Posts Tagged ‘hiking’

Annapurna: Cycling a circuit in crisis

In this world, few things exist alone, unworried by and remote from the rest. When heavy rains and gusts ripped through India’s eastern seaboard and cyclone Hudhud was christened as such, the sun was shining over Nepal, hikers were pounding Himalayan trails in peak season and nobody rued the interconnections of this world. Not yet, anyway.

As Indian police began the evacuation of 400,000 people on the Bay of Bengal coast Mike and I were beginning to bike-pack the Annapurna Circuit: a trial most often the realm of hikers (over 20,000 of them yearly). The trail scoots round the Annapurna range, a 55 km long section of Nepali Himalaya including 14 peaks over 7000 metres and one, the eponymous peak of the range, over 8000 metres. It’s one of the earth’s most venerated hiking trails, and in the space of the next few days, it was about to bloom in renown, but for all the wrong reasons.

Mike Roy would be my companion. Mike was part of the six strong posse of riders who, two months ahead of me, crossed Myanmar. His blog The Three Rule Ride is an awesome account of a two year bicycle odyssey from Korea in which Mike has given genuine thought to the environment.

Other things to know about Mike: he is an American, he loves food (though limits his pace of consumption, cf me), he meditates, he can speak Korean, Chinese, Italian, more than a smattering of Thai and Spanish, and has blossoming Nepali. He has an uneasy relationship with geodesic domes. He has a tendency to look intermittently mystical.

‘Now, you guys will ride down, it’s easy, and then it’s flat’ reported the confident young girl, perched on the steps of the village police post.

‘Flat?’ We chorused, from the shadow of sky-tickling mountains.

‘Well, you know, ‘Nepali flat’: Up, down, up, down, up down.’

An hour later Mike and I were still lugging our bikes down the steps carved into rock, blaming the process on not just on one optimist but two: a boy had directed us onto this hikers’ path hours ago. We wanted to be on the road which lay now tauntingly on the other side of the river, golden in the sun, like a promised land, unmeant for people as used-up and ugly from toil as us.

It was a familiar trap: you strive for ages, bent on some irrational hope that things will improve, only to learn that they will not, but by that time doing an about turn would be too spirit sapping, and anyway, things might improve, right?

Day one on the famed Annapurna Circuit drew to a cruel end.

By nightfall, we came upon a house and were offered to share a room with a preternaturally fat pigeon with diarrhoea which was perched (wedged) in between rafters. The woman showing me the room caught me anxiously appraising the thin plywood floor boards with inch wide gaps, offering glimpses of a painful landing: the dining table on the floor beneath. To prove the robustness, she jumped savagely, landing with a thud, laughed in my face and was gone, leaving us to our rickety bedroom.

The next day a line of honeyed light caught the peaks, and then dropped, filling the valley with warmth and promise. It was a return to shouldering our bikes though, traversing rivers, mounting unending steps, blaming ourselves. The circuit had promised to be tough, but not at this meagre altitude. About us was a stadium of yellow-green rice paddies, the breeze shivered them: ‘shhhhh, shhhhhh, you idiots, shhhhh’.

Finally we got to a bridge and rejoined the road. Almost immediately two hale and burnished trekkers, Scandinavians probably, jogged past. ‘Hi guys!’ they chirped. Mike looked like he might attack them, but cheered up a minute later saying ‘I’m kinda glad the start was tough. Everything will be easier from here on’. Briefly, I wanted to attack Mike.

The next two days to Manang were spent mainly on a road that only fitted that definition because people referred to it as such, and because it joined places, not because it actually resembled one. It was the sight of man sized boulders which hikers had to round that clashed most with my vision of what a road should be. Bike touring had again become bike-lugging, but there were the other things to enjoy: grand rainbowed waterfalls, purple-tinged fields packed with the stalks of harvested buckwheat, the cheery trekkers: robotic-looking in their pole-assisted mission. The British announced themselves with awkward apologetic manoeuvres when confronted with another hiker ‘Oh God’ I heard one man say ‘this is embarrassing’ as he shuffled into someone’s elbow. There were porters too, their job two-fold: to carry three rucksacks a piece, and to force everyone else into judging themselves inadequate slouches.

From the outskirts of Chame an audience of Buddhist prayer flags strung across the river waved us off and as we passed trekkers their words lingered in the air long enough to catch ‘wow, hard work’ and ‘no suspension. Alright!’ Reading the prices of food on menus on the trail involved a light-headedness to rival that provided by the thinning air, especially if you’ve been tramping around rural Nepal for a while and living cheap. ‘Oxygen goes down, prices go up’ as the saying goes. Oxygen is at a premium not just for the altitude though, methane displaces it. The local dish of Dal Baht makes up the dinner for most, and is the most flatulence-provoking food known to mankind. The fact it appears high on menus on a trail in which people walk one behind one another makes me wonder if it’s all just one big Nepali joke on the visitors.

Food. I fight the urge to ask the question that I know is not becoming of a grown up. It’s not: ‘What would you recommend?’ Not even ‘What is the cheapest?’ I want to know what is the biggest feed on the list. Mass over flavour. I ask anyway, and receive the muted smile I expected, but get a mound of potato as big as my head, so I don’t care about the faux pas.

The most delicious feature of the circuit though is the changeability of the landscape, and on the approach to Menang it altered again: from the steep valley lush with deciduous forest and sparkling with banks of rust coloured fern, woven like scrap metal, to a flatter, pine forested place, presided over by bigger mountains and beige coloured rock faces eroded into surreal shapes. Each splash of pine forest was riven by the grey streaks of old landslides.

A helping hand from a porter

We were alone, the trekkers had taken to the other side of the river and the road this far wasn’t yet accessible to vehicles. Crows cawed. Wind quivered the yellowing pines. Donkeys stilled in the road, like for them, time had ceased to pass. This is a place of stories: witches are said to wander these parts.

We passed a row of tables by the empty wind-blown road. Amid the artifacts were yak bones and two great yak heads with light bulbs in their eye sockets, old pottery, goat horns, a black necklace fashioned from the vertebra of a snake. A man appeared, chanting, prayer beads in hand. ‘Three babas’ he said nodding to his stash meaning three generations had gathered the finds on sale.

Up until this point, I had been feeling a bit envious of Mike’s bike which sported Buddhist prayer flags, the face of a bearded man carved from bamboo root from Vietnam, and the best novelty horn imaginable, which sounded like a clown’s. From the table I immediately claimed a charred baby yak’s skull and cable tied it to the underside of my handlebars. People now approach my bike, take a sudden step backwards and cast me a worried look. Children cry. Old women bring forth prayers. It’s fantastic.

As a breather, unlike most humans, I am of a singularly noisy variety when I exercise, and especially at altitude. Mike didn’t know this. Momentarily he looked back, concern written in his eyes, as if he might find me grounded, woven in my bicycle, drowning in sputum. When he saw that wasn’t the case, his face reverted to one of pleasant surprise.

As my breathlessness abated, and serenity returned to the Himalayas, I looked up at the mountains, now snow-coated and appearing impossible to reach. I mentioned this to Mike. ‘Nothing’s impossible’ he returned, grim-faced and sounding like a Nike advert. A wimpier travel companion, I realised then, might be easier on my ego.

The culture around Manang is recognisably Tibetan. On the approach to the town the small children have the paradigm rosy cheeks, and are so muffled they can hardly flex their knees or elbows when they walk, making them hilarious for their being unchangingly star-shaped. By three and half thousand metres up signs advertising the symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness arrived on the scene, which just rubs it in if you’ve been suffering from 3000 metres. Exertion is a major player in who succumbs and bikers are a lot more susceptible.

The first sight to greet us in Manang might have been used on the cover of a book entitled ‘Wilderness Medicine: a practical guide’. Two western doctors charged through the village, one squeezing an IV bag of fluid attached to the arm of a Nepali woman who was being piggy backed by a porter stampeding through town. Later I learnt that the medics had to rub off melted yak butter from her forearm, a local remedy, in order to insert an IV line.

As we wheeled our bikes through the town I looked back behind us: a fleet of clouds was driving up the valley. I didn’t think to mention it to Mike.

Manang was in full bloom at the peak of the tourist season and few guesthouses had rooms to accommodate two bikers and the skull of a juvenile yak. Trekkers shuffled about the one street taking days off from the trail to acclimatise, buying books which seemed to be entirely about death in the mountains and watch films in the two small movie houses which also seemed to be about perilous quests into the unknown. Deciding I needed something a little more escapist (or just not entitled: ‘The day I starved and had to eat my frozen friend’s face off’) we headed straight to a guesthouse, ending the day with a few beers with fellow bikers James and Logan. As I walked out into the moonless night, I shivered and saw the snow. It wasn’t a flurry, not even a dusting, just a few minute white specs floating out of the night sky: pioneers, I would discover.

I was wrestled from sleep by a white light, and discovered a broad white bar occluding the view out of the upper part of my guesthouse window. It fell. Gravity has beaten the abundant snow gathering on the roof and it had joined snow heaping up on the ground. A head-scarfed old lady shuffled through the white-out, shovel in hand. There had been no weather warnings, and everyone in town was as agog as we were: a blizzard had gripped Menang, in October: a month of unchallenged blue skies in the middle of the Himalayan dry season. And we still had the steady climb of 2000 metres to climb to Thorong La, a pass of 5416 m which claimed the blue bit of my map and where the contour lines crowded together like tree rings. And if it was snowing abundantly here…

But as the snow continued to pile up, people’s minds were not on the pass, and the snowfall forced everyone’s faces into silly grins of the type that grace seven year olds when school’s cancelled. With the power out, there was nothing to do but read or crowd about the wood-burning stove which was incited with dry yak dung, as the scent of garlic and butter swirled and a snowman in sunglasses took shape outside my window. As more hikers arrived and nobody could leave, Manang became a stoppered bottle of bewildered adventurers, aiming eyes at the still-white sky.

Manang under snow
It was here we met three New Zealanders: Emily, Claire and Tim, all in shorts. This was immediately satisfying. I’ve never been to New Zealand, but in my mind, all New Zealanders wear shorts, and only shorts. I am certain that if I would go there I would find people running about glaciers in vests and underwear. They don’t have homes, or jobs. They sleep in crevasses and spend their days playing water-rugby in grade five rapids.

Emily, Claire and Tim didn’t pack trousers in order to hike over a Himalayan pass of 5400 metres. And that’s how it should be. They are the only nationality allowed to do this and not be considered foolish or ill prepared. All three were as outdoorsy as every Kiwi I have met, and Emily was keen on something called Adventure Racing (if you’re not acquainted look up masochism in a dictionary, it’ll be there).

The following day the sky was a pacifying blue, and the Annapurnas looked to smoulder as snow was whipped from their upper reaches by sun and breeze. Manang was alive again: sunglassed, pack-laden trekkers pounded through two feet of packed snow which was yet to live as slush. Above, electric cables, the ones still up, bled snow in plummeting shafts. The rock faces of Annapurna 2 and 3 were unsullied panes of white. Mountain goats, driven down to town by the snowfall, began pestering shop keepers and munching on gardens.

Mike and I trekked up to a ridge above Manang where the snow was thigh deep and eye-aching, almost forcing us to break trail. Our feet slid deliciously into it. When we returned power had come back to the town. Inside a hostel a posse of Australians sat, their eyes trained intensely on a TV: the BBC were reporting deaths on the Annapurna Circuit. Nine bodies so far, at least 140 missing. The news channels knew more about the disaster than anyone in Manang itself, one of the biggest towns en route. Everyone began playing the ‘what if’ game, everyone had a reason why they could have been two days further ahead, at the pass, when the snow-storm hit. Manang was all chatter, but facts? They were as absent as colour in the peaks.

The drone of search and rescue helicopters became as familiar as the low of yaks. They zipped to and fro, like the rumours around town: two metres of snow at the pass, body count: 21. Scores were still stranded at Tilicho Lake and High Camp. The Israelis were being evacuated first as the Israeli government had fronted the money for evacuation of all its citizens. Later, this would be a topic of controversy and rumours spread of helicopters half full refusing to take anyone not Israeli, of bands of Israelis commandeering the available satellite phones and, more farcically, of two people who’d blagged their way onto a chopper because ‘we’re half Jewish!’

We stared wistfully at maps, pondering the future of our ride, knowing it may now be impossible to proceed – already many hikers were turning face and marching back to Besishar. We decided to linger, and then, realising bike travel was fantasy (since hiking may well be too), we left our bikes and gear at a guesthouse and set out to the pass on foot when everyone else was in retreat. We bought wooden sticks as trekking poles and stuffed plastic bags down our trainers. Thoughts of avalanches were edged out by the slim chance of making it up. The events on the pass felt remote. We met two hikers, a Lithuanian and Siberian, unfussed, who ran out of beer and cigarettes from high altitude near Tilicho lake. ‘It vas tragedy’ the Siberian pined. From where others were being air-evacuated, they had left on foot through deep snow drifts, motivated by the fear of remaining without the refuge of booze and fags.

The Nepali minister for tourism arrived into Manang by helicopter and promptly presented to the medical clinic with symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness – typical, I thought, of tourists not to heed the advice, especially amusing through if you yourself promote that advice. I was asked to check in at the clinic too in case they had a rush of patients who had been stranded on the trail and needed help, but having not been called into action, I set out on foot.

Snow: the great eraser. Filching not just colour and detail, but leaving the land bereft of smell, of movement too, with the exception of avalanches and as we tramped out over the hills northwest of Menang, a huge crunch caused us to swivel and watch snow barrel down the opposing side of the valley. Our gaze waited over the mountainside before we moved on, our thoughts murky, our plan still imprecise. We met a few trekkers heading back who had been stranded at High Camp, they bore news that the Nepali army had closed the pass to collect bodies.

The next night we spent with a French girl, Maryon and American guy, Elie. ‘Hey, do you guys blaze?’ asked Elie.

It wasn’t strong weed, but it doesn’t have to be at 4200 metres above sea level. I know this because an hour later I found Mike in his room sat upright and crosslegged, meditating. He was wrapped in a yak hair blanket inscribed with Tibetan runes. He looked, in almost every respect, like a wizard. The only inconsistency was the fact that he was wearing a pair of gloves on his feet, and instead of solemnity, his expression was one of lightly controlled mania.

‘That Yak looks demonic’ said Mike. Having considered that Mike was no longer high, I peered at the beast and had to agree. A long face, big horns and a bleak, nowhere stare. I was still vaguely spooked when we came to some other trekkers who paused by us. ‘Over there, you see?’ one pointed to the shape of a man over the river, lying down in the snow. ‘It’s a dead body’.

Until that point, the events on the pass had seemed remote and marginal, too extreme perhaps to process. We had been merely held up and I hadn’t considered the reality. The reality was brutally unsheathed now, in the shape of a dead man, and a red rucksack, laid out in the snow.

There’s an expression in medicine which, typical of many of doctor’s idioms, carries a certain brutality but is useful nonetheless. ‘You’re not dead’ they say ‘until you’re warm and dead’. Hypothermia can do strange things: brain function can be preserved, heart-rate slowed so much as to affect death. I had to check.

If he’d been out there all night, or for longer, then I couldn’t see him being alive, but nobody knew. We passed a German hiker, noticeably shaken by the sight, and then to the body. He was lying down, head on a red rucksack for a pillow, a blanket over his legs, one hand balled up to a fist. He had been dead for some time. It was shocking in the juxtaposition: dead bodies belong in hospital beds, in the morgue, not alone, skin still shining, growing hard in the snow.

He was a monk whom we later discovered had walked from Thorung Phedi against advice during the night. By his posture he looked resigned to death, not as though it had come suddenly and with a fight. Later I wondered whether his religion might have played into this. Perhaps, amid the cold, with a certain fatalism, he’d thought about his next life. But perhaps not.

An army helicopter above described a curve and as we hiked around the next corner, they must have winched up the body.

As we hiked our wooden sticks created tunnels of glacial blue in the snow which was lumped over unseen boulders and shrubs – the world had been bubblewrapped. Recent avalanches churned up the snow, twisting it up into ragged shapes, like a sea bed of coral. My heart was set to pounding as I took stock of a great crack in the snow, extending down into the earth, where rocks and snow were spilling in ceaselessly. It looked as though at any moment the mountainside would snap and tear off towards the river, plunging at 20 degrees to the vertical. Maybe my perspective had changed: Would I have been as afraid had I not just stared into the frozen features of a dead man? I don’t know, but as I paced through the snow my feet found other footprints coming the other way. The lingering echo, perhaps, of a man’s last strides.

Sunlight roused the valley, waking the colours and contours of rock exposed by the melt. The crags above us were blotted with the shapes of big birds of prey, Himalayan vultures perhaps, and as the snow melted rocks shifted, at times tumbling down to the trail from on high.

It was a scramble from Thorong Pedi up to High Camp, which was at almost 5000 metres and the snow was still waist deep. We were now the only foreigners this high aside from a Chinese hiker, the rest had returned, and a few had been airlifted out. My head ached. This was the place that porters had arrived at days before, clutching notes from hikers near the pass which stated that they were in immediate and life threatening danger. Send help. No help by then could be sent. Mike set off on a short recce but even now, days after the snowfall, the trail to the pass was judged too dangerous and, dissuaded to try because we still had to return to Manang to collect our bikes, we decided to return by foot, trudging through the melting snow which was exposing sweet smelling shrubs, in a steady, pleasing silence.

Manang was a ghost of its former bustling self when we returned, and much of the snow had evaporated with the tourists. Uncomfortably, because we were in the shadow of tragedy, the Himalayas south of Manang looked as beautiful as perhaps they would ever be: the high rock faces sheeted with snow, the blue October sky, the rust and ochre of autumn, the earthy colours of rocks and pine.

We met tour groups, one British, with members in National Geographic t-shirts but so obese that the logo was distorted, stretched over geographically significant bosoms and man-breasts. A teenager in the posse received a text from a friend and said ‘Hey, hey Jack check this out. My mate wants to know if I’ve seen any dead bodies! Ha Ha Ha Ha!’ His friends joined him in the hilarity. I exchanged a look with Mike.

We arrived back at Besishar which was in the midst of Tihar (Diwali) celebrations and ornate Hindu girls dazzled onlookers with their practised dance routines.

An avalanche on the way back to Manang
That Nepal struggled to deal with the unfolding tragedy is unquestionable, that it needn’t have is under debate. Nepal is, after all, one of the poorest countries in Asia. The Annapurna Circuit is not a jaunt through Yosemite and the Himalayas are a different breed to the Alps. But with over 20,000 hikers paying 40 dollars a pop annually questions will and should be raised. Here are mine:
  • The cyclone was being monitored. The snow was predicted. Why were no severe weather warnings telephoned to the villages and camps en route before the snow fell, especially the ones after Manang where there is no public Internet access? (and if these calls were made, why were the hikers not told?)
  • Why are communications between points on the hike so patently inadequate? There are is no radio communication or relay towers, and only one satellite phone. When power went out, there was no way to relay a message to high camp and tell them to instruct trekkers not to leave.
  • Why did nobody take charge of the disaster – the trail was only closed a full 4 days after the snowfall and misinformation was rife.
  • How does TIMS (the Trekkers Information Management System) spend the 20 dollars a trekker it receives? Is any of it used in crisis prevention?
Officials I spoke with were in the habit of reminding me that Nepal is far behind the west in matters of disaster preparedness. That may be so, but it can’t be used as an excuse for mismanaging was has been an epic calamity, and the loss of 39 lives. You can argue that the responsibility lies not just with authorities but with trekkers too. I agree, but trekkers can’t make reasoned decisions without the information. A dusting of snow is not uncommon at the pass, even in the dry season. It’s conceivable that the hikers set out thinking it would soon peter out, they could have had no idea that two metres would fall, obliterating the trail and leaving them to exposure and ultimately, death.

Some of the misinformation may have been born of a vested interest, locals and ACAP (Annapurna Conservation Area Project) were in the habit of telling everyone the pass was open and easily reachable in the days after, when it clearly wasn’t. This is peak season, and bad weather is bad for business. I sympathise, but this relentless optimism just added to the confusion.

Whilst the trail is spectacular, I can’t recommend the Annapurna Circuit for touring bikers, though this has nothing to do with the disaster. For trekkers it’s fantastic, but too much of the road is still unridable (for surface, not gradient) and trudging behind hikers with a 20 kg bike and more gear over your shoulder is not as fun as the Himalayas should be. That said – with a fat tyred light weight mountain bike and no gear – perhaps it’s a better prospect.

A lot more has happened this month, but alas, no space. I visited a leprosy hospital near Kathmandu, and one of the mobile health clinics that serve the city’s street children. Perhaps these will appear in a later edition.

Thank yous: Lizzie and Sanju, My Mum, Anna, Fareed, Mike (a special thank you for Korean acquired toe warmers), Mango Tree for the tranquillity I needed when the trek was over, Cory, Benny and Carolyn.

The art of Island Bopping

What is that?

Long, thin, oblique; the island was a lone speech mark amid the wordless Pacific Ocean. I zoomed in until Googlemaps gave up it’s identity – ‘New Caledonia’. The name didn’t ring any bells but since Wikipaedia didn’t mention genocide, cannibalism or ebola, I booked a flight. Its anonymity to me just seemed like a good reason to do so.

The almost ticked out clock of my Aussie VISA meant I needed a border run, but this too was an excuse for an adventure – the spontaneous, half-baked kind. I had in mind an island, and the south Pacific bares 7500 to choose from. I scribbled ‘no bicycle, pack light, travel by foot’ into my journal and then canvassed the bespeckled ocean on googlemaps for inspiration.

New Caledonia is an archipelago and autonomous French overseas territory, and the main island, uninspiringly entitled Grand Terre, is 1200 km from Australian shores, or about half way to Figi. It lies like a giant frozen throwing knife launched from New Zealand and aimed at Papua New Guinea, and after those two, Grand Terre is the third largest island in the Pacific.

Hiking is not how the mainstream wile away hours on a palm-fringed Pacific islands, but I wasn’t planning on indulging in contented comas on surf-soaked white sand beaches, diving amongst coral reefs, or retiring to a resort to wash down the day’s hedonism with lobster and kava. I was going just to walk, hoping later to emerge blister-footed, laden with stories and contentedly beat.

On my way

Comfort costs kilograms, and I didn’t need it. To pack as light as possible I had help from Claire who turned out to be the most extreme weight reducing device known to humanity. She rummaged through my pack, frequently holding aloft an item of kit and demanding I justify its place. ‘Shoelace?!’ came one admonishment. In the end I left with no tent, just a tarp of unproven waterproofness and an unused bivvy bag (to an island in the midst of cyclone-season), a stove, one change of clothes and little else. The burden I carried now mostly psychological.

5.30 am is the time penny pinchers fly to their destinations. The night before my flight I waved goodbye to Claire from the airport concourse hoping to find a quiet corner in the terminal to spend the night, unaware then my adventure was about to start early. ‘Sorry mate’ began the patrolling security guard, ‘airport closes at 12, looks like you’re out the street.’ Begrudging his fatalism, his ‘looks like’, I skulked out into the warm night. As I stumbled around, crooked under the weight of the pack, I wondered how I would hike across an entire island when traversing the departures terminal was amounting to an Iron Man feat of endurance. With the alfresco air as stagnant as swamp water my body’s main concern was not sleep but rather some kind of experiment into finding out exactly how much it was capable of sweating.

A form arrived from the neat air hostess and my pen quivered under indecision among the tick boxes. Where will you be staying in New Caledonia? Hotel? Rental home? Family or friend? There was no option for a bivy bag in the dirt, so I went with friend. The lady sat next to me smiled sympathetically when in reply to her quick-fire nasal gabble I committed conversational suicide with the few French words I could remember, a soon to be well-tested, contrite quartet : ‘Je ne comprend pas’.

I turned then more earnestly to my Lonely Planet phrasebook; which failed to include useful sentences like ‘I’m not entirely sure what I just said either’ or ‘I apologise for the ugly accent’. In their place were a host of purposeless one-liners. For example the ‘Romance’ section has clearly been devised by a womanless letch shipwrecked in the eighties and offers the French for ‘What star sign are you?’ Unfortunately it then leaves you hanging, and neglects to provide a translation to deal with any of the likely aftermaths such as ‘Excuse me, can I borrow a towel, that girl just puked all over me’ or ‘Yes doctor, the pain in my testicles is excruciating. Perhaps she was a pisces’. Things get dramatically weirder though on leafing through the ‘Sex’ section where there sits ‘Chouette alors!’, which we’re told translates as ‘Oh Yeah!’. Presumably the old romantics at Lonely Planet are hoping you keep the book on a bedside table so that you can call an abrupt halt to copulation, turn to the relevant chapter and express sexual gratification in grammatically and phonetically correct French. That’s where the pillow talk ends though as the authors clearly judge their readership to be composed of a more defensive than passionate brand of lovers and there follows ‘That was weird’ and ‘You’re disturbing me’. In the eating section is ‘I can’t eat it for philosophical reasons’ perhaps an appropriate line if you are served the decapitated head of a professor in philosophy. The art of camping is something of a mystery to the authors since this section includes ‘Can I borrow a spade?’ Having set up my tent I then enjoy engaging in mock early 20th century warfare. Finally though Lonely Planet, perhaps conscious of the potential for confusion after commissioning a book by a bunch of imbeciles, states ‘Lonely Planet accepts no responsibility for any loss, injury or inconvenience sustained by anyone using this book’. So if you nonchalantly order a ham and cheese sandwich from a waiter in a Parisian cafe but instead get bashed with a crow bar and later regain consciousness on all fours, clad in nothing more than a leopard skin thong and studded dog collar, watching through glass a leering trail of be-suited business men, with a ‘for sale’ sign around your neck, remember: Don’t even think about writing to the Editor.

Phrase book abandoned, I averted my attention to the likely honeymooners in the seats around me, and the unspooling infinitude of the Pacific that passed beneath. I wondered why I had made such a snap judgement about coming here and began to plunge, panic-stricken, down a dark cascade of what-ifs. Suddenly though I caught site of a lustrous ribbon of turquoise in the ocean – inside it the sea was spotted with islands and atolls; this was the world heritage listed coral reef, the largest after the Great Barrier Reef. More arresting though was what followed – a beige mesh of ridges and valleys which multiplied, greened and swelled into whopping mountains whose upper reaches were poached by hanging cloud. As I sized up the island every doubt I harboured about the possibility of adventure evaporated. Possibility sprawled. 


Like the landscape of New Caledonia, which consists of a central mountain range, mangrove swamps, torrid grassy plains, primary forest and shrubland – the skin tone of these mysterious New Caledonians milling around the airport was as richly various. The black indigenous Kanaks are the arrivals most far flung in time. About a third of the population are ‘Caldoche’ – European descendants, primarily of the French, many of whom were convicts shipped to these remote shores at the end of the 19th century. Contributing to the ethnic melange are migrants from other Pacific islands and East Asia. To meet me at the airport was Lyvia, fashionable, slender and dark skinned who claimed an ancestral pastiche involving most of the above, which in New Caledonia is in no way unique.

New Caledonia was christened as such by the British explorer James Cook who in 1774, when surveying its mountainous form, figured it was redolent of Scotland, Caledonia of course it’s latin alias. Now, outside the airport terminal, in 36 degree heat aside dusty lion-coloured scrub, I had to wonder why the well-travelled Cook was so off the mark with his analogy. Britain’s claim to the islands though didn’t survive, in subsequent years the French gained control.

First off Lyvia gave me a whistle-stop tour of the capital Nouméa. Sea front bars opened onto a main boulevard which nudged up against a beach. A thin spread of foreign tourists dozed and swam and rummaged about in the water. Kanak women in bright wrap-around skirts, pareos, with curlicues and floral motifs, shared the sand with younger Kanaks who preferred the Rasta tricolour and dreadlocks and who played zouk and reggaton from mobile phone. Bonjours and smiles were batted around between strangers and though once rather mawkishly known as the ‘Paris of the Pacific’, Nouméa seemed absent of the surliness the French capital is perhaps unfairly known for. We then scooted over to the next bay which was crowded with moored yachts, and the bay after that, home to a tangle of kite surfers. Some of this tableau seemed reminiscent of life on the Mediterranean, Lyvia though, perhaps having divined me making the parallel, explained ‘When there’s a cyclone, all these boats (she pointed an arc), end up in the street’ and with that I was abruptly transposed, right back into the midst of the wide, wild Pacific Ocean.

So far I had glimpsed two flags fluttering around the capital, the French tricolour and the Kanak flag, which is closely tied to the controversial idea of full independence. I’m here at a sensitive juncture, after some violence and turmoil in the 1980’s, 2014 marks the close of a peaceful period of growth and development and old agreements dictate a vote for independence could take place in the near future. The majority of Kanaks; historically often brutally repressed by the colonial power, seek full independence; the Caldoche and a slice of the Asian migrants though are less likely to share these politics.

I find a book in Lyvia’s parent’s house – Nouvelle Caledonie Sauvage : Wild New Caledonia. In it 511 pages tell of hiking routes, which was about 500 more than I had anticipated. A tiny village and former penal colony, Prony, in the far south of Grand Terre, marks the beginning of the Grand Randonnée (big hike) – an official brand of trail, scores of which crisscross Europe half a world away. This one, inaugurated some ten years ago, is a classic hike; at least here, and perhaps would be considered so outside New Caledonia if a more hearty number of the general public could actually pin the island on a map. It’s 120 km of hiking and scrambling through rolling scrub, forest and over steep mountains up to 1200 metres above the turquoise water glimpsed from the plane window. In all there’s almost 5000 metres of climbing, roughly the height of Mont Blanc.

Trail food stowed in my pack, I sat among Lyvia and her friends who collectively mused about my journey as we picked at cheeses, sliced baguettes and cold meats, a very salubrious and outwardly French affair, from the double kiss entrance and uncorked wine to the unhurried quality to our grazing. ‘We are not French!’ Lyvia remarked, somewhat defiantly, this lot consider themselves ‘Caldoche’ and make light of the old colonial power by referring to French visitors to New Caledonia as ‘les zoreilles’ which almost translates as ‘the ears’, an in-joke that refers to the way the tourists are forever pushing their ears forward in an effort to understand the local accent, though French proper is the lingua franca here, not the French-based creoles of the nation’s other overseas territories. Indeed as a tourist it’s hard to cope here without at least a smidgen of the language.

Over dinner my plan received a rebound of frowns. As usual each at the table had their own theory of how I will expire, heat stroke a top contender and presiding over cyclone-induced floods, being shot by hostile Kanaks for trespassing or simply getting irreconcilably lost. On past experience, my vote went to the latter.

Grand Randonnée in the South

As I searched in vain for the right change to pass the bus driver who would take me half way to Prony, a mess of arms and hands were extended out to me. Their owners, Kanak women, were offering me the money I needed for the fare. Soon the bus lurched through the outskirts of the capital where houses were half concealed by a jungle of mango, papaya and banana plants. 

The last language I used to any proficiency was Spanish and so as my brain hunts for a French word the Spanish is offered up instead. This is how my hitch-hike from the bus stop began, with an open car door and my speaking a strange soup of incongruent words from three languages ‘Hola friend. Je voudrais; um; go, with la voiture, hasta Prony’. Having rightly concluded I wasn’t up to conversation, my driver, a young businessman, let French rock ballads absorb our silence. I watched the crumpled landscape unfurl: green ridges and hillocks, a snake of wind turbines, giant handprints of rust-coloured earth. The spectacle was especially befitting on pondering the island’s ancient origins. Unlike many of the other Pacific archipelagos, New Caledonia’s beginning does not lie in recent volcanic activity, instead it’s a vestige of the supercontinent Gondwana. Before spending several million years beneath the ocean, it was once attached to Australia.

Then I walked, stamped really. Bent, huffing, wet with sweat, overwhelmed and underprepared. The path, marked by the red and white symbols of the GR treks that lace Europe (even the most hapless hiker would have to work pretty hard to get lost here), ambled along the coast and then climbed, skirting two waterfalls, until the vista sparkled as sunlight bounced off a wealth of waxy leaves. Below the shrubs were brain-like nubs of lichen, the colour of glow in the dark stars. An ecologist might know this as Maquis Shrubland – it’s an arid rocky terrain covered by a density of peculiar flora and sometimes it felt as if I were padding through a botanical garden. The feeling was well-founded – almost 80% of the plants exist just here and nowhere else on earth – only Hawaii and New Zealand can boast more endemic species. Unfortunately the nickel mining that bolsters the New Caledonian economy has destroyed much of the habitat – 25% of plant species here are considered at risk and at least five are now extinct. 

Dimness grew and when I spotted a refuge, rouged in light cast by a nearby campfire, I knew I had company. ‘We light the fire for you!’ called one of the trio sat loosely aback from the flames as I approached. The three French hikers, two guys and one girl – Aurelie, Oliver and Tibault – had met by chance days before and conspired to complete the Grand Randonnée together. Behind the refuge a river tumbled over rock and fell a metre into a now black pool I was assured was four metres deep, so in the dark, hoping distances didn’t get lost in translation, I jumped. Drying around the fire it was decided: ‘Tomorrow – we are four.’ 

The next day we hiked upwards through more brush and pockets of forest where palms diced the sunlight into thin slots. Replies to calls of ‘ça va?’ came later and later, in thinner voices, as we individually pondered whether we were in fact OK, decided probably not, and then mustered the energy required to manufacture a ‘Bien!’ that could pass as genuinely upbeat. The track eventually began to bound downwards, along the plunging axis of a ridge. Land to each side tumbled and then sprawled into a wide plain, dotted with shadow from the cloud-blotched sky above. We let gravity do more of the work until at last we threw off steaming boots and staggered through the open door of another of the tidy, wooden refuges which end each day on the trail. Soon chatter was mixed with the hum of gas stoves and the slurping of packet noodles and salted deer sausage scored from Noumea. The groans that followed verged on the sexual as we each flopped our weary legs onto thin sleeping mats as if they were goose down. 

Two of my comrades, like me, were not graduates of the Grand Randonnées of Europe, nor other multi-day treks. Nimble-footed Oliver though had battled perhaps the toughest, the Grand Randonnée 20 in Corsica, and was forever dancing spiritedly down steep descents and taking grand wading steps upwards. At the days close; metres from the refuge I needed ten miles ago, he remarked

‘Is like finger in zee nose, non?’
‘You don’t have finger in zee nose in English? Non? It means IT’S EASY! Like finger in zee nose!’
He demonstrates.
‘Oh right, I see. Yeah, that’s it.’ I fake a smile, ‘easy’ is not a word I would use. I think more of an elbow in my nose. A thigh in my penis.

In the burnt remnant of a forest victim to last year’s wildfires we came across a party of rangers who advised us to ‘Go between the breasts!’ Sure enough an hour later two prodigious bulbs swelled out of the forest, sweaty and breathless we made our way up through the metaphorical cleavage. From the col we spied a mist of approaching rain which blurred the far forest beyond our half-moon of ridges. It’s January, so the deluge that quickly beat down upon us was no big surprise, and we were soon cheered by vistas over Lake Yate and the Blue River which each owned a halo of russet earth and wheeling birds of prey above. Eventually our trail hit the riverbank where there were a stand of dead Kaori pine trees whose reflections stewed in murky water. A giant, living specimen trailside was almost 3 metres in girth, and a sign stateed that it began life a millennium ago. This fact though belies a less impressive one – primary forest like this is rare now in New Caledonia, only a fraction remains and the lion’s share of these fast growing Kaori trees have been long since felled for timber or wiped out in fires. 

We entered the Blue River Provincial Park which, like the shrubland before it, was home to strange and rare and plants and trees aplenty. It was the giant tree ferns that won my immediate attention, some of their trunks were over 50 feet in height and their umbrella of fronds, some of the largest leaves in the entire plant kingdom, conjured an impression of pre-history. It’s a well-deserved one – tree ferns were knocking around the Carboniferous swamps over 300 million years ago. It was these giant fronds that cast swords and daggers of sunlight onto the trail which was thick with fallen leaves, deadening my footfall. Perhaps it was this deftness that failed to startle the chicken sized white bird that strayed across my path. It’s a kagu, known among as the Kanak tribes as ‘the ghost of the forest’ and instantly familiar to me, despite its scarcity, because an image of the bird adorns the country’s bank notes, coins and tourist brochures. I froze so not to scare it away, though I needn’t have, the kagu is almost flightless, but it hissed at me as it waddled on orange legs, unhurried, into the bush.

The following day the dank forest grew much thicker, and kinked palm fronds clawed at us from the gloomy fringes of the narrow alleyway of foliage. Trees drooled moss and our feet faught for purchase on slippery stones among a smattering of carnivorous pitcher plants. Soon we were fighting for headroom as the path segued into a barely discernible trail, floored by a weave of roots where geckos scuttled, and warded by a toppling wall of fern. Often we crossed streams home to electric blue dragonflies where rainfall trickled between old debris – car-sized boulders and hulking trunks of fallen trees – heaved into a bygone torrent on the back of a visiting cyclone. 

At 1150 metres above the Pacific the trail wound up to another clearing and collectively we gave a gasp, of all the sublime vistas the Grand Randonnée had afforded us so far, this one was the best. Great waves of resplendent green ridges, riven by deep valleys, tracked into the far distance, and later, fire-side, there was an air of achievement in reaching the highest point on the hike, our contentment challenged only when a hairy spider crept over to share our warmth.

The ultimate day is a decent crescendo spent aside a yawning valley which dropped to a string of pellucid pools in the Dumbea River. We were not alone. Being a Sunday in the hottest month of the year, scores of families plied the banks. Having spent seven days in the wilderness our collision with humanity felt a rough one: children screamed, reggaton boomed, litter was strewn, and the satisfaction of a cool dip in the river ground against the suddenness of it all. But as we slumped, beaten on the river bank, entertainment arrived when local kids began to plummet at least 15 metres from overhanging trees into the water, and then a large family clustered around us, doling out barbequed meat and baguettes. 

Grand Randonnée of the North

There’s really only one quality the southern Grand Randonnée is missing, and the newly inaugurated Grand Randonnée of the north can supply it: an experience of local Kanak culture. The new four day 75 km trail journeys through the northwest of the island, a more populated and much wetter place. Back in Noumea locals half whispered about a sizable tropical depression that was moving in, as if the island was a testy relative and the storm one of their customary headaches. Perhaps it is Englishness which marks me loath to change plans for the weather, but I decided to set out anyway. Tibault, having declared hiking a new passion on the back of the previous hike, opted to come with me and kept me entertained with endearing malapropisms, suggesting for instance that if the weather turned we could ‘go hijacking’ which after careful questioning of my new friend revealed he meant hitch-hiking, to my immediate relief.

As we waited for a bus, palm fronds flapped maniacally in a punchy breeze and I wondered what was brewing in the Pacific and bound for New Caledonian shores. Our starting point was the village of Tchamba and we were glad to find a thatched hut which sat rather incongruously next to satellite dishes and solar panels. Instead of the refuges of the southern trek, this vernacular accommodation would serve as our shelter.

We began hiking through arable land where Kanaks waved to us from their crops of yam and groves of fruit trees. Then we passed into a dripping forest where dollops of light fell onto the cobweb-crossed path, unwon by a competing umbrella of foliage above. The rain began and built to a cloudburst. Hunched over, consumed by trawling ponchos, eyes hesitant to explore the world beyond the immediacy of the path, we missed quite an important junction. After retracing our muddy footprints, then tiny lakes of rain water, we decided to hitch-hike to Poindimie since the rivers ahead were likely to be impassable. En route we hit a tidal wave of local helpers including a Kanak man who gave us a ride, a student who offered us his phone and then Couchsurfer Thierry who supplied a bed and shower. Tibault, a tad disillusioned, then took a bus back to the capital. I decided to wait out the storm, one that had now grown big enough to put the island on Orange Alert and to earn the inappropriately tepid and rather delightful Christian name of ‘June’. The online weather tracker showed the extent of the hissy fit June was having over the Pacific – she was now an intense red, shaped like a spiral galaxy, and hundreds of kilometres across. And then the power went out. 

Over the next twenty four hours 160 mm of rain soaked my part of the island – twice the average total rainfall for London for the entire month of January. The wind speeds were not high enough to nudge it into the ‘cyclone’ category but even so a visit to the coast at the storm’s capstone – where there were wind-bowed palm trees and a giant swell – left an impression that it might be worthy of the title. In the wake of June I re-joined the trail which burrowed through murky mushroom-dotted forest and climbed up to ridges where it again rode humps of land and offered vistas of woodland awash with a motley of greens.

The river was too high to wade when I arrived, on each attempt I got half way out but the current was dangerously fast and I hiked back up the foul-scented muddy banks, not long ago flooded and covered in decomposing sugar cane. A refuge was my home for a day, every few hours I made a new sally to the river to check the water level (I’d left markers) and weighed up my options. One had been to build a raft – I had plenty of felled bamboo, string and a knife to my disposal, but decided that the idea was probably a bit ‘Bear Grylls’ and also that I had none of the qualities that makes Bear Grylls Bear Grylls, that is to say: know-how, courage or any amount of good sense. Eventually I found an easier channel and trudged onwards. Startled deer ran from path, I munched on wild pineapples and at last made it to a pretty village with more thatched huts, bamboo forests and bright flowers. It was my last stop. 

Coming home

The three weeks I had spent in New Caledonia did not feature resorts, the venerated white sand beaches or the heritage listed reef. Yet surveying the verdant mountains from my departing plane window, and knowing of all those unwalked forest-buried trails I was leaving behind, I felt I had been privy to a vastly underrated side of the island. Why New Caledonia doesn’t then attract a similar-sized flood of tourists as other Pacific destinations, Fiji for example, which gets six times the number each year, is hard to know. On paper, New Caledonia has enticements in droves. Some may be put off because it’s French speaking, others perhaps because it can be a bit pricey, but for adventure-seekers it’s a place that perhaps only in years to come will get the props it deserves.

I love aeroplanes. Every time the wheels thunder down a runway I feel an inch wonderstruck as it occurs to me that air travel really is the quintessence of mankind’s inventiveness, collective genius and raw ambition. So when strolling out into Sydney airport to see an incomprehensibly pathetic number of customs officials serving a line of passengers so vast that the tableau was instantly redolent of some kind of religious pilgrimage, I abruptly experienced the complete anathema to this pride in humanity. We can safely fly millions around the globe, between every major city, every day, how then, can we fuck up routine screening so magnificently? I asked myself. The line twisted like some great malicious tapeworm throughout the enormous terminal building, occasionally bunching and circumventing knots of disillusioned ex-queuers. The inching, beleaguered passengers had been stood for so long that many had taken to shaving and personal grooming. I believe a section of kids were being home schooled. Those with elderly relatives were scoping out suitable burial sites behind the luggage carousel. The International Red Cross were surely not long from intervening in this humanitarian disaster by air dropping bedding and food packages.

So eventually I was reunited with Claire back in Cairns who had spent the last few weeks in Tasmania where she visited a number of music festivals and writes beautifully about the experience here. Unfortunately a knee injury curtailed much cycling and so we’ll be taking it nice and slow when we begin pedalling through East Timor in a week’s time. Next blog post then – probably from Bali.

Lyvia and Krystie, Thierry, Ian, Sarah and Simon – you are all lovely humans, thank you.

And then there’s California…

“There is science, logic, reason; there is thought verified by experience. And then there’s California” – Edward Abbey

Street Life – Mooching around Los Angeles

LA was my office and playground for about a month and ‘work’ was gabbing away about my bike ride, mostly to school kids. I presented at small elementary schools where the pupils mmm’d and ahhhh’d and squirmed at my slides of snakes and spiders, and to an audience of over a thousand high school seniors at a prestigious private school where actor Will Smith sends his kids, who wanted to know whether cycling around the world was a religious experience.

I learnt some things along the way – like never to sign an autograph unless you have 45 minutes to spare because every kid will want one and you will be surrounded by a mob screaming ‘He’s famous! Sign my arm!’. And I have fielded all kinds of questions – the best came after telling a posse of teenagers I have had 210 punctures (lesson: use the more American ‘flats’ in future). One hand shot up and a perplexed youth wanted to know why I had been punched 210 times. I told him that I’m just very annoying.

Pimped up bikers at LA’s Ciclavia Bike Ride
One of my favourite quirks of America is how often strangers come over to make conversation. It’s refreshing and it’s disarming, but being accustomed to miserable England it took some getting used to. If this rare and brazen faux pas occurs in London I assume the person talking at me must be either

a)      Suffering from extreme loneliness
b)      Mentally ill
c)      Extremely drunk
d)      An American on vacation (bless them, they don’t know how to behave in the UK)

My bike is a conversation starter of course – it’s like having a gregarious wingman who’s forever introducing me to new people. And I have started to become Americanized with a z. More than once I have instigated a conversation with a stranger in the street whilst in the depths of my British brain a voice is going ‘My God Man! What are you DOING! Abort, abort, abort.’ And when I speak the American people who grin at my accent are unwittingly responsible for my ever more brutal and comical Lock-Stock style of the British voice. I don’t even hail from London, but I just can’t help it.

The USA is the most patriotic country I have travelled and that I’m ever likely to, though of course not everyone conforms to this stereotype, and less so in California. I know there’s a lot to be proud of, this post is full of American triumphs and delights, but the fact that I don’t see this facet of the national psyche as one of America’s virtues perhaps stems from the fact that I’m British and come from a place with crappy weather, worse food and ugly people. But then this particular brand of self-effacement is in itself something we are proud of, so maybe I’m a patriot too. Examples of America’s self-aggrandising abound – men who announce ‘Welcome to God’s Great Country!’. Bumper stickers that say ‘USA: Back to back World War champions’. The names of local servicemen on roadside flags – these are not men killed in combat, these are serving military personnel, what about the teachers and nurses and policemen serving the American people? Where are their flags? It’s all just a little weird.

Soon after leaving LA I stopped in Ventura and at the home of Cat and Pat Patterson, a couple who contacted me online with the kind offer of a place to crash. Pat had cycled around the world twice, once in the 80’s and again from 2003-2007 with his wife Cat. We drank wine, watched a film of Pat’s ride and talked about some of the pleasures and tests of a life on wheels before a zip around thrift stores so that I could replace the tatty hole-ridden vessels that were once recognizable as shoes.

I’m still revelling in the easiness of biking in the States and maps from the Adventure Cycling Association help, kindly donated to me by Calvin, a generous fella who heard me speak at REI and then gave me a bed for night and bought me dinner. So with cycle touring proving a cinch and a well-honed masochistic instinct still intact, I decided to leave the traditional well-worn Pacific Coastal route of California with it’s RVs, sea breeze, amenities, vegans and smooth tarmac and head instead for the hills.

A road in the sky – Cycling Camino Cielo (Santa Barbara county)

Local knowledge is sacred stuff and KG, a touring biker who came to my talk at a bike coop in Santa Barbara, had it in droves. By sheer coincidence KG’s Dad happened to be my burly companion Kenny who I sailed with from mainland Mexico to the Baja peninsula a few months before. Seeking an adventure away from Highway One I asked KG for advice and his reply came in Spanish – ‘Camino Cielo’. I liked the sound of it, the translation ‘sky road’ told me much of what I needed to know and KG filled in the details – a steep climb from the coast to 4000 feet where a hushed back country track rides a spine of rock in the Santa Ynez mountains.

‘The eye followed them up and up, and farther and farther, with the accumulating emotion of a wild rush on a toboggan…. It left you breathless, wonder-stricken, awed’. The words of author Stuart Edward White on the view of the Santa Ynez mountains from Santa Barbara. He was right. There’s no way out of Santa Barbara without crossing them – the San Marcos Pass is the shortest route and so was a popular spot for bandits to ambush traveling stagecoaches back in the mid-nineteenth century.

I pedaled up and away from Santa Barbara, from stop signs, traffic lights and convenience stores. Road cyclists breezed past me giving a ‘Wow!’ when they took in all my gear, and then a driver rolled down his window to reveal a wry smile before shouting ‘Damn masochist!’. He was right of course. If I were teleported to sea level every time I reached the high point of a road in the mountains, forgoing the reward of a breezy freewheel down the other side, I would still ride up into them. I enjoy the aftermath of pain, the light-headed buzz of breathlessness, the self-doubt and satisfaction they create.

Eventually I arrived at the Painted Caves, 400 year old drawings on rock made with ochre, charcoal and powerdered shells which were created by the Chumash Indians who lived in these hills long before the freakish crowd that makes up modern day California moved in. Visitors had signed the guest book, one entry read ‘We are on a bachelor party! Caves were great! Now we are looking forward to beer and titties!’ the entry ended with a sketch of a woman with enormous breasts which highlighted as well as the Indian cave paintings mankind’s propensity to explain through art. Unnecessarily, perhaps.

I continued climbing. Soon darkness billowed and wafted over the coast like smoke. The plum tinted streaks of cloud were quickly leached of their shine and the stars began to blink and sparkle. I slept rough on an elevated concrete platform, a strange thing – circular, flat, hidden from the road and overlaid with graffiti, and whose function I couldn’t work out. Someone had sprayed ‘locals only’ on the metal stairs leading up onto it and torn cigarettes littered the centre. I guessed that it now served as a weed smoking den for local kids and I was proved right when some ventured up the stairs in the evening. ‘Oh!’ one exclaimed when he spotted my makeshift campsite. ’So I guess we’ll go somewhere else?’,  ‘Umm, Yes please’ and I was alone again as the street lights of distant Santa Barbara flickered to life two thousand feet below.

The next day Camino Cielo turned to dirt and I was left with just the trill of insects and the increasing subdued sounds of gun shots from a local gun club. Nature moved in around me, a green ambush. Hummingbirds jerked and shimmied around the flowering plants which fired up the vista. Crested Caracaras swooped low over the ascending road, one of the most dramatic I have cycled, and the land beside it tumbled on one side into the sheen of Cachuma Lake and the other into remote farmland which flanked the Pacific. In the solace of the wilds I was reminded of the creatures that call it home – Coyote droppings in the dirt, and when I rounded a corner something large and furry ahead sprang up and lumbered away into the bush. The sight of a black bear, just a few miles from people’s homes, reminded me just how alluring and wild much of America’s third largest state actually is.

My plan was to ride through wine country and join the Pacific coast further north but a mistake at a junction took me back to the coast only 15 miles or so from the town I had left two days earlier. But, as with all excursions away from and beyond the well-trodden path, it was worth it.

Biking a legend – Highway One on two wheels

The venerable Highway One is a tourist destination unto itself – it twists around rocky inlets and coves, skims over cliff tops and meanders over headlands whilst the tourists inside gargantuan RVs and riding roaring Harleys take in the ocean view. En route I camped in the cheap and friendly Hiker-Biker camps (which I love more than chocolate) and took (stole) showers from expensive RV parks. Even when my days on Highway One were marred by murk and drizzle, and when the coastline had a menace to it, the Californian golden poppy sparkled, drivers honked their encouragement and finding a cheap place to crash was as easy as sourcing a cheap burrito.

Elephant seals, even without David Attenborough’s mellifluous tones in the background, are impressive beasts, especially when sparring. A beach full of them lies off highway one near Piedras Blancas and I stopped to get some photos of the animals in action:

I usually have a mental list of outlandish adventures I want to accomplish in the next 12 months or so. Cycling Highway One was a long term dream. Another involved a Mexican girl. But in amongst them was the long held desire to sleep in a cave, honestly, it was. So when KG’s email mentioned ‘Pirates Cove’ and a sea cave I decided this would be my chance. I arrived in the pitch black of night determined to shorten that list, and I did it in style – sea view, en suite (err, kind of), open air balcony and minibar (a beer in my pannier). And unlike the penthouse, free.

I closed in on the famous stretch of coastline known as Big Sur. One evening I walked my bicycle off the road up into a grassy space beside an abandoned Ranger’s hut only to find another biker had got there first. Nate had been riding for two years, mainly in the bits of Asia I was most excited about. He grew up in Berkeley and had just a few days left of his epic world tour and I could sense his conflicting emotions – the predictable elation melded with panic. Knowing I will probably suffer the same when I return I advised Nate to pitch his tent in his back yard and slowly reintegrate back into society. The next day we set off together.

The majority of bikers ride south down the Pacific coast, aided by the prevailing trade winds, but Nate and I were exceptions to the rule. Most days on Highway One I would come across these smug south-bounders – ‘You’re going the wrong way!’ their annoying spiel would begin. ‘Oh Yeah, right’ would be my weak and tired reply having heard this twice already that morning. So when Nate and I met swift tail winds and rocketed up the coast of California we made it our business to pull over every south-bound cycle tourer and remind them.
‘Hey man, hows that wind for ya? Must be tough.’
‘It’s gonna be a long day for you guys’.
Two sulked silently, a look of defeat etched on their faces. I think one snarled.

The next day ended with a game of scrabble in a taphouse and a boozy ride in the dark back to camp in amongst the grand coastal redwoods this coastline is so famous for. The next day Nate had a plan, and I was invited.

Big Sur on the hoof – Hiking to Sykes hot springs

Stop in any urban public place in America and look around – you can be sure to see two things. The first is a signpost or seven telling you about all the things there are to be scared about. I call this the ‘Tsunami-Risk Zone Syndrome’ after a spate of signposts near Los Angeles. It could also be termed ‘Beware of Falling Acorns Syndrome’. The second is yet another batch of signposts telling you what you shouldn’t do and what will happen if you do. The consequences are usually enormous fines or some other spine-tingling threat…

‘Do not cross the railroad tracks here, or the US government will eat your grandmother’. 

Or ‘Do not dump litter here. Penalty: Death by steamroller’. 

The word ‘liability’ is used so often I presumed it must be some sort of involuntary vocal tick, but as it turns out people do actually mean what they say. People crave liability as much as the bubonic plague. So when the Park Service at our campground refused to let us stash our stuff there for the two day return hike to some hot springs (‘Liability, Sir’), I was chuffed when a helpful park volunteer offered to let us stash our gear at his campsite which I think shows that as long as everyone is this helpful, Liability Tourette’s doesn’t matter all that much.

We marched off, pack-laden and sweating, up onto the first ridge whilst around us the soundscape was rich with the creaking of redwoods, the knock of woodpeckers and the low gush of the river hidden in the valley depths, only the odd harsh squawk of a Stellar Jay stabbed at the tranquillity. The sinuous trail dipped down to creeks and then climbed to reveal a yawning valley which burrowed through redwood groves out to the invisible ocean somewhere now in our wake. The Sequoias, megalithic and fire-blackened, towered overhead, some trunks had been smashed into hollows by lightning strikes of centuries past, some in this forest were alive at the fall of the Roman Empire. The trail snaked close to the broad, rusty mid-sections offering a pang of vertigo when gazing at either the roots or the upper reaches. Between the trees a tide of resplendent green made of redwood sorrel and poison oak was broken only by the surreal shiny bark of manzanita. On the way I discovered a chest high stick which I used both as a walking aid and as a prop in my intermittent impressions of Gandalf the wizard. On the 12 mile hike to the hot springs we paused every now and then to examine some curiosity of the Californian wilds – yellow bellied newts, some strange striated snake, and then on a mossy log, a slimy yellow Banana Slug.

‘Go on, lick the slug’ goaded Nate
‘Nate, I’m not going to lick a slug’
‘Come on man, lick it. You have to’
‘I don’t have to’
‘Just a quick lick’
‘Will I get high or something?’ I asked, imagining the hallucinogenic toads of Mexico
‘No, no, no. But you still have to lick it’
‘You’re asking me to lick a bright yellow, slimy thing for no reason at all’
‘Look man, if you don’t feel completely welcome in California yet it’s because you haven’t licked a banana slug’
‘I feel welcome Nate’ 
‘Oh for Christ’s sake’

I licked the slug. Nate licked the slug.

‘Welcome to California! Now lets get going.’

As sunset encroached we waded a river and found a multinational posse of trekkers camped out near the hot springs. After lolling in the steamy waters, perfect relief after the time spent on foot, we cooked around a campfire before collapsing into slumber. I woke to find that my legs, unaccustomed to doing much except move in circles, were no longer as functional as I remembered them. Plus, I was in a world of pain.

A Gopher Snake

Yellow bellied Newt

Bayside antics and Bay to breakers – San Francisco

I had the name ‘Warren’ scribbled onto some paper along with rough directions, my friend Ryan had told me that he would host us in Monterey. When we finally found Warren in the hills above the town, we found a man with stories. 

In the 60’s Warren co-wrote the anthem ‘Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye’ (if the name doesn’t ring a bell, you’ll know it when you hear it. It’s often sung to the losing opposition at sports events and has been covered a bunch of times). He was a millionaire by age 19 and working for Mercury Records as a sound engineer at a time where that was a rare profession. By the sounds of it he spent the next couple of decades squandering his fortune and having a blast by working closely with rock legends and pioneers including Jimmy Hendrix, Jon Lennon and a whole host of other household names. More recently he bought the State Theatre in Monterey which hosts live music events and he gave us a tour the following day.

San Francisco was a great venue for downtime and I spent it with Fin, Jon and Max – relatives I’d hardly met before. I now realise that my Irish heritage has benefits above and beyond the genetically inherited appreciation of Guinness, namely relatives everywhere. My mum was waiting for me with them, it was great to catch up – I hadn’t seen her for two years. By day we explored San Francisco and Alcatraz. In the evenings I made some sorely needed cash for the months to Alaska with more talks in schools and even people’s homes in which Fin set up a kind of donation jar and everyone generously chipped in. When I wasn’t performing these talks I listened to Fin and my mum and learnt more about my Irish family background and the characters that coloured it.

At the end of my stay came Bay to Breakers – a eccentric and very San Francisco street race followed by the more important street party where elaborate costumes or nudity are de rigueur and alcohol is slugged for hours. I was sitting in Goldengate park, sipping on a beer too, and waiting for Nate to arrive whilst watching some people party on the roof of one of the four story buildings on the edge of the pan-handle. And then something fell, something human-shaped. It seems strange to me now that I assumed it was a mannequin but in amongst the total strangeness of that day I thought it was some bizarre practical joke on the pedestrians below. Those on the sidewalk didn’t react with shock or horror, they just froze. It was only when the crowd on the roof began screaming did I realise I had just seen a body drop fifty feet onto concrete. I leapt up and sprinted across the park to find a young unconscious man on the sidewalk and next to him another doctor and a paramedic. We all chipped in with the resuscitation effort, stabilised his cervical spine, inserted a plastic tube into his mouth to keep his airway patent and put him on oxygen. Help arrived and he was moved onto a spinal board before being taken to the hospital. Sadly he died that night. He was 28 years old.

Mum and the mountains – Exploring Yosemite

It takes a lot to impress me these days. The back country, and all it’s stirring artistry, has been my home for most of the last three and a half years. When sunshine swept through our coach as it exited the tunnel inside Yosemite National Park, one of the three jewels in the crown of the US park system, the view set my mandible into a kind of involuntary and helpless free-fall that only a choice few spectacles have done.

My eyes were drawn first to the left and El Capitan, the hulking granite monolith which shoots up 2500 ft from the valley floor, beloved by technical climbers the world over. On the other side of the valley cascading water glistened in Bridalveil Falls, and between them the distant half dome, once the site of an improbable soft ball game. Climbers sauntered around gazing occasionally up towards their eventual destinations. The U shaped Yosemite valley carved by glaciers is simply a masterpiece, and still a work in progress as the slow sculptors of wind, rain and ice continue to reshape the land.

Yosemite was made all the more satisfying after our mission to get there. Car packed, mum schooled in American road rules, campsite booked, we set off towards the park. Our Dodge was borrowed from people we had never had the chance to meet. Thirty miles before Yosemite, on the start of a climb, there was a beeping sound and the light ‘check gauges’ flashed. We pulled up in 50 meters and steam billowed from the engine – envisioning a raging inferno we carted everything out of the car and flagged down the next vehicle which by some bizarre coincidence was a tow truck. The mechanics gathered around and quickly concluded the motor was finished and not worth replacing, our borrowed car was heading to the scrap yard.

The campsite down the road outside a motel was run by a woman with learning disabilities and a drunk guy who lived in the only trailer and who played rock music at full volume for most of the night. Hesitantly we decided to stash our stuff with them and took to buses to get to the park where my mum, who hadn’t been camping in forty years, slept fitfully in a valley renowned for the 400 black bears that reside here and that often stray into campgrounds in search of food.

We started with Yosemite Falls, the highest waterfall in the lower 48 states and allegedly the 5th highest in the world, which was funny because I had visited the fifth highest in Peru, 150 metres higher than Yosemite (Yosemite is actually 20th) but natural wonders always get a little embellished by their tour guides. The next day was a tour to Glacier Point and Jack our guide told the legend of Bridalveil falls – looking into the falling water for thirty seconds would mean you will be married in six months. My mum, anxious for a daughter in law and grandchildren one day, nudged me and grinned. Our bus continued past Ponderosa pine trees, the bark coloured a lustrous green by staghorn lichen, which eventually gave way to ghost forests where the larvae of tip moths had laid waste to the life and greenery. As we descended the larger leaved black oak, maple and incense cedar crept back into view. El Capitan was visible again too and Jack told of an 81 year old climber who scaled the granite monster a few years before. It was my turn to do the nudging, my mum considers herself a spritely 62 year old.

Phew! A mammoth blog post and I didn’t even get to mention Alcatraz, Ciclavia or a ton of other crazy stuff I’ve done. Massive thank yous to my hosts and general good people this month – Alan and Eno, Fin, Jon and Max, Calvin, Alynka, Kent, Pat and Cat Patterson, Brian, Janna, Laura and family, Warren, Angelika and family, Bicycle Ambulance for a free bike service, KG, and of course my mum. And I know I’m forgetting several people. You know who you are. I blame it on drink.

Next up – I’m off today, north through the Marijuana plantations of Northern California, into Oregon and Washington. I have less than a month to get to Vancouver from where my next post will come from. For anyone interested I’m speaking in Oregon at Velocult on the 6th of June.

Finally  – a plea for help: I have an unexplained website script problem on I designed the site with a friend before I left with the intention of doing very little with it once on the road. I’ve barely touched the site recently and it’s been so long since I used Joomla that I’ve forgotten how to! If anyone has any experience with Joomla / website design and might know how to help and has the time then please get in touch and I’ll explain my issue – Cheers!

Reggae, rain and a dodgy beard

Despite contending with mountains and ice I have hugely enjoyed the thirty three days I spent cycling through France. It was a privilege to cycle through the big alpine landscape and the Champagne countryside but more than anything I am grateful for the goodwill and hospitality of the French people. I am grateful to the people who took me, fed me and gave me a bed for the night on three separate occasions and to the strangers who bought me breakfast in cafes twice. I am grateful to the man who saw me cycling and insisted that I take ten euros to buy myself a coffee and some food. I am grateful to the supermarkets for stocking 1 litre bottles of coconut flavoured Yops. I am grateful to whoever decided to build tunnels under the Alps when I was tired of cycling over them. I am grateful for all the bike lanes (France has many) and to the French drivers who often gave me so much space that I feared I would be unwittingly responsible for a collision between them and a vehicle coming the other direction. I am grateful to the farmer who found me rough camping in his field the morning after a storm and instead of chasing me off his land with a shotgun gave me an understanding nod and a smile. Finally I am grateful to the French Alps and The Jura for teaching me to man up and for making the next leg comparatively easy. In fact the only thing I am ungrateful for is that scrappy mongrel who gave chase and very nearly sunk his teeth into my left ankle near Nice. You are a disgrace to your country. Vive la France!

After a brief visit to Monaco I crossed the border and arrived in Italy to a very Italian welcome. It was carnival season and soon after crossing the border a festival procession passed by with children on floats wearing an array of different costumes. Whilst waiting at the traffic lights and watching the display a young Italian girl threw a full bucket of confetti over my head. I cycled off chuckling and haemorrhaging confetti in my wake. In Switzerland I heard the locals describe the French as a little “chaotic”. I wonder which adjective they would choose to describe the Italian mentality. I cycled past cars at jaunty angles in Italian town centres, less parked and more abondoned with hazards flashing and as I approached Italian cities the apparent distance to my destination would intermittently rise and fall according to which road signs you chose to believe.

I had to rest in Genoa. There was no getting away from it. The hills and cold had taken its toll on my body, or more likely my student days of hedonism and indulgence which had spilled over into my postgraduate life had led to some serious deconditioning. This, I realised, would take a while to reverse. In any case I have lost almost 10% of my body weight in the last two months despite a voracious appetite. To ensure my weight plateaus I have introduced a new meal into my daily routine and “Middle breakfast” will now take place between breakfast 1 and breakfast 2. Twice I have wondered which component of my bike was clicking only to realise the sound was emanating from my left knee. This then proceeded to become painful and swollen. My back has been giving me the occasional spasm and I have some tendonitis in my hands due to clutching too hard to my handlebars. I took heed of my accident and emergency acronym RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) and put my feet up in Genoa for a few days before pushing on. My plan was to take off into Cinque Terre; a strange rugged coastal landscape with terraces spread over steep hills. My Lonely Planet guide to Cycling Italy described the riding as “demanding”. I naively shrugged this off forgetting that whilst I might be on a world tour as opposed to the average LP reader, I have a fully loaded touring bike and a dodgy left knee. But reinforced with cappuccino, cold pizza and a tubigrip I felt up to the challenge, at least mentally.

A rouge glow at dawn heralded the change coming my direction. The weather turned and it was my fault. I had commented to a friend the previous night that since reaching the coast I had been lucky with the weather. Hex number one. Then foolishly I believed the forecast on the BBC weather website and should have known better. The sullen murk descended and I was robbed of the views that I had worked so hard to enjoy, but every so often the grey veil lifted to reveal a glimpse of the landscape below. The road snaked towards and away from the coastline in a series of sharp chicanes. With an offshore breeze this gave the strange sensation of slowly fighting a headwind on the descents followed by exuberant sprightly climbs uphill with the aid of a tailwind. But things were about to get even steeper. I had saved money on my map of Northern Italy and mine gave little information about the altitude although I was in little doubt as to what lay in store. All the signs were there. The road I had started on was a series of S shaped curves on my map and I saw a sign stating that the road was open but that coaches were not allowed to proceed. I noticed young Italians passing me in four wheel drives with skis and snowboards strapped to the roof racks. Worryingly I also realised that even those Lycra-clad hill junkies of the coast were nowhere to be seen.

I began the thirty five kilometres of almost continuous uphill climbing and by lunch had reached the pass, cycling from roughly sea level to 1200 metres and back into the snow zone. My knee was complaining but I felt exhilarated and glad for the challenge and the change. The Riviera had felt crowded and claustrophobic with little countryside and I had been yearning for some wide open spaces. A group of Italian men bought me a glass of wine at the top of the pass. “Fantastico!”, pat on the back and I plunged down the other side to the pancake flat terrain of the Po river delta and on to Venice.

Cycling in Italy is a competitive sport and the common questions I had got used to “where have you come from?” and “where are you going?” were replaced with “how many kilometres have you done today?” from the Italian cyclists, invariably male. I enjoyed the Italian sense of humour as much as the landscape. Whilst friends in England have compared my new bearded look as akin to that of a Morris Dancer, Italians commented on my hairy visage by putting an arm around my shoulder, grinning and saying “hello homeless man!”. Whilst in Italy I also briefly appeared in the local newspaper in Ferrara, Italy’s “City for cyclists”. I was described as “The Real Forest Gump”. In a town near Ferrara a street gang of elderly Italian men stopped me in the street to comment on my shortcomings of bicycle maintenance.

“You need to oil your chain”.
“I know, thanks”
“Your saddle is too high”
“I think its OK”
“When you come home you will have huge ass”
The gentleman then pranced around with his hands held out behind him to mimic my grossly engorged buttocks. His posse roared with laughter.

The ride from Venice to Trieste was complicated by torrential rain which persistently without cessation for three days and nights whilst I cycled and rough camped at petrol stations, staying clear of the swollen rivers. Many times as I cycle I sing. This is not a habit I had at home and for good reason. The more horizontal the rain and the more punishing the headwind the sunnier my songs become. On the third day I had bashed out an assortment of reggae classics and I was launching into “in the summertime” by Mungo Jerry when I spotted a hunched figure walking through the aerial onslaught in the road ahead. Poncho, beard, pack, a look of resolve. An adventurer. As I greeted him he turned towards me and his face lit up.

“You’re are the first travelling man I have seen in two months” he said with a French accent
“Where are you walking to?”
“I walk to Mongolia!” He announced.

After establishing we were on equally preposterous missions we took some time to share food, tea, stories of alpine cold and tips on how to live cheap on the road. Mateo is a French sculptor and as he walks he leaves cairns along his route. I hopped off my bike and walked with him for fifteen kilometres through the night. We camped together in the park before parting ways the following day. I admired his pluck and his ambition but also his resourcefulness. On his year and half march across the Eurasian landmass he gets by on very little by cooking on open fires and resolving to never spend money on accommodation. “There is always somewhere to sleep” he told me. He had no map but simply walked towards the rising sun in the morning and followed his compass bearing east through the day. This is his blog, in French but with good photos of his work.

Croatian drivers are faster than the Italians. This is a significant statement. In Italy I had begun to suspect someone was putting amphetamines in the Foccacia. As I cycled down the Adriatic coast cars and motorbikes whizzed by and I tried not to look at the roadside memorials, most for young Croatians and many I suspected had died on the road. The fierce weather continued to slow my progress but the rust coloured rock of northern Croatia looked spectacular in the wet. Whenever the sun came out I converted my bike to a rolling drying rack, clothes flapping in the breeze. A cycling rag and bone man. I knew that soon there would be no more putting on wet socks in the morning. Friends were waiting near Zadar with curry, beer, a bed and means to wash and dry the sodden conglomerate mass of fabric that used to represent my clothes.

I said goodbye and set off but again the recurring theme of my journey showed its teeth. As I rode through the hills I saw a flash in the distance. Sheet lightning. Soon I was in the midst of the storm. I had seen electrical storms of this intensity only once before in India. Forks of lightning were visible every ten seconds and I saw one hit the ground perhaps only two kilometres from my location. Milliseconds separated the spark and the boom. In the hills I was exposed and vulnerable. I sought refuge at a small cafe and ate Jaffa cakes whilst I watched for two hours as storm after storm rolled in and lightning lit up the horizon in almost every direction as I looked on. The next morning began with crimson patches of light scintillating over the eastern sky and the new day was a stark contrast to the one before. Sun, sea and the winter tranquility of the Adriatic coastline conspired to make this the best cycling of my trip so far. I coasted south over gentle undulations with the help of a slight tailwind. By nightfall I had covered 160 km. My front light wasn’t working but with little traffic and a full moon I continued into the night, exhilarated and high on endorphins. I reached Dubrovnik, the pearl of the Adriatic, on the last day of February. Time to kill with another friend, time to rest my knee and time to explore the nearby island national park of Mljet.

I leave Western Europe behind with my budget in tatters and hoping to gain some fiscal control in the cheaper and beautiful Balkan lands ahead. Tomorrow I start on my way to the next stopping point, the European capital of culture and the end of continent number one… Istanbul.

Random statistics from my journey so far…

Distance cycled: 3470 km
Top speed: 67.1 km/hr (The Approach to Gap, Les Alpes)
Countries travelled through: 8
Nights I have paid for accommodation: 9 / 58
Most amount of Milka consumed in one sitting: 450g