Despite the government’s best efforts, the number of Covid cases in Singapore continues to rise, now driven overwhelmingly by outbreaks in the foreign workers’ dormitories. As such, the government has instituted ever tighter restrictions on our movements.
I had been primarily working from home already, ever since I returned from LA on March 8. But while we’d cut down our social gatherings, and nights eating out, we had still continued to swim, to play tennis, and to kayak. Now all of these, even kayaking, has been taken away from us. Technically, we can still go to the parks for walks, but given that the government has closed down ever more places, everyone is just going to congregate in ever greater numbers there. I guess it’s time to just hunker down in our apartment for the next few weeks and hope that these measures will work.
Otherwise, I can’t really complain. Not being able to go out sucks – and in normal circumstances, we would have spent Easter in Phuket, kayaking. But, unlike a lot of people, we are able to continue working from home – and still have a busy schedule to keep up, which means job security. Also, unlike many others, Jeff and I have our own home offices, so we aren’t on top of each other while we take our conference calls. And also, we don’t have kids, so we can’t really empathize with the harried parents who have to deal with both working from home and teaching their kids at the same time.
So, instead of 2020 being the year of travel, this is the year I learn to appreciate what we have. Our health, our jobs, a comfortable roof over our heads, and a spread out but still close circle of friends we can keep in touch with in these times.
And given the additional time I have indoors, I thought it might be a good opportunity to root through old photographs on my hard drives and back them up online.
Here are some memories that I dredged up from 2006-2007:
Ice climbing weekend in Munising, Michigan. That was the first time I’d gone ice climbing ever! Fun memories. Some quotes from my journal from that trip:
The lands around us – even the road – were blanketed in a thick, glorious white, a fluffy pure white that I have not seen in Chicago this winter.
Rows of Christmas trees lined the road, their sturdy pine branches seeming to bend under the heavy weight of the snow. I was excited – we all were. There was no more doubt that there wouldn’t be enough snow/ice for us this weekend. As it were, it was starting to snow out – heavily. The howling winds churned up those fat wet flakes that had just settled onto the ground, and sent them twirling in mad spirals in front of us, around us, such that visibility quickly fell to a mere 10 feet.
Our planned 7.5 hour drive was stretching out into a 11 hour marathon before us. No matter though, we were still excited; I forgot my usual attempts to spare the others from my singing and started belting out all the camping songs I could remember.
Finally, finally, we pulled into the parking lot by our trail head. Remembering the ranger’s backcountry camping directions, we each shouldered our camping gear and set off on the trail to find a nice sheltered spot to pitch tent. The wind had by now picked up, and screeched and yowled while sending snow flying directly into our eyes. With bent heads, we struggled our way across the foot of snow, slowly raising one leg and sinking it knee-deep into the snow, and then even more slowly raising the other to step forward.
I picked up climbing regularly in 2006, and Pauline, whom I’d met by chance at a local bouldering gym the day we independently decided to pick up the sport, became my fast climbing buddy. We made an early trip out to Devils Lake Wisconsin in the spring, and it was just gorgeous.
We went up to Munising for the ice climbing festival again in 2007. We’d intended to camp again, but aborted our plans at the last minute given the frigid weather. Luckily, we had a couple other friends who drove up from Chicago too, and they let us bunk in at their cabin.
What a surreal first quarter! I feel like we’ve been playing dodge ball with the fast spreading Corona virus; been incredibly lucky to date. As I write this, the US government has just announced a 30 day ban on travel to Europe; the Indian government has also put a stop on foreigners traveling to India until April 15.
In traveling for both work and fun this year…
Jeff narrowly missed getting quarantined in Guangzhou in January – a few days after he’d returned, the Chinese government announced travel bans
Two days after we left Venice, the Italian government announced a citywide quarantine
I managed to get into the US 10 days after leaving Italy, and before the US announced the new spate of travel bans
While I was in the US, Singapore enacted the mandatory quarantine on travelers who’d visited Italy in the past 14 days; luckily, by the time I touched back down into Singapore from the US, I’d been away from Italy for 19 days.
Hopefully our luck holds. At the very least, we’re staying put this next month.
Anyway, happily, I still managed to go to the US for work (if the conference had been a week later though, we most likely would have cancelled. As it were, we were given the option at the 11th hour and during the conference itself to leave if we wanted). A few coworkers and I decided to go camping at Joshua Tree the weekend before.
It was most of their first time camping – and we had to scrounge to buy and get the camping gear for everyone. But it turned out fantastic!
Twilight at our campsite. By the time we’d settled on the camping idea, all of the campsites within the Joshua Tree National Park itself was already booked, given that this was the peak period. Happily we did find this barebones but quiet campground a half hour outside the park. We had a camping platform and a wooden fence to block off wind, but otherwise wide open land.
After dinner, we decided to head back into the park for a bit of astrophotography. There was a half moon out, which beautifully lit up our foreground for long exposure shots. We didn’t stay long though – the elevation was higher in the park and the wind stronger, so we quickly got chilled.
Back at our campsite, we settled down outside with mugs of tequila to watch the half moon set at around 11pm.
After the moon had set, three of us decided to drive back into the park to try our luck at spotting the milky way. Alas, we realized only later that the milky way season in North America is shorter than in Australia. Apparently, the best times for milky way spotting is in the summer in Joshua Tree. Oh well – we had fun driving down the dark windy paths in the pitch dark.
After a few hours hunkered down in our sleeping bags, we roused again at 530am to drive back into the park for sunrise. Given the clear skies the night before, we weren’t expecting much color, but it was still lovely to breath in the fresh cool air and see the sun slowly paint the rocks and desert sand a warm orange glow.
I wish we had more time to spend in the park, to slowly hike the backcountry trails. As it was, we had to return to the city. So after breakfast and packing up, we just drove through the park, from the North Entrance through the South, before turning back to LA.
I’d been anticipating our Greenland kayaking trip all year (we’d put down deposits last December), but as we made the circuitous travel to Greenland via London and Copenhagen, I tried not to set my expectations too high. Would the group be a great bunch? Would the weather turn out fair? Would we get to see the northern lights and also enjoy spectacular sunsets? Would we get to see tons of icebergs?
It was everything I expected and then some.
We had an amazing bunch of people. All super helpful, proactive, and hilarious with their odd British witticisms and slangs (and oof, the copious amount of tea they drank at every opportunity!). With the exception of two Canadian brothers in university, everyone else lived in the UK, including a transplanted Kiwi and Aussie. It was awesome to chat with like-minded folks who shared a similar love for exploration and travel.
The weather for the most part held up as well. Days were between 3 and 10 degrees Celcius, and felt pleasantly warm in the sun. I didn’t need to use my pogies (mittens that went over the paddles for kayaking) at all paddling, and only pulled out my gloves for the glacial hike. We were only rained out one night / day, when the wind howled and slapped against our tent so violently the entire night that we slept in fits and starts. The Canadian boys’ tent pole broke under the relentless assault. We were quite relieved, thus, when at 630am, our guide came by to tell us that we weren’t going to have to pack up camp and kayak to our next spot after all. I’d already finished packing my loose gear and about to embark on the tedious process of pulling on my dry suit, but happily unrolled my sleeping bag again for a lie in. That day, a third of the group, hardier souls, ventured out into the elements for some hiking. I preferred the comfort of the dining tepee, where I camped out literally the entire day playing my new favourite game of Monopoly Deal.
We did see the northern lights. Our first night in Greenland, we stayed in a hostel in the tiny town of Narsaq. Everyone was feeling a bit jet lagged and no one stayed up, but according to our guides there was a display that night. Our first night camping, I couldn’t see anything when I got up in the middle of the night to shoot some pictures, though when Jeff woke up to pee he thought he saw a faint glow on the horizon. It was not only till the second night camping, when I took a test shot on my camera at 11pm that we realised the faint glow on the horizon – what we mistook for city lights, even though there wasn’t a town for miles – was in fact the green-purple glow of northern lights. But on night 3, just after sunset, the spectacle was so clear and active that we couldn’t mistake the scene. This time, everyone was still awake, and we spent easily a half hour in the deepening chill, gazing awestruck at the dancing display above head.
With that incredible display of northern lights, I wasn’t terribly disappointed thus that we never got the vivid colours of pink purple at sunrises or sunsets. Still, we couldn’t complain with the beautiful warm days, paddling through mostly flat water, traversing through broken pieces of melting icebergs. Some of the icebergs were small enough pieces that we didn’t bother slaloming around, and instead paddle right on top and through them. Others were taller, dripping structures fifteen feet high from water level. We stayed a respectful distance from these.
So yes, we had a most fantastic trip. Our visit seemed most timely, right in the middle as it was of Trump’s outlandish offer to purchase Greenland, and at the tail end of a season with a heartbreaking record heat wave. The BBC article that was published right at the end of our expedition showed in stark detail just how much the Sermilik glacier (the very one we were camped across for 3 nights) has receded in the last 15 years.
We’re from our epic trip kayaking and camping in Greenland (plus a few days’ stopover in Copenhagen, where we got to meet with old Sydney-sider friends and feast in some of the best restaurants in the world.
Anyway, I’ve finally downloaded the photos to the large screen and I’m starting to look through some now. This picture brought me right back to camping night 2 of our Greenland trip, in this quiet little bay. I woke up at 11pm to try my luck spotting northern lights, and initially, couldn’t spot anything with my naked eye. But a quick look at the test shot I took on my camera yielded this. As I stared back into the night sky, the lights grew stronger and more active, so I woke the others up and we spent some glorious 20 minutes stamping our feet in the frozen ground, mesmerized by the dancing display above.
What makes a trip? The scenery, the weather, of course. But gorgeous scenery abound. At the end of the day though, it’s the fuzzy, warm feeling that you get when you look back. Feelings borne from the company we keep.
There’s TS, a grandfather of four, but more fit and strong than I could ever be. He’s always the first ready in the mornings to push off, having packed away his gear and stashed his tent back into his kayak when everyone else is still struggling to get back into damp clothes. There’s Shoe, kind hearted and generous, and always with a ready laugh. There’s Chelsea, a casual kayaker by her own reckoning but who chose to come on this expedition as her one crazy thing to do a year (her previous adventures include joining a whale shark research program in the Maldives for two weeks, learning free diving, and running the NYC marathon). There’s Scott, a contract teacher at one of the top secondary schools in Singapore but who also spends half of the year kayaking the lakes in his native Canada. Then there are the guides Huey and Rey, cool as cucumbers and super chill with their laid back attitudes. Nonetheless, they run an efficient operation – even as we kick back at the end of the day to rest our tired bodies from the day’s kayaking, they are in the background quietly ensuring that our meals get delivered, along with treats such as bottles of Filipino brandy, rum, and beer.
So it was we laughed through a lovely week with this crew.
Day five: The day we hit the famous El Nido Islands
Ever since we went diving in Tubbataha Reef in 2017, the Palawan islands held my attention. At the Puerto Princessa airport where we landed, billboards touting the crystal green waters of these karst islands captivated me. So when we found out that Kayak Asia was organizing a week long kayaking and camping trip here, we did not hesitate to sign up.
The scenery did not disappoint. There’s a magical beauty to these imposing limestone monoliths that rise vertically from the ocean floor. Over millenia, the waves have eroded away the bottoms, so we could seek shelter from the sun under their overhanging roofs.
After a long day on the water, we were looking forward to land and stretch our legs. But first, another surf landing. A milder one, but it’s all about the timing, and this time, the waves got the better of Jeff.
Most of the beaches this side of Palawan are owned by private families. So private, it’s impossible to contact them beforehand to ask for permission to camp. But they’re usually looked after by solitary caretakers in tidy little shacks on the island, and these caretakers are usually willing to let us beach for a night. Otherwise, it can be quite a lonely existence. One caretaker we met subsisted on instant noodles and sardines nearly every meal, and sometimes went without speaking to anyone else for months at a time.
Day six: Another day exploring the Palawan Islands
The sun was back out today, which was awesome since the light cut right through the waters all the way to the bottom of the sea bed. The coral reefs in Palawan are very healthy, which is heartening to see, though we expected to see much more fish. Still, we did spot turtles along our paddles, and in the water, I did see a sting ray, and a banded sea snake, amongst the usual colorful reef fish. No sharks, though Shoe thought she might have spotted a dugong on the surface.
Day seven: Last full day on the water
I slept so well with the fly sheet propped open. The air was crisp and cool, with a gentle breeze, and we awoke to another stunning sunrise. Our last day of camping, and our last full day on the water.
We passed the so called Secret Lagoon today, one of the dozens of must-see tourist attractions in El Nido. There must have been at least a dozen long tail boats parked at the entrance of the lagoon, and a few dozen people snorkeling in the water in their bright orange vests. We steered well clear of them, but happily gravitated to the boat man peddling ice cream in his kayak. What a treat on such a warm day, and right before we squared our shoulders and braced ourselves navigating a narrow passage out of the circle of monoliths into the wind.
It took us a while to find our accommodation of the evening, because it was tucked away around the lip of the peninsula. From the outside, the place looked rustic, unassuming. And my comfort level wasn’t boosted when we pulled up into the swampy beach and had to get out of the kayak into murky waters. Almost immediately, I let out a yelp. I’d gotten stung by a jellyfish. It hurt. To their credit, the elderly lady of the establishment heard my groans of pain and rushed over with a liter bottle of vinegar water that she proceeded to generously pour down my shin. Scott joined me – he’d also gotten stung.
But the place was in fact lovely, with beautifully polished teak floors and doors (that TS wanted to buy and ship home!). And the rooms were palatial. We took up all their available rooms and had the entire place to ourselves. It was a beautiful spot to lounge around after we’d all cleaned up to drink some rum and watch the sun set.
Day eight: the day we powered without stopping to the end
And then, it was the last day already. The last 15 km stretch. If we thought we’d take it easy, Huey had other plans. He decided to power through the entire distance without stopping. I had trouble keeping up with the front pack the first half hour, until my right shoulder warmed up and I got into the rhythm. But by then, Huey and TS were mere specks in the distance. I had hustle to keep Scott and Shoe in my sights, lest I lose visual of them as well. We’d given all our bags for Chelsea to take with her via boat back to El Nido, as day was technically an optional paddling day, so I had no phone or compass with me. Jeff and Rey hung back, content to enjoy their last times on the water. But it was a fun paddle, after I’d properly warmed up, and I kept marveling at how clear the waters were.
Before we knew it, and way before Chelsea and the boat with our luggage arrived, we’d already reached our resort. Time to get properly cleaned up and plunge back into the connected world with our phones.
Second last night of our weeklong trip: We just had a final 15 km to go – easy peasy, compared to the other 25-30 km days we’ve had in some epic conditions. However, our rash guards were starting to smell ripe, despite our best attempts to rinse them out to dry every night. And most of us were suffering from awful itches from sandfly bites. On top of that, I’d just experienced my first jellyfish sting across my right shin, which left a souvenir of a couple horizontal lashes. And my abrasion from where my spray skirt and back rest rubbed against my lower back burnt, and hurt every time I so much moved my back.
Maybe Chelsea had the right idea after all, to opt out that last leg of kayaking and enjoy a leisurely boat ride to El Nido.
But, as we begun reminiscing about the highlights, TS commented, once those itches and sores fade away, you’ll just remember the good bits. Never truer words.
Day one: The day we travelled
Our day started at midnight essentially, at Changi Airport, where we gathered to fly the first leg over to Clark. Here’s a tip – if you’ve never traveled to the Philippines before, you need to show a return ticket; otherwise the airline would not let you fly. We did have return fare, but our guide Huey, who was already in the Philippines, hadn’t provided us the details, and they were on a separate airline. We also couldn’t reach Huey, due to his wifi connection issues, and so at the last minute, bought a throwaway one way ticket back from Manila for one of our crew, who had not yet been to the Philippines on her new passport. At least the fares were cheap.
Anyway, long day. We got a bit of shuteye on the flight and landed bright and early in Clark at 6am. Met up with our guides Huey and Rey, then caught another flight out to Coron. There, we had lunch before we embarked on a long tail boat for what the boatman optimistically called a 4-hour ride to our starting point, Bongalisian Island.
It ended up being a 6-hour journey on hard wooden benches. We were soaked by the spray within minutes of pushing off. But the long travel had worn us down, and we all napped most of that time away.
We sputtered into view of the island right at sunset, but the tide was low and getting lower, and 100m from shore, the bow struck reef. The storage compartment below started to take in water, but given that we were grounded on the reef, there wasn’t a need to panic. The chef continued to cook our dinner at the stern, while we lowered our kayaks into the water and ferried our gear across to land.
Camping – I awoke in the middle of the night to scratching by my head, which was positioned by the tent door so I could get the maximum breeze. Shone my flashlight out, and I let out a small, involuntary yelp when I saw a rat. Ugh. Ok I get that we got plenty of rodents in Australia when we camped too – but they were the cute pademelons and wallaby varieties! Just as I started to drift off again, I heard more scratching at the corner of the tent and saw my camp mug fall. This time I let out a blood curling scream that woke up the entire camp. Oops! But the rat was still only outside, thank goodness.
Day two: The day I got scared of the waves
The sky was a deep azure blue when we pushed off, a beautiful day. There was a strong steady wind in the air though, 20-30 km/h. Huey pointed at an island in the distance and bade us towards it. My hat soon flew off though, and I spent a precious few minutes paddling in circles, trying to retrieve it in the ever steepening waves. By the time I had it firmly stuffed back onto my head, the others in their single kayaks were already small specks in the distance.
The waves got progressively larger. They were parallel to my boat and I stubbornly stuck to course since it provided the shortest distance to the tip of the island we were going to round. But they made me nervous, and my blood pounded when several smacked me in the shoulder, sending my laden craft wobbling. Jeff gave up the route decided to tack closer to shore, which might have been a smarter idea – except that it meant a longer time in those churning waters.
Eventually, I made it unscathed to Huey, who calmed my nerves by promising me that these boats were long enough to withstand waves up to 5 feet. As it turned out, the others, even though they had had more sea kayaking experience, were also similarly somewhat unnerved; that comforted me. 🙂
The rest of the day’s paddling was calmer; in fact, that first crossing was still the singular most nerve-wracking experience I had on the water, ever. But it was a long day getting to our camping spot of the night, for we had to battle strong headwinds to get there.
We made it with light to spare though, and leisurely put up our tents right on the soft sand to enjoy the maximum breeze. We’d chosen this island because, although it was a pain getting to because of the headwinds, had no sandflies, vs. our option B, which was downwind but had a reputation for sandflies.
As luck would have it though, by the time we settled in for the night, the wind had picked up even more, and as we drifted off the sleep, it started to pull out our tent pegs, sending the fly sheets slapping ferociously against the tents. It was impossible to sleep. One by one, we gave up and moved our tents inland to the shelter of trees. Initially, Jeff and I resisted, and I reinforced the tent pegs by weighting them down with piles of coral and rock. No matter. The wind was so gusty and strong that it ripped them all out. We’d the front flap of the fly pulled back to get some breeze, but the wind blasted us with sand through the tent netting. I zipped the fly back down, and sweltered in the heat until a particularly strong gust of wind flattened the front of the tent, and then the sides down. It was impossible. We fled then for the safety of the trees, and there, with the fly cover completely off, I fell asleep immediately.
Day three: The day of the long crossing
This was a mixed accommodation trip – meaning we camped out some nights, and slept at resorts the other nights. To maximize our time on the water, and guarantee good meals, our guides Huey and Rey arranged for caterers across the islands to cook our meals. Typically, a caterer would provide our dinner – sumptuous fresh dishes of seafood (fish / prawns / squid), vegetables (stir fried or pickled cucumber and tomato salads), meat (chick / pork adobe or beef redang), fruit (mango / orange / pineapple / watermelon). The same caterer, if not staying on the same island as us, would then return at breakfast to provide us hot breakfast and packed lunch to go.
It was a great arrangement, and we always looked forward to each meal. Our group favorite – eggplant omelette with pancakes this particular morning. Totally hit the spot.
Today was our longest day so far. 30km – some of it against the wind, but most of it downwind this time. And initially, I struggled going downwind. It was absolutely exhausting and frustrating to try to keep my kayak pointed at the same direction, and I felt I was braking and steering my boat more than I was paddling.
In fact, I struggled most of the entire day, and only as we neared our final destination of the day – Dryft, our glamping accomodation – that the winds shifted against us, and for once I welcomed the headwinds. At least I didn’t feel like I was fighting the boat the entire time.
That evening though, the more seasoned pros let me in on the secret of how to surf waves. Rule number one: don’t fight the boat. Let it point in the direction where the wind is pushing it. As long as I can kind of keep it perpendicular to the waves, I won’t capsize. Rule number two: don’t fight the waves. Feel it lift the boat, then let it carry the boat down. Rule number three: this is the time to conserve your energy. There’s less of a need to paddle, but instead use the strokes to guide the boat down the face of the wave. I could not wait to try out these tips.
Day four: The day of surf landings
Before we pushed off the next day, Chelsea, Jeff and I crossed the island to explore a shipwreck right off the tip. The general manager of our glamping resort, Andrew, assured us it was well worth the detour. And indeed it was! Not quite 50 m offshore and in shallow waters, the old fishing vessel was covered in corals and teeming with fish.
The winds had finally died down – but I was actually a little disappointed because I really wanted to put to practice the tips I’d learnt about surfing! Nonetheless, there were still lots of itty bitty waves to practice on, and I soon found myself grinning, as I glided and slid my way down one wave to the next. It felt so commonsensical, I couldn’t understand why I’d fought against the waves so much in the first place!
But we had other types of surfing to learn today too – the dreaded surf landings. These are tougher, and everyone got nervous when the normally blasé Huey had us raft up so he could properly brief us on what to do. Remove our spray skirt cover; put one leg outside the kayak; watch for a big set to go by first, then quickly paddle toward shore with a defensive brace. Right as the boat glides towards the sand, jump clear of the boat then drag it in before the next set of waves come.
Easier said than done. I got to shore with no hitch, but couldn’t quite manage to jump clear of the boat before a particularly nasty wave knocked me over and washed the kayak right over me. Oh well. Luckily, I’d secured my gear and didn’t lose anything, except my sponge.
At least getting out was easier. We had to punch our way out a series of waves, but we could see the waves and face them head on. I did get quite drenched though, and had to pump quite a bit of water out of my kayak.
Coming into Nacpan Beach for our accommodation for the night at Huei’s Resort, Huey warned us to expect another surf landing. Happily though, the waves were teeny tiny, and the only troublesome bit was having to drag the heavy kayaks up a couple hundred meters to our huts.
What was the one highlight of the trek for you, Juraj (or Ting as she corrected me) asked the group, on our last evening meal in camp. Certainly not reaching the summit – Jeff and I got to 100m below the summit, to Stella Point at 5756m. We would have made the summit if we’d gone on another 0.5km, gritted our teeth through another hour. But by that point, Jeff’s oxygen levels were dangerously low, and I was over it and dreading the slide downhill back to base camp.
In any case, taking the obligatory photos at the summit were not the highlight for Juraj and Ting either. The view wasn’t much too different from where we had parted ways.
I think, for all of us, there wasn’t one particular highlight. Certainly not the interminable slog up from base camp at midnight. That was the singular hardest and longest night of my life. It was beautiful looking up at the trail of lights from headlamps slowing snaking up the mountain in the dark, while the stars twinkled overhead. At times, when the clouds below parted, we could also see the distant yellow lights from the city of Moshi far, far below, where people slept soundly and snugly in their warm beds. Most of the time though, we kept our eyes firmly on the round spot of light from our headlamps, which were trained on the boots of the person in front of us.
It was too cold, too windy, and the air too thin, to appreciate the beauty of the night. We had all wrapped ourselves up in multiple layers. Two pairs of socks, three pairs of pants, three layers of jackets, beanie, two pairs of gloves. But still the biting wind cut through. It seemed an eternal struggle between stopping to gasp for air and shiver from the cold, or trying to fight off the building lactic acid in our legs and push on.
Groups passed us. We passed guides helping clients back down the mountain, seemingly before we had barely started on the trail. We passed people who keeled over suddenly to retch, passed people slumped over by piles of rocks, unable to get up on their own accord. I couldn’t see my watch under all my layers of jackets, but I concentrated hard on just putting one foot ahead at a time, and tried to estimate the minutes until sunrise.
I was never happier when I looked up to see the thin sliver of the waning moon rise above the clouds, the yellow crescent a sure and welcome precursor to the rising sun. And finally, finally, after five miserable hours in the dark, we could see the start of a band of indigo light up the clouds, which slowly broadened and turned orange and pink.
A most glorious sight, one of which I shall have to commit to memory, since I was too cold and tired to want to struggle to get out my camera. But the sense of relief was so sweet.
So, while there wasn’t one highlight, as I reflected on the trip, and especially as I gave more thought to the question when I got up at 230am for my last night pee at altitude, what I appreciated was being out there in nature. To have been able to walk through the drastically different climate zones that Mount Kilimanjaro had to offer – from the wet and humid rainforest to the moorland, to the Alpine desert and finally the arctic zone, it was pretty special.
It was pretty special to ring in the new year on the mountain too. Not that any of us were particularly planning to stay up till the Tanzanian midnight to countdown to 2019. We had already marked the Sydney new year and the Singapore new year earlier. But my bladder, and the brief but rousing cheer of the porters woke me up right at midnight. I crawled out of my tent to find that the earlier fog and clouds had cleared, and I could see a sky full of stars overhead and even the snowy outline of the summit in the background. I exchanged greetings with a couple of the guides and porters in the vicinity, and with Juraj, and snapped a few astro shots to mark the occasion.
2018 seemed long and short at the same time. Long, because we had packed quite a lot into the 12 months. Moved from Sydney to London and then to Singapore, and then we each visited another total of 6 other countries. Short because time seemed to flash right by.
But back to Kilimanjaro: we had a great experience. It wasn’t a vacation by any means, and frankly, after back to back trips like this and the kayak marathon, I am looking forward to a warm and relaxing vacation by the beach. A bit of snorkeling, kayaking, and sleeping in hammocks under the stars.
One big bonus – after going through countless pairs of hiking boots and even more blisters and a few lost toenails, I finally landed on a pair of boots that fit like a dream. The lady at Campus Corner in Singapore who sized me up, placed my feet on insoles two sizes larger than my usual boots and pronounced them perfect to go. And indeed they were. Perfect. Not a single blister after 100km on Mt Kili! To think that I had almost normalized wincing everytime I accidentally kicked my old boots against my hiking pole!
As soon as we decided we were going to Iceland, I googled to see if there were multi-day kayaking expeditions that we could go on. The first search result returned was Borea Adventures‘s 3-day coastal kayaking in the wilderness. A quick glance through the itinerary and the photos, I was sold. Hadn’t even looked up to see where we would be launching from. I booked in our trip before I looked up the map and bought air tickets. 🙂
The company warned that this kayaking expedition was demanding and no walk in the park. Which made us even more eager, even though we weren’t quite sure what to expect. To date, our longest sea kayaking expedition was in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands, where the waters are relatively sheltered and temperatures relatively balmy. For this expedition though, we squeezed into dry suits with tight rubber necks and wrists, and slapped on neoprene pogies over our paddles to keep our hands warm. The water was roughly 7 degrees, about the same as the air.
We launched in partly cloudy conditions, against the stunning backdrop of Drangajökull glacier with its valleys still covered in snow. The headwinds were strong, but we felt fresh and made good distance before we pulled up on a marshy and sea-weedy bank for lunch.
The winds picked up even more after lunch, and after we rounded the arch, we had to battle 3-m waves as well, which slowed our progress tremendously. Having become used to fast paddles down river, where we could easily cover 20 km under 3 hours, it felt somewhat discouraging that we had been on the water for close to 5.5 hours but had only managed 18 km. But our two guides assured us we had made good pace, and we were all glad when we finally turned into the bay where our campsite was.
A full rainbow arc had appeared above the campground, and I was so distracted looking at it as I pulled close to shore that I failed to notice a side wave coming in until it was upon me. In a blind, I forgot which side to brace (need more practice till it becomes instinctual!), and the wave pushed me over. The shock of the cold water refreshed me. I tore off the spray skirt and popped out of the cockpit as water rushed in. Sadly, though I managed to grab onto my wool cap before it was sucked away by the retreating wave, I didn’t realize till later that my sunglasses had fallen off. Worse still, the waterproof bag in which I’d stashed my camera wasn’t so waterproof in the end. Managed one test shot of the rainbow in the following picture, before the camera died completely. 😦
It was difficult to stay morose for long though. The sun had popped out from behind the receding clouds and was warm on our skin. We could spread out all our damp gear to dry in just our thermal underlayers as we leisurely set up our tents in between nibbles of chocolate and nuts. Our guides also erected an enormous 10-man tent where we could sprawl out and seek refuge from the breeze and flies. And long after everyone else had gone to bed, I crawled out of my tent at midnight just in time to watch the sun dip briefly behind the mountains.
The sun was high in the sky by the time we awoke at 7am the next day to break camp and down big breakfasts. It felt warm enough to even stow away my now-dry wool cap and pogies. We pushed off in calm conditions, and made good pace in the first couple of hours.
Then the winds rose again, and the clouds raced in. Soon, the rain started to fall, drizzly at first, then in steady pinpricks against our exposed faces. We were aiming for a campsite 24 km away, by the foot of an enormous waterfall, but try as we pulled against the winds, the conditions were against us. Finally, our head guide called it. “Let’s race to round that pile of rocks up ahead; there’s heavier storms forecast. We need to get the tents set up before.” We all breathed sighs of relief as we eyed the rocks in the near distance. But it was another hour of solid pulling before we collapsed panting on the rocky shoreline.
We managed to erect the tents just in time. After we’d all stumbled into the main mess tent, the rain started again, with winds battering the fabric walls. But we were dry, and tucked into a feast of fajitas that never tasted so good.
We all slept early that night, in part from exhaustion, and in part because we had nowhere to go from the storms that raged on outside. All night long, the winds slapped ferociously against the thin fabric walls, and at some points I wondered if the pegs we’d hammered in would hold.
Hold they did. Happily, by the time our alarms rang at 630 am the next day, the worst of the storms had abated. Today was crossing day. We had to paddle 10 km across the channel to Vigur Island, a small spear-shaped island off Isafjordour that is inhibited by a single family farming eider duck down. The winds – by this time, what’s new – were against us again, and strong, but we made steady progress, keeping our eyes peeled along the way for those curious seals that popped their heads up every once in a while to stare at us, and hoping for glimpses of pods of whales.
Jeff saw the first spout, in the far off distance. Then just in front of us, the graceful arc of a humpback gently broaching from the surface. We watched it swim gracefully from us, awed by its majestic presence.
As the small lump of land that was Vigur drew closer, the circus of puffins grew in size. They looked so adorable, the way they frantically kicked their orange-red webbed feet off the water surface as they fluttered their wings to get fly away from our gliding kayaks. I wished my camera was still working, so I could capture close ups of their distinctive orange and red banded beaks, but settled for enjoying the view of the thousands of puffins in the air and water.
After 2 days camping in the wilderness where we did not see any one else, it felt a little jarring pulling up to the island as two motor boats filled with day trippers disembarked at the same time. We ate a leisurely lunch, then grabbed wooden stakes for a short stroll around the island. The stakes were to help fend off the possessive arctic terns that circled us and squawked angrily whenever we approached too close their nests in the tall grass. This island is a haven for bird watchers, since it is also filled with other varieties such as the guillemoths and eider ducks.
And then, all too soon – though our blistered hands and sore shoulders were ready for a break – it was time for the last push back to mainland.
What an awesome adventure. And we’ve already marked out our next arctic expedition – Greenland, where we’d get to paddle among icebergs. Can’t wait!
We couldn’t have asked for more perfect weather this weekend when the group of 7 of us tripped down to Kangaroo Valley for a spot of kayaking and camping. The skies were clear, the air crisp and cool, and there was not a hint of breeze. A complete opposite of our January experience really.
As we sluiced our way down the river, we gawked at wombats, eagles, and kangaroos, and reveled in the delightful chirping of birds. The water was a perfect mirror of the stringybarks along the riverbank.
Fall is definitely here though. By 430pm, the sun had already dipped below the line of trees up Yarrunga Creek. But we were already comfortably set up in our sheltered campsite, and the beginnings of a merry campfire going.
In the morning, well, pre-dawn really, we clambered out of our toasty sleeping bags and eased our way into the water. The fog was thick, enveloping, mysterious. The perfect ambience for our quiet sojourn up dead tree gorge. As the sun rose and warmed up the air, the fog slowly dissipated, leaving behind a steamy film on the water surface.