I’m currently between projects (ie neither working nor travelling), which gives me relatively little to write about, except for revisiting previous topics and reaching further into the past. So, in order to break up a run of posts about trips that quite obviously took place a while ago, I’m reaching back to the beginning of our first extended backpacking journey, around…Japan.
As first time international backpackers, we visited places where everybody goes (Tokyo, Kyoto, Mount Fuji, Hiroshima), where quite a few people go (Miyajima, Kagoshima), and one place that less people seem to visit – the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Crossing. OK, so a quick search on Google reveals that there are backpacking blogs that go there, but it doesn’t feature in the ones I tend to read, and there weren’t many Europeans or Americans there, compared to the hordes in Tokyo and Kyoto. It may have helped that we happened to stay in hotels rather than hostels at each end of the crossing…
Anyway, the crossing effectively started from Matsumoto for us, our first stop was Shinano Omachi (by train), in order to catch the bus to Ogizawa. This bus is the first part of the crossing, and although it’s just a bus, it provided some excitement, as we spotted a monkey! From here, you go by trolley bus through the Kanden tunnel, burrowed through Mount Akazawa-dake. I should point out here that if you visit the website for the crossing, you’ll see that it is mostly laid out for going in the opposite direction, but, this being Japan, it made no difference – turn up at the right place and the right time (check the timetable) at either end and it will work perfectly (probably). One of the attractions of the whole thing is the numerous small journeys on various forms of transport involved, which for me, as someone who likes to ride the public transportation systems of international cities as if they were a fairground ride (London, Sydney, Tokyo, Geneva, all very good for this), being able to do it in an alpine environment is great. As we board the trolley bus, that’s number 3 (train, bus, trolley bus)!
The bus arrives at the Kurobe Dam, which you can walk (4) across to the Kurobe Cable Car (5). At this point, the Japanese terms for some of these things diverge slightly from what I might have expected. Their cable car is more of a funicular railway – my idea of a cable car appeared later. The cable car/funicular stops at a lookout, 1828m above sea level, and there is snow here. There’s a lookout, before the journey continues by ropeway (6) (I’d call it a cable car!) to Daikanbo. This is on the side of Mount Tateyama, and you travel through the mountain on another trolley bus (7) through the tunnel to Murodo, which, at 2450m, is your highest point for the day. You can go off to explore (or have some food here), we managed to get slightly lost in a blizzard and see some alpine birds.
It’s all downhill from Murodo, but the fun isn’t quite over. The bus (8) goes down a steep and windy road, pushed through 18 feet of snow, down to Bijodaira, where they’ve got one more “cable car” (9) for you, to take you down to Tateyama station to catch the train (10) to Toyama. Despite going through two high levels tunnels, making all those changes of transport, crossing a dam high up in the mountains, and braving a blizzard, it was on this train, that one of us managed to lose their hat.
The one disappointment for me, was that although Toyama has trams, I had booked a hotel to stay in that we could walk to from the train station, and there was really no excuse to go on one. The disappointment was somewhat offset by dinner, because Toyama is where we discovered Yoshinoya!
Originally, there were two plans for our visit to Gujarat – 1. See the wild Asses, and 2. See the wild Lions. Both are pretty much unique – the Asiatic Lion only lives wild at Sasan Gir, and the Asiatic Ass only in the Ranns of Kutch. On paper (ie in our calendar and calculator), that remained our plan until we started making our arrangements – while we were in Jodhpur. Three reasons presented themselves for reconsidering seeing the Lions – 1. Cost (which was high in Gujarat anyway), 2. Time (the logistics of the Lion trip sounded like they would likely involve lost days) and 3. The state of the Lions themselves. Two years previously, in Tasmania, we hadn’t seen any Platypuses in the wild, but there was a Platypus house at the end of our route around the island, so we went in for a guaranteed look at some. In India, our (virtually) guaranteed sighting of a Lion was at Neyyar Dam in Kerala. If you go there, you’ll see why it’s (virtually) guaranteed – everyone gets into the armoured van, it drives through the air-lock type gates, and the Lions are sitting thirty yards up the road. Perhaps it isn’t exactly like that every time, but I bet it isn’t usually too different. The Lions look pretty unhealthy and the whole thing is a big disappointment.
Considering all of this, and the impossibility of ever being sure, in India, that the time and money quoted for anything will be sufficient, we decided to prioritise the wild Asses. We’d need to both places from Ahmedabad anyway, so we headed there overnight from Jodphur and straight out to Little Rann without stopping. We actually managed to achieve this, despite a misunderstanding with the booking leaving us stranded in Dasada. Some amiable locals helped us contact the safari operator to arrange a pickup – fortunately it wasn’t busy!
Our first day in Zainabad was the last day for another English couple, actually an Anglo-Indian couple, who had already been to Sasan Gir. They described an army of jeeps in the forest, backhanders for extra time, and woozy looking Lions with bleeding head wounds at the end of the allotted time – just as we had feared. They tried to say ‘I wouldn’t tell anyone not to go there’ but couldn’t really bring themselves to. After that, we threw all our resources into the Little Rann excursion and took a little extra time on the beach in Goa.
I don’t think safaris in India are always like this – I’ve heard good things about trips to see the Rhinos in the north east, and the wild Asses trips were awesome. Despite the lack of Tigers, the treks at Periyar, in Kerala, are great too – but I’d like to hear from anyone who has been to Sasan Gir – someone tell me it’s awesome!
Once upon a time, I planned a 7 month trip around Asia, and then threw away my completely knackered walking boots. Luckily for me it was still September and a reasonable amount of stock was still on sale at discount prices in the outdoors shops in Sydney. Many of these are neighbours, in a nice, convenient line on Kent Street.
I knew from my recent experiences destroying my walking boots, that swapping a pair of shoes between arid and humid climates, grinding them around concrete streets, and squeezing them into the limited leg room on budget shorthaul flights is the fastest, most efficient way to wear them out. With that in mind, I was looking for a pair of shoes that would need to last a year or two in solid condition, and therefore didn’t want to pay much more than about $130 for them. I was hoping to be able to wear them for 7 months in Asia, then for 6 at work on Mt Ruapehu, and then for a few months after that, wherever I happened to be.
After a reasonably diligent search of the row of outdoors shops (I don’t like shopping), I found the Ecolite’s. Specifically, the Ecolite Crossfit Hiking Shoes. They’re still on sale at $100 online.
$100 was well inside my budget, and the Ecolites felt tough and comfortable. They’re quite a large, heavy sort of design, and the lady in the shop explained that Ecolite was a more basic brand, and that for someone with no problems with their feet or their knees or joints, they would be fine. I was having a painful back at the time, but I figured wearing decent shoes like these would be an improvement over anything I currently owned (which was a pair of KMart deck shoes and some KMart dress shoes ), so I coughed up the $100.
I tested them out a bit on a few sections of the Great North Walk (which runs up the NSW coast from the Sydney CBD to Newcastle) and they continued to be OK, so I felt confident about taking them off into the wilderness. Their first trip was South Australia, where they were taken up a couple of mountains in the Flinders Ranges, on arid days when the temperature was in the mid 30s. After a bit of abuse in the cabin of a flight from Adelaide to Perth, they were then ground into the concrete of the Perth CBD for a couple of days, and then taken up Mount Bruce in the Pilbara. This was another desert situation, with the temperature up near 40 degrees, and my shoes being ground into the rocky ground, with the dry sand getting into every available opening and generally draining the suppleness from my new shoes. Then I went swimming in them. I hadn’t planned to go swimming, I was only planning to wade, but I lost my footing and had to tread water until the bag (containing such essentials and car keys and camera) could be taken off me. After that my new shoes didn’t do too much work for a while.
To remedy any damage that WA might have done to them, I locked them in a pressured, air conditioned airliner for about ten hours, and then took them on a series of walks in Taiwan, ranging from dry mountain air conditions, to humid cities, to actual rain and mud on the north coast. More of the same type of humid plain/dry mountain type of air was encountered through a trip round Kerala, which didn’t seem to do any harm, so we switched back to the deserts of Rajasthan. A couple of weeks of dry desert passed by without any problems, so we visited a salt pan in Gujurat. We spent a couple of days there, and mixed with the sea air in Goa, I’d expect some salt to have had the chance to attack my shoes, but they showed no real deterioration yet.
40+ degree days in Hampi, coastal humidity and mountain dryness again in Sri Lanka, sweltering jungles in Borneo and sandy beach towns in the Philippines passed by with no problems. Even on Mount Ruapehu, alternately being bent at the toe joint for hours under my desk and then pushed through gritty filled, icy snow – my Ecolites remained water resistant and intact.
Finally, over a year after their initial purchase, I flogged them round Indonesia for a month, before grinding them into the tarmac in Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Newcastle. They eventually arrived in Cornwall on New Years Eve 2016, and I noticed some cracks. These (predictably) were at the toe joint, and seemed to have breached the aqua shield, meaning they were no longer waterproof. The soles were still fine, and the uppers still firmly attached, but I decided to retire them and get a new pair for my next adventure. If they had one major flaw, it was their size – if you’re looking for a pair of hiking shoes that won’t take up too much space in your bag, you probably won’t want these ones. Otherwise, I recommend them!
Or “stick a finger up your ass and you’ll see what I mean”, as the sailors in Das Boot put it. I think they were referring to the narrowness of the straits, rather than the general feel of the town! Today’s post is one from the archives, as it were, all about the time I took the opportunity to go to a disputed territory, sitting at the border of Europe and Africa, looking out over where the Mediterranean meets the North Atlantic, guarding British interests for over 300 years: Gibraltar.
We got the opportunity to go to Gibraltar on the cheap, on account of a friend of mine being moved there by his employer, with an incentive to stay for at least one year. He did, and we went and crashed at his place for five days. I think accommodation in Gibraltar is otherwise quite expensive, and you’d otherwise be well advised to stay in Spain – many people visit from Malaga and Tarifa. Tarifa would have made an even better base for us, but would have lacked the social angle. As it turned out, the buses weren’t that expensive anyway.
Gibraltar is a compact place, gathered around its most famous feature; the rock. Before you even reach the small crowd of hopeful taxi drivers waiting to take you to ‘top o’ the rock?’ though, you’ll walk across the runway that your plane landed on, in order to leave the airport. In Gibraltar, the airport operates like a railway station, and the road traffic is held up at the level crossing when a flight is arriving or departing. No space wasted, no space to be wasted.
The day we arrived, we headed straight up that rock – though not all the way, just for the views and to see the famous residents, the Barbary macaques. More of an African beast, these monkeys seem to have been living on the rock since before it was ceded to Britain, and superstition has it that if they leave, so will the British! They’re very bold and curious, and will be all over you if you go up there with food (ask my friend who unwisely picked that moment to unwrap a Cadbury Twirl…), and are a menace similar to that of the Kea in the New Zealand alps. Retract your aerials!
On our second day, we ventured a little further, visiting the beach. Gibraltar has a good beach called Catalan Bay, with good waves rolling in off the North Atlantic (they’re obviously taking a bit of a diversion as the beach faces east!), and a hospitable climate, even in April (at least it felt hospitable to people living in the north of England). The problem for us is that it was on the other side of the rock from where we were staying. I can’t remember if we looked into the existence of buses or not, but on paper, it seemed walking distance and you don’t get rich by writing cheques, so we hoofed it round there on foot. It was only a few kilometres, but it wasn’t a pleasant walk, much of it was dockyard, building site or road without pavement, but we made the best of it and spent the afternoon getting ground into the sand by the Mediterranean surf (I think the Atlantic was helping it somehow), sunbathing, and avoiding small, angry dogs.
After seeing the rock, the town, and the best available beach – as well as doing a bit of shopping in La Linea (La Linea de la Concepcion – walking distance, just over the border), we were ready to venture a bit further into Spain for our fun. Everybody seems to go over the border into La Linea to do grocery shopping as its so much cheaper, unless they’re feeling awfully lazy! After a bit of research, we selected Tarifa – where they would be having an Easter procession, this being Easter Sunday. Despite not wanting to go to Algeciras, we went there anyway as you have to change buses there.
Tarifa is a bit of legend on the Mediterranean backpacker route – especially the slower moving one! It’s fairly simple to get there from Gibraltar – you walk over to La Linea, find the bus station, catch a bus to Algeciras bus station and from there take the bus to Tarifa. The bus station isn’t far from the centre of Tarifa.
The Easter procession was pretty laid back and seemed very traditional, with an effigy being carried through the streets and everybody turning out to watch. I’d hoped we’d be able to see something typically Catholic in Spain at Easter – and I reckon we did. After the procession finished, we wandered the town and came across another possibility.
After observing the ferry to Tangier in the port at Tarifa, we wandered round to the booking office and got some prices and sailings from them – to see if we could match it up with the bus times and make a day trip from Gibraltar. This turned out to be easily done, and the ferry company has a little scam going – if you go on their tour, which includes transport, then you get a cheaper ferry ticket. We assumed this would be we’d be taken to a bunch of shops and restaurants, but at least we’d see some of Tangier and get a bit of background and context while we were at it. The idea of going to Africa was floated and executed in under 24 hours!
Next morning, we were back in Tarifa for the ferry. The visa to Morocco is currently free (I don’t think we paid back then either) and is processed on the boat, with a real stamp in your passport before you even land; essentially, pre-processing. From there, we got taken around Tangier on an extremely predictable tour – commencing with holding the reins of some camels – photos 1 euro.
After camels, we got a guided walk through the souk and bazaar, which included a very good lunch (Chicken Tagine and Cous Cous – I don’t like either of those usually, but I did in Morocco!) and a trip to the carpet store. Far from being an intimidating or pressure filled situation, it was good entertainment. Everyone in the tour group was accosted separately by a man who claimed to be the owner of the shop, and offered a carpet at an unattractive price. None of us were up for it (despite something I may have said at the time), so each of us was then accosted by a second individual, who told us not to listen to the first, assured us that it was in fact he, who was the boss, and offered us a better price. Those who looked remotely interested met a third man, who was a bit more reliable looking, and the price started to come down quite quickly. The single carpet which had been initially offered at 200 euros in the beginning, was now part of a pair, which, if bought together, would cost only 10 euros each. Shipping to anywhere in the world would be easy and cheap. We’d gone off the idea of buying a carpet however, if we’d ever had one, and the transaction didn’t occur. The rest of our walk through the souk was shadowed by an amusing drum salesman, who refused completely to believe that I didn’t want to buy a drum, slashing his price down to 0, and then raising it again when I didn’t bite.
The ferry back to Tarifa and the buses back to Gibraltar went without incident – I even learned a little bit of Spanish from the bus driver!
Back in Gibraltar, with one day left – we had to get up that rock. Taxi drivers swarm, cable cars trundle all day – but none of that was for us; we walked. Climbing was a bit knackering, but hardly anyone (if anyone at all) was doing it. That’s probably because we used the “secret path” – ie the Mediterranean Steps (ask anyone). This requires a bit of determination and a “moderate” level of fitness. You know if that’s you – don’t you?
After checking out some caves we found, we headed for the caves and tunnels that everybody visits.
Admission to all the caves is currently £7.50, which includes a ride on the cable car, should you choose to accept it. We may have dodged the walk down and used the cable car, I mysteriously can’t remember that part. After St Michael’s, we entered the Great Siege tunnels, which burrow on for ages into the rock, occasionally affording views out over the town. There’s a lot of historical stuff still in there, but it’s a cave, not a museum, so you can still wander about and explore. I’m not sure how long people spent in there at a time, but they must have gotten pretty sick of it!
However we got back down to the bottom of the rock (without being worked over by a troupe of monkeys) doesn’t matter – the important thing is that we did, and that meant we could head out for a bit of dinner and a few San Miguels on our last night. We’d actually been out for tapas and few San Miguels pretty much every night, so I only mention it here because it was the farewell dinner. Going out in Gibraltar is somewhat more expensive than going out in Spain – or at least in La Linea, but it’s important to savour the local delicacies. So I had fish and chips and pint – Gibraltar is part of Britain after all!
Been neglecting this blog a little bit the last couple of weeks. True, I haven’t been travelling anywhere new – I’ve been in western Cornwall, doing admin, and attending to the mess I left when I went off travelling over four years ago. Unlike organised BeMyTravelMuse or the many straight-out-of-college/university travel bloggers (no offence meant, it just means there isn’t a decade of clutter to deal with!), I left a pile of unfinished projects and an ongoing life behind when I left – “neatly” packed into a few different places. Now I’m cleaning some of it up and selling it on Ebay! Wanna buy a DVD recorder? As well as that, I’ve been on plenty of walks (check out my new instagram feed!) and done some shopping.
Living in Australasia (not a cheap place to buy outdoors equipment), I’d been holding off on buying any of the more expensive items, and I was pretty disappointed to find, back in England, that quality has actually declined with a number of manufacturers. It took a lot more research than I expected to become confident in the purchase of any new stuff. Nevertheless, I’ve now gotten hold of a pair of Berghaus Explorer GTX hiking boots (review / purchase) , and a Mountain Warehouse Peru 55 litre backpack (review / purchase). We’ll see if they live up to expectations.
Away from home, the things I missed (aside of family and friends) were decent fish and chips (not so common outside the UK), long evenings (in summer obviously), decent pubs (proper British pubs, though the one in Bodalla was a very nice stand in – as was the Welsh Dragon in Wellington), decent beer (to be consumed in the decent pubs) and Saturday afternoon listening to the football. It’s great to be back. It’s winter, so I’m just making do with the beer, the fish and chips and the football at the moment. Sometimes all at the same time. Chocolate is also a lot cheaper.
Hiking boots aren’t the only boots that have been active lately though, I’ve also been down an old Cornish tin mine. My Wellington boots didn’t quite cut it, as the water was close to knee height, but it was better than wearing old trainers! We delved into four levels of a mine that open right on the cliff path (with an experienced person, don’t go diving into any holes you might find if you come here!). In the most interesting one, we slid down a diagonal stope (where the tin was extracted, but which also joins the levels) from one level to another, something of a leap of faith, as it involves coming out a different way to the one you went in. I get a little bit anxious deeper into caves (especially if I have to remember the way I came and especially if the roof and walls are close around me) but I managed to distract myself and keep fairly calm. The levels tend to slant to one side and appear like the space where two enormous rocks have fallen untidily against each other. Much of the mine also contains piles of waste rock, some of which appear to be load bearing, and best not touched. Some of the mine is old enough to have been dug out by Tudor miners, working in rags, with candles, hacking out rock and tin with picks and shovels, probably working 12+ hour days. I haven’t decided to plan the rest of my life around the opportunity to get underground, but I wouldn’t have missed out for the sake of a few slightly uncomfortable moments either – it was awesome!
Not sure of the procedure for visiting Rosemergy, but nearby Geevor is open for business (and visitors): www.geevor.com.
Lastly, I’ve been indulging in a little medical tourism. Being a medical tourist in your own country is a bit of an odd experience, but if you’ve been away a while, that’s what it feels like. Having done so, I can advise that Britain isn’t a good place to do it. Leaving aside the opticians, who are very competent and competitive, we found the rest of the experience dissatisfying. I started by going to the dentist. The NHS waiting list is three years, so I was seen privately, and the resulting dental bill will be $500NZD for three fillings and a clean. Next I went to get an immigration medical – involving blood tests and X-rays. This is for New Zealand, as mine has expired and I wanted to keep it up to date, I’m intending to move there in the next three years. There are only five places in England that provide this service and they are at private hospitals. The cheapest I found was £321, and I had to travel three hours to get there. “The system” was down when we arrived, and they said we might have to come back to complete the tests. About the time we mentioned the possibility of abandoning the whole thing (we hadn’t paid yet) it miraculously came back up, but that was probably a coincidence. Other than that, it was fine. Compared with the cost and general experience we had obtaining these medical certificates in Melbourne and Wellington however, it wasn’t that great. Do it somewhere else if you can!
And what about the future? Well, we’re about to complete the consolidation project here in Cornwall and relocate to our other base in Nottinghamshire for a bit more of the same. Less stereo equipment and more ladies shoes will be heading toward Ebay. We also plan to travel around England a bit (probably by train – good for Instagram but hard on the wallet), so I can give my new backpack a bit of a test, and I’m working on some travel/migration angles – despite the beer, the fish, the football, and even the weather – I don’t plan to be in England by the time those long evenings kick in!
As well as the Berghaus Explorer GTX boots, I’ve also bought the Mountain Warehouse Peru 55 litre backpack. Naturally, I bought this in Mountain Warehouse. I trailed around (much to the annoyance of my sister, who came with me) three large outdoors shops in Sheffield – Go Outdoors, Decathlon, Sports Direct. Sports Direct now sell Karrimor products, which my old rucksack was. The quality of the available products (as far as I could tell) was a bit depressing. Karrimor stuff costs less than it used to, and appears to accordingly less good. I also inspected a number of products, from Deuter to Quechua, and many more. In Millets in Penzance, I found Eurohike and Vango products. Nothing had impressed me as being of a reasonable durability in terms of material and straps. I was looking for a 55L rucksack that might stand up to being kicked around for a few months and be usable on the next trip. I found a likely candidate at Mountain Warehouse in Penzance; Mountain Warehouse Peru 55 litre backpack. Having the luxury of time, I didn’t buy it right away, but retired to read reviews. The spread of reviews I read on Mountain Warehouse products actually led me to believe that everything they sell might be pretty good, and justified the purchase of the bag, so a week later, I did.
I’ll be using it on a trip round England next month, which may be a a reasonable test (we’ll see), so I’ll update the review accordingly. Until then – we wait!
These two bags are now 10 years old but Karrimor still makes products that carry the same name, as well as various other felines, in the 65+ litre size. Suspiciously, they cost a lot less than when we first bought them and are now sold at SportsDirect in the UK. Since when do things become permanently less than half the price? Sports Direct is a ubiquitous high street presence, so I went in and had a look. I think they’re using different materials now. The market has clearly moved on, rendering a review of the Karrimor packs of ten years ago somewhat redundant. On the other hand, you might be in a position to buy a second hand Karrimor pack, or you might inherit one or otherwise have it as an option for your trip – or anyone of a host of possibilities that I can use to justify writing my review. I like my bag and I’d like to give it a nice review – so I will. It will also serve as some comment on the usefulness of 65+ litre bags, and general pack design – the same type of design (pockets on the side, etc) still be manufactured by Karrimor and Deuter, amongst others.
My bag was bought in 2007 for a multi-day hike around the Pembrokeshire coast – 12 miles per day average, carrying food, water, SLR and clothes. It’s since been used interrailing in Europe, on work trips (upto 12 days living in hotels), and backpacking around Asia, Australia and North America – including multi day hikes in New Zealand and Australia. It’s currently housing two peoples Christmas luggage, including a shoe box and two pairs of trainers. It also used to contain our tent (though there wasn’t much room for anything else).
Karrimor did it old school back then (still do, actually), their bags have pockets on the side and on top (that’s the +15). Obviously you can’t strap stuff on the sides, but I never want to anyway, it makes the bag unbalanced. I used to put my sleeping bag underneath, there are straps for that. The pockets though, are big enough to accommodate a pair of size 8 (UK) running shoes, or a whole beach towel (easily).
On top, is a pocket big enough for the rain cover, and not a lot else – at least on the cougar. On the panther, there’s room for a beach towel.
The main compartment is accessed from the top by drawstring and the bottom by zip, and can be segregated by a drawstring. I’ve carried my tent upright through both compartments, but I’ve also segregated it and put all my clothes for a few months trip in the bottom. It will also hold a sleeping bag easily and a few clothes with it.
Theres a map pocket down the back side as well, and the usual slip pocket against the frame – which is not the lightest, but is sturdy and extremely comfortable.
The main thing with these two bags though, is their durability (they’ve been thrown around, rain on, scratched and dragged, and stuffed full to bursting) – ten years and still intact, no broken straps or zips, one small hole on one pocket of one bag that looks like it could be a burn hole – be reasonable! Old school design (big side pockets, double straps over the top, minimal zips really) is the other big plus – and I’ve been on the hunt for a more midsize version of the same thing for quite some time now…