New Zealand – Pedallers’ paradise (part 1)

“Tēnā koutou e ngā manuhiri o te ao whānui. Greetings to you, our visitors.”

It is Januari 2001 and finally I am off to New Zealand. It was a plan which originated somewhere in the year 2000. I was going to cycle somewhere far away, preferably Australia. After reading the book ‘Cold beer and crocodiles’ I realised that the land of Oz was a bit too big for me. It’s neighbour would do just fine. And to be honest, I never regretted my change of plans (apart from the moments I was cycling uphil).

So, we packed our bicycles and left for Auckland. A long, long flight starting in the Dutch Winter and ending in the NZ Summer. Lovely. With the bikes heavily packed we take the train from Auckland to Wellington, followed by the ferry to Picton. First we cycle on Te Wai-pounamu, the South Island. Little did we know about the steep hills we would encounter in the first days already. Dutchies cannot train for this in the land of flatness! I had no clue I had it in me to swear so much going uphill. But hey, going downhill was fun.

My bicycle is a Koga and it gives me headaches at times. I rode it a bit at home, but with 20 kgs on it, it feels somewhat unstable. Soon I decide to send a package back home with stuff I surely would not need. That makes cycling more fun. We roughly cycle between 40 to 80 kms a day in the first 3 weeks. Via Havelock and Nelson we head to St. Arnaud. I start having knee problems soon enough. The mountains kill me for sure. I decide to take the bus to Christchurch to give them some rest. I spend time in this lovely city, walking around, enjoying the people, the atmosphere, everything. After reuniting, we spend a day around Christchurch, visiting the Sign of the Takahe and Kiwi and enjoying the views on Lyttleton Harbour and Banks Peninsula.

Via Darfield, Rakaia Gorge, somtimes with heavy headwinds and superb tailwinds (going from 5 km to 45 km/h), Mt. Somers and Geraldine we arrive in Lake Tekapo. Along the way we enjoyed the landscape with many, many sheep in the fields and snowy mountains in the background. We cross Burke’s Pass and it looks like my knee is holding. Great! With Mt. Cook (3724 m) in the distance we proceed to Lake Pukaki. We conqer Lyndis Pass, manage to go downhill with app. 60 km/h and cover days with over 100 kms. It is magnificent down here. We can camp at a school, using their showers, eat carrot cakes and scones, enjoy the scenery along the way. This is the place where I can see the milky way for the first time in my life. Lovely!

Even though the heavy headwinds try to keep us from making progress we manage to reach Queenstown. Time for a change. We decide to go hike the Kepler track for a few days and kayak in the Milford Sound. We leave for Te Anau and start the 75 km hike the day after. Through fern forrests, with splendid views, eat noodle soup brewed with water from the lake, are eaten by many sandflies and finally reach Mt. Luxmore hut. The second day the hike is interesting and leads between some rain showers to the Iris Burn hut. The next day we follow the Iris Burn river, attacked by sandflies, all the way to the Moturau hut, Our muscles hurt from the hike. This is nice for a change. The Country cuisine meals we brought are disgusting, but Pam’s pudding keeps us going strong! Exhausted and very satisfied we get back to Te Anau, take a shower (the first in 5 days), change into clean clothes  and eat a lovely meal.

After the hike we go for a kayak tour in the Milford Sound. Paddling between the fjords, with a few fur seals playing around, gives me the utmost outdoor feeling. Even though the sandflies are really annoying, nature is overwhelming.

Enough of ‘other’ activities, our bicycles get annoyed. We head back to Queenstown, decide this many people is not what we like and we drive off. Up north this time. We pass Crown Saddle (the highest pass in NZ with 1080 m) and drive to Wanaka. I check my 1000th km along the way. We ride on, passing The Neck, enjoy lovely views over Lake Hawea and Wanaka and manage to set our speed record at 69 km/h. We have tailwinds, helping us to climb Haast Pass. The Southern Alps have no mercy. I need to walk part of the steep roads. Sometimes we exceed the maximum speed limits and wonder if they also apply to cyclists.

The westcoast is flat(ter), but my knee is bothering me again. I take the bus to Fox glacier. We hike to the glacier. Again, nature is at its best here. The glacier almost stops at sea level, so we can see both in one day. Amazing. We decide to hike the Copeland track. A two day hike, where we leave our bikes on the campsite again. We just take tent and some food. A lovely path brings us to Welcome Flat, where we pitch our tent for the night and take a bath in the hot pool.

Via Hokitika we go to Arthur’s Pass. We see the blossoming rātā and pōhutukawa trees, colouring the pass, After a misty and rainy visit we drive back to the Westcoast. Via Moana and Greymouth, we pass the pancake rocks at Punakaiki and keep cycling along the coast. It is beautiful and the sunsets are stunning!

We visit the seal colony at Cape Foulwind and head inland, back to Picton. The road leads through the amazing Buller Gorge (I pass the 1500 km), we stay in Murchison and St. Arnauds and enjoy the views over Marlborough Sound. After 7 weeks we finish our tour on the South Island. We have seen so many nice things that it takes time to process. Another 5 weeks remain for the North Island.

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The Eleven Cities Tour… per bicycle

Elfsteden-01

“It giet oan” (It goes ahead) – famous frysian words to mark the 11 city tour is going to happen

The “Elfstedentocht” or eleven cities tour is a famous ice skating tour of app. 200km, called “the tour of all tours”. It has been held for just 15 times since 1909 and as such is a rare event. It needs at least 15cms of ice on the various canals, rivers and lakes. As soon as it starts freezing, the Dutch people start dreaming of a new version of the race. It is a fever running throuh our veins.

Not me. I am not a skater, but I do remember the images from tv when I was young. I am a cyclist and I have 4 days off. Checking the various long distance cycling routes I find this one: 260km. It is a heat wave when I start. Temperatures well over 30 degrees Celcius. I think it is hilarious to cycle an ice skating route in a heat wave. Well, I start in Leeuwarden and follow the route clockwise. Passing all 11 cities, where as part of a Frysian cultural event, a temporary artistic water fountain is presented, made by some local artist.

I furst cycle to IJlst. From a large city, to a very small one. The countryside consists mostly of green meadows, cut by small rivers and canals. Along the way I spot some small Dutch windmills and characteristic American windmills to keep the polders dry. IJlst is a lovely city with some nice historic houses and a great saw mill (with one of the fountains next to it). It is the place where most of the metal American mills were produced in the past.

The history of the 11 cities dates back to the early 1200s. Times where Frysland was one of the most thriving provinces. A lot of trade was done from the small cities and their important harbours. Due to silting of the harbours and coasts, as well as the growing trade from Amsterdam, things changed over time. Nowadays the cities are small, with tourism being one of the important industries. And that shows, I see boats everywhere. Especially sailing is very popular.

After IJlst I drive through Sneek in the direction of Sloten. Sneek has a very nice entrance gate, Sloten is just cute and small. Well known for its skate factories in the past. With a little wind in the back I reach Stavoren. A small, historic harbour city on the IJssel lake, the largest fresh water lake of the Netherlands. It was closed off from the Wadden sea by the Dutch in the second half of the 20th century. Nowadays it is a large water sports area, especially in this nice weather.

I keep on pedaling to Hindeloopen, famous for its furniture and Workum. In the mean time the weather changes. It is still warm, but now there is rain, thunder, wind. I race from city to city to stay ahead of thunderstorms in the countryside, passing Harlingen and Franeker. Lovely places, with some impressive fountains and historic centres.

The last day I pass the last of the 11 cities, Dokkum. In the skate trip it is said “who reaches Dokkum, will reach the finish in Leeuwarden.” I think so to. Just 25 more kilometer. I pass the famous bridge in Bartlehiem (the last bridge to pass in the skate tour) and visit the Eleven cities monument, a bridge filled with with over 7000 tiles with images of people who have participated in the skate tour and finished.

I arrive back in Leeuwarden, just 310km on my counter. I must have made some detours here and there. It was a nice trip with a great historic character. “The tour of all tours”.

Midnight sun above the Arctic Circle

The world is big and I want to get a good look at it before it gets dark – John Muir

June 2018, a long cherished dream comes true, I travel to the Lofoten and Vesterålen archipelago in the North of Norway. Traveling above the Arctic Circle at this time of year is a challenge. The 24 hours of daylight will give us the opportunity to make the most of it, and definitely makes sure we will lack some sleep.

We start our tour on the Vesterålen, where we drive to our first camp at Stave in the middle of the night. So strange to have clear views at midnight, and also very lucky as we see a few moose along the way. Unfortunately it will be very cloudy and wet for the next few days. Shame, however it does give the rocky landscapes an even more mythical atmosphere. We expect the Trolls to appear any minute.

In the next days we drive through this beautiful landscape, enjoying it a lot, in spite of the clouds. At some point we stop in Andenes. A lovely little town (northest I have ever been at 69° latitude) where whale safari’s leave for a 97%-chance-of-spotting-whales-tour. Well, we were in the other 3% and got pretty sick along the way. At some point even wishing the tour would be over soon. Luckily the fish soup in the restaurant next to the harbour made our day! 

We drive to Kabelvåg, where we will stay for few days. The sky is still grey, we cannot see much. Clouds are at 50-100m, covering the granite mountains which should be around somewhere. We still enjoy great coffees and cakes though. And the towns of Svolvær and Henningsvær. One is a city with shopping malls, the other a very rustic fishing village with the famous Stockfish hanging out to dry (and smell). We will be back at the end of the trip to see some sun a beautiful views on the mountains.

Slowly we head even more South to Hamnøya. This is the Lofoten we have seen on images. This is what we came for. The sun is showing it’s face more and more, and we are able to enjoy some of the most beautiful hikes in the region. We walk from Ytresand to Mulstøa, from Haukland to Uttakleiv and the beautiful Munkebuhytta trail. Man, the Norwegians have some very scenic trails to hike. Some a bit more tough than others, mainly for the muddy parts after the rainy days we had. The views are magnificent though!

In the meantime we just take in the unique views on the Reinefjorden. This is the view of the Lofoten, and we got it served with a blue sky 😍. Making more pictures than we can use, it just is breathtaking. The whole area between Hamnøya and Reine is simply stunning. There are a few small fishing villages with Stockfish and fish heads, giving some colour to the landscape. Just remember, in Reine the gasoline station serves great fishburgers and the Bringen Kaffebar great coffee and cakes to go with the views.

Our last hike is from Nesland to Nusfjord. Another great trail along the sea, up and over many granite blocks and with many amazing views on the mountains and coast. We even spot Norway in the distance, as well as a grey seal hunting in one of the bays.

Almost at the end of our holiday we decide we really should experience the midsummernight. We have dinner in our accommodation and go out again close to midnight. We need a beach facing North, so we drive to Flakstad. When we arrive there, we find many people in their campervans, waiting for the not setting of the sun. This is surfers beach, and even now some people are still surfing the waves. We walk on the sand, wearing sun glasses and watching the sun go down. And just when it is supposed to disappear in the see… it rises again. Birds are still flying around, people walking and paddleboarding. It is 2:30 am when we leave to go to bed. Our sleep pattern is completely disrupted by now…

Det var en glede å møte deg. Til neste gang.


Mountains, prayer flags and red powder (part 2)

People do not decide to become extraordinary. They decide to accomplish extraordinary things – Sir Edmund Hillary

Not that I am extraordinary or want to be. As a lowlander (living below sea level) I just am a bit afraid of the Thorong La Pass. At 5416m altitude it will be the highest point I ever set foot on. And I am not sure I can make it. So, the morning of the crossing of the pass I am sort of scared. We get up in the dark, have a small breakfast and take off at 4am. My legs have no power, I feel tired and realize I have to climb 1000m to get over it. With -12 degrees Celsius my sugar aids (Cola & Snickers) start to freeze. But then, as soon as the sun starts lighting up the tops of the mountains around us I get the power. After a bit more than 2 hours we are there, Thorong La. It makes me emotional, what a sensational feeling and how colourfull are all the prayer flags. I am on the top of my world and still mountains are towering above me. This place is extraordinary!

And then down, down, down. 1800m to Muktinath (15km). The views are incredible and so different. This valley is much more desert-like. Small, Tibetan-style towns are build on bare rock. Maybe it is the season, but hardly anything grows here. Just in the river beds there is some agriculture. Interesting to say the least, and we are walking in it. Our senses stimulated by this environment. Of course, the past 7 days we mostly climbed up, so now we mostly go down.

We hike to Jomsom (20km), where we take the bus to Ghasa. It is the most boring part of the circuit, so skipping 30km on a very bumpy and dusty road is a good thing. From Ghasa we cross the river and follow a nice track through some beautiful Nepali landscapes, away from the dusty road. First stop is Tatopani. A busy little town, renowned for its hot waters (tato pani). Heavy rains tell us the monsoon starts early this year. Luckily we hike in the morning, thus making sure we are in our tea houses in time.

The next stops are Sikha (8km), a small town in a lush green valley, with view on the Annapurna range in the background, and Ghorepani (8km). Ghorepani is starting point for the Poon Hill trek and touristic. Many guesthouses, many tourists and excellent views on the Annapurna’s and Dhaulagiri mountains. With the flowers of the Rhododendron in the foreground this is magical. The next morning we get up before sunrise again and hike up to Poon Hill (3200m). The sun rises slowly, illuminating the mountains in a mystical glow. Even though our guide says it is not a good sunrise, I love it. We go down, have breakfast and descent to Birethani (21km, 1050m). 85% Of the way are stone steps down. It leaves us not only with great memories of splendid views, but also with pain in our legs which the locally produced ‘moonshine’ Roxy cannot cure either.

The last hiking day is a short one. We go to the bus stop in Nayapul to take the bus to Pokhara. A small thriving city (2nd in Nepal) next to a nice lake, where we slowly acclimatize again. Now not to the altitude, but the hectic life. We are close to the main street, full with shops and restaurants. What a lot of noise… We rent a bicycle to make a nice cool cycle tour along the lake to Pame and further. In the evening we have a farewell dinner. Part of the group will stay here for some days. It is time to say goodbye to a magnificent trip with a magnificent group.

The next day we drive back to Kathmandu, check in into our hotel and go shopping. Just one more day. We spend it with some of our group on the Monkey temple (Swoyambhunath Stupa) and in Bhaktapur. Hinduism and Budhism go hand in hand in these places. Monks are praying, prayer flags colour the temples and stupas and the Hindu gods are coloured with red and yellow powder. These places are both World Heritage Sites and heavily damaged by the earthquake a few years ago. Sad to see, but still nice to also see tourists. With the fees money is raised to rebuild the historic monuments. It will take a lot of time due to many rules and regulations, but they will get there.

And me… I will be back for sure. I have travelled a lot in my life and realize I now have found a country I really like and possibly even love. This feeling needs more exploring!

“I will go anywhere, as long as it is forward”- David Livingston

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Prayer wheels and Dal Bhat (part 1)

To travel, to experience and learn: that is to live – Tenzing Norgay Sherpa

In March 2018 one of my longest travel dreams came true. I traveled to the highest mountain range in the world, the Himalaya’s. No, it is even better, I hiked for 2 weeks between the giants in the Annapurna range and experienced the nature, the silence, the great food and the lovely people of Nepal.

After my flight I arrive in Kathmandu. A chaotic city with many, many cars and motorized bikes trying to find their way. It is too crowded in rush hour and very interesting to see ruminating cows lying in the middle of this chaos. Their holy status protects them from being hit. My taxi finds his way to my hotel through this chaos and it is there where I meet my group of trekking buddies. I am excited, this is where it really starts.

The next morning we drive per bus and jeep (facing the traffic chaos again and also the challenging dirt roads) to Besi Sahar and finally Syange. We check in in a tea house with view on the beautiful waterfalls. It isn’t all that bad. The food is good, the bed is good, the surroundings are very nice and the company interesting. After the first night sleep, we still drive for some 45 minutes to Jagat, the starting point of our trek. Finally we can start walking. It is one of the longest days to start with. We will go all the way to Bagarchhap (2100m), roughly 21 km in a nice valley, along a rough and winding river. For me the scenery is very spectacular. We trek as a group and even our porters stay with us most of the way.

The next days we go to Chame (14 km, 2700m) and Upper Pisang (17 km, 3320m). The scenery changes with us climbing higher and higher. We keep on following the river, it’s sound has a calming effect on me. We see the first snowy tops of the Lamjung Himal, Manaslu (8156m) and Annapurna II (7937m). This is what I wanted to see. At lunch I eat my first Dal Bhat, and it tastes good. I love this country, everything just fits me in a way…

Slowly but steadily we gain altitude with every step we take. As we reach the scary 4000m in Manang, it is mandatory to do an acclimatization hike in the afternoon. We then just go up a few hundred meters, have a chat, enjoy the view and scenery and go back down to the tea house. All to prevent AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). Another thing is to drink a liter of fluids per 1000m height. It is tough, but in the end it helped me. I had no symptoms whatsoever.

After Pisang we arrive in Manang (18 km, 3500m). My heart is pumping a bit more by now as the oxygen level goes down. The craving for sweetness is not less though. In Manang we find a number of bakeries with the most fabulous pies and pastry. Chocolate brownies with real grinded coffee in this magical setting… this must be heaven. We stay here for 2 days to do some acclimatization again. First we go up to the stupa on the hill behind the tea house (3650m), the next day we cross the river and hike up (3850m) to some holy viewpoints with many prayer flags and beautiful views of the glacier and its lake. Along the way I turn every praying wheel, chanting ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’. For good Karma I am told, but I also ask for nice weather. You never know.

Day 5 we hike to Yak Kharka and cross the 4000m line. The line where the oxygen levels are reduced to 50% of normal (at home). The afternoon hike goes uphill again (4150m) and introduces us to the yak. Yak are big, hairy cattle which are roaming around, just like all other cattle in this country. A bit more wild though, so we take a bit more care.

In the meantime, temperature goes down as well. The nights are freezing and the down sleeping bag finally comes in handy. So far we are Lucky with the weather, so at daytime hiking in shirt still is comfortable. Last stop before the highest pass is Thorung Phedi (9 km, 4500m). Nothing much, but the setting is absolutely impressive. High mountains all around us, it is the end of the valley. We see snow, impressive peaks and still enjoy beautiful weather (twisting the prayer wheels pays off). The afternoon hike (4800m)shows us the first bit of tomorrows track. We will start in the dark, so we won’t be able to see it then.

The first part of this trek is amazing. We have seen so many different landscapes, met very friendly people, eat some delicious Dal Bhat and walked many kilometers. And it isn’t over yet… (more to come soon).

Climb mountains not so the world can see you, but so you can see the world – unknown

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