Annapurna Circuit, days 1-3

While I have been writing a blog for this trip, WordPress has been playing up so I haven’t been able to post anything – despite the fact that there has been surprisingly ample (and free! and fast!) WiFi coverage at the teahouses throughout the trek. Who knew? Not what I was expecting, especially after the hassles of getting online in South America, which felt far less remote than this. But I have finally managed to get the post up – if not as picture heavy as it might be! If you’re interested in pictures, I suggest heading over to my Instagram, where I have been updating my “Instagram story” a lot more regularly with photos. 


Day 1: Ngadi-Jagat 

This was my first proper trekking day after a night in Kathmandu and two bumpy, seemingly interminable bus journeys to reach the start. After banana pancakes and coffee, we (my guide Gyan, porter Madi and I) set off on the trail at 8am. The sun was shining, the sky a perfect blue, and I was feeling good! The trail followed the banks of the Marsyangdi River, a roiling, rapids-riven turquoise tongue of water interrupted in this early stage of the trek by a big hydroelectric power station and dam. The trail cut through thick jungle vegetation and past terraced rice paddies, and, as the sun rose, so did the temperature. You sort of have to pack for all weather on this trek, but in my “lightest” gear of cutaway trousers and T-shirt, I was still sweltering. Thankfully it wasn’t too long before we finished a climb of a few hundred steps leading up to the gorgeous village of Bahundanda, with a tree in the centre draped in Buddhist prayer flags – a colourful maypole. Here, we took a short water break in the shade and watched as the square quickly filled up with other trekkers. Still, the trail isn’t nearly as busy as I had expected, and for the most part I am walking entirely on my own (Gyan and Madi aside). 
After Bahundanda, the trail grew even more thick with jungle, and I crossed the first of many suspension bridges across the river. No big mountains were yet in view, but the valley walls loomed large all around us, and the occasional waterfall burst from the sides as if the gorge had sprung a leak. The sun continued to beat down, but surprisingly I felt lighter than air – maybe it was the realisation that I was finally here, in Nepal, after months of not travelling, or the proliferation of bright blue and orange butterflies that flit across the trail at my feet, or the fact that the very trail itself glittered with mica as if I was walking on stars, (or maybe just because eating too much dhal bat makes you a bit batty) – at any rate, the Annapurna Circuit was certainly proving itself to me to be worthy of its classification as the “world’s most beautiful trek”. And I hadn’t even seen a big mountain yet. 

Day 2: Jagat-Danaque

When I was reading about this trek, I was prepared for a lot of natural beauty but I didn’t expect to fall in love with the little villages along the way. The tea houses are painted in bright pinks, blues and greens, mostly advertising the same style of accommodation – clean rooms, hot showers, good food and free WiFi (some of these claims truer than others). Some of the villages jut out of the valley walls, dangling precariously over the river, connected to the trail by dodgy-looking (but well maintained) suspension bridges – often with a stunning waterfall (or two) in the backdrop. Being the unabashed nerd that I am, one thought dominated this section of the trek: I felt like I was walking through a Nepalese Rivendell. With the glacial blue river below and high granite walls above, it seemed a place too ethereal for humans; it must instead be the realm of elves. 
From the riverside village of Tal, we crossed over into the Manang District – a predominantly Buddhist region of Nepal, and the home of the big mountains I’d been searching for. It didn’t disappoint. Manaslu, the world’s 8th tallest mountain at 8,416m, dominated the view for most of the afternoon – and when we reached our stopping point for the night, Danaque, I caught my first glimpse of Annapurna II. Exciting. I also had my first hot shower of the trip – unfortunately “hot” in this case meant a scorching gas shower that climbed up past 65C before I had to turn it off in pain. Be careful what you wish for, and all that, but worth it to wash off the dust of the day. The evening rounded off with a Manaslu sunset, watching as the peak turned a burnished gold before disappearing into the dark, and a filling dinner of dhal bat (naturally) in the fire-warmed dining hall. Dhal bat is the local Nepalese dish consisting of rice, potato curry, vegetables, lentil soup and a sort of poppadom. I was informed by Gyan that not only was this the best fuel for a long trek but also was guaranteed to be fresh (unlike the pasta/pizza/momo dishes on offer), made with ingredients grown locally, provided the least opportunity for contracting stomach issues and – best of all – was totally unlimited. They will fill up the rice/curry/veg/lentils portion of your plate as needed until you are utterly stuffed. (Is four refills too many? Asking for a friend…)
Bed time was late by trekking standards – 9pm at least! – but every night so far I’d collapsed into bed utterly exhausted. I did creep out at 2am to look at the stars though, and I was met with an almost overwhelming sight: as vast a glittering sky as I’ve ever seen! And there, too, was the enormous Manaslu, blocking out a portion of the sky with its bulk and its peak wearing the stars like a crown.

Day 3: Danaque-Chame

Brrr… it’s so much colder now, a little higher in altitude (still only about 2200m or so – less than half as high as we will end up), and we have well and truly left the jungle behind for pine forests and groves of apple trees. Today was a rapid climb up to Timang and the best view I have seen so far – sipping tea from the roof of a hotel with the Manaslu range in the far distance, eagles soaring overhead, it was a jaw-droppingly beautiful sight. 
But we had to keep moving! Thankfully after the climb and tea break, the rest of today’s walk was fairly flat, and I was lulled into a weird meditative state of one foot in front of the other – until we rounded the corner of the trail and straight ahead of us was Annapurna II. Even though it’s not as tall as Manaslu, it’s much closer to the trail and so looks way more impressive. Puffs of snow lifted off the top as if the peak were smoking – or, more likely, as a result of ferocious winds up there – and I definitely felt a shiver of awe travel down my spine.

 
Annapurna II stayed in view right the way to our stop in Chame for lunch, and our teahouse for the night. This was a shorter walking day (about 4 hours as opposed to 6/7 that we’d done previous), to give time to rest and acclimatise to the altitude. Chame is a much busier town, so I browsed the shops and bought a much needed cosy yak-wool hat and visited some of the Buddhist sites, including a long series of prayer bells and a huge prayer wheel taller than me. Now it’s time for more dhal bat, to read another book (I’ve read a book a day so far – this is what happens when I stop writing!) and to prepare for the higher altitude treks to come… 

Annapurna II view as we headed into Chame

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Doing the W – Torres Del Paine, Patagonia, Chile

Let me preface this blog post by saying that I am not a hiker, and neither is the other intrepid #alwardsontour, Lofty. But still, there was something about tackling three days of the world-renowned W-trek really appealed to us both, even though it meant diving in at the deep end: carrying our tents, food and clothes on our backs for over 60km. Call us crazy but it ended up being a great experience, and a real accomplishment to boot.

After the flat, monotonous scenery of the Chilean/Argentinian Steppe, driving into Torres del Paine was something of a shock to the eyes and the system. We drove past stunning glacial lakes, milky blue in colour, and huge granite peaks that seemed to pierce the sky.

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We only had two-and-a-half days to do the W-trek, which most people do in four. While a few very hardcore members of our group managed to get around the entire thing, the group I was walking with made the executive decision to cut back on one arm of the ‘W’ – so I suppose technically we did a cursive ‘U’ shape! We missed the trek to Glacier Grey as we knew we were going to see some very impressive glaciers later on in El Calafate and El Chalten.

The first stop was to pick up all our gear in Puerto Natales. We decided to rent a two-man tent (possibly the smallest tent known to mankind), a stove (which we shared with another couple), a cooking set (small pot, forks, spoons and bowls) and waterproof trousers. We also carried our sleeping bags, thermarests and lots of food and snacks! As for clothes, we brought one set for hiking and one for sleeping (a tiny bit gross, but hey – we were glad not to carry any extra weight! Underwear being the exception, of course!) We would pick up water along the way from glacial streams and otherwise camp at designated stops along the way. Tuna and rice would provide the mainstay of our meals – not the most exciting, but definitely nutritious.

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The ferry dropped us off on the evening of our first day at 7pm. We set up camp for the night – and truly found out just how small our tent was – and treated ourselves to our only cooked meal of the hike at Refugio Paines Grande. Already the scenery blew us away – as did the wind. The wind howled all night, threatening to blow us away in our teeny tiny tent! Not the greatest sleep start to the hike, but somehow we managed to get up in the morning bright and early with big smiles on our faces, ready to start our big adventure!

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Hiking with heavy packs is hard. Especially when you don’t wear the packs correctly! I hiked the first hour with my shoulders burning – once I readjusted my pack so that the majority of the weight sat on my hips, the shoulder pain instantly disappeared. Magic. Thankfully it was only 2.5 hours to the next stop, Campo Italiano, where we could dump our main bags and just take lunch up to the top of the middle arm of the ‘W’ – the Frances Valley.

The Frances Valley was definitely the most beautiful hike of them all, and if anyone else out there is short on time in the W, I would suggest doing this over Glacier Grey. For us, it was the most interesting hike – taking us through thick forests, past hanging glaciers that occasionally carved – creating miniature avalanches that thundered through the valley, and all the way up to a stunning view point called Mirador Britannico. We ate salami and cheese in front of huge granite cliffs, under a bright blue sky.

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We then had to hike back, to the unwelcome sight of our big packs. Although we’d already been walking for a little over 6 hours, we still had 2 hours to go until we could rest. Those last two uphill hours were definitely the hardest! We’d done over 20 miles (according to my Withings watch) and, having not done that much exercise for a long time, I was drained and emotional and in pain by the end. Arriving at Refugio Los Cuernos was a revelation, and a glass of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc/Riesling mix later, I was one happy girl once again.

Waking up the next day was… interesting. I don’t think there was a leg muscle that wasn’t crying out in pain! And we had a 4.5 hour hike to start off our morning. Joy. Still, because we had done so much walking the day before, we had saved ourselves a lot of time, and the walk was a beautiful, (mostly) flat stroll next to a stunning blue glacier lake. We really lucked out with the weather.

Waking up the next day was… interesting. I don’t think there was a leg muscle that wasn’t crying out in pain! And we had a 4.5 hour hike with full packs to start off our morning. Joy. Still, because we had done so much walking the day before, we had saved ourselves a lot of time, and the walk was a beautiful, (mostly) flat stroll next to a long glacier lake.

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Our reward for finishing the first part of the hike was a picnic lunch by the Hotel Torres, a posh hotel that would be our final destination the next day. We had made really good time so there was even a chance to grab a power nap in the sunshine on the grass. All I can say is that it was so necessary before the next part of the hike, which was undoubtedly the hardest: a 2 hour straight uphill scramble, with packs, to the Refugio Chileano.

And we still were not done. From Refugio Chileano, we had 3km to Campo Torres, our campsite for the night. That may have been the longest 3km of my life! Carrying packs all the way, for 23km, after having hiked far more than that the day before, was almost too much. The scenery on this part of the hike was also a lot less interesting than the Frances Valley.

However, there was going to be a pay-off… we just had to get to Campo Torres. From there, we ate dinner and hit the hay early, ready for the MAIN EVENT the next morning: sunrise at the Mirador Las Torres.

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Scrambling up rocks in the dark, in the cold, is not the most fun, but this was the event we had all been waiting for. We huddled together on our thermarests, waiting for the sun to hit the Torres and turn them fiery red (p.s. if you’re doing this, I thoroughly recommend bringing a sleeping bag up too! It gets reallllllly cold up there!). At first, it looked like we had the weather on our side. We had bright stars and a cloudless sky, and gradually that sky lightened to reveal the Torres. But as soon as the sun came up over the horizon, our luck changed. Thick bands of cloud remained stubbornly fixed on said horizon, blocking the rays, and then a fog descended over the Torres themselves, so that when it came for us to take a group selfie they were almost totally obscured! Boo. Still, we couldn’t control the weather: we could only control the fact that we’d made it up there in time to have a chance to see it, and we were proud of ourselves for accomplishing that. Maybe next time!

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Thankfully the way back was downhill, downhill, downhill, all the way to a hot lunch and a cocktail. It was hard on the knees (one knee in particular is still suffering a bit!) but a 30-minute leg massage sorted my muscles right out.

We’d done it! 2.5 days, over 60km, boom.

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Cooking up a storm!

I am now back in Queenstown, after a short detour around the bottom end of the South Island. Since Sarah is going to be leaving the South Island on the 28th, we wanted to make sure she got in as much as possible beforehand. The result was a loop up to Mount Cook and Lake Tekapo, before heading down to Dunedin tomorrow where Sarah will leave me on a jet plane…

Grand Adventurers

The drive to Mount Cook took us past some unusual geographical features of New Zealand. One stop was at the very strange “Moeraki boulders,” which are giant boulders washed up on the beach. They are completely out of place with anything else on the shoreline, and it is not sure what causes them to exist. Another stop was at the Elephant Rocks, where Aslan’s Camp from the Chronicles of Narnia: Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe was filmed. Sarah and I horsed about on the rocks for a while, trying to figure out which one was Aslan’s rock. We didn’t succeed, but it was fun trying. We ended up camping in Omarama, a very quiet town surrounded by mountains, with beautiful sunsets.

The next day we continued up to Mt. Cook itself. We had already seen it reflected in Lake Matheson, but as it loomed over the highway in all its snow-covered glory, we truly got the best impression of the biggest mountain in Australasia. In Mt. Cook village is the Sir Edmund Hillary Centre. There is a very rugged bronze statue of him in the most famous hotel in New Zealand, the Hermitage Hotel. After having our photo taken with the most famous of mountaineers, we were inspired to do a little trekking ourselves! We headed up the “Kea trail” to a former glacier, at the base of Mt. Cook. As one of the most dangerous mountains to climb in the world, we weren’t going to tackle anything more difficult than that… but we left little rock sculptures on the side of the path, just to prove we were once there.

We spent the night in our tent in Glentanner, about 25km outside of Mt. Cook Village itself. There, we were treated to a magnificent sunset over Mt. Cook, its peak blushing pink for the last hours of sunlight.

Unfortunately, I was hoping to have an interesting star gazing tale to tell. Lake Tekapo has a renowned observatory on top of a nearby mountain, and we were booked on a nighttime stargazing tour. Due to severe winds and a bright moon, our tour was cancelled… I may get another chance to try on the way back up, but Lake Tekapo is a town with very little to offer other than the tour. Waiting around for 11pm again may not be a good option.

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Adrenaline Beauty

Stepping out onto perilously thin wire mesh, the ground hundreds of metres below, I take a deep breath before the death march toward the centre of Bloukrans Bridge. It’s what I’ve wanted to do from the beginning of the trip — isn’t it? Isn’t it? I question myself over and over, but not as loudly as the others from the truck who are standing around, some shaking and quaking, some talking gibberish to compensate for their nervousness. I try not to show fear. Perhaps only those paying close attention would notice the increased heaviness of breath or lightly clenched fists.

Watching other people makes it seem easier. They put us through in weight order, and with the few men jumping it means I’m not first. The music is blasting so loud that you can’t hear the men scream, although we find out later that most of them went down swearing bloody murder. We wave to the people over on the viewing platform; those not even brave enough to walk out under the bridge. They have our cameras in tow, so we smile big, put on happy faces. Why are we doing this again?

There is no time to think about it. Toes out over the edge, 5-4-3-2-1 and no time to think about what you’re doing. Looking down is unavoidable, as is the feeling of having your stomach drop out of your body! But the rush is great, my scream is the loudest of everyone and the view — once your eyes can actually take it in — is incredible. Being hoisted back up is actually the scariest part. But when the blood rushes back into the rest of your body and your feet are on solid ground, then you can take in what you’ve just done, and brag about it for the rest of the trip.

Bloukrans Bridge is the highest bungy in the world.

Our next stop was the otter trail, a 3.5 hour hike which winds around the garden route coastline. This is more like the South Africa I imagined! Whales frolicked off the shore as the surf pounded the ground at our feet. We swam for an hour underneath a waterfall by the ocean, and generally had a fantastic time.

South Africa is getting better by the moment!

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Wherethemalawiarewe?

It is hardly a secret that I relished the constant mental challenges of academia. Challenge is part of the reason I felt drawn to Medieval and Anglo-Saxon literature. There is something a little beyond the norm about that field, the extra language hurdle that offers insight into the words I am writing right now. I hope to reenter the university world eventually, whether in further Medieval studies or creative writing, to approach these challenges again.

It is part of this love of a challenge that led me to fear travelling before I left. It would be easy for me to treat these next nine months as a highly extended vacation. And while I am relaxing and appreciating all that these next few months have to offer me, I promised myself one thing: to continue to stretch my mental and physical limits as far as they can take me, to search out challenges and to approach them head on. I feel a little closer to that goal after this week.

Travelling itself, perhaps especially in Africa, is a mental challenge. There is so much culture colliding with us head on. Every transition from country to country brings a different perspective. I find myself right now on the shores of Lake Malawi. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world, and yet in many ways the average person seems better off than in Kenya. The border crossing between Kenya and Tanzania was like light and day. In Kenya, the roads are pitted and pot-holed, almost impassable except by the most manic of drivers. In Tanzania, the roads are better than Canadian – smooth black tarmac with neatly painted yellow and white lines. They say that roads are the pathway to civilization… and a fine indicator too, of a country’s wealth.

Yesterday, in Chitimba, Malawi, I fulfilled part of my promise to myself. I hiked from Chitimba to Livingstonia, a town dedicated to Dr. David Livingstone and his Christian mission in Malawi. The hike left at 7am. Only four of us – Eric, Ben, Tania and myself – decided to take on the mission. I don’t think any of us realized just how physically taxing it was going to be on our systems.

The Malawian sun is relentless. At only 45 minutes into the trip – the walk to get to the mountain, let alone the mountain itself – I was ready to give up. What was I thinking? I did not voice this concern aloud, but rest assured it was going through my head. Then I remembered that promise to myself. How about my vow to conquer physical limitations as well as mental? I bucked up and put one foot in front of the other. And then we reached the mountain.

Without the support of the other climbers, I’m not sure I would have made it up. Through the steepest part of the hill, I took it one section at a time, taking plenty of rest in between and convincing myself to go forward. PMA: positive mental attitude became my mantra. It was worth it indeed. The first part of the hike took us to a beautiful waterfall, and then a watering hole where we swam and tried to gain back our energy. There we met a couple, one of whom is a DJ at the Lake of Stars festival that I will be attending tomorrow. We then hiked further up to the town of Livingstonia, where a museum dedicated to Dr. David Livingstone has been set up. From the very top, Malawi spread in front of us like paradise. Lake Malawi is a giant glisten of water in the far distance. Bright greenery is beneath our feet, lowering into dusty red earth and sand. In Livingstonia, we encounter a chameleon, a poisonous snake and tall pine trees that stretch toward the sky. It is more that worth the climb.

By now it is one o’clock, and it has taken us 6 hours to reach the top.

We break for lunch at a little restaurant in Livingstonia. Ben asks the owner of the restaurant: “Do you have a menu.”

The answer is curt. “No.”

“Then what do you have to eat?” I step in.

“Chicken.” There is a pause. “And rice.”

“Anything else?” Tania is a vegetarian, and hopeful. The rest of us have not seen chicken in weeks, and it is a welcome, if forced, change.

“No.”

So chicken and rice it was.

The problem with hiking is that once you go up, you must come down. The way back down was much quicker, but much harder on the joints. My knees and legs ached with a dull throbbing pain that I knew would intensify over the next few days. But we were all exhilirated and happy. It was the first real exercise of the trip and we felt satisfied, healthy and above all – that we had experienced some “real Africa.”

It seems I cannot have a day of relaxing, for the next day I went scuba diving in Lake Malawi. It was a totally different experience from the Indian Ocean, but just as worthwhile.

Now I’m getting into rugby and England have just won against Australia. Let the celebrations begin!

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