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Lerderderg Gorge

13 May, 2012

Scotland was the last time that we had hiked and camped (August 2010!)  I call these overnight hikes, but when I told a workmate that we were going for an overnight hike at Easter, she asked if we walked with torches. No, we sleep in a tent at night!

Henceforth, to avoid confusion, I will be calling them n-day walks, where:

  • n = the number of days we intend to walk; and
  • n-1 = the number of nights we’ll be sleeping in tents.

Five days off in a row (both Nic and I had Tuesday off, too) meant we racked our brains for where to go, bearing in mind that almost everything we read suggested that campsites and holidays places filled up at Easter time.  Eventually, we decided on doing a three-day walk at Lerderderg Gorge, which is only 70kms or so from Melbourne.  We had recently purchased a map of the area, and identified a number of options for different circuit walks, depending upon how tough going we found it.

We packed the night before, trying all kinds of permutations to fit everything we would need into our two lighter packs (Nic’s smaller Macpac, which holds 40L and my Berghaus 30L pack).   Nic carried all the heavier stuff – tent, food, cooking equipment; while I carried the remainder – sleeping mats, sleeping bag (only 1; Nic carried the other), tarp, first aid kit.  Last time we had carried these packs was on Dartmoor and it was fairly easy to fit everything in because we were wearing our warm gear and rain gear.  These had to come along, but we were hoping they would not see much use. Thankfully, we did not have to carry too much water as the river had reasonable flow.

Day 1

Worried about holiday traffic, we kept our usual weekday alarm and were out the door  around 8am on Good Friday.  There was barely any traffic at all, and the roads – especially the Western Ring Road – were the emptiest I have ever seen them.

Our first aid kit was missing a strapping bandage, but there was nowhere open where we could buy one.  I thought one of the highway-side petrol stations might have some but the extent of their first aid selection were band-aids and hand sanitising gel.  Note to selves: do not get bitten by a snake or sprain an ankle.

We parked our car at O’Brien’s Crossing campsite, which was quite full when we arrived.  When did these people get up in the morning?  Still, the area seemed like it would be a lovely spot to camp when there are fewer people.  As we set off alongside Lerderderg River, we left most of the people behind to continue making their homes for the next few days.

The plan was to make our way alongside the river and camp when we found somewhere pleasant or got tired or both.  Unlike a lot of national and state parks in Aus, in much of Lerderderg, hikers are free to camp wherever they choose (provided they’re sensible!)

Further from the campsite, the path alongside the river was narrow, rocky and overgrown, sometimes obstructed by fallen trees or driftwood.  Much of the walking therefore involved picking our way through eucalypt scrub, with the occasional nasty spiky plant.  These seem most prolific when one is about to lose one’s footing and reaches for the nearest tree to keep one’s balance.

At about 11.30, we came across two men and a young girl resting on the path.  One of the men asked us if we knew where we were.  He looked kinda worn out.  Not entirely sure what the purpose of the question was, Nic replied, “Roughly. Do you know? Or do you want to know?”  The man wanted to know how far away was the next path that branched off from this one was.  Having not done the walk before, we did not know; although Nic could show approximately where we were on the map.  The man was out for a day-walk and trying to decide whether to turn back or keep on to the junction.  He decided to turn back as he was driving back to Melbourne that afternoon.

The other man and young girl asked if they could tag along behind us.  Sure! Why not?  Daniel and Ambrosia joined us; Ambrosia practically skipping along the path.  I could hear her impatiently behind me as I navigated a bit more carefully and slowly.  Eventually, Ambrosia overtook me and walked ahead with Nic, chattering happily away about an earlier trip she’d taken to Ethiopa and enumerating all the food she’d eaten, hotels she’d stayed in and people she’d met.  Daniel and I kept a more sedate pace, and our conversation, too, was less rambunctious.  Daniel told me he was happy that Ambrosia had someone to talk to as she could then keep walking all day, but he commiserated that Nic had to put up with Ambrosia’s yabber.  Well, when I’m not struggling with a heavy pack, I’m equally loquacious.  Nic’s used to the yabbering.

Near the junction of the Cowan Track, we paused for lunch.  Here, Daniel and  Ambrosia left us to return to the campsite.  It was lovely to have companions for a section of the walk, and such interesting ones, too, who have had plenty of adventures.

After the junction, the path petered out and the walk became a Choose Your Own Adventure along the river.  This involved a bit of pushing through scrub and driftwood, some scrambling over rocks and numerous crossings of the river as we criss-crossed back and forth to follow the river downstream.  I was pretty worn out by this stage, and slowing down even more than careful walking accounted for, so it was time to stop.  We began to understand why the recommendation was to walk downstream: all of the vegetation leaned that way (as a result of floodwaters) and pushing against it would have been a decidedly less comfortable affair.

As our energies flagged, we began to keep eyes open for a pleasant campsite, eventually settling on a flattish space, large enough for our tent, and somewhat above, but still near, the river.  It was still surprisingly warm, despite being late afternoon, so we had a splash in the river to wash away the day’s sweat and muck.  Nic got a lovely fire going on the water’s edge and I tossed in gum leaves to scent our campsite.  After dinner of pasta with TVP-mince bolognese, it began to rain lightly and sporadically.  Nic attempted to put the tarp up but a lack of useful trees, coupled by the fact that we’d forgotten to bring guy-lines, thwarted that plan.  The rain gathered momentum and we curled up inside the tent just in time to enjoy lying cosy and warm whilst lightning, thunder and rain crashed down around us.

Day 2

We woke to a dry day, though it was a little difficult getting out of our tent (the little Coleman one that we took on the Overland Track) without getting everything else wet.  There wasn’t anywhere that we had to be, so we took our time packing up and having breakfast before setting off alongside the river again.

Today’s walking was more difficult than yesterday’s.  Clearly, even fewer people get down the river much beyond the Cowan Track, which is where the most sensible day-walk circuit takes one back to O’Brien’s Crossing.  So, more shoving through scrub, scrambling over rocks and gingerly (me, only; Nic more confidently) crossing the river.  It was plenty of fun, however.

We passed a lovely campsite, with a levelled gravel patch and premade stone fire pit near one of the junctions but, being only 11am, couldn’t really justify stopping for the day.

There’s not much else to say about today – we continued picking our way along the river and it continued to be fun.  We had a number of choices of how to get back out again and decided to take the Hogan Track back out to O’Briens Road.  This track was described as merely “Steep”, rather than “Very Steep” (as all the others were) and it looked like we’d have a pretty straightforward trek back to the car for tomorrow.

We camped therefore at Ah Kow Mine and here encountered our only other person for the day. A fellow hiker came up to the campsite and we had a brief chat. He was walking the length of the gorge from O’Brien’s Crossing to Mackenzie’s Flat. We’d contemplated this but, being a linear walk it required a car shuffle or some kind of organisation that was beyond our organisational capacity. He wanted to get further that day, so he continued on. We did finish a bit early – only about 3pm today – but heading any further down the gorge would have meant backtracking the following day.

Ah Kow Mine was the site of a group of early Chinese-Australian settlers, who sought their fortunes in this area.  The campsite was where their hut and vegetable garden had been.  How on earth they managed to grow vegetable in the tough earth, I know not.  There were plenty of deep holes in the ground as evidence of their diggings.  I hope they got something for their trouble;  I can only imagine the difficulties and loneliness of a place like this to make a living.  The solitude and untamed beauty is what we seek, but we seek it as leisure, not to make our living from it.

Nic got another wonderful blazing fire going and I cooked up a way too salty quinoa stew of sorts. My hiking dinner cooking abilities seem to have deserted me (last night’s pasta was rather bland)! The evening was spent poking and prodding the fire. I think I know how people used to keep themselves entertained before the advent of television.

Day 3

Today, we left the river.  It was a steep climb, straight up the side of the gorge, to connect to a forest management track – Hogan’s Track.  This climb was probably the most interesting part of today’s walk.  We paused near the top to enjoy our last views of the gorge and eat some muesli bars before heading on Hogan Track, which was easy, if a bit boring, walking.  There was nevertheless still a fair amount of climbing, and descending, and climbing again, but without any benefit of views at the top or rivers at the bottom.  It just seemed like they made that management track as direct as the could, cutting straight across all those pesky hills.  Guess it’s fine if you’re in a 4WD.

The track connected to a road and it was, again, fairly boring walking for a rather long time.  Only a very few cars passed us, and all of them courteously, slowing down sufficiently so as not to kick up too much dust. As we neared the end, a short cut track allowed us to skip a portion of the road as it took some hair pin turns up a hill and then back down into the gorge, and was a much more pleasant way to end the walk.  Back at our car, we discovered a nearly empty campsite, two-thirds of the people having unaccountably cleared out despite it only being Easter Sunday.

I’d thrown our flip flops into the car, so off came our hiking shoes, giving our feet a bit of blessed respite from hiking shoes, and into the car we hopped for the short drive back to Melbourne.  We’re rather pleased to discover somewhere this wild so close to Melbourne (shhh!)  The rest of the Easter long weekend we spent eating, and reading on the sofa!

We’re looking forward to heading back in to explore the southern half of the gorge someday — an advantage of not walking it all it once!

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Wineglass Bay & Freycinet NP, Tasmania

15 April, 2012

We spent a wonderful five days at Edge of the Bay Resort, near Freycinet National Park in Tasmania, with Helen, Tony & Claire.  It was a very relaxing five days, spent walking, cycling, reading, cooking and, of course, eating. Barring the first day, we had magnificent, warm, sunny and clear weather!

Edge of the Bay Resort, Cottage # 7's living room and view

Edge of the Bay Resort's beach

We chose the only evening that it rained to have a BBQ!

Together we all walked up to Wineglass Bay lookout, down to Wineglass Bay beach, along the Isthmus track over to Hazards Beach and then back to the carpark near Wineglass Bay lookout – a 10km fairly easy circuit walk.

Walking along Hazards Beach

The following day, we borrowed bikes from the resort and had a little ride around the townships near Coles Bay.

Dead end down a hill? No, thanks! We can see the view from here.

For Helen’s milestone birthday,  we had dinner at Freycinet Lodge’s restaurant.  Although all our meals were spectacular, I only took photos of the butter.  It was very impressive butter …

Butter balls!

Helen, Claire, Nic and I ascended Mt Amos, described as a “steep and strenuous” hike, not to be undertaken during wet conditions.  Luckily, it was a baking hot day.  The walk certainly was steep and strenuous; the steep bit starting about 1km into the walk and from there was pretty much straight up huge granite boulders.  Helen and Claire paused about halfway up, while Nic and I continued clambering to the magnificent summit, where we had 360 degree views of the bay.  It was just as hairy coming back down again, involving lots of crab-like scuttling.

Pausing, on the way up to Mt Amos.

Oanh scrambling up Mt Amos.

Freycinet Peninsula from Mt Amos

We also drove up a steep and winding road to visit Tourville Lighthouse.  Well, the lighthouse was not really the attraction – the views from the lighthouse surrounds were!

Freycinet NP from Tourville lighthouse

Another treat (thanks Tony!) was going on a cruise of Wineglass Bay.  By this stage, it was seeming to be a trip during which we would attempt to view Wineglass Bay from every possible angle.  I don’t think any of us, however, got sick of seeing it, nor did we cease to marvel.  We failed, however, to see any dolphins during the cruise, and only caught the flipper of a sea lion (the tour guide – Dan – informed us that they hold their flippers in the air as a cooling device).

Slant of Land.

Exactly like a bunch of shags on a rock.

(All the rest of the photos,here.)

Macedon Ranges

24 October, 2011

by Oanh

The next week, we took on a more ambitious walk: The Macedon Ranges Walking Trail, which is a 20km path taking in all the highlights of Macedon Ranges park, including three peaks, Mt Macedon, the Camel’s Hump and Mt Towrong.

The walk started from the township of Mt Macedon (not to be mistaken with the township of Macedon), where our instructions were to leave our car outside the Mountain Inn, now sadly closed.  It did look like it was undergoing renovations, so hopefully there will be a place to pop into post walk.  After a short walk along the road, admiring the large houses with rather English gardens (oaks and bluebells!), we entered the park itself and started climbing, quite steeply, almost straight up to the top.  Many people were coming down while we were going up, so there were plenty of opportunities to rest as we stepped aside to let them past on the “one person at a time only” path.  The side of the hill was fairly well covered in spindly snow gums, the hill being just high enough (1,000m) for them to flourish.  There were also plenty of very prehistoric-looking ferns in amongst all the gums and, rather surprisingly, lots of bright blue forget-me-nots.  I think they’re an invader, but at least they don’t smell as terrible as lantana!

At the top, we joined up with a paved path to the memorial cross that marks the top of Mt Macedon.  Near here there is a car park and a tea room as the road actually goes all the way to the summit, so it was kind of strange to emerge huffing and puffing with our back packs to find people in brogues or high heels walking about.  Probably they thought we were a bit strange too.

At the cross, it started to drizzle.  Supposedly, one gets a view all the way to Port Philip Bay and Melbourne from the cross but we were not to be favoured with such delights.  We pretended to admire the view for a bit and then continued on our walk, stopping into another lookout about 500m from the cross, where we saw a flame robin and learned from a plaque that Mt Macedon, the ranges and some of the area was named for Philip of Macedon (Alexander the Great’s father and in my version of Ancient History a much more impressive character than Al) by Matthew Flinders.  I mean, I should have realised but it nevertheless came as a surprise.

Once past the tea room, we returned to spindly gum forests, where the walk took us past a few signs to picnic grounds and then through a large one, with barbecue spots.  Noted: place to take visitors!  From here, we descended ever so slightly to then climb to the highest point of the walk: The Camel’s Hump.  We passed through another carpark, before turning onto a steep gravelled path heading straight up.  Shortly before the summit there was a sign: to the left – Dangerous Cliff Edge; straight ahead: Summit Viewing Platform.  Now, I would have blithely kept on straight ahead had it not been for that sign, so we set off left to explore the Dangerous Cliff Edge.

A short stroll brought us to some big rocks messily lumped together and a view towards farmland and Hanging Rock.  The rocks in the Macedon Ranges are of the same stuff as Hanging Rock (formed by volcanic action a really, really long time ago).  We’ll get to Hanging Rock one of these days, maybe even have a picnic there.  I promise not to disappear.

Our bellies suggested this might be a perfect place for lunch, so we found a comfortable rock.  The sun stayed out but, oddly, it started to hail.  Teeny tiny hail stones pinged off the rocks and our lunch.  It quickly passed (that is, before we’d even finished our sandwiches).

From the Camel's Hump.

Snow Gums on the Camel's Hump.

Shortly after lunch, we had a minor mishap.  I announced that I was going to explore, “over that way,” which Nic mistook as a euphemism for something else.  When I returned from my exploration, Nic was nowhere in sight and I called his name a few times but got no answer.  Allegedly, he did answer but I just didn’t hear him.  I then struck off back to the main path, thinking he’d headed off to the summit viewing platform, while he watched me disappear up the path in the distance, ignoring his responses.  When I got to the summit, Nic wasn’t there so I turned around and headed back to our lunch spot.  Thankfully, Nic was just then walking to the summit himself.

From the Camel’s Hump, we retraced our steps down the steep hill towards Sanatorium Lake.  Amusingly, right after Nic announced, “This path is very well signposted,” we spent a few frustrating minutes trying to find where the path restarted after we’d been ejected into another large, lovely barbecue spot.  Sanatorium Lake was tiny.  We circled it, as the walk notes suggested we should.  Nic made some of his well-loved reflection photos and we continued on towards the Zig-Zag path which was true to its name but not as exciting as I had hoped.  It was only a series of hairpin turns and the path was wide enough for a car, and obviously used by trail bikers and horse-riders (signs told us so and the same signs told us the path was closed.  I don’t think it meant for walkers.)

Reflections of snow gums in Sanatorium Lake.

Our final hill for the day was Mt Towrong, which Nic, to deflect any hopes I might have of a view informed me was on an entirely wooded hill.  There wasn’t much of a climb to it as the walk had been mostly downhill after the Camel’s Hump.  Shortly before Mt Towrong, however, we spotted this weird creature:

Bright Yellow Worm, Possibly a turbellarian. I'm sure this colour isn't good for long term survival.

The summit was a rock cairn, indeed surrounded by view-blocking trees.  But the descent was wonderful: it was steep, exposed and had great views down to Mt Macedon township and across the valley to the memorial cross, marking where we had walked from.  I always love seeing how far I’ve walked.

But best of all, as last week, we caught sight of an echidna on the steep side of Mt Towrong, busily hunting out ants.  They’re usually such elusive creatures, it was a real treat to see another up close.

Echidna does "Salute the Sun".

After that, it was a fairly boring walk along the road, back to our car.  We passed some more grand houses and rather a lot of “For Sale” signs, leaving me to muse about how I would go with the commute into Melbourne if we lived out here…  I mean, it’s only an hour and a half by car.  And there’s even a train. Imagine all the books I could read on the commute!

Bushwalking

24 October, 2011

by Oanh

Now we’ve settled into our flat in Melbourne, collected the boxes that were not destroyed by the floods from my parents’ garage, married our Brisbane stuff with our UK stuff, and have furniture and the other accoutrements of a non-bicycle-touring life, we’ve started adventuring outside Melbourne’s city limits to take walking trips.  It helps that we have a car (came with my new job!)

We’re still a little ambivalent about what we do with this blog.  But maybe you’ll enjoy reading about our adventures in Australia?

Our first bushwalk was on Grand Final weekend at a park remarkably near our home: Organ Pipes National Park.  It was tiny and there wasn’t much by way of walking to be had, but it was just nice to be out, among the gum trees.  We’ve not touched the camera much since getting back and, although we planned to take a camera with us, somehow managed to leave it on the dining table at home.  There were plenty of lovely blue Superb Fairy Wrens, which would have been extremely difficult to make a photo of, so I’m glad we couldn’t even try.

Our next bushwalk was in Brisbane Ranges National Park, following the Boar Gully circuit.  After a short drive on the freeway and then a longer drive on some gravel roads, we reached Boar Gully campsite, where we parked the car and took note: it will make a pleasant weekend camp sometime.  A guidebook – Daywalks Victoria by John Chapman and others – provided us with map and walk notes.

It’s rather strange to walk without wonderful 1:25,000 Ordnance Survey maps, marking the location of every rock cairn and post box.  But I guess Australia is much, much bigger than the UK.  I plan to commission the OS folks to map bits of Australia that I want to walk, just as soon as I’m a millionaire.

In the more popular parks, Australian walking paths are fairly easy to spot and often well-marked.  We followed the walk notes without too much difficulty, and our walk mostly followed what seemed to be a fire-break trail, criss-crossing wider park management routes.  The walk was fairly level except for one steep descent down to the gully and then back up the other side again.

We chose this walk mostly because it was reputed to have lots of lovely wildflowers and we spotted quite a few orchids and lilies, as well as some daisy-like flowers and lots and lots of gorse-like flowers (called bush pea flowers, usually, telling you what their shape is like). There were also heaps of grass trees, probably more than I’ve seen anywhere, except for out west past Mitchell way.

White Finger Orchid

Punk!

It’s interesting being back in the colours of Australian bush – that dull grey-green – and things like yellow, blue and pink flowers really jumped out.

We also spotted lots of little birds, which might have been pardalotes.  This time, we had our camera and I took plenty of flower photos.  Pardalotes (if that’s what they were) are tiny birds, about the size of a thumb.  Accordingly, they move ridiculously fast and they never stay in one spot for more than a second.  I don’t think I even managed to have the camera out any time we spotted one.

Lastly, and most wonderfully, we spotted an echidna.  We happened to be downwind of him (or her?) when we saw him snuffling in the undergrowth and got to watch for a while as he busied himself with finding ants.

"I'm going on an ant hunt..."

"I'm gonna get some big ones..."

Climbing Mount Kinabalu

27 September, 2010

We did this walk in January 2007, when we moved from Australia to the UK. We don’t have any pictures from this trip and I thought it would help me remember the walk if I wrote a report. Also, I am procrastinating.

It’s funny to think on now but Kinabalu was only my second overseas trip. My first trip was to Viet Nam and, in some ways, “didn’t count” because it was with my sisters and my parents, because we were staying in 4/5 star hotels (except when we stayed with family and, oh!, the contrast). It was to a culture with which I was reasonably comfortable that I could navigate. Sabah, Malaysia, on the other hand, was what I would deem as my first, real, overseas trip.

When we landed – after transiting through Brunei’s Bandar Seri Begawan airport, strange but peaceful and spacious – I realised: I had not even bothered to learn the words for hello, goodbye, please and thank you. I’d never been to a country where I did not speak the language before – sure, in Viet Nam, I did not speak the language well, but I could communicate reasonably well even if the people I spoke to fell about in peals of laughter whenever sounds emerged or because I’d used an old-fashioned word, a slightly off-kilter way of saying something. But suddenly, in the humidity of Kota Kinabalu and as we checked into our hostel, I realised: I did not know how to say thank you. And throughout our few days in KK, I never learned because almost everyone spoke English beautifully.

The main purpose of our trip to Sabah was to climb Mount Kinabalu, South-East Asia’s highest peak (4,095 metres). We had one afternoon in KK before we were to be taken up to Mount Kinabalu National Park. Everything had been pre-arranged for us, including transfers, accommodation and meals. This was a strange thing, used as we were to organising ourselves, but it was deliberate and welcome: we’d spent the previous month organising our move from Australia to the UK, and this was a (capital “h”) Holiday.

A small 4WD took us, and only us, from the airport to the hostel, through streets reminiscent of Bangkok, but with more grit, less neon. There was a strong scent everywhere, that never went away the entire time we were there, of dirty oil, mixed in with the smell of wet foliage. It rained, and rained, and rained. But the rain was a welcome distraction from the heat and umbrellas were unnecessary and useless. We just got wet, and quickly dried off when the rain ceased and got wet again when the rain started again. Lots of men went about with hankerchiefs on their head as sole protection against the rain, or as a means of cooling off; I never could work out which.

Our hostel was on the outskirts of the town centre, down the end where there were lots of big bank buildings. It appeared, like many business districts, desolate on a weekend evening but when we saw it (a few days later) during a week day, it was buzzing with everyday working life. That evening, we wandered all around the town centre, looking for somewhere to eat dinner, and getting to grips with the town. We walked through obvious ethnic streets – the Indian quarter, the Chinese quarter, the Malay quarter – and marvelled at the variety and overall harmony of the multi-ethnic, multi-religious community. We found a market selling souvenirs and another market selling fruit. We crossed huge roads, using excellent pedestrian overpasses, and found ourselves meandering around a car park until we emerged on the other side to find clean, groomed and brightly lit Tourist Restaurants. This patch was full of white faces, laughing people and myriad languages. The tables and chairs were made of wood (elsewhere they were plastic) and the restaurants were your usual array of chains: McDonalds, Starbucks, an Irish pub and, for the first (but not last) time in my life, a Walkabout pub. The Walkabout pub brought me up short and I stared. Nic, more well-travelled than me, explained: they’re everywhere and serve hot chips in a billy tin. I laughed but we did not go in.

I think we chose one of the random restaurants along this stretch and had an okay, if somewhat overpriced, meal of seafood and rice. We would have returned to the plastic-decor restaurants except that they were all on the other side of that huge car park and wide road, and we were tired and hungry.

On our return walk to the hostel, we encountered a fair in another car park, and I ducked into a public toilet to be astounded that the attendant was about 10 years old. I handed over my 20 ringgit cents (i.e., practically nothing) while Nic loitered outside, taking in the neon. The streets were reasonably lively at night and we found another shopping market before stumbling back to the hostel and into bed.

The next morning we breakfasted in the hostel. It was a random breakfast of fruit, bread and jam and not our usual hearty muesli. Still, it was sufficient and we were collected at 9am by our tour guide – Kelvin – and a driver. I don’t remember Kelvin doing much tour guiding. He just sat in the car with us and answered questions when we asked them (What is that farm growing? Palm trees for palm oil. What is that strange smell? Durian. No, not the smell of durian. I know the smell of durian. What is *that smell*? Um, not sure. Palm oil?) We chatted and it was pleasant. During our ride, we stopped at a small market, at which I spotted tiny sugar bananas (my favourite!), so purchased a hand. We probably disappointed Kelvin and our driver by showing little interest in the knick-knacks and tourist tat, and mostly hanging around our vehicle, waiting until it departed again.

When we arrived at the national park headquarters – from where we were to start our walk the following day – there was chaos at reception. We were told something incomprehensible about electricity and rooms and unavailability and asked if we would be prepared to lodge elsewhere – a half hour drive away – at no cost to us. We did not give a straight answer because we did not quite understand what was being asked of us. They said things might resolve after lunch, so we went and had lunch and then a tour of the gardens. I think we were taken on the Silau Silau trail but I must say, I was terribly confused at this stage by what was happening, by being herded from one place to another, and by food that I had not ordered being brought out to me, and so cannot be sure what trail we were actually on.

It was raining torrents as we meandered around the national park, with a family with two young girls, slipping and sliding in the yellow mud, their father asking numerous questions of the guide. I don’t remember much from this walk except that, at the end of it, I realised our camera was drenched and had been sitting in the pool of water that gathered inside the bag. Camera = kaput. I was sad, but philosophical.

When we returned to the hotel reception, we agreed to move elsewhere as, whatever the problem was, it was still not resolved. We were put into a car and driven 30 minutes away, through glorious, dripping wet rainforest, and arrived at Mesilau Nature Resort. Mesilau was entirely different from Park Headquarters. For starters, there was absolutely no one except resort staff about. We followed a porter to our rooms but the porter was somewhat flabbergasted to find that we had no luggage – we’d stored our rucksacks at the hostel in KK and had only a small day pack each for our walk up Mt Kinabalu. We wended our way along a tree-lined path to a small bungalow and entered a heavily air-conditioned room. It was perfectly nice and clean. We were too close to the mountain to see it and there was too much rain. But we could certainly see something. And it was big.

At dinner, there were only a one or two other occupied tables in a restaurant built to take hundreds. There was a strange eeriness to the entire place, so quiet and so deserted. After dinner we meandered around the resort grounds for a bit, startling some birds but finding no other people. We returned to our little bungalow room and slept soundly.

The next morning, we returned to the restaurant for breakfast where I nervously awaited our ride back to Park Headquarters to start our walk. After a short ride, we arrived back at busy, crowded and confusing Park Headquarters. Before we could steel ourselves to enter the fray and work out what we had to do, a man emerged from the mess of people and walked straight up to us saying, “Mr Nicholas?” This was Petra, our guide. He explained that he had completed our registration and handed us our identification tags. Off we set, leaving behind the melee of people.

Petra spoke some English and we spoke no Malay, so we communicated only a little. We told him a bit of our past walking experience and he nodded. He calmly led the way along an initially quite wide path, past a waterfall and then steps and more steps up and up and up. Initially the steps were cut into ground in reasonably well spaced, wide planks but these soon degenerated to little more than worn tree roots and rocks. The path was pretty much entirely up, rather than the more usual up a bit, level out, down a bit, up a lot, level out etc of most mountain walks. Nevertheless we trudged on through rainforest and it really was raining. Nic and I pulled out our waterproofs and sweated inside them as we ascended. Petra pulled out an umbrella. I looked down at his feet and noted that he was wearing simple trainers without socks, while we had rugged ankle high hiking boots. He sauntered ahead of us, pausing to check that we were still with him, while we trudged along behind. Noting our discomfit inside our raincoats, Petra demonstrated how we could wear our raincoats with the hoods perched on our heads and the sleeves dangling, like a cape.

Every now and then, he would stop and gesture for us to step aside, which we obediently did. We watched as agile men and women carrying rucksack sized loads of tiles and other building materials climbed the same path with ease. Some would share a few words with Petra, some a longer conversation. Whenever that happened, Petra would gesture for us to keep on, which we did, and he soon caught up with us.

At our lunch stop, we paused where a large group of walkers lounged around on the simple shelters that dotted the path. None of this group seemed to have packs at all, while we were each carrying a small daypack. Room was made for us and we ate our pre-packed lunch of fried chicken wings, a sandwich and a banana. Petra chivvied us along and we departed from the group, having exchanged only brief pleasantries. They all seemed a lot more exhausted than us. Up ahead, I saw a porter labouring under a multitude of brightly coloured packs bound together with fraying rope. He was the only porter whom we passed; all the others passed us.

At one rest stop, a little red squirrel-like creature darted around us and I asked Petra what it was. After giving me a quick glance to see, perhaps, if I was joking, he replied “a rat,” to which I laughed. Later, he pointed out pitcher plants to us, miming that these ate insects and spiders. This I knew already but was delighted to see them in their natural habitat. I, later, pointed out a huge one to Petra and he nodded with pleasure.

Pitcher Plant, taken at Kinabalu by Cain Doherty.

In the afternoon, as we got higher, I struggled much more with the thinning air and we stopped more frequently to rest. As I felt the onslaught of a headache, I took out some paracetamol tablets and swallowed them without water. Petra gestured to ask me what I had taken and I explained I had a headache. He gave me a worried look and offered me chocolate. I declined his but remembered my own and pulled that out to eat, offering him some in return, which he in turn declined. It was a strange little game we played. As we got closer to Laban Rata hut, our accommodation for the evening, Petra encouraged me with, “Not far, not far; chocolate, chocolate,” and I took a few deep, painful breaths and carried on. Laban Rata hut is at 3,270 metres and the air is thin.

Laban Rata hut by ynwa2005.

A few smaller groups passed us as we neared Laban Rata. When we arrived, there were only about 4 or 5 other people there and we drooped, exhausted, onto simple chairs in the dining room. Petra went off to check us in and then took us up to our own private room and told us that he would brief us at 7pm about the walk to the summit. He then disappeared for the rest of the evening, although we saw him laughing and smoking with porters during our postprandial stroll around the grounds of the hut. Over the course of the evening, other groups arrived and the hut filled up. We had dinner of mediocre burger and chips and, after the aforementioned stroll, went quickly to our room, which we were delighted to discover was an en-suite.  Petra didn’t appear for our 7pm briefing, but we were oddly unconcerned, and resolved to rise at 2am, our pre-arranged time to depart for the summit.

Others in the hut shared a bathroom which was, unfortunately, on the other side of our wall. Behind the other wall, was the men’s dormitory and all night, our sleep was disturbed by their comings and goings. At one stage, in the deep of night, someone banged loudly on our door, shouting something. I got out of bed to answer it, angry – very angry – at the disturbance. When I opened the door, I saw a man disappear into the dormitory next door and realised he’d mistaken our door for his. I was terribly tempted to go bang on his door and demand an apology but instead fumed my way back to bed, where I slept surprisingly solidly until woken by Nic at 2am. We dressed warmly and went downstairs to find Petra, who had fallen asleep and missed the briefing, waiting for us.  He apologised profusely and, after a quick meal, we all set off into the cold night air.

Once again, our gear was over the top in comparison to Petra’s. We each had Kathmandu fleeces and Mountain Design mountaineering gloves. My gloves’ palm, thumb and finger pads had large plastic grip sheets, which looked like a gorilla’s palm. They were technical, ice-climbing gloves and definitely overkill but were the only small sized waterproof gloves in the outdoor store in Brisbane. Petra wore a cotton hoody and some ratty woollen gloves. I held my gorilla mitts up for him to look at and we both laughed at the ridiculousness of it. I kept them on, however, because it was cold. We did all, however, have headtorches, shining like miner’s lamps from our foreheads.

Overnight, we had acclimatised to the altitude and progressed steadily towards the summit, barely seeing much beyond the pool of orange light cast by our torches. The beginning involved many stairs and some ladders, and we shuffled along slowly. Even so, we encountered our first group of other walkers and after some calling out from Petra, and response from that group’s guide, the entire group paused and stepped aside to let us past. I was intent on just walking and breathing and barely noted this extraordinary turn of events. I was also obedient, so when Petra said, “Come! Come”, I just went, went, head down, past the other walkers whom I, at the time, thought were pausing for a rest break.

Whenever we stopped because I was struggling – and I was struggling: every breath was an ordeal, every step took effort – Petra would encourage me with, “Chocolate! Eat chocolate!” and so I gobbled a small piece, offered a piece to him (which he refused) and to Nic (who accepted) and continued, slow, inching steps ever closer towards the summit, which we began to see as the sky lightened.

After the series of stairs and ladders, we emerged onto a granite slab and part of the route involved grabbing a rope and hauling ourselves up. At one of these, I paused and took a deep breath to ensure I had enough oomph to get myself up. I found myself, however, practically vaulting up the rockface; Petra had pushed me from behind.

We passed a few more, smaller groups of walkers and at each bottle neck, Petra would call out to the other guides, who would call their group to a halt.  They would step aside, looking happy to rest, and watch us shuffle past. I only cottoned onto this at the last occassion and, though grateful to Petra, felt bad for the groups we had passed. At one stop, however, I understood Petra’s urgency for us. He was watching behind him, nervously, and we could see the twinkle of lights, like a highway of cars, inching towards us, “Move, move. You strong, you go up first. Come! Come! Chocolate!” And with that, we kept on, “Chocolate” being our rallying cry to be first up the mountain that morning.

And we were. We had the summit of rock scree and a few battered signs and flags to ourselves for a good ten minutes or so. There was, however, no view; although the sun was just rising, the clouds had rolled in. As Nic and I sat on the summit, Petra gestured that he would take a photograph of us on the summit. I looked down in surprise at the camera bag that I had uselessly carried all the way up this mountain and shook my head at Petra, too exhausted to explain that it did not work and absolutely discombobulated by my own stupidity. Petra gave us one of his long looks, and I just knew he was thinking, “These two really are very strange,” but he let us be. After a while, the next few groups reached the summit too and it began to get crowded, so we shifted away from the crowning glory of this walk and began the long descent back to park headquarters.

Approaching Mt Kinabalu Summit (Low's Peak) by myzulkefli.

The sky was magnificent as we descended, with the views opening up as we dropped back below the cloud line. The granite slab that I had so laboured on the way up was an easy stroll. As it grew lighter, we could discern the texture of Mount Kinabalu: strange smooth plateaus and spires of grey granite. With the increasing oxygen of each downward step and the jubilation of the views, we practically skipped down the mountain to Laban Rata hut, where we had a second, greasy breakfast, before retracing our walk of the day before.

Whereas we had gone up, up and unrelentingly up, we were now going down, down, joint-jarringly down. The descent was just as hard as the ascent, as the path was muddy and, in some places, like descending rivulets due to the previous day’s rain, but we got more oxygen as we got lower and felt like fit athletes. It stayed mostly dry for our descent, which was reasonably speedy: we got back to park headquarters before lunch.

Park headquarters remained a chaos of people, many hanging about waiting for buses or negotiating for taxis. We barely had time to thank Petra when a car pulled up and someone said, “Mr Nicholas?” and we got into a 7-seater vehicle. We thought that others would pile into the vehicle with us but instead, it pulled away and we looked back in surprise and apology as we left behind all these others, obviously on more budget trips than ours. We returned to park headquarters for another lunch where we did not get to choose our dishes and merely placidly ate what was put in front of us. Any request for a menu was met with a bemused stare and a, “It’s okay, Madam.”

We concurred that the walk was great but weird and that, though happy we had done it, we would not do it again. In addition, despite being treated so well, we did not really understand Petra’s role as ‘guide’ because if you got lost on that path, something was seriously wrong with your eyes. To be fair, many people of varying levels of mountain-walking ability tackle this hike and without the guides, many more would be injured. Certainly, Petra was indispensable during the night-time climb to the summit, if only for the continual, calm words of encouragement.

We also learned that we did not like popular summits and, I suspect, if we hadn’t liked it when we were given preferential treatment to get to the top, we’d like it even less if we were weren’t so treated. I knew that, even though I never really had a desire to “conquer” the world’s major summits, I really did not want to now, not if they were like this (and many are much more crowded). I’d rather walk in emptier foothills. To enjoy a mountain, I do not need to say I’d stood on its tallest point.

Back in KK, we were left to our own devices for two days; the organised part of our travel had ended. We knew we would be very sore the following day and possibly worse the day after, so we spent some time in the hostel considering what to do to while away the time before our onward flight to England. We were staying on the top floor of our hostel and each climb up to our room was agony and each climb down again worse. We moved like old people, laughing at ourselves even as we winced.

Relaxation was imperative, so an orang-utan tour was out (the car journey was much too long). Instead, we decided to head to one of the islands nearby, thinking this was just the occasion when we could lie around on a beach. We successfully found an island to travel to – there are quite a few a short distance from Kota Kinabalu and well serviced by ferries. However, we failed to lie around on the beach and somehow ended up walking all around the island and up to its (thankfully low) highest point. Although we do not seem to be very good at relaxing, we nevertheless had a wonderful time.

An almost deserted beach on the island of Manukan near Kota Kinabalu, photo by o2elot.

All the photos in this post are used, under a Creative Commons Licence, via Flickr.

If you double-click the picture itself, this will take you to the photographer’s photostream on Flickr.

End of the Road Festival 2010

19 September, 2010

(NB: band names link through to random youtube videos of their performances, not at the festival, but enough to give you an idea if you’re interested. Warning: comes with a mellow folk, beard and banjo advisory.)

The End of the Road (EotR) music festival has become our Favourite Music Festival Ever. We went in 2008 and 2009, though we did not write blog posts about it, possibly because it comes ’round at the end of Summer by which stage we are (usually) hopelessly behind in our postings! In addition, EotR is our total relaxation festival and, sometimes, writing these posts is just too much like work. Why spoil a good relax by blogging all about it?

You can check out the photos and our terribly witty comments for 2008 here and 2009 here, if you so desire.

Anyway, we must write about EotR this year because it is, sadly, our last (either forever or at least for a very long time). I hope we will find equally good festivals in Aus and I think I know now what my criteria for “good festival” is: small, lots of chill-out spaces, good food stalls and a carfree campsite. And, of course, music we like.

Obligatory photo of the End of the Road Festival sign.

Each year that we have been to EoTR, we discover more wonderful things about the festival site. The festival is held at Larmer Tree Gardens, Dorset, a garden full of follies, interesting buildings and peacocks. The first year, it was all about the music (the great food was just a bonus) but we learned after the festival was over that there were a variety of other things going on: enchanted forests, firepits, disco dancefloor, games, secret gigs. We had no idea how we missed this. The next year, we took some time to discover the grounds and were amazed by the various nooks that had been coverted into inviting, artistic spaces: a grove lit up with fairy lights, the library in the garden (optimistic given the usual British weekend weather) and an Edwardian living room, home of secret gigs. We even managed to catch a secret gig, with a little help from a newly-made festival friend, an American lad whom we met in the queue for the bus.

Peacocks freely roam the festival site.

Edwardian living room, from End of the Road 2009.

Being a small festival (tickets are limited to 5,000), the organisers do not have the financial wherewithal to get in Really Big Acts (e.g. Ben Harper and the notorious downfall of Byron Bay Blues Fest) and so tend to book smaller, independent acts as well as giving a platform for local bands to play a gig. This means we get to discover lots of new bands, who often then go on to become really rather famous indeed. Despite our dagginess, we might be hipsters at heart.

On Friday morning we set off from home to catch a train to Salisbury and then the festival bus to Larmer Tree Gardens. In previous years, the bus operation has been a bit disorganised, with long queues. We were therefore pleasantly surprised to find a bus pretty much as soon as we got off the train. There was also no queue to get our wristbands and enter the site. This is the fifth year of the festival and the organisers are obviously learning how to make it all a smooth operation!

We made a beeline for the very edge of the campsite, as we like to pitch our home away from the crowds who oddly cluster around the toilet blocks. In our first year, the toilets were awful but, again, the organisers have learned and since 2008, toilets have been clean and plentiful. This year, there were also more shops where the campsite is (which is outside the festival site). Being lunchtime, we picked up some delicious rye bread and flammekuchen (German pizza, effectively) from a bakery to tide us over.

After lazing about eating flammekuchen and setting up the tent, we eventually wandered into the festival itself to catch our first act: Charlie Parr, playing charmingly authentic folk and blues.

Charlie Parr

Later that day, after lazing about at the main stage and slowly circumnavigating the enchanted forest, outdoor library, Edwardian living room and games area, we caught Elliott Brood in the Big Top and then the humble Frank Fairfield in the Tipi Tent. Frank Fairfield looked like he had time travelled from the 1920s to get to the festival, and brought his guitar, fiddle and banjo with him. He was wonderful to listen to and clearly enjoyed playing, chuckling to himself at the end of songs or as he switched instruments.

Frank Fairfield and his ancient guitar.

We’ve recently had some very busy weeks, and Nic in particular has been jet-setting for work. I had just shaken off a cold, which Nic was now coming down with. We were therefore a bit more relaxed in our approach to the festival and were early to bed each night, giving some of the more big name acts and DJ sets a miss (we nevertheless heard them reasonably well from our tent!), and spent a lot more time lazing around in the gardens reading, people watching and tea drinking.

The other downside was that this year, the thieves hit (although thankfully not us). On Saturday morning, we learned that our tent neighbours had been robbed by a brazen thief who took wallet and phone from the man’s jeans while he lay asleep in his tent. Throughout the weekend and after, we heard about other people who’d been robbed and security prowled the campsite. This was sad and somewhat shocking for End of the Road, because it’s such a cosy festival with a great ambience. As overheard in the toilet queue, “You expect this sort of stuff at Glastonbury but not here!”

Musical highlights for Saturday included whimsical folk duo Johnny Kearney and Lucy Farrell, who sweetly asked the audience for permission to photograph us (“This is for my mum, so everybody look like you’re enjoying yourselves!”), and eagleowl, a lovely foursome from Edinburgh who ended their set by inviting members of the audience (some of whom were members of other bands) up on stage to sing along with them.

eagleowl and their backing singers ...

The Unthanks, a folk band from Northumbria, were probably (for me) the surprise of the festival; I really did not expect to see any clog dancing (kinda like tap dancing), nor enjoy it so much, nor hear lusty men cheer so loudly when the clogs came out. The Unthanks, together with the Smoke Fairies, were the festival’s drollest performers, and both apologised for the preponderance of murder ballads in their respective repertoires. Interestingly, though probably unrelated, they were the two bands made up mostly of women. One of the Smoke Fairies told a story about trying to pluck a feather from a suitably enraged peacock, thinking it would be more like plucking a blade of grass. After an uncomfortably long pause at the end of her story, she delivered a deadpan, “Not that we endorse that sort of thing of course.”

Much of our afternoon was whiled away at Dish Cafe, a little tea stall hidden in a peaceful, leafy glade but from where we could still hear the main stage. With tea, homemade cakes and scones and cushions to lounge around on, it was difficult to leave!

Irresistible.

Iron and Wine were one of the few “big name” (in indie folk circles, anyway) acts that Nic and I were keen to see and Sam Beam (I like to think of him as Mr Iron and Wine) did not disappoint, although he did forget the lyrics to one of his songs (obsessive fans in the audience are always helpful in situations like that). Iron and Wine probably had the most magical crowd atmosphere: there was absolute silence when he sang as we all strained to listen to his beautiful lyrics.

Sam Beam (Mr Iron and Wine).

I also overheard a most amusing conversation:

Festival Goer 1: I think I saw Iron and Wine back there!
Festival Goer 2: How do you know?
Festival Goer 1: Huge beard!
Festival Goer 2: Um, you know everyone here has huge beards?

Sunday opened with glorious sunshine, so we spent the morning lazing at our tent, Nic reading and me gadding about taking macro photographs of dandelions and bugs.

Nic being a lazy bugger. (In his defense, he was poorly.)

Lots of dandelions and lots of tents.

When we eventually made our way to the festival site, we did some more lazing and only got roused to go check out music when a monstrous catepillar launched itself (or fell) from an overhanging branch and landed with a thwack on Nic’s chest.

The horror! The horror!

Highlights for Sunday included The Felice Brothers, rocking out on fiddle and accordion, and, despite playing Americana / indie folk, looked like men you perhaps would not want to meet in a dark alley. When the fiddle player (Farley) pointed to the audience and demanded we sing along, I was almost afraid not to, despite only barely knowing the lyrics. Still, they appeared to have a heap of fun and were wonderful to watch. Also, they delivered the best line from the entire festival:

What is “Americana”? In the US, we call it, “We can’t make money ’cause we play the banjo.”

The Garden Stage, with a mellow Sunday morning set by Dylan Le Blanc.

The Felice Brothers, rocking out in synchrony.

We ended our End of the Road festival experience with The Low Anthem, very different to The Felice Brothers but another band who clearly loved performing and were delightful on stage. During their soundcheck, they gathered at the front of the stage and played a brief acoustic set for the front rows of the crowd. Although we did not get photos of the drummer, he was my favourite. He grinned madly every time he got to hit the cymbals.

The Low Anthem, playing lovely, intimate music.

Fittingly, Monday dawned overcast and it was with sad hearts that we packed up our tent and headed home. No more End of the Road for us. We’ll definitely miss it.

You can check out all the rest of the photos here.

Fairytale exit from Europe

15 September, 2010

As my contract draws to a close, I managed to make it to two final conferences, one in Odense, Denmark, home of Hans Christian Anderson, and one in Kassel, Germany, home of the Brothers Grimm.  There ends the fairytale content of this post, as I spent 60% of my time in university conference venues, 30% of my time in a succession of local restaurants and pubs, and the remaining 10% desperately trying to grab a reasonable amount of sleep.  As a result there wasn’t too much sightseeing.

Anyway, I have no intention of boring you with an account of the conferences, but here are some photos.

First off, the University of Southern Denmark campus, which is an astonishing building.  I can’t find any information about it on the internet, and my knowledge of architectural vernacular isn’t up to providing an accurate description, but basically the whole campus is oriented around a 500 metre long North-South corridor, with lots of exposed concrete, elevated walkways, pre-rusted panelling, climbing plants and natural light.  I was very impressed.  Apparently it was built in the 60s and it has aged extremely well.  Some of the local students informed me that walking backwards and forwards down the long corridor gets old rather quickly though.

 

Syddansk University, where the conference was held, was quite a remarkable building. This corridor stretched several hundred metres, from the entrance to the main seminar room. The parallel white lines demarcate the path upon which service staff whiz up and down on little motorized scooters.

 

I was going for a noir look here. Note the temporal ambiguity.  Whatever the time, I was probably supposed to be in a seminar room rather than walking around taking photos.

 

Arty exterior shot.

 

Another exterior shot, showing extensive use of pre-rusted panels.

 

Second up, I squeezed in a day in Copenhagen at the end, which is a beautiful city (if only for the surfeit of bicycles).

 

The Copenhagen stock exchange, commissioned by King Christian IV in 1625, by moonlight. The tower consists of four sculpted dragon tails.

 

I liked this colourful pairing.

 

Ascending the round tower, site of Europe's oldest observatory, also built by King Christian IV (busy chap).

 

Nyhavn, the old sailors' quarter, now filled with cafes, bars and restaurants.

 

Long-exposure night-shot of the stock exchange

 

No camera in Germany, so no photos from there…

The rest of the Denmark photos here.