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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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.

 

 

 

 

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.