Saturday, 28 December 2013

Beautiful Sydney

Sydney Harbour and the Opera House.
Circular Quay and the city's skyscrapers.
Many people have many things to say about Sydney. Most people say that it is the most beautiful city in the world. I tend to agree. I have also heard Sydney compared to Elizabeth Taylor - stunning in its youth, vibrant and sexy, but now it's getting on a little, starting to droop at the edges, and needs a little more plastic surgery done. I agree with that a little too. To all you Liz fans out there, I can say that because it was true of her towards the end, but everyone gets old, and she was fantastic!

The Sydney Harbour Bridge, AKA 'The Coat Hanger.'

A Sydney ferry in Circular Quay.
The Bridge and Opera House.
Sydney on the other hand is still alive and kicking, and some people would also offended by what I just said. I won't focus too much on the negative things, as this is after all my city too. It does rely a little too much on it's natural beauty however - the Harbour, the National Parks and beaches. While beautiful on the outside, it is in need of a bit of work on its health and fitness - blocked arteries and it's bulging waistline to name just a few. I am actually talking about the clogged roads and endless traffic of the city (at all times of the day, and worse on weekends), and its constant sprawl which outruns public transport, housing and other infastructure.

Sydney at sunset.
2nd-hand books and coffee on Oxford St, Paddington.
But I digress! This is a travel blog, so the focus is on the travel side of the city, and of the positive sides - which they are many. A city of 5 million people, and the first in the nation, yet it is not the Capital City like most people think. It has wonderful beaches, 5 National Parks (yes, 5 within the city limits), greens spaces everywhere you look, old and new architecture, and the list goes on. It has been dubbed 'The City of Villages,' and you can see why. Sydney suburbs are separate entities - each different culturally and socially. A big difference in these suburbs are it's local residents - Leichhardt for example has a large Italian community, and you can get great Gelato and Pasta here anytime. There are many other European-suburb communities, as well as Asian and even Middle Eastern neighbourhoods, where the food is traditional and the feel of the area is unique. Cafes, pubs, old sandstone churches and new glass skyscrapers, Sydney has it all.

Rainbow Lorikeets - just one of Sydney's many birds seen in the city.

So many things to do in the city, and even more just a short drive out of it too. The next few blog entries will be all about Sydney and its surrounds. A few short trips around are The Blue Mountains which are just over an hour's drive form the city centre, The South Coast and Wollongong, as well the Northern Beaches and Sydney's Central Coast. Thats not mentioning all the hidden secrets within the city itself! Stay tuned for more Uncle Travelling Matt stories from Sydney soon.

The 3 Sisters in the Blue Mountains, just west of Sydney.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Thank you Nepal!

Before you start reading and looking at the pics, please listen to this song - this song IS Nepal for me. It was played in all the tourist areas and became my mountain climbing motivation song, helping me just keep walking when I was absolutely knackered. Although its from Tibet, many people know it in Nepal as it is a very common and popular Buddhist Monk chant. Enjoy while you read!

I know it's been a while since the last blog, but to be honest not much has been happening! You know that I'm now back home in Sydney - my city - and here to stay for a while. The last few weeks has been very busy, trying to get my life sorted and started here. A real reality kick. Before I go on, I would like to sum up some of my experiences in Nepal, and say thank you to a few people who really made our time there something extra special.

Bhim having a tea with Harry on our first day in Chitwan.
We stayed with a family in Chitwan, and without them we wouldn't have had the 'authentic' experience that we were really after when we first decided to volunteer in Nepal. Thanks to Bhim and his family, we were able to see how people lived, worked and played in the real Nepal, not the tourist towns that most people see. We took part in local festivals (including Bhim's 40th birthday - happy birthday!), ate local food cooked by friends and family (Dhal Bhat POWER!!), bought food at the local markets (including live chickens), met and spent time with the extended family in their day-to-day lives.


I would also like to mention our friend Ramita. Although she doesn't have internet access and so won't be able to read this, that doesn't mean she shouldn't be thanked (but she will be getting a Christmas card from Sydney!). Although we didn't know each other for very long, she shared her home with us. We cooked with her, ate with her, and took part in the Dewali Festival with all of her family - with her Father-in-Law, sister, as well as her nephew Anise and niece Anjali. Saying goodbye was very emotional, we exchanged gift's (as is traditional in Nepal), and we will stay in contact. Thanks again Ramita and family!

Ramita and family making the Rangoli in front of their house.

Mahaaja - THE place to stay in Kathmandu!
Nepalese are extremely friendly!
If anyone is going to Nepal soon, I can solidly recommend a few people to talk to about accommodation. In Kathmandu we stayed with Sunil, who owns a restaurant and hotel right in the middle of Thamel (which is the tourist area of Kathmandu, much like 'Les Ramblas' in Barcelona). Offering good prices, large clean rooms (some with kitchens!), and wonderful local food. It is well worth staying there - you can even learn how to cook some traditional Nepalese dishes in the kitchen! The name of the hotel is Mahaaja, and if you are going to Kathmandu, check it out. His facebook page is:

The Himalayas from the plane out of Kathmandu.

Goodbye Himalayas...
...hello Great Dividing Range!
Heading down south into the Chitwan National Park to do some jungle trekking? Sauraha is the place to stay, being the tourist town from where all the canoes, elephants and jeeps leave for the jungle. Although it is very touristy, a collection of shops and restaurants, it is still quite pleasant and you do get strange visitors in the street sometimes - we saw a 2m long snake walking (slithering) down the main road, and many people see wild rhinos around town too. When you do go to Sauraha, ask for the Llama Lodge - the man who runs it, Llama, is the guy you need to know. He has lived here all his life, knows everyone, and organising everything. We met him by chance walking around near our house, and he invited us in for dinner - you won't meet a nicer guy. He organised all of our jungle treks, including an awesome, full 3-day trip, as well as the elephant safari. He also popped in for my birthday BBQ, and brought bacon! 

The 4 of us together in Kathmandu - Harry, Ania, myself and my wife Marta.
A last word before I log off. I would like to say a big hi and thank you to Harry and Ania. Firstly, if it wasn't for them we probably wouldn't have gone to Nepal. The idea actually came up on my birthday in 2012. We were out hiking up in Huesca, Spain, and Ania brought up the topic of volunteering in Nepal, and it was funny because I had been thinking the same thing! After months of planning and searching for the right deal, we actually lined everything up, saved enough to go and made it. What an awesome trip, made better by good friends to share it with! See you in Sydney in June!

Flying into Sydney Airport from the south.
One final thank you to my wife Marta. We've been married nearly 6 years now (I KNOW!!!), and we have never stopped getting about the world, seeing and doing things together. We both enjoy the feeling of stepping off a plane in a new and foreign country, the challenges you face and the people you meet. May this 'wonderlust' last forever!!

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Trekking in Annapurna

As I mentioned in the previous blog entry, I had no idea that Nepal actually had jungles. Mountains on the other hand, I knew – everyone knows. Even if you don’t know where Nepal actually is in the world (and by now I am hoping you do, even if you looked it up on Google when you started reading this… ), everybody knows that the tallest mountain in the world is Mt Everest, and that it’s in Nepal. Ok, geography lesson over, let’s get down to the trekking!

Me and the mountain.
Some guy with my sunglasses.
You can’t come to Nepal and not go trekking – this is probably the biggest reason for coming here for most people. I mean the food is great, the people are truly welcoming and friendly, the prices are cheap, it is still a little out of the way and exotic… but everyone packs their boots and walking poles for trekking in the Himalayas – and can you blame them? Either can I. Although most people come to the Annapurna region to do the A.B.C (Annapurna Base Camp), which is a good 11 day return hike, I only had 3 days. I decided to do the Gandruk Loop, which would take in some beautiful mountain views, a decent level of hiking, and hopefully this would be enough for me… this time!

A lodge at Tolka - $2 a night, views included.

The first day was probably the best in so far as the views go – you start at a place called Phedi, and then climb the 500m ascent, all steps. Yes, out of the taxi, straight on to a Stair-Master machine for the next hour! The views at the top are out of this world though! You got a wonderful landscape view of the Annapurna mountains. Although not as busy as usual for this time of year, there were plenty of people doing this trail. There are also plenty of places to stay – in fact, the competition to get customers is quite fierce, and we were offered free accommodation if we ate dinner and breakfast there. The cost to stay 1 night for 1 person is about $2 - $3, but still, that saving can pay for your breakfast and coffee in the morning!

The view after the 500m climb from Phedi.
The second day was supposed to be the 'easy' day. We had stayed in a place called Tolka, and only had to do a few hours walking to Gandruk. Well, I thought, why just do an easy walk today - I mean, I can see where I was going to sleep that night - why not go a bit further and more in. This, at the time, seemed a wonderful idea! So, on I went with my 2 friends Harry and Ania (who were doing the A.B.C), crossing over at the village of New Bridge, crossing the 'rickety wobbly bridge,' on up to see the hot springs. I had a quick dip, and it was lovely! These hot springs are natural, and the water was lovely and hot, especially when it came straight out of the pipes from the mountain. Some people couldn't understand that in these moments, you should just soak, relax and keep silent... oh no, they had to drink beer, talk and carry on all the time in the tub! I left, feeling refreshed (if somewhat more annoyed at people than I usually am), and started by hike back to my lodgings for the night.

Yak, yak, yak - just shut up and enjoy it!!
28 year-old Pramesh the Porter.
Now, I was making great time on my way back, and thought it was going to be a breeze! I knew there would be a bit of a climb uphill, but I had no idea what lied ahead... 1000m ascent in the dark! I started at the bottom of the climb to Gandruk, at a height of 1000m, and started up. I thought it would a 45 minute climb and I would just make it time before it got dark - how wrong I was. It turned out to be a 1.5 hour, painful and seemingly never-ending battle of mind over legs. I think my savior was a young porter called Pramesh. I met a group of three guys climbing up the same way as I was, and decided to stick with em - so one of them could tell someone in town that I had fallen of the cliff when my legs gave out. Luckily that didn't happen. They stuck with me, and Pramesh even gave me his walking pole to help me get up. The leader of the group, Luxman, kept telling me it was only 10 minutes away... every 10 minutes for a full hour! One stop at a farmers house for a bit of water, I offered to pay the guy if I could stay there (as I honestly thought that I couldn't make it...), and he laughed and said I could sleep with his buffalo - I immediately agreed, and everyone laughed thinking that it was hilarious, before heading off again. I was serious about the buffalo. 
Luxman - aka "the boss"
A mountain village.

I eventually made it, and headed straight for the shower, then dinner. The guys had kept me going, and my mind did win over my body. Over dinner, I got to know the 3 guys better, and we smoked and drank Raksi until I deemed it was well past time for me to hit the hay. Luxman is 39, and has been a porter for 12 years. Pramesh was only 28, and has been doing the job for 4 years, and the 3rd guy was even younger - 17 years old, and it was his first time! Although they weren't carrying huge packs (as some others were), Pramesh only got paid 5000 rupees for 10 days - thats about $50 all up, or $5 a day. Tough work! My legs ached for days afterwards...

Machapuchare AKA "the fish tail."
The town of Pokhara is the main town in this area, and is worth a mention. It is basically a big tourist haven, full of cool bars and restaurants serving pasts, pizza and steaks, and full to the brim with guest houses and hotels. I was told before I got here that it was a really cool and relaxing place - I had my doubts, and thought it was going to be full of hippy, new-age travellers with dreads and iPads - but I must say that I was pleasantly disappointing for the most part... there are always a few dreads kicking about and some idiot taking pictures with his iPad.

Pokhara and the mountains.
We took a small walk up a hill the overlooked the town, to see the Buddhist stupa at the top. This walk was easy compared to the 3 day hike, but also had spectacular views. Once at the top, you had the privilege of being able to see the lake, the town and the mountain rage all in one - words cannot describe it, but let me tell you that my camera was working away trying to do the view justice! It was quiet, peaceful, and clean. We walked around the stupa (you should always go clock-wise), and took it all in, not speaking very much. At the top of the hill, just before the stupa, there were restaurants and even a few guesthouses, prices still good and views to boot! Instead of walking back the same way, which just seems stupid to me, we decided to take a chilled out row across the river back to town.

The Fish Tail at sunset.
Well, my time in Nepal is up. It has been a great 6 weeks here. I've learned a lot, meet many great people, and seen some of the country. Although I have barely touched the tip of the iceberg, Nepal has made me want to come back, and you know what? I think I will do just that.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Welcome to the jungle!

Before coming to Nepal, I had no idea that there were in fact jungles. Chitwan National Park, formerly called "Royal Chitwan," was established in 1973 and become a World Heritage Site in 1984. The park is very big, and contains more than 500 species of birds, including many varieties of Kingfisher, as well the rare Hornbill. For all of you out there that aren't really fussed by birds (although it is said to be the best place on Earth for birdwatching), there are also some big mammals. The park has 43 species of mammals, including the Bengal Tiger, the One-Horned Rhino, plenty of monkeys and Sloth Bears. The park was also the hunting ground for the Nepalese Royal Family, and even King George came to hunt here - they would shoot anything that moved, hunting from the back of elephants, including tigers, rhino, birds, everything, and in large numbers too. Only recently has the rhino and tiger populations recovered - rhinos are now numbered at just over 500 individuals.

The Himalayas from the jungle.

One of the many birds in Chitwan.
Goodbye canoe - now we face the jungle!
My first trip into the jungle was a short canoe ride followed by a half-day walk. Since We had been living pretty much on the edge of the jungle, it had been calling me, and that call had to be answered. I started down the river from the tourist town Sauraha. The boat didn't instill much confidence in me - I was sure it would tip at the slightest movement, and getting into a slim canoe isn't a slight movement usually. It was fine, and before long coasting down the river. It was a pleasant ride, and at the slow pace I was able to see so many animals. There were plenty of crocodiles, of both species. The Mugger is the carnivorous variety, which has been known to have a go at humans, and can grow up to 4m. The Gharial is the fish-eating crocodile, and looks quite different with its elongated snout, and can grow up to 6m, but is harmless for people. There were also plenty of Ruddy Shelducks, which are a migratory bird from Sibera. They come here for the summer to breed. I still don't know why you would go back to Siberia after holidaying in warm Nepal - a bit like living in England and going to Spain for a month's sun every year I guess.

A Gharial crocodile sunning itself on the riverbank.

Being stared down by a rhino.
Our guide watching the rhino.
You never forget the first time you see a Rhino. We had just got out of the canoe and walked less than 100m, when our guide called us to stop. The Rhino was in some water, happily munching away at the grasses. We moved around to the side, to get a better view - we got to 20m from the big male rhino, up on a slight ridge, and although he knew we were there (as he gave us a good old looking at!), he was too busy eating to care. A wonderful moment! We were very lucky that day - we saw a second rhino. Before we saw it, we found 5 Nepalese tourists hiding up a tree. If you see a rhino, you can a few things to avoid harm - 1. climb a tree (at leat 6ft in height to avoid its horn) 2. hide behind a tree and hope its poor eyesight saves you, or 3. if there are no trees, run in a zig-zag pattern. We did neither, and tried to get a better look at this animal that had scared the locals into the tree. Just after passing a watering hole, I heard it. We all turned around, and were stared down by the big creature. Armour plated front, back and sides, and weighing 2 tonne, the rhino is not something you want to mess with - they have very good hearing, sense of smell and can run at 40km/hr. It sniffed a bit, looked at us, then finished it's drink and left.

A Ruddy Shelduck in flight on the river.
Mum and baby rhino in the wild.
Playing with a baby elephant.
The following day, we took a relaxing, although somewhat bumpy, elephant ride into the park. I wasn't expecting to see anything from the back of an elephant, and contented myself with the experience of just being on an elephant. I was surprised. We saw many animals, including deer, the rare Hornill bird, wild boar (a whole family sleeping under the bushes), monkeys and a rhino mum and baby. It was an amazing sight 0 the rhinos were completely at peace, and not scared, mainly due to the fact of the elephants. Great to just sit there, 3 meters up, and enjoy seeing a rhino and it's baby out in the open.

Elephant safari into the jungle.
coming up for air.
After I had got a taste of the jungle, it was time to step up and hit it big time with 3 days. We caught a canoe and went further down the river, again seeing wonderful bird life, crocs, people washing clothes on the river, and water buffalo enjoying a dip. As soon as we got out of the canoe, our guide gave us the 'do's and don'ts' of the jungle. Silence is very important, and we used hand signals and short whistles to warn or point out something. What to do if you see a tiger, bear and rhino - all of which are different. A tiger you have to freeze, never run, and stare it in the eyes.... yeah I know. Bears you have to get together to make it look like you are 1 animal, raise your arms and make yourself look bigger, and make a lot of noise - never run or climb a tree. If you see a wild elephant (which there are in this part of the jungle), you pray and then kiss your ass goodbye.

Staring down a 2-tonne armoured rhino... armed with only a stick and cajones!

munch munch munch!
A stalk on the river.
The jungle was amazing - 3 days of near slince, loads of animals, plants and beautiful scenery. We never saw a tiger, but 5 mins walking from the river the guide stopped us - "tiger," he said in a very quiet whisper. He smelled the tiger, and we waited a full 5 minutes in complete silence. Then I heard a very quiet growl and it moved off. Scary stuff, but exciting! We also came across wet tiger paw prints, not 3 minutes old, after crossing a river, territorial markings from its claws, fresh tiger piss (the smell of a house cat TIMES TEN!), and very fresh Sloth Bear poo (complete with termite left-overs - which is kind of like when you eat corn, and the next day...). No elephants thank god! Plenty of rhinos but they are fairly safe, and great to watch. One time we saw a rhino, he was out in the open, and we were able to get a good look at him. We sat down beside the road and watched him. Some tourists on a jeep looked at us as if we were mad, took some photos and left, and then probably prayed for us. It was completely under control - when  the rhino saw us, we stood behind a tree (all 4 of us and the same tree), and our main guide waited. When the rhino came within 15 meters of us and let out a load threatening noise, the guide stepped out and banged his stick on the ground and yelled at it. I was ready to run for my life, but the rhino got scared and backed off. We backed off as well, so that the rhino could smell our bags that we had left on the ground - he didn't like the smell (of day old human sweat) and left. Wow!

A beautiful butterfly in the jungle.

Tiger prints.
Buddhist robes drying in the sun.
We spend the 2 nights in a small village on the edge of the hills and jungle. We took a bus to get there, which travelled on the national highway to India - this road was completely unpaved, littered with rocks, and just big enough for a car and a bus side-by-side. So yes, bumpy, dusty and dangerous. I rode on the roof, and had a great time! The bus stopped at around 7pm in the complete darkness, and we had to get off - yes, our stop was in the middle of nowhere! It was beautiful, and I had to admire to mist sitting at tree level, and the stars and the moon so clear - turns out that we had to cross 2 rivers barefoot by these stars the the moon only... not a pleasant thing if thought about too much, as we were told to stick to the path because of snakes. The village was great - lovely people, and the best food I've had in all my time here in Nepal! Spiced goat meat, crispy-cooked river fish and of course homemade Raksi! Raksi is a traditional 'rice-wine' spirit made here in Nepal. It tastes very similar to Japanese Sake, and like Sake, it is particularly nice hot. I loved the village, and slept well, and ate well. Only on the day that we left did we hear tales of how dangerous it is. A tiger frequently raids the next village for cattle, and several people a year get attacked and killed by wild elephants. Um, time to leave

The village where we stayed, right in the heart of the jungle.
 Made it back from the jungle, although the last day was a lot of walking - due to election in Nepal, the local buses were on strike. One bus tried running in this place during the strike, and was set alight. We walked an extra 11kms on the 'highway' on top of everything else to get back to where started from - 30kms away. After getting back to town, everything seemed so noisy and dirty and unnecessary! I just wanted to go back... but I guess the 'concrete jungle' is tougher than the green variety sometimes...

All in all, a wonderful trip, something I would recommend to anyone! Didn't even realise Nepal had a jungle, and here I am spending days in it seeing rhinos! Next big adventure in Nepal - The Annapurna Mountains!

Birthday Weekend

The always impressive Pedraforca. Just beautiful! Hiking with a touch of snow. Winter was setting in by November, and although ...