Beaches, Boats & Stoats: Medlands Beach to Anchorage Bay, Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand (11.6km)

The captain steadies the boat against the chop and lowers the retractable metal gangway. Bright sunlight slides along it as it extends, before it lands on the white sand with a small thud. We are the first two to scramble off, bouncing with the waves as we step out onto glorious Medlands Beach: the starting point for our day hike along the Abel Tasman Trail. The beach is empty, sub-tropical and breathtaking. It is a scene from which postcards could – and likely are – reprinted year after year.

But in the middle of all this I’m grumbling, and not just because the backpack is still damp from the washout hike in the Kahurangi the day before. I have discovered a fresh new walking horror that makes me yearn to have my worst ever blister back in its stead.

Sandfly bites. Up and down my calf, around my ankle and on the soles of my feet. Each step, I want to tear off my shoes and scratch them red raw. The beach makes it worse as grains of gritty sand find their way into my socks. At first the scratching brings relief, then the cycle begins again. I’m sure the unedited text of Dante’s Inferno has this included somewhere; the overlooked 6.5th circle of hell.

Some people would argue I’m being dramatic, and I am. But it is bloody annoying.

I hop off the beach, itching as I go, and enter a shady, coast hugging track that’s cooled sporadically by the fresh water rivers that intersect it from west to east. As well as being one of New Zealand’s ‘Nine Great Walks’, the Abel Tasman Trail also has comedic timing; the first enticing offshoot advertised is Sandfly Beach. I take it as a taunt to explore further and so we crash down on a steep muddy path through the trees. Besides, my wife has kindly applied some special and expensive Tiger Balm to my inflamed soles so the discomfort has abated for now.*

Like Medlands Beach before it, and all the beaches in this gorgeous corner of the world, Sandfly Beach leaves a chorus of fortunate visitors, muttering to no-one in particular, “God, it is so fucking beautiful here.”

It’s a haven for wildlife too. Two hilarious birds, the California Quail and orange-billed Oystercatcher give their best catwalk poses for the camera. The vast presence of these, and successful reintroduction of other species, seems to be largely down to the poison-box war being waged against pests like possum, stoats and rats.

On one of the several info boards along the trail is a veritable stoat battle-map, complete with red front lines and methods of defence. It reminds me of my favourite childhood Redwall books where valiant mice, squirrels and badgers defended their homes against the beasts. I don’t know if the Parks team are considering arming mice in their efforts against the stoats, but they seem to be trying everything else.

We stop at Torrent Bay for lunch, where a handful of lucky folk own holiday homes. These buildings existed here before the area was designated as a National Park. An absolute slice of heaven but I imagine, as I try to temper my jealousy, a massive pain to get supplies to. To answer me a chap exits his veranda, hops into a sea kayak on the beach and paddles out. He then whips out a fishing rod and proceeds to catch his supper. Fair enough.

The final section winds round towards Anchorage Bay for the boat pick up where we kick off our shoes and dive headlong into the waves.

It is easy to see why this is one of the Nine Great Walks. I can find no fault with it. Only that I wish I could stay here longer.

That, and the sandfly bites of course.

*N.B. Later that evening my wife revealed it had been Vaseline. The fact that I was duped by a placebo in no way lessens my tribulation.

 

Practicalities

– Not a very tough hike. Clearly marked track and only a few moderate hills. 5/10 difficulty.

– Its worth booking the Abel Tasman in advance (whether you’re planning to get a private water taxi, hop on a cruise boat or do a multi day hike). This is especially true in high season.

– We used the Wilson cruise tour company. They have multiple options as well as different times for pick ups and drop offs. They even did some seal spotting for us on the way back which was fantastic.

– If you want general info, including about different tour operators, check out the iSite in whichever town to Tasman you are nearest. The route we took is generally the most popular day hike option.

– From Torrent Bay there is an option to cut a large corner if the tide is out. Although this may be tempting, I would strongly recommend taking the longer (high tide) route. It was very rewarding. Just make sure you plan for the extra time.

– DOC huts are available for multi day hiking. Again, booking ahead is advised.

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Eating Mountains: Climbing Te Mata Peak, North Havelock, New Zealand (5.5km)

The Te Mata car park is bustling with activity, despite the early hour.

Around us, dog walkers wrestle their excitable new Christmas puppies onto leads. One particularly fluffy and tiny Maltese tries to scramble up my leg as I consult the trail map, squinting in the thinly clouded summer sun. The surprised noise I make is embarrassing for a grown man and not proportional to the animal’s size.

The dog walkers mix with lean regulars and chubby New Year resolution joggers. The latter are clad in bright, packet-fresh gear. I pinch my own stomach, kneading the effects of the cheap beer, salty snacks and general beach life of south east Asia. Losing my belt somewhere between Cambodia and the Philippines has had an alarming lack of impact. It is timely to be back in a country where you are never far away from a hike, bike or waterway.

We choose to follow the Rongokako trail which will take us in a circuit around the foothills, via a climb over Te Mata Peak and ridge, and so stomp off into the undergrowth in the direction of the first sky blue arrow that marks the route. The scenery is almost Wild West; sun-baked and crumbling paths wind through kindling dry grass and then narrow alongside craggy hilltops. All around are stunning views of rolling, parched-yellow hills. Nestled in the flat basin beneath Te Mata, sits the verdant-green wine producing valley of Hawkes Bay and our campsite.

Te Mata o Rongokako is the Maori name of the giant who, lying down dead, forms the ridge of this mountain. If you stand on the plain below, it bears the resemblance of an enormous sleeping man. The legend goes that Rongokaka and a beautiful princess from a tribe on the plains fell in love. But the princess, following advice from her kin who wanted to take revenge on Rongokaka’s tribe, was convinced that she should make Rongokaka perform near impossible tasks to prove his devotion. He met his match when he was asked to eat this mountain, finally choking on Te Mata Peak and expiring here.

New Zealand’s Maori place names are awash with wonderful etymology like this. As we reach the Peak and admire the view across the plains (or catch our breath), we overhear a grey-bearded chap explain that the Tuki Tuki River below is so called because of the sound the water makes hitting the rocks.

At the Peak, there sits a large, shining tiled mosaic that lays out the topography that can be seen all around. To the east, the Pacific Ocean. To the west, at the far reach of the map, sits the snow capped Mount Tongariro (aka Mount Doom) which we plan to tackle at the end of our trip and is supposedly one of the best day treks in the world.

On the descent, the sun breaks through and transforms the hills from yellow to singing gold. We navigate around overhanging flax seed bushes and arrive at the edge of the redwood forest. In comparison to the bare hills, the shaded wood pulsates with the buzzing of invisible insects and birds. Entering in to escape the midday sun, we hop over a stile into an aroma of damp-pine and almost fall over an impressive treehouse. A true feat of woodland engineering. I try to steal a photo, but a small blonde child emerges from the entrance. With arms crossed, she stares me down and so I skulk off without taking a snap, bested by the miniature war-chief.

Almost back at the car park, we pass one of the aforementioned runners who is bent over, heaving with perspiration. She waves away offers of assistance, her face masked by a brand new, fluorescent pink Nike cap. Another reminder to get in shape.

Spurred on, after our return to camp we spend the afternoon exploring Hawkes Bay on bikes. I should mention the cycle is more of a stuttering crawl around neighbouring vineyards.

I convince myself the first swill of chilled rosé on my tongue is semi-earned.

Baby steps.

 

Sampling Hillside-Fresh Coffee on Thailand’s Highest Peak: Doi Inthanon (2,565m)

(as always, ‘Practicalities‘ are at the bottom of the page)

A mid-morning hiking coffee break, whenever possible, has become something of a ritual.

Elevenses in a thermos, mug or cup. A reward for an early start. Accompanied preferably with Oreos, Chocolate Digestives or some other unprounanceable biscuit depending on the location.

It is not often though – or indeed ever – that the coffee comes fresh roasted from the very hills a walker is marching through. But on the surrounding slopes of Doi Inthanon (Thailand’s highest point at a whopping 2,565m above sea level), such a treat awaits those willing to make the trek from Chiang Mai.

Before we reach the roasting hut (and I do mean hut), we start the day strolling through pine forests and over a footpath littered with acorns and tiny chestnuts. Along with the cool fresh air, it is a reminder that Doi Inthanon forms part of the high altitude Himalayas.

The noisy rush of moving water soon reaches our ears and we emerge onto a long river. It terraces at various points alongside the route with waterfalls of different shapes, sizes and ferocities.

I am in the middle of reading Roger Deakin’s Waterlog which infectiously extols the pleasures of wild swimming, so at every opportunity I feel the need to take a quick dip in honour of the late and great author. I promise the rest of our group that I will be quick; they look equal parts annoyed and intrigued. I imagine the latter is due to the temperature of the water, which is nether-shrivelling cold. As guaranteed, it is a quick swim.

Afterwards the terrain opens up to rolling valleys and bucolic farmland. The peak of Doi Inthanon looms masked by cloud in the distance. It is hard to imagine that this area was once part of the notorious Golden Opium Triangle.

Thirty years ago the incumbent King Bhumibol introduced drastic reforms to combat the drug lords, free the villagers from their rule and rid Northern Thailand of heroin production. This is how coffee, along with strawberries, gooseberries and bizarrely caviar have all ended up being produced in this fertile area.

“These crops are worth a lot of money in Asia,” our guide Mongkul explains. “Not many areas can grow them locally.”

I ask if the Royal Project (as it is known) has been a success.

He smiles and gestures around at the sprawling village we are now walking through. “Oh, huge success! Before these were all bamboo huts. Now they have proper buildings, roads, schools and electricity. Everyone is very happy!”

Despite the plethora of ‘proper buildings’ we are ushered into a smoky shack that reeks of the delicious local roast. Mongkul shows me the grinder out back: a bike attached to a pulley system. He passes me a steaming mug and I take a draught. It’s hot, muddy and strong; bordering on Middle Eastern style. Delicious.

It puts jet fuel in my step as we leave to explore the peak and Royal Pagodas further up the mountain. The summit is shrouded by forest and is nothing special, but the royal pagodas and their beautiful, manicured gardens are spectacular. Purple-white cabbages and blue hydrangeas interlace with pink fuschias and marmalade marigolds. They all parade up to a cliff edge that drops off to an endless horizon of rolling, hazy hills.

We head home via one more mighty waterfall. I have my still moist trunks primed and ready but hesitate at the ‘Strictly No Swimming’ sign.

I ask Mongkul if this really needs to be heeded. “If you want, you can go. But you might die in the whirlpools. We have no insurance for this.”

I think I’ll just enjoy the view this time Mr. Deakin.

Practicalities

– We wanted to get to Doi Inthanon ourselves but without an International Driving Licence we didn’t want to risk hiring a car or scooter and getting into hot water. If you decide to get a scooter, be aware that although the roads are good, it is a steep and busy drive. It is a 1.5-2hr journey each way.

– You can hire camping gear (or stay in wooden cabins) for overnighting from the Doi Inthanon Headquarters in the park. You do really need transport inside though to reach the peak and pagodas. There is no trail to these, just a road, which is a shame.

– If you do get yourself there, it is mandatory to employ a local guide to take you on the trails. Again the Headquarters can sort this for you.

– We went with Wonderful Eco Tours and they were really fantastic. There are a lot of tours to Doi Inthanon but WET made sure to get us away from any crowds. Mongkul was an excellent and knowledgable guide. They also do an overnight option but unfortunately for just the two of us it was too expensive. Cheaper in a bigger group.

– Packs of coffee beans can be purchased from the village but no pressure at all to do so. There are also various shops and standard eateries along the roadsides.

 

 

 

 

From Beaten Track to Jungle Path: escaping Siem Reap’s crowds and exploring Mt. Kulen (Cambodia)

(as always, ‘Practicalities‘ are at the bottom of the page)

Desperate to cool down, I launch myself without grace into the choppy water of the basin. Sweat, motorcycle grease and fatigue strips off me in spades.

Twenty metre high cascades crash down onto the obsidian coloured rocks and splash into the surrounding water. A rainbow spectrum of dragonflies dart through the mist, landing on nearby leaves laced with bubbles and dripping from this vapour in the air.

Feet-nibbling Garra Rufa fish pinch me; patrolling the depths like tiny submarines and acting as a natural foot spa. The whole place smells cold, fresh and fertile; in the same way you notice the countryside does after a period of absence.

It is a fantastic way to refresh on Mount Kulen after a long day riding, hiking and exploring. As well as looking like a Herbal Essences shampoo advert, these waterfalls are a great example of what Cambodia has to offer away from Siem Reap’s (rightly) popular temples and better known attractions.

Earlier that morning, after a brief lesson on how to ride the manual and ubiquitous 100cc Honda Wave scooter, we ride out of the city and soon emerge onto bumpy dirt back roads. We stop at a village farmer’s market. The range and abundance of fresh produce – countless varieties of fresh river fish, spices and radiant vegetables – explain why we have enjoyed Khmer cuisine so much. It deserves to be up there alongside its more famous Thai and Vietnamese cousins.

We arrive at a hamlet on Mount Kulen around an hour later and meet our smiling local guide Many. He tours us round the jungle and, what he lacks in communication skills, he more than makes up for in his ability to find spiders as big as my head. I can testify this method of measurement is accurate as I spend several minutes walking into webs, panicking and thrashing them out of my hair whilst squealing. Needless to say, Many finds this hilarious.

The walk itself is through thick jungle using paths hacked out by an NGO to protect local flora and fauna from loggers and poachers. It is dense and warm, but the isolation it offers is rewarding. Especially after a few days stomping around Siem Reap’s crowds, it really is the middle of nowhere here.

Halfway through we clamber up a boulder and step out onto a rock plateau. The jungle stretches out all around. Blue flycatcher birds cannon themselves in and out of the banyan trees beside us. We loll about in the sun and snack on longon fruit which Many has brought from the local market. They are delicious; like lychees but sweeter and juicier. We hurl the shells off the side and watch them disappear into the jungle canopy below.

After the walk we motor further up the mountain and grab a lunch of spicy stir fried pork with cashews and Thai basil. Then it’s time for the aforementioned waterfall-plunge, followed by a visit to the ancient reclining Buddha and 1000 lingas river sculptures. Both a reminder of the area’s heritage as one of the key birthplaces of the Khmer civilisation. It even outdates Angkor Wat.

Finally, we ride home through the most spectacular prolonged sunset. The entire sky shades purple and gold.

If you want to spend time off the beaten path and doing something unique, this is a worthwhile day trip into the heart of the gorgeous Cambodian countryside.

Hop on that scooter, bring your swim stuff and be prepared for a sore rump in the morning. You won’t regret it.

Practicalities

– I highly recommend using Khmer Ways. The blog piece above covers their ‘Bike and Hike Mount Kulen’ tour.

– It is a little expensive (around $95 pp) but it covers everything and is of a very high quality. Excellent info, safe and they think of everything.

– You should be a confident scooter rider. It is around a 3-4 hour round trip over sometimes steep/tricky terrain. This is a major part of the fun though! I had only ridden a scooter twice before and was fine. I do cycle a lot though.

– N.B. It is illegal for a foreigner to hire a moped in Siem Reap. However, because this is a guided tour, this rule does not apply.

Butterflies & Casinos: Exploring Kep and Bokor National Parks (Kampot, Southern Cambodia)

The Kampot countryside in southern Cambodia is a gorgeous place.

Pockmarked dirt tracks thread through thick jungle, rice fields and past wooden houses on stilts. These are all backdrops to rural scenes, framed by the wooden bars of our tuk tuk as we judder past.

We swing around blind bends and are met by capillaried waterways and shimmering lakes, or emerge into clearings to awesome views of the surrounding mountains and beachfronts, or sometimes just surprise a nonchalant white-humped cow ruminating in the shade.

Everything is a vibrant, Chartreuse green and smells of baked clay earth. It is thirty-six degrees.

Our destination today is Kep National Park, but first we bump down a left turn signed for ‘La Plantation’: an organic farm that produces caviar-quality pepper for which the Kampot region is famed. The farm’s social mission is to take care of the families of its farmers, as well as supporting the nearby school with new buildings, roads and resources.

We sample the goods an hour later on the seafront when it comes laced on fresh blue crab, swimming in green Kampot pepper sauce; a Kep speciality. We crack and slurp our way through a brace each. Spice crackles on our tongues like popping candy. Not the standard pre-hike fare.

Bellies full, we head for the park and exit our three wheeler on a main road. The driver encourages us with vague directions claiming that the path starts somewhere along the trail beside us. It plunges straight into the jungle.

The trails in the park are maintained by the wonderful people at the Squirrel Association, led by a selfless man called Christian. I would presume the $1pp entry fee would go to them but it does not; tapped off instead to a less apparent government effort. The Squirrels receive no official funding for their work and do it all off their own back.

Not only do they safeguard the trails (installing ropes to reach the hilltop, clearing rubbish, creating maps), the Squirrels have also added trivia boards and ‘off-the-track’ points of interest. We scramble down a slope towards one and arrive at the Kep Butterfly Farm.

If someone ever needs cheering up, take them for a wander through a butterfly farm enclosure; everyone glides around with infectious codeine grins and glassy eyed gazes.

The farm is aimed at training locals to fulfill an export market demand for the butterflies. It requires no deforestation and brings sustainable income into the rural community.

Scrabbling back onto the path we can hear something crashing around in the treetops above us. On closer inspection, it is a troop of Gibbon monkeys. We try to take photos but they are a mangle of limbs and fur, shrouded in the canopy. We outstay our welcome and they screech abuse at us, so we take our leave.

At the end of the walk, we drop into the Led Zed Cafe, owned by Christian, for an iced lime juice. The walls are covered in paraphenalia on the history of the park. It is a wonderful spot to cool down and, along with their park work, it is a worthy physical manifestation of the Squirrel’s superb enterprise.

It is all in stark contrast to nearby Bokor National Park which we visit on the following day. The government has sold off a vast swathe of the park to Sokimex Group. The giant hotel-casino Sokimex have built is a remarkable shade of jaundice. What looks liken an unfinished concrete airhanger and ongoing condo buildings are almost as aesthetically offensive.

One would hope that the money from this deal would go to fund preservation in the rest of the Bokor park or education projects. Maybe it is.

From talking to locals, this seems unlikely. In 2013, Cambodia’s government was designated the most corrupt in the ASEAN countries too. More unlikely still.

In defence of Sokimex, they were not the first to build there. The French constructed a casino and hill top retreat here starting in the 1920s. The Khmer Rouge then held Bokor Hill as one of their last strongholds in the early 1990s. The place has an interesting, chequered and sad past.

It is a shame as the rest of the park is a real beauty. It has a top of the world feel to it, sitting at 1,048m above sea level.

The French also built a church that sits on an isolated hill. It is downright eerie. A one armed Jesus statue presides over the main chamber. In the room behind him is scrawled:

‘Watch around you’

A warning that seems to have gone unheeded by those in charge of safeguarding Borok.

Lessons could be learnt from Kep. The Pepper Planters, Butterfly Farmers and Squirrel folk of the Led Zed Cafe seem to be a little more aware of their surroundings.

N.B. To get to Kep National Park, hop on a tuk tuk and ask for the entrance. Its an 8-10km circular track (unless you go up the hilltop) but maps are available at Led Zed Cafe and are also dotted at fixed points around the park. Kep can also be explored by bike or moped.

A silver lining to the Sokimex development in Bokor is a fantastic road from Kampot all the way up to the hill station. Tours are available but the best way is to hire a moped and do it yourself. Take precautions (check the bike, especially tyres and breaks) but it is a fairly chilled ride for even inexperienced riders (like me). Mopeds available for around $5 a day from Kampot. From there its 1.5hrs roughly each way.

The Kumano Kodo: Hiking Japan’s Ancient Pilgrim Trail (Part II of II – 28km)

‘Harai’ is a Japanese noun.

It translates into ‘exorcism’ or ‘purification’ and is one of the principle goals of the Kumano Kodo: a cleansing of one’s self.

For centuries pilgrims have performed feverent rituals at various shrines along the route to rid themselves of impurities from lives past and present. This culminates at Haraido-oji with one final rite, before the pilgrim goes onto pray at Kumano Hongu Taisha and ends their journey.

Whilst maintining the utmost respect for this process, it seems to me that when a person walks far enough, they can also experience their own personal version of ‘harai’.

For me though, walking is more of an opportunity to declutter. To clarify thoughts, rather than exorcise. Walking gives me the space to make sense of my mind and, by extension, the wider world around me. It puts things into perspective and allows time for long periods of mulling-over, which seems to be an undervalued skill these days.

Back to our second day on the trail however, I have no thoughts other than enjoying the cup of hot miso soup in front of me. It is 6.45am and we step out into a beautiful gloom. Chikatsuyu snoozes as we creep past houses, my hand wrapped around the bear bells to prevent them becoming an unpopular village alarm clock.

After a while the sun creeps up and over the surrounding mountain tops. We drive on to the edge of a wood. Panting, we check the time and break out in smug smiles. We have achieved over eleven kilometers by 10.30am. Stealing a literal march on the day like this is a wonderful feeling.

I celebrate by dropping a hundred Yen piece into a purse hanging from a nearby doorway, before taking a cold can of sweet, milky coffee from the water trough that sits alongside. Presiding over the trough, a pinnochio statue urinates spring water downwards to keep the make-shift drinks cooler topped up. Rather racy for rural Japan.

The route is as long as it is undulating. We dive down into a fairy tale forest, complete with a Snow White chimneyed cottage. Sun slants through the pine trees, birds chirrup and a brook bubbles alongside. I half expect the whole place to erupt into song. The climb back out of the basin is tough though. If the forest valley was a Disney remake, then escaping it is the Brother’s Grimm version with the sweat, blood and tears left in.

The views and atmosphere along the route are fantastic. We have long stretches to ourselves; just us and the birds and the jangling of our bells. We break for lunch at a rest stop and unwrap bannana leaf parcels prepared by our Minshuku guesthouse the night before. Three colourful and symmetrical rice balls: serious and much needed Japan-style hiking fuel.

At this rest stop we meet a group of friendly Japanese ladies. They are almost as colourful in their attire as our digesting lunch. We catch up further down the path and, after the usual pleasentries of how we have the same Osprey bag (Osprey are clearly doing something right in Japan), we end up in a quite unexpected situation.

Striding down towards us is a man that looks like he has stepped fresh from a Tokyo salon. He is clad all in white with a trendy scarf, sporting a well groomed goatee and is wearing an expensive looking leather man-satchel. It is not made by Osprey.

“Can we please film you for a hiking advert?” he asks, first in Japanese to our new friends and then in English to us, “We are from Eurosport.”

One “Camera. Action!” later and we are striding down the path doing our best to look hiker-ly. I go for a pensive and slightly pained look. Several kilometers later, I see the same media group trying to convince a local village lady to carry a sack of grain past them. It doesn’t seem to go well.

We push on past green tea plantations and persimmon trees. Teahouses beckon but the restrictive winter daylight hours force us onwards.

Twenty-six kilometers into the walk we limp into Kumano Hongu Taisha. Juxtaposed by the isolation of the woods, the number of tour bus pilgrims is a bit overwhelming. It feels like everyone is flitting around in a frenzied, selfie-stick ‘point and click’ induced state.

The view of the Torii gate, the biggest in the world, is an imposing one. It dominates the landscape and, walking through its towering presence, the history of the Kumano Kodo passes through alongside. We rest for a while to take it all in.

It is an inconvenience at this point, as our legs seize up, that we still have two kilometers of brutal uphill to reach our lodging at Yunomine Onsen.

We power through it in the encroaching darkness in blistered and tired silence.

At the end, we are greeted by a lovely and eccentric lady: the owner of our Minshuku Yamane.

She ushers us through to the private onsen baths, fuelled by the village’s natural hot springs.

After a good long soak, we emerge pink, exhausted and cleansed.

N.B. http://www.tb-kumano.jp has absolutely everything you need for any element of the Kumano Kodo. It lists various itineraries and you can pay direct in one go for things like lodging, luggage transfers and packed lunches. It really is a fantastic website and one that should be learned from!

The Kumano Kodo: Hiking Japan’s Ancient Pilgrim Trail (Part I of II – 13.5km)

‘He visited the cathedral, and sat in its chilled light, pouring like water from above. He reminded himself that centuries ago men had built churches, bridges, and ships, all of them a leap of madness and faith, if you thought about it.’

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

I gaze into the thin black crack between the two boulders. The board behind me invites pilgrims to take their own leap of faith by ‘tanai kuguri’ (passing through the womb) to pray to a turtle-shaped monolith hidden in the dark. I take a tentative step forward, before taking several more back in the other direction after the light from my phone dances off a thick, glossy mesh of spiderwebs. Not the most auspicious start to our pilgrimage, but we push on to Chikatsuyu nonetheless.

To be a builder of churches and bridges, or more accurately temples and shrines, in this area of Japan seems to require a doubling-up of a regular leap of faith. Every plaque we stoop to read tells us how these magnificent creations have been reconstructed over and over again due to earthquakes, fires or floods.

Even part of the Kumano Kodo trail itself disappears, enveloped by a landslide of trees, rocks and mud. A scar from the infamous 2011 typhoon, resulting in a detour along a forestry road.

But the rest of the ancient route abides. The Kumano Kodo is a UNESCO World Heritage trail and spreads like a web across hundreds of kilometers of the Kii Peninsula. No matter which route a pilgrim chooses though, he or she will always end at Kumamo Hongu Taisha. It is both the heart of this web and the spiritual home of Japan.

We are on the Nakahechi section of the Kumano Kodo. Around a thousand years ago Imperial ancestors began the pilgrimage tradition on this path, starting at Takijiri-oji, which marks where the ‘passage into the precints of the sacred mountains begins.’

Picking up from our failed boulder-test, we march up and into thick forest. The path is littered with gnarled tree roots exposed by over a millenia of tred from pilgrim, priest, royalty and beast. Straight edged stones jut out from the dry ground, hinting at steps worn back into the earth from which they were first carved.

Neither of us feel Imperial as we huff, puff and sweat through the close forest. Our bear bells jangle behind, limping along on my backpack.

The route is punctuated by a weave of history, myth and religion. We pass the old home of Jujo Akushiro, a witty and strong man who was given the name Aku (meaning ‘evil’) because of his valour, not for anything slanderous.

Ancient, ironic slang as comparable to a 1990’s ‘wicked’, ‘sick’ or ‘gnarly’ perhaps?

We climb the Three Fold Moon Hill to try to spy the eponymous lunar scene and gain ‘unfathomable power’. Unfortunately, as its the day time, we are thwarted. It may be worth a nocturnal revisit, given what is up for grabs.

There are numerous do-it-yourself teahouses, shrines and the occasional village on the way too. Friendly folk pop out of their homes to wave you on. We pause at the hamlet of Takahara to admire the uninterrupted view across sprouting rice fields and hilltops that bounce off onto the horizon.

The route continues as a mix of the same until we emerge into Chikatsuyu, our lodging for the night. We treat ourselves to a Kumano Kodo Ale and are met with a feast at our guesthouse Minshuku Nakano.

As the daylight disappears we gorge on delicious sashimi, roast fish and pork stew. It is the best meal we have eaten since we set foot in Japan three weeks ago, and that is no mean feat.

It feels fortifying too, which is no bad thing, given the 28km trek tomorrow.

If not a leap of faith, then certainly a test of endurance.

 

N.B. http://www.tb-kumano.jp has absolutely everything you need for any element of the Kumano Kodo. It lists various itineraries and you can pay direct in one go for things like lodging, luggage transfers and packed lunches. It really is a fantastic website and one that should be learned from!