Category Archives: Outdoor activities

Unlearning to Ski

After finding myself face down in the snow for the second time that morning, with my skis several metres behind me back up the slope, I began to realise I’d managed that rather impressive feat of actually unlearning to ski.

Wengen, Switzerland

Wengen from the mountain railway

It all started pretty well. I’ve been skiing a couple of times before, and while I’m clearly no expert I could get down most red runs without too much difficulty (if a little bit more slowly, and considerably less stylishly, than my friends) and had even tackled the odd black run on my previous trip in 2009. But I was acutely aware that my technique maybe left a something to be desired, so after a day of practising I decided to invest in a private lesson to sharpen my skills up a tad and hopefully move closer to my dream of one day being like the locals who effortlessly fly past you, looking elegant, entirely in control…and I would say cool, except for the fact that most of them still seem to be wearing hideous neon-coloured all-in-one ski suits left over from the 80s.

Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau

Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau


The lesson began OK – after showing off my skiing on a nice easy slope, my instructor told me I wasn’t bad, but thought there were a few pointers he could give me. Unfortunately after that it went downhill pretty quickly – to the point, after about half an hour, where he suddenly stopped and asked me if I’d ever had any lessons at all. I was obviously mortally offended but could perhaps concede he had a point, seeing as he’d managed to point out I was doing pretty much everything wrong.
Moonrise over the alps

Moonrise over the Männlichen ridge

But, like a patient teacher dealing with a particularly stupid child, he gradually managed to get me skiing at a level which he seemed to find satisfactory (although it was hard to tell towards the end, as he was getting increasingly bored with my stubborn inability to get it quite right, and spent more time chatting to friends than he did watching me. In fact most of the time he was chatting to me was spent pointing out how bad most of the other skiers were, which was probably fair enough, although I’d rather he’d have just focused on me). In fact, by the end of the lesson I was feeling increasingly confident I’d made the right move having the lesson, and even though I was going more slowly than before, I was doing it better – and speed would surely come in time.

Sadly, finishing the lesson was the high point of the week skiing wise for me. By the time I hit the slopes on the third morning, I swiftly realised that I was mostly very confused. My head was full of new ideas about the right way to do things. Unfortunately my legs had an entirely different idea and clearly resented the intrusion of my brain and decided to do their own thing. I attempted to reassert control of my own limbs with predictable results, and ended up with my skis crossed on a particularly icy patch on my very first run of the morning and went flying, landing rather painfully on my right shoulder. After picking myself and clipping my skis back on, I carried on only for the same thing to happen not five minutes later.

After that I pretty much lost my confidence entirely and found myself getting slower and slower over the rest of the week, as I attempted to effectively relearn to ski. It didn’t go entirely well, and by the third afternoon even the novice skier in our group was overtaking me with alarming regularity. It didn’t help that the resort had had no new snow for well over a week, a situation that was made worse by the glorious weather – there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and it was particularly warm, leading to some slopes turning slushy, patches of mud appearing – and worst of all big icy patches where the overnight cold had frozen the melting slush.

birds on a tipi with blue sky

Even the birds were enjoying the sunshine

It wasn’t all bad though: Wengen is a beautiful resort, consisting of a pretty little village (much nicer looking than the ugly purpose-built resorts in France that I’ve skied in before) and even better all of the main runs are dominated by a stunning view of the Eiger. Plenty of the runs twist and turn through the trees, and the glorious sunshine meant that lunchtime in the mountain restaurants was lovely.

There was plenty more too to enjoy in the area (more on which in my next posts) and I didn’t come away to disheartened – despite my falls I enjoy skiing too much to let it get me down too much, and I shall be back on the slopes next year. Probably with a fair bit more time in ski school though, I think.

You can see all the photos from my ski trip to Wengen here.

My kingdom for a donkey

After the last couple of years I figured I was pretty fit for hiking. I’d prepared for my round the world trip with various hikes in the UK’s national parks, culminating in a nice 26 mile day-hike through the Yorkshire Dales. Then climbed to over 3,000 metres for the first time on Volcan Santa Maria in Guatemala. In Colombia, Volcan Nevado del Ruiz saw me hiking in the snow to 5,125 metres. And in Peru I’d spent nine days at over 4,000 metres on the arduous (but absolutely breathtaking) Huayhuash circuit. After all that experience, a mere 1,061 metre volcano in Nicaragua had to be a mere trifle.

Volcan Telica

Volcan Telica


Oh how wrong I was. My first miscalculation was the temperature. Even in the tropics, once you’re up at 4,000 metres, it tends to be nice and cool. At this low altitude in Nicaragua, it soon became clear that heat was going to be a major factor. Even as we wandered through the shade of the forest in the approach to Volcan Telica I found myself pouring with sweat. This was at about nine in the morning and I was already gulping through water in an attempt to keep myself hydrated. I knew the discomfort would just get worse. And it did: for I soon realised my second mistake. I’d been so overconfident of my hiking ability I hadn’t even thought to bring appropriate clothes, other than hiking boots, and was thus hiking in heavy, baggy cotton shorts and a cotton t-shirt. Both were pretty soon soaked through, heavier, and becoming more uncomfortable by the minute.
Trekking to Volcan Telica

Adrian on the gentle, forested lower slopes. By this time I was already soaked.


I should have known from the start that this trek would be a little harder than any I’d done previously, for one major reason. Aside from the tropical temperatures, humidity, and poor clothing, there was one major difference: I was carrying a 19 kilo pack. All of my hiking in the UK and Guatemala had been day hikes from a base in a campsite, hostel, or nearby village. In Peru & Colombia I had done numerous multi-day hikes, but with one major difference – on those, I had porters or donkeys to carry all the heavy stuff. I’d marvelled at the time at the strength of both when doing those hikes, but now I was experiencing it for myself I painfully became aware of what I’d let myself in for. Because I wasn’t just carrying a change of clothes, but seven and a half litres of water, and a significant proportion of our food. I think Adrian may have had it even worse as he was carrying our tent (although I think the weight was roughly even as I had the food).
Volcan San Cristobal

View of the neighbouring Volcan San Cristobal


The forest shade soon petered out and soon we were out in direct sunlight, approaching the hottest time of day, just as we hit the steeper slopes. Our pace dropped slower and slower…although at least our regular stops gave us time to appreciate the stunning views across to the neighbouring, and even higher, Volcan San Cristobal, constantly smoking away in the distance.
Volcan Telica

A very relieved looking Adrian: no more climbing to be done.


The climb was soon to get tougher still though. Just before we reached the crater, we had to stop to collect wood for our campfire, meaning that we soon gained a further few kilos, just as we reached the toughest section yet. For the final ascent was up the side of an extinct crater which was far steeper, and on far more uneven, rocky ground. By this time the sun was directly overhead and every step was tricky. I stumbled a few times, and had to stop far more, and it probably took us a good hour just to ascend the final 100 metres or so. But boy was it worth it – because as we reached the crest of the slope, looking down to our campsite in the extinct crater, we knew we could drop our bags and make the easy climb a dozen or so metres up a gentler slope to our real goal: the massive active crater right next door.
Volcan Telica

The ginormous crater


Before this I’d climbed several volcanoes in Guatemala, Colombia and Indonesia, but none of them had a crater anything like this. A huge, circular crater opened up beneath us, with vertical cliffs running down a good sixty or more metres below us to the bottom. Everywhere vents opened up, belching out huge clouds of stinking smoke. Apparently we were extremely lucky to arrive on a quiet day – normally it seems there is so much smoke you can barely see inside. When we arrived, the smoke was much thinner meaning we could see right to the bottom, all the way down to the glowing lava pool below. It was truly magnificent, and it made any difficulty on the way up pale into insignificance.

Over the last few years I’ve fallen increasingly in love with the beauty of mountains. But of late I think I may be becoming even more obsessed with volcanoes. The fact that I understand the science behind them does nothing to prevent the impression that the earth beneath you is alive – and the fact that these beasts that dominate the landscape, made of solid rock, actually grow out of the ground, churning out steam and molten rock, is enough to make the mind truly boggle. It’s a beautiful, slightly scary, but ultimately breathtaking experience.

We set up camp nearby, and after a fantastic dinner cooked by our guides from the incredible Quetzaltrekkers, a volunteer-led organisation that organises volcano and canyon treks, and which gives 100% of profits to help street children in nearby Leon (I really can’t praise them highly enough – enthusiastic, knowledgeable guides, great food, free equipment hire, a wide range of great hikes available, and all for a very good cause too), we hiked back up to the active crater in the dark in an attempt to see the lava glowing at night, although as it turned out, it was a bit too smokey to see.

Volcan Momotombo

Volcan Momotombo just before sunrise


Volcan Telica at sunrise

The active crater glows red just after sunrise...one of my favourite photos from Nicaragua


The next day was just as good. After rising early to see a beautiful sun rise over the Cerro Negro, El Hoyo & Momotombo volcanoes in the distance, we had breakfast while watching the sun light up the steaming active crater into a beautiful shade of deep red. The descent was by a completely different route, taking us down through completely different scenery from the way up, with the narrow path winding down via the lushly forrested southwestern slope. The guides really came into their own here – the vegetation was so dense in places we could barely see the path – but at least it was much easier going down hill, in the shade, and much lighter with food eaten, water drunk, and wood burnt. The descent itself was spectacular, with regular views of brightly coloured birds and flowers common all the way down.
Volcan Telica

Spot the path


In retrospect I mainly found it tough though poor preparation, it’s actually not all that difficult, and the length, altitude, and steepness aren’t really too bad for anyone fit – and it was such an incredible hike, one of the best I’ve done I wouldn’t want to put anyone off what was a stunning experience and the highlight of my fortnight in Nicaragua. Having said that, I was also on holiday to relax, so there was only one place to go for our next stop – the beach.

You can see all of my photos of my hike up Volcan Telica here

Extreme hiking

Thanks to the ever-inspirational BestHike.com I’ve just come across this rather excellent post about the 5 most gut-wrenching hikes on earth from hikingboots.com.

Most of them are actually Via Ferrata rather than straightforward hikes, but one in particular stands out for its scariness, El Camino del Rey, near Malaga in Spain:

Pretty precarious, no? Sadly it looks like it got so dangerous they’ve now closed it – but apparently they’ll be repairing it soon, and is definitely a hike to add to my ever-growing list of planned hikes.

How to get down a volcano the easy way

Before my round the world trip, there was only two things I knew about Nicaragua: that it grew coffee, and was famous for the long conflict between the Sandinistas and the Contras. After spending three months in Central America in 2009, I discovered it was famous amongst backpackers for quite a different reason: it was the home of volcano boarding.

Cerro Negro is the youngest volcano in Central America, having first erupted out of the countryside in 1850 – and since then it has erupted a further 23 times, covering nearby Leon in ash in 1995 and most recently erupting in 1999, and in the process growing to a height of 728 metres. Its name means ‘black mountain’ – and it’s a pretty perfect description: it’s so young that no plant life has had a chance to get a foothold, meaning it’s a great big black mound rising starkly up out of the surrounding lush green fields. It’s this black rock that is the key to its new incarnation as the local must-do for travellers: down one side in particular, the volcanic rock is broken up into very small particles – not as smooth as sand, more like a very loose shale. A few years ago an enterprising hostel owner realised that this surface would be perfect for hurtling down on a plank of wood. Five years on, and every day sees a steady stream of tourists clambering up its flanks in search of the ultimate local adrenaline rush.

Cerro Negro

Cerro Negro

Early one morning we found ourselves at the foot of the mountain, very glad to be there that early as already the temperature was starting to rise, and set off on the pretty easy (and rather quick) ascent, with the only difficulty being carting the boards with us – these were big thick planks, not modern lightweight boards. Pretty soon we reached the top and were able to admire the rather incredible views all around – over to the Pacific ocean in front, away to the jungled interior of the country behind us, and across the long chain of volcanoes that runs parallel to the coast, from Consiguina near the El Salvadorian border in one direction, right down to Momotombo on the shores of Lake Managua in the other.

Cerro Negro crater

Standing on the edge of the active crater


The other spectacular view was far closer to hand – and that was down into the crater, from which sulphurous steam billowed out, occasionally clearing to reveal multi-coloured rocks in shades of black, red, yellow and white. Despite the knowledge that the volcano has quite a good early warning system (and we’d brought our own handy emergency escape vehicles with us) it’s still a rather unnerving feeling stood atop the crater of something that could go off at any time. It’s the kind of thing that could make you rather terrified if you thought about it too much (especially with the knowledge that the last properly active volcano I’d climbed, Volcan Pacaya had erupted almost exactly a year later, killing one person.).
Jumping over the volcanoes

Obligatory jumping shot. Volcan Telica, our next climb, can be seen just between my knees


So rather than hang around for too long (although with just enough time to take the obligatory jumping photo), we headed over to the top of the long, even western slope and prepared to board. I have to admit, I was pretty nervous, and for good reason – the night before, in Leon, we’d seen a few people with rather impressive scabs running up their arms and on foreheads, as well as the odd bandaged leg. The reality, alas, was somewhat different: we’d chosen to go with a company that provided us with slightly rubbish boards. I sat on my board as instructed, gripped tightly onto the cord, lifted my feet off the ground and prepared to hurtle down at a dangerous speed. Instead, I only gained momentum slowly and soon found myself falling off, for as soon as I reached even a moderate speed the board veered off to one side. I gradually got the hang of maintaining balance using one foot, but this also served to add enough drag that it was impossible to reach the dangerous speeds I’d hoped for. Even as the final section steepened, I was still only able to get a mild adrenaline rush rather than the full-on fear-of-death hurtle that I was expecting. I figured that maybe I was just being a bit lame, but as the group headed down one by one, we all had a pretty similar experience.
Volcano boarding on Cerro Negro

This expression is mostly relief at not having broken anything


To be honest it was a massive letdown compared to the high speeds and huge adrenaline rush I’d had on the massive sand dunes of Huacachina in Peru last year. But the disappointment soon subsided as I realised I’d had quite a lucky escape – as much as the adrenaline appealed, I can do without the risk of broken limbs and giant scabs thank you very much – but I still wish I’d chosen a company with better boards. If you want to give it a go, I would recommend using the marvellous Quetzaltrekkers, a volunteer-run organisation that runs volcano and canyon hikes throughout northern Nicaragua, all of whose profits go to a charity that helps local street kids (and not only do you get to know your money is going to good causes, you also get two goes at the boarding, unlike the one attempt we were allowed; plus going with them also gives you a discount off any hike you subsequently do with them – and I can confirm after trekking up another nearby volcano with them, they are the perfect people to go hiking with). Just be warned that if you do give it a go, those boards can go up to 82kph, and the rocks are larger and nastier at the end of the steep bit at the bottom, and thus certain to give you a rather bumpy landing if you come off…a rather extreme example of which can be seen at the end of this world speed-record breaking downhill cycle that also took place on Cerro Negro:

Ouch. Still, that’s one of the joys of travelling in countries like Nicaragua. You can be pretty sure that even if there were active volcanoes in England, you wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near them, let alone be able to peer in to the active crater and then risk death by sliding down afterwards.

You can see all of my photos of Cerro Negro here.

Next stop – a two day hike up an even bigger active volcano.

Hiking to Inle Lake

Nice as Kalaw was, we weren’t really there to see the town. No, we’d put up with the nightmare bus journey so that we could hike through the hills to Inle Lake, stopping off at various hill-tribe villages along the way.

We’d originally planned to do a three-day hike, but after the little attack of food poisoning that had hit half of our party, we decided it was probably safer to stick to two days. There was still no sign of Tony, who we’d had to leave behind half way to Kalaw, but in his place we were joined by the lovely Nieves from Spain, who I’d spent a lovely couple of weeks with in Indonesia before Christmas, and who happened to arrive in Kalaw the same day as us (backpacking really makes the world feel like a small place).

Sam and Frankie were a bit worried that the hike would be a bit much of an effort as they were still recovering from illness, but luckily we were dealing more with gentle rolling hills than great big mountains, and being slightly higher up, it wasn’t even too hot – perfect hiking weather. It was beautiful right from the start – a wonderfully unspoilt pre-industrial landscape of rolling hills and fields still being farmed by hand, using buffalo-drawn carts in place of anything mechanical.

The local landscape

The real highlight of the hike though was stopping in the villages – these routes still don’t see a lot of tourists, and so we were greeted nervously by the villagers in many cases – although when it turned out our guide could also speak various different local languages in addition to his native tongue, it opened a few more doors and helped the villagers to relax in our presence, and had them asking as many questions about us as we did about them. I felt a little bit sorry for the young children though – in almost every case they burst out crying and ran away as soon as they saw us. Not the best reaction in the world!

Pa-O Villagers

Pa-O Villagers

Unfortunately we had a slightly disruptive effect in another village just before lunch – we happened to turn up on the day of a village festival. As we came round the corner, we saw most of the village on their knees at the entrance of a large hut, celebrating the festival. I’m guessing it must have all been a bit dull for the kids, as these ones came running after us as they were fascinated in us (and our cameras in particular). They insisted on posing for photo after photo (and absolutely loving the results). It was all great fun but I do feel a bit bad for disrupting the village festival. Whoops.

Local celebrities

Soon after that we were invited into another family’s home, where we had tea (and where the matriarch of the house quizzed the three boys about whether we were single or not and would we like to marry her daughters or niece?!). That’s certainly the first time I’ve ever been proposed to.

After a long first day we finally made it to our night stop – where we’d be staying on the floor of a teak monastery. Meeting (and chatting) to the rather deaf Abbott was a rather interesting experience, and yet again we had more fun with some of the local village kids who came round to see who the visitors were.

Pleased to see us

Day two of the walk was much easier – as we headed mostly downhill from the village towards the lake (although we were also slightly nervous about the fact our guide warned us we’d need to look out for poisonous snakes escaping from the controlled burning that farmers were doing just a short distance from the path!).

Water Buffalo

The walk was a magnificent experience – the villagers we met are mostly still living a very traditional lifestyle, and were wonderfully friendly to us. I’d love to go back again though at the end of the rainy season (rather than at the end of the dry season, which is when we there), as I bet the landscape looks even better lush and green, rather than the dusty brown we got to see.

Possibly best of all though was the fact that we’d made it two whole days without major incident!

You can see all of my photos of the trek here.

The amazing acrobatic kids of Malapascua

After paying virtually no attention to wildlife in the previous 35 years, I’ve been amazed at how much my attitude has changed since I crossed the Pacific. I blame the Koalas. Ever since then I’ve been going more and more out of my way to find unusual things both on land and underwater.

Main street on Malapascua beach, Visayas, Philippines

Malapascua High Street

Seeing the Tarsiers had fulfilled my terrestrial cravings for the moment, but I was soon hungering after a fix of big underwater action – so I headed north, to Malapascua, one of the few places in the world where you can relatively reliably dive with Thresher Sharks. I say reliably, but in fact I’d met a couple of people who’d tried on several occasions and failed. Despite hearing this slightly dispiriting news, I was determined to give it a go – this could be a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Malapascua Beach, Visayas, Philippines

Another lovely beach

When you’ve been traveling for a while, it really feels like everything worth seeing inevitable involves an early morning start. The sharks were no exception – best time to see them is early morning, so I was up at half five to get on the boat at six, for what would turn out to be the most boring dive I’d ever done. There’s one place the sharks hang out, so we descended, sat on the bottom, and waited. And waited. There’s pretty much nothing else to see, and the visibility’s not great. And so we waited for about 40 minutes, and then gave up and came back up. But I wasn’t disheartened. I’d been prewarned that my chances weren’t high, so I remained cautiously hopeful (if not entirely optimistic) for the next day.

Yet again we had a pretty early start, and the dive started very similarly to the previous one. But half way through our luck changed, and a big shark swam right past us – our guide reckoned it was up to 4.5m long (with half of that being the huge, characteristic tail), and we got a good look at it as it slowly went by. That was the only one we saw that day, but that wasn’t it for the show, for a few big devil rays soon turned up and flew around for a while. Not quite as unusual as a thresher, I know, but seeing the devil rays confirmed my view that rays are the most beautiful, graceful creatures in the sea.

Thresher Shark, Malapascua Island, Visayas, Philippines

It's all about the humungous tail

With mission accomplished, I felt like I’d earnt a beach day. And I honestly could not have wanted a better place for that than Malapascua. The island is pretty tiny, and sits off the north coast of Cebu, right in the heart of the Visayas. It’s probably my favourite island so far – in part because it’s the friendliest place in what is already the friendliest country I’ve ever been to. Everyone stops and says hello, everyone wants to help you out, and even the people selling stuff are low-pressure, friendly and chatty, preferring to win you over with charm and humour rather than trying to bludgeon you in to submission.

Climbing a coconut palm, Malapascua, Philippines

It had to be done

So my day on the beach turned out to be great fun, as we chatted to the local beach masseurs, made friends with the local beach dogs, watched the local men pruning the palm trees (can’t have falling coconuts ruining a tourist’s holiday, can you?) but best of all befriending the local kids. The beach kids on Malapascua were absolutely adorable, and they fussed around, wanting to listen to ipods, clamber over you in the sea while you try and cool off, and chase you round the beach (OK, so the day didn’t turn out quite as relaxing as I’d hoped, but was probably all the more fun because of it)

They were saving the best til last though – just before sunrise they put on an amazing acrobatic show for us, backflipping and somersaulting and cartwheeling down the beach, throwing each other up in the air, fearlessly reaching heights I’d be terrified by. It was pretty amazing stuff and reminded me you don’t need to spend forty minutes under water in scuba gear to see cool stuff. After all that hard work, they didn’t need to work hard at all to sell us stuff afterwards – we bought them all sodas, and then parted with more cash for the shells they were selling. Despite now having a bag full of shells I’m not sure what to do with now, it was a small price to pay for such a cool show.

Acrobatic kids, Malapascua, Philippines

Getting ready for liftoff


Acrobatic kids, Malapascua, Philippines

Airborne


Acrobat at sunset, Malapascua, Philippines

Soaring over the sun


Malapascua kids, Philippines

The stars of the show

You can see all of my photos of Malapascua here.

Next up: The final stop on my wildlife-spotting tour of the Philippines – chasing after Whale Sharks in Donsol.

The adorable little Tarsier

You may have noticed that this blog has become increasingly monkey-obsessed of late, what with posts on the cheeky macaques of Bali, the amazing orang-utans of Sumatra, and the naughty Small Monkey in Palawan. If you’re not a fan, you’re going to have bear with me a little while longer, as travelling from Palawan to Bohol gave me the chance to see a rather unusual relative – the world’s smallest primate, the Philippine Tarsier.

View of Alona Beach, Panglao Island, Bohol, Philippines

Room with a view

Getting to Bohol is pretty easy – a short flight to Cebu City, two hours on a fast ferry and half an hour on a motorised tricycle and I was swiftly at home in a beautiful little room right on the beach, above the Genesis dive shop. Wreck diving in Coron had been fun, but I was looking forward to getting back to a more traditional coral and fish environment, and the reefs of nearby Balicasag island didn’t disappoint.

My second dive in particular was stunning – we came across a huge school of jackfish, swimming in very tight formation. As I swam in towards the school it parted around me and started swimming in a tight funnel with me in the middle. It was absolutely beautiful, and for a moment it felt like I was in a scene from the Blue Planet. The different experiences I have almost every time I go diving are incredible – deciding to learn as part of my trip is one of the best decisions I made.

School of Jackfish seen diving near Balicasag, Panglao Island, Bohol, Philippines

Getting close to a school of Jackfish

With the diving out of the way (sadly, on a budget, I have to restrict my diving only to places that are supposed to be fantastic, and no more than two dives per location), I was free to explore the island a bit more. So with a few friends from the dive shop, we hired a driver and set off round the island.

Tarsier at the Tarsier Research Centre, Bohol, Philippines

If it was legal I would have stuffed my backpack full of the little darlings and taken them home

It all started pretty well, as our first stop was the Tarsier Research Centre, the easiest place to see (protected) Tarsiers in the semi-wild. Round the back of the centre is a fenced-off part of the forest. They are pretty damn tiny, but luckily the centre provides a guide who knows where the little critters like to hang out, and within a couple of minutes we came across the first one – and they really are tiny – about the size of a fist – and absolutely adorable. They sit there, gripping tightly onto tree twigs with their cute little fingers (proper big branches would be way too big for them) and staring at you with their enormous eyes – proportionate to their body size they are apparently about 150 times bigger than human ones, and take up most of the Tarsier’s head. They don’t do much, admittedly (being largely nocturnal) but hey, when you are quite that lovable then you can get away with it.

Things started to go a little bit downhill after that. We stopped off at a little restaurant / backpackers place nearby called Nuts Huts, planning to a little walk through the jungle down to some falls, but unfortunately the heavens opened and we were stuck inside for a while. The rain eased off for a short while, allowing us to run back to the car and on to the next spot, the famous chocolate hills. Someone at the national tourist board must have decided that the hills are the country’s most beautiful asset, as I’d seen them countless times on posters and postcards since being in the country. And they sure do look good in the pictures. Unfortunately I am unable to confirm how good they look in real life – as the whole area was covered in thick cloud, so instead of seeing a landscape of dozens of odd little green hills, tightly packed together, all we could see was the two directly in front of us. While we got soaked.

Chocolate Hills, Bohol, Philippines

Rather soggy chocolate hills

After sheltering some more in the cafe, we were soon on our way to the last attraction of the day – the oldest church in the Philippines. Unfortunately some faffing about on our part in the morning, along with the intervention of the weather, meant that we’d overrun our schedule quite a bit, and got there only to find it was closed. And getting dark. So we gave up and headed back to the beach.

The Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, Baclayon, the oldest church in the Philippines, on Bohol island

The Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in Baclayon - oldest in the country

It could have been quite a disappointing day – but luckily my newfound monkey-love meant that seeing a few Tarsiers made it all worthwhile. All I have to worry about now is how to feed my addiction when I get back home.

Just before sunrise, Alona Beach, Panglao Island, Bohol, Philippines

For a change, rather than a nice sunset photo, here's lovely Alona Beach just before sunrise

You can see all of my photos from Bohol here.

Next stop: Malapascua, and attempting to dive with Thresher Sharks.

£14 to fly to Paradise

I was going to fly straight to El Nido in Palawan, but 6,000 pesos was a little steep – and then someone pointed out that it was only 995 pesos (about 15 quid) to fly to the island of Busuanga, just to the north of Palawan, and that made the decision for me.

I hadn’t planned to stop in Busuanga, but with flights so cheap it made sense, especially as it gave me the chance to try out some of the finest wreck diving in the world. For on one night in 1944, the US Air Force sank a huge fleet of Japanese ships that were sheltering in and around Coron Bay. Sixty years later, many of them are in relatively shallow, diveable water, and they’re the main attraction for those visiting the island.

Coron Town

Coron Town

Some other people I’d met told me that Coron Town was a bit of a dump – but I loved it. It’s certainly not going to win any architectural awards, but I loved its sleepy, ramshackle nature, and in particular the line of wooden shacks on stilts that jut out from the land into the bay. Quite a few of these operate as cheap hotels, and so I found myself sleeping in a hut right over the beautiful bay – for a mere 4 quid a night. Which is a bit of a bargain when you think how much that sort of thing would cost in somewhere like Tahiti (although admittedly with probably a tad more luxury).

The path to my hut

The path to my hut

The morning after arriving I was up early to head out on a boat to dive two of the wrecks, the East Tangat wreck and the Olympia Maru, both of which were Japanese support ships, in around thirty metres of water. I’d already tried out wreck diving at the USS Liberty in Tulamben, Bali, but the reason I was so excited about these dives was the chance to actually penetrate the interior of the ships themselves.

On going in I was suddenly worried I wouldn’t get to see anything after all – I had a slight cold, and for the first time ever I had difficulty equalising the pressure in my ears – which would rule out going any deeper. For a few minutes I had to hover at around three metres while I tried and tried again, and then finally, luckily, I managed it. Panic over and I soon joined the others on the bottom as we headed towards the wrecks.

The outside of the wrecks were OK – there were a fair few fishes around, and lots of sponges and fans – but it was going inside that was the real fun. It was certainly the trickiest diving I’d ever done, as some of the entrances were pretty narrow, and it’s crucial to maintain good buoyancy control to ensure you don’t end up catching yourself on the edges. This is doubly hard because it’s quite difficult to perceive how much higher the tanks on your back extend – as well as to keep your legs level to stop them from catching at the back. I did OK, although a couple of times I got a little stuck, and I ended up scratching my legs a little on one of the narrower entrances. Luckily there were no deadly sharks in the area as I was slightly worried at the effect even a small amount of blood could have on any in the neighbourhood!

Difficulty aside, it was great fun, a bit like being in an underwater assault course, and it was cool getting to see things like the propeller shafts and the huge old engines. I can’t see myself ever becoming an obsessive wreck diver – I prefer the colours of the reefs and the large numbers of fish, as well as the freedom of movement – but I’m glad I did it and would recommend it to any divers traveling in the Philippines (especially as I understand the only place with a bigger collection of diveable wrecks is Truk in Micronesia, which is much harder to get to.
I would have loved to have spent a little more time in Busuanga, particularly to give the island hopping a go (which is supposed to be pretty spectacular), but sadly the boat schedule to El Nido meant we needed to leave the next day, or risk being stranded for quite a while longer.

Are you bored of my sunset pictures yet?

Never throw your flip flop in a cave

The sun finally emerged from behind the clouds just as we getting ready to leave Banaue for the spectacular three hour journey through the mountains to Sagada, giving us the opportunity I’d been waiting for: the chance to admire the scenery unobstructed by riding on the roof of a jeepney.

The rice terraces of Banaue

The ride was every bit as good as we’d been told, as the road wound its way up out of Banaue (and finally getting us the chance to see the town’s rice terraces in all their glory from the viewing point) and through the Cordilleras, passing dozens of beautiful terraces along the way (as well as field of vegetables that looked wonderful thanks to the heart that had been ploughed into its centre). Riding on the roof was pretty fun – but bloody uncomfortable. I won’t be doing that again – not unless I can find a cushion to sit on.

Aw, sweet

Sagada turned out to be a fantastic little village – richly forested, and with pretty houses ranged across the town’s various hills, valleys and atop cliffs. At a slightly lower altitude than Banaue, the climate was perfect too, with glorious blue skies and daytime temperatures that were perfect and without much humidity.

There was one main reason I wanted to visit the village – to see the famous hanging coffins. The people of Sagada have traditionally chosen to place their dead not in the ground, but either inside the many caves that surround the town, or more impressively, by hanging the coffins from the side of some of the huge cliffs in the area.

The Hanging Coffins of Echo Valley

It turned out they were just a short hike behind the church in the centre of the town, down into the valley, to a viewpoint looking right up at the coffins. It’s a truly bizarre sight, and quite impressive – but I must admit at the same time I had a slight tinge of disappointment, as for some reason (I have no idea why) I was expecting to see hundreds of coffins, and not the relative few that we got to see.

A rather unexpected highlight came the next day – I’d heard there were burial caves in town, but as we signed up for a tour, we had no idea what to expect. A half hour walk from the centre of the village took us down to the entrance of a huge cave, which was stacked up with dozens more burial coffins. That was impressive enough, but the best was yet to come.

The guides lead us deeper and deeper into the cave, leading us very carefully through narrow passages, and making us squeeze through some very tight holes as we headed down into the lower caverns. Some of these drops involved some fixed ropes, others required some quite nifty footwork to make our way down – but the whole way the guides were wonderful at making sure we never put a foot wrong.

Quite a tight squeeze

Inside the cave was spectacular – we got to see some massive caverns full of bats, loads of impressive rock formations like stalactites and calcified waterfalls – and the whole process of walking through was pretty fun too, as we switched between tighter passages to wading through pools of water, which caused a few problems for one of our group – instructed to walk barefoot, to get a better grip on slippery rocks, we were told to throw our flip flops to the other end of the cave. Matt threw just a little too hard, and they ended up soaring past the intended landing place, and straight down a vertical drop, never to be seen again.

Weird rock formation inside the cave

Eventually we reached the lowest point, a weird landscape of strangely shaped rocks and beautiful pools, and it was time to head back up – and emerge from an entirely separate cave from the one we’d entered through. We were underground for nearly four hours in total, and it was fantastic fun – I shall definitely be looking out for more caving tours in future.

Emerging into daylight

You can see all of my photos of Sagada here.

Hiking past Mount Doom

With only six days to spend in New Zealand, I didn’t have time to do very much. But it wasn’t hard to choose what to do. I’d often read that the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of the world’s best day hikes, so after a couple of days relaxing in Auckland after the long flight from Chile, I headed south to Taupo.

On arrival, the first thing I did on checking into my hostel was ask about doing the crossing the following day – and was gutted to find out that it had been closed for the past couple of weeks because of poor weather conditions, and was unlikely to be open again for some time. I soon met various people in the hostel who’d been waiting in Taupo for several days without luck. I really should have checked the weather before heading down, and planned something else. But then a bit of a miracle happened – at 2pm the daily weather forecast came in, and it was a complete turnaround. They were expecting a glorious day – and therefore the walk was on.

After yet another ridiculously early start, we soon found ourselves at the start of the walk, slightly apprehensive about the fact the first part of the walk contained the devil’s staircase – a short section where most of the day’s ascent would be tackled in one, steep, gruelling section. Luckily for me, the benefits of all that hiking in the Andes seemed to be still present, and while tough, it was still far easier than I’d expected (ah, the joys of not hiking at high altitude) and after an hour or so we were at the first plateau, with a great view of Mt Ngauruhoe (better known as being the setting for Mt Doom in the Lord of the Rings films) rising up above us. The view wasn’t quite as good as I’d hoped, as the day was quite overcast, although it appear to be starting to clear a little.

In the summer months, the walk is even better, as you get the chance to do a tough side-scramble up the slopes of Ngauruhoe – but in early spring there’s just too much snow, so we just had to be content with gazing up at it (I think my legs were quite grateful for that at least), and soon we were on our way across the plateau of the south crater, before tackling the second big ascent. This one wasn’t half as steep or as long as the previous one, but was nearly as tough because this section was covered in snow, making every step far harder than it should have been.

Mt Ngauruhoe

It was all worth it when we got to the top though – by this time the clouds had cleared completely, and we found ourselves on top of a snow-clad, active volcano, with incredible panoramic views across a huge chunk of the North Island, even as far as to Mount Taranaki on the coast. Now normally you’d expect the highest point of a hike, covered in snow, would be a pretty chilly place to stop for lunch – but one of the big advantages of hiking up a volcano was that the rocks on the crater rim are all nice and warm, offering me the perfect spot to sit down and chill out, admiring the views, warming my bum in the process.

Jumping Mt Doom

Full of ham sandwiches and Anzac biscuits, we were soon ready to head on our way – but not before I’d taken the opportunity to get my latest jumping photo, with Mt Doom in the background. One of the great things about jumping photos is not just the end result (a bit more fun than your average posed snap), but they are always fun to take, normally requiring numerous attempts to get that perfect mid-air shot. It’s also pretty infectious too – after I’d shown people the picture of me, everyone wanted a go, so we spent another good half hour or so with everyone on the group jumping up and down.

Tongariro Lakes

The way down is just as spectacular as the way up – soon after the steaming crater, we passed by a couple of bright turquoise lakes, the colours looking even more pronounced when set against the snow. On the final patch of snow it was time for some more silly pictures, with one of my group deciding it would be the perfect opportunity to make some snow angels. So we all stopped again and leapt down into the snow. Snow angels are far too much fun to be left to children.

Making snow angels = fun

As we made our way out of the crater, the landscape changed dramatically again, giving us a great view out towards Lake Taupo and the hills around. We stopped at a hut on the way down to admire the views for a while, before finally heading back through the final section, through a forest, back to the car park and thoroughly knackered after a great day’s hiking.

Lake Taupo

In the end, I was so lucky with my timing – that night saw a huge dump of snow and further storms, meaning the crossing would be closed for the following few days at least (which also put paid to my plans to go skiing the following day).

You can see all my photos of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing here.