A Very French Volcano: Hiking Akaroa’s Purple Curry Track, New Zealand (18.5km)

A French colonial seaside town that perches in the middle of an enormous volcano. A place surrounded by rare Hector dolphins, baby seals and a typically stunning New Zealand backdrop. A main street where you are just as likely to find a roquefort crepe as you are award winning fish and chips.

On paper, Akaroa sounds bizarre; a Kiwi-Poseidon-Francophile lovechild abandoned on an outcrop on the far east of the South Island. In reality, it is a fat slice of awesome and well worth the extra hour journey through Christchurch to get to.

Like many we came to Akaroa for the dolphins but ended up staying for the gorgeous surroundings. On our second day, we force our chuntering campervan up the steep climb to Heritage Park and strike out from there onto the Purple Curry Track into the undulating valleys that surround the volcanic Akaroa basin below.

Almost straight away the path dives down, leaving the sun-drenched vistas, and entering into a gloomy forest. The way snakes and meanders. We are forced to bend low under flailing branches, pick our steps over gnarled, ancient roots and edge around fallen trunks. Spiderwebs spool over our faces and stick to our cheeks. It’s all a little bit Mirkwood.

As we get deeper, even the birds seem to get queiter. All except the podgy Kereru (New Zealand Wood Pidgeon) that is as elegant as an elephant on speed. A few days before a local explained that they are so fat that they misjudge their trajectories and so spend their time clattering into branches and divebombing hedgerows.

A few kilometers later and we burst out of the trees ourselves into a scorching, midday summer sun. From here it’s a sharp ascent up to the Browntop Saddle, past mustard yellow gorse bushes and columns of fuscia foxgloves. Under the sun’s glare, pea pods crisp and burst open, accompanying us as we walk like a popcorn backing track.

The views are already spectacular but it’s climbing over the Saddle which yields up the true money shot. Behind still sits the Akaroa basin, and further back the snowy Southern Alps, but now visible in front is the unending blue sheen of the South Pacific Ocean.

It is superb. The lovingly handcrafted wooden sign threatening to hang trespassing mountain bikers by their lycra only adds to the spectacle.

The return route takes us through twee farms and private land which is a rarity in New Zealand. Cows moo and echo. Their baritone voices reverberating from an invisible spot somewhere in the valley. Along with the rolling hills and wheat fields, it almost feels like a July stroll over the Sussex South Downs.

Near Tree Crop Farm we catch our breath by a stream and splash our faces in the cool mountain water. This is much needed before the final climb back to Heritage Park which is the steepest of the lot. We stumble sweating into the wonderful park where, since 1992, six hundred individual trees have been planted by self-styled ‘tree enthusiasts’.

To celebrate their acheivement, and our own for returning to it, we feast on thick slices of baked ham, artichoke hearts slick with olive oil and fresh baguettes purchased earlier from the butcher back in town, on the Rue Lavaud.

Pass the dijon, si vous plait.

Advertisements

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.