The Rice Terraces of Vietnam’s mountains

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The air was thin and crisp, and clean.  Every breath injected new life into a travel-weary soul. The valley fell away in a sharp descent, its face patterned with flooded rice terraces staccato’d with the small dots of local women working the land by hand.  A heavy downpour had cleared the skies overhead, and the life-giving combination of sun and water had brought the villagers from their shanty huts, and had brought good spirits out in all.  Cat Cat village was yawning in to life below, nothing ever rushed in the mountains.  The trail we were following wound down and through the small community, populated solely by the Black Hmong people of northern Vietnam, whose dark name belied the simple beauty within each and every one of them.

Descending further, we began to be able to pick out the lumbering forms of water buffalo pulling rusted ploughs behind them, wading through the knee deep flooding on the drenched paddies.  Fresh rivers wound their way amongst the ancient contours of the land,  dark robed villagers swung hoes into the patches of green that were lush and dry.  A woman picked the shoots of rice out by hand, individually pulling grains off the stems and collecting them in her handwoven basked of reeds.  Turning a long, gradual bend we were forced to edge our way around a grazing buffalo who paid us no heed as he tore up the long grass at the edge of the path.  To his right another buffalo lay fast asleep in the sun and, in a picure worth of any postcard, a small Hmong boy lay asleep across his heaving flank, rising and falling with every breath.  It was an image of peace, tranquility and oneness; an image that was sorely lacking in Hanoi.

We passed through Cat Cat, greeted by smiling workers and barely bothered with offers of trinkets or goods.  The village couldn’t have consisted of more than 20 earthy houses, several lacking doors (what need?), most filled with excitable beaming children and life-worn, grinning mothers.  At the edge of the village centre one of the rivers hit a sudden dip in the land and tumbled down a waterfall, breaking the otherwise absolute silence otherwise interrupted only by the scything of the locals.  A small wooden bridge, ornately carved, led over it, and back round to the beginning of the ascent on the other side of the hamlet.   The boy was still asleep on the buffalo as we passed by overhead, the sun showed no sign of relenting, and then the rarest of realisations struck.  In a life ever moving on, living out of a backpack, being transported, always in transit: in Sapa, the world was still.  The relentless green and unbreakable peace, the envigorating altitude and unspoilt air; the almost indetectable pace of life in beautiful Sapa sucked you in to a void of contentedness, wanting for nothing.

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As we shared some Bia Hoi with some locals that night, sat at plastic childrens tables and chairs on the street, not a common word between us, infinite stars shimmered in the background off the pools and terrances leading up to Vietnam’s highest mountain, Fansipan.  There was quite simply, in that moment, at that pristine village in the mountains, detached from modernising Vietnam, nothing else that anyone could ever possibly wish for.

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Exploring the Kinabatangan river, Borneo

ImageThe rain was biblical, but the air roasting at the same time. The canoe bobbed uneasily down the Kinabatangan, in the east of Malaysian Borneo, the river dancing under the heavy rainfall. Passing a few small villages, the villagers washing in the murky brown water, fully aware that 6 foot crocodiles live in the water but with no other option, hours passed timelessly. Suddenly, a small wooden pier appeared on the right amidst the dense rainforest, to which we hastily tied the canoe and disembarked into the foliage. The light was beginning to fail, we didn’t have long to drop off our grubby backpacks before the night trek. Camp, on a quick glance, consisted of a wooden boardwalk raised above the sodden mud of the rainforest floor, an eating area, and three thin mattresses on the floor of an open sided hut, no pillows, no sheets; no need.

Armed simply with black rubber shoes which cost less than five malaysian ringits, and headtorches, we set off away from the boardwalk and into the rainforest. The noises of insects broke the airless silence, the heat a different kind of oppressive, the sky a blanket of brilliant stars when it wasn’t hidden by the canopy overhead. Colourful birds sat on branches, hiding their eyes under their wings, asleep. Fruit bats, wide awake, hung underneath eagerly seeking out any fallen food. Tree frogs chirped from beneath leaves, and more than once we had to divert our route around a line of feared fire ants whose bites, the Malay say, burn for days afterwards. A deep grunt in a clearing up ahead, accompanied by the familiar crunching of the shells of nuts, hinted at something more substantial – a bright white wild pig, alerted to our presence, bolted as we drew nearby. Despite the silence of the rainforest at night, it teems with life, never a dull moment. I returned to the ineffective mattresses and fell instantly into a deep sleep, stripped to the waist and exhausted.

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We rose with the sun the next day, before 6am, the temperature noticeably rising. A quick breakfast of flat breads and we were back in the canoe and pressing into the rainforest further. Early morning is a prime time for wildlife in the rainforest, the bright green kingfishers sitting on the riverbanks welcoming us warmly to the new day. In the high canopy beyond the banks a bright orange orangutan arose from his nest, undoubtedly planning on moving to the next, a strange sight to see such a human creature living like a bird amongst the trees. We floated underneath proboscis monkeys, their unusual noses comical in appearance, and atheletic gibbons whose long limbs flung them effortlessly amongst the high branches of the riverside trees. A small boy waved to us from the other side, about to have his morning wash, brown and sunburnt with a brilliant smile. Every being is in unison with each other in the rainforest, the fine balance all too easily destroyed by the palm oil farming which Borneo suffers from so greatly, but benefits from monetarily. The journey continued, the river winding into the unknown, great promises of adventure and beauty, a land once unspoilt now wrestling its very existence back from the brink, every sight, sound and sense so precious in time, but too fleeting. The sky had become a brilliant blue, and looking up, breathing deep, the wonder of the place filled my lungs and focussed my mind. In Borneo there are no distractions from the simple truth, that you are alive in a world which is beautiful, a truth which is all too easily forgotten.

Beneath the unspoilt waters of Sipadan Island, Borneo

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Sipadan sits in the Celebes Sea, off Borneo’s eastern coast. A conical spit of land breaking an otherwise endless blue, it rises from an otherwise flat sea bed nearly 600 metres, standing solitary and defiant against the horizon. Only a limited number of permits are issued each day for those who have travelled across Borneo, one of the few wild places left on Earth, drawn to the island by tales of wonders beyond belief. Nutrients washed in from the sea have only the small barrier of Sipadan standing in their way, making the marine habitat rich in food for the smaller fish, making it rich in food for the bigger fish.

We set off early from the port of Semporna, in the southeast of Malaysian Borneo’s Sabah region and, with only one break-down en route caused by a stray plastic bag, the going was good. The sea was calm, the sky blue, the temperature rising by the minute. Eventually, the island came in to view, barely piercing the water, only the trees rising more than a couple of metres from sea level. The sand was a grainy white, the shallows a transparent turquoise swarming with life and colourful coral – it truly was an untouched piece of art.

We stood on the warming sand, awaiting our official registration, gazing whistfully into the entrancing water. Dozens of angelfish and bannerfish scattered themselves amongst the coral, to the left a blue spotted stingray shovelled its nose under a rock seeking food, and only four or five metres from the shore a whitetip reef shark waited patiently, passing the day until the night time hunt. We were soon informed that our first dive site of the day would be “South Point”, at the other side of the island, the side facing the open ocean. Back in the small boat, we admired the 30+ metre visibility of the water below us as we raced to the rear of the island, keen to arrive before others.

Under now intense sun, still in the early morning, we donned our equipment and strode out into the unknown. The water was teeming with activity. The coral in the first 5 metres was exceptionally pristine, creating a garden of colour unlike any on land; reds, greens, yellows, oranges, purples in all imaginable shapes, textures and sizes. The smattering of butterflyfish now became a swarm, not one but six reef sharks swam gracefully before us. The sillouette of a green turtle floated peacefully and effortlessly towards the surface in the distance for a breath. The world was silent and majestic, a rare impression of peace in a restless world.

Suddenly, a shadow cast itself over us. It seemed to shift and change shape frantically, there was an unfamiliar noise in the water. I turned, and if I could have gasped I would, as within metres of me whirled a tornado of hundreds of great barracuda, swimming wildly around one another, razor teeth gnashing at the end of sleek, silver bodies. The storm grew and grew, ten metres wide and twice as deep, barrelling across the reef and out towards the ocean. I was gulping down air at an alarming rate, not scared but thrilled, in wonderment at the inconceivable sight. It suddenly tore away out into the blue, leaving us staring at one another in disbelief. In these more remote parts of the World, it seems, life exists on a whole new scale. Sipadan island, barely a speck in the waters of Earth, had played host to one of the most unforgettable encounters of a lifetime, and that was just the first dive…

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Captivated by Lake Louise, Canada

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It was, in the truest sense of the word, awesome. A mottled, deep brown mass of instinctive apex predator. It wasn’t the sight I had expected in the lead up to the reputedly pristine beauty of Lake Louise but here, within 10 metres of us, stalked a grizzly bear. His shaggy fur and familiar face, combined with his slow lumber and apparent disregard for the world around him almost lulled me in to a false sense of security – despite its massive size and incredible power, the grizzly somehow was more inspirational than fearful. Or perhaps that was just the effect that hiking and camping across the Canadian rockies has on a traveller – an inspiring sense of awe in everything.

His massive, clawed paws padded laboriously along the roadside, lazily stopping every now and again to pick at a bunch of wildflowers, his food of choice it would appear. And then he was gone, trudging into the thicket, his dark brown body soon disappearing into the deep, leafy shade. The few 4x4s that were passing just at the right two minutes began to dissipate, and we ourselves pressed on towards the lake, and climb, ahead.

It is truly, truly impossible to describe the sheer beauty of lake Louise. It sits, sapphire blue, in the midst of a perfect valley. It’s backdrop is a range of snow-covered mountains rising out of lush, green forests. Flawlessly mountains towering overhead are mirrored perfectly in the glassy surface of the water, the odd canoe bobs restfully on its banks, content to sit unused amidst such wonders. The water, whilst inviting, is ice cold, a reflection of the frozen peaks standing along the banks. An eagle calls it’s appreciation as it takes flight nearby, as though it appreciates the privilege. Following its flight with my wide eyes, it soars past a peak which juts out before the rest, a ledge which would, if climbed, offer a perfect vista. Our guide informs us we can reach it.

The entire route was little more than seven kilometres, rising to about 2,300 metres above sea level. It led past “Mirror Lake”, and the equally beautiful Lake Agnes, before the steepest climb began to reach the viewpoint, known as the ‘Big Beehive’. The route to mirror lake was easily managed, the reward being far too generous for the effort required to get there, with the now much nearer mountains mirrored exactly in the small, pristine lake. Lake Agnes held it’s own charms, sitting in a natural ‘bowl’ in the curvature of the mountains, with a river cascading away down a drop off and flowing freely into the forests below. Half melted ice dotted the surface, giving the lake the appearance of frosted glass, an effect that was accentuated as we began the now punishingly steep climb up along the side of the mountain face lining Lake Agnes. Soon all we could see was rock, and ice.

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Then, spectacularly revealed to us as we rounded the final bend, the entire world opened up in before us. The horizon curved, the clouds within reach. Below, the vast oblong of Lake Louise stood in all her azure beauty, all the detail visible closer up replaced by one strikingly bold, utterly natural blue. Endless forest tore away from her into the distance, only stopping at the Rockies many miles away. Nature was putting on a spectacular display, unlike any image any artist or photographer could caputure. The purity of the air, the vastness of the landscape and the sheerness of the drop below was invigorating. We sat, marvelling, hanging our legs over the edge of the cliff, in silence. There was nothing to say. Lake Louise had cast her spell over more hapless visitors, and had nestled her way into their hearts forever. Words cannot describe her. Beautiful.

The endless ocean – Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

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The sky was an unbelievable blue. It was both warm and cold, there was little wind. Overhead, the sun was utterly spectacular. An other-wordly halo of light ringed around the yellow star like an infinite rainbow, a sight that defied any and all logic, both magical and incomprehensible. The ground crunched underfoot, everything was so dry. There was a sense of something unusual in the air. The ruins of abandoned, rusted trains stood all around us, not another sight for miles. It was … enigmatic.

In the altiplano of Bolivia, pressing up against Chile in the southwest and Argentina in the south, lay the Salar de Uyuni. Three and a half thousand metres above sea level, spanning four thousand square miles, at no point varying in altitude by more than a metre, vast and empty, solitary, cold – here the great salt flats of Bolivia, the world’s largest, kiss the endless horizon in all directions. We stood on the brink of a harsh and seemingly lifeless world, white like a blank canvass, as though God had forgotten to create in this land, and we were unsure of what to expect. Stepping into the awaiting 4×4, sunglasses on to avoid being blinded, we began to move out.

As snow-capped mountains became vaguely discernable on the horizon, the South American Andes in miniature, we pulled up aside a crop of towering cacti, some over a thousand years old, which stood atop a large mound of salt and got out to gather our bearings. Clambering to the top, along the perfectly hexagonal cracks running across the metres-thick crust of salt underfoot, a brief gust of wind dared to disrupt the pervasive stillness and ruffled the spines of the cacti which groaned unappreciatively. We looked out over a vast expanse of crystal whiteness, the occasional dirty line created by a vehicle ruining the otherwise perfect uniformity of the colour, the odd mound of salt laying unattending, harvested from the salar, ready to be transported. A pure, endless white surrounded us, small specks on the land, all around an absolute silence, no birds in the air, no background noise, nothing at all. We stood in the graveyard of ancient lakes without any sense of perspective, or reference. It was discomforting. It was stunning. We pressed on.

Only a short drive onwards, the world suddenly exploded into unbelievable colour. The salar was not a lifeless, empty desert as the previous day had suggested. Before us stood a lake, a lake unlike any other I had ever seen, a lake which was crowded with life. We stood agast as hundreds upon hundreds of bright pink flamingos waded through the water, gaggling amongst themselves, utterly inconceivable. As we looked harder, an almost more startling realisation dawned upon us – not only was it the flamingos that were creating the striking colour, but the water itself was an intense, bright red. This was the laguna colorado, stained bloodred by algae in the water. Having seen nothing but white upon white for the last 24 hours, to suddenly see the world coloured such a vivid red was almost unsettling, but truly awe-inspiring, an experience truly unique to the Bolivian salar, quite incomprehensibly remarkable. The world had never been harder to believe.

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Climbing the Franz Josef Glacier

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We stood deep within the valley, adorned with luminescent yellow wind jackets of surprising weight, loose rubble underfoot, the ‘V’ walls rising either side. I had been in similar, more impressive surroundings previously. However, unlike those occasions, this valley came to an abrupt end. About 500 metres ahead, at the approach of a bend, the way was blocked by a wall of ice. Shades of metallic blue and transparent white were dotted with specks of stoney grey, the entire mass with a surreal watery sheen, stretching 300 metres to the sky and running 12 kilometres off into the distance. Our task for the day was to climb to the gacier’s peak, armed with axes, crampons and not a few layers. It seemed quite the task.

Approaching the foot of the glacier, the sheer magnitude became ever more apparent. The relentlessly powerful ice had carved out the entire valley, and in relatively modern times had been known to advance 70cm per day, taking with it rubble and boulders bigger than a bus. Now in a phase of rapid retreat, the glacier was no less intimidating, rising steeply towards the heavens, unwelcoming. We strapped our crampons on nevertheless, and the jagged metal teeth bit into the ice with a satisfying crunch as we stepped on to the foot of the glacier. It immediately struck me, as I removed my outer jacket, how incomprehensibly warm it was in the valley. Standing upon increasingly thick ice, climbing slowly up, hacking a clear path, the warmth in the air defied the very existence of the frozen water underfoot. However, as we came up against another wall of irridescent blue, it’s existence was most certainly undeniable.

Pressing on, at first on top of the glacier, but soon within, the ice had moulded into the most fantastical shapes, from cracks and holes to full blown arches and corridors. At times we had to force a way through with our axes, the ice constntly shifting and changing, there being no set route, no safe passage. Now and then the icey path within the ice became so narrow that we had to slide through sideways, brushing front and back against the ice, drips of meltwater slipping torturously down our backs and on our faces. At one point, a boulder the size of a small car was suspended overhead by nothing more than the ice walls either side of us – we all managed to find some acceleration to pass underneath despite the crampons. Occasionally it was necessary to climb up narrow tunnels, at others take a wide berth around 300 metre crevices delving into a blue nothingness. Guided at all times, we felt relatively safe.

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Emerging from the cold embrace of the glacier we arrived at our summit, nowhere near half way along the length of the ice, but far enough. On the surface, small pools of pure glacial icewater had melted, safe to drink, tasting like nothing else on earth – pure, crisp, cold, energising. On the summit the cliff walls either side took on a new vivacity, dozens of waterfalls streaming down, lush green shrubs clinging to tp the rock, the sun bringing vitality wherever it shined. One waterfall split in two, running perfectly parralel with one another down the valley; an alpine parrot shrieked it’s unique shrill and soared off down the valley. Even in the face of the destructive power of the glacier, life had found a way to thrive, and turning back, facing down the shimmering, alien ice-blue glacier and further on to the barren grey of the valley foor, distantly quaking before the ice, we began our descent back to civilisation.

A storm at the Sea Temple, Bali

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The contrast couldn’t have been much starker. The romaticism promised by the offer of the seven sea temples of Bali was initially dampened somewhat by the carefully structured maze of trinket stalls and hawkers that led down towards the coast, but people need to make a living, via religious overtones or otherwise.

 

The thought of a temple hewn from the rocks in the Balinese waters conjured almost mythical images of peace and solitude in my mind. The place of respite of Nirartha, a priest in the 15th century, Tanah Lot had promised a certain solitude, a glimpse of a time that probably never existed, an existential contemplation bordering on fanciful. The timing of the visit, to coincide with sunset, was designed to heighten this experience – there is something primitive and magically regressive about the setting sun. However, our trip to Pura Tanah Lot actually offered a stark glimpse of the reality of the world. I had made the foolhardy error of having ‘expectations’. It was beautiful, but in an unexpected way, like much of Indonesia.

 

The sky was aggressively grey, laden with thick cloud, any light was barred. Passing through the elaborate gateway, typical of Bali, towards the land’s edge the wind whipped fiercely in the air, like the tails of a thousand snakes, venemously cold. The land poked out into the water in sharp shards, ragged and worn, ancient and tired but defiant and strong. The water was whipped into a foam, spray climbing up the cliff face and showering those brave enough to get close to the edge. Somewhere in the distance, thunder rumbled. To the left, the temple in the sea stood seperated from the mainland by a fifty metre shallow crossing. The few trees on the islet swayed violently, waves crashed against the pillars of rock, a group of monks in bright orange stood hesitantly at the shallows, faith and duty being tried by nature, by the Gods.

 

The temple itself was beautiful. I could imagine it standing in the sun, in calm water, being perfect. Entered either by a cave or by winding stone stairs, conical towers hidden amongst the trees, standing placid in the storm, it represented hundreds of years of faith and devotion. In spite of the dangers, the Monks began to press through the violent shallows, drenched, occasionally losing their footing but assisting one another when one fell. They did make it, their duties fulfilled they disappeared into the cave mouth, swallowed by darkness. Working together, bound by common belief, they had prevailed.

 

I had come expecting a sort of spiritual fulfilment, an experience of beauty and serenity. What I had experienced was the defiance of man in the face of the elements, how he finds calm and sanctuary in religion, his devotion to his cause despite the obstacles presented to him. It was enlightening in an unexpected way, and as the sun, somewhere deep within the clouds, passed the horizon and the world went darker, I left Tanah Lot with a sense of something valuable, but intangible, having been learned. Hand in hand we walked away.