Category Archives: Featured

Landing on an active volcano can be dangerous

The Maori explanation for New Zealand’s volcanic activity is that a priest from the first canoe fought a monster and locked it beneath the earth. That volcanic activity has defined a great deal of local geography and history.

White Island is an important part of that, being the only active marine volcano in New Zealand. The Island sits 50km off the East coast; a distance which took our little convoy of two helicopters only 20 minutes to traverse. The Island is constantly shrouded in steam rising from the caldera, its blasted landscape a combination of grey, white and yellow. We circled the Island and then landed on a rocky plain amid the wafting smells of sulphur. And then we set off to get really close to the dangerous bits – it was hard to forget the words on the disclaimer we’d signed earlier warning of the dangers of flying and landing on an active volcano.

Walking on White Island is like walking on the moon.  Virtually no vegetation survives the harsh acidic environment inside the crater walls.  Instead, lush beds of yellow and white sulphur crystals grow amongst hissing, steaming, bubbling fumaroles.

White Island was for many years used to mine sulphur and it’s easy to see why. Spills of yellow are everywhere amongst the steam. The gases are so strong that we had to wear gas masks for much of our visit. And, yes, we did sound like Darth Vader. We had the whole island to ourselves which really drove home the isolation and the foreignness of the whole environment. Water bubbled from the ground; gases spurted upwards; mud exploded up through the steam in enormous , noxious ejaculations. We were all grinning through the experience;  although you couldn’t see that because of the gas masks.

The other fascinating thing about the island was the decaying industrial machinery left over from the days of sulphur mining. The highly acidic fumes are rapidly eating away at the huge tanks, gears and walls. The metal surfaces in particular have become  beautiful as they are deeply pitted and rusted.

I don’t know if the Maori ever made it to White Island, but later in the day, the Rotorua Museum gave us an insight into Maori culture both past and present. The whole original story of the canoe trips to New Zealand are remarkably well-preserved in an oral tradition. It was all too easy to draw a contrast with our GPS-guided helicopter trip of the morning. The museum also included a great presentation on the Maori battalion in WW2. There was also a fascinating story on the pink terraces which was made more personal because a member of Jennifer’s family had photographed them before their destruction. White Island, by the way, was formed when the Maori priest who trapped the monster was rescued by his sisters. When they popped up to get their bearings after crossing the Pacific, they burst into flames and White Island was created.

While the Museum was pretty interesting, it was really the Skyline luge that was the other bookend to our day. Up the mountain in a gondola; a high-speed, adrenaline-fuelled luge down the mountain and then ski-lift back up to do it all again. Honestly in my view the whole process should have carried far more of a danger warning than visiting the live volcano did this morning. And we didn’t even get gas masks.

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Milford Track: Day 3 – McKinnon Pass

Declan ascending.
Declan ascending.

McKinnon Pass, that notoriously awful crossing between the surrounding peaks, turned out to be a beautiful and relatively easy trip thanks to our great good fortune with the weather.

The day involves a 16km walk and going about 700m up and another 900m down in the course of a few hours. The walk is relatively tiring because of all the going up and down but on a day with bad weather it can be a real feat of endurance.

For us the sun shone and the views were absolutely spectacular. As we zig-zagged our way up the mountainside each turn brought a new vista.  The path itself was less well-formed than yesterday and had been further ravaged by erosion and rockfalls. In spite of that Declan set a killing pace and we made it to the top of the pass in amazing time. As we surmounted the top of the pass we were met by a guide with hot chocolate and by keas with incredibly sharp beaks. The keas and very clever birds, like pickpockets they often work in packs with one distracting you while the others attack your stuff. Nothing really stops them, they can rip into packs, punch through boots, tear up walking poles. In spite of that they have a lovely green plumage with a flash of orange on the underside and if you stay vigilant they are great to watch.

View to cloud-ringed peak.
View to cloud-ringed peak.

The view from the top of the pass was totally worth the climb. On the far side we could look down on a perfect conical peak ringed at about half its height by a crown of cloud. It was a dizzying and completely stunning spectacle.

After lunch we started downhill. The rough path and stream crossings were tough on the legs but the weather and views made it more than worthwhile.

At about the 15km mark there was a wonderful series of cascades to provide air conditioning as we walked. In spite of the cooling spray the last part of the walk was hard in the way that last parts often are. But there’s no question we were astoundingly luckily in our crossing of McKinnon Pass.

A day that definitely didn’t jump the shark

Barking lion.

A day that started with a plan to see a killer whale ended with us swimming with sharks.

We had had a long-term plan to go to SeaWorld today. That plan came to a screeching halt this morning over breakfast when we slipped into a discussion of the ethics of having dolphins and whales perform for us. Jennifer and I were quietly pleased when the boys decided that it was ‘wrong’ and that we should not encourage SeaWorld by giving them any money.

That bought us to Plan B and we moved our plan for tomorrow up to today. We drove up to the beachside suburb of La Jolla to go kayaking. As we walked down to the sea with our guide the boys were recounting some of the highlights of our year of travel around the world. At that point we weren’t aware that we’d be adding today to that list.

Harbour seal.

La Jolla is a headland surrounded on three sides by ocean bluffs and beaches. It’s a lovely sea-side community with a major marine reserve stretching from the coast to several hundred metres off-shore. We set off through the surf on double-kayaks and headed out towards the sandstone cliffs that edge the beaches. The sandstone is a mixed blessing. On the one hand it has been eroded to form a series of caves and pillars that are one of the features of the area. On the other hand, on-going erosion threatens enormous villas that sit atop the cliff-edges. As you paddle towards the cliff your first impression is that it is riddled with holes. It is only when you get closer that you realise that what appear to be holes from a distance are in fact thousands of pitch-black cormorants nesting on tiny vertical ridges.

Do not disturb.

Almost as soon as we were under the cliffs a harbour seal poked its sleek head up a few meters away from the kayaks and checked us out. We were pretty thrilled with that, but there was better to come. As we turned a slight corner to arrive at a crack in the cliff-face we found five or six sea lions basking on a rock just in front of us. We were literally inches away from them as they lazily regarded us with pretty much complete indifference. We soon realised that many of the rocks along the beach had groups of sea lions on them, the dominant males making aggressive barking sounds to claim the territory, but otherwise not really moving in the midday sun.

Pelican preening.

The crack in the cliff face proved to be a cave. It reminded us greatly of the cave we’d found on Inishbofin Island in Ireland, except that this time we entered from the seaward side on kayaks. A thin, dark crack took us into the cliff and the widened out into a little green pool of deep water. Ahead the ceiling had collapsed, allowing sunlight to pour in and plants to gain a foothold around a little beach. It was a lovely little spot and kayaking in and out on the waves was exciting.

After the cave, we headed more out to sea to visit a kelp forest. There we learnt that kelp can grow up to three feet in a day, and we saw some bottle-nosed dolphins in the middle-distance. We also learnt that if you take the little bubbles that the kelp fronds use to float and squeeze them between your fingers they shoot between kayaks in a very satisfying fashion. All the while we were surrounded by birds: big Pacific Gulls floating overhead, cormorants whizzing past at head-height and pelicans wheeling by in formation.

All too soon it was time to head back into the beach. We rested a moment beyond the breakers and then surfed in to the shore. All went well until we spotted the sharks. There were probably twenty reasonably sized sharks cruising amongst the breakers, clearly visible in the pristine, clear water. One of the other kayaks lost focus and slid in front of Declan and me, we held for a moment and then both kayaks tipped and we found ourselves in the water. We were not, I have to say, in the water for long as we abandoned our vessel and bee-lined for the sand.

It really was a great day. Clean fresh air, lovely water, a bit of exercise and excitement, and so many wonderful animals. That’s the way to have an ethically satisfying day.

The Valley of the Poison-Dart Frogs

Fer-de-lance snake in the tree.

Last night when Declan and I went spotlighting on the river the jungle was a dark lowering place. The trees were pitch-black walls, the clouded sky a dark grey and the river itself a fustian path leading ever onwards. The sounds of monkeys, birds and frogs seemed almost alarmingly close. Finding a fer-de-lance, the most poisonous snake in South America, came with heightened tension and then seeing the eldritch glow of a single firefly bobbing erratically over the river seemed like something other-worldly.

Poison-dart frog.

Today the river was quite a different place. Bright blue skies saw the sun burning down as we headed up a tributary to the valley of the poison-dart frogs – a name which ought to be capitalised and used as the title of a TinTin book. It took us about two hours of constant motoring through the jungle until we reached our landing-place. And then we set out into the jungle.

Poison-dart frog on a machette.

For the next three hours we walked through oppressively thick jungle to the rhythmic metallic-ringing sound of machetes clearing a path. The humidity was like a thick wet blanket and within minutes we were all dripping with sweat. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere that felt so far from civilisation; there was just our small group and thick, unending jungle around us. Insects from tiny little flies to dragonflies the size of small birds droned all around us; there were probably birds too, but the jungle was too dense to see anything more than a few feet away from where we were standing.

Termites are a natural mosquito repellent.

Our goal was to find the tiny poison-dart frogs. The natives have traditionally used the toxic excretions of these little amphibians to coat their blow-gun darts. In keeping with much of the jungle flora and fauna the frogs are handily colour coded to indicate to predators they they are dangerous – and that colour coding makes them look rather glamorous to our non-native eyes. We found a yellow and black stripped frog within ten minutes of starting out, but it was a couple of hours until we next found a frog, this one a red-stripped one. In the meantime we discovered a couple of small toads and a huge mahogany tree. There aren’t many mahogany trees left in this part of the Amazon – loggers used to use helicopters to find those sticking their head above the canopy and then cherry-pick them out.

Finally we literally staggered out of the jungle into the small clearing where we had lunch by the river. There was a table and some shade and flocks of moths and butterflies attracted either by the shade or the salt from the sweat drying all over us. We all had moths and butterflies land all over us and add the fluttering of their wings to the gentle river-breeze that helped to, eventually, cool us down.

The wonderful Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

The Start of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

The Inca Trail was a stupendous experience; absolutely brilliant.

The boys managed the walk without a murmur of complaint. Declan wasn’t fazed by even the toughest parts of the Trail; Callum found some bits hard-going but gritted his teeth and dealt with them.  The boys actually handled the highest point, Dead Woman’s Pass at over 4,200m, better than Jennifer or me.

Above the clouds.

The walk itself is lovely. I wasn’t prepared for it being so sub-tropical – filled with lush flora and exotic fauna. Cacti, orchids and bromeliads were everywhere. We saw humming birds and butterflies attracted by all the flowers. Llamas blocked the trail every now and again. At the higher points, birds of prey flew past at eye-level. And as a backdrop there were huge, towering mountains which even the daily clouds, mist and rain could not entirely hide.

The Incan ruins were fascinating. While Machu Picchu is just amazing and absorbing many of the smaller ruins were more atmospheric as we had them to ourselves. One of the things we found particularly interesting was that all the buildings were civil engineering works. in contrast to everywhere else we’ve been, the remaining stoneworks are farms and monasteries not castles or fortresses.

At the end of the Inca Trail at Machu Picchu.

We had a great guide on the tour, Alex Fuentes Quino, who bought what we saw to life. And food? The food was just great – three course meals of local foods cooked on a two-ring burner and with better results than you’d get in many restaurants. This was not camping on a shoestring – we had a team of eight porters carrying all of the equipment used by our team. But that said, there was no way we could have managed the tough parts of the Trail if we’d been carrying proper camping equipment ourselves, let alone carrying for the kids too.

All in all, we had such a great time and have a wonderful sense of achievement in having completed the Trail – especially the boys at 8 and 10. After the toughest day dealing with Dead Woman’s Pass in the rain, the porters from other groups came up to shake the boys’ hands. We’re chuffed to have had such a great experience, but even more so to be able to walk away with the boys having dealt with a real challenge with such aplomb.

(I’ll backdate some further notes about various aspects of the experience.)

Riding in style on the Andean Explorer

Inside the Andean Explorer.

A little girl wearing a bright yellow jumper runs after her brothers as they herd the family’s sheep and alpaca over the flat plain of the Altiplanno. Suddenly the still and calm is shattered by the blaring air horn of a train. A bright blue train of five cars snakes its way towards the family. The sheep are spooked and start to run along the track. The girl can’t quite keep up with her brothers as they chase the sheep and lags behind to get her breath as the train passes. She slows to a walk and raises an arm to wave to the two boys standing on the open observation car at the back of the train.

Riding on the Andean Explorer is not so much about getting from Puno to Cusco, it’s an adventure in itself. And what an adventure – we kept on expecting Hercule Poirot or Phileas Fogg to stroll out and join us.

At the back of the train.

The day began for us with a little more excitement than we were seeking when there was a car accident in front of us as we got to the tiny train station in Puno. The young man hit by the car must have had a glass bottle in his pocket which cut his leg, there was blood everywhere. Luckily he was with two friends who finally managed to force a taxi to stop – after most refused. They then bundled their, now unconscious, friend into the boot; piled into the back and set off into the distance. That really drove home to us how different Peru is to home.

Anyway, the Andean Explorer is an old-style train, like something out of an Agatha Christie book . There are only five cars and the last one is half-bar, half-observation car with an open back. Our seats are armchairs around a table covered in a thick cloth and with a little table lamp. This is not normal rail travel in any way.

Lunchtime.

The trip from Puno to Cusco takes ten hours by train. It’s faster by road, and much cheaper, but a different sort of experience. The train seems to average about 30km an hour, which makes seeing what we are passing really easy and enjoyable – especially from the open observation car. As we pass through small towns kids run after the train begging for money, able to keep up for a short stretch. In the towns we pass through markets with tiny stalls set out along the tracks; in fact they are on the track until the approaching train whistles to warn people to clear the way. Everything from tools, to car parts to mummified llamas is on display.

Herding on the Altiplano.

We pass over the Altiplano. There are tiny farms, small flocks of sheep or alpacas being watched over by solitary shepherds or sometimes a group of kids. The houses are small, thatched and made of mud-bricks. And everywhere is a yellowed scrubby grass. On the train the contrast couldn’t be higher. We sit sipping Pisco sours as the world goes by, then are served a wonderful three-course lunch at our table by liveried waiters. It’s all so over the top it makes us laugh aloud.

We stop at the highest point on the route from Puno to Cusco after about five hours travelling and get out to stretch our legs. At over 4300m it’s the highest point we’ll reach on the trip. Almost immediately as we start to descend the farmland becomes richer. There are green fields, the houses have corrugated iron roofs and the townships get bigger. This now against the backdrop of snow-covered peaks looming another couple of thousand metres above us. The land is richer but the people still have a tough life, we see field after field with entire families in them ploughing and planting by hand, the wooden plough being dragged along by a cow.

The land moves from flat plain to deeply riven gullies and valleys. The marks left by the rainy season here are abundant and apparent. Whole hillsides are nothing more than scars from landslides. Instead of scrubland there are now trees about and everywhere you look there are cacti. We have afternoon tea as the train rolls along beside a river that drops away beside us into a deep gorge.

Eventually ten hours after leaving Puno we roll into Cusco after what we all agree has been a truly special rail journey.

Joining the huddled masses

Statue of Liberty.

To get out of Dublin and into the US we had to show our passports five times and go through two full sets of security. We had to give our fingerprints and photos into the haphazard care of a US government database under Barack Obama’s photogenically watchful gaze. And we had to fill in a customs form.

Boys on the way to Liberty.

The moment of levity, and some consternation, for us was how to fill in the tiny box labelled ‘Countries you have visited before the USA on this trip’. Inserting 22 countries was an impossible task made for someone with the skills of the monks writing the Book of Kells in microscopic script.

*****

Now we’re here in New York and the Statue of Liberty was our first priority. It seemed fitting to start our US sojourn with a view that greeted so many immigrants to this country.

With Manhattan skyline.

There is something quite special about the Statue of Liberty even without the vast symbolism that has attached to it since the French presented it to the USA in the 1880s. It really is a masterpiece and perfectly placed in the New York harbour. We were also delighted to discover that one of our engineering heroes, Gustave Eiffel, built the internal structure that holds the thin copper shell in place.

Getting to the Statue involved going through yet another security check. I must admit that annoying as it is to have to remove my belt, it is nothing compared to the examinations the immigrants of the 1800s had to endure upon arriving in the US. We visited Ellis Island after the Statue and gained a real insight into the procedure of arriving in the US. One thing that really grabbed us was the eye exams. They were looking for trachoma and the sign was inflammation beneath the eyelid. If they found it, the poor immigrant was immediately sent home. The examination was conducted by turning back the eyelid either with bare fingers or with a button-hook! It boggles the mind how many additional cases were created through lack of sterilisation during the examination process.

Ellis Island’s main hall.

But I digress, we awoke early, oh so early, this morning thanks to jetlag so we were on one of the first ferries out to the Statue. Even so it was jam-packed with about 800 fellow visitors and there were just as many waiting to get off the Island. If you arrive a bit later you should apparently expect to queue for two hours to get tickets. All in a hot, badly organised crowd. Not many of the people visiting the Statue today can be classified as poor, but they certainly tick the boxes on the rest of the famous lines of Lazarus’s 1880 poem:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

Seeing the Statue close up and the Manhattan skyline looking back was worth the tribulations of the crowds. And Ellis Island was fascinating in so many ways. But we were thrilled to break free of the crowds at the end and breathe free.

*****

Protesting poor working conditions.

We made our way home via Wall St to cover another iconic sight. And we saw the new building going up on the World Trade Centre site. We didn’t visit, but did spend a lot of time talking about 911; partly because it is both important and fascinating and partly because, given he was born so close to it, it looms large in Callum’s thinking.

*****

Model boating in Central Park.

This afternoon we explored Central Park and found an unsung child-friendly attraction. At the model boat basin you can hire remote-control sailing boats and captain them around the pond. Even in the fitful breeze provided by a steaming-hot New York day the boats moved remarkably well and were a lot of fun.

We also got caught up in a bit of industrial action with one of the local unions trying to persuade people not to eat or rent boats or bikes from the Boathouse in the Park. Their grievances seemed legitimate and concerning and so the boys provided their support by proudly wearing balloons.

Statue of Liberty, Industrial action, Wall Street, captain of your own yacht – not a bad introduction to New York.

Connemara morning

Horse and lough down the road.

There’s hardly a movement on the water. It is so still that faint ripples seem to follow the beating wings of a sole bird as it flaps heavily down the length of the lough. The black currach’s don’t move, but their reflections seems to shimmer slightly as the bird passes.

Two old men in thick yellow oilskins pass empty boxes down into a currach pulled up against the little breakwater. They don’t say anything and the only sound anywhere is the sound of the boxes landing. Otherwise the entire valley is silent.

Wildflowers on the road to our Connemara house.

Over on the hillside to the East a horse stands perfectly silhouetted against the skyline. I watch for a good few minutes and it doesn’t move an inch. Anywhere more urban and you might question whether it was a statue. Eventually it dips its head to eat a few mouthfuls of grass before resuming its pose. You don’t get the sense it’s watching anything. It’s just standing.

Local road surfacing.

The sky is grey with textured cloud. There’s just a hint of pink on the edges of some of them as the hidden sun comes up from wherever it has spent the night. Suddenly the fishermen start up the currach’s outboard and head round the corner for the open sea. The sound is shockingly loud and a couple of small black birds wheel into action like little fighter planes warning off the enemy. But almost the moment the fishermen pass the headland the sound disappears and everything returns to silence and, once the ripples fade, stillness.

Now if only I could get the camera without waking everyone else up…

Driving on water and walking on ice

Iceberg at Jokulsarlon.
Salamander.

The Vatnajokull glacier is receding by about 150m every year at the moment. At Jokulsarlon the receding tongue has left a lake behind it and that lake is filled with icebergs. Yes, icebergs!

So we went on a salamander ride through the icebergs. Being big fans of The Mysterious Benedict Society books we were pretty thrilled by the salamander-ride itself, but that experience paled beside the complete awesomeness of being amongst icebergs. We learnt that the blue ice has been recently under water while the white, and less tightly packed ice, has been exposed to the air. As the ice melts and the bergs flip the blue pats are exposed to the air. We touched and tasted berg ice that is about 1500 years old.

Skaftafellsjokull glacier.

The glacier itself is surrounded by a nimbus of reflected light even though it is currently a bit of a mucky colour. The surface of the glacier is covered with ash from the recent volcanic eruptions and this hasn’t yet been covered by snowfall. The bergs show strata of earlier eruptions with startling clarity – including a really thick band which we assume came form the eruption in the 1300s that dwarfed the Vesuvian eruption that swamped Pompeii and completely changed the face of Iceland.

Walking on the Svinafellsjokull glacier.

After lunch we went on the second part of our glacier adventures – a walk on the Svinafellsjokull glacier. The first step was strapping on crampons and being issued with ice-axes; and then off we set over the glacier. The glacier was a wonderland of creases, crevasses, holes and bridges. Because of the eruption only a few months ago everything is coated in a layer of ash so it wasn’t a classic white walk but it was amazing nonetheless.

Svinafellsjokull glacier.

At first we thought the walk was relatively tame. But after a bit of training in using our crampons – the duck walk, the old lady walk and the ballerina glide – we got more adventurous. We walked over some very scary ice bridges and ravines with drops of 90m to the side.  We saw holes, we saw caves, we saw cones of mud formed as the liquid in ice holes freezes upwards. It was absolutely amazing. And all to the accompanying crunch of the crampons biting into the ice. The only other sound was the occasional roar from under-ice rivers – not mild trickling sounds but serious, rushing roars.

Black sand desert.

The have a special word in Icelandic for ‘glacial melt flood’ and driving underneath the glacier you can see why. Huge boulder-strewn plains scoured flat by enormous force.  The sheer power was really driven home to us as we crossed the black sand desert – a simply endless black plain scoured clean of everything by glacial floods. It was a bit sad to think though that only a few tens of years ago the plain met the edge of the glacier and now the glacier sits a few kilometres back. It is completely sobering to realise that the glaciers are melting at such a rate that the ground is actually rising beneath them as it is relieved of the enormous weight of ice pressing down on it.

But those are worries for another day. We had an absolutely wonderful, exciting time today. As we proceeded back to the edge of the glacier, Declan said “We can’t stop travelling at the end of the year – there are too many things like this to do in the world!”

Eg tala ekki islensku

Borgarfjordur Eysti.

If you think of Iceland as a clock-face, we started in Reykjavik at about 8 o’clock and travelled clockwise. We’ve gone over 1600km so far and are now at about 4 o’clock. The South-Eastern coast is a contrast to further North. It’s much calmer, with flat seas and rocky inlets. Even the birds seem quieter than their Northern cousins.

We’re beginning to run out of words to describe all the beautiful places we’ve seen. And so far we’ve failed to add much in the way of Icelandic to our vocabulary. Icelandic is a strange combination of the incomprehensible and the almost familiar.

The incomprehensible part comes from the fact that Icelandic has several letters that don’t appear in English. It also lacks the letter ‘z’ which was abolished in 1974. I do love the fact that they got together and decided to get rid of a letter which was not doing much good.

The familiarity comes from a couple of places. Quite a few words are similar to English or German words, at least if you say them phonetically; although they’re not always used in quite the same way. ‘Hello’ is ‘Hallo’; ‘Good night’ is ‘Goda nott’. My favourite word in Icelandic is ‘goodbye’ which is simply ‘bless’. A lot of other words are similar to old English or to Scottish English: ‘Child’ is ‘barna’, ‘head’ is ‘heid’.

So if you take a stab at saying something you can sometimes work it out. Othertimes you take a stab and end up with your tongue tied in an awkward knot.

All of this, of course, is rather academic since everyone in Iceland speaks English.