Sunday, 10 February 2013

New Zealand : Tongariro National Park & the 'F' Word

'Wh' is pronounced 'F' in Maori which until I discovered this and in addition to me either anglicising every Maori place name or giving it an inexplicable Italian twist meant that no-one understood where I'd visited, nor where I was requesting directions to and when someone asked whether I'd been to "X" I had no idea if I had or not

After this revelation I impulsively decided to cycle to an unnamed ski village some 7km uphill from Whakapapa on Mt Ruapehu (2797m) the highest mountain of New Zealand’s North Island. The word became my mantra as I battled a relentless headwind of ascent in freezing temperatures, sharp fingernails of rain tearing at my exposed face. I shouldn't have been that surprised, this was New Zealand and I was already losing count of the severe weather warnings I'd cycled or camped in

With visibility at 10 metres a car slammed on its brakes in front of me just before my turn off to the high mountain road. In what had now turned into horizontal hail I saw the shape of a lady wrapped in cerise emerging from the door, hurriedly pulling a jacket over her head.

“You ok?” she shouted above the volcanic roar of the wind. “Where are you going? Let me give you a lift, you'll catch your death.” she said peering at the 35kg of my life stuffed in 6 bags strapped to my bicycle.

“Going to..”- I hesitated - “Fuka.. Fak..Fakapapa” I stuttered .

She gave me a strange look. “Where?”

 ”Fak.. National Park Village” I lied and feigning cheer continued “I'm ok, all downhill from here.”

With a nod and the uncertain smile of someone who is not sure if they have just been insulted she returned to the warmth of her car and drove off.

I shivered and looked around. The stunning view of Tongariro National Park was out there somewhere. I'd seen it just 2 days before when complete with ice axe and crampons I'd traversed the Tongariro Alpine Trail, closed half way due to the previous month's eruption of Mt Tongariro. In fact I did it the following day too having been fortunate enough to be invited back as a mountain guide for a group of clients for the day.

Frozen directions to the Summit

 This was Lord of the Rings territory: Mt Doom (Mt Ngauruhoe) dominated the view with its perfect conical shape; the volcanic rock and craters now under a scape of hard ice and snow. This lava plateau wilderness was surrounded by swathes of flax and tussock, alpine herbs and flowers straining to be seen in early spring on the edges of black beech forests.

Some 2 hours of crunching gears uphill later and on the verge of hypothermia I finally saw shelter in the form of ‘Tussock Bar’ as I entered the ski village of Whakapapa. People turned their heads and stared as I entered. “Are you ok?” ventured one. “We passed you” chipped in another “You're mental!”

I nodded in agreement and walked towards the open fire to wait for Tom, the mountain guide, whom I'd convinced to let  me stay in the ski lodge he was custodian of as I'd decided cycling the height of Ben Nevis was quite enough for one day. Having agreed with the barman that I could leave my bike in the bottle store for a day and while waiting for Tom I thawed out by the fire and wrote a few words in my journal.

A few days ago while reading my journal for some tales to tell on my blog I was amused to see my journal entry for that day was simply "Cycled up to Whakapapa. Whaking soaked!"

A huge thanks to David, Tom, Karlee & Josh of Ruapehu for some great memories and the members of the lodge for making me so very welcome

Saturday, 9 February 2013

New Zealand and Indonesia : Fallen fruit

The roads in New Zealand have the same surface as a cheese grater: hmm this is going to be interesting I thought the split second before I hit the tarmac at 30km an hour.  My bicycle on top of me,  a front pannier some 10 feet away teetered on the edge of the bridge.  I winced as I peeled my knee from the road. I looked at the lumpy patch of red left behind and watched intently as it shrivelled and darkened on the warm tarmac. An irrational craving for black pudding entered my thoughts .

I moved quickly - alert now to the blind corner with the cluttered array of warning signs I’d chuckled at as I sped downhill and hit the bridge - retrieved my indecisive pannier from its own adrenaline fuelled freefall into the glacial river below and began pedalling as blood poured from my knee before coming to a sticky rest between my toes. I had been fond of that piece of skin that used to cover my knee and my thoughts were dragged back to a previous cycling accident I’d had some years earlier when I’d landed on my face: my mouth had been open at the time in a ‘look at me I’m flying’ wonderment and I remember the nurse shaking her head in disbelief as she plucked out gravel embedded on the inside of my mouth and tongue. The tarmac on that day had claimed part of my right nostril and skinned the bridge of my nose and I had fought the urge to return to the scene of the accident to search for those missing bits of flesh and to have them stuck back on..

After 20km I spied a lake, pitched my tent, bathed my wound in the water, extracted some gravel and got out my first aid kit. Bandages, where are my bandages? It was then I remembered the incident with the Durian fruit in the Harau Valley, Sumatra..

I’d crossed the Equator that day in Sumatra as I snaked my way up the 900m pass. I'd studied pedantically my GPS, I had to find the exact point of the equator, even retracing the last few metres until my geographical co-ordinates fetish was entirely satisfied as I watched my SATMAP Active change from N000.00009 to S000.00006.  Marvellous I thought then I looked up from my handlebars and saw a globe marking the spot on the side of the road, entirely unexpected in this untouristed hillside village. This concrete structure had adhered to all the architectural  rules of Sumatra: stained, crumbling and graffitied. They'd even ensured that the concrete surrounding wall  had been ceremoniously knocked down by a wayward truck. 

I was tired, the night before I'd pitched my inner tent on the seating area of a roadside shack at the start of the hill climb. It was peaceful as the sun set, and as the family broke their Ramadan fast I settled down to sleep. Peaceful is not a word I usually associate with Sumatra and it was soon disassociated. Throughout the night the tinny radio increased in volume, I would open bleary eyes and see, above my mesh ceiling, a display of toothy smiles from the truckdrivers in a haze of smoke as they sucked on clove cigarettes and gathered around to see the curious sleeping foreigner in her mesh abode. "Hello Mister" they'd shout just centimetres from my face. Resisting the urge to say "will you shut the.." I would lift my arm in the weariest manner I could muster and feebly wave back at them before feigning the deepest slumber again

Finally I reached the top of the pass and began a cautious descent as they'd decided to blow up the mountain on the other side. 2 dogs leapt at me from a shack and began chase while I dodged debris, trucks and mopeds as I fumbled for my dog dazer.

It was then I noticed the dancing policeman. The road beneath me was now clear of trucks and there on the next hairpin was a policeman looking up at me excitedly, wiggling his hips and doing that stirring a pot motion with his upper body. "Hello Mister!" I reached for my camera and he wiggled his hips with gusto and gave me the thumbs up. However frustrating the travel and the noise was in this country, every encounter made my heart smile.

After the 100km and 1500m of climbing up then down I'd reached Western Sumatra. The fabulous Minangkabau architecture of timber framed houses adorned with buffalo horned roofs were surrounded by deep green palms and vibrant  paddy fields. 


I decided to head towards the Harau Valley and relished in the changing landscape and the blissful reduction of noise

I found a delightful bamboo hut to stay in deep in the valley and it was there I met Ollie a 20 year old fellow Brit, the first westerner I'd seen in Sumatra.  We chatted for a while until I was overcome by the day's exertion and retreated to my bed for a short nap.

I was woken from my exhausted state by the cry of Ollie. The words Durian, accident, child, face, first aid, filtered through the bamboo slats of my hut and I leapt from my bed, emptied my pannier, retrieved my first aid kit and sped over to the small crowd that had gathered some 20 metres away. A man held a young girl, about 5 years old, in his arms, the right side of her face lacerated by the fallen fruit of the Durian.

Durian: a notorious fruit, both revered and abhorred, the Marmite of the South East Asian fruit world. The soft creamy pungent fruit emits an odour akin to my hiking boots mixed with rotting roadkill to some and an irresistible exotic fragrance to others. The fruit that is often banned in public buildings and on transport  is encased in a formidable thorny husk and should this 1-2kg of fruit fall from the tree and hit you in can result in a nasty injury.

Ollie had seen it happen, he'd picked up the screaming girl and ran with her back to where we were staying, the only tourists in the stunning Harau Valley. Do something for her please the workers had insisted. I washed her wounds, pulling out two thorns embedded into the side of her face as she lay there brave with not a murmur, fearful yet trusting ebony eyes never leaving mine. With two first aid kits we disinfected and clumsily bandaged and the girl was carried away on a moped to be reunited with her parents.

After sunset and a meal of nasi goreng Ollie and I sat under a blanket of stars, sipping a local beer, watching a performance of fireflies and shooting stars, surrounded by towering 100m cliffs of granite in this narrow valley: amplifying and reverberating every sound of the jungle from cicadas to gibbons and macaques, night birds to frogs and the dull thud of ripe falling fruit.  In the twilight we saw a man approaching us with something in his hands. He was the father of the young girl and to express his gratitude he'd brought us a gift. Ollie and I peered at it, glanced at each other, silent in the irony as we looked down again and saw an offering of durian before us.