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. 

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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.

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.

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.

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.