- Banana Yoshimoto, Goodbye Tsugumi
Ilha do Pico and Santa Maria
I'd been advised by many people that this is probably not the best time of the year to go to the Azores in terms of weather but I thought I'd take my chances and visit another two islands, Ilha do Pico and Santa Maria. They told me I might get stranded due to cancelled flights but that didn't put me off as I thought that would at least give me more time there. Anyway, all worked out well. The weather behaved itself, more or less, and the delays weren't too dramtic.
The flight into Pico was slightly bumpy but there were good views of the volcano Pico, or Piquinho as the locals call it, views that were rare in the coming days due to the weather. We tried to do a hike everyday, although we were limited as to what we could do as this time of the year it gets dark at 5pm. One hike along the black volcanic rock coast was spectacular and not too demanding, except on the shoes as the rocks can be quite sharp. Another hike from São Roque to the Lagoa de Capitão and back was quite a bit more demanding. On a clear day you can expect decent views of Piquinho but on this day the summit was covered in clouds, so no luck there. Great walk, though, especially in the winter when there's noone around. We didn't meet a soul.
A place we'd heard about and thought worthy of a visit was the Cellar Bar in the town of Madelena. We tried twice to have lunch there but on both occasions it was closed, despite saying it was open on the door. The third time we went there, passing by in the afternoon, it was open. Third time lucky. Apparently on the door was the summer schedule and in the winter it was only open 3 days a week.
Santa Maria December 2017
Santa Maria is one of the smaller islands and I wasn't quite sure what to expect but for such a small island there is a surprising amount of things to see. We were only there for 3-4 days so we had to be a bit choosy as to what to do. In the end we did two hikes, one along the south coast and another from Santo Espirito to Maia. On both trails, at various points, you need a certain head for heights but this is especially true of the second one when you reach the cliffs at the top of the waterfall and need to make your way down to the bottom. The path is often slippery, which makes it all the more exciting. Anyway, pretty impressive for a small island. Revisit expected.
Rondane National Park
Although I have visited Norway many times, this was my first time hiking in a national park. I had read that Rondane National Park was one of Norway's most popular national parks for hikers, but despite this there weren't many people on the trails I attempted, and on one of the trails I didn't see anyone. My initial idea was to stay at the Rondane Tourist Huts. Then after being told that they weren't taking any reservations over the peak season I then decided I was going to camp at the huts, which didn't need a reservation. Then after seeing how cold it was going to be (in the middle of August!) I booked a room in Mysusæter at the Rondane Høyfjellshotell, which had easy access to many of the trails and also a free bus to Spranget to the start of the main trail leading to the Rondvassbu huts and beyond. Signposts mark the start of the trails and cairns are dotted along the way.
Rondvassbu August 2017
The trails were generally easy to follow and were signposted at the start and at junctions with cairns dotted in between. Many of the trails were along, and up and down, hillsides and were strewn with large and not-so-large boulders and often required leaps to get from one boulder to another. Further up there was still snow, which hadn't melted over the summer. Down below trails were often flooded and required fancy footwork to avoid getting your feet wet and occasionally I would misjudge and end up ankle deep in a freezing cold bog.
The scenery was inspirational but if you got tired of mountains and valleys, at lower altitudes there were blueberries, redcurrants, the occasional cloudberries, rasberries, lingonberries and wild strawberries growing along many parts of the trails, especially where there were trees. There were signs informing visitors that there were several herds of reindeer but if humans came to within a certain distance of them they would flee and not stop. At the end of the day, with sore legs but happy, I would settle down to local specialities such as elk steak and marinated raw moose.
Flores and Corvo Islands
Flores and Corvo islands are the furthest out of the Azores and quite a distant out towards the Americas. I was expecitng the islands to be quite spectacular but Flores, my first stop, was more stunning than I had expected. The village of Ponta da Fajã, where I rented a house, is surrounded by high cliffs, more waterfalls than I can remember and the Grande Rota that goes round the whole island passes through here. This made a good base to explore the west of the island. Although there were a fair number of tourists, both Portuguese and foreigners, it was fairly easy to escape them and even in the more popular sites, such as the Poço de Bacalhau, it was easy to find a spot where you could imagine you were the only one there, and on some walks you didn't even need to imagine. You were the only one there. At any time of the year in the Azores you need to be prepared for any weather and at the end of July I did experience driving rain and thick fog when climbing up to the Miradouro das Lagoas. Luckily this cleared by the time I reached the top.
Corvo July 2017
Corvo is the smallest of the islands in the Azores and the main attraction there is the 'caldeirão', the volcanic caldera bang in the middle of the island. Some of the guest houses offer free lifts up to the top but as I enjoy walking I decided to walk up to the top. Nevertheless, I was still offered lifts along the route by puzzled locals.
Karnataka and Goa
When we visit a place for the first time we often travel with preconceptions of what a place should be like, from things we have read and things, right ot wrong, that people have told us. This was the case on this trip to Karnataka and Goa and although I had been to India twice before, to Kerala and Tamil Nadu, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what I was going to find in Bangalore and Goa.
Bangalore has a reputation as the tech capital of India, for glitzy shopping centres and from being more westernised than the average Indian city. While this is true, the city also shares many of the problems of any Indian city, such as pollution, chronic traffic congestion and lack of Infrastructure. Still, if you like shopping and you are into your food, then this is the place to be.
One place that we returned to a few times in Bangalore was The Permit Room and its slogan 'mouthwatering recipes from more than one Indian kitchen' kind of says it all. We didn't have time to try everything, unfortunately, but I would recommend the potato and green mango curry with red chilli sweet and sour gravy and the Ennao Kathirikai, aubergine in a tamarind chilli masala.
Hampi, 7 hours by car from Bangalore, is a world heritage site and a world apart. When you approach the area the landscape becomes alien and surreal. Large boulders sit on top of other boulders and ancient temples and ruins are dotted across the landscape. It really was spectacular. We stayed at the Hyatt in Vidyanagar Township near Hampi, a town that belongs to the local steelworks and seemed unnaturally perfect for India, if you ignored the alarmingly coloured orange smoke coming from the factories.
Hampi December 2016
Goa was the next place to challenge my ideas. We stayed in a beautifully renovated old Portuguese house in Goa Velha and from there made trips to Panaji, the main town, and some of the beaches. In Goa Velha the roads were unusually quiet for India and we rented bicycles to discover some of the centuries-old churches. In the evening we drank Kingfisher beer and the local cashew spirit, Feni, at the Clube Vasco da Gama.
Goan food has to be special and a good place to try it is Mum's Kitchen in Panaji. We loved everything there but especially the vindaloo, the chorico chilly and the pineapple salad.
South Island, New Zealand
"As man disappears from sight, the land remains" - Maori Proverb
This was my fifth trip to New Zealand and I'm sure there will be many more to come. It's a country I've always felt very at home in and yet it feels very exotic as well. This time, after catching up with my friend Nicky in Blenheim, I made my way towards Marahau, via Nelson, to walk the Abel Tasman track. This track can be walked at any time of the year, but the advantage of walking it in the winter is that there are not too many people around. After taking a water taxi to Totaranui I walked back to Marahau over 3 days staying overnight in Department of Conservation huts. The hike itself is pretty undemanding, apart from a low-tide estuary crossing, in water so cold it turned my bare feet purple, at Awaroa, but it is definitely worthwhile.
Next stage, Intercity coach to Dunedin, via Christchurch. Dunedin, the Gaelic word for Edinburgh, is a pleasant, lively student city and architecturally seems quite Scottish. I was heading to the Otago Pensinsula, close to Dunedin, to do a few day walks and see what the countryside was like in this part of New Zealand, which, as elsewhere in New Zealand was part volcanic, the main reference point being the Harbour Cone. The walks I could do were dictated by the limited and infrequent public transport network (everyone drives in New Zealand) but, nevertheless, I still managed to do quite a bit.
Otago Peninsula August 2016
After Dunedin I headed for Te Anau, one of the rainiest parts of New Zealand. There is so much walking to be done in the region but, again, it wasn't the best time of the year to do it. In the end the weather behaved itself and I managed to do a few hikes around Lake Te Anau and along the Kepler Track, although the upper parts of the Kepler Track were off limits due to avalanches.
This has always been one of my dream destinations and this time I was determined to make it a reality. The flight from Oslo took over 3 hours to get to Longyearbyen in Svalbard and at about a 1-hour flight from the north pole this is probably the furthest north I am ever going to get. Getting off the plane at Longyearbyen airport the scenery was inspirational.A week or two before the weather forecast was pretty dismal with temperatures forecast down to about minus 30 degrees, but this changed and in the end the temperature range was between -5 to -15 degrees, quite a bit more bearable.
The thing about Svalbard, unfortuneately, is that you can't go off hiking on your own, unless you have special permission and a rifle with you to scare off the polar bears. Fortunately there are plenty of companies that organise group hiking trips, kit you out for the extremes in temperature, and provide a guide with a rifle so you don't have to worry about bear attacks. Tip if you're thinking of doing this. If the company offers walking poles, take them. The amount of times, with my limited experience of snow shoes, I took one step forward on a slope and then slid back two paces. Embarrassing.
Longyearbyen March 2016
The Great Wall
This trip to China was a finale to my stay in Hong Kong and my chance to revisit the Great Wall I had last visited over 15 years ago. How time flies. It was also my chance to travel on the new bullet trains, which I had been looking forward to. The trip from Shenzhen to Beijing on the bullet train took over 10 hours at an almost constant speed of 300km/hr, just slowing down when arriving at main stations. Gazing out of the window at the Chinese countryside (yes, you could see things at that speed) the journey passed more quickly than I had imagined and in the comfort of 1st class it was pretty enjoyable.
Beijjing itself had changed from the last time I was there and my stay seemed like constant sightseeing, bowls of jioazi (Chinese dumplings) and large bottles of Qingdao beer. The best part of the Great Wall I visited was at Jinshanling where I didn't have to go far along the wall to escape the tourists, which anyway weren't the hordes that you have to fight your way through along other sections of the wall. From Jinshanling the further out you went along the wall the more delapidated it got and on some sections it was almost a vertical climb to reach the next tower. Good exercise, stunning scenery, but a killer in the summer heat.
The Great Wall Jinshanling August 2015
Next step the bullet train to Xian. I went there not to see the terracotta warriors, like everyone else, but to get a taste of a different Chinese city, the start of the Silk Route. Although Hui Min Jie (muslim street) is packed woth tourists at the best of times