Saturday, 22 June 2013

The Big Trip Awards

In the latter stages of our trip and since our return, most of the questions we've been asked are along the lines of 'What was your favourite...?' 
We're really happy when people are interested in our travels, but it's not so easy to answer the questions. How do you choose when everywhere is so diverse, and each country had highs and lows? Nevertheless, we've decided to devote one, final blog entry to 'The Big Trip Awards'. After all, there are some places so unforgettable they deserve to be shared.

Most awe-inspiring view

Harriet: Gokyo Ri, Everest region, Nepal

The view of Everest from Gokyo Ri
On this detour from the Three Passes trek, I was tempted to turn back a dozen times. The path zigzagged up steep, boring scree. We were above 5000 metres altitude, so climbing seemed impossibly hard work, and we were walking in thick, cold fog. But Karl was keen to press on, and FOMO (fear of missing out- a major driving force in my life) kept me following him. Finally, we came out above the cloud. We were surrounded by prayer flags flapping in the wind and the panorama that opened up included many of the Himalayan giants - Everest, Lhotse, Nuptse and Makalu to name a few. It was just the two of us perched there above the clouds. A very Himalayan moment; feeling like we were on top of the world, and actually not being too far from it.

Karl:  Under Mount Cook on the Ball Pass circuit, New Zealand

The Caroline Face of Mount Cook
This view was hard earned, and appeared from nowhere. We’d spent four hours walking along a dusty, scree ridge on the lateral moraine of the Tasman glacier, stumbling on football sized boulders, no shade from the dazzling sun and no view at all - just grey scree rising on either side of us. The path up to the ridge from here was crumbly and steep. But we popped over to find ourselves right beneath Mount Cook’s Caroline face - as close as you can get to this hugely impressive side of the mountain. The face was over 1000 vertical metres of glistening snow, ice and rock. It was beautiful and very humbling. We watched house sized blocks of ice fall off, starting avalanches. Against the majesty of the mountain even these looked small. We camped up there, and it was even more magical at night with the moon lighting the face and the constellation of Orion rising above the summit.

Best tropical beach

Harriet: Neil's Cove, Havelock Island, Andamans, India

A place to hang a snorkel, Neil's Cove
Pretty early in our travels, but I knew when I walked along the sand (soft, white...), with a soundtrack of bird song from the pristine forest behind, that this beach was going to be hard to beat. The water was clear and turquoise, there were calm shallows to wallow in, snorkelling with lots of octopus, shady mangrove trees to hang our hammock up, and no one else to share it with.

Karl: Pulau Kepa, Alor, Indonesia

Our own beach at La Petit Kepa
We stayed in a little guesthouse on this tiny island with only a handful of thatched huts and about 7 other guests. The beach was 2 minutes away through some trees. It was totally private, with views of the hilly mainland across the water. The sand was bleached white, washed clean by the tide. Snorkelling off here was fun- a high speed, effortless drift along the reef, spotting turtles and a resident baby black tipped shark. One night we swam here under a full moon, the water so clear you could still see the fish. Amazing.

Closest wildlife encounter

Karl: Seal viewed underwater, Kaikoura, New Zealand

The best way to see a seal
In Kaikoura we decided to try snorkelling with the resident seals. It was only early spring so the water was freezing, despite our wetsuits. Putting our faces in led to ice cream headaches, and our bare hands were completely numb.
On land you can't approach within 50 metres of seals without them panicking, so cumbersome they stumble over and knock themselves on the rocks. In the water it was a different matter. This particular seal was relaxing on the surface, unperturbed by us. She was lying on her back, washing her whiskers. It seemed too close, too intimate, and we were about to back away. Then she swam straight towards us, nostrils flaring as she breathed. At the last moment she dived. We watched her glide beneath us, turning upside down to get a better look. Bubbles of air were trapped in her whiskers and fur. It was one of those moments when you only realise afterwards that you were holding your breath.

Harriet: Black bear crossing a river, Yosemite, USA

Moments before our first bear sighting
We were swimming in a river on our first day in Yosemite when I saw a brown flash approaching the water about 20 metres downstream. I looked up half expecting a dog, but there it was - a bear. Right there! It hadn’t seen us as it walked down to the water and then gambolled across, splashing through the river, droplets landing all over its golden brown fur. Reaching the opposite bank, it climbed a small tree and started to pull down branches to eat the fruit, the trunk bending under its weight. It seemed to happen in slow motion as we watched, mesmerised- our first view of a bear in the wild.

Favourite journey

Harriet: Rail journey from Trivandrum to Chennai, India

Travelling through rural India by train
India is best seen by rail, and this was the most enjoyable trip of the lot, with our own little curtained off bunk that handily converted into seats. 18 hours on the train gave us long enough to really relax and get into the journey, watching the world through the window. Then there’s the interest inside the train, with a constant procession of salesman offering ‘chai chai chai’ or steaming tubs of curry and biryani. 

Karl: Bus ride to Annapurna,
View from the bus roof

Bus journeys in Nepal were all interesting, but this was the one where we got to ride on the roof! We shared it with a large group of school kids off for a picnic by the river, treating us to a soundtrack of their loud, happy singing. They all wanted to shake hands, but it was really hard to let go of the rail for long enough to do this as we’d fly up in the air and land with a painful bump. The road was rough and narrow, and we travelled through rural Nepal, watching people working in the fields and bringing in the harvest.

Most memorable wild camp

Karl: Crazy Jug Point, North Rim of the Grand Canyon, USA

Waking up on the rim of the Grand Canyon
Reaching this spot involved driving on a dirt track through forest for 35 miles, until the land ran out. The point had just enough room for our tent before it dropped into the canyon, wilderness stretching away into the distance. We had a fire, watched storms pass through the scenery, saw the canyon change colour at dusk and dawn, and slept outside with our feet practically dangling over the edge. It didn’t seem like it should be allowed- camping there, for free, on a point of rock jutting out into the Grand Canyon- it doesn’t get any better than that!

Harriet: Gertrude Saddle, Fjordland, New Zealand

Our tent at Gertrude Saddle
A relatively short climb up from the Milford Sound road brings you to this rocky saddle, with two deep, glacial scoured valleys either side. Waterfalls stream down the cliffs to the green of the valley floor, framed by impossibly steep mountains. There wasn’t a breath of wind so we could camp in the most exposed place possible, with the view dropping off beyond. I spent the whole time there just trying to absorb the ridiculously scenic view in every direction.

Favourite meal

Karl: Sushi restaurant in Kyoto, Japan

Sushi in Japan
Japan was a fascinating eating experience, with restaurants specialising in all sorts of themes - slurpy noodle bars, meat grills, cafes where you choose a plastic version of your dish and order it from a vending machine. This sushi restaurant was worth seeking out. The kitchen was open plan and you sat at a bar, watching the chefs work in their white hats. The whole team of chefs would personally greet each arrival to the restaurant. They would all call out together in unison, bowing each time someone arrived or left, one rushing to escort them to the door. It made for such a friendly atmosphere and a unique restaurant experience.

Harriet: Night market, Kupang, West Timor, Indonesia

Fresh fish in Kupang's night market
Kupang was a run down, dirty Indonesian town where we kept getting stuck between transport connections to other islands. But every night the main street would be closed to traffic (no motorbikes to dodge!) and dozens of food stalls would set up. Most served the daily catch of fish and prawns, which you chose and watched as they seasoned and flame grilled it, or stir fried it in big woks. Meanwhile you can order a fresh smoothie from another stall (avocado and chocolate was a bizarre but delicious favourite!) and afterwards a dessert of Bulan - thick pancakes filled with custard. The place was always full of local families and everybody shared big tables under glaring lamps in the warm night.

Most amazing underwater experience

Karl and Harriet: Diving at Manta Point, Komodo National Park, Indonesia

Harriet meets a Manta
This was the best dive either of us have ever experienced. We were lucky enough to have 14 manta rays glide past us during this memorable hour of our lives, some so close you instinctively ducked, even though they are very gentle and never touch people. They are massive, graceful, intelligent, and alien. Combined with the lunar landscape of the seabed here and the fast currents that whizz you along, it was an out of this world experience.

Karl and Harriet: Snorkelling at Pulau Bunaken, Indonesia

Pulau Bunaken, just like an aquarium.
The reef here is packed with an amazing diversity of life; dozens of species of coral, brightly coloured fish, turtles and the odd sea snake. Snorkelling involved a relaxed drift along the wall at the point where it dropped hundreds of metres into the deep blue ocean. Big fish would swim by in the blue, but the real interest was the coral garden and its inhabitants in the warm, perfectly clear waters. 

Most unusual accommodation

Karl: Houseboat in Kerala, India

Through the backwaters of Kerala on our own houseboat
We spent a couple of days on our own punted houseboat in the quiet backwaters of Kerala, far from the crowds of motorised boats in Alleppey. It felt very indulgent and colonial, lying in deckchairs being punted along waterways by our 2 boatman, while our personal chef served delicious buffets of Keralan food. We cruised along canals lined with palm trees, chinese fishing nets creaking on big frames and locals waving from the shore. In the evening we took out a dug out canoe to explore the narrow waterways between houses, and spent the night on a quiet mooring looking out over the reflections of palm trees.

Harriet: Hotel Langtang View, Langtang Valley, Nepal

A tea house in the Himalayas
This particular spot was very small, just a little hut with two rooms. It was early in the trekking day to stop, but the rare promise the owner made of a hot shower was too much. We relaxed in the afternoon sunshine until my ‘shower’ was ready. The owner then directed me to the cabbage patch behind the house, where a hot bucket of water awaited in the middle of the field. It turned out there was no bathroom at all here, but pouring hot water over myself in the open air, in the relative privacy of a field with mountain views all around, is the most memorable wash I've ever had! The evening was spent with the owner in his kitchen, just the four of us and him eating  by the stove as he told us about life in the mountains and his family. It was more like a home stay than a guest house.

Best drive

Harriet: Desert road in Utah, USA

The road from Nevada to Utah 
We left Las Vegas on a ruler-straight, empty road, the city disappearing in a desert haze in the rear view mirror. As we entered Utah the skies darkened and the desert lit up in sunlight. There was a rainbow overhead and the road twisted between red cliffs layered into stripes and cut through with gorges, all glowing in the dramatic light.

Karl: West Coast, South Island of New Zealand

New Zealand's West Coast road
It was a long wait before we could make this journey, stuck in the van in a boring west coast town through some terrible weather. After 2 days of solid rain, the sun finally came out and we travelled the winding coastal road to Punakaikai under blue skies. Surf crashed onto every beach as we wound up and down headlands, the road lined with exotic green tree ferns. What cars were made for!

Best cultural experience

Karl: Tongkonan building, Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, Indonesia

Karl helps with the final stage of Tongkonan construction
We spent two days on a self-guided village to village trek through the interior of Sulawesi. On the first day we stumbled upon a large gathering. The village men were on the final stage of construction of a huge, ornate traditional wooden Tongkonan house. These unusual buildings are shaped like a pair of buffalo horns and look more like boats than houses, covered with intricate wooden carvings. There was a party atmosphere, with all the women and children gathered to watch as the final strut was heaved into place by teams of men on three sets of ropes. I was invited to join in on one of the ropes, before we were served coffee by the village women. It felt like something that would never have happened on an organised tour.

Harriet: Shiva festival, Kollum, India

Elephants, parasols and pom poms at the Shiva festival
A rickshaw driver invited us to join him for an evening festival at a temple in Kollum. All the temple elephants in the region were brought together and dressed in their full finery, before being paraded around the candle lit temple complete with parasols, dancers, bugle players and torch bearers. There was so much going on, with praying, dancing, music and elephants everywhere, and our friendly rickshaw driver explained and translated everything for us.

Overall highlight

Evolution Lake on the John Muir Trail
Harriet: If I could choose just one part of the trip to have again, it would be the month we spent hiking the John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada, California. It was all that I love about mountains, wilderness, camping, hiking and wild swimming, and I enjoyed every single day.

Van life, surfing in the Caitlins
Karl: Exploring the South Island of New Zealand with our own van and all the time in the world to do everything we enjoy.

And now for a few of the worst!

Worst room

Harriet: Tea house in Lobuche, Everest Valley, Nepal

We arrived into the Everest valley late after a very high pass followed by a stressful crossing of the Khumbu glacier. This is where crowds of Everest Base Camp hiking groups were staying for their final night, and we struggled to find anywhere with a spare room. Eventually we had to accept what was offered- basically a freezing cold plywood shack with a broken bed, a draughty door and holes in the floor. It was a really miserable night.

Don't touch the light switch, Kupang
Karl: Guesthouse in Kupang, West Timor, Indonesia

The few budget options in Kupang were equally disgusting, dark and dank with mould on the walls, filthy light switches, and wires hanging out of the sockets. They were ‘en suite’ with a combined squat toilet and shower - a cold water pipe sticking out of the wall. We had no choice but to stay and just try not to touch anything.

Scariest experience

Karl: Los Angeles, USA

We made the mistake of trying to walk a couple of blocks in downtown LA- just to get to the bus station. Between boarded up shops there were coupon food halls and the streets were full of the lowest rung of American society- drunks having heated arguments, heroin addict prostitutes, hobos pushing their life’s belongings in a shopping trolley. Everybody was staring at us and we felt very vulnerable. There were no cars driving the street, and no taxis to hail so we turned on our heels and retreated to the normality of Broadway and one of its cafes. A real eye opener on our first day in the USA.

Harriet: Tubing the Waiau river, New Zealand

Harriet and her spare tyre
The first time we tried out our tubes was on this wide, braided river in the South Island. We started slowly, but before long were keen to try out a bit of white water. It was deceptive though, and on this one particular rapid we’d definitely bitten off more than we could chew. I went first, Karl merrily following, videoing me until he realised I’d come off my tube in a rough section of rapids. He then capsized as well, although I was unaware of this. I was focused entirely on survival, hanging onto my tube and desperately swimming for the river bank that was speeding by. It almost put me off tubing entirely.

Worst food

Our kind hosts in Sulawesi (shame about the food)
Harriet: Ordering the only thing I thought might be safe in a station café in Java, Indonesia- a fried egg. It arrived cold, having been cooked the day before and left out, and was covered in dead ants.

Karl: This sounds ungrateful as it was a very generous meal. When we were trekking village to village in Sulawesi we stayed in the home of the local teacher. His mother served us meat stew, which was probably a rare occurrence due to our being guests, but it was full of lumps of gristle and fat complete with skin and, most disturbingly, hair. I managed to eat it for politeness sake, but was also forced to subtly have Harriet’s portion too as she just couldn’t stomach it!

A final note

Congratulations for getting this far! This is the last entry of the blog. We hope you've enjoyed reading over the past 18 months, and might have been inspired by some of the places we've written about and the adventures we've had.

For us, it all comes back to one question (and it’s one we’re not going to address for a while): 

Where next?!

Harriet and Karl