In the Mountains of Aragón

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It is in the sleepy, ancient, rural regions within Spain’s Aragón that the sleeping giants of the Pyrenees wake up.  Straddling the borders between two of Europe’s major nations, the permanence of the mountains combines with the historical significance of the medieval stone-built pueblos that are scattered throughout the areas more hospitable spots.  Here, ancient man and ancient nature come together to produce a spectacle that is hard to equal.

Within driving distance of the modern, metropolitan beach-and-tapas lifestyle of the Catalan capital truly representative of much of Spain’s modern landscape, the weary and battle-hardened heart of 15th century Spain still beats gently but with a regular and typically Spanish rhythm.  One half of the famous Reyes Católicos (Spanish Monarchs) – Fernando II of Aragón – was born in 1452 in the tiny village of ancient Ainsa, a stone fortress built on a ridgeline that for all intents and purposes feels like the dividing line between two entirely different worlds.  In fact, Ainsa can be very easily traced back to the 700’s A.D.  It is almost all too easy to envisage life almost 600 years ago – uneven stone walls meet uneven stone ground, Romanesque arches tower overhead as sturdy now as they were they day they were hand built, a stunning courtyard and church are found amongst pathways, roads were never envisaged to need to be wide enough to accommodate a vehicle.  In fact, in truth, tiny Ainsa only has two streets.  But what pretty streets they are…

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Positioned at the top of one of the higher hills, the peal of the ancient church bell (which still rings, regularly and manually) can be heard for some distance.  And distance is not something that Aragón feels short on, despite its relatively modest geographical claim.  The Griffon Vultures that circle ceaselessly overhead occasionally vanish into pinhead dots on the clear blue sky, only to return in a gentle sweep back to cast their sizeable shadows across the cobbled square of the once significant village.

Despite the isolated and occasionally harsh climate surrounding little Ainsa, it soon becomes apparent on a short adventure beyond the ancient stones just how supportive of life Aragón is.  Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido is a short distance away; a verdant, cascading valley of outstanding natural beauty.  The deeper in to the valley you wind, the higher the towering walls become, the deeper and thicker the flora, the louder and stronger the waterfalls.  Pushing past the point at which most tourists turn back, there are times when it sounds like one is surrounded by thunder as the water continues to relentlessly carve its way through the solid rocks of the valley.  Being so isolated, you could quite easily hop amongst the stones dotting through the plunge pools without hindrance.  The water is cold, but not glacial cold, and the valley unlike many is not barraged by constant winds.  Combined with coming from, and returning to, an ancient human settlement the experience is akin to a true return to our roots, a time before constant connectivity and globalisation, a very simple but beautiful time of solid stone and bountiful nature.  With Barcelona a three hour drive east, it is quite a staggering contract and attests to the often under-the-radar variety and life to be found within the disparate regions of continental Spain.

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Nature’s simmering anger

The famous arch at Cabo

There had been reports in Cabo San Lucas, on the Western peninsula of Mexico, that a hurricane known as ‘Odile’ was approaching. On a Sunday morning, having had three days of beautiful weather and relaxation, we awoke to an unusual sight from the balcony window – there was no ‘loose’ item in view. Every sunlounger, table and umbrella had been taken away. The storm was coming, at this time category 3, and strong winds were expected.

However, given recent reports that the hurricane would pass by at a distance, the effect anticipated was one of inconvenience and light damage. The sky looked cloudy, but not unusually so (to a British man…) and the sea, whilst whipped into a foam of waves and surge, was not threatening to breach further inland. The morning passed without incident.

It was around 1pm, sat in the garden area of the local spa, that the World began to change. One drop of rain was followed by three, and then without a seconds warning a tumult of water began to pour from an instantly blackened sky. The wind, previously no more than a breeze, rapidly gained tempo and within seconds chaos ensued. Such was the power of the storm that the rain was not actually able to hit the ground, but rather was whipped vertically back up into the air by the wind, thrown horizontally and swirled like a vortex. Within two minutes of the rain and the wind, all power went down and we were plunged into an unseasonal darkness. It was time to flee.

Taking shelter in a large auditorium only provided temporary reprieve – the ceiling began to collapse piece by piece as the winds began to reach their 135mph, now category 4, speed. Water began to pour with a disconcerting consistency through the now exposed holes in the roof, and with that we fled down into the staff kitchens below the resort. It was here that, with the howling sounds of destruction all around us, we waited out the storm, water dripping through the floors of the rooms above into the underground staff complex below. People were panicked, people were scared, and perhaps most terrifyingly people had no control over what was happening anymore.

Emerging 24 hours later was akin to the opening scenes of the movie ‘28 Days Later’ – an eerie stillness and quiet belied the sight of roof tiles strewn across the ground, uprooted trees, broken windows and scattered possessions. The Sea of Cortez, well known for its clarity by scuba divers, was entirely brown to the horizon. There was no power, no communications, no roads to transport supplies or messages. After five days of sitting and waiting, the Mexican military began to evacuate individuals to anywhere they could possibly find them space, looting and rioting inevitably following the storm with food and water in short supply. Fires burned in previously populated areas. Life will return to normal in Cabo, but not for many months, possibly years.

Travellers see many incredible sights, and often find themselves awestruck at what nature has crafted. Let us not forget, however, that nature’s palate often includes the deep red colour of raw power and destruction, and She is still perfectly capable of using it.

The destriction wrought by Odile

They’re closer than you think…

diving in

It had been a week in December quite unlike any other, mainly due to the fact that this week in December 2013 was being spent in the sunny climes of eastern Mexico and not the dreary bleakness of Nottingham, England.  A week in a top-end all-inclusive had led to itchy feet, feet which hadn’t felt the awkward rubber of fins for a few months, and it proved to be too much – I had to get wet (without involving alcohol).

There is a well reputed, albeit predominantly French, dive operation on the Mexican coast called Phocea and being impulsive I decided without too much research that they were the ones to look after us.  Having been used to diving in Egypt for the past few years, it was with great pleasure that this turned out to be a more Fijian experience with the divers cramming into a small, informal vessel and back-rolling in to the water (thereby avoiding the potentially groin-crushed ‘giant stride’ method pictured above (Marsa Alam, Egypt, 2013) and feeling a little more James Bond).  The two dives turned out to be real unexpected gems, with bountiful coral, turtles aplenty, American rays (new to us, having never dived in this continent) and some great macro life.  It was the third dive, however, that was the game changer.

Sharks prefer to hang below and behind...

Sharks prefer to hang below and behind…

We arrived back at the bustling “Playa del Carmen” beach, heaving with sun-seeking, volleyball playing tourists and locals alike.  The dive boat had to navigate around frolicking holidaymakers in the shallows.  A number of the divers jumped out, but some stayed behind.  “Is it pretty much guaranteed?,” I asked the divemaster incredulously.  “Let’s just say, yesterday, we saw 8” he replied in Frenglish.  I’d heard that sort of thing before.  “Where are we going?” I asked.  “About 400 metres out from the beach,” he gestured, vaguely waving his arm out to sea.  I went along with it.

We zipped out for only a couple of minutes, the beach very much in sight, still within swimming distance, and descended.  We dropped to 20 metres, and waited.  We didn’t wait long.

The unmistakable, barrel-torpedo silhouette began to emerge from the edge of the visibility, winding through the kicked-up sand slowly and purposefully.  There were, perhaps, 10 of us but only two, including myself, were looking in the right direction.  A three metre apex predator, a bull shark, wound to within feet of us before turning away and losing itself in the murky distance.  Soon after, another appeared from another direction, and then another, and for twenty minutes there was rarely a point where at least one bull shark was not on the groups radar.  Bulky, blunt-nosed and narrow-eyed, a tarnished silver colour occasionally tinted with black, more and more of these stunning creatures began to swim amongst us.  At the point of ascent, no less than 7 sharks were around us in all directions, never threatening, but ever curious, as highly aware of us as we were of them.  Once surfaced, with some of the less shark-familiar divers in more of a rush to get off the surface than others, I glanced back down into the blue but I had lost them.

Every year, from November to February, bull sharks amass in this same spot off the coast of one of Mexico’s busiest tourist spots.  Every year, hundreds of humans splash around in the shallows less than half a kilometer from dozens of bull sharks.  They have absolutely no idea what is out there, but the proof is in the fact that there are never incidents of attack despite the close proximity and the feckless antics of the watersporting tourists.  To surface from sharing an experience with these stunning animals is an incredibly cathartic experience – we can share our world provided we offer the same respect to the sharks that they offer to us in leaving us alone year after year, despite our intrusion into their territory.

I would encourage anyone to visit the Project Aware website to learn more about shark conservation and protection.

VIDEO of the dive with a Bull Shark – Bull Shark, Mexico 2013

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An Eternal promise on Half Dome, Yosemite

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This is a deeply personal experience, and I share it with you with great pride and a deep sense of blessedness.

For the last week the temperature had been hanging around 19-22 degrees celcius – now it was 6am and already warmer.  The day was forecast to hit a peak of 36, which made the challenge to climb the iconic Half Dome in Yosemite National Park all the more intriguing.

 

We faced a 10-12 hour hike, a summit of 2,694 metres above sea level and 1,460 metres above our starting position.  The cold granite summit was described as “perfectly inaccessible” only three generations ago, just recently (in historical terms) revealing her secrets to those determined to play the role of disprovers.  We set off along the mist trail, so called for the heavy showering hikers receive as they pass near the Vernal Falls – an impressively vertical waterfall, in the first hour of the walk – a refreshing occurrence that turned out to be hotly anticipated throughout the return journey.

 

It is not long after the Nevada Falls, whose waters run thinly over slabs of stone giving the riverbed the appearance of glimmering platinum,, that we first caught a teasing glance of Half Dome.  A light, grey, smooth mound peered dismissively over the hills to the northwest, soon ducking back down as the path followed the natural curves of the terrain – she looked imposing, to say the least.  Packs heavy with liters of water, we stopped briefly to let a deer bound past us on the track no doubt refreshed from the glacial blue/white water running to our right, before pressing on.  She rose her head every now and again, Half Dome, to judge our progress and consider whether we were worthy, but for the most part she remained hidden in slumber amidst the rocks.  Only the evening before our journey a hiker had perished down the Nevada Falls – not everyone was intended to conquer Half Dome, and those who try must not take her lightly.

 

The trees suddenly parted like a curtain, the sun hitting us with her full might, the valley below opening wide as we stood on the edge of a ridge.  In the distance Half Dome was now entirely exposed, her legendary north face which had inspired the brand of the same name sloping vertically down into the valley.  Like so many ants we could just make out hikers ahead beginning the ascent of the revered ‘cables’, thick metal cords which assist climbers make the final 120m ascent otherwise considered nigh on impossible, and the most dangerous part of the hike.  The terrain flattened out and the path below turned to granite as we made our way towards the beginning of the cables, and pulled out our gloves (despite the now 36 degree midday heat) to assist our grip.

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We paused at the foot.  This was serious.  Heather first, we commenced, three steps at a time before pausing, arms straining.  The rubber teeth of our hiking boots bit into the granite ineffectively, the sun began to burn.  The cables were so hot and the friction so great that the rubber grips on my palms began to melt off.  The comeraderie of those behind us helped push us on, and we soon clambered over the top, and were greeted with a view befitting of Gods.  The World was endless, the valley thousands of feet below, the river meandering so calmly from up above, nothing above us but pure cyan sky.  An eagle soared by at eye level, the Visor of the dome jutted unnervingly out into nothingness.  Struck by awe, elated by achievement, we took it all in.

 

It was here, so fitting a place, that I proposed to my now fiancé.  We conquered Half Dome together, like so many challenges in life, and came down bound strongly to one another with a promise befitting of the surroundings – as challenging as Half Dome was, we overcame her hand in hand; as infinite as the landscape seemed from her vantage point, our love stretched out forever.

 

“The world was all before them, where to choose

Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.

They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow

Through Eden took their solitary way.”

J. Milton, Paradise Lost

Falling from the high wire in Queenstown, New Zealand

The small bus pulled up to the corner of Camp Street, the driver checked my name and we jumped in.  “High winds again”, she said. “You’ll have to be lucky.”  My efforts the day previous had been scuppered by similar weather, but something felt different today, and we agreed to take the chance and press on towards the valley.  I was absolutely, utterly hell-bent on throwing myself 134 metres off the Nevis high wire bungee.

Upon arrival 45 minutes later, it was easy to see why the wind posed a problem.  The Nevis was called a “high wire” for a reason – it was a small shed-like structure suspended in the valley by a few high tension wires.  The wind, rather than a steady stream, was gusting sporadically, which was causing the small platform to buck unpredictably in mid-air with every blow.  There were, however, momentary periods of calm and the Kiwi’s  – ever the optimists – were ushering us eagerly towards the near edge of the fall.

The valley itself was stunning, and in the moments when my eyes weren’t transfixed on the platform hanging in midair, I was able to take in the beauty of the burnt oranges and deep browns of the vast chasm ahead.  A rushing river meandered its way through the rock, having probably carved the valley in the first place, maintaining its wild claim on the land.  I was jolted back to the task in hand when a small mechanical lift wound its way along the wires towards us and came to a relatively gentle stop.  We stepped on, four of us, and it began to whirr back, hundred of metres above the river below, towards the central platform.

Adrenaline began to kick in.  There was a glass panel in the floor of the platform which showed the bungee cord hanging in the distance below.  It began to clunk upwards and I was brought forwards and sat in a chair.  “You go on three,” he said.  “Pull the lever at the bottom and you’ll rotate the right way up, otherwise you’ll hang upside down until we get you back.”  He tied the rope to my ankles, grinned, and shuffled me to the ‘plank’ poking out over the platform edge.  He dropped the rope limply down by my side, it was surprisingly heavy and I almost went with it.  I spread my arms, my heart began to pound, I could feel my pupils dilate, alert. 

“Three”, I looked down.

“Two”, the river rushed below.

“One”, I looked straight ahead.

“Go”, I threw myself forwards.

I hung for a moment, and then plumetted.  The acceleration was startling, and in a second the ground was rushing rapidly towards me.  I fell 134 metres in about ten seconds, weightless, at the mercy of the thick chord tied tightly round my ankles.  I screamed in utter delight the entire descent. 

Some people don’t see the point of bungee, but I couldn’t disagree more.  You’ll never feel more awake, more tuned to every sense, and more alive than you do in that 10 seconds when your life is completely out of your control.

Sharks in a storm, Australia

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It was a stormy night.  The boat was pitching back and forth, arching in the continuous flow of waves breaking over the surrounding reefs.  Seasickness had kicked in a few hours ago, and the darkness of the night made staying on two feet all the more challenging.  Resolute, I forced my way into my wetsuit and assembled my regs – it was time to dive blind, and I wasn’t going to miss it.

Everyone was struggling.  A few were ”sitting it out”, confidence knocked by the choppy water and the lack of visibility underwater.  I tested my torch; it was strong, but the beam narrow.  If you shone it on your depth gauge/air measure, it briefly glowed an eery green before fading back to its usual white – this is how you keep a measure of your air and buoyancy underwater at night, with the surface and the bottom invisible maintaining a level profile is challenging.  The dive boat had a fairly bright blue light underneath which was designed to give you a reference by which to return.  As I pulled on my fins and shuffled to the bucking edge of the boat, what was revealed by the light caused me to pause momentarily. 

The water was teeming with sharks, their sleek silhouettes moving slowly, circling around in the light, using the small source of light as an aid to their hunt.  Most of the bodies were typically small, white and black reef sharks, and they wouldn’t trouble any of the divers many of whom were already paddling in the water just above them.  One or two were a little larger.  I held my mask in place and took a giant stride out into the water, and then descended through the sleek, barrel-shaped bodies which paid me no heed and finned away from the boat’s light, into the dark. 

The light of the torch probably went up to 10 metres ahead in a straight, narrow beam, and other than that long white line I could see absolutely nothing else.  It was a matter of luck as to what the light found, usually sleeping fish but occasionally something greater; a huge green turtle making its bed for the night being the highlight.  Navigating using the brief green glow of the compass was difficult, and after 30 minutes or so I signalled to my buddy to ascend.  We located the light beneath the boat, grabbed the mooring line and began to pull ourselves up, the current sweeping us out horizontally as we climbed hand over hand.

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At 5 metres we stopped, in order to allow excess gasses built up at depth to seep out of our bodies and avoid ‘the bends’.  We were being swept sideways by the powerful current, all the while right in the middle of the dozens of circling reef sharks.  Suddenly, my buddy’s grip on my arm tightened, and a pointing hand gestured wildly to my left.  I turned just in time to see the dark eyes and white teeth of a large grey shark, close to the largest length to which they can grow, about two feet in front of me.  At the very last minute, staring into my eyes, it bent its trajectory and soared over my head, knocking my mask with the lower lobe of its caudal fin and disappearing out of the light into the murky darkness.  We surfaced, bucked back and forth by the now stronger waves, and fought our way up the kicking steps at the rear of the boat.

I spent the rest of the night racked by seasickness, but still grinning to myself about the close encounter with the inquisitive grey.  I had gotten in the way, I suspect, he had just wanted to know what clumsy creature was interrupting his feeding. 

The Killing Fields of Cambodia’s recent past

Please do not read this unless you are of a certain constitution – and there will be no pictures this time.  There is much in the World that is beautiful, but there is also the fearful.  It is too easy, at times, to Romaticise ones experiences and set aside those which caused discomfort, or unease.  This blog has been, and is, dedicated to the awe-inspiring and the breath-taking, but also to portraying true impressions of the reality of experiences.  In certain instances, the reality of the experience is provokative in a more horrific way, and these experiences are as valuable as those which inspire wonder, albeit in different ways.  I may take this down, I may leave it up – but we must not deny things that have happened to those we consider as our fellow men.

It was 18 kilometers outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and our faithful tuk-tuk driver ‘Mr Lee’ had carried us to the gates of the Killing Fields, not his usual jovial self, rather muted, contemplative.  The sights on the way to the Fields belied what was to come – two girls on a moped in ther pyjamas, 4 orange-robed monks cramped into an open tuk-tuk, a bike stacked high with livestock.  Even the entrance to the Fields was a picture of lush greenness and tranquility – silent but for the whisper of the wind, the rustle of the trees.  Paying our $2 entry fee we set out on the path alone towards a large spiral monument up ahead, marking the beginning of the Fields.  At a distance it was reminiscent of a Western war memorial.  Up close it was harrowing.

The spire consisted of 10 or so levels leading up to the top, glass-faced on each side so as to allow the viewer sight into each level.  On the first few levels were the bleached white skulls of hundred of Khmer men who were ruthlessly slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970’s (within a decade of my birth, I realised afterwards).  Each had suffered some form of blunt force trauma; fractured jaws, cracked skulls, some with clear holes passing straight through.  The other levels consisted of rags of their clothes, broken ribcages, severed skeletal limbs.  The unsubtle implications were horrific.  It was all too much.  We solemnly pressed on.

The walk around the field is frequently interrupted by large dips in the ground, being excavated mass graves where bodies were found by the dozen, heaped without regard together in shallow divots.  One hole which barely looked big enough to hold 10 standing men had held 800.  And then there was the ‘Killing Tree’, which I refuse to speak of, out of horror.

It is easy to see, in Cambodia, how full of joy the people are with simply being at peace.  Almost every adult we met had either memories of, or had known family affected by, the Khmer Rouge regime.  The walking wounded were common, particularly around S21 (the prisoners of war camp) in the city itself.  And yet, so soon after some of the most horrific acts of hatred and violence in modern history, the people are together, resolute, determined, almost ‘happy’.  There is a glint of hope and forwardness in their wise eyes, the worry lines furrowed deep in their brows adding years to young faces, but they are young faces brought alive by smiles that bely the recent troubles.  They are young faces that show, no matter what, whatever the struggle, good people will always overcome those who seek to upset that order.  So as I say, we must not forget the bad, but take inspiration from those who have stood up to it and said ‘no’.  ‘No’ we do not live in such a world.  ‘No’ this is not how it should be.  The strength of those around Cambodia every day is in itself a true inspiration, and if you have read this far then I hope this has helped you realise or remember something of value, or given you strength to say ‘no’.  The World is beautiful, but only if we strive to make it so.