Trans-Alpine

 

Flock Hill Boulder Field

Leaving Golden Bay, our journey took us down the rugged west coast to the village of Punakaiki. The Tasman Sea on the west of New Zealand is wild and unpredictable, and swimming in the strong currents would be suicidal – a stark contrast to the peaceful, inviting waters of the Southern Ocean on the east.

  Punakaiki sunset

As well as being a convenient stopping point on our journey towards the Southern Alps, Punakaiki is known for its Pancake Rocks and blowholes. The layering system which formed the rocks along this part of the coast is responsible for their pancake appearance, and the blow holes are a direct result of coastal erosion. When the tide is high you are able to watch and listen as the sea surges into caverns and booms menacingly through the blowholes. A 6.30am high tide ensured that we had the rocks to ourselves, and after watching the sun rise we left, just as the hordes were arriving.

  Pancake rocks

We continued on to one of the major crossings of the Southern Alps; Arthur’s Pass, which connects Greymouth on the west with Christchurch on the east. The scenery through the pass is sensational, with majestic peaks bordering vast alpine meadows. It is along this pass that New Zealand’s only truly world class climbing areas are located; Castle Hill and Flock Hill. These are sprawling boulder fields, each with a breathtaking sea of bulbous limestone rocks. There are some bolted routes on the largest boulders, but most of the climbing here is bouldering; a discipline which requires no ropes or harnesses but instead involves solving reasonably short ‘problems’ with the protection of a soft mat. 

  Crossing Arthur’s Pass

  Springfield – our base for Castle Hill bouldering

After a comfortable nights sleep in an upgraded apartment style room we woke to the sound of rain, a rare occurrence since arriving in New Zealand. Not willing to let it dampen our spirits, we decided to venture up Arthur’s Pass and check out the bouldering anyway. It turned out that this was the right thing to do; as we climbed out of the valley the clouds disappeared, and our optimism was rewarded by high quality dry rock.

 

We spent three great days exploring both Castle Hill and Flock Hill, and even though we only climbed a fraction of what’s on offer, we still managed to get a good taste of the climbing at each area. Overall our favourite was Flock Hill, which had more strongly featured rock with beautiful water runnels and scoops. This area is slightly further from the road, and being on private land needs advance permission, meaning that it is rare to see anyone else there.

  On the slopes of Wuthering Heights (Castle Hill)

  Getting to grips at Wuthering Heights

  The walk in to Flock Hill

  Flock Hill highball

  Rock ninja

  Another great unknown problem

  Reaching for ripples

Completing the remaining section of Arthur’s Pass, we arrived on the east coast and headed south to a small town called Oamaru. Oamaru is famous for two things – penguins and Steampunk. For most penguins need no explanation, but Steampunk may be unfamiliar. We now know that Steampunk is a quirky form of science fiction in which old, usually Victorian era steam-powered machinery is adapted into futuristic seeming gadgets. The whole town has taken to its description of New Zealand’s Steampunk capital and various contraptions can be found all over, even in the children’s play park.

  Oamaru’s Steampunk HQ

  Another futuristic contraption

As mentioned, the second reason to visit Oamaru is for a chance to see the rare yellow eyed penguins, only found on the south-eastern coast of the South Island. At nearby Moeraki lighthouse there is a conservation hide, and at dusk if you are patient you can watch as the penguins navigate their way to shore. After spending an hour gazing out at the breaking waves, we spotted our first yellow eyed penguin. It was funny watching them try to get out of the water only to be dragged back in, before eventually waddling and squawking up the sands. To have seen them in their own habitat was a real privilege.

  The bizarre Moeraki boulders

  Penguin spotting

  Penguin spotted!

  Watch out for penguins

It is now off to Queenstown, New Zealand’s adrenaline capital. Here we plan on sampling some more climbing, as well as taking on another of New Zealand’s great walks, The Routeburn Track.

C

 

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Golden Bay

Pohara beach, Golden Bay

The best way to travel from the North Island to the South Island is by taking the ferry across the Cook Strait, from Wellington to Picton. This takes about 3 hours, and most of the time is spent meandering between rugged islands at each end, with only about 40 minutes spent in the open sea. Consequently it makes for a very scenic journey, and we were lucky to have blue skies and sunshine for our crossing.

The following morning in Picton was a different story however, and we woke with rain beating against the windows. We were kindly put up for a couple of nights by my friend Alex, who I spent several summers working alongside as an outdoor activity instructor. Despite the weather we had a great time catching up, celebrating Hayley’s birthday and seeing some of the local area. One highlight was taking the plunge from a massive rope swing into a river, accessed by an off road drive and a swim to the other side – we would never have found this without local knowledge.

Grey skies over Picton

Marty in flight from the rope swing

We were soon moving on again, heading westward on the coastal Queen Charlotte Drive in much the same weather as we had arrived. Our destination was a small town called Takaka, at the heart of Golden Bay. Takaka is to New Zealand what Totnes is to England, described in the Lonely Planet guide as “boasting NZ’s highest concentration of yoga pants, dreadlocks and various types of drop-outs”. Whilst hitchikers are a regular sight in New Zealand, it wasn’t until reaching the outskirts of Takaka that we first witnessed a queue of them. This seems to operate in much the same way as a taxi rank, with etiquette dictating that you pick up the hitchhiker at the front of the queue. Regardless, Takaka was actually quite a nice place, and we spent an enjoyable week here.

Our main reason for visiting Golden Bay was to climb at Payne’s Ford, described as New Zealand’s premier sport climbing crag. The crag is in a beautiful setting, up on the hillside above a river, with great views across the green valley. The river has several excellent swimming holes, which are perfect for a refreshing dip after climbing. 

Payne’s Ford

Taking a dip at Payne’s

Most of the grey limestone faces at Payne’s are made up of endless horizontal ripples, which all look the same from below. Consequently, the typical Payne’s route requires you to reach up and run your hand across every useless ripple, until eventually you find the least bad one, pull up, and repeat.

One exciting aspect of the climbing here is the very ‘sporting’ approach to bolting. Usually when sport climbing, there is a bolt drilled into the rock every 3 or 4 metres, which you clip the rope into as you climb. The idea is then that if you fall off say 2 metres above a bolt, you will fall 4 metres (plus a little bit more due to rope stretch), ending up 2 metres below the bolt. At Payne’s it is not uncommon to have only 3 bolts in a 20 metre route, which can obviously lead to some pretty big falls (assuming the ground doesn’t get in the way first). Another favourite is for a route to be bolted consistently, but with a big gap just where you would expect to find the final bolt, resulting in a 7 or 8 metre run out to the anchor. Maybe we just don’t understand the Kiwi sense of humour (Charlotte in particular was ‘not amused’).

Charlotte pleased to find a well bolted line

On the classic arête of ‘Superconductor’ (23 / 6c+)

By the middle of the week our arms, fingers and nerves could take no more, and we took a well earned rest day. We decided to walk a stretch of the Abel Tasman route, one of ‘NZ’s Great Walks’, which runs along the coast to the east of Golden Bay. The path winds through forest, round headlands, and across some stunning beaches. We went as far as Separation Point, where you can follow a steep trail down to a granite platform just above the sea. We sat eating our lunch watching seals swimming below us, and afterwards I couldn’t resist jumping in to join them.

Abel Tasman route

Anapai beach, part of the Abel Tasman

Curious seals

Not a seal

Ending the rest day with a visit to Collingwood’s famous Rosy Glow chocolate shop

We had another few days at Payne’s Ford, with each of us climbing some fantastic routes. We thought the climbing here was very good, on a par with the some of the best sport climbing in the UK, but not quite world class.

We are now moving on again – back over Takaka Hill (there’s only one road in and out of Golden Bay), before heading south down the wild west coast.

L

A Journey Through Middle-Earth

Heading south, we left sulphurous Rotorua behind and drove to the sweeter smelling Tongariro National Park. A World Heritage Site, this is home to the famed Tongariro Alpine Crossing, reputedly one of the best one day walks in the world. The route traverses a dramatic volcanic landscape, with craters, steaming vents, and beautiful mineral lakes.

Mt Ngauruhoe bathed in early morning light

A down side of the walk is that it starts and finishes at different points; hostels kindly solve the logistical problem by running overpriced shuttle buses to and from each end. Following our previous taste of early bird success, we were quick to add our names to the ‘by request only’ 6am shuttle bus, and so by 9pm we were tucked up in bed, bags packed and the alarm set for 5am!  

Along with an English couple we had already met in Rotorua, and a Brazilian guy, we embarked on the crossing in the dark. The previous day had been cloudy and wet, but luckily for us this was not the case, and a clear blue sky meant for breathtaking views the whole way round. As big fans of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, a particular highlight was the commanding presence of Mt Ngauruhoe, a.k.a. Mt Doom. Despite the obvious additional special effects, it wasn’t hard to see why this particular mountain was chosen as the fiery heart of Mordor. The crossing was spectacular, and we thought its big reputation was deserved.

Alpine start



The girls enjoying the facilities

The obligatory shot in front of Mt Doom

The Red Crater

On the way down to the Emerald Lakes

Pit stop 

Time for a lunch stop

Team Tongariro at the finish line – Ciaran & Lu, us and Enrique

From Tongariro we moved on to New Plymouth, where we continued volcano-bagging with an ascent of Mt Taranaki (2518m), a classic volcanic cone which dominates the surrounding landscape. With the last eruption over 350 years ago, experts say that the mountain is due for another go; however this doesn’t deter avid trampers, and after a 3 hour slog up its scree slopes we reached the summit. Again we lucked out with the weather, and from the top were rewarded by jaw dropping panoramic views, with Mt Doom visible in the far distance.

Another early start, Tongariro Crossing visible in the distance

Past the scree slopes at last

Snow ninja

Mt Taranaki

Since arriving in New Zealand one of the things that has really struck us is how friendly and easy going people seem to be, and New Plymouth was no different. Whilst taking an evening stroll we stumbled upon a pop up outdoor cafe/bar hosting a live music session; sitting back on deck chairs, enjoying the music with drinks in hand, we watched the sun set over the Tasman sea.

Having quenched our thirst for active volcanoes we headed onto Wellington, “the world’s coolest little capital”. Nowhere in New Zealand is that big, and this includes Wellington with a city population of less than 200,000. In spite of this, there is plenty to see and do, and with one day we only scratched the surface. 

Our first port of call was New Zealand’s national museum Te Papa, which loosely translates as ‘treasure box’. Spread out over 6 floors you could easily spend days wandering around its many exhibits. One of the highlights for us was a temporary exhibition to mark the 75th anniversary of Air New Zealand, complete with virtual reality headsets as a futuristic look at inflight entertainment. After enjoying a harbourside pub lunch with a couple of expatriated friends from our days at Bristol University, we took a ride on the iconic red cable car and clanked up to the top of the city. Built in 1902 it is still going strong, and from the top you are exposed to awesome views over the city, before taking a walk back down through the botanic gardens. 

Windy Welly

For the most part, we’ve enjoyed staying in hostels, in particular the novelty of cooking for ourselves. However those in the city seem to attract a different crowd to their rural counterparts, and so after a stressful cooking session, negotiating our way around dirty pots and pans, we found ourselves heading out to find one of Wellingtons ‘secret bars’. These are tucked away venues throughout the city, and may or may not require a secret knock. With a glass of local wine we mellowed out in ‘The Library’, lined from wall to wall with old books, and retired to our hostel in a much more amiable mood. 

Leaving the North Island behind

We are now off to the South Island, which is generally described as having more impressive natural landscapes than the North. Having seen some amazing places so far, we shall see whether the South Island lives up to its hype!

C

North Island Adventures

After a long, and spectacularly scenic drive from the North, we arrived in Tairua on the Coromandel Peninsula. A rugged mountain range bisects the peninsula, with stunning white sand beaches lining the east coast and muddy wetlands on the west. This region was the site of a gold mining boom in the mid 1800s, and the remnants of this can still be seen by taking a walk in the ‘Broken Hills’. We hiked through hilly forest, eventually reaching Collins Drive, a 500 metre long mine shaft. We donned our head torches and set off into the darkness. The highlight of the walk was halfway through the tunnel, at which point we turned off our lights and were treated to constellations of glow worms on the ceiling above us.

Hostel lunch

Going underground

Glow worm hunter

We also took time to visit the beach hotspots on the east coast – Cathedral Cove, a massive natural arch formed in a sea cliff near Hahei, and Hot Water Beach, where a hot spring emerges at a particular point on the sands, only exposed for a couple of hours either side of low tide. You can hire a spade, and dig your very own thermal pool in the sand. It was pretty busy with other people doing the same, but still a novel experience! 

The massive arch of Cathedral Cove

Before leaving Tairua, we took a short tramp (a walk, not a vertically-challenged homeless man) from our hostel to the top of nearby Mt Paku – a volcanic cone which juts out into the ocean, affording a great view over the coastline, and neighbouring Pauanui.

It was time to head to our first climbing destination in New Zealand. The beauty of having our own car is that we can stop when and where we want, and we made excessive use of this newly gained privilege. Rather than the boring main road, we took the scenic route through the impressive Karangahake Gorge. On the other side we stopped in Paeroa, home of ‘Lemon & Paeroa’ – a soft drink which prides itself on being “world famous in New Zealand”. Our final detour was to Matamata, a.k.a. Hobbiton, after which we eventually arrived at the climbing area.

A Kiwi classic

Hobbiton

The North Island is not known for its high quality rock climbing (in contrast to the South Island), however we had heard that Froggatt, near to Wharepapa South, was worth a visit. It turned out to be brilliant, and we had a great couple of days working our way through the best routes. The rock was pocketed schist, and looked a bit like the surface of the moon, with many of the route names being based on this theme.

Nearing the top of ‘Terror Incognita’ (6a)

Froggatt

Te Kuiti sunset

Every small town in New Zealand seems to have some claim to fame, and our overnight stop in Te Kuiti between climbing days didn’t disappoint, proudly announcing itself as the “Shearing Capital of the World”.

A couple of hours to the east is Rotorua, famed for its geothermal activity. The town itself is fairly unattractive, dubbed ‘RotoVegas’ due to its US-style sprawl of motels, and shrouded in a pervasive eggy aroma. It is however an ideal base from which to explore the area, which is full of things to see and do. One of our favourites was a visit to Wai-O-Tapu, a “geothermal wonderland”. We managed to be the first to arrive at opening time (a rare success), and had the park to ourselves as we followed the circuitous trail. The various geothermal sights were amazing – bubbling mud pools, lurid coloured mineral lakes, steaming craters and geysers.

Exploring Wai-O-Tapu

Champagne pool

The Devils Bath

Lady Knox geyser – a real crowd pleaser

Bubbling pools of mud

Looking over Lake Rotorua from the Polynesian Spa

Following an evening visit to the outdoor mineral pools, we were geothermal-ed out and so the next morning we decided to hit the mountain bike trails in Redwoods Whakarewarewa Forest. Still fresh from Asia, we were thrilled to discover that the bikes we had hired not only worked, but were actually good. Armed with a trail map, and almost zero mountain biking experience / skill, we headed off into the forest. The layout was similar to a ski resort, with hundreds of trails signposted and coloured according to difficulty. The trails were brilliant, switching between boardwalk and hard mud, with lots of jumps and features. Surprisingly we managed not to overreach, and got as far as ‘challenging ourselves’ without reaching to the next stage, ‘hurting ourselves’.

It certainly would

Speed demon

Down the dip

Mud spattered, grinning, and after a well earned slice of cake, we returned to our trusty steed and departed for the mountainous south.

L

The Land Of The Long White Cloud

After 2 flights and a time shift of +6 hours we found ourselves in Auckland, New Zealand. Stepping off the plane what hit me first was the temperature; it was pleasant, in fact I was almost tempted to put on a jumper. It wasn’t long however before we were reminiscing about the sunshine of Thailand; by the time we reached our car hire office the heavens had opened and the roads were awash with water. Thankfully it was only one of New Zealand’s short, sharp showers and before we knew it the sun was shining and we were set loose on the rush hour roads of Auckland.

Feels just like home

Having some form of transport was important for us; with 2 months in New Zealand we wanted the freedom to move at our own pace and visit areas off the beaten track. Initially we had romantic notions of travelling around in a campervan, however the cost and the practicality of a car outweighed that of a van, and we are now the proud drivers of a Nissan Tiida.

Our hot new ride

Being a country which drives on the left side of the road we anticipated few issues, yet despite requesting a manual drive car we found ourselves in an automatic – easier to drive some would say, yet it took us both a while to accept that we really didn’t need to do anything with our left legs. 

Whilst Auckland isn’t the capital of New Zealand it is the most populous city, containing a third of the national population. Despite this, it doesn’t have a city feel – the pace is relaxed, and its many volcanic cones provide islands of green within the sea of suburbs. We didn’t have long in Auckland, and so we split what time we did have between exploring the city centre, home to the iconic Sky Tower, and walking up Mt Eden, Auckland’s highest volcanic cone, for an stunning panorama.

View of Auckland, over the crater of Mt Eden

Visiting New Zealand’s cities isn’t what we came for and we were happy to hit the road, especially having mastered the art of no gears. Our first destination was the Tawharanui peninsula, about an hours drive north of Auckland and slightly off the main tourist trail. It is also the site of New Zealand’s first marine park and it was here that we got our first taste of New Zealand’s epic coastline. Beautiful white beaches with sapphire blue water; not quite as warm as the Andaman Sea but definitely not cold by British standards.

Matheson bay

Pakiri beach

An extra treat was our hostels own microbrewery. New Zealand’s wines are celebrated but what is less documented is the booming craft-beer scene, and so after an afternoon of jumping through waves, we relaxed with a refreshing home brew. 

Like the UK’s YHA, New Zealand has a similar network (‘BBH’) of self catered hostel accommodation, offering a range of rooms with communal cooking facilities. Having spent the last 6 months eating out for breakfast, lunch and tea we are enjoying cooking for ourselves again. Despite some initial hiccups involving mistaken vegetable identities, we have brushed away the cobwebs and look forward to meal times.

Better than your average bus stop

It was always going to be impossible to see all that New Zealand has to offer yet avoid the crowds, and this was the case of our next destination, the Bay of Islands. Ranked as one of New Zealand’s top sights, The Bay of Islands is famed for its breathtaking scenery, as well as being the site of New Zealand’s first permanent British settlement. It was here that the Treaty of Waitangi, the founding document of New Zealand and a linchpin of race relations, was drawn up. 

In an attempt to reduce the number of tourists we came into contact with we found ourselves a small family run hostel, where comfy sofas and amazing views over the bay made it difficult to leave. We did however make it out and spent a couple of days exploring the local area. A particular highlight was a boardwalk trail which led through forest, mangrove swamps and along the banks of a river to a thundering waterfall.

Another busy morning

Mangrove swamp

From the Bay of Islands our journey through New Zealand will continue south, down the length of the North Island and then onto the South Island.

C

Out Of Asia

After Koh Lao Liang, we returned to Ton Sai for a final week of climbing. By now our fitness was reasonably good, and so we spent this time trying ‘projects’ as well as visiting a couple of new areas. We also tried to swim in the warm sea as much as possible, and appreciate our incredible surroundings, aware that we would soon be moving on to a very different environment.

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View of Ton Sai and Railay from Pra Nang peninsula

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Another redpoint attempt on ‘Tidal Wave’ (7c) – close but no cigar…

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Luke onsighting the fantastic ‘April Fools’ (7b)

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The interesting approach route to ‘The Keep’

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Getting to know the local wildlife

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The end of another day

We’ve had a fantastic time in Ton Sai, and have loved the climbing here. Most of the rock is superb quality and really fun to climb, with lots of stalactites and pockets. The only thing that would improve the climbing would be a significant drop in temperature, but if you plan to do nothing but lay still on the beach then the conditions are just about perfect! It has also been great to stay in a single place for so long, having spent several months moving on every few days. We’ve met a lot of great people and will have fond memories of Ton Sai.

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Goodbye Fon kaaaaaa!

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A leaving treat

Leaving Ton Sai concludes the Asian portion of our trip – my first time in Asia, and Charlotte’s second. It is an incredible continent to travel on, with every climate, landscape and culture imaginable. Here are some of the things we have learned in Asia…

– You can transport absolutely anything on a scooter.
– The capacity of any vehicle is (n+1), where n is the current number of people on board (our best sightings were 5 people on a scooter and 12 in a car).
– An Indian taxi ride is not complete without at least one detour (for the driver to buy cigarettes / run an errand / pray at a shrine / any other number of possibilities) and several serious traffic violations.
– Road Law is closely based upon Natural Selection; small things move out of the way of big things
– ‘Health and Safety’ is a purely Western concept (watching a guy push a chainsaw forwards through a beam, in bare feet and with no safety equipment, was a highlight).
– The price for absolutely EVERYTHING is negotiable – from meals and hotel rooms, to currency exchange.
– When in Asia it is essential to be in all of your own photos, ideally pulling a strong pose.
– “Now” means soon (ish).
– “Soon” means at some point, maybe.
– “Same” almost always means different.

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Heavy Goods Vehicles

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A talented subject

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A tried and tested classic

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Going the extra mile

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For the perfect selfie

After an overnight stop in Bangkok we are moving on to New Zealand, one of the countries we have been most excited about visiting. Aside from the obvious attractions, we are very much looking forward to some Western comforts – 24 hour electricity, hot water, pavements, being able to drink tap water… 6 months in Asia has left us with very low standards!

L

Far From The Madding Crowd

If there was a heaven for climbers Koh Lao Liang would be it. We heard about this island from a friend back home, and so several months ago we booked a stay in one of the “luxury tents” on offer. We thought that after a couple of weeks of learning how to climb again in Ton Sai we would be fit enough to get the most out of a new destination.

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The approach

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Koh Lao Liang

Koh Lao Liang refers to a pair of islands in the Phetra National Marine Park in the Trang province, and it is the smaller of the two which hosts the private beach resort. The islands are located off the southern coast of Thailand, and from Ton Sai it is a 2 hour minivan journey followed by another hour in a long tail boat. The only accommodation on the island is a series of large tents, which can host a total of around 40 people at any one time. Looking out over the Andaman sea you get a sense of being far removed from the tourist scene, which in many ways detracts from the beauty of some of the more popular Thai Islands.

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A tent with a view

Koh Lao Liang is the perfect climbing destination for many reasons, but not least because of the enforced climbing times. When in Ton Sai to get the coolest temperatures you need to climb early in the morning or late in the afternoon; but due to the aspect of the crag on Koh Lao Liang climbing is only possible after 11am, meaning getting up early was totally unnecessary. The ocean breeze was also a welcome relief after the unrelenting heat in which we had been climbing on Ton Sai.

Keeping occupied during the free mornings was no problem at all. We would spend time enjoying breakfast (in particular the Nutella!), followed by swimming/snorkelling in the crystal clear waters and sunbathing on the pearly white sands. Its position in a National Marine Park means that you are never far from tropical fish that wouldn’t look out of place in Finding Nemo; and in fact this was our preferred referencing tool when describing what we had seen while snorkelling and kayaking around the island. For both of us this was our first time snorkelling – and what an introduction it was. Everywhere you looked there were a kaleidoscope of coloured fish who were making homes in the newly formed coral (much of the existing coral died when the island was hit by the tsunami of 2004).

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Circumnavigating the island

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Like a fish to water

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Another stressful morning

With only 5 days on the island we were keen to get as much climbing in as possible. Like Ton Sai the climbing on Koh Lao Liang is characterised by huge stalactites and long bulging tufas; however the routes here receive far fewer ascents. This means the holds are less slippy, but at the same time some of the holds and stalactites can break off! By the end of our time we had both made good progress and climbed some amazing routes. My highlights were an onsight of ‘Captain Thin’ (6b+), and a redpoint of ‘The Golden Triangle’ (6c+) on the iconic Red Wall. Luke managed an onsight ascent of ‘Fool’s Gold’ (7b+), a route which he had seen photographed in a climbing magazine years ago, and had wanted to try ever since finding out it was on Koh Lao Liang. All of the days achievements were suitably celebrated over dinner with friends, beer and beautiful moonlit views of the ocean.

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‘Fool’s Gold’

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‘The Golden Triangle’

We are now back on Ton Sai with a renewed drive and a list of classic routes to complete, and with only a week left the clock is ticking….

C

Ton Sai Dreaming

After a taxi, plane, bus and boat, we arrived in Ton Sai bay, near Krabi in the south of Thailand. Ton Sai could be aptly described as a climbers paradise, with huge orange cliffs dripping with stalactites, rising straight from sandy beaches. The first climbers arrived in Ton Sai in the early nineties, and since then there has been a lot of development. The bay has gone from having a handful of bamboo huts and restaurant shacks, to a large number of bungalows and resorts today. Consequently Ton Sai hosts a diverse crowd of early morning, muesli eating climbers and late night, beer drinking holiday makers – of course with most falling somewhere between the two extremes.

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Luke on the photogenic ‘Burnt Offerings’ (7a+)

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Ton Sai bay

A couple of our climbing friends from home had been staying on Ton Sai for the past month, and by chance our first day overlapped with their last day. It was great to see some familiar faces and to get the crucial info on which climbs to try, and of course the best places to eat!

After 5 months of almost no climbing, and far too much delicious Asian food, we were apprehensive about getting back on the rock. Things got off to an auspicious start, with both of us failing on routes we would usually warm up on. In our first couple of sessions we were exhausted after just one or two routes, but before long things improved and we began to gain fitness and move back up through the grades.

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Charlotte deep in ‘The Groovetube’ (6a)

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Stretched out on ‘Beauty And The Beast’ (6c)

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‘Straight Out Of Tonsai’ (7a) – if Carlsberg made climbing routes…

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Charlotte dispatching her project ‘Missing Snow’ (6b+)

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“Thumbs up if you love climbing!”

We’ve now been here for two weeks; I feel like I have regained decent onsighting form (climbing a route first go without falling off), but haven’t managed to redpoint (practising a route and then climbing it in one go) any difficult routes yet. Charlotte has made massive progress with the mental side of her climbing, and is leading (and falling!) more confidently than ever before. Regardless of our successes and failures, it is just a real pleasure to climb here.

So far we have really enjoyed being in Ton Sai; in particular it has been great to be based in one place for a while, rather than constantly moving on. We are relishing being able to exercise hard every day, something we have missed a lot! Equally, relaxing on the beach on rest days has been very pleasant…

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Après-climb fun

Tomorrow we are taking a 5 day trip to a remote island called Koh Lao Liang, which supposedly has some brilliant climbing, before returning to Ton Sai for a final week in which we hope to tick off some projects.

L

A Shift in Focus

Vientiane is the capital of Laos and, unlike Luang Prabang, can be accurately described as a city. It sits on the banks of the Mekong, with Thailand on the other side, meaning it receives a lot of one day visitors renewing Thai visas. We spent a few days here seeing the sights, but for us it didn’t have the same charm and character as Luang Prabang, and though our stay was pleasant enough we were happy to move on.

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Patuxai – Vientiane’s very own Arc de Triomphe

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The view from the top

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Pha That Luang – supposedly the most important national monument in Laos

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Big Buddha

After two visits to the Thai Consulate, and enduring its baffling queueing system, we succeeded in obtaining Thai visas and were ready to continue. Following a morning visit to the dilapidated local bowling alley (which felt like a time warp to the 1980s) we made our way to Thanaleng rail station, 13km outside the city. From here you stamp out of Laos, and board a 15 minute shuttle train which runs across the Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge to Nong Khai station. This is usually a road bridge, but when the train runs the traffic is stopped at either end to let it pass. At Nong Khai station we were stamped into Thailand, and then boarded a overnight sleeper train to Bangkok. This was a real luxury after all the terrible sleeper buses, and we enjoyed a relatively comfortable nights sleep in our bunks.

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No selfie stick so I had to make do with my arms

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Goodbye Laos, hello Thailand

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Not a bus

After several months in Asia, we have succumbed to the common travellers ailment of ‘temple fatigue’, and so in Bangkok we were determined to steer clear of religious buildings. We took a long trip on the river ferry (a great way to avoid the notorious Bangkok road traffic) and then a taxi to reach the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Bangkok’s answer to the Tate Modern. MOCA only opened in 2012 and is housed in an impressive building which sees surprisingly few visitors, perhaps due to its location. It was really refreshing to spend an afternoon here, and even the long journey on its own would have been worthwhile to see the different sides of the city. We also visited the Museum of Siam, a brilliantly interactive museum which focuses on Thai history and heritage.

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Futuristic Bangkok

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Buddhist heaven, middle earth and hell at MOCA

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A mugshot (sorry…)

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Exploring the markets of Chinatown

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Birthday in Bangkok

Our arrival in Bangkok marked the halfway point of our trip, and also a (metaphorical) change in direction. So far we have been purely travelling, and barring a week in Hampi we have not done any rock climbing. Whilst we’ve had a fantastic time, we’ve both found the lack of climbing difficult and have felt the effect on our bodies (that, and all the street food!). We are moving on to Krabi next, Thailand’s best known climbing destination, where we will stay for 4 weeks. We are both very excited about starting to climb again, though also prepared for a few ego-denting weeks whilst we get back into it! Our next stops after Krabi are New Zealand and Australia, where climbing will continue to be a major focus (apologies in advance to our non-climbing readers).

We have had an incredible 5 months, full of memories and experiences – from getting engaged in the Mongolian wilderness, to scaling mountains in the Nepalese Himalaya, to kicking back on a beautiful Cambodian beach. We can’t wait to see what the next 5 months have in store…

L

Welcome to the Jungle

We made it to the other side… eventually!

The route from Hanoi to Luang Prabang follows a fairly major road through Vietnam to the border, a nondescript collection of concrete buildings, before deteriorating into a winding track through Northern Laos’ mountainous countryside. It would be reasonable to expect the 526 mile journey to take a while, but at an average speed of 17 mph it was almost unbearable. We left Hanoi at 17:30, continued to pick up passengers and cargo throughout the journey and arrived sagging in Luang Prabang 30 hours later!

Luang Prabang is the second biggest city in Laos, but with a population of just 62,000 it feels more like a town. Bordered by the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, it is a UNESCO protected peninsula made up of stunning temples and colonial French buildings. The relaxed atmosphere has drawn increasing numbers of visitors, but despite the blossoming guesthouses and restaurants it has retained its charm.

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Monks crossing the seasonally constructed bamboo bridge

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The Royal Palace of Luang Prabang

We knew very little about Laos before arriving, but like other SE Asian countries it is steeped in a rich history; fighting kingdoms, French rule, and the U.S. “Secret War”. Between 1965 and 1973, in response to the Viet Cong funnelling massive amounts of war munitions down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the U.S. devastated eastern and northeastern Laos with nonstop carpet bombing. The scale of the bombing is almost unbelievable, with an average of one B-52 bomb-load being dropped every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day for 8 years! Due to the secret nature of the war, the usual rules which govern warfare (as applied in Vietnam) were not enforced, and so all types of weapons, from cluster bombs to chemical agents, were released indiscriminately on civilian settlements. It is estimated that 30% of the cluster bombs that were dropped failed to detonate, and death and injury from unexploded ordinance (UXO) remains a very real fear in many provinces of Laos. One of the most interesting exhibitions in Luang Prabang is the UXO visitor centre, where the story of the Secret War and its after effects are documented alongside the efforts being made to clear Laos of its UXO.

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U.S. cluster bomb

Having spent Christmas eating our way through Hanoi we were in desperate need of exercise. We had heard that the jungles and rivers of Laos were excellent for trekking, kayaking and mountain biking, and so by the end of our first day we had booked the most challenging (longest) trek and mountain bike trip we could find!

On reflection we worried that a challenging route in the mountain biking world could mean technically as well as physically difficult, but when our guide arrived in a designer shirt and jeans our minds were put at rest, and in fact both the distance and the dirt track terrain made for a brilliant and suitably “challenging” day out.

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Crossing the Mekong river

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Don’t get your feet wet…

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Riding through the rice paddies

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Spot the bikers

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Bringing in the New Year

We are usually more than happy walking with a map and compass, and tend to avoid organised treks. However, considering that the country is peppered with UXO and made up of dense jungle, we decided to make an exception this time, and following our mountain biking tour we headed back into the jungle for a 3 day, 2 night, home stay trek.

Aside from walking through the countryside, which after an easy first day became harder and harder, we learnt about the different tribes of Laos and how rural communities live without the need for electricity and running water. Both the villages in which we stayed were welcoming and happy for us to get involved in their daily jobs, and as usual the most inquisitive of all were the village children who challenged each other to get a closer view of the strangers. We were lucky to be joined by a diverse, interesting group for the trek, and were lead by 2 knowledgeable and funny pint-sized Lao guides. We both returned tired, dirty and stiff but with a much better knowledge of the Lao countryside and its communities.

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Luke makes a new friend

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The curious locals

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Beautiful Laos countryside

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Not always plain sailing

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Jungle lunch

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A change of shoes was essential

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Beating sticky rice – it’s a man’s job

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The view from above

Our final sight seeing trip was to the Kuang Si falls, a 40 minute drive from the city. Armed with camera and swimming attire, we spent an afternoon exploring the multi-tiered cascade and splashing about in the turquoise lagoons at its foot. Its description as “a tonic for sore eyes” wasn’t far off the mark.

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Kuang Si falls

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The beautiful blue lagoons

Luang Prabang has been a welcome break from the hustle of Vietnam, and the perfect mix of sightseeing, relaxation and exercise. It has also not disappointed in the range of street cuisine on offer; fresh fruit shakes, French style baguettes and barbecued bananas to name but a few of the more healthy delights on offer. We are now off to Vientiane, Laos’ capital, on a relatively swift 10 hour night ride.

C