Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Life is Beautiful - Canary Islands

Life is Beautiful.

Life IS beautiful but sometimes you need to look a little harder for the beauty. This happened a little on our recent holiday to the Canary Islands.

The plan was to fly to Gran Canaria, stay there for a few hours overnight and first thing the next day, fly to La Palma and hike around the island for a week. The route were we planning to walk was called the GR130 and it circumnavigates the island. The photos of the island were beautiful although information on the route was hard to come by. But we figured that it must be just undiscovered by the masses and therefore unspoilt, and that would be a good thing.

While researching, I had gotten in touch with a lovely English lady Anne living on La Palma with David for the last 14 years and they gave us lots of great information on where to stay around the island. We even booked into their B&B for 2 nights along the way. Everything was planned, we were ready for the sunshine, all we had to do each day was get up and walk to the next place while enjoying the views. Easy right?

The flight to Gran Canaria was uneventful and once we landed we headed to our hostel for the night in Ingenio, a small non-touristy town close to the airport. The hostel was lovely and with some broken Spanish and pointing we ordered a nice meal and drinks.

The taxi driver picked us up at 6am the next morning for our flight with Binter airways to La Palma. He blasted some Pink Floyd on the drive and we thought what a great way to start our day. We checked in and were sitting at the gate with our fellow passengers when they made an announcement that that fight was cancelled. As the only non-Spanish speaking people on the flight, we only realised this as everyone around us groaned, got up and walked away. The winds were too bad on La Palma so the flight wouldn’t be going. We found out the earliest we could get out was the next evening, meaning we’d lose 2 full days in La Palma. Without much choice, we changed our tickets and figured out a plan. We had to forfeit our accommodation that night on La Palma unfortunately but decided to book a nice hotel on Gran Canaria about 20 mins north of the airport with a free airport shuttle and a rooftop pool, so off we went. Thank goodness for mobile phones and Booking.com! Neither of us are ‘lie by the pool’ people but over those 2 days we soaked it up!

Saturday evening we were back at the airport and we headed off to La Palma. Since the islands are in the Atlantic off the north west coast of Africa, there are always some winds and it was a bit of a bumpy incoming. It didn’t help that it was dark so we couldn’t see where we were landing, or that the young local woman behind was continually blessing herself on approach. After landing and when we had stopped shaking, we found a taxi to take us an hour north to where we should have been by now had we been walking, Barlovento. It was a lovely hotel outside the town so the stars were really bright. It was quite late but the restaurant was just about still open so we had some food and chatted to an English man there who either ran the place or owned it. We told him where we were planning on walking the next day and he said it would only be 3 hours or so if we were fast, maybe closer to 5 if we really took our time. This sounded great. Unfortunately I had left our book with maps and routes at home but we knew that it should be sign posted. We slept in a little since we figured it was only a shorter walk the next day and hit the road just before 12. We found the route and felt like the holiday was finally beginning the way we had planned.

The views along the the trail were stunning, we were high above the coast with the sea on our right. The trail was very underused however and quite steep. It didn’t seem like a trail that would be safe to do solo and we only passed a couple of people. After a tasty packed lunch under a tree with rainbows in the sea due to showers just off the coast, we headed deep into a barranco (ravine) and then up the other side. We had been walking about 3 hours at this stage so felt we must be close to the B&B we were staying at run by the English couple. Unfortunately, as we came into the village (1 closed cafe and about 10 houses) we saw a map that showed us we had another 2.5 hours of walking at least, and that there was another barranco we had to climb down and up which was twice as big as the last one. We were a bit gutted at this point. Obviously the guy from the previous hotel had been talking nonsense, and now there was a village dog following us and barking at us to leave. We could see the rain coming in but had no choice but to trudge onwards with our full backpacks.

We were nearly at the bottom of the ravine when Gav saw another dog in front of us, totally out on his own, stalking something. He was quite big and we were away from any of the villages so it seemed odd that he was out here. He actually spooked us a bit, despite both of us being very used to dogs so we decided to retrace our steps back to the small village. At this stage the rain starting pummelling down so once we got to the village, we found shelter behind a wall and called the B&B in Franceses for a lift. Very kindly, David came to pick us up and told us we made the right call as the weather was really starting to come in. Anne was so nice and had prepared dinner for us and for some other guests at the B&B, 3 Swedish people. Our room was a little stone shed on the side of the mountain with a small kitchenette and bathroom contained within.

The rain continued fairly consistently for the next 2 days so we had to abandon our plan to walk the GR130 and found a more sedate route instead for the day. We were a bit deflated but got a bus to La Zarza to see some rock carvings, then did a 10 mile along the roads back to the B&B. We felt the rain had made the proper trail too dangerous as it was now both steep and wet, and again we had been charged at by another farm dog. Hearing barking in the distance was beginning to make the walk unenjoyable as once you heard barking, you had to be super aware in case the dogs jumped out at you, quite unnerving.

After our second day of walking in the rain, we decided that was enough and one of the German guests at the B&B gave us a lift to where we should have walked to in Puntagorda and where I had already booked our accommodation. After a dreary start, the sun came out for a little bit and it was nice not to be wearing wet rain gear. A lot of our clothes smelled like damp :( We stayed at a great hostel/B&B run by a couple of Germans. Apparently Germans make up 10% of the population of La Palma! We checked out a small art gallery, had really delicious pizza from a brick oven made by a long haired rocker blasting out Creedence Clearwater Revival, and then had a tasty evening meal across the road from where we stayed.

I had been able to cancel the rest of our accommodation from this point onwards, so the next day we just got a couple of buses across the island to Santa Cruz, where we needed to fly out on Sat morning. Since our flights home from Gran Canaria were also on Sat in the evening, we had been checking the winds all week in case the La Palma airport would close again. We tried changing our tickets to Fri instead but since they weren’t changeable, we forked out for new tickets. Not ideal but it gave us peace of mind.

We hopped onto Booking.com again and found an apartment to stay in at Los Concajos, just a couple of miles outside Santa Cruz by the beach for the next 2 nights. We walked around the city, ate, paddled in the sea (it was a bit too rough to swim when we wanted to), and even did a small day walk. We got totally off track though as again, the trails are so underused that the signs to follow are either hidden by trees now or the paint markings have faded. Of course it rained some more. Of the 9 days we were there, it rained for 8 of them. Even the locals seemed surprised by the weather and some floods on the other Canary Islands were on the news.

After changing our flight, we had a night to spare in Gran Canaria so we booked into the hotel with the rooftop pool again (who had we become! :) )
Thankfully this time, due to the rain, we walked in a different direction for dinner that night and found an amazing little neighbourhood where all the locals go for great food.

For pretty much the whole trip, instead of just walking every day in the sunshine, we were constantly on the phones, checking the winds, rain, flights, where to stay, buses etc. So on our way to our meal that night in Gran Canaria, an older Spanish man got in the lift with us and just turned to Gav out of the blue and said ‘Life is beautiful, you must enjoy it’. We all laughed and said thanks very much and it was just the thing we needed to hear. If our flight hadn’t been cancelled, we wouldn’t have stayed in the nice hotel with the pool which is probably what we needed more than launching into a big strenuous walk. If we hadn’t seen that scary dog in the ravine and retreated, we would have been stuck in some serious rain for 2.5 hours, instead of getting a lift to the B&B. If we hadn’t gotten the buses when we did, we’d have missed the few hours of sunshine that came out, and would have arrived into towns each day soaking wet.

The places we stayed at were fantastic, all the meals we ate were delicious, the people we met were so nice, and the scenery is stunning. I think we just got unlucky with the weather and it seemed like every day there was a new challenge to figure out. Despite all that, it was good holiday, not at all like we had planned, but it was still beautiful.

Here's a link to the photos

Jen x

Friday, June 26, 2015

Trekking in Morocco

This was a short adventure by my usual standards, just a week in Morocco where we were to walk for 5 days in the Atlas Mountains summiting Toubkal (highest peak in North Africa at 4167m), followed by almost 2 days in Marrakesh.

We set off from Dublin to Marrakech on Sunday afternoon and 3 hours and 15 mins later, we were in Africa! At the hotel we met the group we were spending the week with, as well as the guide. Apart from myself and Gav, there was another Irish guy, two people from Northern Ireland, one from Germany and the rest were English so a nice mix ranging from 26 years old to mid 60's. We also met our guide Abdellah who briefed us on the week ahead.

We set off Monday morning for the Atlas mountains. Abdellah had told us the night before that due to snow on one of the passes, we were to take a slightly alternative route whereby we would just follow the valley to the Toubkal base camp. This meant staying in a gite in Aremd on Tuesday instead of a tent. 

We only had to carry our day packs so the rest of our bags, plus the tents, food, cooking equipment etc was all carried on just ahead of us by 4 mules and their muleteers (including the chef Hussein). Hassan followed our group closely and was our backmarker. He also walked with a mule who was weighed down with less gear than the others. I wondered if this was in case one of us needed the mule to carry us! Thankfully we never had to find out. 

Each day we walked between 5-6 hours (except summit day which was 9) at a lovely leisurely pace and Abdellah would often stop to give us some history, point out towns, peaks, trees, or anything he thought might interest us which was great. The temps most days were pretty good too, around 26C and in the evenings it would drop to where you might need a fleece and jacket if you were sitting around outside. Inside the tents were cozy though.

The food was amazing! We would catch up with the muleteers and chef for lunch and they would have the most delicious picnic laid out for us either under a tree, beside a river or on the side of a hill with stunning views all around. We never managed to finish all the food despite some serious efforts. 

In the evenings when we reached our camp or gite, we would have mint tea and biscuits/cookies and then dinner a little while later. Again, it was fantastic food which we could never get all the way through. 

Sleeping well seemed to depend on the position of the tent. We lucked out at the 2 nights at base camp thankfully after a sloped one the first night where we both almost ended up in a ball at the front of the tent several times in the night! At the gite sleeping depended on whether you were woken by the call to prayer at 3am from the mosque in the village. 

The summit day was a little longer than we thought but still enjoyable. It was really steep, probably steeper than anything else I had done. I can walk up all day but I'm not a fan of coming down so that was the part I found the hardest. It was all worth the views from the summit though and we got really lucky as there were only 2 other groups there who left not long after we arrived. 

As long as we though the summit day was, the guides must have felt it was a lot longer. Ramadan began on Thurs (summit day) so they had to get up at 3am for their breakfast, sleep a little till we left the camp at 5:30am and they couldn't eat or drink until 7:45pm that evening. I don't know how they managed without any food or drink as we were thirsty and ravenous all day. They just keep going as usual with a smile and encouraging words to those who were tired...

We had the choice of doing another 4000m peak the next day but most people were tired and we were told it was a 12 hour walking day which no one was really keen on. Instead we settled for 4 hour walk and a few people tried out a local steam bath instead. 

On the Saturday after breakfast we had a short walk before heading back to Marrakech for a city tour. We visited the Bahia Palace as well as another royal house and then got a tour of the famous Souks where we could do some shopping. By the end of the tour, a few of us were hungry for lunch so we just sat by the Djemaa el Fna square for a bite. 

We were all due to meet at 7 that evening for dinner so we decided to do some shopping at night instead when it was cooler. It was a humid 39C in the city during the day. By the time we got back to the hotel that afternoon, a few people were unwell. There seemed to be a bug going around the group all week and unfortunately Gavin and I were hit with it Saturday evening so we didn't get to enjoy Marrakech by night. 

After staying in to sleep it off we felt much better on Sunday and hung out by the hotel pool for the day until we had to leave for the airport that evening. That seems more appealing than going shopping. In the end 9 of the 11 people in the group were ill at one point or another during the week. We were just happy it didn't happen to us in the mountains as it did for others unfortunately. Nothing like being ill and having to sleep in a tent!

On our descent of Toubkal, I had a funny 'small world' moment. I had put a message on Facebook before we left Dublin about our trip and randomly someone I met on a volunteer project in Namibia in 2013 said she was also summiting Toubkal a couple of days later. We found out we were with the same tour company but with different summit days so on our descent down the valley on Friday we bumped into Mansi who was on her way up. She was also staying at the same hotel as us in Marrakech so we were able to catch up properly for a bit there on Sunday. What a lovely chance meeting!

Despite only being away for a week it felt much longer in a great way. While Marrakech was interesting my favourite part of the trip was the mountains and walking through the berber villages where unlike Nepal, you still seem like a bit of a curiosity, with the kids shouting 'stilo' after us looking for pens. I wish I had brought some for them. Another thing to add to my packing list in future! 

Till next time here are the photos

Monday, October 6, 2014

Polish Mountains and Spanish Flats

I decided to split this year's holiday into two parts - one week in Poland, hiking the High Tatras and the second week in Spain walking the Camino de Santiago trail with G.


I started off with going to Poland with Exodus who I'd used before for the Mt Blanc circuit and Nepal. After a late night flight to Krakow and a transfer to Zakopane the next day, I met the gang I'd be spending the next week with.

There were two other women in the group (who were cousins from France) and the rest were lads from Wales, Scotland and England. Teresa, a mini powerhouse from Poland was our guide. It was a 5 day walking trip in the Tatra National Park where we'd average 15-20km per day over quite steep terrain that either seemed to be going straight up or straight down. We were also carrying our full packs most of the time, around 11kgs so that was a workout in itself.

Each night we stayed in huts with bunk beds and communal dining areas. Earplugs were essential! The huts were all very clean and most had hot showers. Food portions in Poland are enormous and we all struggled to get through the massive 3 course meals every night, even after a hard day's slog in the mountains. No wonder the Polish people are so active! The next few days panned out like this.

Day 1: Ornak peak (1854m)

Day 2: Ciemniak, our first 2000m peak. On the way we could hear a bear in the distance having a grumpy morning growling session. Thankfully he didn't seem to want to follow us up.

Day 3: Back up to the main ridge to the summit of Mt. Kasprowy (1955m) and then Swinica (2050m)

Day 4: We had to start using fixed mountain chains to help us as we scrambled up the mountain to cross the 'Eagles Perch' (2159m) - scary stuff pulling yourself up a mountain using a chain that you're not attached to. You slip and its bad news!

Day 5: We headed for Poland's highest peak, Mt. Rysy (2499m) on the Polish/Slovakian border. This was a 12 hour day with lots more chains and scrambling. I wasn't altogether happy on some of the chains but it was worth it in the end. We heard later that day about a man who slipped while scrambling on a trail nearby that was easier than the one we were on. He fell 150m. Sadly it didn't end well. Thankfully we didn't have to come down the same way we came up so we went down the Slovakian side, which is long but not so steep.

We headed back to Krakow on the Fri lunchtime and just wandered the city and the markets. On Sat morning a bunch of us went to the Salt Mines, totally worth a visit. We finished up with a group dinner in the Jewish district on Sat night before leaving for the airport on Sun morning.

Here's the link to the photos - Polish Tatras



I got to Madrid Sunday afternoon from Krakow, bolted through the airport with my pack like a sweaty mess to try and catch a 3:15 bus to Burgos where I was going to meet G. I got to the bus with 2 mins to spare only to be told the bus was full and I'd have to wait another 3.5 hours for the next one. After a bit of a sulk, I cheered myself up with wine while I waited.

While I was in Poland for the week, G was walking the Camino from Pamplona to Burgos. He's done the whole thing before but I was joining him for his favourite portion. We planned to walk for 5 days until Sat where we'd head to Santander before flying home on Sunday.

After finally making it to Burgos on Sunday night, we got up early the next morning and started our walk. There are yellow arrows, mostly spray-painted on walls or the ground which indicate the Camino trail.

We managed to cover 127km in 5 days. Much flatter and hotter than Poland but still carrying a full pack, which was a little heavier than Poland since I was wearing less clothes in the heat. The Camino seems to be rather unique in that its super friendly, more so than any other hiking trail I've been on. People wish one another a 'Buen Camino' as they pass by each other, and the common questions asked are 'where did you start', 'how far are you walking', 'how are the feet'?

G  was like the mayor of the Camino as he seemed to know so many people having chatted to them the week before!

Each night we stayed in Albergues, similar to the huts in Poland with dorms of bunkbeds. There's a communal dining area where everyone sits together to eat from the 'pilgrim' menu (a lovely 3 course meal) which includes a bottle of water and wine for only €9. Some of the towns we stayed in were absolutely tiny so there was plenty of opportunities for star gazing and satellite watching both in the evenings, and again when we hit the road early in the morning before sunrise.

One evening we decided to stay on a farm where ducks, geese, turkeys, hens, chicks, dogs and donkeys wandered around the place, all getting along (most of the time). Instead of staying in the dorm we stayed in what was basically a large garden shed with a bed in it. We even walked the ducks and geese to bed with the hospitalier (they waited outside his room for him as they liked him to walk them to where they slept every night).

Apparently lots of people skip the section we did as its quite barren and desert-like but of course this was exactly what I was looking for. We met a grandfather and his grandson who were walking the whole of the Camino together, the grandfather was 78! It takes around 6-8 weeks to walk the entire thing. And we met a mum and her 8 yr old son who were walking together although the son was on his bike. He'd cycle ahead on the trail chatting to everyone he met and would then wait for his mum who was carrying both of their packs to catch up. In the evenings he'd do his homework.

After 5 days of walking, we reached Sahagún. Sadly it was time to get the train to Santander and our flight home. Splitting the 2 weeks into 2 different destinations in such a short space of time was new for me but it really made me feel like I had been away for longer than I was, so I may try that type of thing again. Anyway, must plan some mini weekend walking trips to keep me going till the next big one...

Here's the link to the photos - Camino


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Namibia - 7th time lucky

Here's the latest blog after a really fun 6 weeks with EHRA http://www.desertelephant.org in Namibia. It was my 7th trip out there so you might say I have a little obsession with the place. The purpose of this trip was to work with Rachel and update the website I had created for them 4 years ago (which we're hoping to relaunch in the next few days). I also got to spend a few much-needed weeks living out in the bush, sleeping under the stars and cooking over the fire.

In early November after a 22 hour journey, I reunited with Chris (the project manager) and spend my first 2 weeks with the volunteers - 3 lovely ladies from the UK and one from the US. After a few tough and hot days (38C), we got pretty close to finishing a wall around a water pump at a farm near Khorixas during the first week. We even had elephants come to drink from the dam right beside the pump one night, as if to prove a point that a wall was needed to protect the pump while still allowing the elephants to drink. The second week we headed up to the Huab river (one of my favourite areas) and we tracked a couple of herds up there. We even heard lions roaring one night quite close to camp, a little unnerving but also very exciting.

I spent the next few weeks back in Swakopmund working on the website with Rachel at EHRA's head office and helping a little with the slideshows for the end of year party in the desert. If you want to know more about what attracts me there, check these out!

EHRA the beginning - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1pCF7qwHmyA

The last year 2013 - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-Lkai3C6dw

While I was in the office the new batch volunteers finished off the wall in Khorixas. The volunteers included Robby from Zimbabwe. She was out volunteering 2 years ago when I was last there. The rest of the volunteers (3 girls and a guy) were from the UK, Switzerland, Germany and Brazil. Matheus, the Brazilian even gave us girls samba lessons one night around the fire. Following the end of year party (which was almost rained out), I stayed out in the bush with the volunteers and joined them for their 2nd week which was for elephant patrol. This time we drove to the Ugab river first to check out the herds there, and then headed back towards the Huab river. We saw 4 different herds in total and I'm happy to say I can recognise some of the elephants now :) 

We had a fantastic patrol, as well as elephants we saw a lot of game such as oryx, kudu, springbok, steenbok, ostrich, zebra, giraffe and a couple of black rhino. I even got to drive in the sandy riverbed, my first proper 4x4 experience. At the end of the week, on the Thursday night before we headed back to town, I noticed there were a lot more shooting stars than normal, about 2-3 every min. Turns out it was the beginning of a meteor shower. What a lovely way to end the trip. As always it all went too quick so no doubt there'll be a 8th, 9th, 10th trip out there in the future. And if any of you ever want to join  me, let me know!

Things I'll miss about Namibia:
- waking up to birds (as loud as they can be sometimes, its so much better than an alarm)
- sleeping under the stars and not closing my eyes till I see at least one shooting star or satellite passing overhead, I'm not usually waiting long
- cooking over the fire and my hair and clothes smelling like campfire
- feeling low maintenance and not worrying about what we all look (or smell) like, although some smell more than others :)
- watching animals in their natural habitat
- learning something new from Chris or Mattius every day
- sunsets and sunrises
- meeting new like-minded people
- Willy the one eyed camp dog who I totally fell in love with and I like to think he did with me too. So nice after losing sweet Tobes in August
- the whole EHRA family - Rachel, Joe, Chris, Mattius, Victro, Adolf. And all the dogs of course - Kiki, Zanzi, Zulu and Tsaurab who liked to nap on my bed.

Another wonderful set of memories to get me through the winter. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone!


Sunday, April 14, 2013


For the last 2 years Iceland has been on my travel radar, not just to see the country but also the Northern Lights. I decided that this Easter the time had come. Not only is March/April the best time of the year to see them, supposedly this year they are the most active they've been in 50 years. Let me cut to the chase right now though. Despite all this, we didn't get to see them once in the 6 days we were there. However, Iceland more than made up for it.

D and I headed off on Good Friday from London to Reykjavik with WOW Air. I was a little skeptical at first when I booked the tickets but they were actually a really good airline and had the funniest safety commentary I've heard yet, very clever because it made everyone listen. 3 hours and our first Icelandic beer later, we landed in Reykjavik. We got the bus to our hotel (Hotel Reykjavik Centrum) which was in the centre of the old part of town and I would highly recommend it. They have a new and old part of the hotel, the old part was built in 1754 but designed around the style found in Reykjavík around 1900. We got to stay in the old part, I loved our room.

We were really lucky with the weather for the whole trip, it was between 7 and 10C most days and sunny. A little cloudy at night but sadly enough clouds to cover up the Northern Lights and their low activity that week.

Anyway, here are some of the highlights of our trip:
- Going to the Blue Lagoon which is a geothermal spa just outside Reykjavik. Its like getting into a hot outdoor bath. Even though it was a Saturday afternoon it wasn't too busy so we just strolled in and didn't even have to queue for a beer which is sold from a kiosk in the middle of the lagoon! A blissful sunny afternoon.

- Since we were only there for a few days, it was easier to jump on tours as opposed to driving ourselves. The first one we did was a day tour called the Golden Circle Tour which brings you to some beautiful waterfalls, geysers and to where the North American and Eurasian continental plates meet, a place which is also of historical importance in Iceland. It was a full on day but we saw tons and there was running commentary from Swan our guide, although I'll admit we did have a few power naps along the way.

- We did a tour specifically for hunting for the Northern Lights one evening. They're very careful to emphasize that its a 'hunt' for the lights, not a viewing. We were picked up at 730 with another 40 people and driven out into the countryside. We waited till it got dark but by 1030, they decided we should move so we hopped on the bus to try another location. Just after midnight, it was declared the hunt was over but we could use our tickets again for free if we wanted to try again. They're valid for 2 years, so maybe we'll have to go back to redeem.

- We did a 2 day, 1 night tour with Extreme Iceland. There were more waterfalls on this trip as we drove 450Km east of Reykjavik along the south coast. We also saw lava fields, black beaches, did a glacier hike, visited a glacial lagoon, saw Iceland's highest peak (which I want to go back and climb) and passed through some very cool rural little towns along the way. We spent the 2 nights of the tour also hunting for the Northern Lights but we were out of luck again. It was still a great tour, our guide Berglind was a cool chick, great fun and very knowledgeable.

- On our last day in Reykjavik, we rented bikes since it was another beautiful day and cycled for 3 1/2 hours around the peninsula. I felt we got to see parts of the city we probably wouldn't have on foot. After a post cycle lunch at Babalú cafe (Thanks Sarah for the recommendation) we wandered around the city before heading for some final happy hour drink at our favourite spot Stofan Cafe.

- Some of the other restaurants we went to and really enjoyed were (in case you're ever going):
Geysir Bistro and Bar
Icelandic Fish and Chips
Cafe Paris
Buddha Cafe
And finally Fish Market which was quite pricey (even by Iceland standards) but one of the best meals I've had in a really long time.

We had lovely fresh fish every day and all the portions are quite big in every place we went to.

We both said we'd love to go back but during the summer next time when the hiking trails are open. It would be a lot of fun to rent a car for a couple of weeks, drive around the island and do some camping and hiking. So Iceland remains on the travel wish list. Maybe another time I'll get to see the Northern Lights!

As usual, here are some pics from the trip. https://picasaweb.google.com/jcarpent75/Iceland02


Sunday, December 2, 2012

Trekking in Nepal - finally!

About 2 years ago I started to think about a trekking holiday in Nepal that would include visiting Everest Base camp. A few friends had done it and recommended it, and one friend in particular told me if I go, I should include some extra peaks in there while I was at it. This friend had used Exodus, the adventure holiday company so during the summer I started to read up on their trips. One in particular jumped out at me almost straight away, 'The High Passes of Everest'. It had a red icon saying 'TOUGH' on the front page so of course that appealed. It included crossing three high passes, five summits plus Everest Base Camp which made it one of the best of all the Everest circuits. I was sold!

So it was booked and on Fri Nov 2nd I headed out to join the group in Kathmandu. The other 10 people on the trip were all flying from London. There were 3 guys in their 60's, a man and a woman in their 50's, a guy in his 40's, a couple in their 40's, and a guy and a girl in their 30's. I was the youngest on the trip which was a nice change! Apart from the couple, everyone was a solo traveler like me.

I got in a little earlier on the Sat so I waited at the hotel for the group to show up a few hours later with our leader for the trip. His name is Pasang and he's from Bhutan. He had been leading expeditions in the Himalayas for the last 14 years so we knew we'd be in good hands, and he was quite the character. Everyone was split into two's to share rooms and my roomie and BF for the trip was Frances, a lovely crazy soul from Belfast who I hope will remain a firm friend going forward.

Pasang brought all of us out for dinner that night as we got to know one another. One of the requirements of this trip was that you had to have had some previous altitude experience as most of the walking was above 3600m (over 11,000ft). This meant that everyone was quite well traveled so there were lots of stories to swap. It also meant that each us of were mentally adding new places to our travel wish lists as you talked to people who'd been to some really cool places. The traveling never ends!

First off on Sunday morning we had a briefing about what our next 3 weeks would entail. It definitely sounded daunting. The last time I was at high altitude was when I did Kilimanjaro in 2008 and I wasn't that happy when we reached the top. We were cold, dehydrated and had killer altitude headaches. As I came down I swore I'd never do something like it again. But as time is a great healer, here I was again only this sounded harder. But Pasang assured us that we would take our time, drink lots and we'd all be fine.

We had the rest of Sunday free in Kathmandu so Pasang organised a walking tour of the city for us. Kathmandu is mental. When you come into the airport they have small signs above your head giving you little facts about Nepal. One of them stated that the Nepalese like to express themselves through their horns - no kidding! The city is a sensory overload, lots of people, tons of motorbikes and cars, and non-stop incessant horns going off all the time. There seems to be no rules to the road and to cross you feel like you're in a real life game of Frogger. At the pedestrian crossings, you just have to walk out with confidence and hope that the cars stop, which they almost always do at the last minute, but while honking at you as they speed up towards you. Any hesitation and you've lost, you have to start again. A little terrifying to begin with but after a few days, we were walking like pros as opposed to racing across like deer in the headlights.

Sunday night we all went out for dinner and our last beers for a few weeks. We'd only be able to have beers again once we started the descent and we had no more peaks to climb. We had to leave for our flight to Lukla the next morning around 930am so after dinner, the evening was spent doing a final pack and going through the check list. We also took a group photo of the guys since they all agreed not to shave for the next almost 3 weeks.

As I have mentioned to some of you, the flight to Lukla was the only aspect of the trip that I had reservations about before I booked it. Lukla is where all the Everest region-based treks begin from, so for the most part you have to fly in there from Kathmandu. Its about a 35 min flight in a small 20 seater plane. The scary thing about it is the runway at Lukla is only 460m long (just over the length of a running track) and its at the edge of a cliff so no room for do-overs or errors. Its known as one of the most dangerous airports in the world, check out this video of a landing http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DqgZvb37NX0

I think I must have decided I had panicked enough over the previous weeks because on the morning of the flight I was quite calm. In the end the flight was actually very cool, relatively smooth but the landing was crazy. You can see the tiny runway as you're coming towards it and its on a slope at the edge of a cliff, so it slows down the plane as you land and go up the slope. Everyone seemed a little shook up  as we got off the flight, and Pasang, even though he's been doing it for 14 years, was full of relief. He said he's actually seen people wet themselves on the flight before. One of the guys even told me he wrote up his will before the trip, based purely on this flight. So I guess my fears weren't that unfounded. Anyway, we all made it and were very excited to start trekking that afternoon. We met Pasang's two guides, Norrie and Kushman who were to be our pacers and guys who could get us anything we needed, absolute superstars. We also had 6 porters with us who would carry our kit bags. We just had to worry about our day packs which was nice.

Over the next 18 days, we would start to trek up towards Everest Base camp. Along the way, we would divert from the normal Everest Base Camp route so that we could cross some of the high passes and hit a few peaks that would give us spectacular views of the Himalayas, including Everest obviously.

Each night we would stay in a teahouse with 2 to a room, and sometimes share bathrooms and dining halls with other trekking groups. Bathrooms might have a western toilet and a sink, or in the more basic teahouses it might just be a hole in the ground and you'd have to brush your teeth outside. On a typical day we would be woken up at 630 with morning tea from Norrie and Kushman. Then we'd have to have our bags packed for the porters by 715 and head for breakfast. The food was really varied and you could get anything from omelets and toast to porridge and pancakes. We all tried to stock up on as much food as possible. I even weighed myself before I left just to see if I'd lose anything. More about that later!

Around 8, we'd hit road and start walking. We had to drink at least 4 litres of water a day so most of us would buy bottled water. They recycle all the plastic up there now so its really rubbish-free. I had heard reports of the trails being full of litter but it was rare to see any plastics discarded on the way. The first few days it was quite warm so we could wear t-shirts and the boys wore shorts. Women are not allowed to show their knees in Nepal so us girls had to keep the long pants on. Around 10, we'd stop at a small shop for morning tea and maybe a snack like some chocolate. Unfortunately fruit was hard to come by and it was one of the only things I really missed food-wise. It was interesting to see the price differences as you went further towards the Everest region. In Kathmandu we paid 18 rupee for a bottle of water. At some point during the trek, we had to pay 350 for the same bottle. It was similar for snacks and food, but when you see the porters carrying massive crates and boxes up the hills, it absolutely makes sense.

Even in the first few days you could really feel the altitude going uphill. Norrie and Kushman paced us well though and Pasang brought up the rear. It was such a pleasure to be outside for most of the day just walking, taking in the scenery and swapping life stories with these new friends, all as good as I'd hoped and imagined it would be.

We'd stop for lunch around 12 at a teahouse and again you could order almost anything - noodles, rice, pizza, egg and chips, pasta, potatoes. One of the lads would have soup and two main courses every lunchtime, and the same for dinner. He was a machine. Some people lost their appetite early on and eventually got it back on the descent. Almost half the group had stomach problems at some stage or another but I'm happy to say I was fine and my appetite never wavered. The lads were making fun of how much I could eat, I would even finish some of their plates if they couldn't. I really couldn't get enough. Better than the alternative though!

In the afternoon we'd walk again and get to our teahouse for the evening around 4. We'd be welcomed with hot drinks and menus for dinner. Most of the dining halls of the teahouses were quite warm as they had fire heaters in them but the bedrooms were not heated. As we went up further in altitude it got really cold at night. One place we stayed at it was -10C INSIDE the room at night, and several mornings we woke up with ice on the inside of the window! On those nights I would put hot water in my drinking bottle, wrap it in a sock and put it in my sleeping bag as a hot water bottle. I'd sleep in heavy socks, thermal leggings with tracksuit bottoms over them, two layers of thermals on top as well as a fleece, and also a hat - all inside my liner and my 4 season mummy sleeping bag. Yes it was that cold but with all those layers I was quite comfortable.

Even though we all wore tons of layers, every last one of us got the Khumbu cough, also known as the high altitude hack, named after the area in the Everest region. Nearly all people who spend time at extreme altitude (over 5500m) will develop some degree of the Khumbu cough. Each morning we could hear people waking up and the chorus of coughs would start echoing though the halls.

I also learned the hard way that I had to sleep with a lot of my electronics as they don't like the cold. My new camera somehow deleted the first 100 photos I took, no idea how or why. Actually I reckon the SD card had a fit and reformatted itself. Better that it happened 5 days in than 20 days in, but still... I put a new card in, kept the camera warm at night and everything was fine since.

As I mentioned earlier, I was so glad I decided to do more than the straight to Everest Base Camp and back trip. That part of the trek was definitely fun, really interesting and I'm so glad I saw base camp (and no disrespect to anyone else who has done the straight there and back trip) but the rest of the peaks and passes were definitely the highlight for me. And with Pasang and his team's help, it was so much more pleasurable at the top of these peaks, even the ones over 5500m. It was a very different experience to Kilimanjaro. There were mild headaches here and there, usually on the way down from a peak or a pass and that was often because I was concentrating on not falling. Some of the trails were quite tricky. Sliding down on your bum was often the best way to do it. Pasang also put all of us on Diamox which helps with altitude sickness. One of the side effects was tingling sensations in your fingers and toes, although I used to feel it in my lips too. I got pins and needles one evening from sitting on my leg but they took at least 10 mins to begin to ease, very strange and sore!

At the top of every pass there were group hugs, slaps of the back, high fives and lots of photos. Some people found it quite emotional so there were some tears from them. And usually there was a big congratulations for Barry. Barry was the oldest member of our group at 65 and he definitely had the toughest ride. A grandfather who had beaten cancer twice, he ran his first, second and third marathons at 61, climbed Mt Fuji last year - he had bags of determination. Unfortunately he was the second person to suffer affects from the altitude so basically for the 18 days we were trekking he had diarrhea, a chest infection and niggling cough, as well as very little sleep. But he never gave up or stopped, he just kept the head down and plodded along. On the days where even us fit and healthy people found the going tough, Barry would always make it and do it with a quick smart remark and a smile. He was an absolute inspiration. 

I think my favourite day was the one where we climbed Awi Peak. It was an optional peak but 8 of us decided to do it, the other 3 needed a bit of a break for various ailments so they walked straight to the teahouse. The best thing about it was that there was no one else on the peak. Being in the Himalayas in the peak season means that a lot of the trails can be very busy, and as well as people, you often run into Yak and mule traffic jams. Did you know that Yaks can't live below a certain altitude! I even met a guy who grew up a few streets away from me when we got chatting in one of the more remote tea houses. But we had Awi Peak to ourselves and even though it was one of the tougher ones, we had to scramble up on all fours toward the summit, it had some of the most spectacular views. I remember lying back with my pack as a pillow about 6 ft from the cliff edge, facing Everest, my new friends around me, eating a tuna sandwich and a twix in the sun, thinking it really couldn't get any better than this!

Another great afternoon was when we stayed in Gokyo. Its a tiny set of teahouses right by a glacial lake. The guides let us walk around the lake (about 2 hours) by ourselves. We felt like kids let out to play. Such a fun afternoon.

After the Renzo La, which was our last pass, we were starting to descend. That night was the first in over 2 weeks that we were allowed to have a beer. Dunc, Chris (my partners in crime and food for most of the trip) and I all savoured our first can.

Before long we were making our way back down the valley to Lukla and the return flight to Kathmandu. Back in Kathmandu we had a couple of days before everyone had to depart. We spent one afternoon wandering around the city and visiting a haven called the 'Garden of Dreams' where for a small fee, you could lie on the grass and order great food in a nice restaurant away from the madness of the city. Sat morning a bunch of us hired taxis to take us to Bhaktapur, a medieval city about 30 mins from Kathmandu. Its full of temples and little side streets of shops, great for a wander. On the last night we all went out to Rum Doodles, a famous bar and restaurant in Kathmandu with trekking groups. They give you a cardboard foot at the end of the night which you decorate with your team's trip and names etc. I was nominated as the artist for the team. Frances and Andy both wrote and recited funny poems as thanks for Pasang and the group.

At this point everyone was pretty tired from the last 3 weeks, and bar me, they all had to head to the airport at 6am the next morning for their flights. My flight was at 9pm Sunday night so I had a day of sightseeing planned. However at 230am that night, my stomach had different ideas. The whole trip I didn't have any health problems, even though we had heard stories about the cleanliness of the teahouses. However the pizza I had in the most touristy joint in town had decided to give me the worst food poisoning of my life, no kidding. I won't go into the details but I was glad I wasn't on the flights home with the others, there's no way I would have made it. Instead of spending my last day wandering the sights of the monkey temple and doing last minute shopping, I had to ask for a super late check out and stay in the hotel room for the day. Not the best way to end the holiday and it takes a lot to take me down. Poor Pasang also had food poisoning and he's practically a local. After saying goodbye to him and wishing him well, I managed to drag myself to the airport for my flights home and thankfully slept most of the way.

Even that ending couldn't take away from the best holiday ever though. Despite losing 8lbs and having my hands swell up and break into sores from a weird allergic reaction to the cold (as a doctor in one of the villages told me) I would do it all again in a minute. Already a few of us are talking about another trip out there to do some more peaks. I know this is a longer post than normal but there was so much crammed into those 3 wonderful weeks. Here's a link to the photos although it was so hard to capture the vastness and beauty of the Himalayas https://picasaweb.google.com/jcarpent75/NepalTrekkingInTheHimalayas Other people took the group photos at the top of the passes and peaks so as they come in I'll add them to the rest.

I'm off to NY now to visit some old friends and then catch some much needed warmth in Miami. Till next time, Namaste!


Saturday, April 28, 2012


This was such a last minute trip (booked less than a week in advance) I barely had time to get excited about it, so before I knew it my alarm was waking me at stupid o'clock to be on a 640am flight to Barcelona - it turned out to be well worth it! Darci and Leanna (fabulous New Yorkers, great friends and ex co-workers of mine) were flying from NY so I met them at Barcelona airport. Leanna has really good Spanish, I was designated as trip photographer and Darci has great organizational skills, and she carried half our crap in her bag all week so Leanna dubbed us the 'triple threat' team. I had never traveled more than a night with three people but it was fantastic - no weird dynamic at all and if one person was tired, the other two took over the plans - loved it!

I was only there from Monday morning to Friday morning, the girls stayed on an extra 2 days before flying back to NY so I'll just lay out the highlights of my 4 days there.

- We stayed at a cool hostel that was more like a hotel a block from La Rambla, one of the main drags. It was central enough but away from the craziness. The first night we got a bottle of wine, some great cheese and snacks from the market, an listened to Leanna's Spanish music while we caught up. It had been over 6 months since I left NY.

- We had mostly sunny days although if we were in the shade and the wind, it was definitely jacket weather.

- We walked TONS! We really felt like we saw a lot of the city and walked a lot of the neighborhoods. I know people say that it can be a bit unsafe or that there are pickpockets around but I'm happy to say we saw none of that.

- There was one bit of shadiness though. When Leanna had lived in Spain before she noticed there were a few more flashers there than in your average cities. She bet that before the week was out we'd see one. Wednesday morning we got up a little early and rounding the corner at 830am on the way to breakfast, I hear Leanna yell 'YAY!'. I turn to see what cool thing she'd seen, as she's pointing across the street - 'look, an exposed penis! - I told you we'd see one'. Not what I was expecting to see before my morning cuppa, some dude casually leaning against a lamppost with his lad out. Definitely quote of the trip though.

- We were wandering around one night trying to find a restaurant recommended to me by Josep, a former New Yorker and Barcelona native. We stumbled upon a tiny little bar called Zim. It had about 8 bar stools in the whole place and that was it, my living room is bigger but it was fantastic. Really good Cave which is my new favourite drink now.

- Lunchtime consisted of tapas and a glass of either Sangria or Cave. I wish every lunchtime was like that.

- The Sagrada Familia was amazing, really cool to get the lift up to the turrets and walk all the way down. Park Guell was great but it was really packed so it was difficult to take photos.

- After 3 days walking the city we decided to get the train an hour out of the city to visit Montserrat for some hiking trails. It was a really sunny day and so lovely to be out and hiking. The views were stunning and once we got on the trails we didn't pass by many people at all.

- Our last evening, we went down to the beach, had some drinks beach-side and then dinner. A lovely end to a super fun city break. The triple threat team are already thinking about the next vacation.

You can check out my photos here.

Hasta luego,