Brief thoughts on maps

The young lieutenant of a small Hungarian detachment in the Alps sent a reconnaissance unit out onto the icy wasteland. It began to snow immediately, snowed for two days and the unit did not return.
The lieutenant suffered: he had dispatched his own people to death.

But the third day the unit came back.
Where had they been? How had they made their way?

Yes, they said, we considered ourselves lost and waited for the end. And then one of us found a map in his pocket. That calmed us down.

We pitched camp, lasted out the snowstorm and then with the map we discovered our bearings.

And here we are.

The lieutenant borrowed this remarkable map and had a good look at it. It was not a map of the Alps but of the Pyrenees.

Miroslav Holub 1977

Kinkaku-ji

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The shariden at Rokuon-ji, or the Golden pavilion (Kinkaku -ji) has been destroyed twice, once during the Onin wars and again in 1950 by a monk of the temple who had a few kangaroos loose in the top paddock. All that said, it’s still magnificently splediferours in all it’s gold plate. Look closely and you’ll also see the architecture changes floor by floor, from shinden through samurai and finally to zen, not bad for a building that started out life as a retirement villa. The largest island in the lake that surrounds the villa represents Japan, and the whole is surrounded by a magnificent, running out of superlatives here, walk around garden with carefully planned views back over the estate. All very zen. How to get there? Well we took the green Raku tourist bus from Kyoto station*.

*FYI if you’re in Kyoto for a couple of days it’s probably worthwhile getting a Kyoto city bus day pass at Kyoto station.

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Nishiki Market, Kyoto

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Tucked in between Teramachi and Takakura and one block north of Shijo is the Nishiki markets with it’s multi-coloured glass roof. An awe inspiring selection of gastronomic sights, and smells, greets you in what the locals call Kyoto’s pantry. Some of the stalls sell takeaway in the form of sashimi and yakitori skewers and there are some small sit down restaurants tucked away here and there. A good place to hit for an hour or so of wandering if the weather is dubious, which is exactly what we did. Be warned though, if you’re a foody you may never escape…

To Kyoto by Shinkasen


Kyoto city of a thousand temples, pavilions, gardens and stately palaces, all surrounded by the surging froth of  modern Japan. Behold, the golden layer cake of Kinka.[record scratch…freeze frame ]

You’re probably wondering how we got here aren’t you… Let’s wind the tape back a little to see how we got here shall we? Dateline Narita International airport, situated in Chiba prefecture to the east of Tokyo. Our intrepid travellers arrive on their way to Yokohama via a flying visit to Kyoto. As it turns out the easiest way to Tokyo station and the Shinkasen connection to Kyoto is simply to take the Narita express (takes about an hour) delivering you to a basement platform in Tokyo central. You do need to book your seats for the Shinkasen and NEX trains at Narita. We left the Narita express at Tokyo station trundled upstairs to the ground concourse and the transfer gate to the Tokaido Shinkansen to Kyoto. All the lines are colour coded (Tokaido Shinkasen a helpful blue) and signed in english. Safely boarded on the Shinkasen it was kick back and enjoy riding the bullet in all it’s retro-futuristic glory as the Japanese countryside unwinds around us and we fall into an alternate future called Japan.

Downtown Kyoto, so far, so moderne...

Aoraki

Mt Cook

Aoraki, or Mt Cook if you prefer, is the tallest piece of real estate in New Zealand so as we had a spare day in Queenstown…Yep you guessed it, road-trip! From Queenstown it’s about a seven hour drive through the central Otago region, known for it’s vineyards and  where we stopped for lunch at (strangely) a nice little vineyard. Yes it’s long drive but you do get to see a lot of the south island as the landscape changes from farmland, barren rockscape then back to farmlands, then plains and forest until finally it’s the Hooker valley with Mt Cook looming at the end of it.

We walked the short distance to the start of the Hooker valley track which overlooks the proglacial lake at the base of the Mueller glacier, yes the water really is that light blue. As we walked up you could hear the boom of an avalanche on the mountain as ice and snow let go in the warmth of the afternoon sun, impressive. Historical note the Australian climber Freda Du Faur was the first woman to climb the mountain in 1910, interesting lady Freda.

Lake Tekapo

The Dr and the Mountain

Mt Cook, at the end of the Hooker valley

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Looking back down the Hooker valley, river on the leftObligatory arty shot :)

Auckland vulcanis redux

Rome might have its seven hills but Auckland is built on the bones of fifty or so volcanoes. Oh, and the volcanic field is still active which in turn means that eventually it’s going to rumble in to life again with predictably bad consequences. Still it’s not quite as bad as what might happen if the Taupo super volcano kicks off… 🙂

That warning having been delivered, if you’d like a great and quirky way to see Auckland I recommend the Auckland Volcano tour. Hike up to the top of Mt. Eden, Mangere Mountain, Mt. Wellington, and One Tree Hill and check out the views from the crater rims. The whole tour takes about 5 hours. And in case you’re thinking this is just a geology lecture, people (the Maori) have been living around these volcanoes for a long time so the tour is about the history of the people and the land as much as it is about vulcanology.

The Sound of Piopiotahi

Very Hebridean

Taking our leave of the Routeburn we picked up our bus at 11 from the Divide Shelter car park and kicked back for a couple of hours travel not requiring ou legs.We drew some curious looks from the other passengers given our slightly travel stained appearance. 

Even getting to Piopiotahi/Milford is dramatic, the road winds up through the mountain valley past the avalanche gates at Marians corner weaving up towards the Homer tunnel, a raw one lane 1.2 km long tunnel drilled through the side of the mountain. And when I say raw I mean raw, you have to put the windscreen wipers on when the water from subterranean streams comes spattering out of the roof of the one lane tunnel.

We ended up at the terminal building where we caught our tour boat for a two hour tour trip down the sound in all its moody, misty grandeur. The good doctor has been here when it’s sunny and was a little disappointed for me, given it was raining and all, but hey! my family hail from Scotland originally so I quite liked all the mist shrouded brooding ambience of the sound. This is, after all, where the kraken (or at least Architeuthis) is supposed to hang out. 

After all that it was back to Queenstown and then onto Auckland, and a unique birthday present. 🙂 

The Routeburn

Day Three: Lake Mackenzie to the Divide

An early start and about four hours of walking took us the 12km from Mackenzie hut down to the Divide. The track starts with a fairly steep climb up out of the valley past The Orchard before coming to Earland Falls (174m). The track then drops to Howden Hut. From here, the track climbs up again to the Key Summit track turn off (we didn’t have time for a side trip unfortunately) then downhill through the beech forest to the divide on Milford Road. A little bit of light rain or low flying cloud but otherwise good. 

Next stop Milford sound. 🙂

The Routeburn

Day Two (part 2): Along the Hollyford face

Of course once you get to the Harris Saddle and your journey doesn’t end there. You then have to hike south along the face of the Hollyford range to get to Mackenzie lake hut, if that’s where you’re overnighting. Now the mud map shows a gentle decline all the way to Mackenzie… The reality? Well it’s a long couple of hours in the sun slogging across ridges as you work your way southwards along the face. Take your sunscreen, even with a kepi the back of my neck got fried. The great consolation of this leg of the hike is the magnificent views down the valley to Martins Bay and the Tasman Sea beyond. Finally we rounded the last ridge line and there was Lake Mackenzie below us. A moment of reflection before we commited to a steep knee hammering set of zig-zags down through the quiet beech forest to Lake Mackenzie hut.

Mackenzie Hut sits right on the edge of the lake and by mid afternoon it’d started to fill up with guests for the night. Hint, get your name on the bunk roster as soon as you arrive. As the day was warm and the lake looked invitingly cool I decided to go for a swim and wash the grime off. Oh yeah, it was cool alright. The sort of cool that takes your breath and stops your heart for a beat. After a short bone freezing swim I emerged an interesting shade of pink (apparently).

In the evening Evan Smith the Hut ranger came around and gave a fascinating talk on his project to set up a wall of stoat traps to preserve the native birds, which the stoats as an introduced species have decimated. His program extends the existing trapping program in the adjacent Fjordkand park into the Hollyford valley and eventually to link up with other trap lines. You do notice how much quieter the forests are on this side of the range, so I reckon it’s worth donating to sustain the project if you have cash on you. Evan’s story, reminded me a lot of The Man who Planted Trees, it’ll be interesting to come back in a couple of years to see what changes this has wrought in the local ecosystem. After the talk we got our tickets checked and it was off to bed. Early start tomorrow so that we can get off the mountain in time to make our transport to Milford sound.



The Routeburn

Day Two (part 1): Over the Harris saddle

The only downside to staying at the Routeburn flat huts is that you then have a long day ahead of you to get over the Harris saddle and to Mackenzie lake. The day was sunny with a cool breeze and even in the early morning of the valley floor I was comfortable in a tshirt. Then it was a moderately steep climb up through the beech forest with some magical views of the Humbolt range until we arrived at the cascades of Routeburn Falls. 

After a short stop it was a scramble up the rocks of the cascade above the Falls Hut until we came out into the high part of the valley. Crossing the heath and wetlands we climbed up along the bluffs above Harris lake to get to the Harris Saddle/TarahakaWhakatipu at 1,255 m. Then we rested, had lunch and admired the view. 

The Routeburn

Day One: To the Flats

So here’s a little secret about the Routeburn track, book the Flats Hut as your first night on the track. Sure it means a long second day (we walked through to Mackenzie lake hut on day two) but this has to be one of the most draw droppingly beautiful places to stay. A vast alpine meadow spreads out before you, set amongst snow capped mountains all with a river running through it. There’s a walking track that you can follow up the valley, which we did. Oh and most people skip it, so it’s pretty quiet too…


Kinloch lodge

At the northern tip of Lake Wakatipu on the western side is the little lodge of Kinloch. To get there you have to drive up the east side of lake Wakatipu, worth it for the views alone, and then hook around the top of the lake crossing over the Dart river to get to the western side of the lake. There’s also a wee ferry that runs between Glenorchy on the east side of the lake and Kinloch. The lodge itself goes back to the 19th century and if you’re planning to do the Routeburn track from East to West it’s a great place to stay the night before you hit the trail. The lodge runs a morning shuttle up to the Routeburn track trailhead as well. The views in the morning, and the breakfast, are definitely worth it. 🙂

To the Lighthouse

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I’d finished my week of teaching penance so to celebrate I jumped in the car and took the peninsular road down to the lighthouse at Cape Schanck. Parked the car and walked down from the lighthouse car park to Pebble bay. As it’s a popular stop it’s all stairs and boardwalk and an easy walk on a spring day, you could even do the walk in a suit and tie if you had to. Sometimes it’s good to be the accidental tourist. 🙂

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Day Six/Seven: The curve of the earth

From the crater rim

Man, what a night! So, after a few hours of not very restful rest we assemble in the Bucky dome for our pre-summit brief. The weather is cold but clear and you can see the lights of the other climbers heading up the mountain in the darkness of New Years Eve. It’s a slow slog up the hill now, bulky in our cold weather gear, sometimes stopping to let quicker parties through. The air’s getting thinner all the time and I’m struggling now to  keep up with the rest of the party, feet are going numb as the heat leaks out through the soles of my boots (even with two pairs of yak wool socks). Despite the rest stops I’m falling behind as we ascend into a series of mind and body numbing switchbacks, listening to the porters singing (clearly they are acclimatised). Me, I’m just wondering am I going to get there? Thinking about just lying down I’m so exhausted. Eventually G and I fall out of the line with one of the summit porters and I sit down on a god damn freezing rock to catch my breath. Camelback’s frozen (predictably) so down to water in canteen.  Continue reading

Day three: Shira huts

Shira campsite in the morning, looking towards Kibu

Morning of the third day, a cool clear night. Had to get up for a call of nature around three, the moon flooding the plateau with it’s cold light and Kibo standing up against the stars. The air is thinner here and walking back to the tent it suddenly feels like you’re no longer swimming safely at the bottom of an ocean of air but the only person alive on a vast alien plain exposed to the pitiless gaze of ancient and indifferent constellations. Or at least that’s how you feel at three in the morning. 🙂 Continue reading

Day two: Shira 1 camp

Cloud and moor, with G

Waking early, always early on the trail, it’s a bird bath with the ubiquitous bowl of water, breakfast in our Buckminster dome mess tent and a short wait while we (the porters) strike camp, then we’re off on to Shira 1 camp. Climbing up out of the climax rainforest and heading east the air is cooling but still humid and it’s raining intermittently as we move above the forest line and we’re walking amongst heather and stoebe under a lowering sky. Yes it’s east, east and to the east again young man as we climb up the ridge line until we hit our lunch stop. Continue reading

Day one: To Mti Mkubwa

Early morning, Stella Maris Moshi

And we’re off, Moshi to Londorossi gate then Mti Mkubwa

An early start, and we were off in the bus for a couple of hours boneshaking ride to Londorossi gate. We’re using the Lemosho route which takes you up through the western cloud forest then east across the Shira plateau where it joins up with the Barafu route then it’s Barranco, Katanga valley and Barafu before the final New Years Eve ascent to Stella point. Continue reading

The snows of Kilimanjaro

Kilimanjaro from the balcony of our hotel room

Searching for Hemingway’s leopard

So dear reader, after many adventures on the grass ocean of the Serengeti, and a side trip to the lost world of Ngorongoro, the good doctor and I have finally arrived in Moshi Tanzania, the jump off point for our climb. We’ve had our briefing from the head guide, met the other members of the party and done a final equipment check. Ahead of us is eight long days on the mountain, cold, altitude sickness, pain and fatigue. What’s not to like? 🙂

Tallinn

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The old town 

Got up very, very early, my bad, I woke up zero dark early with the net result that we spent an hour extra at Helsinki airport really, really early, G was justifiably annoyed. Still we got to Tallinn airport and as we had a few hours before our connecting flight to Moscow well, exploring the Old Town was on the cards. Handy hint there are lockers at the airport for luggage and the bus leaves from right outside to do a loop route through the city, oh and if you’ve a flight to catch you need to watch your time and know the stops. If you’ve ever watched some soviet era period piece films you may find the streets of the old town strangely familiar, or so says G. Apparently Tallinn was a stock location for Soviet art directors after a ‘European’ feel to their film, with Sovfilms Sherlock Holmes and The Three Musketeers being shot here. Back during the ‘good old days’ of the cold war the KGB also co-opted St Olaf’s spire for use as a radio transmitter, nowadays Tallinn hosts NATO’s cybersecurity research centre.

In some ways the visiting in the off season is great as you don’t have to rub shoulders with a billion other folk. You can get a feel for the place and go where you please without feeling like an ambulatory sardine. The Estonian museum in the old guild hall was open and I’d recommend it if you’re interested in the violent history of the place. After learning a little bit about the history of Estonia I’m thinking of a new Estonian tourism board slogan, “Come invade Estonia this summer, everybody else has”. If you’ve got the time then spiral around the lower old town before making your way up the hill to Toompea, the upper town,  where the current national government sits, and where you can get some great views out over the lower town and across to the gulf of Finland beyond. Funny to think that we spend a few hours here then it’s back to Moscow with one day left on my Russian visa (that will take some explaining) and the start of the journey home.

The Viru gate barbican, well what's left of. This was just the start, Tallinn has a lot of towers, a lot...

The Viru gate barbican, well what’s left of. These two towers would have provided defensive fire for the main gate when it was under attack. Medieval gates such as these are interesting not just because they’re military works but also because the served to monitor and regulate people’s comings and going and as points at which taxes could be collected. This btw was just the start of Tallinn’s towery wonderfulness 🙂

Obligatory christmas tree, town square.

Obligatory christmas tree, Raekoja platz, that’s not the town hall spire over the back but in fact the spire of The Holy Spirit. We have our backs to the town hall, as you do.

The Raeapteek or Town Hall Pharmacy which is located opposite the Town Hall at number 11 and has been operating here since the 15th century. Check out the twining snakes (caduceus) on the door which is an ancient symbol of medicine.

Wandering around the backstreets in the early morning light.

Wandering around the backstreets in the early morning light.

Muurivahe, a narrow cobbled stone street behind the old city wall.

Muurivahe, a narrow cobbled stone street behind the old city wall.

Another medieval street with the spire of the Town hall behind, useful navigation marker really :)

Another medieval street with the spire of the Holy Spirit behind, useful navigation marker really.

The most renovated medieval bathroom I've ever been in, courtesy of the Estonian museum. :)

The most renovated medieval bathroom I’ve ever been in, courtesy of the Estonian museum.

Door of the Great Guild Hall, G about to knock with the enormous lion head door knocker.

Door of the Great Guild Hall, G about to knock using the enormous lion head door knocker.

Give me a little bit more of that gothic architecture, thanks.

Give me a little bit more of that gothic architecture, thanks.

Clock of the Church of the Holy Ghost in Tallinn. A Lutheran church with this glorious sundial of a clock hanging off the side of it, how'd they get away with that? :)

Clock of the Church of the Holy Ghost in Tallinn. A Lutheran church with this glorious sundial of a clock hanging off the side of it, how’d they get away with that?

More streets, this time slightly wider. But just about as deserted.

More streets, this time slightly wider. But just about as deserted.

And yet more picturesque streets with the sun starting to burn away the overcast.

And yet more picturesque streets with the sun starting to burn away the overcast.

St Nicholas' steeple from Rataskaev street.

St Nicholas’ steeple from Rataskaev street.

Walking up Pikk Jalg with Toompea (the upper town) on our right

Walking up Pikk Jalg with Toompea (the upper town) on our right

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The Alexander Nevsky cathedral in all it’s gaudy Russian revivalist finery. Needless to say not well liked by the locals given it’s role in the ‘Russification’ of the country under the old empire.

Inner wall and towers on the edge of Toompea hill That's the kiek in the kok (peek into the kitchen) tower to the right

Inner wall and towers on the edge of Toompea hill That’s the kiek in the kok (peek into the kitchen) tower to the right

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Looking back over the city wall, with Old St Nicholas' spire peeping above the wall.

Looking back over the city wall, with Old St Nicholas’ spire peeping above the wall.

Pikk (tall) Hermann, built by the knights of the Livonia order (as you asked). Tallest tower in Tallin. That's the Estonian flag up on top, a bit like the royal standard at Buckingham palace.

Pikk (tall) Hermann, built by the knights of the Livonia order (as you asked). Tallest tower in Tallin. To keep the sentries warm in winter the tower was built with a form of central heating. That’s the Estonian flag up on top, a bit like the royal standard at Buckingham palace as this is the capital precinct.

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Tallinn with St Olaf's church (KGB field radio det. No. 36) left of centre and the rooves of the city wall towers extending to the left. On the right we're looking across the port in the distance to the Gulf of Finland. Hey! I can see Rob's house from here. :)

Tallinn with St Olaf’s church (KGB field radio det. No. 36) left of centre and the rooves of the city wall towers extending to the left. On the right we’re looking across the port in the distance to the Gulf of Finland. Hey! I can see Rob’s house from here. 🙂

Winter roofs of Tallinn from Kohtsuatsa viewing platform

Winter roofs of Tallinn from Kohtsuatsa viewing platform

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South to Tammisaari

The stone men of Helsinki railway station

Leaving Tampere and the good Doctor.* I headed back to Helsinki by train to meet up with an old chum from the Navy at Pullman’s bar which is located upstairs in the central station. Pullman’s is a nice place to catch up with an old friend, a comfortable old school decor and a small but decent selection of beers on tap (try the London Pride) make it very easy to while a way an hour or so in conversation. Then it was off down the freeway to Tammisaari where Rob (my friend) and Outi (his wife) have their place.

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The Lenin museum

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V.I.L is in da’ house

And just when you thought that Tampere couldn’t get more interesting it’s a flying visit to the Lenin Museum. ‘Visit’, said the invitation on their website, so I did.

The museum is located in the Tampere workers where (naturally) underground meetings of the RSDLP were held back in the day. Oh and it was also here, in 1906, that Lenin met Stalin for the first time. All wry comments aside this is definitely a museum worth visiting if you have the time and interest, there’s an enormous amount of material jammed into a very small museum and you get more of a feel for the man in his times. I’m left wondering after my visit whether in the dark watches of the night Lenin was as  certain of eventual victory as he let on.

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V.I.L in a rare moment of relaxation, with that signature goatee growing back.

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Original letters from Lenin.

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And of course V.I.L in suitably heroic mode, oh and check out the guys behind him. 🙂

Alexander Church

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There’s a lot of churches in Tampere, and this Neo-gothic* survivor from the Russian Duchy is named after the Russian Tsar Alexander II, yep him of the Blood of the Martyrs in St Petersburg. The church park used to be a graveyard, there are still tombstones lying around, and (so the story goes) there’s also a mass grave from the Finnish civil war somewhere in the grounds. Unquiet history is never quite so far away as we like to pretend.

*Coincidentally Christ-church cathedral in my hometown of Newcastle is also done in that red-brick gothic revival style. 🙂

Welcome to Moomin Valley

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Moomins!

Yeah all right you’ve got me, this whole trip was just an excuse to visit Moominvalley. Well more precisely the Moominvalley museum in Tampere dedicated to the works of Tove Jannson. Like y’know Moomins! Oh alright, I’ll explain a little more, the Moomins and their friends are a cast of fantastical characters that populate the novels of the Finnish writer and illustrator Tove Jannson. Moomintrolls are distantly related to trolls, but prefer to live in houses rather than behind stoves or under bridges. The series charts the adventures of Moomintroll his family and friends (my favourite is Snufkin the chap sitting in the tree in the illustration below with his trademark and much beloved hat) as they deal with everything from floods to comets. If you have a young reader in the house with a taste for the fantastical then I recommend the Moomins series unreservedly. Continue reading