All posts by peterblunt23

Adventure and natural world writer and photographer. Trying to Live Life to the MAX!!!

Mount Franklin – Arthur’s Pass New Zealand – Summer Solo

As each new stage revealed itself I considered turning back. With a comrade we would have talked through the options and continued on our way. Alone I felt with each stage I was getting deeper in and further off the beaten track. No mobile reception. The sat phone was a last resort at the bottom of my backpack.The initial hike in along the Mingha River had been pleasant. Braided stream crossings, Lord Of The Rings moss forests, ferny grottos, blue pools beneath rapids and cascading glacial waters, high valley walls on either side. At times I felt like Frodo on a quest. The high point of Dudley Knob gave gorgeous views back down and up valley. Up and down over tributary streams to Mingha Bivouac which was being refurbished by a tradesman and passing hikers. There were quite a few of them. Many were hiking the Te Araroa, a trail that stretches for 3,000 km from the top of New Zealand to the bottom. Some were doing “just” the South Island and others the whole thing. My route in was  partly along the river trail of the “TA”. Most were “southbounders”, pairs, couples, solos. Kennedy Falls plunged 150m into a raging torrent below. Walking at a moderate pace, stopping to take photos and eat and drink, it took 4 hours to reach Goat Pass and the very pleasant hikers hut. Then down, following the streamway, criss-crossing to switch sides and sometimes threading the stones in the actual stream. Waterfalls tumbled from on high. Down the Upper Deception River. Deception Hut was true to its title, promised much and delivered nothing – hot, stuffy, full of sand flies, grotty and not even enough ground to pitch a tent outside, in a patch carved out of the bush. I had considered overnighting there but a decision was already made for me. From the later start of the day, 10.00am, it was already 4.00pm. My time estimate for the climb from the hut at 750m to a hopeful camp at Lake Anna at 1750m was about 4 hours. Give or take, a lot of unknowns.

“Ascend the slide upstream of Deception Hut to the scrub line then sidle into the head of the creek” (Good Luck Creek). Guidebook brevity. I finally twigged that a “slide” was a narrow river of talus rocks that had flowed as a landslide from the crumbling cliffs way above. Previously I had learned that these possible routes through surrounding steeps were not quite as vertical as they appeared when you actually started climbing up. This one looked long and very steep, especially the top part. Stage 1. Charlie had taken a nasty tumble in this hostile sort of terrain. I spied out discontinuous runs that were partly vegetated – these stones had been stable long enough for plants to grow around them and so made reliable steps. I linked a few of these then when they ran out I took to the lines of larger rocks – these are most often more stable, but when unstable the consequences are greater. I moved to the right hand side where larger stones met the bush edge then back to the middle and then back right. Up and up. On the smaller rocks it was a matter of moving up quicker than the stones flowed down. There is mostly a strange sense of equilibrium on some “slides” where the rocks have come to rest and when they slide away they don’t go far. I guess the steeper ones, and particularly collapsing moraine walls, are often too vertical to be negotiable. As I approached a narrowing towards the top with a slight sense of vertiginous instability due to a subtle steepening of the angle I was able to crab walk gingerly across to a scrubby gully on the left.

Going any higher on the slide was not an appealing option. Stage 2. The gully was almost vertical but led to a ridge line that looked good. Large tussocks and bushes provided surprisingly secure handholds which enabled ascent. In fact they felt more reliable than some of the rock hand and footholds in the Southern Alps. At the first flattening on the ridge I found a cairn and didn’t feel so alone. A route had been taken this way by others in the past. This was reassuring and a confidence boost. Perhaps Gandalf or Strider had passed up here. The ridge led upwards to about the 1250m level where there was a vague sloping shelf that looked like it could provide access across the face of the valley wall. Stage 3. The scrub was almost impenetrable – at times I had to weave between bushes, at others just bash through, occasionally disappearing into a hole beneath the foliage. Slow. Tiring. Lifting legs up and over too high branches. This was turning out to be a true New Zealand alpine mountain struggle with a bit of everything just to get to the climb. Semblances of overgrown track appeared randomly in the scrub – bliss.

Mount Franklin above Upper Deception Stream

Eventually I could see and then finally reached the upper shelf of the creek, a beautiful stream that crescendoed over a set of falls off the edge of the scarp into an unseen void. I picked out what looked like a possible summit of Franklin above a high shelf of stone.

Stage 4. 6.00pm. Even though a grassy campsite beckoned nearby I felt fit and strong. I had recently put in some long days in the hills and also something about being alone was energising. Overcoming each obstacle, being totally self reliant. In remote country. I pushed onwards, upwards, first over deep tussocks then over scree stonefields without vegetation. The creek disappeared beneath the rocks. Safe and low angle. Just a trudge. Up. I got into a count, 1 to 20, 5 times over, then look up, check the progress, count again, and again. Slow progress. By 7.00pm I had reached a point where the creek reappeared below a series of waterfalls. My phone navigation app indicated I was at 1388m – I couldn’t believe I was still at least 300m lower than the lake. Stage 5. At least the way ahead was clear and the end point for the day in sight. A zig zag line up beside the main fall led through cliffs onto a shoulder. Moss and alpine flowers. The sound of falling water. Colder. Step by step. Look up, pick an objective 20 to 30 meters away, a distinctive rock mostly, reach it, pick another one, like a marathon run towards the end, just one small section at a time, step up, and again, and again. Eventually I made a col from where the lake opened out just beyond – green, beautiful, perched high on the mountain, a reminder of a glacier. A cutting cold wind. Always the weather, glanced out to the west to track changes to the cloud patterns, monitored the higher peaks in the distance to gauge the level of their cloud shrouds, stayed in touch, not a place to get caught unawares. 8.00pm. 10 hours, 15 km, 1400m ascent. Felt good.The days are long in NZ, the evening sun goes down after 9.00pm and there is light for a while after that. Tent up in the wind on a flat spot that had been cleared by other climbers and walled a little with stones. I anchored the tent by threading walking poles and tent pegs through the peg loops and then piling heavy rocks on top of them. Built up the walls a bit more to deflect some of the wind. Wisps of cloud played among the spires of Franklin’s upper ramparts. Jumped inside and cooked up. Warm food and drink, sheltered from the wind, jacketed, beanied and sleeping bagged. I felt cosy and cocooned. As long as the tent held up. The forecast was for ok, not brilliant, weather. No storms predicted. Things can change though.

Overnight the wind must have abated. I had journeyed deep into slumberland.

Dark cloud layered the western sky above the ocean. Mt Murchison, heavily glaciered, stood above the pack in the south west. Overhead was mostly clear. 7.30am. Packed up camp, hid all my stuff under a small overhang and covered it with rocks so the cunning keas couldn’t tear it to bits. I sidled around the lake on scree then ascended another stonefield to a high col on the narrow ridge separating Franklin from the peak above my camp.

Looking east from the col

The view down the other side was magnificent, a huge drop to a hanging snowfield. A braided river silvered in the morning light up into a range of lower mountains. In a scene of quiet, slow drama valley cloud spilled over passes between mountains. Stage 6. In places the narrow spine across the col was knifedged. I scrambled carefully along, up and down, ledges one side, over a pinnacle, across a slab, down, along a line of footholds. A gaping abyss on both sides. Switched on. A few loose rocks kicked off. Crampon scratches from winter ascents. To the last col before actual Mt Franklin. Weather was holding, a breeze from the west wasn’t bringing the gloom any closer, Murchison had a cloudy head by then but it wasn’t getting lower or spreading to other peaks.“From the col above Lake Anna climb via the steep South Face and South Ridge (an excellent route)”. Close up it looked doable without a rope and gear and a buddy. Not as steep. A line of scree, always a line of scree, appeared to lead up to a traverse line right to a sharp ridge that spired up to the first summit. Stage 7. Each stage flowing into the next, like an adventure puzzle, piece by piece. I climbed, at last felt like I was climbing, route finding, moving up. Through the loose stones that fell away below over a drop. Out along the traverse line and then to the ridge. Up carefully. Gently move up on rattly holds. New Zealand weetbix rock. Up the arête. Move after move on black and grey. Always downclimbable if things got too deep, too out there. I wondered what it would be like in winter, in snow and ice, maybe more solid, glued and frozen together. First summit. Along to the next, and the next false summit. Finally to the last, but no there was another away over further yet. And eventually the cairn on the true top. Mountains and valleys in every direction.

Looking east from the summit

Nothing higher. Plummeting depths all around. I could see my campsite beside the jewel green lake way below. Rested a little. Kept glancing at the clouds and monitoring the wind. Ate and drank. Photos. A great sense of achievement. Thrilled I had pushed through each stage on the way up, into the unknown. With other people we would have done the same, most probably without using a rope, made the same decisions. On my own I had been singularly focused. Flowing through at my own pace was liberating.

Down. I was keen to get down. Through the now known territory. Before the weather changed. Down the climbing sections switched on. And relaxed and so easy down the screes, slid down with gravity. 10.00am second breakfast in camp. Packed up. Retraced my steps. Spent time photographing the flowers and plants beside the waterfall. Endless stonefields.

 

A small deer in the tussocks. Across the scrubby shelf I happened upon more of the old track.

 

 

Found more cairns to follow, some that I’d added a stone or two to make them memorable for the return journey.

 

 

 

 

Lowered myself down the tussock gully back onto the “slide”. Like a grey river ready to carry me away. I sought out the gravelly runs and slipskied down mostly in control. Walking poles became ski poles. Then the larger stones that didn’t move were more laborious, slower. A fraction of the time. 2.00pm at the base.

Lunch. A plan was hatching – to get back to Arthur’s Pass at a reasonable time. This would enable me to make the most of the following day’s good weather forecast to climb Mt Rolleston. So I pushed on back up Deception River. Passed marshals in high vis vests, yellow sign posts through the river, helicopters overhead, a team of officials and medics at Goat Pass Hut and timing stations – all being put in place for the famous Coast to Coast race the next day. Across NZ in one or two days. International multi sport event. 1000 participants run, cycle, kayak. $1000 each. My feet got hot. I worried about blisters. Tired trudging with a lightness of heart. Easy going downhill. New Zealand mountain hikes always take longer than expected. It’s difficult to internalise the scale.

7.00pm. Back at the car. 11 1/2 hours. Camped at the DOC campground beside the road in the village. Packed ready for Rolleston. Bed. Slumped into stillness.

4.45am. The alarm went off. Without even opening the door of the tent to check the weather I turned it off. Wonderful, soft slumberland. My legs were heavy. Best horizontal. Rolleston would still be there.

Later that day. Over coffee the weather up high had clouded in. Visibility would have been almost zero. A lucky decision. Rest.

The 100 Peaks Challenge. I’d never heard of Mt Franklin. Not a must do mission. Not necessarily the best climbs or the tallest mountains. More a guide to encourage people into the mountains. Thank you NZAC for this centenary initiative. A structure for a lifetime of forays across The Ditch. Now my list has its own scratchings and additions.

Postscript – the following day I overnighted at the NZAC lodge with a noisy crowd of Coast to Coasters (slept in my tent on the quiet grass outside to escape the snoring and 4am comings and goings).

Zermatt Adventures – hiking, via ferratta and basic mountaineering

All the walks described here are very briefly outlined on the brochure map “Panorammakarte/Plan Panoramique/Panoramic Map” which is available in tourist information and accommodations for free in Zermatt. Also on the www.zermatt.ch website. Hiking routes are graded and times estimated. See also the Cicerone guide to “Walking in the Valais”.

Five Lakes Walk – 5 Seenweg

Hike

2 1/2 hours, mostly downhill. Start – 2 funicular lifts from Zermatt to Sunnegga then to  Blauherd. Finish – Sunnegga, funicular transport back to Zermatt.

An underground funicular railway took us from Zermatt to Sunnegga and then a cable car to Blauherd at 2571m. Immediately we were on a high mountain shelf with sweeping views of the valley far below, alpine meadows and the higher snow capped peaks. The Matterhorn in the distance towered above everything.

Sidling the hillside led to the Stellisee, crystal clear water, the snowy dome of Monte Rosa as the backdrop. Wild flowers, herb fields, the Matterhorn ever present. Classic, iconic Switzerland. Cath walked ahead, like “Heidi”, in high spirits. Sunshine. Views from postcards in every direction. It was hard to take it all in as the path wound down gently and occasionally more steeply in switchbacks. The Grindjisee was partly surrounded by stands of fir trees like scenes from a fairy tale. Down lower we crossed a stream torrent. Crimson flowered low heath, more small fir trees and boulders edged the Grunsee. Then it was steeply down a narrow trail beside another tumbling stream to the Moosjisee, a man made small lake of opaque aqua. Finally over a small rise to the Leisee. This lake, closest to the cableway, had a beach, seats for relaxing and was the swimming spot for hot days.

On a varied, gentle, spectacular 2 1/2 hour walk mostly downhill we had become fully immersed in the Swiss Alps.

Mettlehorn

Basic Mountaineering

This is a serious full day hike involving the use of crampons and ice axe to ascend the top snowy valley and final peak but without the danger of crevasses. 1800m of ascent and descent. “Superlative…for many years it was seen as one of the two classic training climbs of the region….” Kev Reynolds, Cicerone Guide to Walking in the Valais.

The trail to Trift departed from the village centre of Zermatt. Between hotels then old wooden cottages and into the forest the steep path zig zagged upwards. 300m higher the Edelweiss Alterhaupt perched on a promontory overlooking the whole valley and offered drinks and food. Onwards and upwards, hard snow covered the cascading stream in places. A deep gouge made a  furrow through a section of ice to the next section of trail which switch-backed through steep rock where thick ropes had been attached as handrails. The grassy slopes were laden with a hundred different types of windflowers – yellow, white, pink, purple, blue, red. At the edge of perception I could almost hear tinkling cowbells and yodelling. Another 400m up I reached Hotel du Trift set wonderously at the base of a huge cirque – the Zinalrothorn, Mettelhorn and Unter Gabelhorn towering above. The hotelier, breakfasting with guests at a table in the morning sun, offered advice on the weather.

The trail branched off into steep herb fields flanked by another tumbling stream. As the altitude increased the Matterhorn became visible above a ridge line. Over a rise I reached snow patches in a hanging valley where I threaded my way up on exposed grassy and rocky areas until there was only snow. It was soft enough underfoot to be secure without crampons and it steepened towards a high col. Here the view into the next valley opened out – a snow slope dropped down into a bowl where an exquisite small blue watered lake lay enclosed by ice, and below this the valley wall plunged way down to then rise up opposite to snow and ice covered peaks along the range to the north to the perfect, jagged summit pyramid of the Weisshorn. Cloud moved slowly through the landscape, alternately obscuring then revealing the surrounding mountains. Fairly confident I could retrace my steps if the mist came in and stayed, I put on crampons and swapped walking poles for my ice axe. The snow was still soft on the surface.

Occasional glimpses of the summit of the Mettelhorn beckoned me across the snow (neve) below the Platthorn and then further to a steeper snow slope that led up to the final rocky section. Feeling the altitude I moved in sections, each interspersed with short rests, zig zagging upwards. The  snow slope was edged by a massive drop into the valley.

At the top I rested, lunched, photoed. Took it all in. Hung my legs over the void. Watched the mists and cloud swirl and drift. Figured the mountains in the 360 degree panorama, made some plans for climbing futures. Felt glad to be alive, overwhelmed really, thankful to be healthy, on top of the world.

 

Then down. Concentrated. Took great care. Each step placed carefully, to catch a crampon spike or trip would have led to a slide, and hopefully a self arrest with the axe but much better not tempt fate with a fall. Cramponed feet kept apart. Down past the col as the incline lessened I could relax and slide a little with each lengthened stride and make good pace. Back at Trift I couldn’t resist a hot chocolate. Just out of the oven an apfelkucken appeared as if by magic, with cream. Nearby a Swiss flag fluttered above a garden of flowers and in front of a gushing waterfall in the middle distance, while above glaciers caught the afternoon light. Down through the fields of flowers. Everywhere tumbling water sounded through the stillness in tune with my own sense of gratitude and vitality.

Matterhorn Glacier Trail

Hike

A half day hike traversing the lower shoulder of the mountain. Gently undulating from Trocker Steg (2 cable car rides from Zermatt) then down to Schwarzsee (cable car descent back to Zermatt). Like being in the “throne room of the mountain gods” Galen Rowell.

The cable cars swept us straight out of the valley to the snowy shoulder at the true base of the mountains. We wove the path between stoney rises and glacial lakes. On one side was the icy ridge of the Furgsattel that led up to one side of the Matterhorn, Italy lay just beyond. In front the lower glaciers gave way to sheer rock walls that led up into the clouded summit of the famous mountain. My eye was continually drawn to the Hornli Ridge that faces directly towards Zermatt. This is the popular and historic climbing route that one day I might hope to climb unassisted by guides. We walked slowly from vantage points to lakes and then to stop to just drink in the scene. Stupendous. Monte Rosa, brilliant white, behind, the rounded dome of the Breithorn almost directly above, and the sharp peaks that lead to the Weisshorn. It is hard to imagine a more sublime mountain scene. The cliched shape of the mountain seemed to retain some of its mystery and power by being partially shrouded in mist for much of the time. Following the season of enormous snowfall and probably due to some extent by global warming the whole scene was alive with flowing meltwater. The Hornlihutte stood on a level section of the ridge above, enticing.

This must surely rank as one of the finest short walks in the world.

 

 

Via Ferratta/Klettersteig Zermatt

Via Ferratta

3 seperate but linked “iron ladder” via ferratta routes have recently been established on the crags above the village on the west side. The access trail leads up from behind the railway station or off the path to Trift, signposted. 15 minutes hike uphill from Zermatt to the start of Route A or B.

Route A – good intro to techniques and to a little exposure

Route B – intermediate to advanced, steep, exposed, some strenuousity

Route C – continues on from Route B to a high grassy slope

 

Linking all three routes takes about 3 hours plus another hour for the descent via a hiking trail (if you know what you are doing). An info brochure is available from either the Tourist Info office near the railway station or the Zermatters Alpine Centre. There is no cost for the activity if you have experience and equipment (helmet, harness, via feratta set – these can be hired in the village). Guides can be paid to take you through the course and provide instruction – see the Alpine Centre.

The real climbing started beneath the main cliff face with a steep ladder up blank rock. This was followed by a series of traverses on half logs, natural foot holds and iron bars and rings. These were linked by ladders in a mix of natural climbing and use of the ironwork, all protected by newly laid cable. At a particularly exciting part you are high on this cliff way above the village in quite hostile terrain below a large overhanging roof system with another overhang below. Spectators from the village can watch people climbing across the black, grey and yellow rock. At the top of this section you hike along a vegetated shelf to a larger cliff which is ascended on a series of ladders and natural foot and handholds. The cable is always at hand to affix the via Ferratta carabiner cords and also to use as an aid to climbing. As you ascend the views just keep getting better. After another linking short walk I met up with a pair of “amigos” from Barcelona. For the third and final large cliff of steep and spectacular climbing we photographed and videoed each other, chatted about climbing in Spain, Chamonix and Australia and had fun in each other’s company.

Breithorn Solo

Basic Mountaineering

This is the easiest of the 4,000m peaks in The Alps (4164m). Half a day. Start from the top of the Matterhorn Glacier Express lift from Zermatt. Equipment required – ice axe, crampons and walking pole. People who are not comfortable with use of crampons and ice axe and not experienced with glacier travel should hire a guide from Zermatt.

My concern going solo was crossing the glacier which could contain hidden crevasses. Without a climbing partner on the other end of a rope there would be no chance of stopping a fall through the snow into the hidden chasms in the ice. After much research on the possible dangers and risks I decided to go up and have a look and assess conditions as I found them on the day. In beautiful weather I walked along the ski run following a pair of other climbers and not far behind a guided group. A route across the glacier was well compacted by the feet of many others. I could not see any sign of crevasses so followed this pathway over the snow. Other groups roped up and put crampons on and some just hiked across like me. On the other side where the slope from the summit dome of the mountain steepened I put crampons on and got out the ice axe. Most people were now roped together however some others walked up unroped and skiers ascended also unroped but with ski crampons on.

On the day it seemed safe to make the crossing. Also I presumed that the guides take on full responsibility for their clients by having them roped in. There was also the possibility that they try to maintain an atmosphere of peak adventure and an air of being necessary for the climb. Previous reading had indicated that they did get fed up rescuing people who were not properly skilled or equipped or prepared – fair enough. The angle and runout closer to the top was such that an uncontrolled slip from someone unroped or unable to self arrest with an ice axe would have resulted in an accelerating slide off the mountain.

The summit is truly spectacular. There is space to sit safely for lunch or stand and appreciate the magnificent view of peaks all around and the valleys plunging way below. There were certainly a number of other people to share the experience with but being climbers and skiers, all with an interest in the challenge and aesthetics it didn’t detract from my enjoyment. The altitude affected people in different ways – there were some really struggling to keep up a slow pace and others who were probably better acclimatised. From the top the safest and easiest way to descend is to follow the same route down. Down the narrow furrow of footsteps in the snow back to the glacier.

An exciting alternative for the confident and sure footed is to continue along and then down then  narrow snow ridge to the east. On the northern side of this ridge is an almost vertical drop of thousands of feet to the rocky talus below and on the southern side it is slightly less so. Passing the occasional person necessitated one person to leave the narrow foot pad and stamp out some foot placements in the snow on the steep slope just off the ridge crest. The feeling of moving through the mountains was intense – grand scenery, concentration, brilliant aesthetics, physical exertion and mastery. From a saddle further on it is possible to ascend to the next summit on the ridge which consists of a narrow cornice. To climb further and keep following the ridge would be fabulous real climbing over steep mixed rock and snow in a classic alpine position, probably requiring a buddy and a rope. Next time I’d have both and aim to do much more – the Matterhorn, Monta Rosa and maybe even the Weisshorn and Finsteraahorn. The list grows but also becomes clearer with each step into this landscape.

Back down to the saddle it is then a straightforward trek back down to the main trail. A single narrow but deep crevasse, easily crossed, kept me focused. The snow had softened by early afternoon making the walk back a little tiring, though it was all downhill or flat.

Gonnergrat to Riffelalp via the Mark Twain trail

 Hike

The third in our series of “this must be one of the best short, easy hikes in the world”. 2 1/2 hours though more time is recommended to fully immerse in it. Start at Gornergrat, having most likely caught the train up from Zermatt to 3089m.

The main trail downhill leaves the stupendous view from the lookout platform. With the crowds of tourists seeking a pleasant walk through the iconic Swiss mountains you wander down a network of trails towards Riffelsee. The wonderful mountainscape of the Breithorn, Castor, Pollux, Liskamm and Monte Rosa rises up above the Gornergletscher glacier below. Huge hanging lumps of ice cling to the mountain tops ready to crash down. Rapidly melting rock strewn glaciers feed raging torrents. Silently standing aloof the Matterhorn beckons the walker onwards and steadily down. Wild flowers become more prolific as the altitude drops. A thousand photo opportunities present   themselves with the mountain as the backdrop. Even I, who wholeheartedly loves the mountains and the natural world, was surprised at how much pleasure everyone was gaining from its presence. Beautiful alpine lakes bubble into an alpine stream past the rocky bulk of the Riffelhorn. Most of the tourists depart the outer trails here heading for the Rotenboden or Riffelberg stations.

The Riffelseeweg trail leads into the Mark Twain Weg which is an absolute cracker of a walk. At first the route winds down following the stream between rocky bluffs and flowered herb fields. Around every corner was a new scene just made for a toblerone advertisement. It was hard to move past the notion that we were walking in some fairy tale or through the “Sound of Music” or that we might have been “Heidi’s” grandparents in another time and place. This was actually real. Across the face of the hill the track is dug into the steep slope and this is where the flowers intensified into fields of yellow and white that covered the grasses which dropped away into the Gletschergarten gorge. Crimson alpine rose undergrowthed small fir trees on the steep rocky sections that led us down to Rifflealp.

Remarkables – Grand Traverse – Summer Solo

High above Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu the skyline is jagged with rocky spires. From almost the lake’s edge the ground rears up skywards through a wild country of grassed ridges and walls. All of this catches the wind, the storms, the snow and the late afternoon light. So close to civilisation but not to be underestimated.

A friend and I did a climb on the North East Buttress of Single Cone, one of the three pinnacles on the Traverse. The rock was coloured grey green and veined white. Smooth slabs had off sloping holds and overlaps. After two pitches we reached the less steep upper section where we could unrope and scramble. Up gullies, featured walls, slabs and finally the main ridge which ran through to the top. This climb was a familiarisation of the access, the climbing and also primarily a chance to scope out the descent at the end of the Traverse. All checked for the next day I scrambled down to the walk down track.

We all walk our own line of risk within a complex interplay of skill, experience, confidence, motivation. On my traverse day I would be going solo.

Remarkables at the head of the lake – early morning

I drove up the winding mountain road with my favourite tunes cranking through the spectacular landscape. An hour’s hike up from the ski field base and past Lake Alta arrived me at the Traverse proper, below a set of cliffs that topped the main ridge and provided a high point for a communications tower. At this level I headed across a large undulating shelf. I undulated down at one stage instead of regaining the ridge which meant that I had to scramble through some tricky terrain before I could climb up to a helipad. This switched me on, focussed my mindfulness about each move, made me start to feel “out there” a little, exposed. I’ve done a few solo things, including some long climbs at Arapiles. My mind tangled with the contrast to having a buddy around. A list of about a hundred mountains to climb in New Zealand and only probably 20 more years (61 now) to do as many of them as I can carries part of my motivation. Plenty of rockclimbing and hiking are under the belt but I only started serious mountain climbing two years ago with a sudden set of circumstances that enabled me to have the time and the means to stretch into real mountains. An unexpected dream coming. In my backpack I carried a harness, short rope and a small rack of gear for any difficult and scarey descents. Or to retreat.

“To be clear, I normally climb with a rope and partner. Free-soloing makes up only a small percentage of my total climbing. But when I do solo, I manage the risk through careful preparation. I don’t solo unless I’m sure I can do it.” Alex Honnold.

The day before there had been about ten parties on the Traverse whereas on my climb day I could only spy out one other. They were up ahead, roping up the ridge towards the North Peak of Double Cone. There was an easier route up a series of ramps on the left side of the ridge which I scoped out as the most straightforward way ahead (this is the route in the guidebook photo topo). Once I started though the actual ridge became my route of choice – the rock was mostly sound and the actual climbing moves were fabulous. Not hard but interesting. Huge drops down either side of the knife edge. Queenstown way below, snowy, iced mountains to the west including Tutoko and Earnslaw which remained on my list, and Aspiring. Way to the north Cook’s distinctive shape was visible on the horizon – beckoning. Narrow flat sections required confident balance, in places I crouched and ran a hand along the edge. When the holds ran out on one side of the ridge there was often an alternative on the other. A steepening towards the top drew me away from the edge then to the summit. The views all around were sensational.

It took a little time to find a way down the steep section to the gap between the North and South Peaks. The guidebook recommends considering rappelling if the sloping ledges are covered in verglass (frozen water ice). Fine in good hiking boots and dry summer rock. In many places the rock was scratched from crampons. The prospect of a winter climb, with a buddy and a rope, was enticing but a completely different sort of challenge. The group in front pitched their way up slabs from the gap, the top of the Petit Couloir, and an exposed arête. I found solid holds for hands and feet and continued up to the south summit of Double Cone. Rock shoes lay unused in my backpack. I first lunched on top while the other group did the same on the next pinnacle. Across the void we nodded at each other and exclaimed the beauty of the day. I loved being on my own, felt I was in my element, wide awake to the world, confident moving over the warm rock, in striking terrain.

Between the South Peak and the next gap, the Grand Couloir, was uncomplicated. I left the others, who were pitch climbing up the edge of the ridge, and this time followed the photo topo from the guidebook up a series of linked slabs and to the top of Single Cone. These slabs were riddled and crisscrossed with extrusions of white quartz, in beautiful profusions of patterns and wriggles, that appeared like writings, hieroglyphics, telling the stories of the mountains for those that could decipher the language of the rocks. I could only ponder the geology and appreciate the aesthetics of the figures. Run my fingers over the intricacies. Second lunch on the summit. Two other later climbers topped out on the South Peak of Double Cone. Their silhouettes against the deep blue above the horizon of the Main Divide looked stupendous. In my exuberance I felt like shouting over to them to ask their email addresses so I could send them a couple of cracking photos.

On the familiar ground of the ridge from the day before I descended. Not quite so keyed up from the unknown. The South East Gully must have been a little further along the summit ridge – I would probably need to rappel this if I climbed the traverse in winter. Back down to Lake Alta, hardy people swam in the glacial green iced water, tourists hiked up in the afternoon for sunset photos.

Notes

Scoping out the access the day before was very beneficial.

Conditions can be changeable – wind, rain, snow etc – can change the nature of the Traverse significantly.

As an Australian rockclimbing instructor I would always recommend having a rope, a buddy to hold the rope and gear for pitching.

The info and photo topos in the “Queenstown Rock, Ice and Boulders” is excellent and highly recommended. $50 for a “Grand” adventure.  From NZAC or outdoor gear shops in NZ.

Cappadocia Hiking

Cappadocia is a place of magical beauty in the arid heart of Turkey. Canyon like valleys, stone fairy chimneys and ancient dwellings carved into the rocky landscape make for a wonderful place for walking. Goreme is a fabulous base. Tourism in Turkey decreased dramatically following a major terrorist incident in Ankara in 2015 and the crackdown on the attempted coup in 2016. Personal experience over the time of the 2018 election indicated that Turkey was surprisingly calm and very well ordered. We felt quite safe travelling in Istanbul and Cappadocia. Tourists seem to be putting these places back on their lists but at the moment things seem quiet and uncrowded. Some of the walking trails are a little overgrown and decent maps are hard to come by. With advice from friendly locals and the basic maps that are freely available some great walking is achievable. Winter is cold and possibly snowy, summer is hot. There are standard day tours operated from Goreme that take in a variety of sites and include some walks – the Red, Green and Blue tours.

Rose Valley ***

One of the best walks in the area. Half a day. Can be started in two places – either from higher up the road past the Goreme Open Air Museum just past the Kaya Camp Area (see alternative below). This is about an hour’s walk from Goreme. Three paths depart here – take the left hand path then take a right turn off this after 200m and follow this steeply down into the deep valley. This narrow dirt road becomes a footpath into the canyon trail. Ancient dwellings have been carved into the soft rock, tunnels have been excavated to channel water and there is a church complex further into the canyon up on the right hand side. Apricot and grape fields give way to an opening of the lower valley as it leads to Cavusin. From here it is a short walk to the capped fairy chimneys of Pagabasi. A taxi back to Goreme can be arranged either at Pagabasi or Cavusin.

A better starting point may be from Aktepe Hill which could be accessed from Goreme by taxi.

In 2018 there were no trail side stalls on this walk.

Kiliclar Valley **

A short 2 hour walk very accessible from Goreme. A lovely walk in the late afternoon when soft evenglow will light up the fairytale landscape. Start from the top of the hill 200m up the road past the Goreme Outdoor Museum. A sign marks the start of the narrow foot trail which descends into the narrow and steep canyon. Ladders enable descent of some sections. Tunnels, cliff dwellings, amazing geological features, red crags. At the canyon opening beautiful fairy chimneys and pinnacles dot the rolling fields. A short walk back to the left over a ridge brings you back through more apricot groves to Goreme.

Ilhara Valley *

This valley runs for 14 km but arranging to do the whole walk would require being dropped off at one end and arranging a pick up at the other. The whole valley is reputed to be an excellent walk. As part of the “Green Tour” we did a 4 km section in the central most popular section. The valley was a spectacular gorge with high vertical walls, different geologically to the Goreme valleys. In the walls were churches and dwellings. Cafes and restaurants were found along the the valley floor, some with tented rooms above the river. A good path followed the full flowing river.

Note that Ihara Valley is a couple of hours drive from Goreme.

Love (White) Valley ***

Spectacular, surprising and delightful. A real highlight. 2 hrs from the bottom end to Urchisar.

This is accessed at the bottom end of the valley below Goreme by a 10 minute taxi ride or a 2 km road walk. The valley is open to start and right away almost you wander through a wonderful forest of striking stone towers. Wild flowers were abundant in late July. The formations and cliff dwellings are amazing. Walking in the top section is over undulating rocky rolling white folds of stone. You exit up left into apricot groves and then to the main road and on to the towering fortress of Urchisar with its hollowed out spires and grand 360 degree views.

From Urchisar the return from Goreme can be by taxi or a return hike down Pidgeon Valley.

Pidgeon Valley *

Take care which entry you use to access this walk if starting from Urchisar. The entry from the viewing area south of the town will give access to a valley that includes a reasonably dangerous knotted rope descent down a blank section of cliff. The valley accessed from the north of the town provides a more straightforward hiking route.

2 hrs from Urchisar to Goreme.

The cliffs are often overhung by smooth, rounded caps. The valley is dense with ancient cliff dwellings. A deep canyon is glimpsed in places. The trail is overgrown and sometimes hard to follow. The only cafe in the gorge serves great Turkish coffee. The proprietor, in 2018, said that 5 years ago there would have been 1,000 walkers each day whereas now there might be 20 – 30 at the most.

Goreme

Is a great base for walking and exploring. The morning balloons are a festival of colour – giving a magical air of old world floating flight. Through the soft light of early dawn they rise and fall among the buildings, valleys and stone towers. Sun crests a high ridge golden in the stone houses and surrounding hills. Small corner stores and a COOP supermarket stock all sorts of supplies. Restaurants are cheap and the TripAdvisor top picks are sensational (Pumpkin, Top Deck, Bubek Kebap). Carpets, ice cream, cafes, flavours, spices, lamb and veggies, aromas. Sparkling lanterns inside stone dugouts or balconies with cool evening air. The muezzin calls four times a day over the loudspeaker from the mosque. Acoustic fusion Turkish Arabic world music. Lyrical chatter of the Turkish language. The sports Club is where the local men hang out and play board games and cards and chat. It’s an international tourist village with an authentic local feel. It seems a little down at heel due to the decreased number of tourists but therein may lie some of its present charm and laid back atmosphere. Stone towers are interspersed along almost every winding street and throughout the town. Hotels and accommodation are found at every corner and dug into all the rocky slopes. It feels very organic, seeming to grow out of the hills. Pink, yellow and grey. Most establishments have large generators for when the electricity goes off. A couple of places have pools which are fabulous for cooling off in the heat.

Whirling Dervishes

We were lucky to be able to witness this in a “caravanserai” building dating back to the 12th century days of trade along the Spice Road. Four men in black cloaks with long white skirts performed while three played the haunting soundtrack. It was all very respectful, meditative and carefully choreographed. The music rose up to the high ceilinged stone church like structure from drum, windpipe and zither. They twirled faster and faster to bring heaven down to earth and to reach a state of transcendence. The practice is based on a dance formulated by Rumi. There were only 9 of us in the audience but still the performance was highly professional and complete. We were transfixed and quite carried away.

 

 

Tasman Distress

Tasman Distress

This article was published in the New Zealand Alpine Journal 2018

Hiking up the lower Tasman

Our mountain is hidden behind closer, lower peaks of the range. On the left is the Tasman Glacier, the great hulk of Mount Wakefield, then further left in the view is the Hooker Valley and the Peaks of Footstool and Sefton and high hanging glaciers. Through the large picture window of the NZAC’s homely Unwin Lodge to the right is another rage of giant hills. Hidden as well is Mt Cook, whose presence is felt everywhere.

 Malte Brun. Copious research. Maps. Training runs. Guidebook. Internet. Training hikes up hills with a weighted backpack. YouTube videos, blog sites. Lightweight gear purchases piled up at home. Aesthetic and solid red rock perched high on top of the range across the valley from Cook. An expedition certainly. From the ground up. Just hard yakka that might lead us to the prized summit. Charlie and I were to go lightweight.

 A weather window of 5 reasonable days. First steps on the dirt road to Ball shelter the pack felt heavy. I adjusted the waist strap and the chest strap and the shoulder straps for the first of a hundred times. Boots felt clunky and heavy and hot. Not certain whether the car was locked Charlie walked back to check. Everything was hot. Blue sky. Hard work. Rest. Drink. Sunscreen. Trudge. I questioned whether we needed all the stuff loaded up. Charlie’s pack looked too big. Mine just felt heavy. Hot. We took a wrong track into steep moraine then backtracked and struggled steeply uphill to a higher level. Tripped over and landed a bruised cheek. 3 hours to the shelter, 9 km. Water, shade, lunch. The first beginnings of blisters. Should we have called it early and bailed out? Together we decided to push on.

 We needed to descend 100 m down the steep moraine wall. Looking out it was entirely evident that we had embarked on a big adventure, a Big Adventure! Everywhere were off vertical cliffs of dirt and stones. This is an active geological country and erosively alive. Global warming had awakened a monster. Along the length of the wall everything was falling down. Glacial retreat has been up valley and the level of ice had gone down vertically as well. Tall cones of loose stones, dirt and boulders towered in triangles up from the base, at the ready to slide or accept a top up from above. The top edge was scalloped with collapsed sections that appeared as bites out of the earth. Our first challenge was to locate the safest recommended route down to the floor of the glacier.

 Careful perusal of the copied out text from the new guidebook kept at the Lodge. We located the recommended bite and rocky line down. Steep. Loose stones. Gravel slid ahead. Step on the rocks that seemed to be more firmly bedded into the dirt. Down. Steep. Don’t slide out. Zig zag a little. Link up through a bouldery, more stable section. To an intermediate shelf then along a remaining morsel of the old foot trail that was yet to tumble into the gulf below. On this level we gazed out with growing dread at the 5 km of rocky moraine floor that stretched seemingly forever before meeting the white ice way off up valley. It was a moonscape out there, hilled and valleyed. It conjured a scene from the approach to Mordor at the ends of the living earth guarding the fires of Mt Doom. We spied out a route through the first part with a series of go-to points – a dirty white ice cliff, a heart shaped rock then a large shadowed boulder. Down the second section. More dirt and less rocks here. Finally safely to the base.

The first steps would be just like the last across the fierce moraine. Boulders and rocks of all sizes lay in a mess of small hills and valleys interspersed with occasional steep, slippery stone covered ice slopes. Gruelling work. Many of the rocks wobbled or tipped when weighted. Our walking poles skittered and held weight in varied, random degrees. Hot. Sweat. We sat together in the vile, lifeless wilderness on the odd hot flat perch. Drink. Battle through another section. Pick an objective 50 m away and work slowly towards it. Don’t focus on the whole mountain just break it down into small achievable sections. Grinding heat. Still. Progress was very slow. Painfully slow. Literally. For hours under a baking sun. A heat wave. Dry. Parched. Hot rocks above the ice hidden far below the surface. We rationed our water. Precious sips. Sweaty sunscreen. Across the ferocious desert. After several hours of torture every ridge beckoned ahead to be the last only to disappoint like another false summit. Thinking of Frodo struggling with the weight of Middle Earth on his ring into Mordor we pushed on with packs way too heavy. Hot. Dry. Almost out of water we stopped above a large depression. The loads on our backs removed, ice slopes led us down to flowing water. Blessed relief for our thirst, iced water, relief from the heat under an overhang of hard blue ice and, most wonderfully, a large cave of ice caverned and tunnelled away, carved in sinuous flowing runnels of deep blue cold ice, which could have been inside the glacier for millenia. Like veins in the living ice. Now melting before our eyes. We were seeing into its heart, into its within, face to face with the meeting of heat and ice – it shouldn’t have been like this. Out of the brief respite we trudged on with aching feet. A small mountain of rocks promised a finish in the distance only to again deceive. Hot. Finally a narrow ridge provided a key line between crevasses in the transition zone between the bare rock plain and the retreating white ice of the glacier. 5 1/2 hours of torrid torture. This is what it had come to now. Apparently only decades ago the same journey could have been done in quick time across wide tongues of exposed ice through the rocks – relatively easy hiking. A steady stream of helicopters now carried tourists and other climbers unwilling to undergo the effort of the crossing. It is no subtle irony that the same helicopters contribute to the climate problem. We had elected to pay our dues and learn the terrain as it is now.

At last the ice highway

Walking on the smooth ice was highway like. At times we wove a path along raised lines between furrows and hollows. Small streams of melt water drained the surface and joined to form larger flows that disappeared into holes small and large. Some were filled with water and others were rushing waterfalls. We could feel it melting around us. Intense bright light. Everywhere a drink. A little further for the day.

A flat spot in amongst some boulders on the ice in the middle of the glacier made for an “expedition” style camp. A tent area was levelled with ice axes, a big table rock the kitchen bench. Right beside the tent was a small moulin which was round and a perfect size for billy dipping to collect water. Like a narrow mine shaft it disappeared into the mysterious depths of the ice. Mount Cook and the Minarets towered above. Small avalanches from perched glaciers way above broke the stillness with waterfalls a constant background. Cool katabatic breezes and strange wafts of warm air alternated from up valley. The light slowly dimmed and the full moon rose. We cooked and ate then lay down in warm bliss cocooned in down. In the darkest hours of the night doubts drifted through a period of half sleep – we were cut off by the desperate moraine from a straightforward escape, was it all too hard, were we carrying too heavy loads, would our (mine anyway) oldening body cope, had we bitten off more than we could chew, should we call it in the morning before we got ourselves even deeper in???? Some moisture seeped through the tent floor in the night and wetted part of Charlie’s sleeping bag.

Early morning clear. The weather conditions were even better than predicted from my hundred pre-trip checks. We had a window of maybe 3 1/2 more good days. All being equal this should be enough. It was why we had reorganised the trip so we could be just where we were. Muesli, tea. Charlie seemed keen to go.

Up the ice. Smooth and hard and slippery from overnight cool. Crampons. Along the floor of the valley our way was shaded and cool until the sun crested the mountains to the east. A valley opened way above the moraine wall which revealed our objective silhouetted in early morning light, still 2000m above. We made a good pace, slowed only at a bend or where the angle increased causing the ice flow to shear and crack into crevasses and compress into hillocks. Zig zag. More surface streams and creeks flowed into holes in the ice almost beckoning us to slip and slide in. The whole range felt alive with erosion and flow and occasional falls of rock and ice. Sound, movement of the breeze. Tasman seemed to have a living presence, cold and hard and aloof, strong but fragile, watching, sensing our passing maybe. Holding us to account.

Helicopters started early ferrying the tourists up from the village to walk and explore the ice, and climbers, unwilling to effort themselves, to huts and mountains that in times past had only been accessed on foot up this massive river of ice and rock. Below the Beetham valley a stream rushed steeply downslope besided by more steep moraine walls of dirt and stones. In those past times a safe route up the more stable slopes had enabled access to a high hut which was used as a base to climb the mountain or access another hut near the now disappearing Malte Brun Glacier. Now further up past the outlet stream of the Malte Brun and Turnbull Glaciers was our recommended route. From out on the ice all the possible options looked desperate, the sort of things I sometimes had nightmares about – cliffs of dirt and stone that would crumble down faster than you could climb up. Perception was foreshortened and when we actually made our way to beneath the most likely looking bouldery stream line disappearing skywards its angle was slightly less than the critical steepness between definitely unclimbable and possible. Sometimes it’s hard to judge something until you actually step onto it and engage with the parameters. Our key line up consisted of larger rocks piled together between the finer and smaller steeper walls. The rocks were mostly settled on each other in reasonable solidity enabling upward progress. Occasionally one would dislodge and tumble down a few meters to come to rest again. Many had to be gingerly weighted. Helmets on. It felt good to be scrambling, without poles in hand. The responsibility of the person higher up was to be extremely careful not to send rocks that could take out the person below, and that of the person below was to try to climb to the side of the fall line of stones from above, and to trust. In an unspoken pact of connection with one another we slowly ascended. At the first steepening the boulder line changed to dirt and loose stones. We angled across and up to another line of larger rocks. 100m. Slow. False lines led into other steepenings. 200m. Rest. Apart. Easier more secure sections then others less so. Hot. Hard work. Exhausting. Another drink. Rest again. A false top. Eventually a saddle came into view over to the right. It took an age to reach. 300m.

A little higher again we crested a ridge into the most sublime scene. A snow covered remnant of the lower Turnbull Glacier nestled under an unnamed peak of vertical red rock. A large section of ice had broken from this and floated in a small magically blue lake. The higher glacier fed a stream that rushed and tumbled noisily over large blocks of stone into the lake. Another stream flowed out of the lake and down onto lower slopes. On the higher white slopes of snow a party of two tiny climbers inched slowly upwards, 3 hours ahead of us. Other red peaks towered around the cirque and the buttresses of the summit block of Malte stood above these.

We pressed onwards in the mid-afternoon towards the upper glacier. A little higher we sat exhausted, filling water bottles. We still had two separate glacier sections, a rock step and 600m more of elevation between us and our intended bivvy spot. We weren’t going to make it in time. We had either been too slow or hadn’t allocated enough time for the approach. Our anticipated weather window didn’t have any leeway in it to allow for contingencies like this. Take any more time and we would expose ourselves to a possible huge lashing storm in a tent for several days. We had both experienced such storms in the huts nearby and vowed never to be caught out in the 100+mph winds and seeming oceans of rain and snow that fall from the sky. Together in a matter of a few minutes we called it in, made the decision and decided not to push on. Rested for a little. The year of planning and prep and training would come to nought. The dreamed of summit would not be ours to savour. Elusive. Disappointment.

Down. Descent back beside the narrow torrent to the lake shore. A single flat tent site right beside the lake. Packs off. Sat. Rested. Ate. Drank. Removed the big boots that encased tired, aching feet and a couple of blisters. Hot late afternoon sun. Snooze. Put the stove on for a brew. The tent up. Like a man cleansing his soul Charlie immersed himself completely in the ice water three times. I walked around the lake shore to the snow slope. The ice flow was close to the edge, the tent in the distance on the gravel beach, the peaks up on the left, the Tasman valley off the edge below right, and Mount Cook sitting steadfast across the void. For decades I’ve had these sorts of images in my mind’s eye and carried them close to my heart. Exhaustion melted away slowly as the beautiful reality of where we were slowly seeped in. Coffee, dinner, photos. The sun set with light blazing rays through Cook. The moon rose close to the lakeside peak. The now deeper blue of the lake reflected moon and tent light. To think of this as a consolation prize would have been a gross ingratitude. Sometimes in the natural world events conspire to deliver treasures unexpected. Like any true adventures the outcomes are often unknown. It wasn’t till later that we would consider more deeply the value of our decision making involved in turning round. Too tired to resist the call of the horizontal we were unaware of the glittering river of stars that blanketed and kept watch over our high mountain camp through the night.

Early morning, early start, a long day ahead, make the most of the cool shade. A last wistful look back at the lake. our high point and the beckoning Bonney Rib. Sometimes big undertakings take several attempts. Each experience leads to learnings that eventually build towards success. Motivation can deepen over time. Familiarity brings appreciation of the critical aspects – the effort involved, the most appropriate equipment, the lie of the land, the stages of the approach and exit, the team’s capability, the amount of time that is required and a host of other things.

Slowly, carefully we began our return down the boulder and scree line. The larger rocks felt more secure. Scrambling, down climbing. The finer stones and gravel slid out, each footstep became a dynamic movement so much easier than on the ascent. Heavy packs took muscle and balance to finesse through the more hostile steeps. Stop. Drink. Rest. We worked together with one above and below, a few smaller rocks and runs of scree tumbled down, safely. Eventually I reached the base, dumped my pack and rested. Looking up I noticed Charlie take an awkward tumble sideways. He took a long time to recover himself, straighten his load, angle legs downhill, stand and get moving again. Gingerly he continued down to rest at the glacier ice edge. I had to help him remove his pack from his right shoulder. In his fall his pack had forced his shoulder forward sharply into a rock. A torn rotator cuff was well known to him, having recovered completely from one many years prior. He was pretty sore and sure that this was another. A long rest, took stock, ate, rehydrated with cool glacial meltwater. We considered our options – using the sat phone to call in a rescue chopper, walking down the glacier to try to pick up a return chopper from the regular glacier hike tourist trips, or continue to hike out. He made the call to continue and see how it developed. We had 1 1/2 days before the forecast foul weather would envelop us.

In surprising good spirits Charlie pushed slowly down the ice. At the reduced pace and with more rest breaks than on the journey in we had time to savour more of the sculpted moulins, melt holes, stream runnels and waterfalls in the surface of the glacier.

Moulin

We rethreaded our way through the maze of mini ridges and mostly shallow crevasses. We inched our way past huge waterfall outlets to high glaciers. As his internal conditions became harder and we slowed more we started counting off talus piles at the base of mountains beside the valley to gauge our progress. Each became a mini objective to attain in the overall task. Choppers dispensed tourists nearby at the bottom of the ice. Still Charlie was firm about making his way out under his own steam. His blisters were becoming an issue as well by this stage. We drank deep and filled water bottles over lunch.

Midday. The moraine had taken us 5 1/2 hours on the way in. 1/2 an hour to climb up the moraine wall to the hut – I guessed we’d reach Ball Shelter and the safety of a straightforward hiking trail by 7pm, Charlie guessed 6.30. We made good time back through the big parallel crevasses and then stayed left following slightly easier terrain with smaller stones the average rather than the larger, more difficult balanced rocks. We almost walked at a normal pace for several short sections. Then it was back to Mordor, endless piles, up and down. Rest. Drink. Long ridges that ended in depressions, sidled along crumbling slopes, tottered from boulder to boulder, knees and feet. Heat. We sat on flat rocks together in what seemed like a lava field. The rocks had absorbed the sun and radiated heat. Hot. Dry. We later learned that in the heatwave week of 30+ degrees C days this day had been the hottest ever day recorded in nearby Queenstown (35.2 C). The valley side walled by the moraine and mountains each side created a huge oven for us to cook ourselves in. 4.30pm the hottest part of the day. I picked out an objective, a particular rock about 50m ahead, to aim for.

Charlie “Tough Guy” Freer

Then again, rest. And again through the afternoon. From the start we could see our shangri la, our objective, the grassy flat where the difficulties ended, in the distance. Charlie was struggling, pain levels at 7 – 8 out of 10, serious painkillers. Resting on a baking rock he reminded me of the story of Joe Simpson’s survival crawl, dragging his smashed leg across terrain like this in Peru. Later each ridge falsely promised to be the last before the valley side. Finally the sun went down below the mountains and we were bathed in cool. The oven door had opened. At 7.30 pm we struggled to the end of the valley floor section.

I offered to do two laps of the climb up through the moraine wall to carry mine and Charlie’s packs to the top. Charlie “Joe Simpson” Freer declined. Tired legs and sore feet. We slowly inched upward on balanced rocks and sliding gravel to the half way shelf. Then again to the top. Flat, grassy ground never seemed so sweet. 8.30 pm. Completely spent. We collapsed onto soft grass. Boots were cast off to release swollen feet. Charlie removed his socks and strapping tape. Ugly raw skinless flesh on the inside of his heels. His feat of endurance and self possession gained legendary status. Eventually we resurfaced, tented, cooked and recouperated enough to appreciate the stunning scenery from our balcony position.

Step by painful step Charlie walked out down the rocky track which became a gravel road. Sometimes we walked together and at others alone in our own worlds. Lots of rests. Relief and a hug at the Carpark. Thoughts turned to next year. Could we justify the chopper ride in and out because it is much harder now? Or is it just a different mountain now? One that maybe we are just not fast, strong or fit enough to climb unassisted?

Next day as we returned from the doctor the weather window slammed firmly shut. Wind blasted straight down the Tasman Valley. Cloud whipped across Cook and the other mountain tops. The bottom of the glacier was a maelstrom of dust and flying gravel. It felt apocalyptic. Like the mountains in a vengeful rage were showing us the end of the world.

Overnight the cyclonic storm front (Fehe) delivered massive rains across the whole country. Damage was extensive on the west coast. Many roads were cut off. A large number of vehicles were stranded overnight by flooding rivers and needed to be helicopter rescued the following day. Blizzards dumped snow higher up. A church was knocked flat by the wind.

Travel Insurance for Rockclimbing and Mountaineering – an Australian perspective

Title photo – Camp beneath Mts Whitney and Russell USA Sierras

Notes from Dec 2018

For Australian climbers heading overseas

You need to read the PDS (Product Disclosure Statement) for each travel insurance agency of interest. All agencies have this document easily downloadable.

The following has been based on my understanding of what I have researched and may be incorrect.

Communications in the field is often necessary prior to a rescue/assistance to confirm your insurer is going to foot the bill.

Generally rockclimbing and mountaineering requiring ropes and specialist equipment is above and beyond what’s included in most travel insurance policies.

Overlapping, chunking parts of the trip, doubling up – Some people may choose a combination of rescue cover from eg, Global Rescue or Ripcord and general travel insurance from a mainstream agency. The separation of these in a claim may get messy. Mostly you have to specify the whole length of a trip when purchasing a product. Take care to disclose all aspects of a trip.

Generally you require a medical certificate in the country you are claiming for in order for your insurance agency to accept a claim for medical cover.

Differences in altitude require differing levels of trekking cover.

Ian Brown – Regular Route Fairview Dome P 1

International agencies

The following is a link to an excellent overview of international travel insurance and rescue and evacuation services suitable for mountaineering and rockclimbing with a USA perspective.

https://expeditionportal.com/buyers-guide-travel-insurance-rescue-and-medical-evacuation-services/

Based on this intro/review and my own research the following seem valid points.

Global Rescue

  • Recommended/used by – Mountain Madness, American Alpine Club, Adventure Consultants
  • Combined with Signature travel insurance gives a product that includes rescue, evac, medical etc and standard travel insurance
  • For 1 year membership and Travel Insurance for a 5 week climbing trip in USA cost is approx. $650US
  • Preexisting medical conditions do not limit coverage
  • Available to Aussies
  • Some bad reviews
  • Requires two way comms – eg satellite phone

Ripcord Rescue + Travel Insurance with TravelEx

  • Recommended/used by – Adventure Consultants, IMG
  • Preexisting medical conditions not excluded
  • Comprehensive product
  • The only available option for Australians however is medical evacuation and rescue – approx. $312 per year membership – the travel insurance additional option is not available to Australians
  • Great reviews
  • Requires two way comms – eg satellite phone

Medjet Assist

  • Only covers medical transport

World Nomads

  • Activity specific
  • Limited rescue and evac capability
  • Poor reviews

American Alpine Club

  • Membership gives $10,000 cover anywhere in the world for rescue
  • Gives a discount for membership of Global Rescue

Austrian Alpine Club

  • Membership is available to anyone no matter country of citizenship/residence
  • Yearly fee approx. 50Euros
  • Rescue insurance of up to 25,000 Euros included and applies worldwide
  • Also discounts at wide range of European mountain huts
  • Rescue must approved prior to it being undertaken

BMC (British Mountaineering Club)

  • Looks to have a great policy
  • Only for residents/citizens of Britain
Ian Brown – Venusian Blind, Temple Crag, USA Sierras

Agencies with Australian retailers

Following is a good review of standard travel insurance available to Australians

https://www.choice.com.au/travel/money/travel-insurance/review-and-compare/travel-insurance

Most of these don’t cover hiking above 3,000m or rockclimbing. Some will cover hiking above 3,000m and rockclimbing if an additional “Adventure Pack” is purchased for an additional fee. None cover mountaineering using ropes and climbing equipment.

Allianz Travel Insurance available through eg, Teachers Health (available to non-members and members), Virgin Money etc includes with the additional “Adventure Pack”;

  • Hiking, trekking or tramping, peaking at altitudes from 3,000 metres up to 6,000 metres, where specialist climbing equipment is not required;
  • Outdoor rock climbing (with ropes and appropriate safety gear);
  • Abseiling
  • And lots of other adventurous things
  • Cost for 5 week USA rockclimbing trip with Comprehensive TI and Adventure Pack is approx. $720AU
  • Some good reports from Nepal with commercial activities providers.

Zoom

Seems to have a policy similar to Allianz with the Adventure Pack but at about half the price.

Insure4Less

  • Has specific policy additions for rockclimbing and mountaineering
  • Not for USA, Canada, Nepal
  • Formal link to VCC (Victorian Climbing Club)
  • Online only
Ian Brown – Charlotte Dome, USA Sierras

Other

NZAC (New Zealand Alpine Club)

  • Provides insurance for Australian members for mountaineering in NZ only for a fee

Travel Insurance with your Credit Card

If airline tickets are purchased with a credit card some credit card providers include complimentary travel insurance. This insurance is generally underwritten or arranged in conjunction with a mainstream travel insurance agency eg HSBC Platinum complimentary travel insurance is underwritten by Allianz. However policies will most likely not include mountaineering or rockclimbing and additional “Adventure Packs” are probably not available.

For this insurance you need to have available proof of air ticket purchase eg a copy of your credit card statement, to elicit acceptance by the card agency.

Take with you a contact for the insurance aspect of your credit card not just a 1800 number.

Pre-existing conditions
Many policies (read the PDS) include automatic coverage of a number of pre-existing conditions, but most of the listed conditions are useless (eg. acne!). If you have any potentially risky or expensive conditions which are not automatically covered, you should make specific enquiries about them. Many providers are quite helpful with this, and after asking a series of questions will give you a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as to whether they will cover you. Different providers might come up with different answers, even if they are selling the same base product (eg. Allianz is a common product resold by TI retailers). And subtle distinctions can be important. Case study: A traveller has a blood clotting issue and is on medication that increases bleeding risk (eg. warfarin). No policy could be found that covered for claims arising from a blood clot, or from bleeding. On enquiry, some companies said they would not pay on any claim that had ANY association with these issues. However one company said that as long as the original cause of the claim was NOT those conditions, then they would cover a claim (eg. a broken arm, that was a bit harder to treat because of more bleeding). Although this could be read as at variance with the wording of the PDS, the company would not put the clarification in writing, saying they had recorded the phone call against the quote, and that was enough. Is it? Who knows.
Evening Light, Top section of The Nose of El Capitan, USA Yosemite

Thanks to Ian Brown and Zac Zaharias for input.

Kumano Kodo

Kumano Kodo

 Nakahechi Route – a 5 day walk

 

Background and History

“Kumano is the ancient name for the southern region of the Kii Peninsula – a sacred site steeped in mystery and legend. Since ancient times this lush and rugged environment has nurtured a profound form of nature worship in which mountains, rocks, forests, trees, rivers and waterfalls are deified and revered as objects of worship. Kumano’s rich natural landscape is believed to be the otherworldly abode of the gods, and has been the focus of pilgrimage and spiritual training for centuries.” (Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Official Guide Book, 2017)

Grand shrines and sacred sites of Buddhist sanctuary and mountain ascetics are linked by a network of pilgrimage routes. Together these shrines, sites and pilgrimage routes are recognised as UNESCO World Cultural Heritage. The Kumano Kodo is “linked” to the only other UNESCO recognised pilgrimage route, the Way of St James in Spain (Camino de Santiago), enabling walkers to become “Dual Pilgrims”.

For more than a thousand years the Kumano area has been a place where Buddhism, Shinto and nature worship have been combined, adjusted and redefined – syncretised. Spirits of the dead inhabit the peaks. Pilgrims sought healing, regeneration and salvation. In this “paradise on earth” they walked to be spiritually and physically purified. In Shugendo, a combination of folk religion, shamanism, Taoism, Buddhism and Shinto, followers sought to gain supernatural powers through ascetic practices in the mountains. The early Kumano, 794 – 1185, was the golden age of pilgrimage reserved for the Imperial and aristocratic families who trekked in great assemblages. Later, 1185 – 1333, the Samurai warrior class continued the tradition and then from 1336 – 1573 came a wave of more common people. During the 17th to 19th century the Kumano became very well frequented. Under a stricter regime the Kumano fell into decline from the late 19th century. Only very recently since the 1990s have contemporary Japanese people rediscovered the pilgrimage routes and then in the last 10 years has it been opened up to westerners.

Day 1    Into the Mountains

Access was easy. Train to Kii Tanabe. The tourist info at the train station has free info booklets with maps. The bus station is right outside the station. Lots of helpful people speak English and were very friendly. An ATM is nearby and probably supermarket if required. Buses departed for Hongu stopping at Takijiri Oji every hour. The bus took 40 mins.

All accommodation and luggage transfers should be pre booked from the Kumano Kodo website which is a little complex but can be worked out and the website does everything once you learn how to use it for bookings. A booking request will take a few days to process. We had a group of 9 and some nights we had to be accommodated at different places in the same locality.

At Takijiri Oji we were met by our luggage transfer people with “welcome” signs. There is a Kumano Kodo visitor center with more booklets of maps and stamp booklets that are both free but must be requested. Water is available in the center.

The pilgrimage starts at Takijiri Oji where there is a shrine, stamp station and covered shelter.

An ascent of 300 m steep hiking took us up through beautiful forest on a path which was held together by the roots of many trees. It twisted and zig zagged and wound past rocks and mossy logs. An optional crawl through a tight rock cave added challenge. Towards the first flattening the trail followed a narrow ridge line. Stone steps and flatter open trails led us to the first lookout which revealed marvelous views of very steep hill slopes and deep valleys, all thickly forested in varied shades of dark green. The forest reminded me of ninja movies from my childhood where characters leapt backwards up into the trees from the ground and the “Twilight” films – brooding, silent, still. Small villages nestled in the valley bottoms. On the way up and across the ridge top we chattered, catching up with those in the group we knew and getting to know the others, gradually establishing and deepening the friendships with each other.

“To resolve to attain supreme enlightenment and then, to travel this distance can only be accomplished by way of our own feet.” (Kuki a.k.a. Kobo Daishi)

Further on we rested at small shrines then entered a village perched on the ridge. A special walkers’ rest area provided excellent views of distant ranges foregrounded by terraced vegetable and rice gardens. Yellow and pink and white flowers bordered a narrow road. An old man proudly showed us his beautiful bonsai trees and well-tended garden. A larger shrine had been freshly painted. Accommodation – delightful hospitality, very comfortable rooms with stunning views across the valley. Hot bath with glimpses to the distant mountains. Sumptuous food. Good company.

4km – 2pm to 4.30pm, 430m up, 200m down. Takijiri-oji – Takahara

Day 2   Bamboo and Cedar

In the morning showers swept up the deep valley to our North. Mist rose and wisped between the forest and a low layer of heavy cloud in a changing series of Japanese landscape paintings. Birdcalls, crickets, and breeze made up the soundscape. Almost alive with a watchful presence the misty mountains had stood bearing witness to our fleeting passing and even to that of the pilgrims on the Kumano Kodo from across the centuries. What changes would they endure in the future I wondered.

A rainbow coloured the ranges auspiciously as we started walking. A good omen for the day ahead. Uphill through the village. Rainfall flowed at the roadside and turned a small waterwheel. Forest. Uphill. Sunlight streamed occasionally through the canopy. Dappled light then dim as cloud and mist vapours rose through trunks. Damp. Ferny forest floor on steep slopes under tall cedar trees. A pond overhung by delicate green. Shrines, red raised mini shelters, ancient standing stones, jizos alone beside the mountain path. The narrow track was carved into steep hill sides. Beautiful light, soft, changing with the vegetation and weather. Countless thousands of trees. Eerie birdcall.

We walked, sometimes chatting, sometimes quiet and alone with our own thoughts, tuned in to the landscape, to the past, to our own inner worlds. Brightly coloured in our designer outdoor gear contrasted the greens and browns of earth and plants. Mosses covered trunks growing and rotten, delicate fungi, surprising red crabs scuttled. Rest, eat, laughed together, regained hydration lost in copious sweat. Humid. Warm. Hard work uphill.

The trail is well signposted and mapped. “Kumano Kodo” with arrows and “Not Kumano Kodo” indicated diverging ways not to go. Distances. Interpretive information signs at key points of cultural interest. We stayed in touch with a couple of other groups, Australians, an older Japanese couple, and others.

Streams flowed over smooth stones. The sound of running water. Log bridges. Another small shrine. A place to collect another stamp in my pilgrim booklet. Lunch shared, plans made for the next day as we had to split up for different accommodations. Bamboo in amongst the forest cedars. Large village, paved road, cup of tea. Then uphill on a narrow road. More uphill.

Tsugizakura-Oji shrine at the top of the hill. Magnificent cedar trees, like an ancient growing cathedral. Tori gate, stone steps led up between the giants. We are quiet and awed again by the connection of nature, spiritual pursuit, homage.

“If the surroundings are serene, the mind is clear. When the mind and its surroundings are deeply connected, morals are profoundly cultivated.” (Kuki a.k.a. Kobo Daishi)

At sunset the forested hills across the valley turned iridescent green. Our small guesthouse, Minshuku Tsugizakura, became a door opening onto the best Japanese hospitality we had experienced. Comfortable room, a very friendly older couple. It only holds 6 people and each was treated like a queen or king. The sumptuous meal was prepared by, Mr Yuba, a retired chef with 50 years Tokyo hotel experience and a passion for creating the tastiest dishes. The food was served and interpreted for us by, Christopher, a New Zealand Japanese with impeccable English and Japanese. Conversations ranged across diverse subjects adding a deeper layer to the “Masterchef” cuisine. This experience was an honour and privilege to be treated to. Bath, tired, plum wine, sleep.

13 km, 8.45 am – 4.30 pm (the walking seems to take a long time – hills, lots to investigate, millions of photos, rests, lunch, humidity, chatting). 830m up, 650m down. Takahara to Tsugizakura

Day 3  Through the Tori Gate

Breakfast was a replay of dinner with a fusion mix of Japanese-western friendly micro dishes. Bacon and eggs Japanese style, fruits and yoghurt, orange juice and then fish, tofu, pickles, salad etc. After copious thanks and smiles and gratitude for the extraordinary hospitality our hostess drove us down to the bus stop. We bussed through a short section of road walking to make a shorter day which enabled us to get to Yunomine, a famous onsen village. Much of the trail is serviced by local buses from nearby villages so the walk can be made extremely flexible based on time constraints and physical capabilities.

From Hosshinmon-oji we walked through small settlements. Fecund veggie patches and what appeared to be rows of tea hedges. Many houses fronting onto the route had quirky carved figures displayed for hikers. From a hilltop shrine we glimpsed Hongu, a final destination for the ancient pilgrims, the place of one of the primary temple complexes.

I walked alone for a little and pondered. If part of our hike, our journey was to be something of a pilgrimage on the Kumano Kodo what is it that we were trying to find? To discover? To pay homage to? To learn? To connect with? that brings a deeper meaning to our walking together. What would we “take home after internalising our experiences?” Like the lotus flower – I can grow in strength into something fine, acknowledging the darker and negative sides of myself, working thru them to seek beauty in myself, relationships and my impact on the world – perhaps to leave criticism of others behind, to make my garden more beautiful, to be careful and positive in my dealings with others. To gain a deeper awareness and understanding of the pursuit of challenge and lifefullness thru mountain asceticism and effort. To gain a more appreciation of the universality of our human seeking for deeper meaning in life connected to the cosmos.

Our “mind” is covered in the dust and dirt of our weaknesses, trauma, bad habits, cruelty etc. We need to work hard to sweep this dust away. We are connected to our physical surroundings. By “cleaning” our rooms and tidying them we create order and beauty and so do the same to ourselves. (Kuki a.k.a. Kobo Daishi)

Forest under bright sunlight contrasted the previous day’s somber mistyness. Ferns, rooted pathway, stone steps, sandstone worn from centuries of footfalls. Less humidity. A high vantage point provided distant views of a giant Tori gate in the valley below.

The famous temple of Kumano Hongu Taisha seemed to rise out of the land, made of timber with a thick thatched roof and brightly coloured wall hangings. Incense and smoke – a purification symbol. The area was busy with walkers and day trippers. We lunched in the grounds nearby, bento boxes packed with goodies and rice balls wrapped in leaves. Stamps pilgrim booklets. Left the town, exiting under the massive Tori gate, the biggest in Japan.

Up, up and up. Steep root bound steps in forest that got darker again. Mosses, ferns. A small shrine and the remains of a very old tea house – rest. More upwards effort. Then the trail showed its incredible age. It wound down a narrow ridge on a pathway that had been worn into a deep groove, steeply down, down. Crossed a stone bridge into the old onsen village. Sulphur smells of the hot mineral waters mixed with the aromas of timber. The constant sound of running water from a stream that ran through the middle of the settlement.

Onsen. Relax. Washed away the day’s sweat. Conversation in the bath about Jung’s collective consciousness connecting with the Buddhist concept of the universal consciousness or mind. Hot mineral salted water. Clean. Washed through. Another series of culinary delights at dinner seated on the floor. And later a cooler evening.

Bus from Tsugizakura to Hosshinmon-oji then walk to Hongu and on to Yunomine.  11km walk

Day 4   Over the Mountain

A short bus ride took us to the next trail head at Ukegawa.

At the start of the trail a newish sign in four languages proclaimed “Peace to the World”.

Coloured flowers in gardens. Steep uphill for 400m. Through the back yards of houses. Into the forest. The weather was clear and warming but a gentle cooling breeze blew across the hills. We made our way upwards steadily. We were getting into a rhythm with the days and the group. The forest and hills, greens and browns became like home, meditative. A time to think and reflect. A time to interchange. We rested at the remains of a tea house that had been very busy on the route during the Edo period between 600 and 848 AD. The antiquity of the path we were following added a huge depth of history to our journey. At times we walked along high, narrow ridges where the slopes on each side plummeted away. Some sections of track were carved into the steeps and very old stone walls hold it in place in others. Small wooden bridges crossed streamways. Lush ferns, moss, tangled undergrowth, open forest.

 

 

 

 

A small, solitary Jizo shrine was perched atop a pile of small stones. I felt quite affected by the script that described this. It seemed to encapsulate a key part of the rich and mythical nature of the spiritual belief of the people of the past, and perhaps the present also, that pilgrimaged along this Kumano Kodo. The lyrical description, the story, the rawness of my own mother’s recent passing, the thought of young children dying and the large pile of small stones struck a chord deep inside me.

A rare opening in the forest which coincided with a high point revealed a panorama of hills and mountains that faded from green to blue into the distance. We morning teaed and chattered and laughed together. A small Jizo watched over us. At its feet a recent hiker had laid a small bracelet as an offering that was inscribed with colourful peace signs.

At first I was dismayed at the spoiling of the sanctity of the tiny shrine but on reflection I thought of it as a form of syncretising of modern beliefs and symbolism with those of the ancients. This is exactly what had been taking place over millennia in the Kumano in the merging, blending, mixing and coming together of different forms of Buddhism, Shinto, Taoism, shamanism, folk religion and Shugendo.

Undulating terrain followed for several kilometres. We lunched on our bento boxes at a shelter on the site of another old tea house ruin. Then downhill. Past poem monuments and small shrines. I walked alone for a time with some music – a hybrid chant overlain with lilting electric guitar – that connected immediately the inner landscape with the outer world. And more steeply down. Stone steps. Smooth river rocks had been transported high onto the hill to stabilise the path and in places to form a tessellated pavement which could have proved difficult in wet conditions. For some of us with joint issues the down was much harder than the up. Eventually to the village. And the river, pristine, clear and deeper green water flowed over rocks and pebbles.

An old school had been converted cleverly to accommodate walkers in comfort at Koguchi.  We swam in the cold water in gently swirling pools below a riverside shrine. More delicious food for dinner. Plans were made for an early start to the challenging last day.

Moonlight suffused through paper screens. The flowing stream sounded outside our window. Smell of timber.

Bus from Yunomine to Ukegawa. Walk Ukegawa to Koguchi. 13km. 670m up, 690m down

Day 5  Walk

The trek over the Ogumotori-goe section is the hardest of the Nakahechi Route. A long day  ascending, traversing and descending a large mountain. Straight into mossy stone steps, up and up and up. Forest. Chat and step up a thousand times and then a break and then again. The incline was well graded, not as steep as anticipated. A boot repair with zip ties seemed to be working well. We kept to a slow and steady pace. A flat section half way up provided a little welcome relief. Maybe it was the meditative nature of repetitive movement through the forest landscape that made the actual nature of the path so interesting. Large stone pavements, smooth rocks heavily mossed at the edges of the “way”, steps edged with triangular shaped blocks, twisted cedar roots, logs that hold back erosion and my favourite a large ascending smooth slab that could have been treacherous without pegged in logs affixed horizontally. In places huge gnarled trees had grown into the side of the path and occasionally a large boulder had come to rest in the center.

At one point golden light beckoned through the trees from higher up. Under foot constantly changed and surprised.

Flat shelves had been excavated and held strong with stone retaining walls. These had become overgrown through the centuries. In ages past this area had been a small village of accommodating guest houses. I imagined the noise and activity of owners hustling pilgrims to stay in their lodgings, the smells of cooking, smoke from fires, and walkers, some struggling uphill and others in high spirits nearing the completion of their journeys with one last mountain to cross.

This steep hill known as Dogiri-zaka means “Body Breaking Slope” – an 800m climb. “Even the famous poet Fujiwa Teika (1162 – 1241) was at a loss of words after walking this section, stating in his pilgrimage diary from 1201 that, ‘This route is very rough and difficult; it is impossible to describe precisely how tough it is'”. (Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Route Maps information booklet)

I was able to feel a small connection, in my own struggles upwards, with the Shugendo who sought to gain supernatural powers through ascetic practices in the mountains. Stone poem plinths had been placed at regular intervals. I wished I could have read each inscription, the Japanese script appeared evocative and mysterious. Brendon’s altimeter GPS watch indicated earlier than expected our imminent arrival at the high point and still in good condition we made Echizen-toge Pass. Small celebrations, chocolate and a group photo.

Thankfully downwards for a short time took us to a beautiful stream. Grottos, mossy boulders, flowing water, ponds, overhanging delicate green foliage. Reflections.

According to Kuki Ietaka, chief priest of Kumano Hongu Taisha (one of the three Grand Shrines) “Kumano is a feeling, not form – a manifestation of the Divine Intangibles – a celebration of life’s powerful vitality. The value of Kumano is universal, timeless, and as relevant now as it was 1000 years ago. It is a peaceful place in nature to take a moment to reflect on, and reaffirm one’s future direction and meaning in life – a sacred space to open one’s mind, heart, soul; all of one’s senses; and let the artificial boundaries and borders of the modern world disappear – allowing us to contemplate life as one unified humanity on planet earth. The importance of a pilgrimage to Kumano is not in its completion, but rather what you take home after internalising your experiences.” (Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Official Guidebook, 2017)

Up and over an intermediate hill on the larger ridge line to the remains of an old tea house. Now there is a forestry road and in spite of guidebook exhortations that there are no facilities on this day’s walk there was a flushing toilet, shelter and a drink vending machine. The small cans of hot coffee from the machine proved very popular. Jenny shared sweet mung bean cakes carried from the day before. We undulated on the forestry road and the trail along the tops. Water flowed gently beside and over the path flagstones at times.

Like characters from Lord of The Rings we passed through the “Abode of the Dead”, “the souls of the dead gravitate to these higher mountains, where spirits inhabit this section of trail”. The forest then parted to reveal a rare view of the region ahead – the ocean, convoluted coastline, a small seaside town – our ultimate destination. Bob stood tall on a tree stump. Laura and I did ninja jumps in the trees. Our finish was in sight way below. And we all ate rice balls for lunch, again.

 

 

 

Down, down, down. Joints complained. Knees, hips, ankles. It was a long way to the base.

Eventually our journey ended at Kumano Nachi Taisha, one of three grand shrines of the Kumano. The temple complex was wonderful. Incense fragranced the air at the entrance to ancient wooden temples. A massive old-growth camphor tree, incorporated into the terraced grounds, has a narrow cleft in its base through which pilgrims can pass into rebirth. From the terraces a magnificent view of a colourful three storied pagoda shrine in the foreground and the plunging Nachi-no-Otaki falls, the highest in Japan. We stamped our pilgrim booklets and walked on tired legs to the bus stop.

Later at the coast in outdoor onsens we soaked in hot mineral water while looking out over the smooth green sea to other islands. The setting sun touched high clouds with colour. Raptors floated effortlessly over the water and a fish jumped. The natural world rolled ever onward and our “other” journey continued.

14km, 1260m up, 930m down. Koguchi – Kumano Nachi Taisha.

Totals – walking

Distance  55.4 km

Ascent     3,400 m

Descent.  2,970 m

Logistics

Bookings – for accom and luggage transfer done through Kumano Travel (see note below). The website is excellent once you have engaged with the route.

Costs – package for 5 nights accom, dinner and breakfast and some bento lunch boxes, and luggage transfer was about $700AU per person. Extras were for drinks, snacks, onsens etc.

Food – provided was very Japanese. Dinners are generally sumptuous. The occasional mini mart in villages provided more variation. Suggest you take tea and coffee and other special drinks and powdered milk if you are addicted to these otherwise plenty of green tea provided. Take a coffee mug? Bring some muesli and powdered milk if you struggle with Japanese breakfast. Suggest making use of mini marts to stock up on snacks.

Boots were found suitable

Luggage – arranged transfer worked seamlessly

Groups – don’t worry if you can’t always be accommodated in the same place as there are usually multiple places available nearby

Pace – we walked slower than on a standard hike/bushwalk because we had shorter days planned but also because we found there were lots of interesting things to investigate along the way. Also there was quite a lot of up and down.

Path – ancient and mostly well-formed but could be slippery in the wet.

Walking poles – highly recommended to have 2 in case of wet conditions and also to ease the downhills.

Water – fill up enough for each day – at least 2 litres – each morning. Vending machines for drinks also available.

Map booklets – maps should probably be printed from the Kumano Travel website before you come in case you can’t get them in Japan. They are available from Tourist office in Kii Tanabe, the Kumano Heritage Centre at Takijiri and some places along the way.

Stamp booklets – each of the special places has a very nice little unique stamp that can be collected into a Pilgrim Booklet. You have to ask at the Kumano Heritage Center at Takijiri for the Booklet.

Local buses – are accessible from many places along the route and make flexibility easy to enable changes to walk plans along the way.

Signage – is generally but not always excellent.

Local people – very friendly and helpful

Useful contacts and info

Kumano Travel – is an international award winning community-based initiative; a bilingual (Japanese and English) online reservation system for the region. Accommodation reservations, tours and activities, local guides, info, luggage shuttle, model itineraries

Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau

Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Pilgrimage Route Maps. Booklet

Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Official Guidebook 2017 – available through the website of Kumano Travel

http://www.kumano-travel.com/index/en/action_Default_Index

Island hopping the Seto Sea by bicycle – Six Bridges – Onomichi to Imabari

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Setouchi Shimanami Kaido Cycle

Island hopping the Seto Sea by cycle – Six Bridges

Onomichi to Imabari

Summary

A 2 day cycle (for us) across amazing bridges and islands in the Seto Sea. An 80 km ride along the most direct route where many interesting side trips could be made through, across and around the islands to make a cycle journey of greater length and possible challenge. Well signposted, good maps at the tourist info offices and bike hire easy to organize.

Access

Onomichi – A Shinkansen bullet train from Kyoto to Fukuyama then a local train to Onomichi. Both trains are JR (Japan Rail) lines. Tickets were purchased in Kyoto Station at the “Foreigners” (English speaking) counter – easy and helpful. The “bullet” was like a ground level airplane. Lots of trains would be available from Osaka, Shin Osaka, Hiroshima and Kansai Airport.

Imabari – also serviced by train to Fukuyama then to Osaka or to Hiroshima.

The ride

At the exit to the station at Onomichi is a small Tourist Info booth where we were directed to the Green Hotel. The Green Hotel is 150 m from the station on the waterfront. Inside the Hotel foyer we arranged luggage transfer which unexpectedly was not available to our booked accommodation half way along the route (we sent it to accommodation in Imabari at the end of the route). We packed a few items in day packs for the ride and hired bikes with front baskets to carry them. Bike hire was done in a stall in the carpark next door. General purpose bikes with 5 gears proved ok. There are plenty of bike stations along the way so worries of not carrying spare tubes and a few tools were dismissed. Maps were available in the Hotel area.A small ferry took us across to the first island nearby where we started cycling. The start of the route was a little tricky to find but there were other cyclists to follow. The main route is marked on the road with blue signs pointing the way. Much of the first day to Setoda was on back roads with little traffic and dedicated cycle trails. Highlights were riding across the long suspension bridges that connect the islands – on cycle paths a level below the car roadway or on paths separated from the traffic. Rural land, forest, beaches, industry, shipyards, villages. Convenience stores appeared regularly with shaded areas especially for cyclists. Traffic seemed to be very cycle aware and courteous. A range of people were on the ride – lycra clad racers, mountain bikers, kids, tourists on hired rattlers, hybrids, road bikes and a few tandems. No tourers with lots of gear. Being 80km long I guess many would complete the ride in a day, do an out and back or stay half way like us with minimal gear.

In all directions the Seto Sea was jade green. Steep forested islands painted themselves into this iconic Japanese landscape. Haze added an otherworldly atmosphere to the scenes.

At Ryokan Suminoe in Setoda we stumbled into old Japan. Refined and welcoming hospitality. No words of English. Paper sliding wall panel shutters. Our room overlooked a lush garden. Tatami floors. Bath with a view into the garden. Sunset over the sea. Worn wooden floors. Individual room for dining. 7 course dinner with much seafood. Breakfast of fish, rice, miso soup and coffee. A little anxious about wearing the correct slippers.

30 km from Onomichi to Setoda on Day 1.

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Another hot day. Terrific riding most of the way. Spectacular bridges that included the longest – 4.7 km. Views from high bridge vantage points of the islands and the sea. Uphills to access the bridges were long and slow but steady at well graded 3% angles but the downs were fast and easy. Navigation was straightforward right into Imabari following the blue line on the side of the road and the regular signs. “Cyclist sanctuaries” popped up just when needed for toilets, food, drinks and shady rest breaks. Much of this part of the ride route hugged the shore line with a dedicated cycle lane mostly and sometimes quiet roads.  Strong tidal currents swirled the water round the ends of islands. A steady stream of ships plied the open sea ways. Villages, small towns, forest, orange and mandarin orchards, shipping industry. Cycling the spectacular bridges was unusual and very enjoyable. Each was a different engineering feat. The infrastructure and setup for cyclists was excellent. The bikes made the trip with no hassles. At Imabari a “Giant” shop right beside the station hired out smarter bikes for the more discerning cyclist.

The whole cycle trip can be extended beyond the standard 80 km by taking on some of the more challenging routes identified or taking the extra optional sections out and around the more isolated parts of most of the islands. Cycle touring is a wonderful way to tourist a place – active, at your own pace, one of those iconic self-propelled ways to travel. You interact with the place and the people in a quiet, gentle way.

Imabari – Cyclo No Ie – small funky youth hostel style accom right near station, terrific hospitality, book ahead as its popular and cheap. Fab yakatori restaurants nearby. Trains out to Hiroshima, Osaka and beyond.

50 km from Setoda to Imabari on Day 2.

Seven Summits Australia – Mount Townsend

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Mount Townsend – Seven Summits Australia

Charlie Freer climbing peak sw of Cootapatamba Hut for the sunset

Here’s my personal best of “Seven Alpine Mainland Winter Summits” of Australia. The list is made up of the most enticing peaks for lovers of interesting winter mountain ascents. While including the highest mountains in mainland Australia a few are not in the seven highest. All have their own challenges that may include ice and snow, remoteness, changeable and extreme weather conditions. None should be underestimated, especially in winter. The idea of these “seven summits” is to focus attention on the local landscape in a way that captures the imagination and stimulates the thirst for adventure. So far in four attempts I have been successful on three of the peaks and have turned back on two.

Mount Kosciuszko     2,228m

Mount Townsend       2,209m

Mount Twynam          2,196m

Charlie Freer with Kosciuszko top left to the north

Mount Jagungal         2,061m

Mount Bogong           1,986m

Mount Feathertop      1,922m

Mount Bimberi           1,912m

Mount Townsend is off the beaten track. Further out than Kosciuszko and away from the standard Main Range crossing route it is generally more than a day trip in winter unless snow conditions and the weather is perfect. From the Eagles Nest café at the top of the main Thredbo chair lift we cross country skied up along the route of the Kosciuszko Walk. Occasional sections of the metal boardwalk were visible poking through the good snow cover. Apart from an icy breeze the weather was clear. The view from Kosciuszko Lookout at the 2km mark showed the next part of the route. Fresh powder snow made the uphills easy with our patterned ski bases gripping nicely, and the gentle downhills a dream. Sections from Etheridge Gap to Rawsons Pass were icy.

With summit fever for Mt. Townsend we bypassed Kosciuszko and traversed across its northern ridge line to Muellers Pass. The windswept ridge to the top of Muellers Peak was alternating ice and powder. I strapped my skis onto my backpack and just walked up. On the hard ice of the Main Range sometimes it’s easier to walk if you don’t have climbing skins for your skis or snowshoes. From the top of Mueller a stunning vista opened out to the north – frozen Lake Albina, Little Austria and Lady Nothcote Canyon backdropped by the spectacular Sentinel and Watsons Crags with Mount Jagungal lying distant and aloof. The traverse of Mueller felt almost like a mini mountaineering exploit with a narrow rocky ridge perched high above plummeting slopes on both sides.

We left our packs in the bowl below Townsend’s peak and skied easily up to a flat part of its eastern ridge. From here we kicked steps up the final steeps to the summit. Alone. We stood on the very edge of the Snowy Mountains. Massive wedding cake hills made up the Main Range with only Kosciuszko a little higher. Snow gave way to green forest thousands of feet below and to the west in the Geehi Valley which merged into blue range upon range down into Victoria. Dazzling light. Huge sky. Pristine white. Hardly a sign of civilisation in the enormous landscape. It was difficult to tear ourselves away. Then we thrilled in the perfect, consistent snow and telemarked back down to our packs and lunch.

On the western side of Muellers Peak and Kosciuszko is a large, gently undulating shelf that hangs high above the valleys. This is a relatively seldom visited area of delightful ski touring in good weather.

Afternoon tea on the snow couch

In the mid-afternoon we rounded the southern ridge of Kosciuszko into the headwaters of Swampy Plain River which flows out of Lake Cootapatamba.

Snowgum skeleton, windblown ice. Kosciuszko
Skiing back to the hut in the gloaming

From a peak nearby we watched the sun set behind an approaching bank of dark clouds. Cootapatamba Hut, a small survival hut, made for a comfy overnight.

 

In the middle of the night it was a better option than our snow tent as a blizzard hit.

About 10cm of snow had fallen by morning. The forecast improvement in conditions did not eventuate so we set off into the storm in limited visibility, blowing cold wind and snow showers. On a compass bearing and with snatches of clearing we climbed steeply up to North Ramshead, then down to Kosciuszko Lookout and back to the top of Thredbo.

Charlie Freer skiing up into the storm

As we descended the downhill ski runs the weather improved and the sun even came out. In 1 ½ days we had experienced all the weather of the Snowys in winter – blistering sunshine to blizzard, and the full range of snow conditions from sheet ice to brilliant dry powder.

Peter a little iced up at Kosciuszko lookout

Postscript; Several years prior I had encountered an international party of mountaineers who set off, against local advice, into a blizzard to climb Kosciuszko which was their last of the “real” Seven Summits of the world (the highest mountain on each of the seven continents). They did not make it and had had to be rescued by police and NPWS staff who put their own lives at risk. With a tight time schedule they had been turned back and flown out having failed on Kossie after summiting Everest, Denali etc.

Day 1 – approx. 18 km. Day 2 – approx. 4 km.

Mount Bogong on the far horizon beckoning next winter

http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/canberra-life/cootapatamba-hut-like-a-red-beacon-of-hope-to-climbers-seeking-shelter-20170912-gyfpdg.html

 

Kati Thanda and Beyond – A Songline Journey

Kati Thanda and Beyond

Adventure Bikes to Central Australia

A Songline Journey

 

Strzelecki Desert, Flinders Ranges, Kati Thanda/Lake Eyre, Oodnadatta Track, Painted Desert, Uluru, Kings Canyon, Mount Sonder, Alice Springs.

5,700 km         DR650 (2)    KLR 650           20 days               Self-supported

Some of the best adventure motorcycle touring in Australia

“The sky was big and empty
My chest filled to explode
I yelled my insides out at the sun
At the wide open road

It’s a wide open road
It’s a wide open road”

“Wide Open Road” The Triffids

Big sky country. Goats, Emus, a pig. Small hills and dips. 90kph – an easy slow pace while we settled in and got the feel of the heavy machines loaded with too much fuel and water and stuff. In a blur we passed a white and rainbowed piano on a rise overlooking the stretched flatness of wide open plains. For the next half hour images of Coldplay occupied my mind. The rattle I thought had been sorted back home returned.

Broken Hill to Packsaddle 225km – Day 1

Mixed dirt and bitumen to Tibooburra. Flat gibber desert. Then the granites. Supermarket, internet, last phone calls. Into Sturt National Park, the Jump Up Loop was sensational – like a wildlife park. The first soft soil on the journey had us fishtailing into small furrows. Paul parked his souped bike, like a black stallion, at a lookout over lunch. We followed the Middle Road through the guts of the park. In the western section the track crossed dune country. We learned fast how to keep momentum up, stand up and let the bikes find their way. At the top of each dune I watched out for Chris’s headlight, relieved each time that he was still upright. My own lead-up to this adventure bike trip of a lifetime had been percolating for 35 years, Chris’s for 4 months. He had bought a postie bike, became hooked and jumped into this trip, purchased a bike, learned to ride, sorted camping gear, all with a determined single-mindedness of purpose and deep desire. Here he was living his favourite song of all time.

Several groups of huge wedge tailed eagles tore at roadkill and lifted without hurry as we neared.

In the centre of a black hole where a gravitational singularity exists time and space bend and shift. Occasionally time seems to intensify and become focussed with events and action, emotions and thoughts cascade and crystalise. Riding the low dunes on the narrow winding track into the fading light of the desert I concentrated, hypervigilant, used every sense and skill – in the flow.

“I want to fly like an eagle, to the sea
Fly like an eagle
Let my spirit carry me
I want to fly (oh, yeah)
Fly right into the future

 “Fly like and Eagle” – Steve Miller Band

 330 km. 8.15am – 5.15 pm. Packsaddle to Cameron Corner – Day 2

Up early. I spent an hour and a half checking everything, tightened every nut, adjusted and lubed the chain. Found the Safari tank stabiliser bar a little loose so fixed that.

Deep into the Strzelecki Desert the parallel dunes lay across the track. Sandy rise, crest, slightly firmer descent, relax across the long flat swale, switch on and focus for the next rise. 60km in we rested. Chris (KLR 650) noticed some green fluid on his left boot. Then on the fairing. Then pooling on the sand. Ugh! *#?! Hot. Jackets off. Nothing was going to happen fast now. Tarp. Tools. Thermos. Snack. Fairing off, radiator guard off. Fluid dribbled down.

3 other bikers stopped going the other way. One had hit a sheep on their first day out of Adelaide on the way up. They had done two tyres on the Birdsville Track and another’s rear suspension had failed completely (he was still riding it). They carried a spare rear tyre. We had prepared well. Good bikes, recently fully serviced, good tyres, heavy duty tubes, lots of spares and tools. As they roared off I contemplated whether their speed had been a contributing factor.

Metal putty was kneaded firmly into the parts of the radiator we thought were the possible sources of the leak. (In retrospect we should have drained then removed the whole thing and inspected it more carefully). Satellite phone call to my mechanic at home for any more tips. We also called Kim, who had dropped out of the trip days prior to departure due to health commitments, and he searched out repairers. Chris topped up the coolant with water. We considered pushing on but then took the safer option of turning round back towards civilisation rather than getting extended into the remoteness. Back at Cameron Corner Chris made arrangements with a repairer in Broken Hill. We then pushed on towards Tibooburra in the late afternoon. Back across dunes and sandy sections. In the gloaming, the time when the sunset glow turns into evening gloom, we rode through gibber country. This was the second day we had ridden in low light animal roadkill conditions. I didn’t like it. Nerve wracking Russian Roulette. I accepted the self-proclaimed title of “old man” and just slowed right down. Once I had accepted what we were doing it felt like being a rider in the Dakar race pushing on into the darkness. Alone in the massive space. Songs drifted into my head and stuck there like earworms, giving rhythm and a soundtrack to the flow.

”Look at the sun
Falling from the sky
And the sunset\Takes my mind
Back to my homeland
Far away

It’s a story
Planted in my mind
It’s so clear
I remember
Oh my
Oh my sunset dreaming

Wo Djapana
Wo warwu
Wo rramani
Wo galanggarri”

“Sunset Dreaming” – Yothu Yindi

Cameron Corner into the Strzelecki then back to Tibooburra 290km – Day 3

On the delightful cruise back down to Broken Hill the KLR ran well with a constant temperature and a few refills. Rob, of Rob’s Dirtbike Repairs, attempted a repair over the metal putty which didn’t pass a pressure test. It seemed like we’d stumbled into a real motor biker’s fraternity of country goodwill. He phoned a client and asked if he would donate his KLR radiator to Chris if he was later given a new one fully installed. 10 minutes later the bike was dropped off and the radiator installed.

“Oh I get by with a little help from my friends
Mm gonna try with a little help from my friends”

“With a Little Help” – Lennon and McCartney

Tibooburra to Broken Hill 335km – Day 4

The retreat back to our stored car and trailer enabled us to drop off some of the stuff we had decided was unnecessary – my down jacket, Chris various items. Having lost a few days the full planned circuit ride was cut down a little. At the border on the Barrier highway three fellers on 2 KLRs and a DR who had been on the Oodnadatta Track stopped like comrades for a yarn. Springsteen, like an anthem from my youth, drove me along the blacktop into South Australia. Further down we bumped into a ducati drag racer who had driven his van all the way from WA to do a 10 second race in QLD before returning back across the country (YEEHAH was his number plate).

“In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream
At night we ride through the mansions of glory in suicide machines
Sprung from cages out on highway nine,
Chrome wheeled, fuel injected, and steppin’ out over the line
H-Oh, Baby this town rips the bones from your back
It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap
We gotta get out while we’re young
`Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run”

“Born to Run” – Bruce Springsteen

Broken Hill to Peterborough 280km – Day 5

We rode up through small country towns towards the Flinders Ranges, Orroroo, Carieton, Hawker. Song verses went round and round inside my head as the miles got eaten up. In two places old timers sauntered over for a chat, wistful and envious of our adventure, sharing some of their own past riding stories. The bikes seemed to act like a magnet for people to approach. Saltbush studded low foothills. Soldier settler homestead ruins stood forlornly at regular intervals on the dry earth.

“Round and round up and down
Through the streets of your town
Everyday I make my way
Through the streets of your town”

“Streets of your Town” – The Go Betweens

Strong sunlight reddened the high crags of Moonarie as we rode beside the Ranges and up to our camp at Wilpena Pound.

Peterborough to Wilpena Pound 200km – Day 6

The steeds remained behind while we hiked up St Mary Peak. All around the view was stupendous and the light beautiful as we ascended. Sinuous, shadowed valleys curled north into the Northern Flinders and Gammon Ranges. To the north-west lay the brown, arid, flat vastness of the dry Lake Torrens and beyond to the region we were heading for. I caught snatches of Chris and Paul talking deep philosophy. I mulled slowly over things beyond the concrete that I had experienced. From the summit the Pound was ringed by cliffs. Grass trees. Enormous space. I felt an unfolding sense of connection – adventuring into magnificent, wild places, being in touch with the spirit of the landscape. A childhood spent exploring the bush had laid down a network of neural pathways enabling me to find comfort, excitement and attachment in places of remote solitude. And a working life of regular periods of hyperawareness in natural places – being closely attuned to changing conditions, terrain, direction, the weather, has led to an intuitive knowledge and fluency. Core parts of my psyche are centred in the earth, wild places, adventure and the cosmos.

“Visionary mountains
Above and afar
Like answers to questions
On life
Love
And the longing to survive”

“Visionary Mountains” – Joan Armatrading

Late in the day I worked on my bike. Methodically. I put a rubber spacer between the tank and the frame to lift it a little. To try to remove the rattle.

“The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn’t any other test. If the machine produces tranquility it’s right. If it disturbs you it’s wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed.”  Robert M. PirsigZen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

No travel on the bike  0 km – Day 7

Overnight we reprioritised our plans for the trip – Lake Eyre, The Painted Desert, Uluru. To make up some time we departed camp as the sun rose. It seemed we had settled into a pattern of arriving late and packing up next morning in the dark. Sunlight hours were short. The back road along the Razorback was sensational riding – a narrow twisting spine backdropped by high ranges. Along the creekbed track through Brachina Gorge we travelled thru sediments and bands of rock from an array of geological time periods. Ridges and cliffs towered above. Eagles soared the thermals. Red gummed stream, pools in shining smooth water worn rock. Tricky track – stony and gravel. Weaving, winding. I gaped upwards in quick snippets through the chasm. Every bend was sided by stone hundreds of millions of years older or younger than the last. Our lifetimes are so fleeting. Concentration.

“Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
Fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way.

Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain.
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.”

“Time” – Pink Floyd

Leigh Creek, Lyndhurst, Farina, Maree. Fast smooth dirt – endless horizon. I followed the distant dust trails of the other two bikes. Paul’s bike seemed hard to slow down, airbox opened, carbie jets changed, high performance exhaust system – hard mouthed and headstrong with its big black tank full of 98 octane fuel. The view over Lake Eyre South was dramatic. Again we rode on into the sunset after a stop at some springs. Stuart had linked these springs along this same route (later the Ghan, telegraph, and Oodnadatta Track) as he white-man explored into the interior more than a century prior.  And for millennia Aboriginal people had followed their songlines that linked these water sources through the desert country. We dinnered under a huge canopy of stars. In the winter sky the “emu” lay clearly in the dark parts of the Milky Way. I thought about all the Aboriginal elders who had passed and were up there sitting by their fires along the river of stars. And my own Mum and Dad, up there somewhere too, maybe waiting by a fire, watching.

The day of adventure riding had been an absolute cracker. It had been long anticipated. Through early years of riding an old smoky Suzuki Hustler 250, a CT 90 in Africa and then a series of trail bikes and others for commuting. Through BMW dreaming I had finally settled on the DR as a simple, lightweight, reliable machine, uncomplicated. Years of poring over maps. Practice rides and camps with Kim. Rolling back decades to exploring the bush fire trails on my bicycle as a kid.

Wilpena Pound to Coward Springs  360km – Day 8

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We motored north–west on the Oodnadatta Track, past derelict railway sidings and stations of the Old Ghan Line. More dune country led us in to William Creek. On a flight over Kati Thanda/Lake Eyre Chris and Paul were gobsmacked by the “incredible natural designs in the salt visible from above” and “the vastness of it all that you could not see the end of”. Squiggly sand surfaced much of the Halligan Bay Track. Remote! Not a place for a breakdown or fall. I felt nervous and daunted. Slowed down another notch. Black hills near the lake had a Mordor appearance – desolate with nothing growing at all. A white horizon beckoned us further. The last section alongside the salt was exhilarating – smooth, fast, flat.

We walked out onto the flat, endless, white salt. Stark. Hostile. Textured. I planted my feet firmly on one of our country’s psychic/cultural/mythical centres. Sunset lit up the western sky with golden fire and the east coloured with mauve that pinked then purpled. The breeze dropped with the dusk.

Dry, empty. Quiet. Still. Waiting for a flood.

Under the stars, beside the brooding white, I wondered at the angle of the disk of stars that make up our galaxy, at the centre point and our orientation to them both.

“Stars, they come and go
They come fast or slow
They go like the last light of the sun, all in a blaze
And all you see is glory”

“Stars” – Janis Ian

Coward Springs – William Creek – Halligan Bay Kati Thanda/Lake Eyre  170km – Day 9

Venus and the moon predawned the sunrise. Grass tussocks caught early light. We returned through the mini black hills and excitedly over the sandy parts. I felt relief on regaining the main track. The ride north up the Oodnadatta Track was exhilarating – fast and smooth sections alternated with dunes and corrugations – all through magnificent landscape. Gibber, saltbush, dunes and swales. Historic Albeckunga Bridge and then coffee at the famous Pink Roadhouse.

Into the sunset yet again we rode. This time through the psychedelic hills of the Painted Desert. Colours in the earth were burnt orange and red by the fading light. Away from the glow the sky purpled.

“Purple haze all in my eyes
Don’t know if it’s day or night
You got me blowin’, blowin’ my mind
Is it tomorrow, or just the end of time?”

“Purple Haze” – Jimi Hendrix

We glimpsed homestead hospitality at Archaringa. Camp kitchen and showers.

Halligan Bay to Archaringa   350km – Day 10

A morning of bad karma started by being woken by a loud fart from the tent next door which was answered immediately by a yelp from a passing cattle dog. We had been eating a lot of beans and rice. I lost it over breakfast with the others over something minor. Then my rear tyre was flat. I had practiced for this. Had the spare tubes and tools. Had watched the youtube videos and done both tyres at home. We used a large stone as part of the stand. The wheel came off ok and eventually we managed to break the bead on the tyre. The old tube came out easily but inserting the new tube and the valve stem through the rim under the tyre proved problematic. Eventually we got it in, lubed the edge of the tyre and reset it successfully. On pumping it up I felt proud that we could fix all this ourselves – even though it was pretty much a minimum skill level for such remote travel.

Back out onto a less used track we negotiated gravel creek beds and large bull dust holes. Then like some grand American western the black stallion led us across wonderful hill country where the dusty yellow brick road changed through red to brown then back to yellow and grey and rust.

Pirsig had summed up the pleasures of riding through the landscape years before…………

“In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.
On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.” Robert M. PirsigZen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

……………..on the dirt, in the desert, miles from anywhere this is even more pronounced. To be just riding for days and weeks into the landscape was bliss.

I dropped my bike while stopping to take a photo. The other two cowboys helped lift it back up. Eventually we joined the Stuart Highway and left the dirt behind for a few days.

On the way north I started anticipating Uluru. At a roadside stop I plugged in the speaker and cranked the music.

”Standing on solid rock
Standing on sacred ground
Living o-on borrowed ti-i-i-ime
And the winds of change are blowin’ down the line
Right down the line”

“Solid Rock” – Goanna

At Kulgera we watched the State of Origin in the roadhouse pub. A few keen guys took over the closest seats to the telly and a large group of Aboriginal people chatted by a fire in a tin outside. When the game started they all trooped inside and watched and drank and socialised happily and at ease. Everyone was friendly – Queensland winning probably helped.

Arckaringa to Kulgera  350km – Day 11

On the way to Yulara we chattered with other biking groups, tourers mainly.

From an isolated lookout near Kata Juta we were immersed in the changing afternoon light between that range of rounded rocky massifs and the Rock itself. Uluru seemed to float on the horizon above the goldening spinifex. Powerful. Mesmerising. Captivating. Like a massive ship landed from outer space. Coloured layers filled the sky. “Pictures can’t capture the sublimity of it,” Paul.

Desert oaks, honey grevillea, everlasting daisies. Meditative music washed through my head and my heart overflowed in the almighty grandeur of the scene.

In the dark we rode back to our “unpowered lawn” campsite.

Kulgera to Uluru 330km – Day 12

A quiet throng surrounded us at the sunrise viewing before we walked round the path at the base of the Rock. Caves, overhangs, art sites, canyons, and some sacred places where photos and access were not allowed. Cool damp glades, flowers of all colours, hot red dirt.

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And above towered the enormous red cliff faces with giant holes and featured formations like huge mouths and waves.

 

 

 

 

 

At the Mutitjulu Waterhole the stone seemed alive, radiating its own light through the open forest above the still pond.

In the afternoon we worked on our bikes. Checked and lubed the chains, tightened all the bolts, cleaned the air filters. Two number plates had gone missing.

At sunset we entered once again into the presence of the Uluru as it glowed through changing hues. The other cultural and symbolic heart of the country.

”Black fella, white fella
It doesn’t matter, what your colour
As long as you, a true fella
As long as you, a real fella

All the people, of different races
With different lives, in different places
It doesn’t matter, what your name is
We got to have, lots of changes

We need more brothers, if we’re to make it
We need more sisters, if we’re to save it”

“Blackfella Whitefella” – Warumpi Band

Uluru – Day 13

Blacktop to Kings Canyon/Watarrka National Park. Camp on soft grass. Around some of the rim walk we followed a small group of indigenous people who were first time visitors on an outing from a community nearby. Their musical language and happy laughter filled the gullies and added a merry atmosphere to the magical landscape. Red stone domes. Sheer, colour streaked cliffs. Spinifex tussock textured hills and ridges. Cycads. At a billabong I looked deep into the cold black water and wondered at the stories the place could tell of Aboriginal people and their dispossession from places like this.

“M.m Märrma djiawurr näthinana, nambawu larrunana Guwalilnawu rirrakayunmina liyanydja milkarri, nambawu larrunana Murrurnawu

roniyirri rirrakayyu. y.a barrawajayu y.a Mutlwutjna galaniniyu”

“Wiyathul” – Dr. G Yunupingu

 Uluru to Kings Canyon/Watarrka NP  300km – Day 14

The final dirt riding for Chris and I (Paul continued round through QLD later). The Mereenie Loop. Famed as a vehicle breaker. It had been recently graded so corrugations were bearable. Soft sand was our main challenge. Lots of snaking lines. Lots of time standing up. Momentum and confidence. Chris stepped off his bike in the deepest sand after being overtaken by a car only 5 km from the bitumin. A GS 1200 rider reinforced my opinion that they were too big and heavy in the sand. Then at a lookout we met the local Ulysses Club out on a Sunday ride. We camped in the West Macdonnell Ranges on a hill overlooking the entrance to Redbank Gorge.

“Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels
I don’t know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels
I look around for the friends that I used to turn to, to pull me through
Looking into their eyes I see them running too

Running on, running on empty
Running on, running blind
Running on, running into the sun”

“Running on Empty” – Jackson Browne

Kings Canyon to Redbank Gorge  210km – Day 15

By sunrise we’d hiked up onto the ridge of Mount Sonder into a scene full of drama. Dark clouds, streams of searing first light, rainbows on distant ranges. Like being inside a von Guerard painting. At the summit a blasting cold wind cut short our viewing time of the range upon range of mountains stretching east west. Mt Zeil and Haast Bluff beckoned and planted seeds for a next trip. We hiked back down into balmy still warmth. A final dirt photo then a long ride flanked on both sides by lines of rocky hills. Gorges regularly split the West Macdonnell Range on the left. Civilisation hit with a bang. We got one of the last sites in the campground, thankfully slightly removed from the many camping school tour groups.

“It’s a beautiful day
Don’t let it get away
It’s a beautiful day”

“Beautiful Day” – U2

Redbank Gorge to Alice Springs  190km – Day 16

A day in Alice. Two bikes went to the biggest bike shop for new tyres which it turned out hadn’t been ordered (Chris and I had to make it back to Broken Hill on fairly worn knobbies) and two got serviced. Coffee shops. Read the paper. Emails and the digital world. Then a wander through the Aboriginal art galleries – colours and styles of the desert country we had journeyed through, beautiful, restful, a massage for the psyche, hybrid ancient and modern, art interpreting story and landscape. Lots of indigenous people were hanging around the town, some lost and aimless – I guessed that these were the visible folk and the others were probably busy working around town in hospitals, schools, offices or at home. We sorted things for our trips back – Chris and I on the highways back to Broken Hill and Paul pushing on through Queensland on the Plenty Highway and Birdsville Track back past Innaminka. Dinner in Bojangles.

“Out where the river broke
The blood wood and the desert oak
Holden wrecks and boiling diesels
Steam in forty five degrees

The time has come
To say fair’s fair
To pay the rent
To pay our share

The time has come
A fact’s a fact
It belongs to them
Let’s give it back

How can we dance when our earth is turning?
How do we sleep while our beds are burning?
How can we dance when our earth is turning?
How do we sleep while our beds are burning?”

“Beds are Burning” – Midnight Oil

Alice Springs  0km – Day 17

Paul, who had an extra week, headed north and then east towards Boulia while Chris and I did the blacktop, bitumen, followed the white lines. Great country but cold in the morning. Watched the miles tick over. Cold crept through invisible cracks in the clothing. Three days paying for the fabulous dirt tracks. We stopped every 50km for a break, rest from the buffeting. Sit on 95kph. My rattle still came and went. More songlines drifted through my head, some stuck fast. I planned future trips. Calculated endlessly the time left in the day, the kilometres, the roadhouses. Road trains. Caravans headed mostly north. The odd biker waved.

We stopped for fuel at Marla. While we coffeed a very young couple mooched around a little nearby. A skinny aboriginal girl and a white guy with a large tattoo. She kicked a back tyre of the white stationwagon and said to me that it looked ok and should last, wrapped a thin blanket over her tshirt and hopped in the passenger seat. He drove out. Chris and I pushed on to the Cadney Park Roadhouse and set up our tents sheltered from the biting wind behind the big camp kitchen. The stationwagon pulled in a little later then after it left the roadhouse owner and a staff person stood outside watching it depart for a while. I wondered at what had gone down. 15 minutes later it returned with one dead flat tyre being destroyed on the rim as it drove in. They came over to the camp kitchen and had a short chat – not much money, unsure what to do, did we know where there might be some old tyres? They had come down from Darwin. They were cold. I asked if they had any bedding. They wandered off. A little while later the guy came back and said he’d lost his licence and asked if I could buy him a six pack. I said I didn’t buy booze but offered to pay for them to stay in one of the dongas (cheap roadhouse rooms). They reminded me of homeless people I had worked with at home on Vinnies Night Patrol. In the middle of nowhere with a stuffed vehicle and little money there weren’t a lot of options. He brightened up with the offer and scurried off to return a few minutes later saying that his girlfriend had already paid for a room with her centerlink money. He drove the car round the back of the dongas. Through the early evening they chatted with other campers and 4WDers. The story was that they were in a car that hadn’t been used for a few years and so several of the tyres had blown on the way down and now they had run out of spares. In the middle of this a large school group set up right next to us and busied cooking and eating. By a neighbouring camper’s fire an ex NT policeman suspected the couple were running away from something or to something – he’d seen their type before. Chris and I retired to bed early. An hour later the guy asked around the tents and campers if anyone had a spare jumper. He was gone before I could wake enough to help. Through the night I slept fitfully while I schemed ways to get to Coober Pedy and have a spare tyre sent up or sort them onto a bus.

“Down city streets I would roam, I had no bed I had no home
There was nothing that I owned, used my fingers as a comb
In those days when I was young, drinking and fighting was no fun
It was daily living for me, I had no choice. It was meant to be”

“Down City Streets” – Archie Roach

Alice Springs to Cadney Park 535km – Day 18

In the morning I made up a package of warm clothes and $100 cash to leave on their doorstep to cover another night in the room. However there was no sign of them at all. And the dead car was gone too with no obvious wheel rim tracks leading back to the highway.

I suspected that someone may have contacted the authorities and they had been picked up overnight.

Disturbed I headed out onto the highway. Mist. Cold. Heated grips. We traded lead and repeated the day before. Calculated. Planned. Over a lot of miles I retraced all the parts of the trip and shuffled the memories. White lines. Hours passed slowly. Coober Pedy fuel and tea. Huge space. Flat. Further down were the dry Lake Gairdner and Island Lagoon.

“Wake me up lower the fever
Walking in a straight line
Set me on fire in the evening
Everything will be fine
Wake me up strong in the morning
Walking in a straight line
Lately I’m a desperate believer
But walking in a straight line”

“Straight Lines” – Silverchair

Cadney Park to Woomera 531km – Day 19

Woomera, cold. Every piece of clothing I owned. Wet weather gear sealed out the wind. Port Augusta. As we approached a pass through the southern Flinders a wave of cloud descended blocking all hope of a warming. Small towns. Nice coffee. Somewhere out of Yunta we rode out from under the cloud layer into the blue. Near Broken Hill the roadsides were occupied by mobs of goats which provided a final roll of the dice.

“Ventura Highway
In the sunshine
Where the days are longer
The nights are stronger
Than moonshine
You’re gonna go I know

‘Cause the free wind is blowin’ through
Your hair”

“Ventura Highway” – America

Woomera to Broken Hill  598km – Day 20

The playlist

“Wide Open Road” The Triffids

 “Fly like and Eagle” – Steve Miller Band

 “Sunset Dreaming” – Yothu Yindi

 “With a Little Help” – Lennon and McCartney

 “Born to Run” – Bruce Springsteen

 “Streets of your Town” – The Go Betweens

 “Visionary Mountains” – Joan Armatrading

 “Time” – Pink Floyd

 “Stars” – Janis Ian

 “Purple Haze” – Jimi Hendrix

 “Solid Rock” – Goanna

 “Blackfella Whitefella” – Warumpi Band

 “Wiyathul” – Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu

 “Running on Empty” – Jackson Browne

 “Beautiful Day” – U2

 “Beds are Burning” – Midnight Oil

 “Down City Streets” – Archie Roach

 “Straight Lines” – Silverchair

 “Ventura Highway” – America

52 Adventures. That's the aim. One each week. Like any real adventure the outcome is unknown. The journey, the comrades, the solitude, the challenges, the special places are what matters. And this is the record – writing, images and video. Enjoy.