Zhuilu Old Trail

Nov 28, 2013 in Taiwan 2013

Zhuilu Old Trail

There were buses every hour or so down the gorge, and I made my way downstream. At the first couple of stops there weren’t many people, but lower down it got busier. At Swallow Gorge it was quiet for a few minutes when I arrived, but then a bunch of tour buses arrived, and suddenly the trail along the Liwu River was swarming. A suspension bridge led to the other side, the start of the Zhuilu Old Trail which is supposed to be vertiginous and spectacular, but if you want to hike it you need a permit. Apparently you need to apply for them a week in advance, and planning things a week in advance is not really my travel style. I think the only way I’ll ever hike the Zhuilu Old Trail is if I move to Taiwan so that I can apply for a permit at my leisure.

I walked to the end of the Swallow Gorge trail and back, and apart from the bits where I had to push through crowds of tourists, it was pretty amazing. But it was starting to rain heavily. I headed back to Hualien in a downpour.

Tianxiang

Nov 28, 2013 in Taiwan 2013

Tianxiang

I liked Penghu before it went mainstream. With the arrival of two other tourists I felt it was no longer cool to be there. So I headed back to Taipei and got a train to Hualien. The target here was to visit Taroko Gorge, definitely a much more mainstream destination but from what I’d heard, worth braving the crowds to see.

It had been hot and sunny when I arrived but the next morning when I got a bus to Tianxiang it was cloudy and spotting with rain. The bus was full when I got on it but there were only about five people on it by the time we arrived at Tianxiang, the last stop way up in the gorge.

The tiny village was quiet and damp. Nearby there was a temple on a hillside, so I walked up to that. Tianxiang was definitely not the most beautiful part of the gorge, but it looked pretty atmospheric under the heavy skies.

El Tatio again

Oct 21, 2013 in Chile 2013

El Tatio again

We went to see the geysers at El Tatio. I’d been there three times already and although it’s a pretty awesome place, I was thinking that maybe four visits is a bit excessive. And seeing as you have to get up at 4am to go there, and it’s brutally cold when you get there, and it’s 4300m above sea level, I was wondering if my mum and dad and aunt would actually get any enjoyment from this at all.

But we got lucky with the tour we went with. Everyone, everyone who visits San Pedro will go to El Tatio, so agencies really don’t have to work very hard to earn their custom. But the trip we went on was one of the few that actually makes an effort. The driver advised us not to sleep on the way up, telling us that you adjust more easily to high altitude if you’re awake. We thought this sounded like it would be worth a try so we stayed awake all the way up. The Italians, Brazilians and Chileans who were also on the trip ignored it and were soon fast asleep.

But it was good advice. I felt better when we got to El Tatio than I’d done on any of my previous visits, and as well as that the place looked more incredible than ever before. It was brutally, savagely cold, 15 degrees below freezing, and in those conditions huge steam pillars rise from even the tiniest geothermal hole in the ground. It was stunning.

We had plenty of time at the geysers. On previous trips I’d always felt a bit rushed, but we hung around until pretty much all of the other minibuses had left. Once the sun came up, the savage temperatures got a tiny bit more agreeable.

All the tours start in the main geyser field and then drive over to a geothermal pool that you can swim in. I’d swum in it on my last trip. It was horrific. It’s like getting into a bath that you ran nice and hot and then forgot about for a bit, and then you have to get out into sub-zero air. So we passed on a swim this time.

I was in a great mood as we headed away from El Tatio. This had been the best of my four trips here without a doubt. So, my advice for having a great trip to El Tatio is 1. go with the Maxim tour agency, they are really good; 2. stay awake on the way up; and 3. don’t swim in the pool unless you like disappointment and misery.

Morning hike back to Pehoé

Apr 24, 2013 in Patagonia 2013

Morning hike back to Pehoé

The schedule for today was tight. We had to get to Pehoé in time for a ferry to be in time for a bus to be in time for another bus to be in time for our flight back to Santiago. Any missed step would be disastrous. So we packed up and left Campamento Italiano before dawn and headed off down the trail. It was an incredible morning, clear and calm, which meant that it was also bitterly cold, but we hiked quickly and kept warm.

We made it back to Pehoé in plenty of time for the boat back. And all the other steps worked out as well, until we got to the airport to find that our flight was delayed by four hours. After four days of hiking we were not in the mood for this. There was another flight leaving at 1.30am, but LAN were very reluctant to let us onto it, so it looked like we would be getting home at about 8am. As I argued with the LAN people, ex-president Michelle Bachelet walked by. She was on the 1.30am flight, and eventually LAN decided that we could be, too. We trudged wearily onto the plane, brushed off some Torres del Paine twigs and dirt, collapsed into our seats and headed out of Patagonia.

Valle Frances

Apr 23, 2013 in Patagonia 2013

Valle Frances

We hiked back to Pehoé the next morning, and headed on to Campamento Italiano. The wind had dropped, the skies had cleared and we had two stunning days of sunshine and autumn colours. We hiked up the Valle Frances and watched avalanches roaring down the slopes of Paine Grande.

From the campsite, sometimes, you could hear the roar of the avalanches. They normally lasted 10 or 20 seconds On our first night there, we heard a roar but this was something different. It got louder and louder, much louder than the noisy river that we were camped by, and it just kept on going. I knew that there was no chance of any avalanche reaching the campsite. But did I really know that? As the roar kept on going, and getting louder and louder, I began to wonder. It was dark and there was no point getting up to see what was going on. So we sat in the tent, listened, and waited. Finally the roar died away.

Niagara

Apr 25, 2011 in Canada 2011

Niagara

The next morning I managed to get to Union station in time for the train to Niagara Falls. I still almost got into trouble with a streetcar that stopped short of its normal destination and left me a few minutes away, but I got on the train with a couple of minutes to spare.

The train was going to New York. As it hauled itself slowly out of Toronto I felt that I wanted to be going on a much longer journey than the two hour run to the border. Ontario sped past outside the window, as the bright blue sunshine that had started the day ebbed away and left behind high grey cloud. We passed through towns called Aldershot and Grimsby, and eventually we pulled into Niagara Falls station.

The grey clouds were descending. I walked out of the station, into an empty town. I was coming to one of the most touristy places in the world, but it looked like not many people arrive by train and walk two and a half miles down to the falls. I reached the cliffs above the wide green Niagara River and walked south. Small icebergs in the river floated north.

I didn’t expect much of the falls. I wasn’t even sure why I was going there. I’ve seen some of the biggest and widest falls the world has to offer, and these ones would surely pale in comparison. But then I walked round a corned, and in the distance saw a wall of water thundering over a cliff, and it was breathtaking. I walked on down the road. Spots of rain were starting to fall. I passed the international bridge and wondered if I should pop over to the US while I was here, but I thought that my battered and frayed passport might make it much more hassle than it was worth. I decided to stay in Canada.

The rain got heavier. By the time I reached the falls it was utterly grim, and at the lip of the falls it was even more grim as the spray competed with the rain and made everything twice as wet. I briefly retreated inside a ghastly tourist complex, had a nauseating Tim Hortons doughnut and a coffee, and then decided that whether it was raining or not, I had to get out of there. I walked up into Niagara Falls town. Giant hotels and casinos lined the streets. I was thinking of going up an observation tower, but the top of it was in the clouds. I walked randomly until I got to a place downstream of the falls where I could look over the rushing river with the massive horseshoe bite taken out of it.

The rain eased off and I walked back to the falls. In spite of the horrible commercialisation and the horrible numbers of tourists, they were impressive. I watched the water powering over the precipice for a while, wondering why humans like waterfalls enough to build grotesque tourist empires next to them.

Then the rain started falling again, and I headed back up to the station. Clouds clung to the sides of the river valley, and icebergs drifted by. The bus back to Toronto fought its way through the downpour and at one point the driver had to ask a passenger to wipe the condensation off his front window. Wet to the skin, I trudged back to where I was staying.

Río Ulla

Sep 11, 2010 in Santiago de Compostela 2010

Río Ulla

We went white-water rafting while we were in Galicia. I’d never done it before so I was really looking forward to it. We got a train to Padrón, a quiet dusty town near Santiago, from where companies run rafting trips down the Río Ulla.

The seven of us took a boat and a guide, and headed downstream. Four other boats were on the river, and pretty much the first thing all the guides did was to try and get us to fall out. I was very reluctant, but I guess it’s better to fall out first in the calm water before the inevitable spills in the rapids. So we all got soaking wet in the chilly waters, and then went paddling downstream for some rapid action.

The Ulla is not such a wild river, but the scenery was awesome and we had great fun. After the first couple of rapids, our guide got us to try them out with variations like going backwards, standing up, trying to paddle up one we’d just come down, and things like that. At the final rapids, he said “You don’t really need the boat for this one. Just jump out and swim.” I thought he was joking but he really meant it, so we all jumped out and swam over the rapids. Then we swam downstream all the way to the pick-up point. I’d never swum down a river before and I thought it was awesome.

We all agreed that the Ulla had, on the whole, been a little bit tame and it would be nice to try something a bit wilder. But none the less, we were all shattered, and our plans for a big night out clubbing fell a bit flat as we were all too destroyed to stay out beyond 4am.

Millau

Sep 03, 2010 in France 2010

Millau

The journey back was long. We drove from Durban-Corbières back to the UK, stopping off in Orléans on the way. Driving in France is always quite nice, the expense of the tolls being offset by the general quietness of the roads, and in the parts we were passing through, the sometimes spectacular scenery.

I was happy that our route would take us over the Millau viaduct, one of the great civil engineering achievements. I’d seen plenty of pictures of the giant bridge but it was still incredible to cross it. Only when we saw the tops of the pylons poking above the horizon from some distance away could we really appreciate how huge it is. We soared over the Tarn valley, and then stopped on the other side to have a look. We were there at the wrong time of day for good photographs, with the sun shining more or less directly at us from over the bridge. But it was still an impressive sight.

Down the valley

Apr 17, 2010 in Scotland 2010

Down the valley

We followed the river back towards Brodick. The walk in the valley was not as interesting as the hiking in the fells had been, but the scenery was still impressive. The interior of the island was impressively wild, with no significant signs of human habitation to be seen. It always surprises me, a world traveller but an insular London resident, that there are places like this in the UK. I should go to them more often.

Icing on the cake

Apr 12, 2010 in Iceland 2010

Icing on the cake

The orange glow receded. Árni reckoned the eruption was much smaller now than when he’d last seen it a week ago, but it had been awesome to see it nonetheless.

Our return journey was much slower than the outward leg. The trail had got icier, and the gale was getting stronger. We bounced around so much that I felt seasick, climbing back up to the heights of the Mýrdalsjökull. At one point, another car in the convoy got stuck, and Árni had to jump out to attach a towrope. The icy blast as he opened the door was breathtaking. It took a little while to extricate the other car, and I wondered if we would need to get out and push. I didn’t much fancy that.

Luckily we got going again, and pushed on. As we descended, I started to become sure that I could see the northern lights. When we reached the edge of the glacier, we stopped to reinflate the tyres, and here there was no doubt. The wind was whipping up a fog of blown snow, but through that I could see that the sky was full of dancing green lights. We carried on down, the wind began to drop and the lights got brighter.

We reached sea level at about 3am. I was beginning to get a tiny bit worried – my flight was leaving Keflavík at 8am and it was going to take a few more hours yet to reach Reykjavík. But if I missed my flight, then so be it. Right now I was just concerned with feeling awestruck. We stopped at Skógafoss, reinflated the tyres a bit more, and here the lights were stunning, flying overhead like curtains billowing in a colossal breeze.

We drove on, stopping in the middle of nowhere briefly to pick up some people whose car had broken down as they were trying to get to the volcano. The lights seemed brighter than I ever remembered them and at the end of a spectacular day of travelling, this was almost too much to take in. I was having a natural wonder overdose.

We headed on. The small hours grew larger, and I fell fast asleep. I woke as we approached Reykjavík, where we arrived at 5am. I had just enough time to brew a painfully strong coffee before heading back to the airport as the sun was rising. My weekend had been perilously close to turning into an appalling waste of time and money but we’d snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. I could not have been happier as I headed back to the UK. Later it turned out that just a few hours after I’d been there, the Fimmvörðuháls eruption stopped. After a day of calm, a new and much bigger eruption started a few miles away, causing massive disruption to European air travel as a huge ash cloud drifted over the continent. Much as I’d have loved to see that, my timing was pretty good. If I hadn’t left when I did I might still be there now.

Snæfell is still calling me. I’ll be going back to Iceland before too long.