Tag Archives: hiking

The Hmong Village – Laos (Trek Day 1)

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Lia: And every house has a spirit. This is important. When we arrive at the village, you must not go inside any home unless you are invited. You could bring bad spirits from the forest into the house and make people ill.

L: Err….right. No. Absolutely.

D & L meet their guide, Lia, early that morning, and set off on their two day hike into the forested mountains of northern Laos. They are to spend the night in a remote Hmong village. Lia briefs them as they walk.

Lia: Hmong people are not Buddhist.   Only half the Lao people are Buddhist. The Hmong people believe in spirits. And ancestor worship.

They pass a large watermelon plantation and pick their way across dry rice paddies, not yet planted for the coming season. They cross a stream and the path starts climbing through woodland and patches of rubber plantation. Lia continues his briefing.

Lia: In the village, they do not speak Lao. Only Hmong.

D: Oh. Will that be tricky? Do you speak Hmong?

Lia: Yes. My father – he was Hmong. When I was fifteen he sent me to the mountains to learn the Hmong language and culture – his culture.

L: Are the two languages similar?

Lia. Not at all. Completely different. I’ll teach you. To say “hello” – in Lao is sabaidee, but in Hmong is niaojong. To say…

P1050537They hear voices above them in the forest. They are climbing steeply through the trees on a narrow path and the cloud has rolled in leaving everything blurred and dripping. Lia stops talking and listens. A dog barks.

Lia: Hunters.

They catch up with a group of five men and a pack of dogs. The men each have a gun. L, D and Lia join them and for a while they all walk together, tripping over the dogs who weave up and down the procession and get under everyone’s feet. The men chat in sing-song lilting tones, musical swoops and swings of voice impossible to emulate in English.

Lia: Hmong people. The men hunt for food, and also build village houses. The women look after the children and animals, and gather firewood for cooking. You will see.

D: (whispering) Have you noticed their guns?

L: (whispering) So? They’re hunters.

D: (whispering) But have you actually looked at them?

L: (who wouldn’t know a Colt from a Kalashnikov) ????

D later explains that he has spotted an ancient World War II military rifle, several homemade muskets fashioned from a length of tube and a trigger mechanism, and an AK47 complete with bayonet.   He then further explains that no, these are all quite different to anything one might see shooting pheasants in the Cotswolds.

L: What are they hunting?

Lia: (looking a bit shifty) Anything.

L: But what? Big, small, animals, birds, what sort of thing?

Lia: Anything they can eat.

They reach a clearing and pause for a drink, and the hunters, the dogs and the sing-song voices all melt away into the mist. From now the path is along a bare ridge, still climbing steeply. Lia strips a handful of leaves from a shrub and pops one in his mouth. He offers them around. They taste lemony.

Lia: Sourleaf. Good, huh?

They nod, chewing.

L: So there are three main ethnic groups in Laos, right?

Lia: Yes.

L looks pleased with herself.

Lia: And no.

L: Oh.

Lia: The government says 49. Others say 134.

D: You weren’t far out.

L: Shut up.

Lia: But yes, there are three main groups. You can see them on the money – the 1000 kip notes.

D fumbles in his pockets and finds a note. They study the three women pictured in traditional dress.

1000 kip noteD: So who are they?

Lia: They live in different areas. In the valleys, the hills or the mountains.

He points to the woman on the left.

Lia: This is Lao Loum – lowland Lao. They live in the river valleys and grow wet rice. More than half the population are Lao Loum. They speak the national language – Lao – and follow the national religion – Buddhism.

He points to the right.

Lia: Lao Thoeng – upland Lao. They are maybe one quarter of the population and they live on the hill slopes. They are very poor – when they have no money they barter.

Lastly he points to the middle of the three women.

Lia: And this is Lao Soung – mountain Lao. Hmong people are the largest group of Lao Soung. They grow corn and dry rice, and keep animals to sell. When we arrive at the village you will see.

P1050541The ridge flattens and they emerge onto an orange dirt road. They are now above the cloud, in bright sunshine under a vivid blue sky.

Lia: The village. Ban Phatum.

They look around, but see nothing but forest and the track leading away towards a wooded pass. They follow the track and suddenly come upon fencing and a collection of small buildings. The village is in an idyllic setting, nestled into the pass, fringed by areas of cleared meadow beyond which the wooded mountain rises protectively above. The temperature a perfect mid-20s, the air is clear and the colours seem richer than before – the glowing orange of the earth, the vibrant green of the woods and the cerulean blue of the sky.

In the road a cluster of boys are playing a type of boules with spinning tops. Lia greets them and stops to join in. A carved-wood cylinder, sharpened to a point at one end, is set spinning on its point as a target. Lia takes another, winds a line of string around it and then launches it towards the target. His technique is spot on, his top hits point down and spins across the ground, but he is miles out. The boys laugh in delight.

Lia nods, satisfied. Honour is served. D&L look impressed. They walk on through the village. A group of women are squatting in the shade of a tree, chatting softly and chopping vegetables. Next to them several dogs lie panting and piglets and hens hunt for treasure in the dust.

D: (whispering) What’s “hello” again?

L: (whispering) Something to do with a game. Mah-jong. And a cat. Miao-jong. With an N. Niao-jong I think.

D smiles as he passes. One or two smile hesitantly back.

D: Niao-jong!

The women giggle.

It is Lia’s turn to look impressed.

P1050543The village spreads up both sides of the pass. Single room dwellings of wood and bamboo and palm thatch contain fourteen families and a menagerie of livestock. About half of the houses have corrugated tin roofs but all other building materials have come straight from the forest. They head to the far upper edge of the village, and stop.

Lia: Here is the house. You rest and I will make lunch.

He pauses.

Lia: And the toilet? Over there.

He waves vaguely at the undergrowth beyond the edge of the village. L looks for a latrine or outhouse building but sees nothing.

L: Where exactly?

Lia: Anywhere. In the forest. But don’t go too far.

L: Oh. Of course. Right. Because of the bombs?

Lia looks puzzled, then smiles.

Lia: No, the land here has been cleared. It is safe. There are no bombs.

They wonder what else is out there, but Lia doesn’t elaborate.

P1050551They enter their new home. Under a covered porch two small children sit on tiny stools around a fire in the middle of the earth floor. Nevin is five, but tiny, and his sister Ladah is two. L & D greet their mother, who is their host. She nods shyly at them.

L smiles at the children and waves.

L: Niao-jong!

Nevin stares solemnly at L, stands up, walks over to his sister and wallops her hard over the head. Ladah opens her mouth and howls. Their mother scoops Ladah into her lap, and scolds Nevin. Nevin howls too. L flees indoors to where D is unpacking.

D: Was that you? What did you do to them?

L: Nothing! I promise!

P1050542Their house has a spotlessly swept earth floor, split-bamboo walls and a palm thatch roof. It is cool and airy. A raised bamboo platform covers two sides. This is where they will sleep. L lies back. Despite the absence of a mattress it is surprisingly comfortable.  Through the paper-thin wall a cockerel crows loudly. It is roosting under the eaves of their hut.  Dangling from the ceiling they notice, to their surprise, a lightbulb.

Lia calls them for lunch. On a surface of banana leaves he has laid out cold pork & cauliflower, sticky rice, and a smoky aubergine dip. They are told to eat with their hands – picking up mouthfuls of pork and cauliflower, pinching sticky rice into balls and dipping it into the sauce. It is delicious. Once they have eaten their fill, the family tuck in to the rest.

L: There’s a lightbulb. So the village has electricity?

Lia: A little. Down in the valley is a waterfall which makes electricity. Enough for some of the people to have a light in the evening. You will see.

After lunch they are dispatched for a walk. Shal is an unsmiling teenager with a machete. He speaks only Hmong. They smile at him. He regards them blankly, then turns and walks off. They follow.   Three smaller boys, aged about ten, tag along for the ride, each wielding a balloon on a stick. One by one, along the way, as they swipe at the undergrowth, they pop their balloons. They grin, shrug and carry on. One of them grazes continually, munching fistfuls of sourleaf from the shrubs that he passes.

P1050558The views are glorious – wooded peaks, patchworks of upland meadows and a sea of cloud blanketing them from the rest of the world below. In the fold of a valley lies another little village, spreading down the slope like a landslip. The boys spot figures on the opposite hillside, as tiny as beetles, maybe 500 metres away as the crow flies. They call across and a long conversation ensues, phrases floating to and fro, bouncing from one hill to another, as natural as a phone call, with no need for technology.

On the way back the boys spot a small fallen tree, one end about a foot off the ground. They stand on it, and it moves. Shal joins the younger three, straddling the trunk, and the four of them bounce, helpless with laughter. D & L look on, laughing with them, enjoying their delight.

L: We’re a long way away from crisps and computer games.

***

Back at the village, Lia is killing a cockerel.

D: Oh dear, I hope that’s not the one that lives in our roof.

They leave him to it, and wander around the village. Everywhere there are children and dogs and chickens and pigs and piglets and goats and cows roaming free. Bamboo fences separate the village from the edge of the forest. Despite all the livestock, there are no flies, and almost no waste.

P1050596D: Well, for a start, with no shops there’s no packaging. Or carrier bags. That helps.

They watch Lia hurl a bowl of scraps out of a doorway. Instantly it is hoovered up by piglets and hens.

L: And there goes your food waste. But there’s no animal mess either. Or human for that matter. All these people. All this livestock. And yet it’s remarkably clean.

D eyes up the piglets, snuffling their way eagerly around the village and into the undergrowth beyond.

D: Pigs are omnivorous. Probably best not to think about it.

Children are gathering bundles of grass to make into brooms. Toddlers roam in and out of houses, singly or in groups, some clothed and others naked, clutching sticky rice cakes which they nibble on.

D & L smile and wave.

D: Mah-jong! I mean niao-jong!

The kids grin and wave back.

P1050599A woman is weaving palm leaves to make sections of roof. She laughs and blushes with pleasure as they admire her work. Another woman and her daughters return from the fields with baskets bulging with marrows.

L: Wow – beautiful!

D: And heavy.

The girls nod shyly as they pass.

At the edge of the village, they find the community’s only water source. A skilfully crafted bamboo aqueduct channels water from a mountain spring to the edge of the village in a constant flow, allowing people to wash, do laundry and gather water for their homes. They wander back through a whirl of children and puppies chasing a blue balloon.

P1050630 (2)On the hillside behind their hut, beyond the edge of the village, is a large flat clearing. From here, they have an awesome 180 degree panorama of peaks spread out at their feet and of the sun sinking behind the mountains, washing their own hilltop in gold. It is blissfully peaceful and utterly stunning. They stand there gawping and wearing out their camera. There is a chuckle.

Small child: Falang. Oh!

Another chuckle.

Smaller child: Falang. Oh!

Two little boys, aged maybe three or four, are standing on the other side of the clearing, laughing at them. Falang means “foreigner” in Lao, and obviously also in Hmong.

Boys: Falang – oh!

L: Niao-jong!

She waves. They edge nearer, grinning and laughing. The smaller child is naked and holding a red balloon. Both are barefoot, oblivious to the sharp stony ground.

Boys: Falang – oh!

L: Niao-jong!

They dart nearer. L reaches out, but they dart back. She folds her arms and they dart forward.

Boys: Falang – oh!

L: Niao-jong!

Boys: Falang – oh! Falang – oh! Falang – oh! Falang – oh!

P1050648 (4)They run circles around her, chanting and laughing. L laughs with them, whirling within their circle but keeping her distance, frightened of frightening them.

D: Whatever are you doing?

L: I don’t know. I’m terrified!

D: What of? They’re children.

L: Exactly!

Boys: Falang – oh! Falang – oh! Falang – oh! Falang – oh!

At dusk they return to their home, add extra layers of clothing, and join Lia around the fire under the porch. The whole village smells aromatically of woodsmoke. There is the soft chatter of conversations around cooking fires, the wail of an overtired child, and the sound of a hundred hens.

L: There are lots of cockerels, aren’t there? About thirty seven, I’d guess.

D: One less than earlier.

He nods at the fire, over which a plucked chicken is spread out flat and cooking. Lia rolls his eyes.

Lia: It’s the only reason I don’t like staying here. I can’t sleep. You will see. Three, four o’clock in the morning – they start! Then all the village wakes up, talking and making a noise. It’s terrible!

They watch the cockerels stalking around, bossing their hens. Nearby a young man is stroking and teasing and hand-feeding a white cockerel with a long tail.

D: What’s going on there? That one looks quite different.

Lia: A fighting rooster. He’s very special.

There is a loud crow from the eaves of their house.

L: Thank goodness. He’s still alive.

Lia: And that one, he’s special too. A hunting rooster.

A gaggle of little girls sidle up to L and stand beside her. They have solemn pretty faces and are dressed in traditional Lao wrap-around skirts, topped and tailed by western style tops and leggings. One has her little brother strapped to her back, legs dangling.P1050617

D: That’s sweet. They want to be your friend.

L: I know. What shall I do?

D: How should I know? Be nice.

L smiles at them. They stare seriously back at her. She gets out her camera and photographs a hen, pecking at their feet. She shows them the photo. They smile. She points the camera at them – takes a photo. Shows them. They giggle and point at the image, call their friends over and bossily arrange themselves into a line to be photographed again.

L: There are plenty of children here.

Lia: (sighing) Hmong people don’t understand birth control. The women have six or eight children. The man can have several wives. And they do not have to marry to be together. In the valleys some Lao Loum think badly about the Hmong because of this. The lowland Lao are very strict – no sex before marriage. Anyway. All these things make a lot of kids that need food and clothes.

L: Do they go to school?

Lia: Some. Now the track is here, it is easier. Until two years ago, the only way to the valley was the way we walked today. But now they can arrive at the main road in one hour, on a motorbike.

They have noticed that a few of the young men in the village have mopeds.

L: Do they go every day?

Lia: No – it’s too far. They stay at school for the week, from Sunday to Friday. But they have to bring their own food and uniform and books and pens and paper. It’s not easy.

L: We want to help. We brought some money. To help pay for the kids to go to school. Is that the right thing to do?

Lia: Money is good. Or clothes – they always need clothes and shoes. Not toys though – nothing plastic. The people here don’t understand about rubbish. Last week a visitor gave them balloons – you can see – the kids are very happy, but now there are are pieces of rubber all over the village.

P1050621 (2)They sit around the fire in the dark. Puppies and hens tiptoe close to the embers. Lia brings out supper. There is barbecued chicken, boiled marrow, chicken and marrow soup, and rice.

D: Do people eat meat every day here?

Lia: No. Only when the hunters bring animals. Mostly they eat rice. And vegetables.

L: But all this livestock? There are so many hens and pigs. And cows and goats.

Lia: Hmong people don’t eat these animals – they sell them. Except for the spirit sacrifices.

L:   The…..?

Lia: At a ceremony, they will kill an animal. The spirits take the blood, and after that, the people can eat the body.

By 8pm it is silent, and very dark. There is no moon, but a million stars glow brightly in the utter absence of light pollution. The village is in blackness, interiors lit only by cooking fires and half a dozen dim light bulbs, and outside the occasional bobbing of a torch at the edge of the forest – heading to the loo before bed.

D: It’s so peaceful. No parties?

Lia: (laughing) Hmong people are quiet people. They don’t listen to music, only their own traditional music, and they don’t drink alcohol. Not even lao-lao rice whisky.

On their bamboo platform, they find a mosquito tent has been set up, two quilts and two pillows. They snuggle down, and sleep soundly, aware only of their hipbones as they turn over.

***

D: Holy crap! What’s the time?

L: 3.47am.

The cockerels have started. All 37 of them. Including the one in their eaves.

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Beauty and the Bombs – Nong Khiaw, Laos

 

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D: What’s wrong?

D leans the bicycles up against a fence and joins L at the start of the footpath.

P1050374L: I’ve been reading the signs.

D: I know – it looks fab. “Great panorama”. “360 degree viewpoint”. Can’t wait!

L: No. The other signs. “Dangerous.” “Unexploded bombs still in this area”. “One of the most bombed areas in Laos.”

D: Oh. Those signs.

L: Yes.

D: Right.

L: Yes.

D: Well come on then! It also says “Don’t get off the path.” So we won’t. We’ll be fine! He sets cheerfully off between the bamboo-fenced vegetable plots, and is soon out of sight behind a clump of banana trees.

***

P1050371They arrive in Nong Khiaw the previous day, after a four hour minibus ride on quiet, mostly good roads sprinkled with a few potholes of the size that you drive into, and then out of again. The little village straddles the Nam Ou River and the scenery is so magnificent that they just want to choke and fall over.

L: It’s too much. I can’t cope. I can’t fit it all into my eyes!

They walk along the riverbank to find their hotel. They have decided to splash out on the best place in town, at a whopping USD$50/night, and have nervously paid in advance. At the Nong Khiaw Riverside they are given glasses of iced lemongrass & ginger tea, and a room key. L opens the door to their room.P1050289

L: Holy moly!

D: What? Is it awful?

L: it’s another basket. D’you think you can you bear it?

Their bungalow stands on stilts on the riverbank. The walls and ceiling are of woven leaf matting, and the floor is of wood. The room is stylishly decorated, has a four poster bed and smells sweetly of straw. A huge set of French doors fills one wall and leads to a wooden balcony looking over the river. Opposite, a mountain juts out of the water and straight up to touch the sky 1100 metres above.   It is awesomely beautiful.

P1050294D: I think I can bear it.

They spend the rest of the day on the balcony. D studies the guidebook while L gawps and takes photos of the view.

D: What shall we do?

L: (not listening) Astonishing. Smile please.

D: We could kayak.

L: (not listening) So gorgeous. Actually, don’t smile.

D: Or go for a bike ride.

L: (not listening) Just fantastic.   Maybe you look better from the back.

D: Or a walk.

L: (not listening) Extraordinary. Or not in the photo at all.

***

P1050313The narrow path climbs steeply through the forest, ducking under madly spiralling vines. They manage not to step on any bombs. At the top, they are in thick cloud, swirling around them. There is nothing whatsoever to see.

L: Oh no.

D: Just wait.

L: All this way up….

D: Just wait.

They wait, resting in the bamboo shelter perched on top of the mountain.

D: About the bombs.

L: Yes.

D: You’ve been Googling.

L: I have.

D: So who were Laos at war with when the bombs were dropped?

L: Nobody really. It was during the Vietnam War, in which officially Laos was neutral.

P1050320D: Officially?

L: Well, some of them were helping out a bit.

D: Who were they helping?

L: The CIA. Is the cloud clearing yet?

D: What? No. Did you say CIA?

L: Yup. Hold on a minute. What d’you know about the Vietnam War?

D: Blimey. In a nutshell? Here goes. Vietnam. Long thin country, running north to south. Line across the middle. North of the line is North Vietnam, which is communist. South of the line is South Vietnam which is not communist and is supported by the US. North Vietnam want to take South Vietnam and turn it communist. The US want very badly to stop them so that communism doesn’t spread.

L: Right. So the communist North Vietnamese had a network of vital supply routes through the jungle known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. To move their equipment and soldiers down south to fight the Americans and South Vietnamese.

D: I’ve heard of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

L: Well, a lot of the Trail was actually over the border, in Laos, and not in Vietnam at all. The US was keen to shut it down, and they asked Laos for help. So local people living in the mountains near the border were trained up by the CIA to help the Americans disrupt movement along the Ho Chi Minh trail, rescue any US airmen shot down, and protect an important radar base.

P1050422D: OK. But who dropped all the bombs on Laos?

L: The Americans. Any gaps in the cloud?

D: Not yet. What d’you mean, the Americans? You’ve just said Laos was helping them!

L: I know, but the US were freaking out about the potential spread of communism. They did everything they could to stop it, including bombing the hell out of both the Ho Chi Minh Trail and anywhere else in Laos they thought might have a communist in it. It was supposed to be a secret, because of Laos being a neutral country. It’s known as the Secret War.

D: When was this?

L: 1964-73. The US dropped over 2 million tonnes of bombs. Equivalent to a planeload every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years. Making Laos the most heavily bombed country in history.

D: God Almighty! Or Buddha.

L: Quite.

D: It must have been the world’s worst kept secret. There are gaps though.

L: In my facts?

D: Undoubtedly. But also in the cloud.

P1050339The sun is melting the white layers into wisps to reveal the vivid blue sky behind.   The signs were right – they have 360 degree views of the most bombed, and surely one of the most beautiful, countries in the world. There is space all around them, into which they feel they could fly. On every horizon lush green mountain ridges jut and soar, cut through by fertile valleys, rice paddies, and the lazy curves of the coffee-coloured Nam Ou River, laid out below their feet.

L tries to speak, but nothing comes out.

L: I’ve got no superlatives left. I used them all up yesterday.

D doesn’t need words. Just looking is making his soul sing.

***

On the way back down they are equally careful not to step off the path.P1050372

L: Apparently 30% of the bombs didn’t explode. That’s 80 million bombs. Even now people get killed by them every year. And it stops them being able to farm their land safely. Something like 25% of villages in Laos are still unsafe.

D: Are they being cleared up?

L: Yes, but it’s the most unimaginably enormous task. The US have spent over $100 million in Laos over the last 20 years on unexploded ordnance (UXO) clearance, and there are a bunch of agencies and local teams out here doing nothing else, but it barely scratches the surface. Hold on, I’ve got a quote somewhere.

She stops, and taps her phone.

L: Here. So, Obama has just pledged another $90 million for UXO clearance over the next 3 years.  But even that’s not nearly enough. A Mines Advisory Group director reacted to the news by saying: “Before the President’s announcement I feared that the UXO operation in Laos would take hundreds of years. Now I am optimistic this can be reduced to decades.”

D: Decades.

L: Decades.

***

They cycle on out into the countryside.

L: You find it. I’ll tell you about it.

D stops on a corner and wheels his bike onto the gravel verge.

P1050417D: We’re here. Tham Pha Thok.

L: Where? I can’t see it.

D: I think that’s sort of the point.

He leads the way across a stream and through a meadow, heading straight for a rocky mountain rising sheer out of the flat valley.

D: There.

L: No. Can’t see a thing.

D: You’re not looking at it properly.

They are approached by three small boys, who take charge. In impressive English they introduce themselves as Lee, Bia and Guan and announce that they are 10 years old. Lee has a head torch. He leads the way up a steep flight of stairs and into a large cave, 30 metres above the ground. It consists of a wide gallery stretching back several hundred metres, with smaller caverns opening off it, several of them striped with natural light chinking in from fissures in the cliff-side.

P1050393L: This was lived in by villagers, and also by a lot of the provincial government, during all those years of bombing. You can almost imagine it, can’t you? It’s a good safe spot – completely invisible from the outside, and close to a stream.

The boys head deeper in and illuminate various pitch-black room-sized dug-outs to the sides. One area is labelled “Governor”, and another “Provisional Government Chairman”.

D: Tricky place to have an office.

Lee, Bia and Guan scamper back down the steps, but their tour isn’t over. They are beckoned around the foot of the cliff on a tiny overgrown path. They reach the entrance to another, much smaller cave, and clamber between boulders, squeezing through a crack in the rocks.   They look around the small space.P1050410

L: Blimey. This was where the region’s main bank was based. For six years!

Before they leave, D takes on the role of banker, and reaches into his wallet to pay the diminutive guides. He pulls out a note and starts to hand it over. The boys’ eyes light up.

D: Hang on, that’s got too many noughts on it!

It disappears swiftly back into his wallet, and is replaced by three more, each with one less zero. One for each boy. They stare at him solemnly for quite some time, waiting for the larger note to reappear. It doesn’t. They shrug their shoulders and dart away down the footpath into the woods.

***

The village school is putting on a Cultural Evening. They cycle there at dusk, and are earnestly led around the back of the school building to a stage area by several boys in traditional dress. Half a dozen performances are introduced by two tiny people, one girl and one boy. They take turns. One reads a long introduction in Lao from the laminated sheet they are clutching. The other then frowns and studies the sheet carefully before announcing in English “And now a song. Please enjoy.” It seems that whatever the Lao description of the different performances might be, the English translation is the same. Each time, the foreign audience wait eagerly to be told what is coming. “And now a song. Please enjoy.”P1050501

The performances are in fact dances, not songs.   The children are wearing traditional clothing representing different ethnic groups.   Sometimes a group of girls will dance, and sometimes they dance in boy-girl pairs, which makes them all giggle and blush. Their bare feet pat softly on the floor and they hold themselves gracefully upright. Most of the dancing is done by their hands, twisting at the wrist, palm up, palm down. It is beautifully elegant, dignified and poised.

***

The Nam Ou River and surrounding scenery is even more spectacular from a kayak. The water is smooth and slow-flowing. Their guide is called Big. As they paddle gently down the river, side by side, he tells them he used to be a monk.P1050487

L: Gosh – how long for?

Big: 6 years. From 12 to 18. They put me through secondary school. It’s a good education. But it’s not a life for me.

L: No?

Big: No. One day I met a friend in the street. He was wearing a fine suit. So I stopped being a monk.

L: Because of the suit?

Big: Of course! So that I too could enjoy clothes and music and food and girls.  At college.

He tells us that his family come from a hill village four hours from here.

Big: It is very remote. My village only got electricity last year.

He points towards the sandy shore. Vegetables grow in neat rows on the banks and several small boats are moored up. Glimpsed through the trees there are houses with woven-leaf walls and palm-thatch roofs. Big explains aspects of village life.

P1050443Big: See? This village too, has got electricity now. Just last year. Like my village.

Big: The firewood there stacked up. Used for cooking.

Big: Rice mats. All the rice is laid out to dry in the sun. Before the husks come off.

Big: They keep bees, for honey. In those hollowed out tree trunks on the side of that house. See?

Big: The water point. All the village get their water from this place. For washing, for laundry, for cooking, for drinking.

L: And for toilets?

Big laughs.

Big: No. For that they have the forest.

They drift on downstream into the setting sun. Water buffalo bask on the banks and wallow in the shallows. A family drive their cattle and pigs to down to the shore to drink in the cool of the late afternoon. Three teenage girls run down a beach and into the water, whooping and splashing, ducking like dolphins, fully clothed. The sun drops lower. The river glitters silver. The mountains line up in layers, from greys to blues to black.

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Two Mountains – Northern Thailand

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D&L have a craving. They need to get high.

At 2565 metres, Doi Inthanon is Thailand’s tallest mountain, and has a road leading right to the top. Its wooded flanks form a National Park with some impressive waterfalls and good swimming spots along the way. P1040634Near the summit are a pair of modern temples set amongst immaculately tended gardens and dedicated to the King and Queen. It is popular with locals, and on a sunny Saturday there are lots of visitors, flocking here from Chiang Mai to enjoy the views and the cool air. At the top it is a mere 17 degrees, and Thais are bundled up in thick jackets, scarves and hats.

They follow a concrete path a short distance from the car park to a large wooden sign proclaiming that they have arrived at the Highest Spot in Thailand.P1040637

L: Quick, take a photo.

D: This is all wrong. I’m not happy.

L: What’s the matter?

D:  We’re not properly at the top.   The slope carries on rising behind the sign. And the path goes up two steps just over there!

He stomps off, unconvinced, and stops 50 metres further on, at a wooden walkway from which the ground drops slightly in all directions. He nods seriously, satisfied.

D: THIS is the Highest Spot in Thailand. Take a photo.

***

P1040706They drive north, to Chiang Dao, searching for a “proper” mountain. One without a car park on top. Chiang Dao’s mountain, Doi Luang, is rocky and steep with great scenery and varied vegetation. At 2175 metres it is Thailand’s third highest summit, and apparently the country’s best mountain hike. Most people do it in two days, camping for a night just below the summit. But there is only a small weather window – one day of sunshine – before the rains promise to return.

L: Can we really do it all in one day?

D: 1100 metres up, and the same down again. 15 kilometres. Piece of cake. As long as we start early.

L: But I’ve hardly done more than climb the stairs in a year. What if I don’t make it?

D: You’ll make it.

L: You can’t just leave me behind on the mountain. There are tigers. And cobras.

D: Really, you’ll make it.

They arrive in the village late afternoon, and head to the park office to get their permits. They find the office open, and walk in.

Woman: We’re closed.

D: But can we just….

Woman: We’re closed. Come back tomorrow. 8 o’clock.

L: (muttering) So much for starting early. I’ll never make it. We’ll be benighted. With the tigers.

D: Don’t worry, I know where the walk starts. We’ll take a quick look this evening and see if we can get in on our own. If so, we can start really early tomorrow.

They drive to the edge of the village. From here a small road winds up to a pass at 1100 metres. The walk starts from the pass, while the road continues down into the next valley and beyond, towards the Myanmar border.   They are stopped by a park guard at a road barrier. Local through traffic is waved on, tourists heading up the mountain are not.

Guard: Where are you going?

D: (who can’t tell lies) Just…..on…..

The guard takes a close look at them. They are clearly going up and not passing through.

Guard: It’s closed.

D: But the road….?

Guard: Go back to the park office. Tomorrow 8 o’clock.

L: (muttering)   Benighted. With the cobras.

***

P1040711They return to their room, appropriately known as The Nest. Their little bamboo cabin is tucked into the undergrowth at the far corner of a lush garden. It is charming and smells of damp straw.

D: We’re sleeping in a basket.

As darkness falls, the crickets start up, and the soaring outline of the mountain stands silhouetted against an indigo sky. It is very peaceful and utterly beautiful. They head to the Nest’s excellent restaurant for dinner and order Thai red curry.

Waitress: Mild, farang (foreigner), or hot?

The couple behind them have just confidently ordered a farang-strength dish but they err on the side of caution and opt for mild. It arrives. They tuck in. It is delicious. But sweat beads on their foreheads. Chilli sears their mouths and throats. Their noses start to run.

D: My eyes! Even my eyes are burning.

***

The following morning at the park office they spot another couple of about their age. They have a day pack. The woman is wearing sandals.

D: Ha ha! She can’t be walking up the mountain in those!

L: Don’t be silly. She’ll change in a minute.

While L fills in a form, D practices his social skills.

D: Ha ha! Great walking shoes!

The woman smiles at him frostily and continues her conversation in Dutch.

They explain to the park official that they want to do the walk in one day.

D: And we don’t need the transport up to the pass. We have our own car.

Official: You must have the transport.

D: And we don’t need a guide.

Official: You must have a guide.

Everyone stands there, looking a bit cross. The Dutch couple look at their watches. They already have their paperwork, having booked and paid the day before.

Official: You can go with them. They have a guide.

It is clear that no-one is delighted by this arrangement. The Dutch pair are not expecting to join other people. However what they all have in common is that they want to get started. D quickly gives them half of the guide and transport fees and everyone cheers up.

L: I expect they’re worried about being stranded up there after dark too. With the tigers and the cobras.

D: I’m sure they are.

Chai arrives and introduces himself as their guide. He bundles the four of them into the open back of an SUV and they head off up to the pass. The woman is still wearing sandals, the thin straps decorated with little sparkly studs. She sees L staring.

Woman: (defensively) They’re walking sandals.

At the pass, L & D carefully adjust their telescopic walking poles. Chai offers a bamboo stick to the other two, and sets off at a quick march. Louie and Sandals charge after him. To her dismay, despite her sensible footwear, L can hardly keep up.   Fortunately they soon reach a long, steep, muddy climb, and Sandals adjusts her speed.P1040721

Sandals: I’m sorry I’m so slow.

She picks her way sure-footedly up the incline in her crisp cream chinos, golden drop earrings swinging.

L: (red faced and puffing) Thank goodness – I can’t walk any faster!

A kilometre or so later, the steep mud gives way to a lush valley undulating gently upwards, with thickly forested slopes and rocky cliffs rising to each side.   They pass through swathes of elephant grass towering over their heads, an abandoned banana grove, a forest of giant bamboo, patches of jungle, clearings and around great moss-covered limestone boulders. They feel as though they have been shrunk to the size of insects as they make their way through the ever-changing super-sized scenery.

They are the first hikers heading up that day, ahead of any others, but are soon overtaken by porters skipping up the mountain in flip-flops, bent double under enormous weights of drinking water and food for those planning to camp. They encounter 30-40 hikers coming down, in dribs and drabs, all of them young Thais, and none accompanied by guides.

Chai is also wearing flip-flops.

Chai: Easier than shoes.

L: Yes, but you’re a mountain man!

Chai: Yes – a mountain man!   But only sometimes.

P1040731As his wiry frame treads nimbly up the uneven path he tells them that he only guides hikes when he can be spared from his father’s farm. The two of them work the land entirely by hand, except for ploughing, producing 5 crops a year – 2 of rice and 3 of carrots and cauliflower. They sell their produce not only locally but also in Chiang Mai and sometimes even in Bangkok.

L: So, really, you’re a farmer.

Chai: (scowling) No, no, I don’t like farming.

L: Oh.

Chai spreads his arms wide and grins hugely.

Chai: I’m a fisherman! Freedom!

He explains that his real love is line-fishing and the sea. During the hot season, he heads down to Krabi where he has a traditional longtail boat, and goes to sea alone for several days at a time. He says he once caught a 72kg fish which he sold for 60,000 bhat. L works it out. GBP £1,500 goes a long way in this part of the world.

Below the summit they arrive at a sloping open area of tall coarse grass, where tents have been pitched for the season on the flattest patches across the hillside. They stop for lunch and Chai unrolls a bamboo mat for them all to sit on. They gratefully take off their shoes and dig out their packaged snacks while Chai unwraps slices of black pudding, and tasty-looking pieces of cooked chicken, pork and beef, which he scoops up in lettuce leaves and eats with his fingers. L frets silently because Sandals is sitting with her bare feet, which are now understandably pretty grubby, pointing at Chai and his lunch. L has read that this is disrespectful in Thai culture and checks that her own, and D’s, feet are suitably positioned not to cause offence. She fidgets and tries to share her concerns with D, telepathically, with the aid of facial expressions and blinking.

L: ……!

D:……?

L:……..!!!

D:…….? Have you got hiccups? Here. Drink some water.

L:……..!

Chai seems to take no notice and munches happily.

After lunch, there is a final half hour to the top – a steep rocky scramble. Louie gets summit fever and charges ahead. Eventually they join him.P1040763

Louie: Great, isn’t it?

The top is enveloped in cloud.

D: Great!

Sandals: Super!

L: (muttering) Why are we all pretending? We’ve struggled all the way up here and can’t see a thing!

D: (muttering) Just smile. Don’t spoil it. Be nice.

Sandals: And we are so lucky to have the place to ourselves!

L: (muttering) Hardly surprising – there’s nothing….oww!

D has inadvertently stepped on her foot. And apparently not noticed. He remains standing on it. Quite firmly.

They stay up there for half an hour or so, Chai dozing, three of them relaxing and chatting, and L darting from one side of the summit to the other, trying in vain to capture brief tantalising glimpses of long reaching views and valleys far below, as the cloud around them swirls and shifts.P1040764

On their descent, they pass clumps of cheerful Thai youth coming up to camp overnight. Then they come across a Thai boy aged about 20, sitting on a rock, all alone, with one bare bandaged foot and a pale face tense with pain. Chai stops to speak to him. They learn that he has re-twisted an existing injury and that his friends have all carried on up to the camp.

He begins to weep silently. He has however had a fortunate encounter. Louie is a physiotherapist and crouches down to examine the foot. D is carrying a first aid kit – undoubtedly the only one on the mountain – and dispenses an elastic bandage and anti-inflammatory painkillers. Louie gently and expertly bandages the foot. They all inspect his handiwork, and watch as the toes turn blue.

L: Err…. is that normal?

Louie speaks firmly to the boy.

Louie: It’s only for walking. When you get up to the camp, take all the bandages off and elevate your foot. And rest.

They reluctantly leave him to hobble painfully upwards, while they head on down. L is furious.

L: Well, it’s clear that only farangs are made to pay for a guide for this walk. I don’t care about that. I’m glad we’ve got a guide. But seeing as that poor boy doesn’t have one, I can’t believe his friends left him there, all on his own!

D: You’ve gone all shouty. And squeaky.

L: Sorry.

Chai shrugs his shoulders dismissively.

Chai: Bangkok. They come from Bangkok. That’s what they’re like.

He tells them he was once in Bangkok, and hungry, with only 25 bhat (GBP £0.70) in his pocket. All the street meals cost 30 bhat. He asked time and again at the food stalls if he could buy a meal for 25 bhat – a smaller portion, or without the meat perhaps, but was turned away.

Chai: No! They all said no. In Chiang Mai, if you are hungry or others are hungry, you share food and make new friends!P1040774

The last kilometre back down the steep slippery mud slope is hard work and very slow. Sandals skids and sits down. D does the same. Louie gets base fever and strides ahead. They find him lounging in the back of the SUV, dreaming of beer. On the drive home, all congratulations go to Sandals and her sandals, for a remarkable achievement. She looks quietly pleased and admits she’s probably walked quite far enough for one day.

***

The following morning the rain sets in before breakfast. The mountain disappears into cloud and curtains of water pour off the roof of their little basket cabin. They snuggle down in bed, grateful not to be in a tent up the hill.

Deep inside the mountain, and accessed from the village, they visit Chiang Dao Cave. Inside it is warm and dry.   A series of Buddha shrines mark their progress as they wander through the tunnels. Branching off the lit route are numerous dark passages. There are signs warning people not to explore on their own in case they never make it back out. D is tempted. L is not.

Sitting next to a golden Buddha they come across a tiny woman clutching a gas lantern. With hand signals she offers to guide them, and gestures into an ominous-looking black tunnel. D is keen. L is not. P1040804She lights the lamp and dives into the dark. They follow the glow of the lantern into a series of huge caverns and past weird-shaped rock formations, punctuated with her little cries of “slippery!” and “watch your head!”. Every cavern seemingly has multiple tunnels leading to and from it. It’s a real maze. They come to a halt and she waves her lantern at a small hole in the wall, less than a metre square. She smiles. L smiles back and shares the joke, agreeing.

L: Ha ha! No – I don’t think we want to go through there!

D: Actually, I think we’re going through there.

L: Oh.

The tiny guide is half D’s size, tucks herself neatly into the hole and disappears out of sight. With the lantern. D & L stand in the cavern which is now getting rather dark.

L: Crap! Well, follow her then! Or we’ll never find our way out. We’ll just stumble around in the dark till we die.

D: But I’m not even sure I’ll fit. Here – take the day pack.

He passes the rucksack to L and squeezes into the hole. L follows, hot on his heels. They wriggle through several tight spaces, folding themselves double and sideways, until they are reunited with the lantern and its owner in a larger open cavern, grinning from ear to ear from their mini-adventure. The journey continues through several more caverns and down a steep set of steps before rejoining an electric-lit tunnel, where they are free to wander once more on their own. They discover further shrines and admire stalactites lit in pink and blue.

L: That’s better. I think I like my caves nicely lit in multi-colours.

D: How can you say that! Dark is best.

They pass more black apertures and more signs warning of the dire dangers of exploring the unlit tunnels independently. L points at a dark hole in the wall, the size of dustbin-lid.

L: Be my guest. I’ll just wait here. No really. Please. Off you go. I don’t mind. Follow your heart. Dark is best.

D: Thanks. Maybe tomorrow. Shut up.

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On Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Ometepe 2 - first

L: Poor things! They’re entirely covered in bandages!

D: Not entirely – only the right hand half of them.

L: They must be SO sore.

L and D are drinking beer, their feet in the hotel pool, watching the sun sink into Lake Nicaragua and paint the horizon gold. Nearby, a couple have arrived, limping slowly to a pair of loungers and easing very gingerly into them. Once settled, they explain to their friends that they don’t think they’ll be quite up to the horse-riding booked for the following morning. They can hardly move.

L: Perhaps Ometepe’s not the place to learn to ride a scooter after all.

D: Perhaps not.

L: Maybe the ditches and speed bumps and potholes and pedestrians and hens and dogs and cows and horses and pigs and bicycles make things tricky.

D: Maybe.

L: Shall we get taxis instead?

D: Let’s.

The following morning….

A 4WD utility vehicle arrives. The driver greets them cheerfully, introduces himself, and ushers them into the car.

L: (whispering) How romantic – he’s called Byron!

D: I heard.

L: (whispering) And he called me chica!

D: I heard that too.

They set off along the island’s one road, paralleling the lake. The surface is stony and ridged, making for a bumpy ride, and progress is slow. A woman at the roadside waves, and they stop. Two small children clamber up into the open back of the vehicle. They remain standing, holding on tight, the little boy protected from the bumps and lurches by the encircling body of his big sister. They stop again, to let the children off at their auntie’s house.

Byron points out monkeys in the trees and answers their questions.

Byron: The brick to build the houses is made here on the island. With mud from the lake.

Ometepe 2 - boat by lakeL: Does everyone get their drinking water from the lake?

Byron: No, the lake’s not used for drinking, though it could be.   On this side, water comes from a crater lake high up on Volcan Maderas, and over by Concepción there are wells.

L: And is there always enough water?

Byron: Yes, though 2014 was very dry. The rainy season didn’t really happen. The government told us to stop keeping chickens for food, as they use a lot of water. They told us to eat iguanas instead.

L: And did you?

Byron: Si, iguana meat is good. But there’s always plenty to eat on the island. The soil is so fertile – it’s the volcanic ash.

D: Is it a problem when Concepción erupts?

Byron: No. Every five years or so, up it goes, and the government tells us all to evacuate the island.

L: Blimey. And do you?

Byron:   No. Nobody takes any notice.

Byron drops them off at the foot of the hill. It is still early, just after 8am. They want to be the first. They follow a farm track, then a footpath for about 3km, through pastures and forest, ascending a flank of Volcan Maderas. They pass a rock painted with an arrow and the words “1 km”. There are caupuchin and howler monkeys in the trees. Magpie jays chatter overhead and a brilliant blue morpho butterfly flits by. They see no-one, but there’s no time to waste. The path ends at a dry river bed, strewn with boulders and enclosed by tall cliffs.Ometepe 2 - to San Ramon

L: Oh. We’ve done about 1km since the rock. Where is it?

D: Just along here. Follow me.

They pick their way up the stream bed, over gravel and rocks and around boulders and small trees. Until it becomes impassable.

L: Are we lost?

D: No. It’s just along here.

They climb out of the stream bed and follow a steep, rocky footpath winding through the woods. And on.

L: This is the world’s longest kilometre. Or we’re lost.

D: We’re not lost. It’s just along here.

L:   You keep saying that. I’ll just stay here. Can I have a biscuit?

D: But I can hear it.

L: Oh.

Ometepe 2 - San RamonJust around the next corner they arrive. The San Ramon Waterfall cascades down the mountain from 40 metres above, ending in a shallow pool. It is so tall and so sheer that they have to tilt their heads backwards, further and further, necks cricking, just to see the top. Moss and tiny ferns line the cliff wall and wet rock glistens in the sunlight. They have the place entirely to themselves, like one big awesome secret. They stand under the waterfall happily, wade in the pool and admire. They sit on a rock, drying off and eating biscuits. Soon a woman arrives with her son, aged about ten. The secret’s out. It’s time to leave.

On the steep scramble down, they meet four people.

People: Are we nearly there?

L: Not far – about 10 minutes.

In the river bed they meet two more.

People: Are we nearly there?

L: Not far – about 20 minutes.

On the path through the forest they meet more, and more, and more.

People: Are we nearly there?

L: Not far – about 25 minutes, half an hour, 40 minutes.

They come across a clump of tethered horses. They meet a school group of girls taking selfies. Back on the track, people are parking, getting out of cars. Motorbikes arrive. In all they count 57 people heading to the waterfall. A long way down, a red faced man is wrestling his way up the uneven surface on a scooter. He stops, sweating.

Man: Is it much further? Will I make it on this?

D: Ummm….maybe. There are other cars and motorbikes up there. Not sure about scooters. You can drive to within a kilometre of the falls.

L: (under her breath) The world’s longest kilometre.

L worries for the rest of the day that the man will skid and fall and end up covered in bandages.

D: He’ll be fine. He’d only hurt himself on one side anyway.

Later….

Ometepe 2 - laundry in lakeThey are kayaking along the lakeshore. Women stand in the shallows doing their laundry on rock platforms built for the purpose. Toddlers play on the shore. A fisherman sits on the gunwale of his boat, mending nets. From time to time a rustic wooden dwelling is visible amongst a clump of palm trees at the water’s edge. But mostly the shore is given over to forest and pastures. They spot herons, kingfishers, egrets and ospreys.

The River Istiam is at its lowest. They find the narrow mouth, almost hidden in reeds at the edge of the lake, and glide silently along the shallow muddy stream.   Their guide is a young islander, and he knows his stuff. He reels off the names of the birds as they pass, spotting the invisible, time and again.

Ometepe 2 - great egretGuide: Look, a great egret, and next to him a great blue heron.

D fumbles for the camera.

Guide: There, a green heron.

L: Take a photo!

D: Missed it.

Guide: Look, turtles.

L: Where?

He points. A cluster of sharp little noses poke above the surface and disappear. He scoops up a turtle on the end of his paddle to show them.

Ometepe 2 - kayakingL: Take a photo!

D: Damn, missed it.

Guide: Look, caiman.

D: Where?

But it is gone. They look in vain for the caimans that they know are there, lurking out of sight.

Guide: Look, iguana.

D: Where?

L: There, stupid. It’s enormous! Even I can see that one. Right above your head on that branch.

Guide: In the reeds there. A little blue heron.

Ometepe 2 - kayakGuide: On the bank. Black necked stilt birds.

They watch them pick their long-legged way through the mud.

L: Take a photo!

D: Crap, missed them.

Guide: Green kingfisher.

Guide: Kingfisher.

Guide: Kingfisher.

The area is bursting with water birds. They can’t look in all directions at once. They drift past water lilies, duck under overhanging trees and around the spreading roots of mangroves. They pass just one other kayak – other than that the river is empty. And apart from the occasional lap of water against paddle, and the noise of the birds around them, it is completely silent.Ometepe 2 - cows

On their return, they pull their kayak up the beach. A herd of cows ambles past them and down to the shore, all amongst the boats, and into the lake for a drink.

They walk back to the hotel.

L: There’s the man! Oh, I’m so happy!

D: What man?

L: The man on the scooter. He’s still in one piece.

The next morning….

Byron is back, and he’s on a mission. He collects them at 4.45am. They need to make their way across the island to catch the first ferry at 6am. The journey takes a good hour in the daylight.   But at this hour it is still pitch dark. They hurtle along the unpaved, stony, rutted road, accelerating at every opportunity and breaking hard at the drainage ditches, the speedbumps, and the potholes. Every so often, objects loom suddenly into view, without warning, lit up by the car’s headlights. At considerable speed they swerve to avoid a cow, two pigs, a horse, several dogs, a cat, two cows, more dogs, another horse, a bicycle without lights, more dogs, pedestrians without lights, another dog, another bicycle without lights, a horse, a man sleeping by the roadside, a dog, a bicycle without lights, a motorbike without rear lights, pedestrians, a dog, two more motorbikes without rear lights.

They arrive at 5.55am. Byron is triumphant. L is a wreck. D is carsick. They are really sorry to leave.

Ometepe 2 - last

 

Climbing Cerro Chirripo – Costa Rica’s Highest Summit

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The two of them stand alone at the trail head, adjusting their walking poles.

L: What time is it?

D: Err…6am.

L: Where’s everyone else? There were a dozen people queuing for permits with us yesterday, just during the hour that we were there, and presumably lots of others we didn’t see. I think they let 50 people a day climb the mountain.

D: They must all be starting later than us. Or earlier.

L: So this sign says we’re at 1520 metres. What time d’you reckon we’ll get to the refuge? Normally a 16km walk would take us about 5 hours, but we’ve also got to gain almost 2000 metres of altitude. That is a LOT of climbing. What if we don’t make it before dark? We could be trampled to death by tapirs. They’re nocturnal. And enormous.

D: It’ll be fine. We’ve got 11 hours of daylight. And torches. And tapirs are really shy.

L: Alright then.

D: It’s the jaguars we should be worried about.

They start walking steeply uphill on a clearly-defined path, past acutely sloping meadows carpeted in blue flowers, and a well-tended coffee plantation. The views are of forested hillsides and the scattered tin roofs of the village on the valley floor.

D: It’s a great path.

L: (panting) A lot less muddy than Devon.

L: (pausing) A lot less rocky than Italy.

L: (setting off again) Quite steep though.

D: Look, we’re coming up into the cloud forest.

L: (panting) Lovely mosses trailing off the branches.

L: (pausing) Gorgeous ferns.

L: (setting off again) Fabulous bamboo.

D: Stop. What’s that?

L: Yikes. Am I about to step on a snake?

D: No. Look – monkeys, way up there. Lots of them. With babies. I think they’re capuchins.

L: (craning her neck back uncomfortably) Wow, seriously tall trees! Apparently the biggest ones are oaks, which can get up to 50 metres tall. They poke out above the rest of the canopy.

She stretches her neck and looks at the ground.

L: Why is the path littered with leeks?

D: They’re not leeks. They’re bromeliads. Epiphytes. The monkeys must be throwing them down.

They continue.

L: (panting) D’you think we’ll see a quetzal?

L: (pausing) D’you think we’ll see an ocelot?

L: (setting off again) Do you think there’ll be a café just ahead?

D: Don’t be ridiculous. We’re now 7km from the nearest driveable track. Stop. What’s that?

L: Yikes. Snake?

D: No. I see a café just ahead.

L: Don’t be mean. That’s just mean. I need a fizzy drink.

Astonishingly, there is indeed a café – a small wooden hut, with decked terrace, four tables and a large list of available drinks.   D orders coffee, in a big white china mug and L enjoys a fizzy orange sugar-rush.

L: This is the best sort of mountain. All the blog accounts I’ve read just talk about the struggle and the steepness. None of them mention how beautiful the forest is. None of them mention the CAFÉ!

On they go.

Ahead, they hear shouts and laughter, and are passed suddenly by four heavily laden pack horses thundering down the track, followed by their keepers, descending the mountain at a comfortable jog.

L: What were they carrying?

D: It looked like laundry. And maybe rubbish. From the refuge. That would explain how the café gets stocked – probably by the horses on their way back up.

L: (panting) We must keep a look out for a bird called the buffy tufted-cheek.

D: Good name. What does it look like?

L: No idea.

L: (pausing) Do you hear that? Maybe that’s him. It sounds like a violinist tuning up.

L: (setting off again) Or a squeaky hinge blowing in the wind. He’s excellent.

(Days later, L identifies the bird as a black-faced solitaire. She types “squeaky hinge bird” into Google and he pops up immediately.)

On they go.

At the 11km mark, they find themselves at 3200 metres, having done the majority of the climbing.   The cloud forest has thinned at this altitude, and there is evidence of an old but widespread bush-fire, with great columns of bare tree trunks thrusting skywards. For the next 3km the path undulates, with lower shrubby plant growth to either side, pink cystus and wild lupin in flower. The views open up to reveal forested ridges devoid of any evidence of man, for as far as the eye can see. They stop for lunch.

L: D’you know that this is one of Costa Rica’s largest National Parks?

D: I didn’t.

L: Other than Cerro Chirripo, which of course is the highest peak in the country, the park has two other mountains over 3800m.

D: Excellent. Shall we climb them all?

L: I think one might be enough.

Then the clouds roll in and envelop them.

L: I think it’s raining.

D: It’s not rain. It’s cloud.

L: It’s rain. Can we stop and get out our waterproofs? I might have to sleep in these clothes. I don’t want them to get wet.

D: It might be drizzling. It’ll stop in a minute. Our waterproofs aren’t waterproof anyway.

L: It hasn’t stopped. It’s getting worse. I’ve got some excellent duct tape on mine. They are as good as new.

The heavens open.

D: OK, it’s raining.

They stop in the shelter of a tree to pull on their jackets and waterproof trousers. And then continue. For the last hour, they walk in a steady downpour.

L: It’s nice and cool walking in the rain. If it were sunny we’d be miserable. And hot. And thirsty. This bit is seriously steep.

D: I’m glad we haven’t needed the 4 litres of water I’ve been carrying. Not heavy at all.

L: I read that Chirripo means “Land of Eternal Waters.” They get up to 7 metres of rainfall a year.

D: Are you sure that’s right? We’ll be lucky not to drown.

L: (changing the subject) Look how fit we are – overtaking those people.

D: They’re in their sixties.

L: Oh. Still. We won’t get there last. Uh oh.

D: What?

L: Catastrophic duct tape failure. My coat is leaking like a sieve.

The path eventually levels out and ahead they see a cluster of breezeblock buildings with tin roofs, in a rough grassy cleft between two jagged ridges.

D: That is the Crestones refuge. I think we’ve made it. What time is it?

L: Half past two. I don’t think we got here very fast. But at least it’s not dark.

They enter through the dining room, which is crowded with around 40 hikers of a dozen nationalities. An efficient woman ticks them off a list and then leads them along a long concrete corridor and up a steep flight of stairs to a line of dorms. Their room contains two pairs of bunk beds. The other pair has been claimed. The mattresses consist of a wooden board covered with an inch of foam and a layer of vinyl. Innumerable blogs mention how uncomfortable they are.

Woman: Here you are. You have a pillow and sleeping bag on each bed. There are lockers for your stuff. The bathrooms are at the end of the hall. There are showers but no hot water. Dinner is 6-7pm and lights out at 8pm.

D: Lights out?

Woman: We turn off the generator. After eight, there is no electricity in the building. Do you have torches?

D: Umm….yes.

They thank her and she leaves.

L: This is actually much nicer than I feared. And spotlessly clean. That last flight of stairs nearly killed me though. I’m really puffed and I’ve got a headache.

D: Not surprising. We are at 3400 metres.

L: So I’ve got altitude sickness. Am I going to die?

D: Probably not. Take a painkiller and have a kip.

They drape dripping rucksacks, coats, trousers, socks and other clothes around the frame of their bunk bed, where it fails to dry in the chilly little room. L dons extra dry clothes and has a rest. D, as though not having taken quite enough exercise yet, goes for a walk.

At sun down, the temperature drops like a stone. After a mountain of spaghetti Bolognese, there is nothing for it but to go to bed before being plunged into darkness. They wriggle into their sleeping bags. D has kept his T-shirt on.

D: Are you going to be warm enough?

L: (happily) Oh yes, I’m wearing everything I brought. Two pairs of socks, two pairs of leggings, four tops including my thermal jumper and my fleece. And a woolly hat. And gloves. I’m toasty.

They set their alarms for 2.40am, and the lights go out.

3am

They creep along the refuge corridor by the light of their torches and let themselves out. To their surprise, almost no-one else is around and they can hear snoring from nearby rooms.

L: I thought everyone got up at this time so as to be on the summit for sunrise.

D: Maybe they all walk faster than us and so don’t need to get up quite as early.

L: Well I must say, it’s very efficient sleeping in all one’s clothes. I got straight out of bed and was ready to go. Just needed to clean my teeth. I might do that more often.

D: There’s a temperature gauge on that pole. What does it say?

L: Three degrees. Balmy. The coldest ever temperature recorded in Costa Rica was up here somewhere. Minus 9.

They set off. It is pitch dark. They won’t see a glimmer of dawn for at least two hours.

L: Oh my gosh, look at the stars. I had no idea there could possibly BE so many stars!

The night is cloudless and there is a total absence of light pollution. The sky is truly magnificent.

They start walking, swiftly realising that their torches should be as close to the ground as possible, held at arms’ length, mid thigh, so as to sufficiently light their way. Without them on, they cannot see their hands in front of their faces. The path is flat, but crossed by numerous ditches and drainage channels. After a while, a crescent moon rises, on its back, from behind a silhouetted peak. They can just about make out that they are crossing a huge plain, encircled by mountains. They are above the treeline – up here the vegetation is mostly coarse grass and clumps of dwarf bamboo.   Several times the path leads them to wide expanses of limestone bedrock, where it is necessary for D to scout around to find the onward route. In the distance, way ahead of them, they glimpse a cluster of four tiny torch lights, and another group of two. A long way behind, a few more torches have appeared but get no nearer.

An clearing of short rabbit-grazed grass shimmers at their feet. There is the barest sprinkling of frost.

They begin to climb, picking their way slowly up the rock-strewn path, step by step.   All focus is on the ground and the careful placing of feet, but every time they pause, they are again entranced by the great dome of night sky above them.

L: (for the twentieth time) Just look at those stars.

The path gets steeper, and rockier, and eventually the sky begins to lighten through a pass between two peaks.

L: Is that the one we are going up?

She points at the taller of the two peaks.

D: No, it’s deceptive, it must be nearer to us. The one we need to climb is over there.

L: Oh yes, I see the torches now, heading vertically up the side. Hell that looks steep.

They reach the pass as the horizon begins to glow a vivid orange, blackening the wisps of cloud above in sharp contrast.

The last half hour is a vertical scramble and a race against time.

D: Pass me your sticks. Turn off your torch. You’ll be better off without them. Use your hands.

They reach the summit, breathless, before the sunrise, and greet a dozen others who have also made it – half of them Ticos, but also a sprinking of Europeans: German, Austrian, Norwegian. Some sit silently, almost meditatively, others chat, delve into their packs for snacks, or take photos. There is a brisk, chill breeze snapping at a proudly flying Costa Rican flag, and a large wooden board proclaiming: Cerro Chirripo – Altitude 3820 metres.

L: Take a photo of me. By the flag. By the sign – can you read what it says?     I know I’m wearing 20 layers, but make sure I look thin.

The sky lightens – the blackened wisps of cloud flare orange and the landscape around them is revealed. Layer upon layer of wooded and grassy peaks stretch away in every direction, and below them, at the pass beneath the summit, is the glimmer of several small lakes.

And then the moment that they have all been waiting for. The sun rises and immediately paints the landscape golden. A moment savoured, and shared, is then over, and the climbers start to pick their way back down.

The return to the refuge is easier, but shocking.

L: I can’t believe we did this in the dark, without breaking all our legs.

She skids on loose rocks and catches herself.

D: Look how beautiful it is. The peaks, the cliffs, this great big grassy bowl. Paramo, they call this landscape – above the treeline. There’s even a proper mountain stream. With a pool. Right, I’m swimming.

In an instant D has shed all his clothes and is standing naked on the bank.

L: Blimey – at least get in the water. Everyone can see you!

D: What everyone, there’s no-one around. It’s perfect. And anyway, the water is going to be unbelievably cold, so I’m not getting in until you’ve got the camera out to capture the moment. Are you ready?

L: I’m ready.

He leaps into the pool with a bellow.

D: Bloody hell that’s freezing! Quick, take it, stop messing around, damn you, take the picture, so I can get out!

Back at the refuge, they are too late for breakfast, but the kitchen staff produces tea and buttered toast.

L: What are you doing?

D: Sprinkling sugar on my toast. You should try it.

L: That’s delicious. I think we were fed this when we were children. More sugar please.

D: We’d better get a move on.

L: I’ve done some sums. Today, including where we’ve already been this morning, we will walk 27km, up 420m and down 2300m. That is one giant day.

D: But the sun is shining and the birds are singing. It’ll be great.

So down they go.

D: Stop, what’s that?

L: Yikes! Snake?

D: No, orchid. I need to take a photo.

And…

D: Stop, what’s that?

L: Yikes! Snake?

D: No, a blue and green lizard.   I need to take a photo.

And…

D: Stop. Stand still.

L: Now what do you need to photograph, for pity’s sake?

D: Nothing. Just walk gently back towards me. You are about to step on a snake.

In front of L’s shoe, a metre of black snake slithers casually across the path and regards them from the safety of the bank.

L: (weakly) Thank you for saving me. Please can I have a biscuit?

And…

L: It’s a long way down. My feet hurt. And my knees.

D: You walk much too slowly – you’re prolonging the agony. Let’s whizz-path.

L: Let’s what?

D: Whizz-path. It’s what we did when we were kids. You run downhill letting the momentum carry you. I still find it much the easiest way to lose altitude.

So they whizz-path. And it works. For a time.

L: Stop, stop. My brain isn’t talking to my feet any more. I’m going to fall over and break everything.

D: OK. We’re nearly down. Only 3km to go.

And….

D: Only 2km to go. How are your feet?

L: Comedy.

D: What do you mean, comedy?

L: You know when someone in a cartoon hits their hand with a hammer and their hand turns bright red and starts throbbing? That’s my feet. Comedy feet.

And…

D: Only 1km to go. Don’t sit down now.

L: Go on without me. Just leave me here to die.

D: Don’t they have an outdoor hot-tub at our hotel? Next to the pool?

L: Do they? I don’t know. Maybe. I didn’t notice. I don’t care.

And finally….

L: Oh my goodness – this is complete bliss. It’s as hot as a bath. Put your feet against the jets – it’s a perfect foot massage. I’m in absolute heaven.

D: (wallowing happily up to his neck in bubbles) Well, of course it’s difficult to compete with my morning dip, but it’s not a bad way to end the walk. Not bad at all.

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