Kayaking in Phang Nga Bay, Phuket

Originally, our plan was to stay at a beach side resort, bring our SUPs and explore. I’d just booked the long weekend trip in a hurry, and promptly forgot about it.

As the date drew closer though, I thought to do a bit more research, and found that in Phuket, Phang Nga was the premier bay to go to for kayaking. We could bring our SUPs, but it seemed more trouble than it was worth, and I didn’t have time to dig into the logistics and area maps etc. So, I defaulted back to our original plan from April 2020 before Covid shut everything down: going with Paddle Asia.

They have trip dates advertised on their site, but none fit our schedule. Happily though, the owner, Dave, was more than happy to accommodate, pairing us up with another guide, Mr Har, who, along with our own long tail boat, would guide us around the bay.

If you don’t love crowds, and love being in the outdoors, highly, highly recommend kayaking in Phang Nga Bay. Unlike overrun Krabi and Phi Phi Islands, we had the entire bay to ourselves, save the occasional fishing boats that we passed by. Granted, because we’re in the bay, the waters aren’t as clear as Krabi or Phi Phi, but during this period of the year, whale sharks do venture into the bay to feed. Alas, we didn’t spot any. Haha.

We’d booked a 2-day kayak tour, and at the end of day 1, our long tail boat picked us up to drop us off at a local resort on Phang Nga. It was basic, but had a hot shower and a comfortable bed, all we needed. We strolled 8 minutes along the bay front at sunset to a shack serving up cold beer and satisfying Thai food for dinner.

The winds had picked up overnight when we awoke, and we could see white caps on the water. No matter, the captain charted a new course, bringing us to a group of islands on the leeward side that we could explore, including a couple fun caves.

We had a blast, and kayaking in Phang Nga Bay again certainly is on our list of to-dos; hopefully we can find another long weekend in the new year!

Weekend paddle boarding in Krabi

On a whim four months ago, we decided to book in a long weekend in Krabi. At the time, our year end had stretched out as an empty canvas with little or no activity. Within weeks though, I’d booked in a work trip to Barcelona right before, and another work trip to India right after. What had seemed like a lazy getaway now seemed more stressful than it was worth.

But it was worth it. Travel almost always is in the end. 😃 Our flight to Krabi was uneventful and quick, and we’d booked a private car transfer to Ao Nang Beach so it was a comfortable half hour car ride. Once at the beach, we didn’t have long to wait for a full quorum of 8 passengers to board our long tail boat for the ride across to Railay Beach where our hotel was. From conference to paradise in an afternoon!

We’d brought our paddle boards with us, so we’d have the flexibility of exploring wherever and whenever, so, we got up at 5am the next morning in time to paddle out for the sunrise.

It was too overcast for a gorgeous sunrise, but we luxuriated in the early morning calm. No long tail boats with their noisy engines around us; the water was still and glossy in the golden light, and the beaches stretched out, silent and clean.

We had a most relaxing two and a half hours just paddling around and back the tip of West and East Railay Beaches, and under the overhanging eaves of the stunning limestone towers jutting out of the emerald green waters.

In the late morning, after breakfast and a few work calls, we ventured back out again, this time with our snorkels. By this time, the beaches were already filled with sunbathers and swimmers, the area completely transformed. Still a beautiful paddle, but we looked forward to easing into the water to cool off from the baking sun.

Alas, what seemed like an incredible watery Eden from above turned out to be more of a desert underwater. The water was warm, way too warm to support the corals that blanketed the sea floor. Most of them were dead, bleached or covered in algae. While there were fishes, they were sparse. We only spotted a stingray the entire trip, no turtles, eels etc.

Another morning, another sunrise paddle. This time, we crossed the 5km from Railay to Ko Poda. At this time of the day, the crossing was beautiful – flat glossy waters. We had the island entirely to ourselves too.

What a small world! Our friend saw our post about being in Krabi, and she’d texted saying she was staying in the northern area too. We didn’t think we’d bump into each other, but she and her friends spotted two paddle boarders at Ko Poda early Saturday morning, who turned out to be us! We caught up briefly in Railay later at lunch, when her group stopped by for a meal on their island hops.
I loved this little tunnel on the tip of Railay that we could paddle through. We did that three times, and also waded through once at low tide when we went for an afternoon snorkel
Sunset at West Railay. The storm clouds were menacing on the other side of the camera, with flashes or lightning every few seconds. We were prepared for the evening of rain though, and had already finished dinner and were ready to shelter in our villa for the evening lol
Our last morning, Sunday, we decided as a change to let our paddle boards dry off and rented a double kayak instead.
We paddled over to nearby Tonsai, to watch climbers tackle the imposing limestone faces. We’d both been to Krabi separately more than ten years ago, and then, had focused the trip around climbing. This time around though, we were content to be on the water.

It turned out to be a great 3.5 day escape. Not too long, not too rushed. And now we’re looking forward to the next long weekend we booked in December, this time to Phuket, and again with our paddle boards!

Two glorious weeks in Greece

It’s hard to pick a highlight from our two week trip to Greece. But the day we had the most fun was undoubtedly when our last full day in Santorini, where, after a week of strong winds, the wind finally died down and the clouds dissipated such that we were able to get out onto the water for a leisurely kayak exploration of the black and white beaches of Santorini.

Our guide for the the kayak trip, Kalliopi, runs the tour on her own as a small family operation, similar to Laura at Sydney by Kayak when she started. Like Laura, she places a lot of emphasis on the lux customer experience. We were served freshly made cups of espresso when we arrived, and kitted with cute backpacks loaded with a gourmet picnic set, including cute bottles of olive oil and oregano so we could season to taste our chilled cucumber, tomato and feta cheese salad. Post paddle, as we waited for our rides back to our accommodations, we relaxed with a glass of her family’s delicious Rose.

But more than the service, the kayaking was incredible. I’d asked, on the off chance that we had the option to when I booked, if we could use single kayaks instead of the standard doubles. Kalliopi acquiesced easily after ascertaining that we were regular paddlers, but it was only we arrived that she confessed that this was the first time she’d given guests the use of her single kayaks. Indeed, she only had two single kayaks, reserved for herself and an assistant guide, but I guess we’d also lucked out because there happened to be two young kids on the trip, so she made the executive decision to let Jeff and I paddle her singles while she and Nicolas, an assistant guide, each took a child. In a single, Jeff and I enjoyed the flexibility of exploring the little nooks and crannies while snapping lots of pictures of the other haha.

The scenery was gorgeous. As at Milos, where we spent another beautiful (if occasionally rainy) day paddling, the soaring cliffs we paddled past was ever changing, with striations of lava rock, pumice, sandstone, red rock lined with iron, and rock tinged green with copper. There were dozens of little sea caves that we paddled by and sometimes popped into as well, including a super fun L-shaped tunnel that we squeezed through. The water was a startling aquamarine and clear, where the bottom didn’t drop off, we could see the huge boulders and schools of tiny fish darting around.

When we stopped for lunch, Jeff and I pulled on our snorkels and plunged into the brisk waters for an invigorating swim. It was glorious how calm and clear the waters were, and I daydreamed about staying by the Agean seas for an extended period of time, so I could enjoy daily swims like these.

The Agean waters are famed for its clarity, thanks to the coarser sand which doesn’t cloud the water as much

But otherwise, the rest of our time in Greece was just as eventful.

Although the forecasted gale-force winds led us to cut our planned 3 days kayaking in Milos short, we were still able to enjoy a fun day on the water with Sea Kayak Milos. It was a little too cold for a cheeky little swim, but it was great exploring the sea caves in our cosy group of consisting of one other guest A (who lives in Switzerland and kayaks on her own in an Oru too) and our guide Dario, an Italian who has spent the past three summers guiding Milos.

Dinner at Nostos Restaurant in Milos – it was so good, we went two nights in a row

Since we’d shortened our stay on Milos, we rebooked to go to Santorini earlier by ferry, and this turned out to be an excellent decision firstly because we added a stay at Pyrgos, a quiet hilltop town set away from the more crowded (yes, even in October, which is supposedly the shoulder season) coastal towns from Fira to Oia. Secondly, it also gave us time to visit the ancient cities of Akrotiri and Thera. As a fun bonus, instead of a car, we rented an ATV to get around, and it was a blast revving up the many switchbacks that led up to Thera.

Exploring the much quieter streets of Pyrgos
The famed white buildings of Oia
We also drove our ATV to Oia to see the sunset. Not pictured – the crazy crowds. I can’t imagine what it’d be like in the summer! We left before the sun fully set, in part because the crowds was getting to me, and in part because I didn’t want to ride the ATV back to Pyrgos in the dark

On Santorini, we also did the stunning Fira to Oia walk, which we likened to the Bondi to Coogee walk in Sydney on steroids.

We also spent a day cruising and walking up to summit of the volcano, and lunched on the nearby island of Thirassia, where we had a cold but beautiful little swim by the beach.

Sunrise over our gorgeous hotel, Agali House, in Santorini, where we spent every sunrise and sunset on our spacious balcony, looking out upon the caldera and the volcano – lots of steps to navigate, but great morning workout!

And I’m glad we tacked on a few days at the start of our trip, driving inland to Delphi and Meteora. In Delphi, we visited the seat of the temple of Apollo, set on a steep hillside overlooking the Gulf of Corinth, which we spent a morning hiking down to, past an ancient aqueduct and sprawling olive groves.

One of our most delicious and beautiful dinners – To Patriko Mas in Delphi, overlooking the valley abutting the Gulf of Corinth. Best moussaka of the trip!

In Meteora, it was as if we’d stepped into the set of Game of Thrones, where incredible monasteries perched on top of soaring boulders – but of course it’s art getting inspiration from real life. These Eastern Orthodox monasteries date back to the 14th century, and of the 24 that were originally built, only 6 remain today, overseen by an ever diminishing group of aging monks and nuns – only 50 left. It’s also a climbing mecca, and we gawped with envy at the tiny speck of climbers inching their way up the steep rock faces.

Of course, we kept a couple days to explore Athens, or more accurately, the area surrounding the Parthenon. Everyone else had told us not to spend too much time in the city as it is a dump, but honestly we had fun wandering around – visiting the Acropolis Museum which houses the statues and friezes from the Acropolis, to climbing the hill to visit the famous site just after sunrise, to the various ruins that lie in the shadow of the Acropolis. We had fantastic and cheap meals in Athens too, and pre-dinner drinks in cute little bars.

It was a great two weeks. We reckon, just the right amount of adventure and relaxation. And now that we’ve a taste of kayaking in the stunning Agean waters, we’re already plotting a return, eyeing this time the Northern Sporades island of Skopelos!

Weekend in Yosemite

Back in May, where, off the back of my company offsite in Monterey, a group of 7 of my coworkers and I spent a weekend in Yosemite.

Fun times. We rafted, went for short easy walks, and just generally had a blast and enjoyed one another’s company.

Afterwards, I met up with Jeff in Chicago at our friends’, our first times back since 2015! Short trip to organize our wine cellar, and proper wine-soaked dinners with old pals, just like old times.

To NYC next, where I got laid low for a bit with covid, but happily, I didn’t have much symptoms, and so, when released from quarantine, still managed to catch up with friends and family there before we headed back to Singapore.

Water time in Sydney

Before we moved from Sydney in 2018, we’d toyed with the idea of getting a short term rental up by the beach, say Manly, for a couple of months, where we could could indulge in early morning swims or paddles. We never did make that work then (although we couldn’t complain, since where we lived in Waverton, we had access to a private jetty from which was a short paddle to the Opera House!). But this trip, we decided to make Manly our base, and found a cute Airbnb that had a gorgeous view of Manly and Shelly Beach.

In the mornings, we enjoyed strolls along the beach, marveling at the crowds of active folks already out jogging, playing beach volleyball, surfing and swimming. We lead a super sedentary lifestyle in Singapore by comparison.

Our goal was to relax, and get in as much water time as possible. We made it out to Spit Bridge twice, to get in some quality kayaking time, as we’d signed up for a 50km circumnavigation by kayak around Manhattan in New York City end May (yay for travel again). It was fun to paddle the old routes, out to Balmoral and around Middle Harbour – brought back memories of my training for the Murray Marathon. I haven’t used a Euro-blade paddle in far too long though, having gotten used to my Greenland paddle, and so suffered from numb hands pretty much the full 3-4 hours we were on the water. 😦

But since we’d lugged our paddle boards all the way from Singapore, we also made sure we got plenty of use out of them. We went out for a couple paddles in the North Harbour, in front of the Manly ferry terminal, and explored all the little coves and beaches. We were very tempted to paddle across to Balmoral and Watsons Bay, and even to the entrance of the Gap, the last of which we’d not even broached by kayak before… but we’re not the most confident of SUP boarders yet, and didn’t want to take unnecessary risks. Next time! But we did bring our boards to the Manly beach-side on a day when the surf looked much smaller than usual, and had a blast trying to catch small waves at the break point just outside Shelly Beach. Goals for next time too – surfing on SUPs!

We also got in a few swims from Manly to Shelly. The water temperature was a cool but comfortable 21+ degrees. Most days, the rains and surf rendered the water silty, so visibility was not the greatest. But we did have one beautiful day on Sunday when the sun was out in full blast, the winds calm, and the surf small, when the ocean looked like a beautiful swimming pool. We spotted baby dusky whaler sharks, tons of fishes, blue groupers and rays.

We had friends come out to Manly to hang with us a few different days, which was tons of fun. Our last evening though, we decided to venture back downtown to meet up with friends, and enjoyed riding the ferry at dusk back to Circular Quay. That sight never gets old!

Glorious vacation; till next time Sydney. ❤

Adventuring in Australia: Weekend up by Cudgegong River

Australia was one of the second wave of countries to announce their re-opening to travelers back in November last year. Immediately, we booked tickets. We quickly found out though, that that plan was a soft launch, just for Singapore citizens, and did not include expats residing in Singapore (like Jeff). Then, Omicron hit, and while borders remained opened, travelers now had to do a mandatory 3 day quarantine at their place of residence before they were allowed to leave. In the end, we shelved those plans, and contented to staying in Singapore for the holidays.

Happily, we’re over that hump now (and hopefully it’s firmly in the rearview mirror). With borders re-opened – this time fully – we used the last of our carry over vacation days from last year to revisit what we regard as our second home.

Landed in Sydney on a bright and sunny Thursday morning, in time for a quick stroll around the quay before we settled down to work

We’d come in right before the ANZ long weekend, perfect to plan a weekend getaway with some friends. The Monday before though, after obsessively following the weather forecast, over a Zoom call, we reluctantly changed our plans to camp at Mungo Brush up in Myall Lakes, given the gloomy 8mm of rain projections every day of the long weekend. Happily, Dani found alternatives out west, and we easily swapped out our plans to explore Cudgegong River, west of Mudgee.

It was so, so, so lovely to be back on the water with these kayaking mates. This time, Jeff and I brought our standup paddle boards instead of kayaks, and Dani brought along her racing SUP for us to play around with (along with her trusty Elliot kayak and Oru Coast). We had the most marvellous afternoon paddling around together on Saturday afternoon, just like old times, before we returned to prepare a delicious hot pot meal and to lounge by our campfire and admire the stars and milky way overhead. Just like old times.

It’s always a special treat when one travels with friends who love to cook! For Sunday brekkie, we made french toast with fresh berries and mascarpone with vanilla and maple syrup. SO GOOD. Washed down with fresh moka pot coffee – we were nicely set up for a long day’s paddle!

The day’s paddle started off lovely. Though it was mostly cloudy, the winds were low and so made for a nice leisurely paddle to our lunch spot, a tiny brushy island on which we found a small clearing. Delicious build-your-own wrap lunch of roast chicken, pickled daikons, cucumbers, tomatoes, rocket, ham, and tuscan mix. Mm.

The wind picked up just as we finished lunch though, and sent white caps spraying in whichever direction. Initially, we’d entertained continuing up the river to explore, but very quickly decided with the strong headwinds, that it was more prudent to start turning back. What a mad struggle – especially for me, a semi-novice stand up paddle boarder! The winds were pushing us backwards at least 3 km/hr, and I’m on average just clocking in 4 km/hr on my board. Lol. After at least 45 minutes of full out paddling, I looked back and we were barely 1 km away from our lunch spot. Gah. Looking at the time, I decided that if we wanted any chance of returning before sunset, I had to get a tow assist.

Enter Garry! He gamely pulled me behind his kayak for a good 7km. And though the sun finally came out right at the end, and the winds died down, I was too spent from trying to hold my own end of the tow to volunteer to unhitch from his kayak. Huge kudos to Jeff for pushing through on Dani’s racing board, badly skinning the tops of his toes kneeling through the wind in the process.

We were pretty wiped out by our 17 km paddle – no thanks to the epic winds coming back – and woke up sore the next morning, but it was a beautiful sunny and calm day on Monday that a bunch of us simply had to take the crafts out for a last spin. We ventured up to what we thought was a cove at the end of lake, but it turned out to be a fun little creek that we could meander up for quite a distance, alongside curious cows.

To end off the trip, and to take further advantage of the beautiful sunny weather, we stopped by Lowe Wines in Mudgee for a bit of cheeky tasting, and walked away with four bottles. Just couldn’t resist.

Another amazing Aussie bush weekend for the books! So grateful for the lovely company as well. Our hearts are full.

A week diving and snorkelling in the Maldives

We’d originally planned to go to Maldives in 2020, but of course, the pandemic put a halt to the plans. As soon as flights there were greenlighted by the Singapore government, and quarantine restrictions were lifted, we booked in our trip. Up until we actually set foot on the island though, I was constantly trying to tamp down my anticipation.

What a glorious week it was! I’d picked well selecting Villamendhoo as our resort island of choice. For its over the water villas, but most importantly, for its raved about house reef. We debated long and hard about bringing our own SUP boards, so we could go for a paddle at sunrise. Ultimately though, the strict seaplane baggage limits caused us to drop that idea, and we easily filled our days from dawn to dusk everyday on the water anyway, either snorkeling or diving.

Taking the 25 min sea plane ride from Male to Villamendhoo

The diving was outstanding – the dive center put up dive boat excursions to various reefs for the next day every evening, and we’d go eagerly up to the boards outside the dive center to choose our new adventures – anywhere from full day affairs on long haul trips up north to see the mantas, down south to spot whale sharks, to exciting dawn dives at the nearby thias, the Maldivian word for underwater mountains. We signed up for most of them.

The diving highlight was spotting the magnificent whale shark – not on our dives, but during the surface interval between our first and second dives. The captain heard on the radio that one of the other boats had spotted the creature, so we gunned for the spot. As soon as we neared the area – we could see a mass of people just swimming excitedly en masse towards us. We jumped in, and started paddling towards them, though initially we couldn’t see anything on the ocean floor but the beautiful gigantic plate corals. Then, just as the water surface started roiling with the frantic splashing of arms and legs, I spotted a dark silhouette looming rapidly towards me. I had just a moment to admire the distinctive white spots of the whale shark when the crowd was upon me.

Haha, thankfully, the guides had warned us about the enthusiasm for the crowd, so I was prepared for it, and willing to give as good as I got. The snorkelers’ fins had nothing on my dive fins, and I easily broke my way to the front of the crowd again, through desperate hands that tried to pull me back. But I kept easily ahead, just abreast of the creature swimming placidly and regally below, ignoring the excitement at the surface. I swam with it for long minutes, until it moved towards deeper waters and its brilliant white spots merged into the darker blue. At that time, I finally looked back, and saw that most everyone was already out of the water, and my own dive boat was back in the distance.

The snorkeling was stellar too. With my underwater strobe malfunctioning, I couldn’t get magnificent colors in the deep, but the shallows provided a ton of interest. Along the house reef on our daily leisurely and languid swims, we spotted grey reef baby sharks, white tip sharks, marble rays, grey sting rays, eagle rays, mobula rays, turtles, lobsters, octopuses, and tons and tons of fish – triggerfish, fuisiliers, angel fish, banner fish, Napoleon wrasses, golden blue-striped snappers etc. What a feast for the eyes!

Certainly one of our most active but also most restful vacations. We’d be up around 5am every morning, to catch the sunrise on the eastern end of the island. If we had an early morning dive, we’d then grab breakfast before going to the dive boat. Otherwise, we’d take a 2 hour snorkel around the island. We’d be on the water until sunset, whereby we’d hit the tennis court, or grab a pre-dinner cocktail. By 930pm, we’d be hitting the bed already. And unlike my fitful sleeps back home, I’d get up just once in the middle of the night maybe, to drink some water. I didn’t even open a book once that week haha.

We spotted dolphins twice during the week. Once at a surface interval dive up north, and another time during a sunset cruise near our resort. Always fun to see these playful creatures

We’re already trying to plot a return next year. 🙂

Exploring Bavaria: First steps outside Singapore in 18 months

Back in September 2021, we traisped around the Bavarian countryside for over a week, following in the footsteps of King Ludwig II along his eponymous trail. It was the first time in 18 months since we ventured overseas, probably the longest we’d stayed in one country.

It felt refreshing, in every sense of the word. We got a glimpse of what truly living with the epidemic was like: masks on with vaccination checks for indoor dining and museums, but otherwise people were free to roam about the streets in the open without masks and in big friendly groups.

Almost as soon as the Singapore government had announced opening up Germany as a pilot vaccinated travel lane, we’d jumped upon it. We picked the King Ludwig trail in Germany, sold by the descriptions of languid afternoons post walks lounging in outdoor beer gardens, and a visit to the famous Neuschwanstein Castle.

Here’s just a pictorial recollection of our trip, as told through shots taken from the phone (lol I’ve lost the mojo for photography).

(Mostly) virtual explorations in 2020

I barely took any photographs with my cameras this year except on my phone. Once Covid shut down all travel, we mostly just hunkered down at home. So since March, all our exploration has been local, or virtually, via books and movies and TV shows.

I managed to read 61 books to date this year (maybe 61 by year end if I get started on any one of the three books on my phone now).

Skiing in the Dolomites in February
Enjoying an aperitif in Venice, 3 days before the government shut down the Carnivale and the city due to the spreading virus

Top Fiction

  • American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins: This book was really visceral for me, and really helped me empathise with the migrants’ travails north across the border into America. It also turned out to be a very controversial book, with many people protesting against the heralding of a book about the migrant experience that is written by a white woman. Personally, I think sometimes people are way too sensitive. If a book is well written and can help raise awareness of such pressing issues, is that not a good thing?
  • [Update: December 29] Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar: Learnt a new genre – “autofiction”, where the author blurs his autobiography and fiction, such that it’s hard to find out what’s real and what’s not. I tried, googling some of the characters and trying to read up on him but in the end, gave up, and just went with the flow. After all, there’s so much to unpack in this book already. Of his struggles as an ethnic minority trying to reconcile the opposing cultures – one of his birth place, and the other of his ancestors. The process which is not helped by the increasingly strident voices on both sides of the ideological divide which brook no room for nuanced conversations.
  • Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins: Prequel to the Hunger Games series. I loved the Hunger Games, and I loved the world she painted in the prequel. Well not literally, since that world is also pretty messed up, but she managed to give more dimensions to the main villain of the later Hunger Games.
Star gazing in Joshua Tree on Feb 28, a week before the US shut down travel to Europe, and two before the Singapore government placed all travelers into Singapore on quarantine notices

Top Non-Fiction

  • Ride of a Lifetime by Robert Iger: This is my top book of 2020. I really enjoy how he talks not only about how he climbed through the ranks from the bottom at ABC to the top job at Disney, but distills it into lessons he’s learnt along the way. Because of that, and because of his clear, engaging writing that saw me race through the book in a single weekend – which never happens for a non-fiction book!
  • Invisible Women by Caroline Criado PerezThis highlights all the data gaps that result in the sometimes unconscious designs of everyday things / policies that are biased against women. It’s food for thought for the different ways we can and should go about design.
  • The Sun is a Compass by Caroline Van Hermet – This is beautiful and evocative travel writing through the Alaskan wilderness. Written by an ornithologist, we also get first hand lectures on the habitats and lifestyles of the birds and animals she and her husband come across in their treks. Her writing is so vivid, I could almost picture the soaring mountain ranges, breathing in the cold but clear pine-scented air, and imagine the heavy humidity of the Mackenzie delta with its permanent stink of rotting muck in mud and the relentless clouds of mosquitoes that drives both people and caribou insane. Loved reading this especially in lock-down.
  • Land of Lost Borders by Kate Harris – Another awesome travel book to read in lockdown, about two women’s bike ride across the Silk Road.
  • Into the Planet: My Life as a Cave Diver by Jill Heinerth –  The opening paragraphs grabbed me right from the beginning:

If I die, it will be in the most glorious place that nobody has ever seen. 

I can no longer feel the fingers in my left hand. The glacial Antarctic water has seeped through a tiny puncture in my formerly waterproof glove. If this water were one-tenth of a degree colder, the ocean would become solid. Fighting the knife-edged freeze is depleting my strength, my blood vessels throbbing in a futile attempt to deliver warmth to my extremities.

The archway of ice above our heads is furrowed like the surface of a golf ball, carved by the hand of the sea. Iridescent blue, Wedgewood, azure, cerulean, cobalt, and pastel robin’s egg meld with chalk and silvery alabaster. The ice is vibrant, bright, and at the same time ghostly, shadowly. The beauty contradicts the danger. We are the first people to cave dive inside an iceberg. And we may not live to tell the story.

One thing we’re definitely grateful for this year: the addition to our family, puppy LL. Technically, she’s my parents’ dog, but she’s brought so much joy (and some headaches, like the time the Roomba “ate” and then “spit out” her poop)
Kayaking – our main mode of exploration this year

Here’s hoping for the resumption of in person adventures in 2021!

Still in lockdown but at least I’m traveling virtually

The Singapore government loves play on words. We’re going into the second month of our “circuit breaker” – it’s not a “lockdown”, they insist, because essential services are still able to continue to work, because we are still allowed to go to our local parks for runs and walks, albeit with masks on. And now as the second month of the CB (yes, acronyms are another thing the government loves) draws to an end, the government has decided that we’ll move into phases of gradual loosened restrictions. In phase one, which could last at least 4 weeks, we are now allowed to visit our parents, and kids are allowed to go to school. But I was looking forward to – craving – playing tennis again, kayaking, and swimming. Sadly, that’s not likely to happen until July at the very earliest.

I was quite depressed by the news. In the larger scheme of things, I know, I know, I’m lucky. I’m tired of repeating the refrain even to myself: no kids and home-based learning to drive me nuts, jobs even while some colleagues have faced cuts, our health. But I allowed myself a couple of hours to mope, to validate the feelings.

Then I went online to search for good travel books. If I couldn’t go out physically, no reason why I couldn’t do it from my couch. If anything, these books validated my yearning for exploration.

I realise this is primarily a travel and outdoors photography blog. But I haven’t wielded my camera in months, and have lost the urge to revisit old photos. In any case, here’s a few of my favourites, most, somewhat coincidentally, by women. I don’t think it was so much a conscientious decision to search for women writers, as much as wanting a more thoughtful and less macho look at the world. Ordered by latest read descending:

Land of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road (Kate Harris)

Kate Harris graduated from Princeton, then became a Rhodes scholar who toyed with the idea of completing a PhD in the History of Science at Oxford. Instead, she started on a PhD at MIT. Ultimately though, she felt shackled by a life in the lab, and ran away instead to bike the length of the Silk Road. Afterwards, she chose to settle down at the edge of the Juneau Icefield, in a spare one room log cabin with her partner. I was variously drawn to her conscious rejection of the material wealth, to her eloquent treatises of traveling and history of explorers, from Darwin to Marco Polo, and to her detailedly mapped out descriptions of the Central Asian ranges.

Camping in Blackheath, Blue Mountains, Australia May 2016

Into the Planet: My Life as a Cave Diver (Jill Heinerth)

If I die, it will be in the most glorious place that nobody has ever seen.

I can no longer feel the fingers in my left hand. The glacial Antarctic water has seeped through a tiny puncture in my formerly waterproof glove. If this water were one-tenth of a degree colder, the ocean would become solid. Fighting the knife-edged freeze is depleting my strength, my blood vessels throbbing in a futile attempt to deliver warmth to my extremities.

The archway of ice above our heads is furrowed like the surface of a golf ball, carved by the hand of the sea. Iridescent blue, Wedgewood, azure, cerulean, cobalt, and pastel robin’s egg meld with chalk and silvery alabaster. The ice is vibrant, bright, and at the same time ghostly, shadowly. The beauty contradicts the danger. We are the first people to cave dive inside an iceberg. And we may not live to tell the story.

How do you not get sucked into a book with this beginning? It’s a fascinating account of how she got into the life of cave diving, and how through the years and countless of pitch black, zero visibility dives, she variously helped and led in the discovery of new watery passageways miles underneath us.

The Sun is a Compass: A 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds (Caroline Van Hemert)

This is beautiful and evocative travel writing through the Alaskan wilderness. Written by an ornithologist, we also get first hand lectures on the habitats and lifestyles of the birds and animals Van Hermert and her husband come across in their treks. Her writing is so vivid, I could almost picture the soaring mountain ranges, breathing in the cold but clear pine-scented air, and imagine the heavy humidity of the Mackenzie delta with its permanent stink of rotting muck in mud and the relentless clouds of mosquitoes that drives both people and caribou insane.

Camping, Mt. Kosciuszko, Australia January 2017

Kabloona in the Yellow Kayak: One Woman’s Journey through the Northwest Passage (Victoria Jason)

What can I say, I love reading books about kayaking, and the Northwest Passage seems an epic journey that attracts kayakers of all stripes. Enter Victoria Jason, a plucky grandmother of two who picked up kayaking later in life. Her travel companions sound nightmarish, but if I just focus on the nature bits, this was a great read.

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage (Alfred Lansing)

Shackleton’s journey is so harrowing and epic, it’s almost incredible. August 1914 – Ernest Shackleton leads a crew of 27 aboard the Endurance, just as WWI breaks out. Their goal: to cross the Antarctic continent on foot. Alas, just short of their destination, their ship became locked in ice. So began the 2-year struggle for survival for these men, including a heroic paddle to Elephant Island where the majority of the men awaited rescue while Shackleton and 5 others rowed for South Georgia Island 650 nautical miles away.

The River (Peter Heller)

A beautiful piece of fiction about two close pals’ canoeing expedition in the great Canadian wilderness. So evocative.

And then one evening they pulled up on a wooded island and they made camp and fried a meal of lake trout on a driftwood fire and watched the sun sink into the spruce on the far shore. Late August, a clear night becoming cold. There was no aurora borealis, just the dense sparks of the stars blown from their own ancient fire. They climbed the hill. they did not need a headlamp as they were used to moving in the dark. Sometimes if they were feeling strong they paddled half the night. They loved how the darkness amplified the sounds – the gulp of dipping paddles, the knock of the wood shaft against the gunwale. The long desolate cry of a loon. The loons especially. How they hollowed out the night with longing.

I read it and recall our canoe trip up in Boundary Waters in Minnesota so long ago, and the quick but deeply satisifying weekend jaunts down the Wisconsin River.

Rowing to Latitude (Jill Fredston)

One of my all time favourite adventure writing – bonus points because it’s about kayaking. I like it for her quiet, no nonsense attitude. Unlike most other epic adventure books I’d read up to this point, she wasn’t doing it to “prove herself”, to “complete a first”. She didn’t seek out sponsors. She did it for the sake of pure enjoyment.

In the process of journeying, we seem to have become the journey, blurring the boundaries between the physical landscape outside of ourselves and the spiritual landscape within. Once, during a long crossing in Labrador, we found ourselves in fog so thick that it was impossible to see even the ends of our boats. Unable to distinguish gray water from gray air, I felt vertigo grab hold of my equilibrium, and the world began to spin. I needed a reference point – the sound of Doug’s voice or the catch of my blades as they entered the water – to know which way was right side up. Rounding thousands of miles of ragged shoreline together, driven by the joys and fears of not knowing what lies around the next bend, has helped us to find an interior compass.

Those carefree weekends kayaking in Kangaroo Valley, March 2018

The Push: A Climber’s Journey of Endurance, Risk, and Going Beyond Limits (Tommy Cadwell)

I read this after watching The Dawn Wall. It’s not the most polished piece of writing – he apparently chose to write it himself with no ghost writer… but if the author’s life to date is already so epic, you’ll get pulled into the story no matter the writing (Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell jumped immediately to mind!). It’s a great behind the scenes of how he got into climbing, and a good look at his climbing philosophy especially at a time when his contemporaries are perishing in big mountain climbs or taking outsized risks free soloing.

The Great Alone (Kristin Hannah)

Reading this novel reminded me of like Tara Weston’s Educated, about growing up in a dysfunctional and abusive family. Except that it’s set in the Alaska and talks to the wildness in both man and nature. The themes are at times hard to stomach, because her writing is so vivid and real. She’s a beautiful writer who has brought us other gems like The Nightingale.

Exploring the Redwoods in New Zealand, April 2016