to the Middle Land Plateau

After weaving through golden fields where the hay has been mown, the route becomes a narrow path leading to the bottom of a wall of rock atop which is the Middle Land plateau. We are faced with a climb of 300 metres up this cliff face by the side of a small waterfall. The ascent via a rough pathway is quite steep in places and passes through dwarf trees and over rock worn to a fine polish by the passage of countless feet. On the steepest sections thick ropes have been fixed in place, presumably by the tour companies who take clients to visit the Kuussuup Glacier. From the top of the cliffs a magnificent view of the terrain we have just covered opens before us. There is indeed something almost Tolkienesque about this fantastical landscape of rock sliced in two by an icy behemoth that has spewed enormous quantities of gravel and sand onto the vast out-wash plain. This stretches for kilometres down to the jade coloured waters of the Tunulliarfik Fjord which is dotted with icebergs.

Feeling rather like a Hobbit leaving the Shire for stranger lands, we branch off the pathway that most day trippers take to see the Kuussuup Glacier, and strike out across the rocky shore of a lake and over the river which feeds the waterfall by the pathway we have just climbed. We then encounter a gradual 300 metre ascent over rugged slopes of russet, copper and yellow lichens and mosses, and brilliant swathes of late summer flowers, onto the wild spine of this rocky peninsula. The going is tough across the trackless rough ground, but we are distracted from our physical exertions by glorious views of the Kuussuup Glacier which unfold as we climb higher, and the large juicy bilberries which pepper the ground providing a refreshing snack.

Kuussuup GlacierKuussuup GlacierLate summer flowers on the slopes of Middle Land

Eventually the ground levels and we make good speed over the tundra which is so bouncy with lichen and moss it is as if we are walking on miles of mattress. We now pass a series of lakes, one of which is sited in a boggy amphitheatre that offers good protection from the wind and which has a perfectly dry level patch close to plenty of dried wood for our stove. A perfect place to set up camp.

We sit in the open tent sipping the Brennivín we have brought from Iceland, watching the sun slip behind the nearby mountains which are unexpectedly beautiful set against a magnificent sky in shades of russet, orange, pink and chalky mauve. The scene has all the exuberance and vitality of an Impressionist masterpiece. As twilight sets in (it does not get really dark here yet), we retire to our sleeping bags with our freeze dried dinners to escape the chill breeze blowing off the nearby lake. Tomorrow we have just a short 1.5 km walk to a viewpoint overlooking the Qooqqup Glacier. However, the maps available for Greenland are pretty poor and the colour graded trekking tracks indicated on them do not always reflect the topography, or the difficulty on the ground, and I've grown used to nothing being 'easy' in Greenland...  Technicolor sunsetTechnicolor sunsetThe spectacular sunset from our wild camp

It’s another glorious sunny day and following a quick breakfast, we leave our tent for the short hike to the viewpoint. A gentle climb uphill behind our camp takes us onto a ridge which we follow for a few hundred metres before descending towards a large lake glinting in the strong sunlight. We now face our first obstacle in the form of a 75 metre deep ravine with near vertical walls and a river that runs into the lake. We are making a right meal out of this and after much time wasting we manage to descend from the ridge into the ravine via a steep gully. We are then able to cross the river and pick up a path of sorts on the other side which gradually climbs towards the viewpoint. 

Wild camping in Middle Land, NarsarsuaqWild camping in Middle Land, NarsarsuaqWe found a perfect camping spot close to a lake

The ground hereabouts becomes a contorted mass of rock riven by small gullies dotted with metallic green pools which isn't really depicted on the map. Under an oppressive sun we pick our way slowly over obstacle after obstacle until we arrive at the foot of a scree slope beneath a 100 metre high rocky knoll. The viewpoint is at its summit. Our hearts sink. It’s an impenetrable fortress of sheer cliffs and crumbly outcrops which disintegrate the moment we place our hands on the rock. Not to be defeated after making it this far, Martin sets off to explore another way up. Unable to remain in one place for too long due to the swarms of midges and mosquitoes that have made an unwelcome appearance, I ramble amid the rocks, disturbing a lone ptarmigan. I don’t know which of us is more startled! It rises on whirring wings, letting out a visceral ‘ker-ker-ker’ cry which shatters the silence.

Lake below the glacier viewpointLake below the glacier viewpointThe lake has something of a Mediterranean feel to it

Martin suddenly bellows to me triumphantly from atop a ledge halfway up the western side of the knoll. He’s found a route. He directs me to climb up a precarious rock face followed by a scramble onto a sloping ledge thick with vegetation. From here its an easy stroll to the top of the knoll where a spectacular vista of the glacier, until now hidden from view, is finally revealed. Staring into the brilliant sunshine, I blink at the sight of the gnarled and shattered nose of the mighty glacier. It has completely choked the Qooqqut Fjord with a stream of icebergs, thousands of them, from the size of a suitcase to miniature floating islands, white and porcelain-smooth, or crinkled, cracked and tinted turquoise, complete with hillocks, gullies, cliffs and tiny waterfalls. This geological ejecta continues right to the end of the fjord, which appears to be only 3-4 km away but is in reality over 15 km. The Arctic air is so clear it makes it impossible to judge distances. Every so often the ice creaks and groans as it continues its inexorable journey towards the sea.

Qooqqup GlacierQooqqup GlacierA steam of icebergs calved from the Qooqqup Glacier choke the Qooqqut Fjord

Qooqqup GlacierQooqqup GlacierThe incredible view of the nose of the glacier was well worth the scramble up to the viewpoint

I could sit here forever taking in this stupendous geological spectacle, but we’re being bitten alive by armies of midges and mosquitoes which are doing battle with us like a horde of ferocious Orcs! Safely down from the rocky knoll, we make for our tent, finding a far easier route that takes us along a narrow beach on the SW side of the large lake which had been impossible to see on descent. The lake has something of a Mediterranean feel to it, its clear waters tinged aquamarine and turquoise, the arc of its pebble strewn shore glowing golden in the midday sunlight. We sit on the small beach fringed with cerise pink fireweed, splashing our faces with the cool lake water and listening to the melodic tinkle of minute waves rippling ashore. Eventually the insects make it impossible to remain any longer, and a far gentler climb up from the lake brings us onto the ridge above our camp. 

Chilling by a glacial lakeChilling by a glacial lakeThis scene looks picture postcard perfect until you look closely: there are scores of midges and mosquitoes!

After a quick lunch we break camp under a sky that is beginning to cloud over and the atmosphere turns oppressive. It's as if the Dark Lord of Mordor has cast his malevolent shadow across Middle Land and the intense silence becomes quite unnerving. Dark cloud rumbles around the snow streaked peaks of the mountains across the Kuussuup Glacier; the gray of rock and sky become deeper, more profound, and the white of the glacier is almost incandescent. The weather is changing and I sense the onset of winter.

View of the Kuussuup Glacier from Middle LandView of the Kuussuup Glacier from Middle LandThe weather is changing and the onset of winter draws near

At the top of the falls, we see great shards of sunlight radiating through gaps in the cloud down over Blomstersdalen causing the serpentine coils of the Kuusuaq River to gleam with an unreal lucidity. We make rapid progress down the pathway by the falls and are soon winding our way along the track above the river. We cast long shadows upon the ground in the late afternoon sun which shines straight into Blomstersdalen, making the rock of the steep cliff face we have just traversed glow like the walls of a gilded temple.

BlomersdalenBlomersdalenThe 'Flower Valley' with the tongue of Kuussuup Glacier just visible between the rocks where it turns into the Kuusuaq River. It is a so-called ‘dead glacier’ which melts before reaching the sea

The walk back to the Narsarsuaq Hotel along the stony track and then the tarmac road feels endless and my feet protest bitterly against the hard terrain. After what seems like an eternity we finally reach the outskirts of Narsarsuaq, as still and silent as a ghost town, its buildings bathed in the golden tones of the sinking sun. Glowing specks of candlelight illuminate the windows of the hotel's restaurant, and, like a moth to a naked flame, I'm instantly drawn to them. Famished, I salivate with anticipation at tucking into the musk ox steak that is sizzling on the restaurant grill and satiate my thirst with a cool pint of silky black Qaleralik, my favourite Greenlandic craft ale. Our two day 27 km trek to Middle Land to see the Qooqqup Glacier and back again has been like a journey straight from the pages of a Tolkien novel, one brim full of adventure through an epic and forbidding landscape which almost defies description. For gazing at the nose of the glacier was like staring straight into the Eye of Sauron; it is a sight that will remain indelibly etched in my mind's eye.

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eramaptec@gmail.com (Purple Peak Adventures) Arctic Greenland North America glacier trekking wild camping wilderness http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2015/10/the-journey-to-middle-land-narsarsuaq-greenland-or-there-and-back-again Sun, 11 Oct 2015 20:15:00 GMT
The Stuff of Sagas: Trekking Erik the Red’s Land, Greenland http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2015/10/the-stuff-of-sagas-wilderness-trekking-in-erik-the-red-s-land-greenland Sunset over the Greenland ice capSunset over the Greenland ice capThe amazing view from our second camp

 

The Vanished World of the Vikings

The boat that had carried us the short hop across the icy turquoise waters from Narsarsuaq recedes across the fjord leaving a faint white wake as it weaves its way amid huge icebergs. It’s so quiet, the sound of its engine humming like an angry hornet takes ages to fade. We have alighted at the sleepy sheep farming community of Qassiarsuk to begin a six day trek across a peninsula called Erik the Red’s Land to the fishing port of Narsaq at its tip.

But before we set out, we discover why this peninsula has such an unusual name. A nearby sign mentions ‘Ruiner’ which refer to some of the most interesting and important Norse remains in Greenland. Qassiarsuk is close to the late 10th century farmstead, Brattahlíð, which is mentioned in the Eiríks saga rauða (Saga of Erik the Red). Supposedly founded by Erik the Red who was banished from Iceland for murder, Brattahlíð is the first Viking settlement in Greenland and the first to be established on the North American continent by Europeans. The Vikings thrived in Greenland for some five centuries before mysteriously disappearing. The disappearance of settlements such as Brattahlíð toward the end of the 15th century puzzles historians, but was likely the result of a combination of climate change due to the Little Ice Age, Inuit expansion, the loss of trade in furs and walrus tusks with Europe, and competition from the Hanseatic League.

Memorial to Erik the RedMemorial to Erik the RedErik the Red, banished from Iceland for murder, founded the Viking settlement of Brattahlíð

Several nineteenth and twentieth century archaeological excavations at Brattahlíð uncovered the foundations of late-medieval buildings, including a church with a rectangular churchyard containing human remains, and a well preserved long house. But in 1961, during the building of a school hostel around 200 metres away from the excavated church, several human skulls were unearthed. The following year five excavations took place which revealed a small church with a stone floor and thin wooden walls banked by layers of turf. Around it was a circular churchyard containing 150 interments.

According to the Eiríks saga rauða his son, Leif the Lucky, introduced Christianity to Greenland around the year 1000 by order of the Norwegian king, Olav Tryggvason. Erik did not renounce paganism for Christianity, but his wife Thojdhild did. She built a small church sited some distance from Erik’s farmstead so as not to antagonise him, which is mentioned in the Eiríks saga rauða. It probably served as the burial place for the earliest colonists before the larger church that had previously been excavated was built nearby. Around 1,000 years later, Thojdhild’s tiny church once more came to light.

Leif the LuckyLeif the LuckyErik the Red's son, Leif, discovered Vinland in North America

In 2000, to celebrate the millennium of Norse settlement in Greenland, the Icelandic government funded a reconstruction of a Viking long house and Thojdhild’s Church, complete with period furnishings. For 50 kroner you can join a guided tour of these fascinating buildings. There’s also a prominently placed statue of Erik’s son, Leif, not far from Qassiarsuk's jetty. Leif was allegedly the first European to cross the North Atlantic and discover the Americas, a region he named Vinland. It’s therefore not hard to see why the Narsaq Peninsula has been named Erik the Red’s Land in the Norseman’s honour, and the ‘ruins’ and reconstructions are worth an hour of anyone’s time before setting off along the unsealed road towards the sheep farming community of Sillisit some 14 km away.

Thojdhild’s ChurchThojdhild’s ChurchErik the Red's wife, Thojdhild, built the first church at Brattahlíð. This is a reconstruction of it

Our feet kick up clouds of rust-red dust as we climb up a rough track that runs through areas of scrubby grass. Below, the Crayola-coloured houses of Qassiarsuk hug the shoreline of the turquoise fjord. It’s harvest time and grass in Greenland is so precious as winter animal fodder that it has been mown round natural obstacles such as large boulders and rocky knolls. Much of it is lying in felled lines on the ground, or has been turned into silage bales enclosed in white plastic. We are surprised at how parched the landscape is and local farmers are bemoaning the weather. Now mid-August, it’s been hot since June with little rain after a brutally cold winter, and crop yields are down 20 per cent on last year. Agriculture here is marginal at the best of times and this long spell of dry weather is little short of a disaster.

Tiny blue gentian flowers dot the scrubby grass and the haunting cries of white-tailed sea eagles, which put on a stunning aerial display, accompany us as we climb high above the fjord. The turquoise water is peppered with icebergs. A couple of farmers heading to and from the farmsteads near Sillisit pass by us in jeeps with friendly waves, but we see no one else. A long, undulating trackway now takes us down towards the fjord where we get close up views of masses of jagged icebergs which are stranded on submerged glacial moraine. Clustered at the entrance to the Qooqqut Fjord, they have been calved from the Qooqqup Glacier some 15 km away. We tarry awhile at the shoreline where a huge shelf of gleaming grey granite riven by a deep black dyke slips into the crystal clear water. Every so often the air is rent with a sound like a musket shot, as ice splits and shears away from the huge glaciers a kilometre so so out in the fjord, each creating a mini tsunami.

Track above QassiarsukTrack above QassiarsukThis route connects Qassiarsuk with the sheep farms at Sillisit

A steep, dusty track climbs away from the shoreline to a small headland situated just before the farming community of Issormiut which lies a few kilometres from Sillisit. Seeing that this offers grandstand views down into the Tunulliarfik Fjord we decide to set up camp. We gather armfuls of tinder dry, sun bleached branches of juniper, birch and willow which are plentiful. In Greenland there is no ban on lighting fires in the wilderness. Our lightweight titanium Honey stove is a godsend, as the presence of abundant dead wood allows us to heat water without the need to carry much liquid fuel. I watch as orange flames lick around the pencil sized pieces of wood, sending forth aromatic clouds of pale blue smoke.

There is something about fire that awakens the primordial in us. Source of light, heat, protection and means of cooking our food, fire is one of the fundamental things which makes us human. From the very first spark ever struck, all the way down to the coal-fired machinery of the industrial revolution which catapulted us into the modern technological age; from the first simple languages uttered round a campfire, to the culture that now enriches our lives, fire has been pivotal in human evolution and development.

Tea Up!Tea Up!The titanium Honey Stove is a very useful piece of kit when wilderness trekking

But ominous looking grey cloud boiling about the summit of Illerfissalik across the fjord puts paid to our intended campfire. Large raindrops fall like lead shot as the wind begins to gust. Safely inside our tent cocooned deep within our warm and cosy sleeping bags by the time the full force of the storm hits, we listen to the rain lashing against the canvas which is being buffeted noisily by the wind.

 

Of Scarps and Sheep

The rain of the night has long abated and I poke my head out of the tent to an unclouded periwinkle-blue sky above a landscape flooded with brilliant sunshine. Last night’s wind has scattered the icebergs in the fjord; many smaller ones have been beached on the pebbly shore below our camp while the larger ones have been pushed up the Tunulliarfik Fjord towards Narsarsuaq.

The air is clean and fresh as we begin the descent along the unmade road down to the small farming community of Issormiut, comprised of a couple of wooden farmhouses, a small jetty and two large sheep sheds, one of which is disused. Rows of newly cut grass lying in a large meadow scent the air, but apart from one sheep dog lying in the dirt which rises silently to its feet and eyes us keenly as we pass by on the stony track, the place seems deserted.

IssormiutIssormiutA small sheep farming settlement

Ahead I can see the faint outline of a mast standing proud of a prominent escarpment with columns of basalt sitting atop beds of sandstone like a thick pie crust. The route apparently passes to the right of the mast which looks a long way off and involves an ascent of over 700 metres. Below we can see the brightly painted farm houses of the small community of Sillisit. Upon approaching the settlement, it is unclear where the route goes. The road passes into a field in front of a property with a large tractor outside, but we are leery of opening the gate as the field contains a horse and a dog sleeping in the dust near the house. A child’s swing emits a periodic metallic squeak as it moves in the wind, breaking the somewhat unnerving silence. There isn’t a soul around to ask for directions, so we thread our way along a thin strip of land beyond the field above a pebbly beach, clambering over another makeshift fence into a neighbouring field where items of rusting farm machinery lurk in the long grass. We eventually rejoin the road at the other side of the settlement. I wonder where all the people are? There is no sign of anyone in the fields where huge bales of silage gleaming in the Arctic sun stand proud of the mown landscape.

SillisitSillisitThis small sheep farming settlement is the last signs of habitation until we reach Narsaq

The road now climbs steeply and becomes very rough underfoot before it peters out. Huge globular heads of angelica rise above the rest of the herbage at the side of the track. The day is hot and oppressive as white wispy cloud begins to stealthily cover the sky. We pause for lunch by a lake before climbing ever upwards over a series of small, rugged plateaus peppered with lakes where sheep roam in their scores. Huge leathery mushrooms dot the ground and scrubby bilberry bushes abound. Eventually the terrain steepens as we approach the final wall of basalt that will take us to the very top of the escarpment where we intend to camp. Fortunately a well defined sheep track appears which provides an easy ascent past patches of dirty snow, while ever-improving views of the inland ice sheet and its glaciers that have unleashed a gigantic flotsam and jetsam of ice into the turquoise fjords, open before us.

Atop the escarpment we select a camp site near a lake with grandstand views of the ice cap and the Sermiat Glacier spreading down towards the sea like a frigid finger. We eat dinner in our open tent, watching the sky grow salmon pink behind the ice cap as the sun sets over the high ground behind us. The mercury quickly plummets, the night chill sending us scurrying into our sleeping bags.

Glaciers and the Greenland ice capGlaciers and the Greenland ice capThe view from our tent

 

The Plateau of a Hundred Lakes

It’s another glorious day as I poke my head out of our tent, my nostrils assailed by the smell of wood smoke mingled with bog. I stroll down to the lake to sip my coffee on a ledge of rock overlooking it. The surface of the water is mirror flat and is such a deep blue, it looks as if it has swallowed the entire sky. I might believe that we are the only two people left in the world, were it not for the regular grating roar of jets en route to and from North America which shatter the silent spell. Even in the remotest parts of Greenland it’s impossible to truly escape the modern world.

We break camp striding out over wiry grass and paper dry green and black lichen interspersed with ankle high dwarf willow, crowberry and bilberry. Ahead we can finally see the snow streaked Ilímaussaq Mountains that we will pass through before we reach Narsaq. After yesterday’s long slog up from Sillisit, the passage across the plateau is pleasant. The mid-morning reflections of snow-capped Illerfissalik and neighbouring mountains across the Tunulliarfik Fjord reflected in a pan flat lake are truly enchanting. Cotton grass sways languidly above patches of sphagnum moss as soft as a cushion, and small sugar pink flowers peek out from amid the pale green foliage of dwarf willow.

Alpine gentianAlpine gentianThe flowers open up only in full sun and close even with overcast conditions

Passing by a cluster of lakes, we begin to drop down off the plateau making for the bottom of a broad valley. This leads down to the small settlement of Ipiutaq on the shore of Tunulliarfik Fjord. According to our map, the emergency hut is situated almost straight ahead of us across a river which we can see glinting in the sunlight. Try as we might, we can’t see the hut which is camouflaged against the landscape. The river does not look very far, but a combination of the clear Arctic air which makes landmarks appear deceptively close, and the undulating landscape which entails continual climbing up and down over rocky knolls and outcrops, means it is several kilometres further than it looks.

We cross numerous small streams conveying snow melt from higher ground, stopping often to splash our faces with the cool, refreshing water. One stream has carved a tunnel through a patch of deep compacted snow stubbornly clinging to the shady side of a rocky outcrop. The scallop-shaped walls and roof of the snow tunnel are tinged turquoise and I can’t resist climbing inside to see the shimmering reflections cast onto the roof by the water flowing through it.

Snow tunnelSnow tunnelThe scallop-shaped walls and roof are tinged turquoise

We finally spot the square outline of the hut perched on a hillock above the river. As we draw nearer we can hear the water roaring over rocks and boulders and instinctively know that this will be a boots-off crossing! The river is knee deep and fast flowing where it has formed channels around boulders, and we look for a place where it is shallow enough to cross safely. Donning our plastic Crocs and with boots hanging round our necks, we enter the icy water, threading our way around and over boulders to the opposite bank. From here it’s about 100 metres to the hut. Made of plywood painted a shade of rust that the brutal Arctic winters have weathered away leaving it distinctly piebald in places, it has a sloping flat roof with a door and a single square window. For some strange reason it is numbered 1366, not that anyone would be likely to deliver mail here! Propped up outside is a ram’s skull with an enormous pair of curved horns. A macabre welcome indeed!

Macabre welcome!Macabre welcome!This ram's skull is propped up outside the hut

Inside its musty interior we are greeted by a plywood sleeping platform and a bare earthen floor, damp from water that has seeped under the walls. Below the sleeping platform, a faded tent caked in mud lies abandoned and a pile of beer cans and rusting sardine tins have been discarded in a corner. There isn’t even a candle, a box of matches or any wood left here for emergency purposes and the sleeping platform is filthy. This emergency hut is obviously not well maintained and we debate whether to erect the tent rather than sleep in such unpleasant surroundings. After much discussion and prevaricating we make the fateful decision to stay in the hut.

Emergency hutEmergency hutWe spent a barely tolerable night here!

I can’t remember passing a more uncomfortable night in a hut anywhere in the world. The smooth plywood sleeping platform has a slight slope and there isn’t sufficient friction to prevent my sleeping mat from continually slipping downwards. Despite barely moving a muscle, my mat keeps dangling off the platform. I sleep fitfully and can’t wait for the morning to come so we can leave this wretched hovel!

 

Onward and Upward

It’s another glorious day with hardly a breath of wind, but the odd mosquito is already about making repellent a must. Following breakfast we break camp heading uphill to a rocky ramp that we will use to contour around the mountain opposite. The hut from hell receding from view gives me a smug sense of satisfaction, but the smile is soon wiped off my face as we run into thickets of waist high dwarf willow that we have to bushwhack through. This is tedious to say the least, and the humidity makes the going tough. A sudden thrashing and whirl of brown and white feathers signals a startled ptarmigan which darts across our path on to some nearby rocks. We soon spy two more and give chase to try and capture them on video. But they’re far faster than us over this unforgiving terrain and we soon give up!

The willow finally gives way to a rocky track way so narrow it seems to have been made by a one legged sheep. This wends its way around the side of the mountain, and we make good speed at last. Panoramic views of Nunasarnaq Mountain and Tunulliarfik Fjord now open before us and we spot numerous wildflowers, including buttercups, hawkweed, cinquefoil and the rare white gentian. A gentle ascent from a boggy bowl brings us onto another plateau. We soon pass a solitary cairn of basalt stone. The terrain hereabouts, comprised mainly of wiry grass and desiccated lichen with patches of crowberry and bilberry, makes for much easier trekking. The few river crossings we have to negotiate are easy as the torrent of the early summer snow-melt has long dried up. We stop for a leisurely lunch above a lake fed by a small waterfall, its musical cadence the only sound save for the occasional chirping of meadow pipits and lapwing buntings.

The next part of the route begins to climb towards higher ground. Fabulous views of the distinctive Killavaat Mountain Range which we had admired from helicopter en route to Narsarsuaq a few days ago, come into view. Killavaat means ‘the Comb’ in Greenlandic, and the line of crested granite peaks do indeed resemble the teeth of a comb. After a couple of hours we meet a river fed by snow on the high mountains to the north. It cascades swiftly down over the Gardar lava and is crystal clear. We stop by a series of picturesque waterfalls, enjoying the cooling effect of the rushing water which provides a very refreshing drink. Ahead of us we have a long steep climb to a lake around the 700 metre mark where we intend to camp tonight.

Refreshing fallsRefreshing fallsWater flowing over Gardar lava which has created a series of beautiful waterfalls

Bright pink patches of fireweed and other vegetation peters out as we commence our ascent. Sheep tracks now seem to be non-existent, so we pick our way tentatively around numerous boulders and up over shelves of rock. The views down into the valley we have just crossed are stupendous. After what seems like an eternity, the gradient begins to ease and we contour around a shelf of rock above a small stream that passes through a pronounced gap in the mountainside that is indicated on our map. Beyond should be the lake we are aiming to camp by.

Before long we spy the snow encrusted eastern shore of the lake which lies still and mysterious in the shadow of the mountain beyond. By now it’s 'Brennivín time' and our shadows lie long across the ground as we climb away from the boulder-strewn lake shore seeking a suitable place to pitch our tent. We soon find an absolutely perfect spot on a flat grassy ledge below a rocky outcrop that provides plenty of shelter, and a grandstand view down over the lake and the snow covered col that we will climb tomorrow morning. Outside the tent we eat our dinner and are sipping Brennivín when the golden orb of the sun slips down behind the peaks of the Ilímaussaq Mountains. Martin is eagerly awaiting our traverse of this area which promises to be a geological Shangri-La!

 

Walking in a Geological Wonderland

We are treated to a stunning tangerine orange sky at dawn before the rising sun erupts over the mountain peaks across the Tunulliarfik Fjord bathing the landscape in a golden glow. I’m sorry to leave such a perfect camping spot, but we have a long way to trek today through the Ilímaussaq Mountains to the Kvanefjeld Valley on the other side.

View over the lakeView over the lakeThe col leading to the highest point on the trek at the far end of the lake

Deep patches of snow cling stubbornly to the ground in the col making the going far easier as we don’t have to traverse the angular boulders beneath. There are no signs that anyone has come this way this summer; we are the first. The top of the col is still deep with compacted snow. Beyond, the landscape changes abruptly as the route enters a high mountainous area almost devoid of vegetation. This is the Ilímaussaq igneous complex – a series of rare intrusive igneous rocks - which once formed the cores of volcanoes resulting from continental rifting (much like the present day Eastern African Rift), and which have been exposed by subsequent erosion. The deep cores of volcanoes are rarely seen in the world and the Ilímaussaq complex is considered the best example.

Climbing up the colClimbing up the colThe snow made the going easier than walking over boulders and scree

Jumping for joyJumping for joySometimes life is just soooo good!

For a geologist like Martin this is a true wonderland, as it contains scores of exciting and unusual rock types and minerals. But it’s also of great economic interest, as uranium ores and several rare earth elements (REE) are present in economically viable quantities in some areas. At Kvanefjeld in the northwestern part of the Ilímaussaq complex, a deposit containing uranium and thorium in lujavrites was discovered in 1956 and subsequently investigated by drilling programmes. An exploratory mine was dug in the late-1970s’s, but was abandoned shortly after when Denmark (the colonial power) decided against utilising nuclear energy. Greenland had a zero tolerance policy towards uranium mining for some 25 years, but a fiscal shortfall and its struggling economy saw this policy recently overturned. The issue has split Greenlandic society. On the one hand there are those who wish to promote mining and oil exploration in order to bring large profits to stimulate the country’s sluggish economy which is deeply dependent on fisheries and tourism, which might pave the way to eventual independence from Denmark. They are pitted against those who do not want possible contamination and landscape degradation from the mining of toxic minerals in the pristine Arctic environment, and a large and potentially destabilising influx of foreign workers.

Although all major political parties in Greenland support the development of a mining industry, the two main parties remain divided on the issue of uranium mining, with the leftist opposition party, Inuit Ataqatigiit, the main voice of those who say naamik (no) to uranium mining on environmental grounds. The current government is facing some difficult decisions. Some MPs are pushing for Southern Greenland to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site entitled Church ruin at Hvalsø, episcopal residence at Gardar, and Brattahlíð (A Norse/Eskimo cultural landscape) for its 1,000 years of agriculture dating back to the time of Erik the Red. But mining would preclude that designation. Large areas around Narsaq and Qaqortoq were included in the World Heritage Site bid, which unleashed protests from interested parties because the Raw Materials Directorate had already issued numerous drilling licences within those areas. Now the government is proposing that only five small ‘islands’ be included as a potential World Heritage Site to avoid conflict with the mining companies and other interested parties. One thing’s for sure – if the mining goes ahead, it will surely signal an end to trekking across Erik the Red's Land.

The descent from the col over compacted snow then patchy grass-covered scree is very steep. The nearby bare mountain slopes of Nakaalaaq contain rich shades of calamine-pink and steel-grey which contrast with the deep blue sky. Way off in the distance we can see the ridge we have to cross over to descend into a broad valley containing Lake Taseq above the Kvanefjeld Valley. To reach it we must contour round the head of the valley below Nakaalaaq, crossing a small river tumbling down from the mountain, and then ascend a steep scree covered slope. The sun beats down mercilessly and the heat radiates back off the bare rock making the slog up the scree slope very tiring indeed. We stop from time to time for Martin to examine rocks looking for the semi-precious, very rare, pink coloured mineral tugtupite. No luck with the tugtupite, but he finds good samples of augite, eudialyte and steenstrupine which disappear into his rucksack!

Ilímaussaq igneous complexIlímaussaq igneous complexThe beginning of a geological wonderland

Atop the ridge the views down towards Tunulliarfik Fjord and the inlet below Nunasarnaq Mountain, apparently a great place to catch Arctic char, are spectacular. The fjord dotted with gleaming white icebergs is the most vivid shade of aquamarine imaginable, beyond which the comb-shaped granite peaks of Killavaat rise majestically into a speedwell-blue sky. To the left, the snow-capped peaks of scores of smoky blue mountains retreat into the distance. We dump our packs and recline on a shelf of rock to savour the sheer beauty of southern Greenland.

A view to die forA view to die forTunulliarfik Fjord and the inlet below Nunasarnaq Mountain

The steep descent from the ridge into the Lake Taseq valley takes longer than anticipated due to the brutal nature of the terrain. We have to traverse several ravines, scramble over jagged boulders and contour loose scree above sheer drops. Mentally and physically fatigued, we pause for lunch in a ravine where a river roars out of a snow tunnel. The water is so cold it makes my head ache when I drink it! 

With some relief we arrive on the gently sloping ground above two metallic green-coloured lakes above Lake Taseq. A series of cairns with red and white circular markings suddenly make an appearance as we head for Lake Taseq which occupies most of the bottom of the valley and is hemmed in by mountains on three sides. A river leads out of the far western end of the lake which the map shows flowing over a waterfall in a branch of the Narsaq Valley. The route does not take us near the falls, but round the lake's northern shoreline across patches of sly bog where deep purple butterwort dance on slender stems.

The lake is the largest we have encountered, about 2.5 km long, and is marked on the map as the reservoir for the town of Narsaq. As a result no camping is permitted in its vicinity, not that this matters as I do not see one suitable camping spot because the ground sloping down to the shore is littered with boulders and stones. If mining goes ahead at nearby Kvanefjeld, the waste materials left behind after flotation will be dewatered and stored in a tailings facility here, meaning this beautiful lake will be turned into a dump site. It’s hardly surprisingly that many local people are opposed to the uranium mine. It will totally and irretrievably alter the magnificent environment on their very doorstep.

Lake TaseqLake TaseqIf mining goes ahead, this lake could become a tailings dam

A short ascent up a bank of moraine near the western end of the lake brings us to a ridge overlooking the Kvanefjeld Valley. There is no discernible trail, the descent is hideously steep in places, and we have to cross several patches of compacted, treacherous snow. By now I’m feeling very tired and my left hip joint is beginning to throb due to the weight of my rucksack. Today has undoubtedly been the toughest of the trek and I’m mightily relieved when we finally decide to stop and make camp for the night. We find a flattish pitch close to a small stream of water that is fed by snow melt. It’s not a good idea to drink from a spring or seepage in this area due to the high levels of fluorine in the water emanating from the underlying bedrock.

Alpine conditions!Alpine conditions!Another steep snow slope, just traversable without crampons

Some 400 m away from our campsite is the Narsaq River. Across from this we can see a zig-zag road leading up to the abandoned Kvanefjeld uranium mine, betrayed by plumes of spoil that spill down the hillside. Near the start of the mine road are a series of black mineral piles which Martin is itching to inspect! From the porch of our tent we have a stunning view of the Narsaq Bay stuffed full of icebergs. Purple harebells nod in the gentle evening breeze as we eat our dinner and sip the last of our Brennivín, watching the setting sun turn the sky above the bay apricot, salmon pink and finally chalky mauve. Martin convinces me that tomorrow he will find a specimen of tugtupite at the mine. I hope he makes his discovery quickly as I do not relish the thought of spending all day fossicking for minerals!!

Camp in the Kvanefjeld ValleyCamp in the Kvanefjeld ValleyGrandstand views over Narsaq Bay from this, our final camp

 

Searching for 'Reindeer Blood'

Martin is a man on a mission today and there is a sense of purpose in his actions. I’d like to think it’s because it’s the last day of the trek and he’s looking forward to returning to civilisation, but I know it’s really all about his eagerness to get up to the mine!! We break camp for the last time, heading downhill towards the river. Swiftly flowing and deep, this could prove to be a real challenge to cross but fortunately we find a dilapidated plywood bridge where the river is braided. This traverses the main river channel, and we carefully make our way over some slimy rocks in a side channel to reach it.

Having shed my 18 kilo rucksack, I feel like I’m floating on air as we make the 200 metre ascent up to the mine entrance. The 1.5 km road, disused for almost 40 years, is in poor condition having been washed out in places which has left deep channels, although a 4X4 would still be able to drive it. As we ascend, a view of the Narsaq glacier between the Ilímaussaq and Nakkaalaaq Mountains comes into view. This glacier, like many others in Greenland, is retreating at a very fast rate. In a couple of decades it will no longer exist.

After 20 minutes, we arrive at the entrance to the 970 metre long adit that has been driven through the central part of the Kvanefjeld deposit and which is sited some 100-150 metres below the surface of the plateau above. Unsurprisingly, the entrance has been blocked up and the metal door in the centre welded shut to prevent people accessing the workings and being exposed to harmful levels of radioactive air.

Kvanefjeld Uranium Mine EntranceKvanefjeld Uranium Mine EntranceThere are plans to reopen this mine

On our return to the valley floor we head across to where approximately 15,000 tons of ore has been placed in a series of piles for shipment to Denmark. It never left the site after the country decided against the use of nuclear power. The piles of black ore bear all the hallmarks of being avidly picked over by mineral collectors seeking tugtupite and other specimens. Martin explains that the black rock is lujavrite which is composed mostly of black arfvedsonite amphibole. It also contains crystals of the mineral steenstrupine - a sodium silicate mineral which contains trace uranium, thorium and caesium. It also contains several REE which is why the license for the Kvanefjeld deposit is currently held by Australian mining company, Greenland Minerals and Energy Ltd. (GMEL), which, in collaboration with a Chinese company, wants to recommence mining here.

The valley is eerily quiet, the only sound the rushing river and Martin chucking rocks about nearby. Suddenly my eye alights on a rose pink shade amid some black and grey crystals. I stroll over to Martin and show him. He casts me a sheepish look and mumbles, ‘well it might be tugtupite I suppose’, to which I let out a celebratory ‘yeah’ and punch the air with my fist. He does not look amused and spends the next 15 minutes ardently searching, before he has his own eureka moment!!

Ore piles at Kvanefjeld Uranium MineOre piles at Kvanefjeld Uranium MineMartin looking for the rare mineral, tugtupite

Tugtupite was first discovered in 1962 at Tugtup agtakôrfia and is derived from the Inuit word tuttu (reindeer) meaning ‘reindeer blood’. This predominantly pink coloured mineral is extremely rare worldwide, being confirmed in two other locations in Quebec and Russia, and is therefore sought after by mineral and gemstone collectors. It is often polished and fashioned into items of jewellery, and is an interesting feature of the local economy. Our specimens aren’t fabulous, but we are contented with our finds as we set off down the dusty dirt road towards Narsaq Bay.

The dirt track runs parallel to the Narsaq River and slowly descends 300 metres back to sea level. It makes for monotonous, if far easier walking. We finally get a view of the falls at the end of Lake Tarsaq and the first signs of civilisation appear in the form of fences, mown fields and weatherboard farmhouses and sheds. We cross a rickety metal bridge over the Narsaq River which has obviously been patched up several times after being washed away in floods, and soon reach the coast where carpets of mauve harebells frame stupendous views of the bay crammed full of turquoise and white icebergs.

The road to civilsationThe road to civilsationSmall sheep farms outside Narsaq

The pungent smell of sea and seaweed assails my nostrils and a refreshing breeze blows in off the bay where flocks of seagulls shriek nosily above the icebergs. Several of these have beached and warrant closer inspection. One melting rapidly is almost as tall as me and mushroom-shaped, created by the action of water as it bobbed about at sea. Every so often a noise like a musket shot echoes round the bay as an iceberg calves.

Bergs in the bay!Bergs in the bay!Beached icebergs dot the shoreline of Narsaq Bay

Icebergs in Narsaq BayIcebergs in Narsaq BayEvery so often a noise like a musket shot echoes round the bay as an iceberg calves

A fishing settlement of just over 1,500 inhabitants, Narsaq is situated on a plain at the foot of a 685 metre mountain named Qaqqarsuaq which towers over the colourful weatherboard buildings which look like the spilled contents of a box of Quality Street. It’s a great feeling to hit a tarmac road after slogging over some of the roughest terrain imaginable!

The Narsaq Hotel is a mustard-yellow building with the flags of Greenland, Demark and Iceland fluttering outside. We get a spacious room in their hostel overlooking the harbour. The following day we catch a ferry back up the picturesque Tunulliarfik Fjord to Narsarsuaq which is the perfect end to a fabulous trip. From the water we have the opportunity to spot some of the landmarks we had trekked over and past during the last week whilst passing icebergs as big as a house.

Iceberg in Tunulliarfik FjordIceberg in Tunulliarfik FjordSome of the icebergs we saw from the boat were as big as houses

Although by no means easy, this 6-day 70 km route rewards trekkers with fascinating history, geology and scenery. With the added bonus of being close to the international airport at Narsarsuaq (which keeps the cost of helicopter travel and/or boat transfers down), it is a must for those who wish to experience a truly memorable multi-day trek in a remote part of Greenland.

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eramaptec@gmail.com (Purple Peak Adventures) arctic erik the red greenland north america trekking vikings wild camping wilderness http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2015/10/the-stuff-of-sagas-wilderness-trekking-in-erik-the-red-s-land-greenland Sun, 04 Oct 2015 15:45:00 GMT
Through a Net, Dimly: Wilderness Trekking in Klosterdalen, Tasermiut Fjord, Greenland http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2015/9/through-a-net-dimly-wilderness-trekking-in-klosterdalen-tasermiut-fjord-greenland  

Fire in the Sky, Tasermiut, GreenlandFire in the Sky, Tasermiut, GreenlandKetil catches the dying rays of the sun as seen from our wild camp in the col above Klosterdalen

 

The New Patagonia

It’s early afternoon, late July, when our rib boat glides out of Nanortalik harbour. Located on an island of the same name, the southernmost town in Greenland (population about 1,300), rather worryingly means in Greenlandic, ‘place where polar bears meet’. Our boatman assures us that the chances of spotting a polar bear anywhere in this region is next to zero. So if you fancy a real wilderness experience, in a remote unspoilt region which resembles the landscape of Ireland or Scotland at the end of the last Ice Age, then Greenland could be the place for you.

Rib boat journey up the Tasermiut FjordRib boat journey up the Tasermiut FjordSharron posing in an immersion suit as we power up the Tasermiut Fjord past icebergs in a rib boat

We are zipping over the petrol-blue waters of the frigid Arctic Ocean past icebergs the size of houses, on our way up the Tasermiut Fjord extending inland some 70 km to the edge of the permanent ice sheet that covers the hinterland of this island nation of less than 60,000 souls. Snow-streaked mountains, some around 2,000 metres high, lift their granite heads into a speedwell-blue sky, shimmering waterfalls tumble headlong down vertical rocky walls sculpted by glaciers that have laid bare their geology, and turquoise rivers spill out of surprisingly verdant valleys.

Ulamertorsuaq from Tasermiut FjordUlamertorsuaq from Tasermiut FjordThe iconic chimney shape of Ulamertorsuaq (The Great Cylinder), a 1,858 metre granite monolith first conquered in 1977 and beyond it, Nalumasortoq, a distinctive mountain which looks like an open book

After about two hours we step ashore onto a seaweed strewn beach near the outflow of the Uiluiit Kuua River at the entrance to Klosterdalen, so named as this remote valley was once the site of an Augustinian monastery founded in the tenth century by Norse monks. Above the beach we make camp amid swathes of cerise-pink fireweed and mauve harebells.

Klosterdalen from Tasermiut FjordKlosterdalen from Tasermiut FjordThe entrance to Klosterdalen

The scenery is utterly face slapping: a 360 degree panorama of mountains and glaciers, including the 1.5 km high wall of ice at the end of the fjord and the towering granite monolith of Ketil (2,003 metres), one of the finest big wall climbs in the world. Tasermiut has been dubbed the new Patagonia for good reason. Desiccated wood (juniper, birch and willow) is surprisingly abundant in southern Greenland and there are no restrictions on wild camping or lighting fires in the wilderness. As volleys of sparks from our camp fire ascend into a deepening blue sky, we indulge in a packet of freeze-dried expedition food and toast the start of our adventure with a wee dram of Irish whiskey.

Edge of the Greenland IcecapEdge of the Greenland IcecapThis 1.5 km high wall of ice at the end of Tasermiut Fjord is twice the height of the world's tallest building: the Burj Khalifa in Dubai

Wild Camp in Tasermuit FjordWild Camp in Tasermuit FjordCamping spot above the beach at the entrance to Klosterdalen

Campfire at our first wild camp in KlosterdalenCampfire at our first wild camp in KlosterdalenToasting our forthcoming adventure in the wilderness of Klosterdalen. Little did we know what lay in store for us!

The sun descends lower in the sky, casting a deep rose pink glow over the rugged mountains at the head of Klosterdalen and catches wispy cloud racing up over the face of Ketil marshmallow-pink. Although it is hot and balmy by day, from 15-20 degrees Celsius, as soon as the sun sets, the mercury plummets to near freezing and we beat a hasty retreat to our tent.

Ketil Mountain at the entrance to KlosterdalenKetil Mountain at the entrance to KlosterdalenKetil, a 2,003 metre granite monolith, has a sheer western rock face which has attracted some of the world's top climbers

 

The Blair Witch Forest

Following a chilly night (our 3 season sleeping bags are at their limit) we get our first introduction to the local wildlife as clouds of midges and mosquitoes rise from the ground. Never before have we encountered such dense swarms of these insects, making head nets and repellent an absolute necessity. It is a good idea to treat clothing with an insecticide such as Permethrin beforehand, as the mosquitoes are able to bite right through woollen base layers and lightweight trekking trousers. I have to keep my fleece on to prevent bites which is most uncomfortable in the unexpected heat and humidity.

We break camp around midday, faithfully following the route marked on the 1:100,000 scale Tasermiut Fjorden Nanortalik map by Harvey’s Map Services, Scotland. This map turns out to be worse than useless; the route, clearly marked to the south of the river, leads us almost immediately into virtually impenetrable stands of dwarf birch and willow, most taller than a man. It’s a struggle to remain upright clambering over the gnarled and twisted branches of these trees which spread like malevolent tentacles along the ground. The heat and humidity is stifling in this verdant prison and we are savaged by millions of midges and mosquitoes, attracted by the clouds of carbon dioxide we are panting as we bushwhack our way up through the valley. Amid these trees it’s impossible to see exactly where we’re going and they don’t yield easily as we push our way forward, their spindly upper branches clawing and snatching at us like demonic fingers. Indeed, our struggle through this dwarf forest resembles a scene straight out of The Blair Witch Project!

Bushwhacking through dwarf trees in KlosterdalenBushwhacking through dwarf trees in KlosterdalenBattling through the dense dwarf trees in Klosterdalen is a really demoralising experience!

Finally emerging from this hellish jungle, we encounter a new obstacle. Boot sucking bog. Living in Ireland, we know all about bog, but Klosterdalen bog is in a league of its own! This eventually gives way to squelchy marshland and a couple of lakes, and progress is slow. The map shows the route skirting the southern edge of the first lake, but we encounter numerous small streams too wide to jump, which forces us back into the evil arms of the Blair Witch Forest. I want to cry at this point!

Bog Cotton in KlosterdalenBog Cotton in KlosterdalenBeguilingly beautiful, but the boggy wet terrain is brutal to traverse

After nearly seven hours of bushwhacking, the map shows we have covered a mere 4 km, but over 7 km due to zigzagging through the trees. Exhausted and demoralised, we decide to camp for the night close to where we will cross the Uiluiit Kuua River tomorrow. After a change of clothing, a hot meal and a slug of whiskey, we begin to enjoy our surroundings. We have this chocolate box pretty valley far from civilisation entirely to ourselves. The solitude is astounding. Hemmed in by jagged snow-streaked mountains which seem to be bearing down on our tiny tent, we watch the mesmerising spectacle of the surrounding mountains turning ruby-red as the sun goes down and the first stars wink in the darkening heavens.

Wild Camp beside the Uiluiit Kuua River, KlosterdalenWild Camp beside the Uiluiit Kuua River, KlosterdalenWe have this chocolate box-pretty valley far from civilisation entirely to ourselves

 

River Deep and Mountain High

We awake to what sounds like light rain on the tent. But on unzipping the exterior flaps we see the mountains are draped in veils of grey mist, no rain. The sound is caused by thousands of insects hitting the canvas and we spy the depressing shadows of scores of mosquitoes on the inner tent below the flysheet lined up like jet fighters ready for another day of warfare! Today involves an ascent of 600 metres up a branch valley to a col. But we must first cross the Uiluiit Kuua River. Early in the day the river level is at its lowest and we scan the banks looking for a safe place to cross where the water is not too deep or fast flowing, and where it has not undercut the bank, choosing a 20 metre section with a gravel bank midway across. Unbuckling our rucksacks, removing our boots and socks, rolling up our trousers, donning plastic Crocs and with our boots hanging round our necks, we wade into the chalky-turquoise water. We move as quickly as possible diagonally downstream through the water which is knee deep and swift in places. The intense cold hits us like a sledgehammer and bites into the very marrow of our bones. We’re relieved to splosh safely onto a sandy bank on the other side.

Crossing the Uiluiit Kuua RiverCrossing the Uiluiit Kuua RiverThe river is fed by glaciers and the water in the early morning is lower, but bitterly cold

We then encounter yet more dwarf trees followed by glacial moraine with boulders up to house size interspersed by dense, thigh high vegetation which requires concentration to traverse safely. Reaching the snowline, the vegetation begins to thin and the pestilential swarms of insects subside. Removing our head nets is bliss; we can now eat unfettered and see the immense beauty of the landscape clearly and not through a net, dimly!

View up the col leading to the Tupaassat ValleyView up the col leading to the Tupaassat ValleyThe upper reaches of the boulder strewn col leading from Klosterdalen to the Tupaassat Valley

Ketil rising over KlosterdalenKetil rising over KlosterdalenMartin nearing the top of the col between Klosterdalen and the Tupaassat Valley

After more slow progress through another boulder field with rocks that provide a double whammy - angular and sharp to the touch and also covered with a rough desiccated brown lichen which scuffs our hands - we eventually gain the col. Close to a burbling stream of the purest glacial water, we erect our tent in a spot that has grandstand views overlooking Klosterdalen. The rigours of climbing up here are definitely worth it for this vista which could easily grace the pages of National Geographic.

The shadows are lengthening as we descend a few hundred metres from the col to a deep blue lake at the top of the Tupaassat Valley which is nestled in a barren, rocky amphitheatre surrounded by a line of spiny peaks resembling the armoured plates of a stegosaurus. The winter this year was particularly hard and the lake is still partially frozen with snow metres deep on its shoreline. There are no signs that anyone has traversed this pass this summer. We sit for what seems like an eternity, watching soft white cloud boiling about the mountain tops and sailing across a periwinkle-blue sky.

Head of Tupaassat Valley, GreenlandHead of Tupaassat Valley, Greenland

Back at camp, we marvel at the long shafts of sunlight radiating into Klosterdalen, causing its streams, river, wetland and lakes to shine like liquid mercury.

Klosterdalen, Tasermiut, GreenlandKlosterdalen, Tasermiut, Greenland

By degrees the cloud above Ketil turns smoky-grey and apricot and the western sky where the sun has set screams vermillion, chrome-red and saffron-yellow. Ketil responds by blushing deep-orange and blood-red, before fading through chalky-mauve to steel-grey.

Klosterdalen and Tasermiut Fjord, GreenlandKlosterdalen and Tasermiut Fjord, Greenland

 

Down by the Riverside

From the col it is possible to continue (down the Tupaassat Valley) to sea level, where you could feasibly get a boat to Nanortalik, or to continue up a second col to reach the Qinnquadalen Valley, a route taking several days terminating back in the Tasermiut Fjord. Lacking the time to do a full traverse via Qinnquadalen and obtaining the weather forecast on our DeLorme Inreach two way satellite device alerting us to a föhn wind within the next 48 hours, we retreat to Klosterdalen. It isn’t a good idea to be caught out on the high mountain passes where we would be forced to sit out this strong wind that blows off the ice cap sometimes for around two days. We contact our boatman to collect us at the beach at low tide within 48 hours.

The descent is as tedious as the ascent, particularly so as the temperature has risen to the mid-20s making it extremely humid and the insects are legion! Great care has to be taken traversing the boulder fields to avoid a fall or lower leg injury. The river crossing is even more of a challenge than before, as the water levels are much higher in the afternoon than early morning and my rolled up trousers get soaked. We make camp on a sandy river bank.

The Uiluiit Kuua River in KlosterdalenThe Uiluiit Kuua River in KlosterdalenSharron having just crossed the Uiluiit Kuua River in the afternoon on our journey down from the col seen centre right

Fireweed (Chamerion latifolium) growing in KlosterdalenFireweed (Chamerion latifolium) growing in KlosterdalenThis pretty plant is Greenland's national flower and provides valuable nutrition for the Inuit

The penetrating musty odour of the bog wafts in through the tent flaps along with scores of mosquitoes as we rise the next morning to veils of white mist hovering above the valley floor. It merges with acres of white bog cotton making it almost impossible to see where the two meet. We decide to ditch the Harvey map, finding an easier route along the gravel bank of the Uiluiit Kuua River until our progress is abruptly impeded by a channel leading into it which is too deep and wide to cross. Taking the plunge into the chalky-turquoise water still booted, we meander our way round huge boulders, scramble over rocks and wade through narrow channels. We greatly enjoy this challenge, but it might not be advisable when the river is in spate in early summer.

Trekking by the Uiluiit Kuua River, KlosterdalenTrekking by the Uiluiit Kuua River, KlosterdalenA much easier route along the bank of the Uiluiit Kuua River

Wading through the Uiluiit Kuua River, KlosterdalenWading through the Uiluiit Kuua River, KlosterdalenWading downstream through the Uiluiit Kuua River was far faster, and much more enjoyable, than bushwhacking through dwarf trees!

Around a kilometre later, the terrain begins to drop, the speed of the water increases and the river channel narrows. We are forced to scale a granite outcrop, then descend into dwarf trees and bushwhack around 200 metres to emerge into the scrubland above the beach. Before long, the tell-tale hum of a rib boat breaks the silence and we make our way down to the shore to meet our boatman for the two hour-long ride back to civilisation.

We trekked around 24 km, a distance which could easily be covered in one day in Ireland, but in Greenland, often moving little more than 1 km per hour through brutal trackless terrain with heavy packs, it’s wise to plan for extra days. Are we glad we did this trek? Definitely. For long after the insect bites subside and the bruises sustained by bushwhacking through the vilest vegetation imaginable have faded, the views of endless expanses of shimmering white bog cotton, ice-encrusted lakes, frigid glaciers, rushing turquoise rivers and spiky snow-streaked mountains turning ruby-red in the settling sun, will remain indelibly etched in our memories.

Getting There

We flew from Belfast to Keflavik in Iceland with Easy Jet, and from Reykjavik Airport to Narsarsuaq in Greenland with Air Iceland. To reach Nanortalik in Southern Greenland you must take a helicopter with Air Greenland. Nanortalik to the starting point of the trek up Klosterdalen is around 70 km and is undertaken by rib boat, a journey which can be arranged through the tourist company, Tasermiut South Greenland. Be aware that travelling within Greenland is not cheap. At 2015 prices, a return ticket from Narsarsuaq to Nanortalik by helicopter cost in the region of 400 euro return per person, and the rib boat transfers approximately 750 euro.

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eramaptec@gmail.com (Purple Peak Adventures) arctic greenland north america trekking wild camping wilderness http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2015/9/through-a-net-dimly-wilderness-trekking-in-klosterdalen-tasermiut-fjord-greenland Sun, 13 Sep 2015 15:00:00 GMT
The World's Scariest Hike? El Caminito del Rey, Andalucía, Spain http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2015/6/the-worlds-scariest-hike-el-caminito-del-rey-andaluc-a-spain  

Looking back down the gorgeLooking back down the gorgeThe old Balconcillo de los Gaitanes and aqueduct with the new steel Puente Ignacio Mena behind it Bliss is an evening in the limestone hills of Andalucía, when the heat of the day has ebbed and the landscape is bathed in the rich tones of the sinking sun. It’s mid-May and I’m sitting under a carob tree at a quiet finca in El Chorro northwest of Málaga sipping a bottle of chilled Giatenejo, a divine, locally brewed craft ale. I let my thoughts drift back to the fabulous walk we did earlier as I listen to the incessant chit chat of swifts and sparrows and watch a large group of Griffin vultures slowly circling on thermals above some nearby cliffs. 

This afternoon, we tackled what has been described as the scariest walk in the world: El Caminito del Rey: The King’s Little Pathway. This runs for around three kilometres some 100 metres above the Guadalhorce River in the Desfiladero del los Gaitanes (Gaitanes Gorge) near the village of El Chorro. Finished in 1906, the Caminito was constructed to service a channel and numerous sluice gates connected to the Salto de Chorro hydroelectric plant. Its royal association came when El Chorro Dam was inaugurated by King Alfonso XIII who walked it in 1921. Over the years, the Caminito fell into a state of disrepair and sections of the concrete walkway had fallen away leaving just the iron girders hanging in mid air high above the deep, steep sided gorge. But this didn’t deter those looking for adventure. In fact the walkway attracted thrill seekers, adrenalin junkies and via ferratists, many of whom, ill equipped and inexperienced, risked life and limb to cross from one end of the gorge to the other. Inevitably, there were fatalities and the walkway acquired the somewhat infamous reputation as the world’s scariest hike. In 2000 the local authority closed it to the public and imposed a maximum fine of 6,000 euro on anyone caught tackling it. Not that this acted as much of a deterrent. People still undertook the route clandestinely and a German climber fell to his death as recently as 2010.

However, the regional government of Andalucía and the local government of Málaga saw the tourism potential of the route and agreed to share the costs of a €9 million restoration project (including car parking and a museum). Work on the installation of a new €2.7 million boardwalk commenced in March 2014. A year later the first tourists traversed the new route mostly constructed right above the crumbling old concrete walkway. Free tickets for the first six months have been advertised online as the local authorities seek to test their new tourist attraction and, although the Caminito is now booked solid until late September, Purple Peak Adventures are among those lucky enough to obtain a couple of those free tickets.

So, after an el cheapo flight with Ryanair from Dublin to Málaga we find ourselves entering a small office, the El Chorro information point, at the southern end of the route which is only a short drive from our finca. We managed to find space to park our hire car by the Garganta Hotel opposite the train station which is on the Málaga to Córdoba line. From there it's a mere ten minute stroll downhill to the information point. Here we produce our online ticket confirmations for our 1.30 pm slot (the only tickets we were able to get) and receive a hard hat and a hair net which must be worn at all times. Along with over three dozen other people, all Spaniards of various ages bar a group of middle aged Dutchmen and a small number of other English speaking people, we are given an introductory and safety talk about the route that totals approximately 7.7 km, divided into 4.8 km long access ways and 2.9 km long boardwalks. This is delivered at great speed solely in Spanish by one of the rangers, but we managed to get the gist that a reasonable level of fitness is required and we should allow around 4.5-5 hours to complete the walk. A maximum of 50 people per half hour are admitted at either end of the gorge, no children under eight years of age or pet dogs are allowed on the route, no tripods are permitted and only small packs may be carried. As this is a linear route, an hourly bus service costing a few euro has been laid on at either end to take you back to where you started.

 

Spain's mini 'Grand Canyon'

On an unseasonably hot spring day, we set off along a track past the milky green water of the Tajo de la Encantada Reservoir fringed with candy-pink oleander flowers and shaded by pine trees whose resin scents the air. The dusty path soon becomes more exposed and an enormous arched railway bridge towers above us. We soon realise that we have chosen to walk the route the hardest way, because from the southern El Chorro entrance a gradual incline is encountered all the way to Ardales at the northern end. As we ascend, the sheer cliffs at the end of the reservoir and the barely visible cleft marking the entrance to the gorge loom into view. It is reminiscent of the Siq that permits entry into the ancient Nabataean stronghold of Petra and I can only wonder at what might lie hidden upstream. My eye is suddenly caught by the ant-like figures of people moving steadily along a section of the new pathway clinging to the sheer cliff-face towards the entrance to the gorge. Just inside its narrow entrance, I spy what appears to be a bridge arching high above the river. It’s a pretty thrilling sight.

Entrance to the Gaitanes Gorge near El ChorroEntrance to the Gaitanes Gorge near El ChorroThe narrow entrance to the gorge resembles the Siq at Petra

New walkway installationNew walkway installationA head for heights is needed here!

The path is lined with vivid patches of spring flowers that thrive in calcareous soil, including blood-red poppies and ox-eye daises. After a steepish climb up some steps we arrive at a checkpoint sited on a small terrace close to a commemorative plaque marking the reopening of the route, where a cheery ranger examines our tickets and crosses our names off a computer print out. We now descend down a flight of steps passing above a green metal bridge carrying the railway line to Córdoba that will accompany us up the gorge. As we cross over the railway line, the boardwalk is encased in a chain-link cage to protect the track beneath, which feels slightly surreal. If this place looks somewhat familiar, it should, as the heart-stopping escape scenes at the end of the 1965 World War Two film, Von Ryan’s Express, starring Frank Sinatra were filmed on this stretch of the Caminito and in the railway tunnel right below.

Railway tunnel near El ChorroRailway tunnel near El ChorroThe 1965 World War Two film, Von Ryan’s Express, staring Frank Sinatra was filmed here We head down a series of narrow, knee jerking steps onto the flat section of boardwalk clinging to the sheer cliff face that we had earlier admired from afar. Gripping the metal handrail I peer over the edge where, some 100 metres below us, the turquoise water of the reservoir slaps up against the base of the cliffs. I can feel the heat of the afternoon being radiated off the limestone walls and beads of sweat stand proud of my brow. It’s suffocatingly hot as the heat is being trapped by the presence of Saharan dust in the atmosphere; I would certainly not recommend the slots at midday/early afternoon if you cannot tolerate the heat of a Spanish summer.

New meets oldNew meets oldThe remains of the old caminito can be seen above the new walkway Martin is relieved as we climb another set of steps into a cooling breeze as we begin to round the cliff face towards the narrow entrance to the gorge. Passing below the atmospheric remnants of rusting electricity poles with their ceramic insulators that formerly carried power up the gorge to the various hydroelectric facilities, we now catch our first close up glimpse of the dilapidated pins and rusty brackets that held the old pathway into place and the remains of the via ferrata equipment formerly used by climbers to access the route. The gentle breeze soon becomes something of a gale as the wind tears down through the gorge that acts as a kind of wind funnel. We pause to peer over the chain link safety fence at the vertiginous view of the narrow cleft marking the entrance to the gorge, where the turquoise water, agitated by the wind, swirls and snarls way below us. Ahead, we can see the old bridge, the Balconcillo de los Gaitanes, taking the original walkway above the concrete aqueduct spanning the gorge and a 30 metre long newly installed galvanised steel suspension bridge now used to cross it.

Entrance to the gorge near El ChorroEntrance to the gorge near El ChorroThe vertiginous drop from the Caminito del Rey's new walkway

Officially named the Puente Ignacio Mena, after a local councillor, the new bridge holds ten people at a time and sways and oscillates as I begin to walk onto it. Flashes of the turquoise Guadalhorce River far below appear through the grid decking beneath my feet and, as I approach the centre of the bridge, it really begins to wobble, causing me to grip the metal handrails tightly. Anyone who suffers from vertigo mightn’t be too happy crossing this! Just past the suspension bridge are fine views of the new Caminito built neatly about a metre above the old walkway on the left. But equally impressive is the railway line constructed between 1860 and 1866, disappearing from one tunnel into another on the right, supported on a large arched stone viaduct. The tenacity and ingenuity of Victorian engineers who seemed unwilling to be deterred or intimidated by even the most extreme topography, such as that encountered by constructing this railway through this gorge, never ceases to amaze me.

A more sobering sight is the memorial plaque to three young climbers who fell to their deaths here in August 2000 when the via ferrata cable they had been using broke. The cable, hanging loosely from the rock, has been left in place as a permanent reminder of this tragedy. Indeed, as we progress along the new pathway, we get views of the old Caminito down through the wooden slats and also ahead of us, as the route weaves its way around the rock face, hugging the contours of the gorge. It seems something of a miracle that there weren’t more deaths from inexperienced climbers using inappropriate equipment, as huge chunks of the concrete have fallen away from the old path leaving gaping holes in it; in places it has been reduced to mere iron girders hanging precariously some 100 metres above the river. Some of these look rotten as pears and many pieces have all but rusted away.

Mercifully, we have now entered the shade of the gorge and the relief from the burning sun is welcome. We marvel at the variety of ferns and clumps of pretty spring flowers growing out of the many crevices in the limestone. The route now doubles back on itself as it enters a side gorge carved by the Falla Finca, a tributary of the Guadalhorce River. Here the old pathway can be clearly seen, including a four metre long concrete bridge ‘short cut’ across this small gorge that has lost its safety rail and toe boards long ago and seems to be suspended in mid air. We both agree that leaving the old pathway in situ to be quietly reclaimed by the elements only adds to the incredible atmosphere of the place.

As we leave Falla Chica, we stop to admire the commanding view of the Balconcillo de los Gaitanes and the aqueduct from which a cascade of water is being blown away in the wind, its myriad tiny droplets catching the sunlight like a shower of diamonds. Soon after we encounter a small glass-floored cantilevered viewing platform which is strategically placed to provide perhaps the best and most memorable view back down the gorge, showcasing its sheer-sided spectacular cliffs. Up river, the verdant Valle del Hoyo we have yet to traverse is hemmed in by the high limestone crags of the Sierra de Huma, and the serene turquoise coils of the Guadalhorce River which flow through it glint in the sunlight. In the far distance we can see the continuation of the Gaitanes Gorge which we have to pass through to reach Ardales. We cannot resist the urge to gingerly step out onto the glass platform for the obligatory photo book snap, braving the stomach churning feeling experienced by seeming to hang, frozen, in mid air!

Caminito del Rey in the Gaitanes Gorge near El Chorro, SpainCaminito del Rey in the Gaitanes Gorge near El Chorro, SpainOnce one of the most infamous 'scary' hikes in the world, the Caminito del Rey (King's Little Pathway) was controversially refurbished in 2015 Braving the glass-floored cantilevered viewing platformBraving the glass-floored cantilevered viewing platformGreat views are to be had fromk this new platform

The 'Lost World'

The boardwalk now ends and we traverse a series of wooden stairs that delivers us into one of the concrete channels that brought the water down the Valle del Hoyo from the Gaitanejo reservoir higher up. The water ran through a series of such channels and tunnels towards the Balconcillo de los Gaitanes bridge before descending in a vertical tunnel where it gained sufficient speed and energy to drive turbines at the bottom which generated the electricity to power Málaga. Indeed, we pass by one of the cast iron wheels that operated a sluice gate used to regulate the water flow and peer up one of the dark tunnels before following an old water channel up the valley. This is shaded by pine trees fringed by clumps of spiny leaves sporting pale mauve flower spikes of Acanthus and scrubby bushes of Anthyllis cytisoide bearing lemon yellow flowers.

We pass by several other couples coming the other way who greet us warmly and a large group of Spaniards who set off with us earlier but who are now availing of a long bench amid some pine trees to enjoy a picnic. Permitting just 50 people to enter the gorge at each end every half an hour ensures that the Caminito never feels cluttered, allowing each visitor a leisurely, pleasant experience.

The Valle del Hoyo with its towering limestone crags has something of the ‘lost world’ about it; all that is missing is the pterodactyls! I sit awhile to savour the smell of this hot land: the odour of parched earth, the heady fragrance of the pine trees and the sweet, resinous scent emitted by the mastic trees that grow everywhere. This 'smellscape', an olfactory memory, is permanently hard wired into the brain of anyone who, like me, has ever lived in the Mediterranean and yearns to return. Paper dry grasses interspersed with poppies nod and whisper in the breeze and I watch in fascination as a number of ants busy themselves collecting fragments of vegetation for their colony, one heroically struggling with a grass seed over three times its size. Below my rocky vantage point, stands of Aleppo pine sweep down to the river which has formed large, milky turquoise pools, and on a hot day such as this I dream of plunging into one of these. Away in the hazy distance, a crease in the cliffs marks the spot where the gorge we have just traversed ends with part of the Caminito just visible. I wonder what it would be like to live in this valley, my imagination fired by the sight of some abandoned orange groves and allotments surrounding the derelict farmstead, Cortijo la Hoya.

Valle del HoyoValle del HoyoThis valley has something of a 'lost world' feel about it After some 3 km, a flight of steps leads to another boardwalk that takes us round a huge rock buttress to the sheer-sided and narrow continuation of the Gaitenejo Gorge. I am exhilarated by the thought of re-entering the gorge and we both really regret that we had not discovered this place 15 years or so ago, when it was untamed and less well known. The boardwalk twists and undulates its way through the narrow gorge high above the river which over eons of rushing through this narrow chasm has carved and fashioned fantastical shapes in the limestone. We are delighted by the sight of Griffon vultures circling on thermals high above the cliffs, no doubt eyeing the many collared doves that inhabit the rocky crevices of the gorge. With their huge wings silhouetted against the blue sky, it's not hard to imagine that this really is a 'lost world' and that these vultures are in fact pterodactyls from the Cretaceous period! The vegetation is lush, comprised of oleander, tamarisk and European marram grass.

The Gaitenejo GorgeThe Gaitenejo GorgeThe limestone rock has been eroded inot fabulous formations by the Guadalhorce River We soon spot a small bridge, the Puenta del Rey, spanning the river just before a rock overhang where the canal widened to form a mini reservoir to control the water flow, and an old overflow drain discharged into the river. The crumbling stone steps leading down to the river have survived, but the Casa de Guardia de Canal, built below the overhang where the workers who controlled the various sluice gates lived, was inexplicably demolished in 2014, its site now marked by a wooden bench surrounded by blood-red poppies and electric-mauve thistles.

Further along and just before the boardwalk climbs steeply, clinging limpet-like to the towering, sheer cliff face, the route splits into two: the boardwalk follows an old canal and descends into a short tunnel, the other bypasses this by means of a flight of original concrete steps that descend towards the river, only to ascend again to join the boardwalk. The final stretch of the gorge is very narrow and we greatly enjoy passing along the shady boardwalk staring down at the whirling pools and rushing turquoise water far below fig and tamarisk trees sprouting from the craggy cliffs.

The Gaitenejo GorgeThe Gaitenejo GorgeThe gorge narrow at the Ardales end

Tunnel Vision

As we pass out of the gorge, we spot a series of small waterfalls and the remains of what looks like the Caminito continuing along the cliffs across the other side of the river. With one final, wistful look back towards the exit of the gorge, we pass through the control point and soon spot the Gaitanejo Dam with its towers at each end. After a few minutes we reach a portable cabin which serves as the Ardales Information point where we return our safety helmets. The dusty pathway now undulates through a pine forest above the Gaitanejo Dam before entering a large tunnel where the gusting wind lifts huge columns of dust from the road which follow us through to the other side.

After walking for several minutes in the sapping heat of late afternoon, we find the route confusing as there is a choice of two pathways: one signposting another smaller tunnel and the other marking a route that climbs steeply though the pine forest. Neither clearly signs the way to Ardales where we must catch a bus back to El Chorro. We decide to take the tunnel. With eyes used to bright sunshine, it's pitch black and its floor frightfully uneven; we fumble and stagger our way through a couple of hundred metres of darkness like two drunkards and I'm relieved to see the pinpoint of light growing ever larger at its end. A head torch would have been useful!

The tunnel turns out to be a good choice as it brings us to a main road leading downhill to the bus stop opposite a restaurant named El Kiosko near the village of Ardales. However, our eventual arrival at the bus stop is more luck than judgement as there is also a lack of signage at the tunnel exit to direct walkers to the village. The bus, which leaves every hour and which costs two euro each, is almost ready to depart so we eschew a cold beer at El Kiosko, preferring to wait until we can savour a bottle of the aptly named Giatenejo craft beer once we return to our finca.

Billed as one of the top new travel experiences by Lonely Planet for 2015 will do much to ensure the popularity of El Caminito del Rey, but rock climbers and via ferratists continue to bitterly lament the loss of one of their most risqué adventure playgrounds. And they're not the only disgruntled ones. Some locals we spoke to are appalled at its new ‘Disneyesque’ features and recoil at the thought of busloads of tourists from cruise ships docked at Málaga pouring through there every hour. They doubt that there will be much of a positive knock-on effect for their businesses from such day trippers.

Although it would have been great to have discovered this place long before it became a tourist honey pot, overall, we formed a favourable impression of the Caminito and marvelled at the engineering excellence of yesteryear that has been respected by the installation of the new boardwalk that blends almost seamlessly with the old pathway. Although it is no longer the world's scariest hike, the Caminito isn't a walk in the park by any means, especially in the unforgiving Spanish sun. We agree that those looking for a novel hike offering magnificent scenery and a bit of excitement in this part of southern Spain will doubtless find this 8 km route just the ticket. That is, if they are able to get hold of one...

Watch the video of our May 2015 hike along the Caminito del Rey:

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eramaptec@gmail.com (Purple Peak Adventures) El Caminito del Rey El Chorro Europe Spain hiking http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2015/6/the-worlds-scariest-hike-el-caminito-del-rey-andaluc-a-spain Wed, 24 Jun 2015 19:00:00 GMT
Mulhacén: King of Mountains, Sierra Nevada, Spain http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2015/6/mulhac-n-king-of-mountains-sierra-nevada-spain The old Sierra Nevada RoadThe old Sierra Nevada RoadMartin passing beneath the Crestones de la Río Seco

 

“It’s a bloody long way”, says the silver-haired man with a South East of England accent upon hearing that we are making our summit attempt in a day. “Our group stayed the night at the Refugio de la Carihüela to break the climb," he continues, barely pausing to draw breath. "Last year we didn’t even get close to the summit because of all the snow and ice. It's brutal up there.” It's mid-May and Martin and I are about an hour into our climb of Mulhacén, the highest mountain in Spain’s Sierra Nevada range which straddles the provinces of Granada and Almería in the south of the country. Doubts begin to crowd my mind as ‘Jeremiah’ proceeds to describe in great detail how much snow was encountered, the debilitating effects of the altitude, and the time it took his party to summit. All that is missing is his basket of figs, and I feel somewhat deflated as we walk away, wondering whether it’s wise to try and climb this 3,482 metre mountain, the highest peak in Europe outside the Caucasus Mountains and the Alps, in just one day. Perhaps we should have stayed overnight in one of the refugios too…

Knowing it would be a long day, we set out early from the Albergue Universitario at Peñones de San Francisco, a mountain lodge run by the University of Granada. We were the only people staying there, but just a fortnight earlier the place would have been bursting at the seams with skiers and snowboarders eager to enjoy the last of the winter snow. Now, the large car park at Hoya de la Mora and the vast ski village sprawling across the mountain slope surrounded by retreating patches of dirty snow and motionless ski lifts, are eerily deserted, as desolate and bleak as a northern England seaside resort in mid-winter.

Although it’s only around 9.00 am, the sun is surprisingly hot on our shoulders as we follow a thin trail worn bare by the passage of countless feet that undulates its way ever upwards, occasionally crossing an asphalt road, the highest in Europe, that switch backs its way towards Posiciones del Veleta (3,100m). Taking this trail rather than following the road cuts off some 5-6 km. In the summer months, the Sierra Nevada National Park authority runs a mini bus service to Posiciones del Veleta from where people make the short climb to Veleta and the more adventurous set out for its twin peak, Mulhacén.

The trail weaves its way along the top of the Barranco de San Juan, at times hanging perilously close to the edge of this rugged ravine where one slip could result in a fatal fall. As we ascend, we pass the rest of Jeremiah the Englishman’s group slowly making their way downwards. Red faced and leaning heavily on their walking poles, they are grumbling loudly about the distance and the steepness of the terrain. Mountain gazelles these are not!

We soon spot the Sierra Nevada Observatory and the white dish of the IRAM radio telescope which looks like something out of a sci-fi movie. At around 3,000 metres we discover that there is still an awful lot of snow about for mid-May, and the Laguna de las Yeguas below the road remains partially frozen. As we approach the Refugio de la Carihüela we disturb a herd of Southeastern Spanish ibex that are perfectly camouflaged against the rocky terrain; they melt away as soon they spot us. The refugio is just as well camouflaged, a low semicircular structure constructed of the surrounding rock that blends perfectly with the landscape. 

Refugio de la CarihüelaRefugio de la CarihüelaThis mountain hut is situated in the pass between Veleta and the Tajos del Tesoro

We sit on the stone bench in front of the refugio soaking up the view towards distant Mulhacén and the even more distant and exotically named peak of La Alcazaba (The Citadel). Such names might have been lifted straight from the pages of One Thousand and One Nights. As Andalucía was the last stronghold of the Moors it's no surprise to discover that these mountains have Moorish connections. Mulhacén is named after Abu I-Hasan Ali, or Muley Hacén, as he is known in Spanish, the penultimate Muslim King of Granada who died in 1485 and, according to legend, was buried on the summit of the mountain that came to bear his name.

My eye follows a thin white line where snow lies on a gravel track. This is the old Sierra Nevada road, once drivable but closed to traffic in 1999. It leads towards Puerta (meaning door or gate), a gap below the Crestones de la Río Seco which really do resemble the comb of a cockerel angled sharply upwards into the hazy sky. Beyond this the road weaves its way round Loma Pelada behind which Mulhacén towers. It does indeed look a bloody long way! 

The atmosphere is full of Saharan dust, giving the sharply etched landscape an odd, glassy hue. The dust has also trapped the heat making the day abnormally hot for the time of year, and we are extremely warm in just short sleeved woollen base layers. Despite the heat, enormous snow patches cling to the bare brown mountain slopes and we can see that the route crosses several of the steepest of these. Fortunately we had the sense to pack a set of half crampons. The snow is soft and sugary and I’m instantly glad of them as I traverse the steep snow-covered slope leading away from the refugio. Below the old road we spot the small Laguna de los Vesares swollen by the snowmelt. There now follows a long plod across snow and scree slopes towards Puerta. Through a gap in the Crestones, we shudder at the vertiginous drop into the blue-green Valdeinfiernos Valley.

Snow covered slopesSnow covered slopesMulhacén still looks a bloody long way off!

Puerta, a narrow, snow choked cleft of rock is aptly named, beyond which another vista more barren than ever unfolds, with the old road clearly visible as it sweeps round the bare and lifeless Loma Pelada. The cluster of small tarns named Lagunas de Río Seco that should be visible below the old road are completely buried beneath snow, their presence only betrayed by the slightest depressions and hint of aqua. With the exception of the snow, the landscape reminds me of a scene from Mars, made all the more Martian by the strange light caused by the dust in the atmosphere which affects the Rayleigh scattering, so that the sky does not appear to be very blue.

We decide to follow the old road rather than take the direct ridge track above the Luguna de la Caldera, as we are not sure how steep and snow covered the terrain is above the lake. The snow-free road ensures that we make good speed round Cuenca de Río Seco below Loma Pelada. Where the road turns sharply downhill towards Laguna de la Caldera, we pass a small rectangular building perched on a shelf of rock with fabulous views down the Seco Valley which we later discover was the Refugio Pillavientos. We finally spot the Refugio de la Caldera, which, like the Refugio de la Carihüela, is built of local stone and is therefore almost invisible against the barren landscape.

Refugio de la CalderaRefugio de la CalderaThis refuge makes a great base camp for climbing Mulhacén

As we approach the refugio, we pass several small patches of white rock rose (Helianthemum apenninum), the first flowers we have seen since we hit the trail above Hoya de la Mora. Between the refugio and a small lake are another herd of Southeastern Spanish ibex, several sporting impressive sets of curled horns. These wild goats, endemic to Spain, seem totally unperturbed by our presence. The brooding hulk of Mulhacén is reflected in the shallow green lake, reminding us that we have a steep climb of over 400 metres ahead of us. Until now the route has been fairly benign, mostly consisting of a gentle upward ascent. All that changes as we begin the slog up Mulhacén.

Southeastern Spanish ibexSoutheastern Spanish ibexThis goat is endemic to Spain

The sun is beating down relentlessly as we pass by the Laguna de la Caldereta and commence the ascent of the dusty trail up the western flank of the mountain. The heat, trapped by the dust in the atmosphere, is suffocating and I can feel it being reflected off the rocks and bare soil as I struggle upwards against the altitude. Although we did expect there to be snow on the higher ground, neither of us predicted such unseasonably warm weather and for it to be in the mid-twenties at an altitude of over 3,000 metres! Here and there, tufts of wiry yellow grass break the monotony of the stony landscape and I am delighted to spot some clumps of Viola crassiuscula, the Sierra Nevada violet, flowering amid gaps and crevices in the bare rock. The pretty mauve and white flowers, endemic to this mountain chain, dance in the breeze on their delicate stalks and seem curiously out of place in this bleak and arid landscape.

View from the western flank of MulhacénView from the western flank of MulhacénThe Refugio de la Caldera is now a barely visible dot on the landscape

The Refugio de la Caldera is now but a minute dot barely visible above the two tiny metallic green lakes we had passed by earlier. Laguna Caldera which is nestled in the bottom of the scalloped basin below the shattered rocky ridge of Puntal de la Caldera, was not visible at the level of the refugio and is still hidden under ice and snow. Beyond, Veleta shimmers slate-blue in the heat haze. After crossing a deep patch of sugary snow we hit the broad rocky ridge leading to the summit cairn. A small outcrop of rock rising a couple of metres above the ground which is crowned with a concrete pillar finally comes into view. A small, gated shine has been hewn out of the outcrop. Its metal gate has been garlanded in football scarves and shirts and it’s almost impossible to see what’s inside the gloomy recess, but I think I spy the Virgin Mary amid the devotional clutter of candles, bottles of holy water, plastic flowers and wooden crosses.

Mulhacén (3,482 m)Mulhacén (3,482 m)The highest point of mainland Spain

When the weather conditions are right, the views over the Sierra Nevada are extensive and it’s possible to see more distant ranges including the Sierra de las Nieves north of Marbella, the Sierras de las Cazorla to the east of Jaén and even the Rif Mountains in northern Morocco. But today we cannot see much beyond the immediate mountains, let alone Morocco, as Africa has instead come to us in the form of Saharan dust! But standing on the highest point in peninsular Spain is a wonderful experience, even on this dusty, heat-hazed day. My stomach churns as I eye the near perpendicular 500 metre plus drop to the snowy Hoya del Mulhacén with its ice encrusted lakes, and admire the broad sweep of the sharp ridge above the diminutive Refugio de la Caldera standing proud and pimple-like, of the ruddy, parched face of the landscape. The rocky ramparts of nearby La Alcazaba rise majestically into the shimmering sky and a rectangular, unroofed stone-walled building, apparently once a chapel, stands sentinel near the summit. In a valley far below which is tinged the faintest green, is a long thin lake, the final of seven in the Cañada de las Siete Lagunas.

View from the summit of MulhacénView from the summit of MulhacénThe near perpendicular 500 metre plus drop to the snowy Hoya del Mulhacén

It’s a very long way back to the Albergue where we have left our car, and mindful of the time this will take, we pull ourselves away reluctantly from the roof of Spain. We progress speedily down towards the Refugio de la Caldera, taking care not to slip on the trail pounded to bare earth by the passage of countless feet. Before long we are back on the old road sweeping between the two metallic green lakes we saw from the summit and we’re soon approaching the bend above the Refugio Pillavientos. Upon rounding the corner, I feel slightly deflated looking at the distance we have to cover to pass through Puerta let alone that to the Refugio de la Carihüela, a tiny protuberance in the pass between Veleta and the Tajos del Tesoro.

The old Sierra Nevada roadThe old Sierra Nevada roadHeading towards Puerta

After what seems like an eternity, we are finally climbing the snow slope to the refugio. Rounding the corner from the refugio, an incredible vista unfolds of the Tajos de la Virgin snaking away to the south-west, but we are instantly blasted by a very chilly wind which comes as an unwelcome surprise after the heat of the day. The white dish of the IRAM radio telescope looks otherworldly, silhouetted against an alien planet-like sky turned orange and apricot in the setting sun which is hanging in the dust laden atmosphere like a Chinese lantern. Underneath this magnificent sky, an endless sea of brown peaks streaked with snow retreat into the distance, fading to smoky grey and sepia before being swallowed in the haze.

Sunset over AndaluciaSunset over AndaluciaThe dust in the atmosphere made for a sunset out of a sci-fi movie

Night falls as we are about a kilometre from the Albergue and far below on the darkening plain, I spot the shimmering pin points of thousands of lights betraying the location of Granada which is some 25 km away to the northwest. We arrive back at our car in one hour 50 minutes from the refugio, after completing the summit attempt in about 13 hours, covering over 30 kilometres with some 1,500 metres of ascent, despite 'Jeremiah the Englishman's' doubts that this could be done!

Two hours later, showered and refreshed, we are sitting in a plush hotel suite in Granada sipping a delicious cool Mammoth Granada Imperial Stout and wolfing down a selection of tasty tapas. The ceramic tiles on the hotel balcony are still warm beneath my bare feet. I stare towards the Sierra Nevada, snows silvered by the light from a hazy crescent moon and a scattering of stars that float above their jagged peaks. The night is still, serene, the scene mystical, magical, like something from the Arabian Nights. Indeed, it almost seems that the crescent moon, symbol of Islam, is pointing towards Mulhacén, the final resting place of the penultimate Moorish King of Al-Andalus, a mountain truly fit for a king, whose summit we have just conquered.

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eramaptec@gmail.com (Purple Peak Adventures) Europe Mulhacén Sierra Nevada Mountains Spain hiking http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2015/6/mulhac-n-king-of-mountains-sierra-nevada-spain Mon, 08 Jun 2015 23:15:00 GMT
Land of Fire and Ice: A Winter Road Trip Round Iceland http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2015/2/land-of-fire-and-ice-a-winter-road-trip-round-iceland Ice Cave, BreiðamerkurjökullIce Cave, BreiðamerkurjökullA visit to an ice cave below a glacier is on every adventure traveller's bucket list!

 

The First Taste of Iceland

The sky above Mount Esja begins to turn candy floss pink as the setting sun slides behind a thin bank of grey cloud stealthily creeping in from the west. The raucous cries of numerous seabirds fills the air and a frigid wind blows in off the restless North Atlantic sending waves crashing and foaming onto black shelves of basaltic rocks below. Ice encrusted stems of withered yellow grasses nearby, a memory of warmer times, put up a feeble protest, while a gaggle of grey geese saunter right up close to where I’m standing, seemingly impervious to my presence as they busy themselves pecking and foraging through the icy grass. Very soon the beam of a nearby lighthouse’s beacon sweeps across the majesty of this volcanic landscape, a few hazy stars appear in the night sky and thoughts inevitably drift towards finding a warm and cosy refuge from the intense cold.

The sun doesn’t rise here in January until 10.45 am and the daylight hours are short, with the sun setting by around 4.30 pm. We have explored downtown Reykjavík today, enjoying the colourful painted shop-fronts in narrow streets with pleasant vistas down to the Sæbraut and the moody grey-green ocean, fascinated by the misty exhalations rising into the cold air from subterranean geothermal sources that power this city. A capital of just 120,000 souls, Reykjavík has a provincial city feel to it, small and intimate, and above all friendly, boasting a cornucopia of vibrant coffee shops, chic restaurants and happening bars. It also feels like a city on the move again after the calamitous financial crash of 2008. Cranes soar over the cityscape as old meets new and nowhere is this more evident than at the Old Harbour, where a world class concert hall, the Harpa, an imposing Rubik’s cube-like glass structure, has been built.

Hallgrímskirkja Lutheran Church, ReykjavíkHallgrímskirkja Lutheran Church, ReykjavíkThis iconic building on the Reykjavík skyline is meant to emulate the basalt columns that feature so heavily in Iceland's landscape

On foot it’s possible to visit most of the main attractions such as the rocket-shaped Hallgrímskirkja Lutheran Church which soars into the sky like something from a futuristic sci-fi movie, its columnar construction meant, no doubt, to imitate the pillars of basalt rock that characterise the geology of the island. In front of the church is an imposing statue of Leifur Eriksson, reputed to be the first Viking to have discovered America, but our favourite attraction is the sculpture on the Sæbraut by Jón Gunnar Árnason dubbed ‘The Sun Voyager’. Described as ‘a dreamboat, an ode to the sun’, I am captivated by its angular shape, the strange melding of the ribs of the boat with the skeletal forms of its human crew. It’s certainly living up to its name, as the metal is burnished and set aflame by the mid-afternoon sun lending it an ethereal quality, etched as it is against the chilled background of cold sea and snow covered mountain peaks, sending my camera into rhapsody.

‘The Sun Voyager’, Sæbraut, Reykjavík‘The Sun Voyager’, Sæbraut, ReykjavíkThis sculpture by Jón Gunnar Árnason is described as ‘a dreamboat, 'an ode to the sun’

It’s evening now and in the heart of Reykjavík, the quaint Laekjarbrekka wooden restaurant with its rust red roof encrusted with snow, looks like something out of a fairy story, the inviting light from its windows casting a golden glow over the blanket of crystalline whiteness surrounding it. Dining out in Iceland is a truly exciting experience as you really have to be here to eat Icelandic fare. We order the þorramatur, tasters of some traditional dishes, including harðfiskur (wind dried fish) with butter, dried seaweed, minke whale tataki, smoked wild goose with crowberries and the famous hákarl - fermented shark - which is beautifully presented on a rustic wooden platter. The minke whale is a true delight, rich, tender and flavoursome, not at all fishy tasting, more like high quality steak, and the smoky taste of the goose is not overbearing and is well complimented by the tangy crowberries. I am less enamoured with the dried fish and butter, which although not unpleasant tasting, takes some time to rehydrate in my mouth. But the seaweed, dried to a crisp, is worse still. I spend minutes passing it round my mouth before it is pliable enough to swallow without tearing my gullet to shreds. The chewy, rubbery texture and strong iodine taste do little for me.

The fermented shark is undoubtedly the thing all tourists want to try. It has something of a reputation, no doubt to do with its unusual curing process. The flesh of the Greenlandic shark is poisonous when freshly killed, due to a high concentration of urea and trimethylamine oxide. But beheading and gutting the shark and then burying the carcass under a mound of sand and heavy rocks, ensures the uric acid breaks down and toxins are pressed from the flesh. After 6-12 weeks, depending on the season, the carcass is dug up and then cut into strips and hung to dry for a further several months, after which it is edible. The two dull white cubes stare at me through the glass of their sealed Kevlar jar. I pop the lid and the smell of ammonia instantly hits my nose like a sledgehammer and makes my eyes smart. I quickly thrust one of the cubes into my mouth and begin to chew. A hot, fishy taste mixed with ripe stilton erupts on my tongue. It’s somewhat chewy, but I’d be lying if I said it was unpleasant. The smell of ammonia is undoubtedly much worse than the taste of the flesh itself and I wash it down with one of Iceland’s amazing beers.

Þorramatur, tasters of some traditional dishesÞorramatur, tasters of some traditional dishesThis consisted of harðfiskur (wind dried fish) with butter, dried seaweed, minke whale tataki, smoked wild goose with crowberries and the famous hákarl - fermented shark

I don’t know what it is about places at the far ends of the world, we experienced the same in Patagonia, but the craft beers here are truly exceptional. I am particularly taken by the island’s toasted porters and stouts: rich, warming, many with a high alcohol content, the perfect antidote to the bitter Icelandic winter! Highly recommended are Sartur Imperial Stout, Garún Icelandic Stout and Myrkvi Nr. 13 ( a porter), all brewed by the Borg Brugghús, and Lava, a Russian Imperial Stout brewed by the Ölvisholt Brugghús.

There follows a dreamy, frothy cream of langoustine soup and pan fried fillet of wilderness lamb, a fragrant, tender meat from an animal that spent its short life eating only mountain grass, wild herbs and berries. This comes with a grilled langoustine and potato terrine with thyme sauce served on a bed of crunchy vegetables, a welcome change from the mushy, bland offerings at many restaurants. Engorged, we still find room for the delicious dessert consisting of an oatmeal based ‘cheesecake’ made with local skyr, a cultured dairy product, similar to strained yogurt, served with a blueberry sorbet which is pleasantly sharp and cuts through the sweetness of the pudding beautifully. Laekjarbrekka prides itself on only using locally produced or foraged food, cashing in no doubt on the ‘New Nordic Cuisine’ scene which has seen Noma in Copenhagen win a string of international accolades and awards. Also highly recommended is the nearby Apotek restaurant which features a six course tasting menu with local delicacies such as smoked puffin.

 

The Golden Circle

It’s pitch black as we begin the early morning journey to the Þingvellir National Park, a World Heritage Site. Flurries of snow sweep across the lunar landscape created by past volcanic eruptions which spewed vast lava flows across the area around Reykjavík. Being in Iceland feels like being on the very top of the world. The cold, salt laden sea air is harsh and unforgiving, the ground twisted and contorted by volcanic activity where little but moss seems to thrive and the low-slung wooden houses, painted white, red, blue, yellow and green, rise defiantly from the land. It’s no surprise to me that this island has bequeathed to humanity some of the most compelling sagas ever written by man or that people believe the island’s snow-capped mountains and volcanic chasms to be protected by trolls and elves; the landscape is primordial, mystical, of epic proportions and absolutely demands this passionate and otherworldly connection to it.

We arrive at the Þingvellir National Park as the feeble light of day begins to illuminate Lake Þingvallavatn, an enormous ragged-edged pewter dish fed by serpentine rivers of chilled mercury and fringed by shield volcanoes. Iceland sits astride the Mid-Atlantic Ridge which separates the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates; here at Þingvellir the earth is literally tearing itself apart as evidenced by numerous fissures and cracks that scar the landscape. Þingvellir translates as ‘Parliament Plains’, and nowhere symbolises the history and spirit of the Icelandic nation quite as this place does. Reputed to be the oldest parliament in the world, the Alþing general assembly was established by Viking settlers around 930 and continued to convene here until 1798. Considered geographically well located in terms of the main tracks and population centres, with slopes and flat plains set up against a rocky cliff, there was also plentiful pasture, firewood and water. There’s no denying the sense of history that oozes out of the imposing cliff faces and rises from amid the barely visible footprints of ancient booths.

Þingvellir National ParkÞingvellir National ParkThe fissure leading down to the Alþing

From the site of the Alþing we watch the newly risen sun, a match-head blazing white hot and amber, light the spire of a church above the bank of the Öxará River in pin-sharp detail before being suddenly extinguished, snuffed out by a bank of grey cloud. Large flakes of snow begin to fall and before long the hard outlines of the surrounding rocky cliff faces are softened. In this icy, monochrome world, the distant forms of tourists moving slowly upslope through the main fissure towards the car park look like the matchstick figures from a Lowry painting.

Dawn at Þingvellir National ParkDawn at Þingvellir National ParkÞingvellir means ‘Parliament Plains’ in Icelandic, and nowhere symbolises the history and spirit of the Icelandic nation quite as this place does

We head off towards the Haukadalur geothermal area where the Strokkur Geyser attracts swarms of day trippers who line the perimeter fence two deep in places. I am very surprised by how busy Southern Iceland is in early January, testament no doubt to the success of budget airlines such as Wow and Easy Jet which are flying with increasing regularity and cheapness from various parts of Europe and/or the USA. Strokkur (Icelandic for ‘churn’) is rather like Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park, reliably erupting on average every 6-10 minutes to a height of about 20 metres. The nearby much larger Great Geysir erupts infrequently. The English word geyser derives from geysir, which comes form the Icelandic verb geysa, ‘to gush’. 

Through the gently moving clouds of misty vapour, the water in the circular vent rises and falls as if teasing spectators to guess when it will erupt. Finally, a large aquamarine bubble swells to fill the cavity and then erupts with a loud roar. It shoots steam high into the sky, showering droplets of water all round with a strident hiss as the water is sucked back greedily into the geyser vent and the process of waiting expectantly begins over again. Across this strange otherworldly landscape perpetually shrouded in misty exhalations, are numerous other bubbling hot springs and steaming aquamarine pools fringed by white crystalline encrustations with colourful algal blooms.

Strokkur Geyser, Haukadalur geothermal areaStrokkur Geyser, Haukadalur geothermal areaStrokkur (Icelandic for ‘churn’) erupts every 6-10 minutes. The nearby much larger Great Geysir erupts infrequently. The English word geyser derives from geysir, which comes form the Icelandic verb geysa, ‘to gush’

Icelandic horsesIcelandic horsesHorses were brought to Iceland by Scandinavian settlers in the ninth and tenth centuries It is with some reluctance that we pull ourselves away and plough on through the snow buried countryside where groups of Icelandic horses with heavy winter coats and shaggy manes stand patiently in huddles, shielding each other from the viciously cold wind that howls across the landscape. A hardy breed of assorted colours, the ancestors of these diminutive horses with doe eyes and a gentle nature were brought to Iceland by Scandinavian settlers in the ninth and tenth centuries.

I can now see the wide Hvítá River flowing through the bleak winter landscape, but it appears to literally vanish into the earth. As I climb higher against a chafing wind the sombre beauty of Gullfoss, Iceland’s most famous waterfall, confronts me. A deep dark cleft in the basalt floats into view fed by a succession of tumultuous cascades throwing up vast columns of mist as they foam and snarl down over gleaming black tiers of rock with a roar like a jet engine. At the edges of the falls, the water has been turned to ice, frozen mid-fall into a stupendous array of wax-like icicles thick as a man’s waist and huge crystalline blooms resembling the frigid heads of giant cauliflowers. The magnificence of the sight causes me to take a sharp intake of breath.

We descend via a treacherous icy pathway along a sloping platform of rock to gain a closer look down into the chasm where the ice is tinged ever so slightly turquoise. Chunks of ice float by just metres from me to be consumed in the watery chaos below. The sheer volume of the water raging down over the cliff edge mists my face and sends a deep rumbling through the ground up into my body. I find myself suddenly wanting to yell at the top of my voice in ecstasy at the sheer power and majesty of nature.

GullfossGullfossIceland's most famous waterfall in its winter finery

We hit the road again just as dark clouds begin to fill the sky, swallowing any hope of a sunset. The route takes us south towards the coast where isolated farmhouses huddled beneath huge icy cliffs of volcanic rock with frozen waterfalls seem lost in the enormity of the flat and snow blanketed countryside. As dusk falls, it begins to sleet and we are glad to finally arrive at an über-modern hotel in Vík, the southernmost village in Iceland, where we feast upon Rúgbrauð (rye bread) with bright yellow dairy butter, cream of angelica soup and pan fried Arctic char with roasted fennel and potatoes. A nightcap each of Brennivín, Icelandic schnapps distilled and flavoured with angelica and caraway, rounds off a memorable meal.

 

The Primordial South Coast

There’s nothing quite like a waterfall to stir one’s senses and emotions, and Seljalandsfoss waterfall at dawn is something to behold. Candy floss-pink clouds begin to enliven a deep violet sky fading to soft apricot in the east as we approach the silken body of water cascading over a high cliff. It’s far too icy and snow bound to clamber around the back of the falls to gaze through the cascade, so we content ourselves watching the water trace ephemeral, veil like patterns as it thunders into its mysterious deep-turquoise plunge pool ringed with ice and snow. As dawn breaks over the landscape, it tinges the cloud boiling above the falls shades of cream and rose pink. So magical is the sight, I want to stop time dead in its tracks in order to feast my senses on this spectacle for more than a few fleeting moments.

SeljalandsfossSeljalandsfossThe waterfall drops 60 metres and is part of the Seljalands River that originates in the volcano glacier Eyjafjallajökull

Not far along the coast on the way back towards Vík, we visit another waterfall: Skógafoss. Seabirds whirl on the morning breeze rending the air with their raucous cries which mingle with the thunder of the falls as we approach. Located at the head of a semicircular gorge encrusted with huge icicles which drip like molten wax from the surrounding cliffs, Skógafoss is one of the biggest waterfalls in the country with a width of 25 metres and a drop of 60 metres. So great is the volume of spray, we are quickly silvered head to foot in fine droplets of mist. Every so often a watery rainbow shimmers feebly in the struggling sunlight. The cliffs here were once those of an ancient coastline, but the sea has since receded some 5 kilometres forming a wide flat expanse of boggy, marshy ground. These old cliffs run parallel to the new shoreline for hundreds of kilometres, demarcating the border between the coastal lowlands and the Highlands of Iceland.

SkógafossSkógafossThis famous waterfall is situated on the Skógá River and tumbles over the cliffs of the former coastline

On a bleak, exposed stretch of black sand at Sólheimasandur lies the eerie wreck of a United States Navy DC plane. Forced to crash land after running out of fuel in November 1973, it’s little more than a shell after forty one punishing years of Arctic gales and icy rain. In the frigid steel-blue landscape of pre-dawn, we finally locate the fuselage which suddenly looms from behind a mound of sand that effectively hides it from view. We stand in silent reverence as the throbbing orb of the sun explodes on the distant horizon in a riot of colour, warming the pitted and gutted shell of the plane which is missing its wings and tail.

Douglas Super DC-3 airplane, Vik, IcelandDouglas Super DC-3 airplane, Vik, Iceland

The coastline near Vík could be taken straight from the pages of the sagas. Boiling seas churned to milk race through sea arches, boom into huge zawns and gnaw away at the stumps of sea stacks, said to be trolls turned to stone that were caught by the rising sun as they attempted to put to sea in their boats. Here the restless North Atlantic Ocean traces endless foamy patterns on the famous black beaches, where visitors’ footsteps cast in wet volcanic sand last but for a fleeting moment before being swept away, an analogy indeed for ‘the sands of time’. With no landmass between Vík and Antarctica, there is nothing to impede Atlantic rollers from attacking with full force. The seas are oft tempestuous, stormy, white horses careering landwards in a chaotic race. Quite simply, Vík is primordial, elemental and fiendishly beautiful.

Dyrhólaey Sea ArchDyrhólaey Sea ArchFrom Sólheimasandur Beach Dyrhólaey sea arch shimmers in the dawn light

Black beach near VíkBlack beach near VíkThe Atlantic Ocean surf constantly pounds the basalt cliffs of this elemental coastline

The black beach, VíkThe black beach, VíkThese sea stacks are said to be trolls turned to stone, caught by the rising sun as they attempted to put to sea in their boats

 

The journey along the coast towards Höfn is marred by lashing rain and sleet and the road is covered in black ice, making driving conditions testing. Dusk is falling as we spot the nose of Vatnajökull (jökull being Icelandic for ‘glacier’), gnarled and shattered into an intricate jigsaw puzzle of thousands of pieces in brilliant turquoise, white and grey. The largest glacier outside of the Arctic, it stands proud of the expanse of black sands that form a boundary between it and the nearby ocean. We stay at Hali, a small settlement on a lake impounded behind a long sand bar. In the distance I can hear the Atlantic breakers constantly pounding the shore. The air is salt laden, fresh and penetrating.

VatnajökullVatnajökullThe nose of the glacier can be seen from the Route 1

We check a website for projected Northern Lights activity. Prior to my arrival in Iceland, I had erroneously thought that the Aurora Borealis was always visible if the sky was clear. This is not the case at all, and, along with fluctuations in the strength of the aurora tied into solar activity, the movement of the auroral oval (a ring that is centred over the Earth’s geomagnetic pole), means that even if the sky is clear this does not guarantee you will see the lights from your location in the Arctic at all hours during the night. Websites provide accurate information about the strength of the aurora and the position of the auroral oval in order to forecast the best times for viewing them where you are. We learn that the peak time at Hali is around 6.00 am, if the sky is clear, although weaker displays which are usually barely visible with the naked eye, are predicted to occur during the night. Although it has now stopped raining, cloud still obscures vast swathes of the night sky, but Martin, ever the optimist, sets his alarm to go off every hour throughout the night in order to pop outside to gaze heavenward.

 

Awed by Ice

His patience is finally rewarded, and he shakes me awake at around 5.30 am. The intense cold takes my breath away as I leave the guesthouse to clamber into our jeep for a short journey down the highway from Hali where, away from all street lights, an inky black sky stuffed full of stars arches overhead. Through a shard of sky trapped between two spiky mountains, I suddenly spy weird trails of faint green luminescence billowing upwards like silken scarves. These mysterious lights tracing endless wavy patterns across the heavens instantly transport the viewer to the time of the sagas, when Odin, Thor and Freyja strode amid these skies like celestial storm troopers. Although frozen to the bone, we stand transfixed, unable to pull ourselves away from this thrilling spectacle. However, we have to leave Hali before first light to reach the rendezvous point for our pre-booked photographic tour of an ice cave beneath Breiðamerkurjökull, a glacier in the Vatnajökull National Park.

By the time we begin our journey with five other photographers in a Ford Econoline 6WD, a monster truck with huge snow tyres, the surrounding snow-swept landscape is beginning to blush sugar-pink in the predawn light. Leaving the highway, the Ford makes light work of a rough, snow covered track inland past a frigid glacial lake to an all but hidden narrow cleft in a bank of snow. The sun is just beginning to rise above a low bank of hills opposite and we hurry inside to see the first rays of the day cast brilliant pin points of golden light on the crystalline interior of the ice cave. The spectacle is fleeting however, due to rising cloud. I take time to soak in my surroundings, a crystal grotto straight out of a Russian fairy story. Huge scalloped-shaped walls of ice arch high over my head, sculpted by the passage of a now frozen river. Most of the smooth scallops end in a tiny pimple, a drop of water literally frozen in time. The colours - white, through deep turquoise, petrol blue, charcoal grey and inky black - are breathtaking.

Ice cave, BreiðamerkurjökullIce cave, BreiðamerkurjökullThese ice caves move or completely disappear with the shifting ice sheet each year

I stare intently into the translucent ice, seeing strange filaments the thickness of a human hair, specks of black volcanic grit and myriad clusters of air bubbles trapped eons ago. I learn to read its coded message: stripes of subtly different coloured layers represent varying periods of snowfall over many centuries. Whiter layers tell us that the ice formed when the weather was very cold, because air was trapped within the snow making it more reflective. Layers that are darker or bluer in colour were created by snowfall in warmer or wet conditions when little air was trapped. I spy smooth pebbles and small boulders stuck fast in the ice like insects stuck in amber, and in places the ice is striated, testament to the relentless power of this glacier which is slowly grinding its way through the valley.

We progress deeper inside the cave past a gaping hole to the surface. The sunlight is catching the far edge of this opening turning it golden which seems to make the ice below an even deeper shade of turquoise. I crawl through small passages choked with snow, side branches of the glacial river which will begin to flow again come spring, and stare open-mouthed at the huge main chamber. Inside is a large stalactite, formed from water seeping out of a hole in the roof of the cave. Around two metres high and gleaming with turquoise translucency, it spills onto the gravel floor of the cave like molten wax.

Ice cave, BreiðamerkurjökullIce cave, BreiðamerkurjökullA visit to an ice cave beneath one of Iceland's glaciers is the highlight of any winter trip

On every photographer’s itinerary is Jökulsarlón lagoon. Here huge icebergs float majestically in front of the shattered nose of the Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier (a part of the larger Vatnajökull Glacier) that sweeps up to a line of imposing mountains. The water from the lagoon flows into a river onto a nearby beach. Here a stunning vista unfolds before our eyes: a bejewelled shoreline of dazzling diamonds set against black volcanic sands. My jaw drops at the savage beauty of it all. Myriad shards of ice of all sizes have passed through the nearby lagoon and floated down the river to be washed ashore by the tide. The surf thunders onto the beach, rocking even the largest of these icebergs, and I delight in the long, withdrawing, grating roar as the waves retreat and then advance once more with a strident hiss along the sloping shingly shore. The way the golden sunlight is refracted through these scalloped gems, some white and translucent, others tinged turquoise, is enough to send a poet into raptures and make an artist grab his palette.

Sea shore jewelsSea shore jewelsOne of many icebergs that have floated down river from the Jökulsarlón lagoon

After one final communion with the serenity of the lagoon, we head east on the N1 towards Egilsstaðir. The route weaves its way below towering snow-clad mountains silhouetted against a candy pink sky which is reflected in the icy surface of frozen brooks and rivers. Solitary shells of abandoned farmsteads seem to cry out in their eternal loneliness, an indicator of the marginality of wresting a living from the land in this harsh corner of the world. Before long the road begins to weave its way in and out of numerous fjords under a velvety black sky literally showered with stars. We arrive at our guesthouse in snowy Egilsstaðir on a street so quiet you could hear a pin drop.

Quiet abandonQuiet abandonDeserted farmhouse visible from Route 1

Candy pink sunsetCandy pink sunsetThe winter sunsets in Iceland provide amazing opportunities for photography

 

A Communion with Solitude

The ground is frozen solid with snow piled high on either side of the street as we head out of town en route to the Hengifoss Gorge. The sunrise through the skeletal branches of some trees fringing the frozen far reaches of Lake Lagarfljót is serene and stunningly beautiful. It’s bitterly cold as we begin the climb up to view the falls at Hengifoss and before long we have to stop to don crampons in order to move safely over the ironbound ground coated with ice inches thick in places. Every heather sprig and blade of withered grass poking through the crispy snow or trapped in ice seems to hold a fragile crystal. And every water seep or small stream has been frozen solid to the walls of the gorge where it hangs in huge icicles and sheets of ice. Basalt columns line either side of Litlanesfoss, a barely flowing waterfall pincered between the huge pipe-like structures that resemble a giant organ. Way below us Lake Lagarfljót lies completely still, a sheet of brooding gunmetal occasionally flooded with a ghastly luminescence from a lurid winter sun. There isn’t another soul around, no one but us passing through this pristine, savagely beautiful place.

Frozen in timeFrozen in timeLitlanesfoss, a waterfall lower downstream from Hengifoss

Lake LagarfljótLake LagarfljótThe savage beauty of the winter landscape below Hengifoss

The climb to the head of the falls looks deceptively easy, but the route which meanders round the edge of the gorge is almost 3 km and involves an ascent of about 400 metres, the upper part of which is very steep. Two cairns taller than a man on either side of the gorge seem to guard its head, after which the sombre beauty of the falls finally reveals itself. Hengifoss is the second highest waterfall in Iceland (128m) and is said to make a noise like a jet engine when in spate, but today it makes barely a whimper, almost paralysed by winter’s icy grip. A mere trickle can be seen falling between vast swathes of turquoise-tinged ice that contrasts with the bands of rust red lateritic soil trapped between the layers of basalt like the filling in a giant sandwich. We do not tarry long due to the intense cold and the lengthening shadows heralding the imminent demise of the daylight.

Its twilight as we are driving along the eastern shore of Lake Lagarfljót, past the largest forest in Iceland. To say that this country is arboreally challenged is an understatement, so these beech plantations are highly regarded by Icelanders. We make for Akureyri, the capital of the northern area of the country, a picturesque town of quaint wooden buildings and gaily painted shops. The drive there takes us across endless bleak, icy uplands in the northern part of the Vatnajökull National Park, where a cruel wind howls across the naked landscape and barely a vehicle passes us. We are fortunate that the bridge over the Jökulsá á Fjöllum River is still open, as there was talk of closing it due to the accumulation of ice floes that have choked the river almost to the height of the bridge.

As we pass the geothermal area of Mývatn, betrayed by the characteristic whiff of hydrogen sulphide, flurries of snow begin to fall. By the time we approach Akureyri it is so thick we can barely see five metres in front of us and accumulations feet deep lie in the road. I am thankful indeed to reach our hotel safely. From the warmth and comfort of the restaurant window, I delight in seeing the snow falling heavily, depositing thick layers on the roofs of nearby wooden buildings in a scene straight from a Christmas card. 

 

High Drama at Sundown

We couldn’t have known that our fascination with the winterscape would take an unexpected downturn as we leave Akureyri the following morning bound for the Tröllaskagi (troll) Peninsula. The cloud seems to be clearing as we head north past the step hulks of mountains blushing rose pink in the dawn light, below which tiny farmhouses cower in the vast snowy expanse. On past a pretty Lutheran church with a blood red roof and spire, through the fishing port of Dalvik nestled below a massive snowy mountain on the Eyjafjörður, its sleepy harbour home to a number of eider ducks, to Siglufjörður, once the largest herring fishery in Iceland. Weather-beaten houses in green, yellow, red and blue line the road and huge fish processing sheds which look hastily erected of wood and corrugated iron, bear witness to the former importance of the ‘silver of the sea’. Near Siglufjörður are some of Iceland’s finest ski slopes, a magnet for weekenders from Reykjavík and beyond. As we climb out of Siglufjörður, the grey-green waters of the Arctic Ocean are revealed in all their moody majesty. We stop to view a rust red lighthouse perched defiantly on the cliffs above the seething ocean, huge waves breaking onto the jagged rocks below. The wind is so strong and so cold, it’s enough to cut you in two.

Lutheran ChurchLutheran ChurchThe blood red roof and spire of this pretty church outside Akureyri contrasts with the whey-white snow

SiglufjörðurSiglufjörðurColourful buildings line the street of what was once Iceland's largest herring fishery

As we make our way along the bleak and exposed coastline of the Skagafjörður, the wind strengthens to gale force and we can feel the car being buffeted by the gusts. The sky turns an ominous battleship-grey as we pull into a petrol station in the middle of nowhere. Here we experience our first Icelandic smorgasbord. This is true rural fare, echoing the past when the harsh climate and reliance on subsidence farming meant that nothing at all was wasted. We spot harðfiskur (wind dried fish); picked herring; sviðasulta (sheep head jam), hrútspungar (whey pickled rams’ testicles), slatur (blood pudding), hangikjöt (lamb smoked over its own dung), glerhákarl (‘glassy shark’ from the belly) and softer white skyrhákarl. But the sight of svið, singed, de-brained and boiled sheep’s head, is the real gut churner! I recoil with revulsion at the sight of the heads that have been split in two, their gnarled teeth exposed by the shrunken flesh around their mouths and I admit to having to be absolutely starving to even countenance eating such a thing!

Upon leaving the petrol station, the road begins to climb a hill over a pass. Visibility suddenly plummets to less than a few metres as spindrift lifted in the gale force wind sweeps down from the surrounding hillside. Almost immediately it’s difficult to see the snow markers at the edge of the road. At least we are not alone; there is a vehicle in front of us and several behind. Unnerved, we decide however to push on towards Borgarnes where we have accommodation booked for the night. To compound an already bad situation, it now begins to snow heavily and it quickly sticks, making it near impossible to see the tarmac road. We almost collide with a two wheel drive car that has stuttered to a halt in the middle of the road and pass by several others struggling their way uphill. Martin is concerned that stopping for such obstacles will mean we get stuck too. Night is falling, the conditions are truly atrocious and visibility is now down to just a couple of metres making it hard to see the rear lights of the jeep in front of us. Just as we are debating whether to call it a day and return to the gas station, conditions improve as we enter a more sheltered valley and with great relief we opt to continue our journey.

This, however, is just an interlude, for as soon as we meet the next exposed mountain pass the spindrift again causes whiteout conditions making it almost impossible to see the road. This time it is pitch black, there are no other vehicles before or behind us and we inch our way slowly forward in the icy-white maelstrom, desperate to avoid inadvertently leaving the road. Nothing seems to be passing us on the opposite side of the road and I have the window wound down trying to see the snow poles, but most of them are virtually invisible, their reflective bands totally iced over. The cold is intense, the spindrift feels like millions of tiny needles as it blasts my face and virtually blinds me, and I find it almost impossible to speak to Martin as the gale force wind snatches my words. To say I’m frightened is an understatement. Driving in the winter in Iceland can be very challenging, and many visitors are often too inexperienced to tackle the dangerous conditions.

Conditions then suddenly improve again and we think we are in the clear. It’s still howling a gale and snowing steadily, but visibility is much improved and I begin to believe we will make it to Borgarnes after all. Ahead in the distance we spot the petrol station at Staðarskáli and Martin, nerves frayed to breaking point, suggests we stop for a coffee. As we approach it, we see the blue flashing lights of a police car. The road ahead, which crosses the Holtavörðuheiði mountain pass, has been closed and we find ourselves among 338 people who are stranded here.

It’s total mayhem inside; all the tables and chairs are occupied and people are sitting cross legged next to young children sleeping on the floor. Locals say they have never witnessed conditions as bad as this on the arterial road through the country, and seem shocked that it has been closed. Most believe it will reopen before the petrol station closes. I do not share their optimism and shortly before 11.00 pm we are being escorted by Search and Rescue officers five minutes down the road to a hotel! The Stadarskali I Hrutafirdi is like a throwback to 1980s East Germany - tired looking rooms with vapid décor off a long, dingy corridor - but with a tariff to rival some hotels in Reykjavík. However, it’s the only place round here and it’s warm, clean, with a hot en suite shower, far better than the floor of a school or church hall, and we’re glad to be safely tucked up in bed.

 

Reykjanes in the Rain

By morning the road is open. We set off past the petrol station across a vast tract of windswept upland on a day that doesn’t seem to hold much promise weather wise. The snow is so deep in places it obscures the top of the snow poles and has all but swallowed most of the nearby farm fences. It’s not hard to imagine how appalling the conditions must have been the previous night with gale force winds, snow and spindrift howling across this exposed landscape. Indeed, we soon see the results of the extreme weather: umpteen cars abandoned at the side of the road almost totally encased in snow, and near the top of the pass, two stranded articulated trucks, one of which is lying on its side having lost control and skidded off the road going downhill. Snow ploughs are busy clearing the highway and numerous crashed vehicles are being towed away. We’re heartily glad we were not among the unfortunate people caught out on this stretch of road when darkness fell last night.

Stranded vehiclesStranded vehiclesAbandoned vehicles on the Holtavörðuheiði mountain pass. The challenges of winter driving in Iceland are not to be underestimated

It’s lunchtime when we enter a petrol station in Borgarnes and being gung-ho gourmands, we finally decide the time has come to sample some of the local ‘delicacies’ from an Icelandic smorgasbord at a nearby restaurant. Neither of us can quite bring ourselves to try svið, but we choose some of the cured meats. Despite liking smoked foods, I find hangikjöt (smoked lamb) a little too strong and salty for my taste. The hrútspungar (whey pickled rams’ testicles) is horribly sour and cheesy with a texture like soft pâté which sticks in my gullet. The sviðasulta (sheep head jam), pink rubbery scraps of meat and offal congealed in a bland brown jelly and the slatur (blood pudding) are simply too rich and fatty. The meats come with rúgbrauð (rye bread), pickled red cabbage, mashed swede and baby potatoes in a creamy sauce made of skyr which are quite palatable.

SviðSviðTraditional Icelandic fare: a sheep's head cut in half and boiled after the brain has been removed

Due to last night’s disruption to our travel schedule, and having to be at Keflavík International Airport by late afternoon for our flight back to Belfast, we scrap our plan to visit the Blue Lagoon spa, opting instead to tour the Reykjanes Peninsula. As we leave the tolled tunnel under Hvalfjörður, it begins to lash with sleety rain. Across the choppy bay we can see the futuristic spire of Hallgrímskirkja piercing the grey skyline in downtown Reykjavík. The Reykjanes Peninsula is unremittingly barren, stark and almost uninhabitable, comprised of rough, contorted piles of lava where only moss and lichen seem to flourish. Site of a former US base, on a miserable winter’s day like this it looks horribly bleak and uninviting.

We pass the Blue Lagoon, the world famous upmarket spa set amid a lunar landscape of fractured lava and snow capped volcanoes. Formed from the waste waters of a nearby geothermal plant, the silica-rich milky-blue water is so vibrant even on a dull day such as this, it’s hard to believe the scene before my eyes hasn’t been photoshopped! The road takes us on to Grindavík, a small, wind-battered fishing village rising up out of gloomy lava mounds and comprised of rows of depressing shabby wooden and concrete houses. Its grey, rain-lashed main street angrily reflects the daylight and I cannot imagine living in such a bleak, exposed place; it's a relief to drive away!

The Blue LagoonThe Blue LagoonInside Iceland's most famous spa on a return trip the following year

Geologically very active, nowhere else visibly shows the junction in the earth’s crust between the Eurasian and American tectonic plates quite as clearly as the Reykjanes Peninsula. We pass huge geothermal plants spewing clouds of white vapour into the freezing air and in howling wind and lashing rain, at Sandvík we can see where the earth’s crust is literally being torn apart. Here a small footbridge has been erected over a major fissure which is a stunning example of a diverging plate margin. Despite the foul weather, we can’t resist the urge to clamber down into it to walk between the Eurasian and North American plates.

An hour later we are sitting in a bar at Keflavík International Airport enjoying our last Icelandic stout, the appropriately named Lava. After little more than a day in this remarkable island, superlatives fail you as you bear witness to the utterly face-slapping scenery, the beauty of which can reduce you to tears. A vast volcanic laboratory of gushing geysers, grinding glaciers, magical mountains and wild waterfalls, you can't but sense your utter insignificance in the grander scheme of things set against such hyper-charged majesty. Just as one beer here is never enough, one trip is not enough either. Iceland is already calling us back...

Indeed, we did return the following year! See our short film of the beautiful Icelandic winter:

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eramaptec@gmail.com (Purple Peak Adventures) Europe Iceland World Heritage Site road trip winter http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2015/2/land-of-fire-and-ice-a-winter-road-trip-round-iceland Fri, 06 Feb 2015 20:18:00 GMT
To the Roof of Africa: Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, via the 7-day Machame-Mweka Route http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2015/1/to-the-roof-of-africa-kilimanjaro-tanzania-via-the-7-day-machame-mweka-route KilimanjaroKilimanjaroKilimanjaro rises like an empress from the savannah

 

Day One: The March to Machame

Through the dusty, chipped windscreen of the minibus, I get my first good look at snow clad Kilimanjaro soaring high into an azure blue sky above rust red farmland and deep green jungle. It’s late-November 2014 and we’re en route from our hotel in Moshi to the Machame Gate to begin our attempt to stand on the roof of Africa at 5,895 metres. A wave of apprehension washes over me as I take in the sheer scale of this dormant volcano, its south-western slope garlanded by a veil of cloud that seems to hug it like a silken skirt. Over the course of the next week, we must cover a distance of almost 48 kilometres with over 5,000 metres of ascent and descent. The altitude will certainly make itself felt and I’ve heard stories of incredibly fit celebrities, including Martina Navratilova and Robbie Savage, climbing it for charity who have failed in their quest to summit. Statistics quote successful summit rates of between 45 and 66 per cent on all routes (and we have decided against taking Diamox); people die on this mountain every year. However, your chances of summiting improve the longer you spend on the mountain, so we have arranged a seven day trek. But there is also the weather to consider. We’re here during the season of the ‘short rains’ when the north-east monsoon brings moisture-laden cloud that falls as light rains, particularly on the northern slopes of the mountain. There could be a lot of snow near the summit…

We stop briefly at a small butcher’s shop shaded by a giant banana tree in the village of Machame, a series of tin and wooden shacks which sprawls for several kilometres along the dusty road to the park, where one of our party buys meat for our climb. In contrast to the two of us, sitting silently lost in our own thoughts, our guides, cook and porters, eight in total, are all in high spirits, talking loudly and animatedly in Swahili to each other as the minibus proceeds once more along the road to the Machame Gate. It soon appears through the tropical vegetation, a large wooden toblerone-shaped structure at the end of a line of small booths selling all those must have things you forgot to pack – matches, paper tissues, loo roll, batteries - and things you most certainly do not need, like Kili bracelets!

Setting out at MoshiSetting out at MoshiMartin and I with our guide, Hamadi, outside the Keys Hotel in Moshi

We arrive in the car park to find it abuzz with activity. Porters and guides are milling around everywhere, unloading luggage, provisions and camping equipment from the roof racks of several minibuses. We join around twenty other trekkers sitting in a covered enclosure, while our team prepares our equipment. The area of the mountain is a national park which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is strictly protected. Consequently it is impossible to do this climb independently as you must have a registered and licensed Tanzanian guide and assistant guide(s) and a permit to climb which you pay for along with the park fees. Porters are supplied to carry camping equipment, food and our personal belongings (up to a maximum of 15 kilos per client) and to set up camp each day. A cook will prepare our meals. Rules governing the weight each porter can carry are strictly enforced and a weighing station, which must be used to check in and out of each camp, ensures that even the garbage is accounted for. Failure to comply means heavy fines are inflicted on the offending trekking group and this consequently deters littering.

While we wait in the shade, we tuck into the contents of the plastic lunchboxes provided by the company: a fried sandwich of sorts, two portions of fried chicken, a muffin, banana and fruit juice. I study our fellow trekkers, most of whom look young, slim and clad in new gear. A rather portly, middle aged German man in shorts and brand new boots is strutting around the compound seemingly impatient to be off. After some time, our guide, Hamadi, a tall, lean man in his late-thirties, instructs us to sign in at the park office where we must provide our personal details: name, address, nationality, age, occupation and passport number. We note that we are among the oldest trekkers; most are in their 20s. Indeed, the majority have recorded their occupation as ‘student’, although there are also a few doctors and engineers, a company director, a couple of consultants, a surveyor and a moose hunter…

There’s just time for a final visit to the bathroom containing a clean sit down toilet (the last for a week!) and Hamadi signals that our group is ready for the off. Our porters have already gone on ahead to set up camp and we pass through the green metal gates of the perimeter fence and past a wooden sign wishing trekkers a good climb. We have some 11 kilometres with an ascent of 1,210 metres ahead of us which traverses a gravel 4X4 road for the first three kilometres. The going is easy, but the heat and humidity is high. We soon turn into a well-maintained earthen pedestrian-only path which looks mysterious and enchanted, mottled with sunlight and fringed by a tangle of exposed tree roots. This weaves its way steadily upward under a dense canopy of tropical trees, some over 10 metres high from which lianas dangle. These include enormous camphorwoods, juniper, fig, olive and wild mango. My eye alights on several dazzling patches of pink and red flowers which are species of impatiens (Impatiens pseudoviola, Impatiens digitata and the yellow tipped tuba-shaped Impatiens kilimanjari). Sprays of fragrant pale pink begonias cascade through the tree canopy and their delicate flowers litter the ground. The cries of tropical birds periodically rend the air, although we do not catch sight of any to photograph.

Machame GateMachame GateSetting off at Machame Gate

The track rises along the spine of a steep ridge, although the vertiginous drops to either side are largely hidden by the dense vegetation. The trail is quite steep in places and several series of steps are encountered which slows down many trekkers who are already clearly struggling, including the portly German, sweaty, red faced and panting profusely. We make a brief stop to finish off the contents of our lunchboxes allowing several porters to pass by. Beads of sweat stand out on their foreheads. I am amazed at the way in which they transport their heavy loads – balanced atop their heads – which gives them a very upright appearance and they appear to glide along.

En route to Machame HutEn route to Machame HutStriding out along the 11 kilometre 1,210 metre ascent to Machame Hut through tropical forest

Just before we reach Machame Huts, the vegetation begins to thin out rapidly, marking the boundary between the cloud forest and the moorland heath. Through gaps in the undergrowth I spy an endless expanse of thickly forested ridges. Jungle gives way to spindly head high heather, juniper and podocarpus, garlanded with wispy pale green bearded lichen. We arrive at Machame Hut (3,021 metres) in just over four hours, having really enjoyed what turned out to be an easy walk up from the gate. We find our porters erecting the mess tent not far from the office where we have just signed in. The tent in which we will sleep is already up and hot water is brought to us to wash away the sweat of the day from our faces and hands. As the afternoon cloud begins to thin a little, we discover that our camping spot offers a grandstand view of Kibo Peak away to the east, and our mess tent is strategically positioned to take advantage of this panorama.

At Machame HutAt Machame HutEntrance to Machame Hut (3,021 metres)

We decide to explore the camp for a spot to watch the sunset. The last trekkers of the day, including the portly German, are finally arriving in the camp. Beforehand however, a call of nature must be answered and I have my first experience of a long drop. I enter a dimly lit wooden shack half hidden in some bushes away from the camping area. It has no door, but once inside you must turn into an adjoining compartment which offers some privacy. There isn’t room to swing a cat and as I drop my trousers to crouch down over a narrow opening in the wet and soiled wooden boards, a cloud of flies rises with a low hum. Now hovering just feet from the hole, my nostrils are suddenly assaulted by the pungent sulphurous stench of human excrement, causing me to retch violently. This had to be the fastest pee in my life, and I literally bolt coughing and gagging from the long drop before I am physically sick, hitching up my trousers as I go, a source of great amusement to Martin. I don’t see the funny side at all. A quick pee is one thing, but I’m now dreading having to have a crap tomorrow morning!!

From a quiet spot in the west of the sprawling camp, we can see the twin sister of Kilimanjaro, Mount Meru, which provides a dramatic backdrop for the flaming orb of the sun to slip behind as day one ebbs away. Not long after sundown, dinner is served by one of our porters. He raises the lid of a plastic tureen with a flourish; ‘cucumber soup’ he says dramatically, as its wonderful aroma fills the tent. I am famished and dunking slices of bread into it, tuck in greedily, helping myself to seconds. The next course consists of a generous portion of battered fish, chips and a mixed side salad, washed down with black tea. If all of our meals are such a grand affair as this, we’ll not be going hungry, that’s for sure!

Sunset from Machame HutSunset from Machame HutThe sun sets over Mount Meru

Dinner complete, it is now pitch black and decidedly chilly; by degrees the camp falls silent as people turn in for the night. From outside our mess tent we can see Kibo Peak, its snows silvered from the light of an immense canopy of brilliant stars and the mere sliver of a moon. A thrill of excitement radiates through me as I anticipate climbing the mountain over the next few days. It has been a great start. The omens are good.

Starry night, Machame HutStarry night, Machame HutView from our first camp

 

Day Two: The Scramble to Shira Caves

I am still sleeping soundly when one of our porters brings steaming hot mugs of ginger tea to us around dawn. Poking my head outside our tent I am greeted by a clear and crisp morning. Sunlight is flooding over Mount Kibo, etched against a cloudless blue sky. Delicious smells are emanating from the nearby cook tent as well as a very animated conversation in Swahili between those inside. I am constantly struck by how loudly the Tanzanians converse with each other, which at times appears to border on arguing!

Dressed and washed, we decide to eat our breakfast outside to enjoy the scenery. The sun is very warm on my shoulders as I feast on a slice of succulent mango. This is followed by a bowl of porridge, with seconds readily available, washed down by black tea. We are surprised when a large platter of pancakes, toast, omelette and sausages is set down in front of us; our guide informs us that we will lunch at the next campsite, so we shamelessly demolish the lot! One of the porters brings us cool water which has been boiled for our bladders and we prepare to break camp. By now I need to answer a call of nature, the moment I have been dreading. This time I wrap a bandana around my mouth and nose to help prevent the stench and find a more modern long drop with a lockable door, tiled interior and no flies, which was just about bearable!

Breakfast, Machame HutBreakfast, Machame HutA grandstand view of Kibo Peak

Day two is a climb of about 5.5 kilometres in a northerly direction with an ascent of 818 metres to Shira Caves Campsite (3,839 metres). Although short, it is a mildly strenuous climb involving some hands on scrambling along the spine of a rocky ridge and petrified lava flows fringed with lichen clad giant heather. We seem to set off at the same time as everyone else, and I can only imagine how congested this route must get in peak season. Umpteen porters struggle by laden with rush baskets and canvas holdalls atop their heads. I spy one carefully carrying two dozen carton-packaged eggs by a piece of string, another lugging a camping stove and gas canister.

Occasional splashes of colour betray the presence of crimson gladioli flowers nodding on delicate stalks; pale pink helichrysums (everlastings) with large saffron yellow centres, and dazzling flame orange, red hot pokers. As we ascend, the trekking groups begin to thin out a little which makes climbing a more pleasurable experience, although we are keen to avoid a brash and loud Spaniard with a shock of black curls and a grating American accent who seems hell bent on sharing information about his bowel movements and the benefits of farting at altitude with all and sundry. The final straw comes as 'El Cid' lets one go downwind which nearly floors us as we retch and gasp for fresh air in the thinning atmosphere! Fortunately we’re much faster than his group, one of the benefits we have over larger parties who must travel at the pace of the slowest member, and we soon leave him behind.

HelichrysumHelichrysumAlso known as everlastings, these flowers are common on Kilimanjaro

After trekking for almost two hours, a short scramble up naked rock to a viewing point gives magnificent vistas over the lushly wooded slopes of the mountain sweeping down to the African savannah toward Mount Meru, above which fluffy white dots of cloud float. Ahead of us, snow clad Kibo glinting in the brilliant sunshine begins to fill the sky. As we ascend higher the path narrows, weaving its way along the crest of a ridge and the cloud begins to thicken, hugging the lip of the Shira Plateau. Within ten minutes it has descended, shrouding the trail in grey mist which blows eerily across the landscape swallowing most sound. We are literally right at a small stream conveying glacial melt water tumbling down from on high before we hear it. Our guides, Hamadi and Hussein, stop to fill their water bottles.

En route to Shira CavesEn route to Shira CavesScenic viewpoint with Mount Meru in the distance

The vegetation begins to thin out now, more grasses and ground shrubs appear, and I spot the mountain thistle, Cardus keniensis, with its beautiful cluster of electric mauve heads. The giant heather is no longer as tall and seems to have less foliage; its spindly, skeletal limbs bedecked with bearded lichen look highly weird through the billowing mist. In a small gully below the ridge, I spot the first tree groundsels, unique to Equatorial East Africa, a peculiar plant with a trunk like a telegraph pole supporting dumpy candelabra shaped branches each sporting a terminal leaf rosette. These ones are quite small, but impressive nonetheless. After a clamber up an eight metre high rock face aided by some concrete steps, we pause for a short break on a small plateau where we encounter a pair of inquisitive white naped-ravens, large scavengers with brown heads and a white collar, whose coal black feathers have a petrol blue sheen. With their large, mean looking hooked beaks, I keep a sharp eye on this duo as they hop about totally unperturbed, hoping no doubt to steal some of our snacks!

White naped-raven (Corvus albicollis)White naped-raven (Corvus albicollis)This large bird is common on Kilimanjaro

Of interest to Martin, a geologist, are the fragments of obsidian that litter the ground formed from the rapidly cooled lava of an ancient eruption. He breaks one open to reveal its shiny black glass interior. The edges are razor sharp. As we progress higher, the undulating path is less distinct and involves climbing over and around large boulders with some tricky hands on scrambling. Several overhanging caves are encountered, one of which has a small waterfall pouring picturesquely down in front of it, a perfect spot to wash our dusty hands. Eventually, after just under five hours trekking, the terrain levels, sheets of petrified lava from an ancient eruption are encountered and a series of cairns appear through the mist as we enter the boulder strewn Shira Plateau.

Across from a small stream the Shira Caves Campsite sprawls in all directions amid stands of giant heather and we spend several minutes locating our camp in the billowing mist. The silence is punctuated periodically by the clatter of pots and pans, snatches of conversation from the porters and the raucous cries of white-naped ravens perching somewhere close by, but invisible in the gloom. It feels decidedly chilly as soon as we stop and we are glad to crawl into our tent for a nap before lunch. We are soon woken by Hamadi who informs us we must register our arrival and we set off in the cold greyness of early afternoon for the camp office, passing trekkers just arriving into camp, including the portly German. Hamadi and his assistant guide, Hussein, then take us a short distance away to see the Shira Caves, basalt roofs blackened by years of camp fires. He explains that the porters and guides used to sleep in here by the warmth of camp fires, but this has now been banned, as collecting firewood damaged the fragile ecosystem.

After a hearty lunch we retire to the relative warmth of our tent to read, listen to music and snooze before sundown. Martin is hopeful of a good sunset over Mount Meru, and we leave our tent to find an appropriate vantage point. On a petrified lava flow overlooking a deep gully well away from the noise and bustle of the camp, we wait to see if the cloud will lift. Intriguing vistas flash in and out of view before finally, the mist begins to magically clear. A ghostly saffron yellow ball hangs above the charcoal grey outlines of Shira Cathedral and East Shira Hill and beyond, poking high above the churning mist now tinted a warm shade of apricot in the setting sun, are Johnsell Point and Klute Peak, the highest points on the Shira Ridge. Behind us Kibo Peak, bathed in golden light, rises majestically and we are surprised how close it appears to be. Attention now turns to Mount Meru, the dramatic backdrop for yet another spectacular sunset. The last rays of sunlight catch the top of the boiling cloud alight in a thousand shades of chrome orange and vermilion before the sun sets behind the pyramid shaped volcano in a sky of burnished gold.

Mount Kibo in the setting sunMount Kibo in the setting sunThe view from Shira Caves Campsite

Dusk at Shira Caves CampsiteDusk at Shira Caves CampsiteThe charcoal grey outlines of Shira Cathedral and East Shira Hill

Dinner is soon ready and we retire to our mess tent for yet another feast: asparagus soup followed by beef goulash with rice and green beans. Leaving the tent, the cold of night hits us like a sledgehammer and we are glad of our down jackets. Overhead, the sky is crystal clear and crammed full of stars. Despite the intense cold, we saunter some distance from the camp to a secluded spot to set up the tripod for some time lapse photos. Martin points out constellations we cannot see in the Northern Hemisphere and the Magellanic Clouds (Nubeculae Magellani), a duo of irregular dwarf galaxies, mere smudges in the night sky. Standing beneath the shimmering Milky Way with snow capped Kibo gleaming in the starlight is a truly exhilarating experience and it’s only the bitter cold that drives me back into our tent and where my down sleeping bag and booties await, warmed by a nalgene bottle of hot water!

 

The Battle to Barranco

It was frigidly cold during the night and upon unzipping the tent, I am surprised to see that ice crystals the size of spear tips have burst through the thin soil all around. The tent is silvered with frost and I am thankful that we brought our own Thermarest sleeping mats which we placed on top of the foam mattresses provided by our trekking company for extra insulation. A high-end down sleeping bag is essential and I have brought my trusty Rab Andes 800, good for temperatures down to -22 degrees centigrade. Packing woollen long johns, a long sleeved merino base layer and down booties to sleep in turned out to be a good idea too. In fact it was so cold that Hamadi and his assistant guide, Hussein, had crammed another two of our party into their tent, while the four others huddled together for warmth in the mess tent. The sky is piercingly blue and the atmosphere crystal clear as I stroll across camp to use one of the long drops. It is a bad choice, as the previous occupant had a poor aim. No one needs to be confronted by a freshly laid turd steaming on the wooden floor boards before being truly compos mentis!!

Breakfast of fresh fruit, porridge, pancakes, omelette and sausages are served in our mess tent. We leave the flaps open and I watch, amused at the antics of the cook from a nearby group, who is quite a character. ‘Rasta Man’ sports an impressive set of dreadlocks which he wears beneath a woollen cap in the colours of the Jamaican flag, but it is his bright pink lycra leggings that really catch my attention. All the other porters seem to know him and he is clearly popular among his peers who jest loudly with him.

Today will be a tough test, intended to aid in the acclimatisation to altitude. Moving from the western to the southern slopes of Kilimanjaro, the route covers a distance of around 11 kilometres with an ascent of 788 metres up to Lava Tower at 4,627 metres, followed by a descent of 641 metres to Barranco Huts at 3,986 metres. Our cook, Salimo, brings us a packed lunch rather similar to the fare we had on day one and we set off slowly from camp, our boots crunching on the hoary ground. The trail starts off relatively benignly, meandering across a small stream fringed with phallic shaped lobelia and rises gently across the ancient lava flows of the Shira Plateau studded with enormous boulders blown out eons ago in one of the volcano’s violent eruptions. It’s not at all dusty on account of the ice protruding though the thin soil, but this soon begins to melt as the sun strengthens leaving the ground damp underfoot. With Kibo now filling the sky in front of us, its Penck Glacier gleaming white, we make our way steadily eastwards. We pass many other trekking groups, including the portly German, sweating heavily and struggling upwards like a wind broken horse, and people who have stopped to attend to blistered feet or who are feeling nauseous. Higher up, the trail passes contorted lava outcrops and strange wind sculpted basalt boulders, where only the hardiest plants – wiry grasses, lichens and helichrysums - seem able to cling to life.

En route to Barranco HutsEn route to Barranco HutsThe trail crosses ancient lava flows on the Shira Plateau which is studded with enormous boulders blown out eons ago in one of the volcano’s violent eruptions

As we pass the junction with the Lemosho Route, the cloud begins to boil up from the plains below, obscuring views of a low range of hills and rocky outcrops. Not much further on, the trail splits in two and we join the South Circuit Path. Through the mist blowing across a broad, sloping plateau of dull grey and brown lava slabs strewn with boulders and ragged yellow grass, I finally see Lava Tower. The porters (and struggling trekkers) take a more direct route to Barranco Huts here, omitting Lava Tower, but this is now seen as essential in following the mantra ‘climb high and sleep low’ in order to boost your chances of summiting. The air feels very chilly, my hands are numb, and we stop to wrap up in warm layers before heading on, our pace now considerably slower as the altitude kicks in. ‘Pole, pole’ (‘slowly, slowly’), says Hussein in Swahili with a reassuring smile, as the distinctive tower-shaped rock standing proud of the surrounding landscape inches ever closer.

En route to Lava Tower (4,627 metres)En route to Lava Tower (4,627 metres)Lava Tower is essential in following the mantra ‘climb high and sleep low’ in order to boost your chances of summiting

On arrival at Lava Tower, we find a sheltered spot to eat our packed lunches and enjoy a grand view of the Western Breach, a distinctive gap formed by an ancient lava flow on the western outer rim of Kibo, which is drifting in and out of the cloud. Here we encounter more white-naped ravens, who are loitering about on the nearby rocks, waiting for a chance to swoop on a stray snack. But it is the lightening fast four-striped grass mice who steal the show. They put on quite a performance for us as they attempt to raid our lunchboxes!! Our appetites are unaffected by the altitude and we consume our lunch with gusto. Just as we are donning our rucksacks ready for the off, I see El Cid and his group arrive. He looks wan faced and slumps heavily on to a nearby rock. He doesn’t have anything to say for himself today; the altitude fortunately seems to have silenced his tongue, and hopefully his derriere!

Four stripped mouseFour stripped mouseBeware the lunch box raiders at Lava Tower!

The trail to Barranco drops down steeply between enormous pillars of shattered basalt to a small stream which we cross, only to rise again before undulating gently across a barren landscape of rock and gravel. It then plunges down steeply towards a gaping valley on the southern face of Kibo where the campsite, still hidden from view, is sited about a 10 minute walk from the South Circuit Path. I begin to feel a bit tired as we trudge downwards towards Barranco and Martin is walking in just his base layer after feeling that he was overheating. As we approach the camp, the landscape is enlivened by pretty glacier fed streams, some cascading down in small waterfalls, numerous two metre high lobelia and a stand of candelabra-branched groundsel trees (Dendrosenecio kilimanjari), many almost ten metres tall, which form an impressive avenue of sorts into the camp. Silhouetted against the glassy luminescence of sunlight through mist they appear vaguely humanoid, ghostly sentinels spreading their arms wide as if to embrace weary trekkers.

Route to Barranco HutsRoute to Barranco HutsA stand of candelabra-branched groundsel trees (Dendrosenecio kilimanjari) form an impressive avenue of sorts into the camp

After signing in at the camp office, we are glad to crawl into our sleeping bags for a nap before dinner. Martin complains of a slight headache which is apparently quite normal on this leg of the trek. He drinks plenty of water and takes a couple of Ibuprofen and by dinner time he’s feeling fine again. A rather grand sounding ‘Swahili carrot soup’ is served with gusto by our waiter followed by a delicious main course of ground beef in tomato sauce with pasta and vegetables. We’ve actually only gained 147 metres since leaving Shira Camp but the day has been a long and tough one. Feeling pretty tired, and eschewing yet more magnificent views of the night sky, we turn in early.

 

Day Four: Karanga via the ‘Breakfast Wall’

We are woken from our slumbers by the noise of other groups nearby and I can clearly hear the booming voice of Rasta Man above everyone else. It’s another bright, sunny morning, but churning columns of cloud are already beginning to boil about Kibo’s summit which suggests that most of today will be spent walking in mist. The trail to Karanga Hut, a distance of just over 5 kilometres with an ascent of about 300 metres, starts with a near vertical scramble up the famous Great Barranco Wall, jokingly referred to as the ‘Breakfast Wall’. Many of our fellow trekkers are beginning to leave camp as we saunter into the mess tent for our breakfast. I can’t say I’m sorry to see the back of El Cid and I certainly wouldn’t want to be climbing the Barranco Wall directly below him with his backfiring habits!! He and the other groups are making an early start as they have a long day’s trekking up to Barafu Hut; they are climbing the mountain in a day less than us. Reduced to mere dots, we follow their progress as they and their porters move slowly up the switchback pathway of the cliff face which is still largely in shadow. I swear I can see Rasta Man in his bright pink leggings! Although not technically difficult and with little real exposure, the ‘Breakfast Wall’ is hands on and strenuous due to the altitude and has the potential to be really tedious in the peak seasons, as people are undoubtedly forced to queue for slow moving climbers.

Breakfast at BarrancoBreakfast at BarrancoOur mess tent (far right) at Barranco Huts

Apart from a group of four South Africans, we are now the only people left in camp. Kit packed and ready, I visit one of the recently built long drops which has a door and interior tiling and having just been cleaned by the camp caretaker, is thankfully not an unpleasant ordeal. We then set off to scale the 300 metre wall which is nowhere near as hard as it looks. Across a boggy section and over a small stream, we stop to stow our walking poles by a block of rock as big as a house and then begin the scramble up the groundsel-dotted slopes of the zig-zag trail that weaves its way over, around and through rock outcrops and boulders. I really enjoy the challenge of the climb which is such a difference from the relentless slow walking of yesterday. The mist has come down as expected, but this results in a pleasant climbing temperature and I can imagine how uncomfortable it might get in direct sunshine. The porters make the climbing look so easy, and I marvel at their agility, strength and remarkable balance, as one of our team sails by carrying our kit bag on his head. The trail rises in stages, and it’s impossible to see the actual top of the wall until you’re almost out of the gorge.

Barranco WallBarranco WallScaling the 300 metre high Great Barranco Wall, jokingly referred to as the ‘Breakfast Wall’

The wall scaled, we pause for snacks before beginning a gentle descent to the bottom of a gully enlivened by heather bushes, the odd tree groundsel, lobelia, vibrant yellow patches of Euryops dacrydioides and pale green African wormwood. The trail climbs in a south easterly direction past an old porter’s track to Barafu, the use of which is now prohibited. It’s not hard to see why. As Hamadi is pointing it out, a loud rumble and cloud of dust signals a rock fall from a cliff right above this old trail. The route now undulates through a series of small valleys before entering a barren stretch of alpine desert, where only rust red lichen encrusts the lava boulders and straggly grasses sprout from the dusty ground.

Trail to Karanga HutTrail to Karanga HutThe route is enlivened by heather bushes, the odd tree groundsel, lobelia, vibrant yellow patches of Euryops dacrydioides and pale green African wormwood

The weather suddenly takes a turn for the worse and it begins to drizzle. Despite being the season of the ‘short rains’, we have not had any up until now, but we are prepared and stop to don our waterproof ponchos. We won't win any fashion prizes for wearing these! They fit over our backpacks and make us look like a pair of hunchbacks! The light rain driven by a blustery wind is a hindrance, repeatedly clouding our glasses as we cross this exposed section, before we approach the steep descent to the lushly vegetated Karanga Valley which offers some shelter. Hamadi takes us on the steeper of two trails which is rough and muddy in places and traverses exposed rock which is slippery from the rain. I am concentrating hard on moving safely downward, but in spite of this I suddenly lose my footing on some loose rock and begin to slide sideways, overbalancing and gathering speed as I go. An inevitable bad fall is broken only by Martin whom I gratefully career into. My impromptu hero instantly lets himself down by claiming he feels as if he has just been hit by a charging rhino, a comment that Hamadi and Hussein find hilarious!! Shaken, I continue and am greatly relieved when we arrive unscathed at the valley floor.

A stream fed by glacial melt water runs through the Karanga Valley, the last source of water before the summit. Teams of porters are busy collecting and carrying heavy canisters of water on their heads up to the camp which is sited on a windswept rocky slope below Kibo’s southern flank. A short, steep climb below a semicircular overhanging rock formation which Martin identifies as a windblown conglomerate, brings us to Karanga Hut. I smile as I read the words ‘Zombie Land’ scrawled on the rock face near the camp which lies at an altitude of 4,034 metres, over four kilometres above sea level.

The trekkers who left Barranco early and had stopped here for lunch have already departed for Barafu Hut, leaving just a handful of porters washing up and packing away the lunch utensils. One by one they leave and the camp falls pleasantly quiet. Apart from the four South Africans, we are the only other trekking group at Karanga. Popcorn and ginger tea are brought to us to snack on before lunch and we have the rest of the afternoon to relax, read and snooze. By sundown, the cloud has vanished and we can see the immense rocky hulk of Kibo rising above the camp, eternal snow and glaciers smudging its southern face. Dinner is once again a true feast comprised of pumpkin soup, followed by fried chicken, salad and chips. The importance of a hot and hearty meal cannot be underestimated, not only for its nutritional and calorific value, but also for its morale boosting qualities. I especially love Salimo’s soups and really look forward to these each evening.

Kiliamanjaro GlaciersKiliamanjaro GlaciersGlaciers spilling down from the slopes of Kilimanjaro as seen from Karanga Hut

Although I have read a description of Karanga as ramshackle and resembling a refuge camp, I cannot say I share this opinion. I relish the remote solitude of this place, the quietness, the exhilarating feeling you get when you stare up into clear Equatorial night skies. A kaleidoscopic display of stars illuminating the Kersten and Decken glaciers tumbling down from Kibo, the colourful glowing canvas domes - tents of our fellow campers - and the lights of Moshi shimmering on the savannah far below, are indelibly seared into my memory.

Night sky, Karanga HutNight sky, Karanga HutTents glow in the dark like M&Ms at Karanga Hut

 

Day Five: Barafu or Bust!

Hot mugs of ginger tea arrive. The sun has already risen and peering through our tent flaps, I see it’s another glorious morning. Today involves the push up to Barafu Hut sited at 4,662 metres, a distance of less than 3.5 kilometres, the final staging post for the summit assault. I make my way downhill to a wooden long drop, bracing myself for the worst. For minutes I struggle to open what appears to be the door, only to discover as I walk round the back that it has no far wall!! Three sided, it is open to the wind and anyone using it during peak season will be visible to all those people who have pitched their tents below it!! At least this loo with a view doesn’t smell too bad!

Loo with a View!Loo with a View!Long drop at Karanga Hut with Mount Kibo in the background

After the usual extensive breakfast fare, we break camp, our packing regimen by now perfected to a tee, and begin the relentlessly steep upward slog in a north easterly direction towards Barafu. We soon hit a plateau of sorts, the trail marked by a series of cairns which are useful in the mist that has predictably descended and now billows across this blighted place. I spy only a few patches of bright yellow everlastings and some desiccated lichens clinging stubbornly to basalt boulders as we descend into a wide, barren alpine desert valley reminiscent of the Martian landscape. Bathed by strong radiation during the day and subject to excruciatingly cold temperatures at night, virtually nothing can grow here. A short scramble up a cliff face and a further steep pull which really saps my energy, brings us to Barafu camp which means ‘ice’ in Swahili, due to its proximity to the Rebmann Glacier, now riding the north west horizon. It’s sleeting slightly as we walk into camp and sign in at the office. Sited on a desolate spine of rock crowded with clusters of tents, Barafu is a busy, noisy, uncomfortable camp, where people are too nervous or dog-tired to really relax or enjoy themselves. Doing the trek over seven days means we have arrived here well before midday which gives us the opportunity to have two big meals and a good sleep before the summit assault.

The trail to Barafu HutThe trail to Barafu HutVirtually nothing can grow in the lunar landscape at this altitude

The slog up to Barafu HutThe slog up to Barafu HutSituated at 4,662 metres, Barafu Hut is less than 3.5 kilometres from Karanga, but the altitude makes the going slow

Porters serving the groups that had made their summit attempt a day ahead of us are loudly packing away their remaining gear, and in the distance I catch sight of Rasta Man heading off down the mountain. I wonder how his group fared? As we emerge from the mess tent after a lunch of vegetable soup, fruit, beef stew and rice, it is snowing lightly. The cold is intense, the wind penetrating. We don our Rab down jackets to avail of the long drops which, despite the altitude and deep cold, are still gutwrenchingly smelly. Back in our tent the conversation between us is minimal. Lost in our individual thoughts we prepare ourselves mentally for the summit attempt. I listen to the soothing music of Philip Glass, Martin reads a book. It’s hopeless trying to sleep as the camp is simply too noisy with people coming and going and porters shouting at what seems like the top of their voices. After a dinner of sweet potato soup, followed by copious pasta in a rich vegetable sauce which fills us with the carbs needed for the summit assault, we try to grab some sleep.

Barafu Hut (4,662 metres)Barafu Hut (4,662 metres)The busy, noisy campsite at Barafu Hut where it's impossible to relax before the ascent of Kilimanjaro

 

Day Six: To the Roof of Africa!

I sleep surprisingly well and Martin has to shake me awake around 11.00 pm after one of the porters rouses us. Adrenalin flowing, I instantly dress in my summit gear: a pair of thick woollen hiking socks and a pair of liners; merino long johns; mountaineering trousers; long sleeved winter merino base layer; a light weight woollen mid layer; Rab generator smock and GoreTex jacket. We make our way to the mess tent where ginger tea and biscuits await us. Here we sort out the remainder of the kit we will carry about our person and in our rucksacks: Rab down jackets; head torches; down mittens and woollen liners; balaclavas; bandanas; polar fleece hats; sunglasses; sunscreen; lip balm; first aid kit; a camera; spare batteries; some high energy snacks; a flask of hot ginger tea and the nalgene bottle of hot water which had been warming my sleeping bag for the past few hours.

Hamadi, Hussein and another assistant guide enter the tent as we are silently sipping our ginger tea. I have little appetite for the sweet coconut biscuits. Filled with apprehension, I'm trying to banish all negative thoughts from my mind. I eye these three highly experienced men with hundreds of successful summits between them. We have entrusted them to ensure that we reach the highest point of Africa safely and come back down alive. Hamadi runs a final check list with us and after giving us reassurances about his confidence in our climbing ability and acclimatisation, we exit the tent around midnight. The ground is icy and white with sleet as we begin our climb of almost five kilometres with an ascent of 1,233 metres to the roof of Africa. Lurid sheets of lightening perpetually illuminate the eastern horizon less than an hour into the climb, providing a thrilling light show, but I am mightily relieved to learn that the storm is moving away from, not toward us. There are only a few other people making a summit attempt and we can see their head torches bobbing about in the blackness below. As we gain height, the cold becomes intense. Clouds of our own breath sparkling with icy particles are momentarily trapped in the beams cast by our head torches. Snow begins to fall steadily and time becomes inconsequential as we concentrate on merely putting one foot in front of the other.

Our guides sing quietly to us as we struggle upwards against the altitude. Martin begins to feel it first. Only a couple of hours into the climb he slows down and begins to feel sleepy and nauseous, pausing regularly to lean on his walking poles. I am alarmed when he begins to retch violently and as these episodes become more regular I fear his summit attempt is drawing to a premature close. We stop so he can lie down in the shelter of a small cave to rest for a while. The decision to quit must be his and if he decides to retreat, I resolve to return to Barafu with him. However, he hasn’t actually vomited and following this break, he informs us that he is OK to continue. After Hamadi gives him a careful check over, the assistant guide takes his rucksack and with him keeping a reassuring hand on Martin's back, we soldier on. Stopping has chilled me to the very marrow. My hands are numb and my fingers literally stinging with the cold. I’m relieved to be moving again.

By degrees, the eastern sky begins to lighten, the only sound, my laboured breathing and the crunch and squeak of fresh snow beneath my boots. In fact, the snow turns out to be a blessing as it’s not deep enough to slow us down, but deep enough to carpet the nasty loose scree slopes that can test the resolve of even the hardiest trekkers. Mawenzi Peak, crowned with charcoal grey cloud tinted vermilion by the golden orb of the rising sun which turns the snow beneath our feet rose pink as we ascend the zig-zag path to Stella Point, is a sight I will never ever forget.

Dawn over Mawenzi PeakDawn over Mawenzi PeakThe unforgettable sight of sunrise from the zig-zag pathway up to Stella Point

Until now, I had experienced no ill effects of altitude whatsoever. But then suddenly and unexpectedly, as if someone had literally tripped a switch, all my energy drains away. The feeling isn’t unpleasant, it’s actually mildly euphoric and I feel as if I’m walking above the ground not on it. The remainder of the climb proceeds in this semi-dreamlike state. Seeing that I have slowed down, Hussein relieves me of my rucksack not far below Stella Point, the wooden signpost for which is a very welcome sight indeed. My eyes fill with tears as it sinks in that we have made it to the crater rim together. I embrace Martin, proud and in awe of his mental stamina, the grit and resolve he has mustered to reach this point. The cloud has now cleared giving us wall to wall azure blue sky and we spy the small Ratzel Glacier etched in brilliant detail in the morning sunlight to the far right of the Rebmann Glacier which has been a constant companion on our ascent. Far below, the African savannah is spread out like a never ending map in all directions. I shall carry the memory of this moment to the ghats.

'Pole, Pole'...'Pole, Pole'...The slow ascent up the zig-zag path to Stella Point

Stella Point (5,756 metres)Stella Point (5,756 metres)Our team at Stella Point

After a cup of energising hot ginger tea and the ubiquitous group photos and hugs of congratulation, we set off for Uhuru Peak which is still about an hour away. This involves a gradual ascent of 170 metres around the crater rim, offering incredible views of the inner cone and the Rebmann Glacier sloping down the mountain like giant layers of meringue. Martin has now rallied considerably and is making steady progress ahead of me. Although I am really enjoying the climb, I have to stop every few hundred metres as I simply run out of steam. I deeply appreciate the presence of Hussein, his simple acts of kindness and the easy companionship that has arisen between two people whom fate has thrown together. When I falter, I feel his hand on my back to steady me, when I flag, he offers comforting words of reassurance.

Rebmann GlacierRebmann GlacierThe glacier slopes down the mountain like giant layers of meringue

Travelling ‘pole, pole’ so as not to get out of breath, we inch our way towards Uhuru Peak which eventually floats into view, marked by a couple of distinctive signs. Around eight hours after we had set off, we are standing on the roof of Africa. Together. We share a few tears when the realisation sinks in that we are almost six kilometres above sea level; below us the mighty African continent spreads out for as far as the eye can see. As it's not peak season, we have the summit entirely to ourselves as we leisurely capture the moment on camera for posterity. While the guides are busy chatting together, Martin leads me underneath one of the signs and drops to one knee. I look at him through bleary eyes as he asks me to marry him. This is the highest point in the world we have reached so far together and what better place and moment to pop the question? We embrace as I accept his proposal and our guides cheer when they learn what has just transpired.

Uhuru Peak (5,895 metres)Uhuru Peak (5,895 metres)Atop the highest point of Africa and the world's highest free standing mountain

After the cheering subsides, Hamadi signals it’s time to leave, conscious of the fact that we are both affected to varying degrees by the altitude. We beat a hasty retreat from the summit, arriving quickly at Stella Point now shrouded in cloud. From here we take a slightly different path back to Barafu, opting for a faster route involving the descent of a narrow valley via hair-raisingly steep snow-covered scree slopes. There is a virtual white-out as heavy snow falls on our descent but we feel our strength rapidly returning the lower we go. At Barafu we are allowed a one hour nap before lunch and then have to pack up our kit, a tedious task when you're physically and mentally drained. We then immediately break camp to head down through the arid alpine desert via the Mweka route to High Camp, a quiet and scenic spot set amid thickets of giant moorland heather. The fragrant smell of wood smoke from the caretaker’s hut guides us into the camp, established in 1999 when the mountain literally swarmed with thousands of climbers hoping to welcome in the new millennium from the summit. Indeed, many groups now prefer it to the lower camp at Mweka which is crowded, noisy and prone to flooding during heavy rains. The clean, modern long drops here are certainly 5* rated after Barafu!

Taking Five at High CampTaking Five at High CampIt was great to arrive at High Camp, a quiet and scenic spot set amid thickets of giant moorland heather

I sit across the dinner table from Martin in our candlelit mess tent still in a dreamlike state, not from the altitude, but from exhaustion following the exertion of the day’s incredible events. We don’t say much to each other, but just grin knowingly and repeatedly over a filling meal of leek and potato soup, and spaghetti with a spicy sauce. Once inside my down sleeping bag, I am too tired to rerun the day’s events in my mind and am asleep almost as soon as my head hits the pillow.

 

Day Seven: Descent to Mweka Gate

A dull, overcast day greets us as we emerge from our tent for breakfast. It has rained heavily in the night, although I was too comatose with fatigue to hear it. There is a real sense of purpose at this camp; the porters seem keen to get the cook and mess tents packed away quickly today. A descent of around 2,150 metres over 11 kilometres from here to Mweka Gate through the heath and cloud forest awaits us and we too are keen to hit the trail in order to get back to our hotel in Moshi where a hot shower and cold beers await!

From High Camp, the trail weaves its way down over the crest of a lava ridge which offers fine views of the heavily forested southern slopes of the mountain. I'm really enjoying this walk, but the ground is very rough underfoot in places and I know it’s wise to be careful and not to be too blasé about where to plant my feet. Most accidents happen on descent to tired climbers with weary limbs. Indeed, we pass two strong young men carrying stretchers uphill, a thankless but necessary task. I wonder how the two casualties that recently occupied those stretchers had fared? Giant heather draped with lichen is now interspersed with protea, a bush with pretty vanilla-coloured blossoms whose ancestors grew in Gondwanaland 300 million years ago. In the undergrowth, we spot vibrant patches of purple wild thyme and pale pink geraniums. A slight rise is encountered as we approach Mweka Huts (3,106 metres), for now eerily deserted until the next wave of climbers descend on it later today.

Descent to Mweka GateDescent to Mweka GateFrom High Camp we had a descent of around 2,150 metres over 11 kilometres to Mweka Gate through heath and cloud forest

Mweka Huts, like Machame Huts, is situated at the juncture between moorland heath and cloud forest, and before long we are walking along a shady but very slippery pathway beneath a dense forest canopy. The gradual although relentless descent on tired limbs is not to be underestimated! However, the jungle flora provides a magnificent distraction: impatiens, begonia, gladiolus and wild blackberry blossom pepper the undergrowth, while many of the trees, trunks coated in thick moss and bristling with parasitic ferns, are enormous. Some actually grow in the centre of the pathway. There are no other groups ahead of us on the trail and our quietness is rewarded by sightings of black and white colobus monkeys in the tree canopy, while on the track ahead we spot a family of blue monkeys. Hamadi also alerts us to the presence of a dik-dik, a small, shy antelope which is barely visible in the jungle undergrowth.

Finally, Mweka Gate appears in the distance where our minibus is waiting for us. I am overjoyed that my feet have not played me up for even a nanosecond over the past week. I've not suffered any blisters or even a pressure point and my Zamberlan boots have passed another rigorous test with flying colours! Our concerns about the weather proved to be unfounded and opting to do the trek outside of the peak seasons meant we were able to enjoy true moments of peace and solitude which would be far more difficult when the trails and camp sites are crowded, busy and noisy.

Mweka GateMweka GateFinally, Mweka Gate and the park exit!

We pause for a photograph at a wooden congratulation sign and then head to the office to officially sign out of the park. We note from the register that not all of the trekkers who had gone for the summit the day before us had made it. The portly German managed to reach Barafu, something of a miracle in itself, several others were satisfied attaining Stella Point. El Cid was one of those who did stand on the roof of Africa, which will undoubtedly give him bragging rights for all eternity! Hussein confirmed to the park ranger that we had successfully reached Uhuru Peak in order for us to receive certificates stating so. Formalities over, I head to the bathroom. A clean, sit down flush toilet is utter bliss after squatting for a week over those stomach churning long drops! Looking in the mirror above the basin as I wash my filthy hands, I barely recognise myself. Face sunburnt and slightly swollen, dirty hair a mass of dreadlocks to rival those of Rasta Man, I look like I've been to hell and back!!

Signing out!Signing out!I sign the register at Mweka Gate before leaving the park

An hour later and we're back at our hotel in Moshi. Here we take that much dreamed about hot shower and later celebrate our successful climb over numerous cold beers with our guides, porters and cook. They are presented with their well earned tips, and we receive our precious gold certificates to take home along with many priceless memories of our climb to the 'Roof of Africa'.

Celebration Time!Celebration Time!Our group celebrate a successful summit attempt at the Keys Motel, Moshi

As I gaze down proudly at my certificate, I still cannot believe that I have scaled the world’s largest free standing mountain to stand astride the highest spot in Africa. To climb Kilimanjaro is a journey of both mind and body, a voyage of extremes and superlatives where you learn to push yourself to new limits. You discover as much about yourself as you do about others. But if I’d learnt anything surmounting this mighty mountain, where every breath in the rarefied atmosphere was hard won indeed, it was this: life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the number of moments that take our breath away.

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eramaptec@gmail.com (Purple Peak Adventures) Africa Kilimanjaro Tanzania trekking http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2015/1/to-the-roof-of-africa-kilimanjaro-tanzania-via-the-7-day-machame-mweka-route Sun, 04 Jan 2015 22:23:00 GMT
Close Encounters of the Ngorongoro Kind: A Tanzanian Safari http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2014/12/close-encounters-of-the-ngorongoro-kind-a-tanzanian-safari Ngorongoro Crater, TanzaniaNgorongoro Crater, TanzaniaThe Ngorongoro Conservation Area is a protected area and a World Heritage Site located 180 km west of Arusha in the Crater Highlands area of Tanzania

The cloud on the western horizon turns tandoori-red as our Toyota Landcruiser labours up a winding dusty road through dense cloud forests of acacia garlanded with Spanish moss in the volcanic highlands of Tanzania. Emmanuel, our driver and guide, stops the jeep and signals us to follow him. Shivering, we climb out. The November dawn air is thin and cold at this altitude, it is strangely still and the lush vegetation drips with dew. My breath catches in my throat as I behold the scene before me. Six hundred metres below is a vast 20 km green depression of grassland, forest and marsh. Cloud pours like liquid down over the cliff sides of this verdant basin and at its centre a pale lake shimmers in the glassy glare of the rising sun. Roaming across this vast stage which is something like an African version of Jurassic Park, are tiny back dots: herds of zebra, buffalo, antelope and wildebeest. This is the legendary Ngorongoro Crater, an enormous caldera formed during a cataclysmic volcanic eruption of around two million years ago, and we are about to witness one of the greatest natural shows on Earth.

Back in the jeep, we continue our journey along a rough track that climbs into the immense undulating savannah above the crater. The grasslands are broken by the odd Umbrella thorn (Vachellia tortilis) or African myrrh (Commiphora Africana), as well as Maasai boma, enclosures containing animal pens and circular huts with conical rush roofs, all of which are encircled by a palisade of wooden stakes that keeps livestock safe from predators. Maasai tribespeople - tall, slender, elegant, draped in red cloth and bedecked with strings of multicoloured beads and intricate earrings - appear by the side of the road, but we have no time to stop, for game watching is best done in the early morning when the animals are most active.

Water is scarce in the savannah highland in the dry season, so the Maasai are permitted to bring their livestock down to the crater for water and grazing, and we follow the road they use which descends steeply down over the crater wall to Seneto Springs. We make a quick stop to raise the roof of the jeep so we can stand up comfortably to view the game, before we begin our descent to a place that feels something like a lost world. Pillow-white cloud is reflected in the mirror-like Lake Magadi, its salt-encrusted shore blushing pastel pink with thousands of flamingos feeding on algae and shrimp. Ahead, Massai tribesmen drive their cattle slowly across the grassy plain amid herds of zebra and wildebeest and the sound of waterfowl squawking at the waterholes fills the air. Two wildebeest lock horns and lower themselves onto their front knees and scuffle, kicking up volumes of dust while in the background a female ostrich ambles by.

Wildebeest, Ngorongoro Crater, TanzaniaWildebeest, Ngorongoro Crater, TanzaniaTwo wildebeest lock horns and lower themselves onto their front knees and scuffle

Rust-red game-viewing trails spread out in all directions and I can see the black dots of at least another dozen or so jeeps shimmering in the heat haze. We head north east past the Goose Ponds and Mandusi Swamp. Pink flamingos on impossibly slender legs congregate near the edges of brackish pools and we are delighted to see a pair of grey-crowned cranes, sporting golden head crests and bright red wattles. In the distance, large herds of Grant’s and Thompson’s gazelles are grazing.

The sun reflects off the rounded pink backs of over a dozen hippos wallowing in a pool. We are watching one ambling away when our attention is distracted by a pair of hyena who approach for a drink. They pass by close enough to the jeep for us to see the coarseness of their thick spotted coats, their long, muscular necks, massive skulls, and round, slightly pointed ears. Emmanuel tells us that besides hunting, they can also consume carrion in an advanced state of decomposition. Their powerful jaws, highly acidic stomach, and enlarged and powerful premolars enable them to crush and digest even the largest bones of their prey.

Hyena, Ngorongoro Crater, TanzaniaHyena, Ngorongoro Crater, TanzaniaBesides hunting, hyena can also consume carrion in an advanced state of decomposition

En route to Engitati Hill, we spot a large augur buzzard in the grass. This magnificent raptor has brown and white barbed wings and rust coloured tail feathers. Sensing our presence, it soars into the sky. Emmanuel then points out a large earth mound about 400 metres away, at the top of which a pair of cheetah recline in the morning sun. From this vantage point these magnificent predators scan the surrounding grassland looking for prey. I’m hugely impressed by his ability to see these spotted cats which are incredibly well-camouflaged against the terrain.

The radio suddenly crackles into life and Emmanuel informs us that one of the other guides, with whom he is in constant radio contact, has located a lion kill. We immediately notice a number of vultures circling above a spot on the nearby hillside. Through binoculars we see a hyena running away at speed with what looks like a wildebeest leg dangling from its mouth. We soon join the end of a line of stationary jeeps, straining our necks to see. I’m glad that we have opted for a private safari as some of the other jeeps have 6-8 people crammed into them, leaving everyone jostling for space which makes it difficult to take photographs.

Eventually we get close enough to see a lioness hidden in some long dry grass. She is perfectly camouflaged and it's only the flick of her black-tipped tail that initially gives away her position. I then spy one of her cubs lying in the shade of a clump of grass just metres from the jeep. It is panting profusely in the heat. We don’t move along very far before we encounter another lioness. She is lying down and appears to be satiated; perhaps she’s one of the pride that brought down the wildebeest that morning? Ngorongoro has the greatest concentration of lions in Africa and you'd be very unfortunate indeed not to see any.

Lioness, Ngorongoro Crater, TanzaniaLioness, Ngorongoro Crater, TanzaniaThis lioness is perfectly camouflaged and it's only the flick of her black-tipped tail that initially gives away her position

We eventually move on, passing more hippos sunning themselves by the banks of a pool. Small birds are perched atop their backs feasting on the parasites embedded in their thick skin and their hosts are perfectly still apart from their tiny tails flicking away the flies. It's not long before we come face to face with yet another lion, this time a large male who has drawn the attention of several jeeps from which numerous camera lenses project. He is lying right in the middle of the dusty track and seems unperturbed by our presence. Blinking into the fierce sunlight, he yawns, baring a set of ferocious looking canines. His nose bears the blackened scars of past battles and his coat is covered with flies which make him twitch constantly. He shakes his ragged mane, slowly rises to his feet and wanders straight towards our jeep, where he flops down in its shade. It’s an unbelievable moment. I can almost reach down to touch him and he’s so close, I can smell his pungent odour.

Hippopotami, Ngorongoro Crater, TanzaniaHippopotami, Ngorongoro Crater, TanzaniaThese hippopotami are unperturbed by the birds on their back as they are pecking off the parasites in their thick skin

Lion, Ngorongoro Crater, TanzaniaLion, Ngorongoro Crater, TanzaniaWe managed to get unbelievably close to this lion who lay down in the shade of our jeep

After our close encounter with the lion, we trundle along through a grassy plain spotting kori bustards, grey-breasted spur-fowl, guinea fowl and several male ostriches, before we encounter a family of warthogs: a boar, a sow and six piglets. The adults, rusty-coloured wiry hair on their backs caked in dried mud, are busy foraging using their curved tusks to dig up roots, while their young dart about between them. The piglets, each with a ridge of rust-red bristles down their back, are quite adorable and highly amusing to watch.

Warthog, Ngorongoro Crater, TanzaniaWarthog, Ngorongoro Crater, TanzaniaThis family of warthogs - a boar, a sow and six piglets - kept us entertained for ages!

Suddenly Emmanuel lets out a low cry. He has spotted something moving out in the wide expanse of grassland. Martin grabs his binoculars and scans the terrain. The excitement is palpable. A large grey animal moves slowly in the shimmering heat haze. It has the unmistakable curved horn of a black rhino! One of the 'big five' and among the most endangered species on the planet, there are less than two dozen of these noble beasts left in Ngorongoro. We feel privileged to have seen this one which slowly moves off to become lost from sight in the grass and heat haze.

We move on across the vast open plain surrounding the eastern end of Lake Magadi. Borne on the warm breeze is the sharp and unmistakable smell of fresh blood mingled with the pungent odour of spilled intestinal matter. A zebra lies on its side under a solitary acacia tree where it lay down in the shade to die this very morning. Its stomach has been torn open and its body is already beginning to putrefy in the African heat. Amid a cloud of flies is a roiling wake of rapacious vultures - Ruppells griffon, white-backed and Egyptian - a surging, seething mass of black and brown feathers, of stabling beaks, lunging necks and flailing wings.

Vultures feeding on a zebra carcass, Ngorongoro Crater, TanzaniaVultures feeding on a zebra carcass, Ngorongoro Crater, TanzaniaRuppells griffon, white-backed and Egyptian vultures feast on a zebra carcass

The carcass twitches violently as if still in its death throes as the birds attack it with gusto. The largest vultures, the lappetfaced, are preening themselves in the acacia tree, having had their fill. They were responsible for ripping open the zebra’s hide with their powerful beaks allowing the others to join the stinking smorgasbord. My stomach churns as a white-backed probes the zebra’s nostril while another thrusts its head deep into its anus; a pink gaping hole exists where once an eye had been. Attracted by the stench of death, more diners whirl above and swoop in one by one, cautiously sidling up to the foul feast, backs hunched and heads low. A fight breaks out as a Ruppell's griffon attempts to push its way in, causing a menacing chorus of hisses, cackles and caws. An Egyptian vulture hops off trailing a length of intestine, its head smeared in blood and faeces, while a Ruppell’s Griffon pauses to scan the area keenly, its white ruff wet with gore, and its vicious looking beak smeared with viscera. Emmanuel tells us that within an hour, this carcass will be stripped clean. Nature red in tooth and claw indeed.

Zebra, Ngorongoro Crater, TanzaniaZebra, Ngorongoro Crater, TanzaniaZebra standing at opposite ends to each other using their tails to flick away the flies from their faces

The sight of zebra is by now ubiquitous as there are several thousand of them in the crater. As we approach the Lerai Forest Emmanuel is alerted by another guide that a leopard has been spotted in a tree. Having not seen a leopard on our last safari in South Africa, I can barely contain my excitement. We join a cluster of jeeps with cameras angled toward a tree some fifty metres away. At first I can see nothing until the big cat, a female, shifts her position in the fork of the tree. She strides along one of the branches before crouching down, the black rosettes on her coat allowing her to become almost invisible against the bark and through the leaves and thorns of the tree. We watch her for well over twenty minutes as she occasionally moves amid the branches. She seems unsettled and Emmanuel senses that she will climb down. Indeed, our patience is finally rewarded when she scrambles down the trunk head first and slips quietly away through the long dry grass causing barely a ripple.

Attention now turns to creatures of a smaller kind as we spot a variety of birds as we pass through the forest: the odd-looking red-billed hornbill, ground hornbill and black hornbill, the latter sporting a huge bony protuberance on its beak; red and yellow barbet; the parrot-like Fischer’s lovebird; white-headed buffalo-weaver; long-tailed fiscal shrike, multi coloured rollers and the Suberb starling with its magnificent iridescent blue plumage.

Superb starling, Ngorongoro Crater, TanzaniaSuperb starling, Ngorongoro Crater, TanzaniaThese colourful birds feeds primarily on the ground, often below, or in the vicinity of acacia trees

In the shadow of an acacia tree we encounter another scene of carnage - a trail of mottled brown and white feathers – the victim, a hapless guinea fowl. The culprit, a large eagle, is hunched over the remnants of its carcass and fixes us keenly with a piercing yellow eye. Most people are eager to see the 'Big Five', but for me creatures of the feathered variety simply steal the show. There is enough variety in Ngorongoro’s bird life to turn even the most dedicated big-mammal follower into a twitcher.

Eagle and kill, Ngorongoro Crater, TanzaniaEagle and kill, Ngorongoro Crater, TanzaniaA large eagle hunched over the remnants of a Guinea fowl carcass fixes us keenly with a piercing yellow eye

A large troop of baboons suddenly appear through the trees. They pause in a clearing and we are hypnotised by their almost human like antics. One scans the ground, jabbing its paws repeatedly into the grass for seeds, grubs and shoots; a female sits upright lazily scratching herself while she is attentively groomed for fleas by a younger female. A fight breaks out between two ‘teenage’ males over a large seed pod, which ends with one dispensing an almighty cuff to the head of the other, who departs shrieking loudly. A mother carries her tiny baby on her back as she strides across the clearing on all fours. She pauses to fix us knowingly with her brown eyes as our cameras snap away.

It’s now early afternoon and we make for the Ngaitokitok Springs, an idyllic green oasis in the middle of the parched grasslands with a popular picnic spot at the shore of a lake. Here it’s permissible to leave the jeep although Emmanuel warns us to eat our lunch inside the vehicle, as the area is plagued by yellow-billed kites, one of which promptly swoops and swipes a sandwich from a shrieking American woman who has ignored her guide’s advice! I sit on the lake shore under the shade of an acacia tree festooned with the spherical grass nests of a species of weaver bird. Every so often one of several hippos breaks the surface of the water, ears twitching, before ducking out of sight again. I can hear them grunting to each other as they bob up and down in the water. It’s hard to believe that these are one of Africa’s most dangerous animals, they look so docile! I’m loath to leave but there’s plenty more to see as we begin our route out of the crater.

As we drive away from the Springs, we see a couple of buffalo lying in the grass close to a white egret with another huge herd of wildebeest behind. Their gruesome looking horns means these monsters are not to be messed with and they are one of the ‘big five’, feared for their unpredictability by the trophy hunters of yesteryear. We have now spotted lions, a leopard, a black rhinoceros and the buffalo, four of the ‘big five’, leaving only elephant to see.

Water buffalo and wildebeest, Ngorongoro Crater, TanzaniaWater buffalo and wildebeest, Ngorongoro Crater, TanzaniaOne of the 'Big Five' water buffalo are not to be messed with!

Elephant herds are noticeably absent from the crater floor because the cows and calves tend to prefer the forested highlands. They sometimes appear at the crater rim but only rarely venture down into the grasslands. However this area is known as the ‘elephant’s graveyard’ and very soon we spot the sun-bleached remains of an elephant’s skull. Elephants undergo six phases of dentition over their lifetime. When the last tooth is worn down it becomes difficult for them to chew their food properly and they usually start to look around for softer vegetation, such as that which is growing here. In the end, however, old elephants are simply unable to sufficiently masticate their food and succumb to gradual starvation. They die in this swampy place and this is probably how the myth of such ‘elephant graveyards’ arose. At the margins of the lush grassland, we eventually spot the tell-tale frame of a huge bull elephant sporting an enormous pair of tusks. Every so often he flaps his large ears and his trunk dexterously hoovers the ground, sweeping tender grass shoots up into his mouth.

We pass yet more lions as we begin our journey towards the ascent road out of the crater. Several are rolling around in the long grass a mere ten metres from us, and another is dozing beneath a thorn bush right by the track. Although we are ridiculously close to this young male with an impressive brown and black shaggy mane, he’s not the least bit interested in our presence. Lions are lazy creatures and spend most of the day sleeping like this one.

Vervet monkeys, many nursing young, chatter nosily in an acacia thicket as we pass by and we see yet more antelope. The concentration of over 25,000 ungulates inside Ngorongoro Crater was a major reason for designating the Ngorongoro Conservation Area as a World Heritage Site in 1979. We spot eland, Coke's hartebeest, and more Grant’s and Thompson’s gazelles. 

Our jeep begins the steep climb up the crater wall. I wistfully look back down into the gaping hole formed by the cataclysmic volcanic eruption of around two million years ago, which has been transformed over the passage of time into an African version of Noah’s Ark. In this, the world's largest intact volcanic caldera, an incredible variety of animals whose migration options are limited by the 600 metre high walls, thrive under the endless pale blue sky of east Africa. It has been such a privilege to experience this place, if only for a few hours.

In Ngorongoro the extremes of abundance and scarcity, life and death, are laid bare and suffused with the olfactory, the audible and the visual: the odour of parched earth and dung; the whispering of the savannah grasses in the wind; the startled hooves of zebra; the black shadow of a circling vulture; the warning cry of a mother wildebeest; the knowing stare of a fellow primate; the swoosh of an eagle’s wings… All this and more awakens something primitive in one’s very soul, a feeling of freedom, of being at one with nature. Ngorongoro awakens the African that dwells deep within every homo sapiens.

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eramaptec@gmail.com (Purple Peak Adventures) Africa Safari Tanzania World Heritage Site http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2014/12/close-encounters-of-the-ngorongoro-kind-a-tanzanian-safari Wed, 10 Dec 2014 22:15:00 GMT
Tomb Raider for a Day! A Moto Trip from Siem Reap to the Beng Mealea Temple, Cambodia http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2014/10/tomb-raider-for-a-day-a-moto-trip-from-siem-reap-to-the-beng-mealea-temple-cambodia Angkor Wat at dawnAngkor Wat at dawnThe five distinctive lotus bud shaped towers of the temple are the earthly representation of Mt Meru, the Mt Olympus of the Hindu faith and the abode of ancient gods

 

Heaven on Earth

Angkor Wat is a name that has summoned up adventure, excitement and mystery for me ever since I first thumbed through my childhood atlas. The largest temple complex on earth, and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, nothing can prepare you for its sheer scale and majesty. This recreation of heaven on earth reduces you to mere superlatives. Built over 800 years ago to express divinity - the setting down in stone of the divine power of the kings of Angkor - these enormous temples were surrounded by thriving cities built of wood and thatch. Here was the capital of a kingdom that ruled for over 500 years, home to over a million people, its engineering, urban planning and water management systems equalling, if not surpassing, cities elsewhere in Asia and in Europe.

We have been in Siem Reap, Cambodia, for three days exploring the numerous temples which make up this World Heritage Site. We have watched the sunset from Phnom Bakheng turning the stonework of Angkor Wat pink and gold. We stood spellbound awaiting the sunrise behind its five distinctive lotus bud shaped towers which are the earthly representation of Mount Meru, the Mount Olympus of the Hindu faith and the abode of ancient gods. The charcoal grey temple was silhouetted against a kaleidoscopic sky of moving cloud tinted myriad shades of grey, purple, lilac, ruby red and apricot, all of which was reflected in the water of the large moat surrounding it. It was a spine tingling scene. In the daylight we wandered amid its ornately carved labyrinthine galleries depicting the battles from the great Indian epics: the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Gods and demons, men and beasts are all exquisitely executed in sandstone. The apsaras and devatas (dancers and deities) are so perfectly carved and lifelike that they might just take form and walk out of the very walls.

Beautifully carved temple statuesBeautifully carved temple statuesThe apsaras and devatas, dancers and deities, are so perfectly carved and lifelike that they might just take form and walk out of the very walls

From a tuk tuk we gazed in wonderment at the great city of Angkor Thom, its entrance bridges lined with impressive avenues of carved heads depicting gods and asuras in the form of a stylised balustrade with ornate nagas (multi-headed serpents). These lead to a tower, a panoply of intricate carving featuring elephants topped by four enormous sandstone heads facing each cardinal direction. The narrow gateways below propel you to another world, a microcosm of the universe, at the heart of which lies the Bayon.

Angkor ThomAngkor ThomThe impressive entrance way to the temple complex Angkor ThomAngkor ThomThe entrance bridge to the temple complex is lined with carved heads depicting gods and asuras in the form of a stylised balustrade

We wandered in awe through this mysterious monument, its giant carved faces staring benignly into the surrounding jungle canopy, timeless and still, with knowing eyes and smiling mouths. We admired the history and culture of the Khmer which is carved on the walls in exquisite detail. There are great friezes of war depicting battles with the Cham and the Chinese which feature warrior elephants, soldiers in boats and chariots and nobles in exotic palanquins. And there is the prosaic, for the people who created this temple projected their everyday lives onto stone. It is a timeless portrayal of rural life still seen in the Khmer villages of today.

In the sweltering heat we explored the dark recesses of the pyramid-like Ta Keo and the temple mountain of Bakong with its fabulously carved elephant statues surrounded by a moat studded with cerise pink and white lilies. We watched as a huge gunmetal-grey cloud swirled menacingly above the pool of Srah Srang just before a monsoon deluge engulfed it, and sat becalmed at the peaceful scene of a man fishing on the lake surrounding the island temple of Neak Pean as the heat of the day ebbed away and the sun slid low in the western sky.

We wandered speechless amid the photogenic ruins of Ta Phrom, marvelling at the stonework smothered by gigantic silk cotton trees and strangler figs as if in a desperate and deadly struggle with the jungle for survival. Merged with the jungle, but not yet a part of it, this was the location for the film, Tomb Raider. We marvelled at Banteay Srei, a small, bijou temple with ornately carved red sandstone bas reliefs nestled at the foot of the Kulen Mountains. Here the air positively crackled with the ions of an impending storm, sending frenzied flocks of Red-breasted parakeets shrieking to and from their roosts in the tall trees nearby.

Strangler fig trees, Ta PhromStrangler fig trees, Ta PhromMerged with the jungle, but not yet a part of it, this temple was the location for the film Tomb Raider

It’s now day four, we have used up our three day pass to the antiquities, and besides feeling a little more adventurous we’re keen to escape the thousands of mainly Chinese tourists here. So we have booked an off-the-beaten-track journey which will take us on a 125 km round trip to visit a stunning heavily overgrown temple complex hidden deep in the jungle. And we are going to do this by Moto…

 

On Yer Bike!

In Cambodia, two wheels definitely rule and the major means of transportation is the Moto. These motorbikes, usually of around 125cc, are veritable work horses, zipping along the narrowest dusty tracks deep in the Khmer countryside, or powering their way up muddy mountainsides where no four wheeled vehicle dare go. We have just been deposited by the side of a quiet road on the outskirts of Siem Reap and a helmet has been thrust into my hand. I haven’t ridden a moped for over 30 years, let alone a motorbike with gears, and to say I’m apprehensive is an understatement! Moreover, Martin has never been near a motorbike and is looking on with considerable bemusement as we are shown how to start the engine and operate the gears. No driving license is required and no questions asked about any previous experience. Sensing our trepidation, our young guide seeks to reassure us and we are given the opportunity of getting used to riding our 125cc Honda Dreams along this quiet back road before we set off.

Hello Moto!Hello Moto!After not riding a moped for over 30 years I was apprehensive about riding a Moto!

I quickly get the knack of it and am soon whizzing up and down the road, waving as I pass Martin who looks as far removed from ‘Easy Rider’ as it’s possible to be! Within 15 minutes we’re deemed proficient enough to handle them and, following our guide, enter the hectic flow of traffic out of Siem Reap. After a short, but nerve-wracking distance, we turn off the busy main highway onto a narrow dirt track and the fun really begins. Weaving at speed around pools of muddy water is much more difficult than it looks! I'm gripping the handlebars of my Moto so tight, my knuckles turn white as I try to maintain my balance. After several minutes I begin to relax and enjoy the scenery.

We pass through densely vegetated jungle to emerge into open countryside comprised of tall palm trees and watery flatlands vivid green with young rice plants and dotted with cerise pink water lilies. A herd of water buffalo is slowly moving amid the verdure and a man with a net, submerged to his knees, is fishing. We pause to take photographs of this idyllic scene unaware that these paddy fields were once strewn with landmines which have been cleared by a Dutch aid agency. When told, we find it hard to believe that prime agricultural land such as this was mined and shudder at the evil of Cambodia’s notorious killing fields.

Alongside the road, half hidden and shaded by trees, are numerous wood and rattan houses built on stilts. Pigs and cows wander freely, chickens scatter in all directions as we pass and half naked children spill out onto the roadside to wave at us. The Cambodians are undoubtedly the friendliest people I have met anywhere in the world and its hard to reconcile the images of their beaming, beautiful faces with the brutality and horror of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

We emerge back onto a tarmac road as the sky overhead begins to turn an ominous shade of grey. Before long, large leaden raindrops begin to fall and we are forced to take shelter at a roadside dwelling. We are instantly welcomed into a farmstead and are seated on a wooden platform under a rush roof as the rain comes down like stair-rods. Behind us a man is lethargically swinging in a hammock, oblivious to the deluge. Across from us a family of four is sheltering on a similar platform. One of the children laughs loudly as a line of squawking chickens dart underneath it for cover.

Cambodian house on stiltsCambodian house on stiltsTypical scene in the Khmer countryside

The rain soon stops and back on the bikes we head towards a line of low hills in the distance. A steady stream of Motos pass us and I am absolutely amazed by what is conveyed on them: a family of four crammed together like sardines in a can; a man with a huge wicker basket from which bulging sacks are suspended; a woman almost hidden by an enormous load of freshly cut animal fodder; a young man with two pig carcasses slung across the back… It’s a wonder they manage to keep the bikes upright!!

Travelling by MotoTravelling by MotoThe workhorses of Cambodia, the humble Moto is used to transport people and goods all over the country

Once again we leave the main road, turning down a rough track through cultivated fields. The underlying bedrock of laterite gives the earth here its distinctive rust red colour which contrasts sharply with the bright green foliage of acres of yams. Every so often we pass bagfuls of the tubers stacked up by the roadside and as we speed by we are hailed loudly by the workers harvesting them and loading the bags onto huge trucks. By now the heat is great and would have been intolerable but for the breeze set up by our passage. After traversing a maze of roads and muddy tracks for around 68 km, we arrive at our destination.

 

Beng Mealea: ‘The Lotus Pond Temple’

Having taken lunch in a small roadside shack, we set off under a ferocious midday sun to explore the temple of Beng Mealea which means ‘lotus pond’. Dating from the early 12th century and built on the ancient royal highway to Preah Khan Kompong Svay to the same floor plan as Angkor Wat, this site has only been accessible in recent decades. This is due to the civil war and the presence of landmines in the area. It has not been restored and is largely in the condition in which it was found by French archaeologists. The bus loads of tourists that afflict the main sites at Angkor are pretty much absent here and intervention in the form of a wooden walkway round the site, originally constructed for the filming of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Two Brothers (2004), is not really intrusive. In fact, most tourists tend to stick to this walkway, but only metres away you can clamber inside the ruins and have the place virtually to yourself. With its authentic jungle atmosphere, the scene is set for a real Lara Croft adventure!

Beng MealeaBeng MealeaThis temple has only been accessible in recent decades due to the civil war and the presence of landmines in the area, and it has not been excavated We walk up the southern approach causeway to the temple past crumbling sandstone balustrades sporting huge intricately carved nagas. The air is absolutely still, the heat tremendous, and the sweat literally oozes out of me. At the top of the causeway we come to a jumble of fallen moss-covered stones surrounding a collapsed entranceway with enormous trees arching overhead which offer some welcome shade. Continuing east along the outside of a large wall, we head towards the SE corner pavilion, arriving at the wooden walkway. From here we climb down into a narrow open enclosure and clamber carefully through a partially barred entrance over a tumbled mass of fallen masonry into one of the cruciform cloisters. The sun is mostly obscured by the jungle canopy and everything is bathed in a strange green light. The stones, still moist from the earlier rain and slick with moss and algae, present formidable obstacles and great care must be taken to traverse the chaotic jumble safely. With a local villager leading us, we scramble in and out of the various enclosures peering through intricately carved stone window balusters into small courtyards flooded with the all pervading green luminescence. The balusters lend an air of mystery and secrecy as it’s almost impossible to see what lies behind them.

The villager takes us on a tortuous route through dark interconnecting galleries, along narrow ledges and over roof tops. We often have to crouch down to squeeze through small spaces to continue our exploration, passing huge webs with terrifying-looking spiders lurking in the centre. My skins crawls and I imagine thousands of miniscule, beady eyes peering out at us from the stonework and foliage! Lichen encrusted pediments and collapsed friezes depict legends of Vishnu, Shiva, and the Buddha and finely carved apsaras, the very epitome of serenity, stare seductively from the walls. Even though the inner sanctuary has collapsed, the former grandeur of the site can be glimpsed in its ambitious vaulting.

Beng Mealea TempleBeng Mealea TempleOne of the more intact parts of the temple

But this is a temple engaged in a desperate struggle with the jungle which seems to be slowly strangling and choking the life out of it. Lianas the thickness of a man’s arm hang down from enormous silk-wood trees and the roots of the aptly named strangler fig have colonised the blue sandstone walls and roofs of all the buildings. It resembles a skeletal mesh that is stealthily encasing the entire site. I find the sight mildly disturbing and quite eerie as it reminds me of the visual effects created by Giger for the Alien films. Clouds of bright red dragonflies fill the air, and, apart from our laboured breathing and the constant drone of thousands of insects, the silence is profound and slightly unnerving. At this moment, I really feel as if I am in an India Jones movie!

Beng Mealea TempleBeng Mealea TempleThe ruins are being slowly engulfed by the jungle

Scrambling over the tumbled mass of stone is absolutely exhausting in the relentless humidity. I had no idea it was even possible to sweat this much. My cotton shirt is totally drenched and rivulets of sweat are cascading down my spine and running down from my temples to drip off my chin. We complete our visit by taking a walk around the perimeter of the site, admiring the sheer scale of it and the mastery of its creators.

Beng Mealea TempleBeng Mealea TempleApproaching the ruins of the temple

It’s then time to begin the journey back to Siem Reap on the Motos. After the stifling heat of the temple, I am relieved to feel the cooling effects of the breeze as we speed through the countryside. We pass children playing in flooded paddy fields, people returning from working the land and women cooking out in the open on rustic clay ovens. We take a slightly different route this time. This turns out to be more difficult and exhilarating and involves some very narrow muddy farm tracks and rickety wooden bridges where waves of panic sweep over me when I see how close I am wavering to the water’s edge! There is even a river crossing which is deeper than it looks. I take this in third gear and my feet and legs get drenched. Local people stop to wave, amused no doubt by the sight of two foreigners struggling to stay upright on the slippery roads! Dodging slow moving ox carts and speeding Motos, we make our way along the bright orange farm tracks without mishap, arriving back at Siem Reap some eight hours later.

Easy Rider!Easy Rider!Martin looking cool on his Moto!

I’m not sure our travel insurers would have been too happy with our escapades, but I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to escape into the countryside to see the real Cambodia and to explore a temple tucked away in the jungle far from the tourist hordes. And, of course, fancying myself as Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft for a few hours... Well, a girl’s allowed to dream after all!

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eramaptec@gmail.com (Purple Peak Adventures) Asia Cambodia Road Trip World Heritage Site http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2014/10/tomb-raider-for-a-day-a-moto-trip-from-siem-reap-to-the-beng-mealea-temple-cambodia Thu, 16 Oct 2014 12:45:00 GMT
Monsoon Madness! Five days trekking from Sandakphu to Phalut in the Eastern Himalaya http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2014/10/monsoon-madness-five-days-trekking-from-sandakphu-to-phalut-in-the-indian-himalaya Jannu (also known as Kumbhakarna) from PhalutJannu (also known as Kumbhakarna) from PhalutPosing for a photo atop Phalut with Jannu in the background

 

Day One: Walking in the Rain

I step into a room with a cement washed floor. Faded and dusty, age curled posters depicting blooming rhododendrons, conifer forests, red pandas and snow clad mountains cover the grubby plastered walls. ‘Namaste, welcome to Singalila National Park’, says a man in a beige uniform, hands pressed together. He bows deeply and smiles broadly as he places a white khata (scarf) with red and black patterns round my neck to wish me a safe journey. ‘Namaste’ I reply, repeating his gesture. The park, which is closed from June 16 to September 15 each year on account of the monsoon rains and animal breeding season, has only this day reopened and we are the first official tourists of the new trekking season.

It’s around midday and we have just arrived in the village of Manebhanjan from Darjeeling, a 26 km journey by jeep along shockingly bad mountain roads. It is warm and teeming with rain and the main unpaved street full of potholes is awash with muddy water which cascades noisily off the roofs of the two and three storey concrete buildings interspersed with corrugated iron shacks. But the local people seem unperturbed by the deluge. Sari-clad women out shopping wander up and down the dreary street and most are shod in sandals and carrying umbrellas to keep the worst of the rain off, while men bent double under heavy loads aren’t even bothering to avoid getting wet. It’s mid-September and the monsoon season should by now have ended…

We are about to embark on a five-day trek of over 70 km. There is no porter service, so we have to carry all our gear including a sleeping bag in a 35 litre rucksack. Large sections of the route lie in the Singalila National Park, declared a Wildlife Sanctuary in 1986 and an Indian National Park in 1992 and is especially famous for its rhododendrons and magnolia trees that flower in spring, and the endangered Red Panda. The two highest peaks of West Bengal, Sandakphu (3,630 metres) and Phalut (3,600 metres), are located on the Singalila Ridge and we will be climbing to the summit of each. Manebhanjan is right on the border between the Indian state of West Bengal and the Kingdom of Nepal and the 5-day route we are going to take actually weaves its way in and out of the two countries, but there is no need for any visas or permits to enter Nepal during the trek. However, you cannot do the trek without a permit and an official nature guide and you must carry your passport, which in our case, contained a required Indian visa.

Our guide is a Sherpa man with a pierced ear and his initials tattooed on one hand who looks much older than his 38 years. He ushers us into a tiny restaurant. Here we enjoy a hearty meal of freshly steamed beef and cabbage momo (Nepali dumplings) served with red garlic chilli sauce and a steaming bowl of oily broth washed down with lashings of black tea. Before the off, there is just one more formality: we must register with the Indian army. Further down the road we enter a rather grimy office with pale green wooden panelling. A plainclothes man sitting behind an oversized wooden desk inspects our passports and meticulously and slowly copies all the information into a large, dog-eared ledger. He then asks us to sign our names before wishing us a successful trip.

As we step outside clad in GoreTex clothing from head to toe, the strident hiss that instantly descends on our jackets is a sobering indicator of the strength of the monsoon rain and we have around 13 km to walk with an ascent of nearly 800 metres ahead of us. Walking through the bazaar of this bustling village, we pass small shops with fruit and vegetables literally flowing out onto the pavements and have to dodge cattle and a constant flow of jeeps loudly honking their horns. As we pass beyond the outskirts of town, the paved road begins to climb steeply through conifer trees and bamboo groves. Almost instantly I begin to sweat heavily in the heat and I have to stop to remove my glasses which have misted over. We trudge on along the steepening road up numerous hairpin bends stopping occasionally for a jeep to pass by. Within 15 minutes I am literally drenched in sweat and the GoreTex jacket feels useless. I can’t say I am enjoying this experience and if the next five days are like this it will be an utterly miserable experience and hopeless for photography. I’m almost ready to throw in the towel and return to Darjeeling, and looking at Martin I can sense he is thinking exactly the same!

We have been walking for over an hour and I am relieved when our guide informs us that we will soon be stopping at a tea house in a place called Chitre just inside Nepal. The trees begin to thin out giving way gradually to a large grassy expanse with signs of cultivation. As we ascend higher, I spot the white and gold of a Buddhist stupa rising above a collection of corrugated iron and thatched-roofed wooden houses, above which limp prayer flags struggle to flutter in the downpour. We enter a dimly lit building past a kitchen lined with shelves of huge pots and pans and rows of neatly displayed china plates and tea cups where a woman is standing over a gas stove stirring a large pot of dahl. We pass into a room with bare floorboards and lilac painted walls containing several tables and chairs. A row of windows flood the room with light and give panoramic views of the mountainside and stupa just visible through the cloud. A flat screen TV loudly broadcasting the news takes pride of place. We make ourselves comfortable at one of the tables by a window, joining an old man with a white beard in a check trilby hat and golden wellies who is eating a meal of rice and dahl.

I drain the remains of my teacup, reluctant to return to the incessant rain. Putting on my sodden jacket is a thoroughly unpleasant experience and I wonder whether a plastic poncho and an umbrella like our guide is using would have been a more sensible option. It feels like I have entered a power shower as I leave the tea house. The gradient is less steep now and we leave the road every so often, taking short cuts along smaller, unpaved tracks running over the spine of a hill above steep wooded valleys. Our guide alerts us to the presence of leeches, one of which has attached itself to his trouser leg. Undoubtedly the scenery would be breathtaking if only we could see it, but the rain continues to fall steadily from a light grey sky. Around an hour later and back on the main road, I spot a black and white distance marker. These will become constant companions over the next few days. It notes that Lamey Dhura is one kilometre away and, as we are making good time, our guide asks if we would like to stop there for another cup of tea. A suggestion that is quickly accepted!

As we approach Lamey Dhura, a hamlet of just five Sherpa families, the rain begins to ease a bit and gaps in the cloud appear revealing more of the surrounding deeply wooded valleys and mountains. The wet road cobbles leading down to a cluster of desultory shacks gleam in the glassy light. Chickens scatter as we approach the rather grandly named Lamey Dhura Sherpa Tea Stall past a wattle cowshed with its forlorn-looking occupant tied up near the doorway. It is too wet to sit outside, so we are ushered into what can only be described as a hovel. On an earthen floor huddled together on low stools round a crudely fashioned clay fireplace built up against a wall are three dishevelled adults barely visible in the clouds of blue wood smoke rising up to the roof. They warmly welcome us, a grubby curtain is pulled aside and we’re shown into a room with two low couches either side of a table on which a large tray of red and green chilli peppers are being dried. A couple of grimy plastic chairs and a rickety wooden cupboard containing plastic dishes complete the furniture, while a further curtain hides the entrance to a room beyond.

Lamey Dhura Sherpa Tea ShopLamey Dhura Sherpa Tea ShopDrinking a welcome cup of hot black tea after trekking in the monsoon

The wattle walls are lined with plastic sheeting and newspaper. This chilly, damp shack is neither wind tight or water tight and an enamel bowl on one of the couches is steady collecting drops of rain water seeping in through a broken skylight in the roof. Cups of steaming hot black tea and a plate of biscuits soon arrive which raise my spirits. The man who brought the tea disappears into the room beyond and I catch a glimpse of a woman and a child huddled together in bed, probably to escape the damp and cold. Life in this remote community must be one of continual hardship in the face of such grinding poverty. There isn’t any comfort in this shack which is little better than that occupied by the family cow and it disturbs me to see people living in such wretched conditions in the 21st century.

The monsoon deluge has virtually stopped as we step outside to begin the 2.5 km leg to Meghma, the last village before Tumling where we will stop for the night. I begin to enjoy the walk as the cloud drifts languidly up through the densely forested valleys of chimal and magnolia trees, I notice lots of colourful flowers along the roadside and patches of pale blue sky begin to peek though the clouds. Meghma, from the Nepali word for ‘cloud’ isn’t living up to its name at all, and we can clearly see the stupa of a monastery and a cluster of buildings, many two storied, below which is an Indian army camp. As the village lies right on the border between India and Nepal, we must stop to have our passports inspected and our details recorded at the Indian border check post.

Monsoon mist in the Eastern HimalayaMonsoon mist in the Eastern HimalayaView over Nepal from near Lamey Dhura

After signing the register, we pause to admire the Sangchen Ugagyur Hoshal Dechen Choling Buddhist monastery before passing through the small Nepalese village. The people who live in the cluster of brightly painted houses built of stone and wood with impressive window boxes of bright orange begonias, are Sherpa. Children smile and wave at us as we walk by. The village has a friendly, welcoming feel to it. This is a farming community and we pass by numerous wattle pigsties and cowsheds, noisy hen houses, and meet people driving their cattle. A simple ‘Namaste’ draws an instant smile and reciprocal greeting from everyone we meet.

Sherpa boySherpa boyOne of the friendly Sherpa boys in the village of Meghma, Nepal

We take the driveable 4X4 road to Tumling passing by a wall on the top of a hill covered in brightly coloured Buddhist motifs before coming to a number of small whitewashed buildings sited on a stream and surrounded by prayer flags. Inside one of these is a small horizontal waterwheel driving a prayer wheel in the room above. A plaque on the exterior of the building states that it is dedicated to the ‘welfare and prosperity of all sentient beings’ and expressing the hope that ‘peace and harmony would prevail on the universe forever’. I am touched by the beliefs of these gentle Sherpa people.

The road rises steeply as we approach Tumling, another Nepalese settlement at an altitude of 2,970 metres. We arrive here well before dark after a journey time of about 5 hours including stops. We are staying at the Shikar Lodge, a chalet type building of stone and wood with a corrugated red iron roof sporting window boxes brim full of bright begonias. Across a small courtyard are several rooms for trekkers, all named after local flowers, and we are very pleased with Aster, an en suite allocated to us.

Shikar Lodge, TumlingShikar Lodge, TumlingOur first night's accommodation was in the Nepali village of Tumling

Dinner is to be delayed slightly, as the cook who is a village school teacher, is preparing a local chicken for us, so we have time to savour the only bottle of beer left at the lodge! We are eventually ushered into a large room with bare wooden floorboards adorned with numerous framed photographs of the mountain views, flora and fauna, as well as certificates, flags and other mementoes from mountaineering and trekking clubs from India, Nepal and well beyond. The room is decidedly chilly, in contrast to the area where our guide is enjoying himself by the roaring cooking fire. The food is simple, delicious and plentiful, consisting of vegetable soup, local condiments, jeera aloo, plain rice, dahl, chapattis and the chicken in a spicy sauce. However, I will never understand how every cook in this part of the world manages to absolutely massacre cooking a chicken which universally seems to have little or no meat on it! I get the scrawny neck, a rubbery bit of the wing and some offal from this one! A dessert of apple and custard follows. Stomachs full, we retire to bed as our guide is planning to wake us around dawn if the mountains make an appearance.

 

Day Two: The Slog to Sandakphu

It is well after dawn when our guide knocks on our door to tell us that the cloud has finally lifted and the mountains are now visible. We quickly dress and walk the short distance uphill through the village to a grassy viewpoint by a rusty old signpost with a barely legible ‘Welcome to Singalila National Park’ inscribed on it. I stare into the distance directly ahead of me where veils of white cloud are draped like silken scarves across the blue-green outline of what seem like hundreds of interlocking mountain ridges. I can’t initially see any snow covered peaks, but then, to my utter amazement, I realise that I’m not looking high enough! Suddenly there is Kanchenjunga soaring well above the white veils of cloud, its five snowy peaks glinting in the sunlight against a powder blue sky. At 8,586 metres, this is the third highest mountain in the world, and unsurprisingly, was once thought to be the highest; in the Tibetan language it translates as ‘the five treasures of the high snow’. We are about 60 km away, but this mountain is absolutely huge and it takes me a while to get my head around how enormous an 8,000 metre plus mountain actually is.

KanchenjungaKanchenjungaFirst sight of Kanchenjunga from Tumling Village in Nepal

Our guide points out our final destination of the day, the summit of Sandakphu, the highest point in the Indian state of West Bengal, where a cluster of buildings above a steep zig-zag road can be clearly seen. It looks a long way off and will involve a steep descent and ascent through an intervening valley, a distance of about 21 km. Far below the summit on a ridge is another settlement named Kalipokhri where we will stop for lunch.

Having taken our fill of our first sight of the mighty Himalaya, we return to the lodge for breakfast. Porridge, more jeera aloo and a delicious local bread are placed in front of us which we consume with gusto washed down by the ubiquitous ‘black tea’. We set off at 7.30 am heading towards the village of Jhaubari about 4 km from Tumling, passing through an elaborate iron gateway and a check post into the park en route. The weather is quite benign, warm but not particularly humid. The route meanders up and down along the top of a ridge offering fine views over Nepal, the landscape dotted with numerous small farms of wattle houses, cattle sheds and pigsties surrounded by rectangles of verdant crops. I notice how deforested this side of the Singalila Ridge is compared to India where the forests are protected. In Nepal much of tree cover has vanished – felled mainly for firewood.

Nepali farmNepali farmThe Nepali side of the Singalila Ridge is heavily deforested unlike the Indian side which lies inside the Singalila National Park and is protected

Within an hour we spot the village of Jhaubari spread out in a ragged line across a hill top in the distance. On the approach to the village we pass by a whitewashed Buddhist shrine and a number of abandoned and decaying buildings before entering the muddy main street lined with prayer flags and flapping laundry. Brightly painted private houses sporting satellite dishes, mere shacks and scruffy shops parade cheek by jowl, side by side: the long and the short, the wide and the narrow. Rusting tin shacks and thatched hovels of wattle and daub elbow single storied tin-roofed buildings and double-storied trekkers’ lodges with stone façades, as heterogeneous a jumble of decay and pretence as could be imagined. An elderly woman, hair scrapped back in a bun and brandishing a walking stick, is coming down the muddy cobbled road driving a flock of goats. She expertly turns them down the road towards Gairibas. We follow her.

Goats in the village of Jhaubari, NepalGoats in the village of Jhaubari, NepalGoats on the junction of the road down to Gairibas

Sections of the road down to Gairibas are extremely steep and parts of its cobbled surface has been washed out by the monsoon rains. I wonder that any vehicle can get up to Jhaubari. However, the work horses of the Singalila Ridge can: the mighty Land Rover, much loved and cherished by the local Sherpa. I don’t think anywhere else in the world has such a concentration of these vehicles, many of which, green paint chipped to the metal, are older than me! I watch intrigued as a first series groans up the wretched road in front of me, belching blue fumes as it lurches this way and that, making steady upward progress. Without the Land Rover, many of these remote mountain communities would find it hard to get provisioned and would be totally reliant on mules. It is possible to take a jeep ride all the way to the summit of Sandakphu, a trip offered by many of the Darjeeling tour companies. But that would be cheating!!

Land Rover the workhorse of the HimalayaLand Rover the workhorse of the HimalayaOne of a number of ancient Land Rovers we encountered on our trek

We are not the only pedestrians on this busy road. A man carrying a large wicker basket slung over his shoulder rushes by us going downhill and another in gold wellies brandishing a long whip passes us slowly making his way uphill with a grey mule, the bell round its neck clanging loudly. The panniers slung over the mule’s back contain buttermilk and the man is en route to Manebhanjan to sell it. In fact, the production of buttermilk is big business in these parts and the cattle that produce it may be seen grazing on the lush grass all over the mountains. They look very different from the cattle we have at home as they are much larger with curved horns and bushier tails and many are actually yak hybrids. 

Mule transporting buttermilk in the HimalayaMule transporting buttermilk in the HimalayaWe passed this man walking up the road to Jhaubari en route to the market in Manebhanjan where he will sell the buttermilk being carried by his mule

The air temperature begins to rise as we proceed to the valley bottom and by the time we enter Gairibas I am sweating profusely. We make our way past several malodorous wattle buildings housing livestock to the army check point opposite the grandly named Magnolia Lodge. We then begin the slow climb up the road leading out of the valley towards Kalipokhri, which is about 6 km away. It’s now mid-morning and the humidity is high. The constant chirping of cicadas is almost deafening as we pass through thick bamboo groves and the densely wooded lower section of the road. This is undoubtedly much steeper than yesterday’s road up from Manebhanjan and I can feel the sweat running down my cheeks and dripping off my chin. The cloud now suddenly descends swallowing the views as we pass through forests of oak and rhododendron, but brings almost instant relief as the temperature falls making climbing less onerous.

Just before the small settlement of Kaiyankata where we will stop, we encounter a team of men repairing a damaged section of road. It looks like very hard work: one man constantly fetching stone in a wicker basket; another breaking it down to a suitable size then setting these new cobbles into place, and a third shovelling and packing gravel between the cobbles to make a level surface.

Road repair man, NepalRoad repair man, NepalThis man grabs a short rest from the back breaking work of repairing a section of flood damaged road near Kaiyankata

The fragrant smell of wood smoke fills the air, emitted from a low wattle building with a rusty iron roof surrounded by fluttering prayer flags and well-tended gardens. The kitchen of this tea house is a lean too constructed against the main building where a long, rustic clay oven is built up against the wall. The wood burning in the central semicircular fireplace emits a welcoming red glow. On top of it two pots are gently steaming away. Nearby is another fireplace which is not in use and there are two sets of three small circular clay domes where pots removed from the fire are placed to cool down.

Sherpa kitchen, KaiyankataSherpa kitchen, KaiyankataWood burning oven in the kitchen of a Sherpa tea shop in Kaiyankata, Nepal

As the water is being heated up for black tea, Martin and I are conducted into a small room with a wooden floor, table and two couches. A simple wooden shelf running the length of a wall houses a collection of bowls, plates and mugs, while a dusty and faded paper flower display in a vase on the table attempts to add a splash of colour. A cream coloured dog with a matted coat strolls in the door, sniffs the couch nearest it and duly urinates over the leg and fabric covering before we shoo it out loudly. My stomach churns! The hygiene in these tea shops leaves much to be desired!

After being refreshed with black tea and sweet coconut biscuits, we press on towards Kalipokhri where we will stop for lunch. The road is cut into the hillside above deeply incised valleys densely forested with oak, magnoila and rhododendron and we cross several crystal clear mountain streams tumbling down noisily from on high. The road here appears to be less well-used, more overgrown with weeds and vegetation, and we encounter many colourful flowers and raspberry canes garlanded with small, sweet juicy berries. After just over an hour we spot the stupa of a small shrine on a knoll above a lily-covered pool of brackish water across which are strung lines of coloured prayer flags. Light raindrops trace concentric circles across the mirror-flat surface of the pool, blurring the reflection of the flags above. Kalipokhri means ‘black water area’ and is named after this pool, and we soon arrive at a collection of algae-stained cement and galvanised iron buildings, a few of which appear to be trekkers’ lodges, flaunting their misery across a muddy road foetid with animal ordure. A few straggly chickens foraging in the grass at the base of the buildings and the cloud billowing across the road lends the place a melancholy dreariness.

Sherpa kitchen in Kalipokhri on the border between India and NepalSherpa kitchen in Kalipokhri on the border between India and NepalWood burning oven in the kitchen of a Sherpa tea shop in Kalipokhri where we had soya bean and cabbage momo

We step from the road into a room with an earthen floor containing a large table and numerous plastic chairs, ingrained with grime, as seems to be customary in these villages. Adjoining this room is the kitchen. A clay oven is glowing brightly, and a supply of fire wood is stacked neatly on a rack above it. Dangling from the rack are a line of corn cobs which have been strung up to dry. Our guide takes up his usual spot right near the fireplace. We, however, are consigned to shiver in the damp of the other room, the battered main door to which is swinging wide open allowing the mist to blow in. The woman of the house is going to cook soya bean and cabbage momo for our lunch. Meat seems to be at a premium in these villages! Hot black tea soon makes its way to us and we are grateful for the warmth as we have now climbed to over 3,000 metres and it feels decidedly chilly up here. The momo arrive steaming hot, and a brand new bottle of green chilli sauce is presented by the man of the house to go with the spicy tomato sauce the woman has put in a dish. It’s so cold, the sauce won’t leave the bottle easily and much merriment is generated by all of us attempting to coax it out! The effort is well worth it, as the sauce is delicious, as are the momo, and the cook is delighted when we clear our plates, making seconds readily available.

We have another 6 km to go before we reach Sandakphu and the weather looks like it is going to take a turn for the worse as we set off, passing an old man from the village of Gorkey en route to Jhaubari with several brooms he has made slung across his back. We pause briefly at Bhagsa, a settlement of a few houses and a shop, where I spot our guide buying some tablets, before descending to Bikheybhanjang past numerous sacred streams bedecked with coloured prayer flags and rock outcrops inscribed with Buddhist symbols. The going now begins to get tough as we commence the final ascent to the summit of Sandakphu. A flight of steep steps lead up towards a white stupa bearing a pair of Buddha’s eyes, wisely staring out over the valley below. We pause here for a short break, as the altitude is now beginning to take its toll on all of us. I spy our guide, leaning heavily on his umbrella, slyly popping a couple of pills into his mouth.

Sherpa man and broomsSherpa man and broomsThis old man is on his way from the village of Gorkhey en route to Jhaubari to sell the broom heads slung over his shoulder

The road now deteriorates into a deeply rutted track strewn with loose stone and boulders and the gradient is punishing. My lungs feel fit to burst as we make our way slowly up the zig-zag road, gasping for breath the higher we climb. To add insult to injury, the heavens open just a few kilometres from the summit and we are forced to don full rain gear which makes the climb even more uncomfortable. It is with some relief that I see a milestone emerge through the gloom indicating that Sandakphu is 0 km away, but I am crest-fallen to discover that we still have to traverse over 300 metres to reach the hut we’re staying at. Dejected, I sit down heavily on the wall of the penultimate hairpin bend as the rain literally pours down round me. Martin takes pity on me and produces some energy sweets. Having devoured these, we make the final assault on the road, arriving soaked through at the Sunrise Lodge some nine and a half hours after leaving Tumling.

We are shown down a dimly lit long, wet concrete corridor past a couple of squat toilets to a cramped three bed dorm with a table and too few hooks to hang up our wet clothing. Our room looks out over the mountains, but at the moment the window is streaming in condensation and nothing of the scenery can be seen through the rain. Dinner is served in a nearby building where our guide has already taken up residence by the kitchen fire. We are seated in an adjoining dining room at a table with a sticky plastic table cloth. It feels so cold and damp in here that even a scrawny looking cat is trying to worm its way onto my lap. Seeing that it is riddled with fleas, I push the poor thing away. Dinner is served but is hardly worth getting excited about. Our guide had warned us about the meagreness of the food on offer here and had brought along some popcorn and a packet of vegetable soup to augment the plain boiled rice, masoor dahl and a small helping of cumin flavoured potatoes which are served with rubbery chapattis. We eat in silence casting our eyes towards a nearby wall which is inexplicably decorated with cuttings from international cookery magazines. It’s absolute purgatory to partake of this very bland meal while eyeing pictures of Nigella Lawson’s culinary sensations! The only redeeming feature of this lodge is that there is plenty of beer available.

Outside, the sky has completely cleared and the Milky Way casts a glorious arch high over our heads. There is little light pollution here and, as our eyes become accustomed to the dark, we see that the sky is literally peppered with an infinite number of various sized stars. Martin sets the camera up to take some time lapse sequences before, chilled to the bone, we retire for the night.

 

Day three: The Sleeping Buddha

After a fitful night’s sleep due to several dogs’ sporadic and annoying barking, we are awoken by our guide knocking on the door informing us that the mountains are clearly visible. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I pull the curtains aside and wipe the window free of condensation. The night sky is brightening rapidly with the onset of dawn and deciding not to rush to dress like Martin, I remain in bed and watch as the rising sun turns the five snowy peaks of the Kanchenjunga range marshmallow-pink, then soft-apricot, before eventually brightening to creamy-white.

Kanchenjunga at dawn from SandakphuKanchenjunga at dawn from SandakphuAt 8,586 metres, this is the third highest mountain in the world. In Tibetan it means ‘the five treasures of the high snow’

From Sandakphu, Kanchenjunga and its surrounding peaks look like the body of a giant sleeping Buddha. The mountain is considered a holy deity in the State of Sikkim and climbers are not permitted to surmount its summit. I join Martin and we stand in reverent awe for nearly half an hour watching the cloud playing about the valleys and endless interlocking grey-green ridges below this giant mountain, before strolling back to the hut for breakfast, stopping en route to admire the incredible view of the road we had climbed yesterday switch-backing its way up the spine of the ridge all the way from Bikheybhanjang.

The 'sleeping Buddha'The 'sleeping Buddha'From Sandakphu the summits of Jannu (Kumbhakarna) and Kanchenjunga resemble the form of a reclining Buddha

Road along the Singalilia Ridge to SandakphuRoad along the Singalilia Ridge to SandakphuMorning light hitting the steep zig-zag road from Bikheybhanjang we had climbed up the day before in the monsoon downpour

Sunlight is streaming in through the windows of the dining room making it a far more welcoming place to sit and eat than the night before. A pot of black tea arrives and we sip this while waiting for our breakfast. The man of the house enters the room with a flourish, brandishing a small brass plate containing charcoal and incense which he waves about in front of a small shrine, before wandering round the room allowing the fragrance to permeate the four corners. He then sits down opposite us and proceeds to add up some bills with the aid of a calculator, mumbling loudly as he enters the amounts meticulously into a well-thumbed grubby ledger. Breakfast is no better than dinner, and I am disheartened to lift the lid of a plastic container to discover a large doughy pancake wrapped in old newspaper. I turn down the watery porridge, fearful that the milk might upset my stomach, and smear something resembling raspberry jam onto the pancake. Every mouthful lodges in my throat and I punish myself further by eyeing the nearby pictures of Nigella’s cookery!

SandakphuSandakphuDawn at Sandakphu

Monkshood (Aconitum ferox) growing near SandakphuMonkshood (Aconitum ferox) growing near SandakphuColloquially known as Indian Aconite, monkshood is considered to be the deadliest plant in the world and has lent its name to Sandakphu: ‘height of the poison plants’

The route to Phalut, 21 km in total, traverses the top of the Singalila Ridge; there is no proper water supply and only one small tea shop en route. As it’s so early in the trekking season our guide is unsure whether or not this will be open. Water is the least of my concerns. The lack of food, and therefore calories, is far more worrying. Our guide had been hoping to take some boiled eggs with us to eat en route, but we are informed there are none to be had in Sandakphu. I find this hard to believe as there are chickens running about here everywhere!

This private lodge seems to be particularly badly run, with inadequate provisioning and very poor food for which there is no excuse, as vehicles arrive here daily.

The weather has improved and the sun is hot on our shoulders as we leave the cluster of buildings round the summit. The air is perfectly still and the atmosphere clear revealing a long line of mountains, the sleeping Buddha being particularly prominent. Sandakphu means ‘height of the poison plants’ and we pass a tall clump of attractive deep purple flowers which have lent their name to this place, a species of Monkshood with the botanical name of Aconitum ferox, colloquially known as Indian Aconite, considered to be the most deadly plant in the world.

An unexpected wave of emotion washes over me Martin points out the peak of Everest sandwiched between Lhotse and Makalu. Although about 160 km away, through binoculars we can clearly see the South Col and the Hillary Step below the summit of the world’s highest mountain. Here the view is grand indeed, unimpeded by trees or buildings, and we feast our eyes on an unforgettable 180 degree view of the Eastern Himalaya with ranges belonging to Nepal on the west, Sikkim and Bhutan in the middle and Arunachal Pradesh in the east, and are able to spot four of the five highest mountains on Earth.

Everest as seen from SandakphuEverest as seen from SandakphuAlthough about 160 km away, we could clearly see Everest sandwiched between Lhotse (left) and Makalu (right)

Our cameras snap away for several minutes before we continue along the undulating road through a delightful sylvan landscape of silver fir, oak, rhododendron and magnolia which look magnificent bathed in sunshine under an impossibly blue sky. After around 4 km the landscape begins to change; the trees thin out eventually giving way to rolling grassland dotted with the silvered and skeletal remains of numerous dead silver fir (victims of lightning strikes) and patches of flowers, including cerise-pink geraniums. We leave the track, passing by a herd of goats and a series of pools so blue they look as if they have swallowed the entire sky, their mirror still surfaces perfectly reflecting the stunted remains of the dead conifers. The scene is hauntingly beautiful, but there is no time to stop and soak up the atmosphere as Phalut is still over 13 km away.

We have to stop at another army checkpoint and I’m grateful for the opportunity to rest. The descriptions I had read of the route give the impression that Sandakphu to Phalut is a leisurely stroll along the Singalila Ridge, but this is not the case at all. We have to descend about 400 metres, only to ascend over another 350 more to reach the hut at Phalut. By the time we reach the bottom of a steep metalled road with numerous hairpin bends, the lack of calories is beginning to take its toll. As we begin the lung-busting climb up towards Phalut through forests of conifers, chestnuts, rhododendron and magnolia, the cloud fortunately descends like a silent shroud and we welcome the instant cooling effect this brings. Saffron coloured fungi dot the ground beneath some of the trees and the sight of massive silver firs, some partially stunted, standing sentinel like a silent army in the churning mist is slightly unnerving.

Hoopoe (Upupa epops)Hoopoe (Upupa epops)We spotted this Hoopoe in the Singalila National Park

The trees eventually begin to thin out, the terrain becomes grassier and we spot lots of flowers, including the beautiful deep blue Himalayan gentian and mauve coloured Aster. About 7 km from Phalut, we arrive at Sabarkum, a collection of rectangular and circular galvanised huts half hidden in thigh-high yellow grass, with a line of prayer flags strung across the track way leading to it. All looks deadly quiet and I begin to despair of it being open for lunch, when a head appears in one of the doorways. Luckily for us, the tea shop is ready for business and hot noodle soup, steamed potatoes and black tea are on offer! Our guide has also brought along some cheese and apples and we greedily tuck into this meagre fare, glad to replenish our weary bodies with much needed calories. After buying some bottled water, we continue on our way down a steep and rutted road, one of the arterial routes through this mountain range from Nepal to India. We exchange pleasantries with several Asian trekkers brandishing umbrellas and little else, who had come from Gorkey and were en route to a place called Molley about 2 km from Sabarkum.

The route now undulates along a ridge above densely forested valleys, the tops of the trees poking up through the mist which billows across the road in front of us. Fine drops of rain begin to fall but it does not persist for long. Blue sky replaces the gloom and sunshine floods a quite stunning landscape of verdant rolling hills grazed by yak hybrids whose clanging bells break the silence. Phalut is derived from the Lepcha word Fak-Luk, which means ‘Barren Peak’, and this landscape is a real contrast to the dense forests that are so common at the lower levels. However, I wouldn’t describe it as barren, as it looks lush and chocolate box-pretty just after the monsoon rains.

Yak herdersYak herdersWe saw many yak hybrids on this trek, including these being herded near Phalut

The final 2 km of the day involves another steep climb up towards the hut we’re staying at, but this is leavened somewhat by the majestic scenery and the sight of several herders donning whips and whistling loudly as they drive their herds of yak hybrids through the lush green pasturelands. Close to the top, I pause for breath. The sight of the hills and ridge we had just traversed bathed in the warm tones of late afternoon sunshine rising above columns of luminescent cloud slowly churning in the valleys below is utterly magnificent.

Milestone en route to PhalutMilestone en route to PhalutThese characteristic markers are a constant sight along the Singalila Ridge. This one marks the final steep climb up to the GTA Hut at Phalut

We finally reach the hut run by the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) at Phalut, a large stone building with a rusty roof of galvanised sheeting, passing a man with a grey mule who shows us to the entrance. I can scarcely believe my eyes when we enter a dusty rubbish strewn wooden corridor and are shown to our room. The place is absolutely filthy, the painted wood panelled walls ingrained with years of grime. Empty beer bottles lie abandoned outside our door and the window sills are thick with dust, blackened candle wax and covered with dark rings left by wet tea cups. In our dorm, the faded, shabby and soiled curtains hang forlornly from makeshift curtain poles above windows so dirty with mould you can barely see through them, and the blankets feel damp and smell musty. I dump my pack and sit down on one of the beds which promptly collapses, concertinaing me between slats of wood and the musty blankets! If we didn’t laugh, we’d surely cry, for this place is grim beyond belief, the worse mountain hut we have stayed at anywhere in the world. To add insult to injury, there’s no beer available here, so it’s yet another cup of bloody black tea!

As it gets dark we are handed a candle stuck in a beer bottle as there is no electricity anywhere in the building except the kitchen. It’s really cold up here and thankfully we are invited into the kitchen which is warm and lit by a bare and very dim light bulb. A young man and woman, faces illuminated by the light of the fire, are sitting on their haunches next to a clay oven preparing our evening meal. Our guide instantly takes up residence on a stool right next to the fire, while we are seated on the opposite side of the room at a small table on a couple of rickety old threadbare chairs. A dish of popcorn arrives with more black tea, followed by a bowl of tasteless vegetable soup, but hungry, I wolf it all down. The kitchen is a wretched affair with a concrete area containing a tap, plastic bowl and a drain in a corner below a window where the woman is now busy washing utensils which she dries and replaces on a long shelf running along the length of one wall. Suspended above the clay oven is a rack full of chopped firewood atop which our water proofs have been spread out to dry. This turns out to be quite a mistake, as they smelt like smoked kippers afterwards!! The rather bland vegetable curry, seemingly comprised of anything that was available - potatoes, cabbage and what appear to be cauliflower florets - arrives with a heap of plain boiled rice, a chappati and a small bowl of watery dahl which tastes of salt and little else. Despite my hunger, I struggle to muster much enthusiasm for this meal.

The man and woman are husband and wife, and have travelled up from Gorkey in the last few days to reopen this hut for the trekking season. They will remain as caretakers here for the next three months. A middle aged man who is sitting quietly smoking a cigarette in another corner of the room is their friend. The hut is provisioned only by mules, hence the lack of everything including beer up here, yet I was surprised to hear the woman chatting on a land line telephone. It seems inexplicable that despite the numerous checkpoints and constant bureaucracy, three days into this trek no one had the nous to call ahead to inform this GTA-operated hut that three people would be arriving there and to ensure there were adequate provisions. On numerous occasions over the 18 years that our guide has been coming here, he has found all of the beds taken and has had to sleep outside in the open. The capacity of each dorm could be immediately doubled if the GTA had the sense to install bunk beds, yet complaints about the facilities and state of the hut continually fall on deaf ears, which reflects very badly on the local authority. After a visit to the squat toilet, which at least does not smell too much, we retire to bed. Outside, the sky is crystal clear and full of stars, and we fall asleep hopeful of another fine dawn.

 

Day Four: Himalayan High!

It’s almost dawn when our guide knocks on the door to wake us up. We dress and follow him uphill for around half a kilometre to the summit of Phalut (3,600m). It’s a steep climb and I’m soon struggling for breath. I decide not to rush, preferring to soak up the predawn atmosphere. The sky is brightening by degrees on the eastern horizon turning the cloud nestled above some snowy peaks in the distance pink and apricot. Rounding a corner, I am suddenly face to face with a solitary yak hybrid, its curved horns silhouetted against the sky. It becomes aware of my presence, turns, eyes me, snorts, then casts its gaze once more into the distance, seemingly standing in silent reverence to the majesty of the mountains which are being revealed in the predawn light. It’s such a magical, spiritual moment, a memory I shall take to the ghats.

Yak hybrid at dawn in the Indian HimalayaYak hybrid at dawn in the Indian HimalayaA magical predawn moment when I encountered this yak hybrid near the summit of Phalut

The golden orb of the sun suddenly pierces the horizon, bathing every blade of grass in lurid light. Ahead of me prayer flags are fluttering around a stone structure marking the summit. The local people believe Phalut’s peak is an omniscient god and call it ‘Omna Re Ay’. I join Martin who is standing amid stems of bright yellow ragwort and the dew covered foliage of lilies which must have looked magnificent a few weeks ago. Our shadows are long and the giant outline of Phalut is reflected on the cloud in the valley behind us like a mystic pyramid.

Phalut at sunrisePhalut at sunriseMartin blinking in the rising sun on the summit of Phalut known by local people as ‘Omna Re Ay’

We stand enthralled as the snowy peaks of the Himalaya reveal themselves, giving us an uninterrupted view some 320 km in length. In the far west I spot Chamlang (7,319m) rising up through veils of cloud like a square wall of snow, then Everest, the highest mountain on Earth (8,848m), flanked on the left by Lhotse (8,516m, the fourth highest peak) and to the right by Makalu (8,481m, the fifth highest peak). Scanning further east I see the distinctive peaks of the Three Sisters, then Kumbhakarna (otherwise known as Jannu), an outlier of Kanchenjunga which formed the head of the sleeping Buddha as seen from Sandakphu. With an elevation of 7,712m it means ‘the mountain with shoulders’ and from this perspective it’s easy to see why! A long ridge runs from it to Kanchenjunga, the main peak of which is the highest mountain in India. It’s about 48 km away from Phalut as the crow flies, but looks absolutely enormous, like a white wall suspended from the sky. We can clearly see a huge glacier on its southern flank, and its amazing to think that the meltwater from this great body of ice eventually feeds into the Ganges River, the lifeblood of the Subcontinent sacred to millions of Indians.

Kanchenjunga (8,586m)  from PhalutKanchenjunga (8,586m)  from PhalutMeltwater from the glaciers on Kanchenjunga feed into the mighty Ganges River

Further east is the summit of Pandim (6,691m) and then the great Tibetan peaks of Narsing, Dongkya, Chola and Chomolhari straddling the border between Tibet and Bhutan. In front of this incredible backdrop are wave after wave of spiky mountain ridges in a hundred shades of blue-grey. This uninterrupted view from Nepal, through Sikkim, Tibet, Bhutan, to Arunachal Pradesh in the east is surely the finest view in the world of this incredible mountain range. Compensation indeed for the foul weather of the first day and, with the exception of the first night, the lack of decent food and accommodation! For over half an hour, we stand mesmerised by the raw beauty of the very roof of the world, watching the kaleidoscopic patterns created by cloud billowing about in the valleys, revealing then obscuring hundreds of razor sharp brown pinnacles and blue-green ridges, the nearest fringed with conifers. It feels like we have the whole world laid out before us. Behind us, a wild horse has appeared on the hill slope to graze, and we can see a cluster of buildings reflecting the early morning sunshine atop the summit of Sandakphu way off the distance.

The GTA Hut at PhalutThe GTA Hut at PhalutThe GTA Hut and the Singalila Ridge from Phalut

We eventually make our way reluctantly downhill to the hut where cups of black tea are waiting for us. Breakfast is another dull affair, with yet more chappatis and something resembling jeera aloo along with more watery dahl. We request some hot water to have a wash, which is taken to a grim and grimy concrete cubicle with a window and a tap. It would be absolute purgatory to wash here in cold water! I am not sorry when we finally leave this dump of a hut and hit the trail which will take us downhill the 15 km to Gorkey.  

The sun is hot on our backs as we traverse the treeless terrain giving excellent views into the lush wooded valleys below. After about 20 minutes we come to another army checkpoint. The plainclothes young man on the gate looks delighted to see us. We can imagine how mundane and monotonous life is up here and our arrival is probably the most exciting thing that will happen today! While our passports are being inspected, he asks would we like some black tea? Having warmed to him, we accept his offer and two plastic chairs are produced for us. He tells us that the men in this camp will serve here for a few months before being stationed elsewhere in the NE region of India. 

The military presence is mainly due to potential problems with secessionist movements in Sikkim and Gorkhaland, and to prevent illegal cross border trade in the region. Sikkim, once an independent monarchy, became the 22nd Indian state in 1975; many who wish to see it regain its independence claim this took place under Indian coercion. The movement for a separate state of Gorkhaland gained serious momentum during the 1980s when violent protests were carried out by the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF). Centred in Darjeeling, the agitation ultimately led to the establishment of a semi-autonomous body in 1988 called the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) to govern certain areas of Darjeeling district. However, in 2007 a new party called the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) once again raised the demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland. In 2011 the GJM signed an agreement with the state and central governments for the formation of Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), a semi-autonomous body that replaced the DGHC in the Darjeeling hills (and which incidentally runs the Phalut Hut…). The demands for an independent Gorkhaland haven’t gone away, but since then an uneasy peace has largely prevailed. The tea arrives after what seems an eternity but is well worth waiting for as it is flavoured with ginger and really delicious.

The heat is steadily building as we continue down the track passing in and out of groves of chestnut, hemlock, rhododendron and magnolia which offer some shade, but the humidity is relentless. Along the path we spot many flowers in bloom including Geranium, Bistort, Senecio, and several types of orchid. As we descend lower into the virgin forest, thick stands of bamboo begin to line the route. Some of the moss-dappled trees are huge, bristling with parasitic ferns and the sound of insects is almost deafening. The track is well used by mules, a team of which driven by two young men pass us en route from Phalut to Gorkey. As a result, some sections are very eroded and, due to the recent monsoon rains, also extremely muddy.

Walking through bamboo grove en route to GorkeyWalking through bamboo grove en route to GorkeyThe track from Phalut to Gorkey passes through bamboo groves where the humidity was immense

The final part of the route gets progressively steeper and the humidity higher, making trekking quite uncomfortable. At least there are no mosquitoes about, but Martin begins to suffer from mild heat exhaustion. Our guide goes on ahead to our accommodation to tell them to prepare our lunch and I instruct him to make sure there are cold beers waiting for us! Through the trees we eventually spot some thatched wattle houses and below them the Rammam River which forms the border with Sikkim. The village of Gorkey lies in the bottom of the valley on the West Bengal side, surrounded by lush pine forests. The path down to the village through the pines is relentlessly steep and exposed tree roots render it dangerous in places. We take our time, finally emerging through the trees into small plots full of paper-dry maize plants. The heat is tremendous as we traverse the labyrinthine sets of steps linking each farmstead to the village and I am wondering where on earth our accommodation is, not wishing to spend any more time than necessary wandering round looking for it under the fierce midday sun, when our guide belatedly appears to show us the way.

GorkeyGorkeyMaize plots in the village of Gorkey

Eden Lodge at GorkeyEden Lodge at GorkeyThe Eden Lodge, quite unlike the Biblical Eden! The puri were good and the beer was cold though!

We are staying in a picturesque riparian setting close to the junction of two rivers (the Rammam and a tributary named the Gorkey Khola), at the Eden Lodge, a misnamed establishment if ever there was one! We enter a galvanised-roofed building with a kitchen on one side and a low partition dividing it from a small dining area with a wooden table almost devoid of varnish on the other. A sense of how close we are to Sikkim is indicated by the calendar on the wall advertising the Sikkim Democratic Front. A large bottle of ice cold Hit beer brewed in this state is utter bliss after trekking in this heat, while a bowl of chow mien is a very welcome and pleasant change from rice and dahl!

A loud crack of thunder suddenly rends the air and huge drops of rain begin to hammer on the galvanised roof of the dining room. In seconds the pathway outside is awash with monsoon rain and I’m relieved that we’re not walking down over the steep muddy sections of the track from Phalut in this! The rain instantly lowers the temperature making it far more comfortable, and after consuming another bottle of beer each, we are shown to our room in a nearby building. The good news is that it’s en suite and carpeted, containing two single beds and a table. The bad news is it doesn’t look as if it has been properly cleaned for months! The lurid blue paintwork is predictably ingrained with dirt and the hand basin is caked in the toothpaste and congealed soap of countless other trekkers. Worse still, the ill fitting windows have let in an enormous number of small fruit flies whose corpses litter the table, beds and floor.

Tired from the heat and humidity and woozy from the beer, we crash and burn. We are awoken some hours later by the sound of a generator; almost immediately the fumes from it enter our room nearly choking us. We find our guide and ask to be moved to another room where we’re not going to risk being gassed in our sleep! It’s pitch black when we walk up to the dining room for dinner. The rain has stopped and the air is permeated with the sweet musty smell of damp earth mingled with the fragrance of a joss stick stuck in a ceramic pot suspended from the eaves above the dining room door. Black tea in ornately decorated Chinese looking cups with little lids is served (great for keeping the omnipresent flies out!), followed by a very tasty aloo curry and rice with chapattis. Suitably full, we retire to our room just as the generator stops. A candle has been provided which, when lit, only serves to attract every bloody fly in the valley! Caught by the flame, the table is soon black with their corpses. Unable to bear the carnage any longer, we blow it out and are soon fast asleep.

 

Day Five: The End of the Road

A woman is busy in the kitchen rolling out small balls of dough which she pops into a pan of boiling oil. She is making an delicious unleavened deep-fried Indian bread called puri which is served with an equally delicious jeera aloo, naturally washed down with the ubiquitous black tea. We set off round 8.00 am, crossing a small bridge over the Gorkey Khola before climbing steadily up a series of steps through a stand of pine trees which brings us out into fields planted largely with maize. The sky is slightly overcast, it’s a little misty but not particularly humid, far better conditions for trekking than those of yesterday. Very soon we arrive at Samandeen village, a settlement of well-kept brightly painted wooden houses occupying a large meadow in the midst of a forest which has an alpine feel to it. Indeed, the houses at this lower altitude seem to be of a better quality than those we encountered higher up. The track skirts the village before entering dense forest interspersed with thick bamboo groves where it begins to descend steeply to a rushing mountain stream which we cross by a concrete bridge. From here we face a steady uphill climb towards Rammam. Several heavily laden teams of mules pass us en route to Gorkey and a couple of girls neatly dressed in white uniforms hurry by on their way to school. The humidity begins once more to take its toll, we attract a few unwelcome leeches and I am relieved when we eventually reach Rammam village which is sited at an altitude of 2,438m.

Mules en route to GorkeyMules en route to GorkeyThe Himalayan villages on the border with Sikkim are supplied mainly by mules

Entering the school playground, we pause for a few minutes to admire the view over the State of Sikkim which lies opposite. The forested mountain slopes are interspersed with tiny farmsteads reached by zig-zag roads surrounded by cascading terraces where farmers grow crops such as potatoes, millet and maize. Birdsong fills the air and thin wisps of cloud hug the tops of the mountains. On the playground wall there is a sign exhorting the children to dispose of their rubbish in the bins provided. This appears to have had little effect, for the trails have all been peppered with plastic sweet, biscuit and crisp wrappers. Trekkers are threatened with fines for dropping litter and plastic is supposedly banned, but the problem clearly lies with the local communities.

We stop at a Sherpa tea house at the other end of the village. Black tea is brought to us and we watch the villagers going about their business. A woman rushes by with a stick in her hand only to reappear minutes later loudly chastising a black dog which she is holding by the scruff of its neck. A young boy bent double under the weight of a wicker basket full of animal fodder flashes a smile at us, and a wizened old woman leading a cow slowly by a rope bows, hands clasped together, as I call out ‘Namaste’ to her. Our guide brings an enamel pot full of a dark cream coloured liquid with small flies swimming on its surface. It’s fresh unpasteurised milk which we politely turn down, not wanting a bad attack of Delhi belly. Before we leave I visit the toilet. Prime Minister Modi has recently made it clear that he wishes every household in India to have access to a toilet to consign to history the need for open defecation. With the possible exception of Lamey Dhura, all the communities that we have passed through seem to have had toilets, the majority of them simple squats, and those I have used have been fairly clean by Indian standards, especially the one here at Rammam.

Boy carrying animal fodder in Rammam villageBoy carrying animal fodder in Rammam villageChildren are expected to help out on their family farms in the Indian Himalaya

After about half an hour, we press on towards Sepi Goan which is over 9 km away and involves a descent of over 700m. Here we are informed that a jeep will be coming to collect us to take us back to Darjeeling. The track weaves its way past numerous Sherpa farmsteads denoted by the coloured flags displayed outside. Many small streams cascade down from the highlands, some obviously sacred as they have attracted prayer flags, and rock outcrops are decorated with colourful Buddhist inscriptions. We pass an impressive long line of white flags bearing black Tibetan script, apparently in honour of the dead, and past umpteen clusters of houses almost subsumed by the rampant tangle of jungle vegetation. The simple yet hard life of the Sherpa villagers is played out in front of us: a man using a wash board to launder his clothes at a spring; another using a whetstone to sharpen a sickle; a teenage girl milking a cow; a young man felling a tree with an axe; a group of men and women rushing by in golden wellie boots burdened by loads almost as long as they are tall.

Sherpa villager sharpening a sickleSherpa villager sharpening a sickleThis man is sharpening a sickle he will use in the fields on a whetstone

The track now descends very steeply towards the Srikhola River to a wooden suspension bridge built by the British in the dying days of the Raj. Mist begins to billow about the mountain tops and stealthily creep up the valley. Rain is in the air. We eventually come to the swaying bridge garlanded with coloured prayer flags enjoying the great beauty of the roaring, foaming river with chalet type buildings more reminiscent of the Alps than the Himalaya built above its banks. On the opposite side of the river is a driveable road and a couple of kilometres outside Sepi Goan our jeep is waiting. It is with a great degree of relief that I remove my pack and climb into the back seat. There is one more formality; we have to stop in the town of Rimbik at the final checkpoint to register that we have left the park. This completed, we begin the three hour drive back to Darjeeling in teeming monsoon rain.

 

Reflections

We covered over 70 km with over 3,000 metres of ascent and descent, in trying conditions. The weather certainly took its toll, and on the first day in the monsoon downpour my spirits were so deflated I could cheerfully have turned tail and headed back to Darjeeling. The heat and the humidity, especially in the jungle, were sapping and the lack of decent food and sufficient calories left us both feeling decidedly weak at times which made climbing at altitude harder than it should have been. The accommodation in India left much to be desired, especially the wretched hut at Phalut which was substandard in every conceivable way. The only place we stayed at that was anywhere near adequate was the Shikar Lodge in Nepal on the first night. Moreover, parts of the route, such as the road to Sandakphu, was pretty monotonous and we feel that having a guide is unnecessary and we would have been able to find the route quite easily with a map ourselves. We both agree that this has not been our all time favourite trek with disappointing and dispiriting weather conditions for photography, but its deficiencies pale into insignificance when we remember the friendly and simple people we have met along the way. And of course, the utterly spellbinding views of the mighty Himalaya Mountain chain and especially of Everest, at dawn. This was a life's dream which rendered us totally speechless. I will leave the final words to Indian-American astrophysicist, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, as they encapsulate our experience perfectly:

‘… who amongst us can hope, even in imagination, to scale the Everest and reach its summit when the sky is blue and the air is still, and in the stillness of the air survey the entire Himalayan range in the dazzling white of the snow stretching to infinity? None of us can hope for a comparable vision of nature and of the universe around us. But there is nothing mean or lowly in standing in the valley below and awaiting the sun to rise over Kanchenjunga.’

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eramaptec@gmail.com (Purple Peak Adventures) Asia Himalaya Mountains India Nepal trekking http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2014/10/monsoon-madness-five-days-trekking-from-sandakphu-to-phalut-in-the-indian-himalaya Tue, 14 Oct 2014 22:00:00 GMT
A Pair of ‘Mad Swivel-eyed Cloons’? A 22km hike in the Dunkerron Mountains, Kerry, Ireland http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2014/8/a-pair-of-mad-swivel-eyed-cloons-a-22-km-hike-in-the-dunkerron-mountains-ireland Cloon Horseshoe WalkCloon Horseshoe WalkView down over Cloon Lough in the Dunkerron Mountains of County Kerry

We haven't long left our car by the bridge over the Owenroe River to tackle the Cloon Horseshoe, a tough circuit in the Dunkerron Mountains of County Kerry, when a Land Rover pulls up alongside us, window wound down. ‘You’ll be well advised to avoid that field up there’, says the farmer in a thick Kerry accent as he touches the brim of his check cloth cap by way of a greeting. ‘It has a bull in it you see.’ We glance uphill in the direction he is pointing and sure enough, the buff coloured beast in question makes an appearance as if on cue. ‘Bulls are stupid animals and can be very dangerous,’ the farmer continues shaking his head, his swarthy face creasing into a thousand laughter lines. ‘Better continue along this road by the lake, cross a small stream beyond the farmhouse and then strike upwards towards the ridge.’

Owenroe RiverOwenroe RiverThe Owenroe flowing from Cloon Lough

Keen to avoid an encounter with a bull ‘with attitude’, we thank him for his kind advice as he roars off in his Land Rover with a cheery wave, leaving us on the dirt track alongside the reed fringed shore of Cloon Lough, tiny waves glinting in the late-morning sunshine as they lap ashore with a gentle sigh.

Cloon LoughCloon LoughThe walk starts by the shores of the lake

Soft white thistle down drifts by on the languid breeze and becomes stuck in the nearby reeds. These are emanating from numerous clumps of the prickly plants sporting electric mauve heads, a splash of colour enlivening what has turned out to be a bit of a gloomy morning. But there are signs on the western horizon that the cloud is beginning to dissipate as we make our way through dense mats of reeds and across small streams, gaining ground towards the Beann ridge. Concealed in the boggy grass there lurks a killer, a sundew with its sticky secretions glistening in the feeble morning sunlight. The grisly remains of its hapless victims are clearly visible. There is a strange beauty in death, for this carnivorous plant with its salmon pink tentacles is highly attractive!

A killer in the bogA killer in the bogSundew with trapped insects

After just 100 metres or so of height gain, the view over Cloon Lough with a small island at its far end which might be a crannóg, is spread below us like an artist’s painting. Mottled sunlight dots the emerald green slopes of Knocknacusha that rises behind it, and the faint lines of an old boreen that disappears onto the hillside and a dirt track leading to a remote farm house, are picked out in the glassy sunlight.

The pull up from Cloon Lough to the Beann ridge is long and unrelenting over some steep sections reminiscent of the infamous ascent of Maamturkmore from the ‘Col of Despondency’ in the Maamturk Mountains in Galway. It takes far longer than we had anticipated. Lough Eskabehy, a deep blue spoonful of water, eventually drifts into view and on our left, the distinctive 3D pyramid-shaped Mullaghanattin, with its compressed and contorted layers of rock bursting through its emerald coat, is a constant companion. Beyond this mountain, dubbed ‘the Matterhorn of Kerry’, the smoky blue peaks of the Reeks crown the horizon. We eventually gain the summit of Beann NE Top, feasting our eyes on the patchwork quilt of field systems in myriad shades of green which give way to bog, sweeping up to the feet of the ridge on both sides. We debate whether to climb Mullaghanattin, the steep slope of which rises invitingly opposite Beann NE Top. This will add over an hour to the route we plan to take, but we decide that it would be foolish to miss the opportunity of bagging one of Ireland’s highest and most iconic mountains while this close. 

The descent to the col between the two mountains is steep and I slip, landing heavily on my bottom, as I lose my footing on a patch of blackish vegetation which I discover is dead moss. Narrow sheep tracks thread their way among large shelves of rock and boulders, past little bog pools, and a fence at the top of a precipitous gully must be carefully negotiated before the ground begins to rise steeply. We decide to stop for lunch behind a couple of huge boulders which offer some shelter from the wind to fire up our stove. The view down to Lough Eskabehy is magnificent.

The day has now brightened up and hot sunshine is streaming down on us as we begin the lung bursting climb up the steep slope of Toblerone-shaped Mullaghanattin. The ground, although steep, is relatively benign comprised in the main of low wiry grass, although I take care not to step on the black patches of dead moss which I have already discovered are lethal if trodden on! As the summit trig point eventually looms into view, a stupendous panorama unfolds before our eyes. The Reeks, bathed in hues of pink and green, look simply mesmerising as white fluffy clouds gambolling across an iris-blue sky trace fantastical indigo shadows over their peaks and steep flanks. Lough Brin, an impossibly deep shade of cobalt-blue, lies nestled in a tiny valley hemmed in by mountains.

MacGillycuddy's ReeksMacGillycuddy's ReeksMacGillycuddy's Reeks from the summit of Mullaghanattin

It’s hard to tear ourselves away from such incredible views, but we still have a long way to go. We rapidly descend Mullaghanattin helped by the use of walking poles which I am discovering prove indispensible in the more untrodden mountains of Kerry. Keeping close to a fence, we traverse round the slopes of Beann NE Top towards the summit of Beann which is not that much lower than Mullaghanattin. The unmarked summit point, close to the wire fence that runs the length of the grassy ridge, is distinctly underwhelming, but the 360 degree views more than compensate. Below is a deep valley known to locals as The Pocket, a lonely place untarnished by time and untouched by the outside world with only a handful of old shepherds' cottages to betray the presence of people.

Besides the views of the Reeks and the Slieve Mish mountains at our backs, the summits of the Dunkerrons towards Coomcallee above Waterville are gloriously spread out to the south west, and, perched high above Cloon Lough, we spy the diminutive reed ringed Coom Lough nestled below Beann’s sweeping green slopes. In the distance, Lough Reagh, gleaming mercury grey in the glassy sunlight, a small river spilling from it like a thin silver serpent, is nestled below the forbidding dark cliffs of Coolyvack. In the valley, an olive green bog spreads out like an immense blanket broken only by several vividly surreal green rectangles of enclosed fields close to the lough shore. Huge shafts of light stream down from amid breaks in the cloud to illuminate the rocky slopes leading towards Finnararagh.

Lough ReaghLough ReaghA sinuous ridge of bare rock stretches towards Finnararagh and hogging the horizon are a veritable army of smoky blue peaks that recede in tumultuous waves until the very Atlantic Ocean

Mindful of the time, we eschew the climb down to bag Beann South Top and instead continue along the ridge. This involves some steep descents alongside the wire fence to a couple of cols over stony, eroded ground where it is occasionally hard to keep your footing. Eventually, after passing across undulating grassy and peaty terrain over Beann SW Top and Beann Far SW Top, the ground rises steeply amid numerous rocky outcrops towards Sallagh. Kenmare Bay shimmers blue to my left, beyond which lie the hazy outlines of the Caha Mountains. Staring into the sun, I am almost blinded by the light reflecting off Lough Reagh and can just make out a sinuous ridge of bare rock stretching towards Finnararagh. Hogging the horizon are a veritable army of smoky blue peaks receding in tumultuous waves until the very Atlantic Ocean, where the spear shaped Skelligs rise.

From the nondescript grassy summit of Sallagh, the ground drops and rises steeply towards Finnararagh. In the glare of the sun, now low in the sky, I can just about discern the deep blue shapes of lakes barely visible amid contorted ledges of rock above the precipitous headwalls at Coolyvack. The landscape is rough, wild, almost elemental around here and we must pass through a veritable maze of huge boulders perched at seemingly impossible angles, left stranded by the retreat of glaciers eons ago. I am distracted by the mysterious Lough Coomeen lying in the rocky crook of Finnararagh’s eastern arm, the diminutive Lough Sallagh it’s baby brother just below, and my foot plunges down suddenly and dramatically through the wiry heather between two boulders. This is a timely reminder of the need to pay attention to avoid a sure lower leg injury as we weave our way towards the base of a huge shelf of bare rock. Martin’s figure seems diminutive as he begins his ascent over the grey rock tinged pink by the warm sunshine of early evening.

The rocky slopes of FinnararaghThe rocky slopes of FinnararaghThe mysterious Lough Coomeen lies in the rocky crook of Finnararagh’s eastern arm

We then climb a smallish scree slope, the loose rock making strange percussive noises beneath our boots, before one last brief pull up to the summit of Finnararagh, where we are rewarded with views to die for. Spread below is a face slapping landscape of deep blue lakes, dusky valleys and olive green bogs, hemmed in by clusters of purple mountains all around. The sinuous ridge from Beann over Sallagh to the point where we are standing is picked out in the warm tones of the sinking sun, deep shadows running away down the ridge to the east. No wonder County Kerry is called The Kingdom, for it is truly majestic.

Behold the Kingdom!Behold the Kingdom!The Reeks as seen from the summit of Finnararagh on the Cloon Horseshoe walk

We descend Finnararagh to find the terrain easier going as we emerge onto a high plateau covered with large tracts of bog grass. There are some eroded hags and patches of bog to negotiate in the col before the ground starts to climb steadily towards the summit of Coomnacronia. Looking back, the rock comprising Finnararagh glows rosy pink in the setting sun and Kenmare Bay and the CahaMountains are bathed in soft violet light. The wind has dropped and the fading light has snatched away any views of Coomloughla Lough and surrounding lakes, while Loughs Coomnacronia and Eagles are tucked away out of view in their rocky cirques far below. Straight ahead we can see the sun, a saffron yellow sphere, beginning to sink just to the left of the steep line of Knockmoyle’s NE slope. Beyond, in various shades of sepia, are the tops of the Glenbeigh Mountains.

Clambering over a high wire fence, we arrive at the small summit cairn on Coomnacronia to witness the final rays of the sun fan out like the tail feathers of a giant bird over the top of Knockmoyle, turning the surrounding sky a deep apricot. The clouds above Kenmare Bay blush marshmallow pink fringed with smoky grey and the Caha Mountains and crooked finger of the Beara Peninsulafade to a deep purple. Above this scene of immense grandeur, a creamy coloured half moon hangs majestically. 

We now set out briskly for our final summit, Coomura Mountain, with its distinctive ice scoured northern flank. The light is fading fast and the terrain is peppered with rocks and bog, making progress slower than we would have wished. I am now resigned to the fact that that the descent from Coomura will be in total darkness. After a long slog, we enter a boggy bowl enclosed by the desolate dark shapes of rocky ridges, to begin our ascent of the mountain. Dozens of small bog pools reflect the chilled mercury of moonlight which gives just enough light to see by. The bog soon eases, the ground is grassier and we now climb quite rapidly. The cold becomes intense and a chill wind wraps wrath-like fingers round my neck as we find our way to the summit on the domed top of Coomura. Far below we can see tiny pinpoints of light that mark solitary farmhouses.

The moon is low in the sky as we leave the summit donning our head torches. Knowing that Coomura is surrounded by dramatic cliffs and steep ground, Martin is careful to take an accurate compass bearing to pace out a safe route down a grassy north-eastern spur. Yet more peat hags are soon encountered, which cause us to weave our way round these obstacles making accurate pacing testing. His navigation is spot on and having safely avoided the cliffs, we begin climbing down to the col between Coomura and Knocknacusha. Anyone who thinks that a quick descent can be made to Cloon Lough from Coomura is seriously mistaken. You must traverse huge shelves of rocks with vertical drops; small streams clogged with boot-sucking bog lie between these and the flatter areas further down are dense with thigh high grass and rushes. It’s agonisingly slow even in daylight, and we are about to attempt this in the dark! 

The crimson tinged moon is setting and the dew brings out the intense fragrance of the bog. Darkness is now complete and the magnificent Milky Way shimmering over our heads and occasional shooting star, part of the annual Perseid meteor shower, provide welcome distractions from the monotony of endless rocky shelves and umpteen obstacles, which cause us to repeatedly retrace our steps. We try and keep to the rocky ridges as much as possible to avoid becoming entrapped in shin deep patches of bog, thankful that the rock provides a good grip. The solitude is intense, the only sounds, my laboured breathing and the vegetation tearing under our boots. I can scarcely believe we are doing this, what a pair of ‘mad, swivel-eyed Cloons’!!!!

After what seems like an eternity, we meet the Glasheenoerreen Stream and follow this down to pick up the old boreen we had seen from the Beann ridge at the start of our walk. We trudge wearily across wretched areas of waterlogged ground with Okavango-like waist high wet grass, more than once tripping over alder saplings tangled amid it. To compound matters, deep drainage ditches partially concealed by this lush vegetation lie in wait to trap an unwary leg or ankle. This energy sapping terrain finally gives way to patches of chest high bracken and prickly gorse and we know we must be close to the boreen as we encounter old stone hedges that once enclosed fields.

I can’t begin to describe the relief as we eventually hit this old track, almost grown in with gorse and bracken and covered with patches of slimy bog. Energised, we instantly pick up speed, crossing an old bridge formed of huge stone slabs over a rushing river and through a ruined enclosure, where we suddenly run into an electric fence. I stop abruptly. Beneath my feet, the muddy ground bears all the hallmarks of having been recently churned up by a very large animal. I hope that we have not unwittingly stumbled upon the enclosure of a ‘stupid and dangerous’ bull! One quick sweep of my head torch reveals no sign of such a beast but nonetheless, I move with lightning speed across the field to scramble under the electric fence the other side.

Thankfully, the track improves after we pass through a metal gate leading to a sheep enclosure and an old farm yard. Very soon we are moving quickly along an undulating gravel track above the dark waters of Cloon Lough. Every so often, the beam from my head torch picks out the florescent-green eyes of sheep lying amid the rushes, who run off in panic. To say that I am relieved to see the number plate of our car gleaming in the darkness ahead of me is an understatement. It is around 2.00 am when I finally remove my boots to free my weary feet steaming with perspiration, after around 15 hours on the hills. Famished, we fire up the stove for a hot meal. Never before has a packet of beef stew and dumplings, washed down with an Irish red ale fortuitously found tucked away in the boot of the car, tasted so good!  

Anyone contemplating this route is well advised to allow plenty of time (even though the hours we took is reflected in the fact that we spent ages shooting film which considerably lengthened the time it took). The nature of the terrain - trackless, rough, wild and very varied – can quickly sap your energy and distances that on a map seem quite manageable are much further than they appear out on these hills, due to the unrelentingly tough ground. This is probably as near to wilderness as you will encounter in Ireland and unsurprisingly, apart from the friendly farmer at the start of our walk, we did not meet or see a soul the entire day. Nonetheless, do not let that put you off what is quite possibly one of the finest horseshoe walks in Ireland with scenery that you will surely take to the Ghats. It is a superb challenge that you are unlikely to forget in a hurry.

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eramaptec@gmail.com (Purple Peak Adventures) cloon hill walking horseshoe ireland http://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2014/8/a-pair-of-mad-swivel-eyed-cloons-a-22-km-hike-in-the-dunkerron-mountains-ireland Tue, 12 Aug 2014 12:32:00 GMT