In Review: Our Top Ten

Though narrowing a year’s adventure down to pick out our top ten experiences is a nearly impossible task, we tried to do it anyhow. After all, it seems to be what everyone most wants to know. So here it is, the ten experiences we most loved, ordered not by rank but in the order in which we did them.

1. Hiking Torres del Paine

Of all the landscapes we saw on our trip, I think the mountains of Torres del Paine were the most majestic. The sheer beauty of this place was breathtaking for each and every moment of the four days we spent hiking the W.

2. Traveling the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu itself is mindboggling and not just because of the altitude. The amazing architecture and well-preserved state of this city in the sky wowed us. But what made seeing it really special was the intense three days of hiking through the Andes that we had to do to reach it. We also got to enjoy the company of my brother Gregory on this part of the adventure.

3. Cruising the Galapagos

This was eight days of pure bliss. From swimming with sea lions, sharks, and penguins, to laughing at the antics of blue-footed boobies, to marveling at the beauty of the natural landscape, to watching the stars rise from the deck chairs of our catamaran, our experience in the Galapagos was top-notch. It was far and away the most budget blowing of our adventures, but it was worth every single penny.

4. Living it Up in Buenos Aires

An apartment in a nice neighborhood, big steak dinners, ice cream every day (at least once), and a visit from my parents…our stay in Buenos Aires was like a vacation within a vacation. The city is vibrant and easy to get around with great architecture and atmosphere and tons to do.

5. Going on Safari in southern Africa

We saw our first lion in Kruger, got up close and personal with rhinos in Hluhluwe Imfolozi, encountered more elephants than we could count in Addo, found a few new species at Mountain Zebra, and became king of cheetah spotting in Etosha. We did a lot of safari-ing and never once got tired of it. In fact, I’m ready to go again.

6. Seeing the Surreal Landscapes of Namibia

Namibia might not have many inhabitants but they sure do have impressive landscapes. At Fish River Canyon, in the Quiver Tree Forest, atop the red dunes of Sossusvlei, in the forests of Naukluft, or along the Caprivi Strip, we were pretty much constantly snapping photos.

7. Meeting the Lovely People of Likoma Island

Until we ended up there, Likoma Island was never even on our radar. Malawi was supposed to be more of a pitstop on our way up east Africa, but it turned into one of our favorite spots. There’s not a lot to do on Likoma Island besides lounge on the beach and enjoy the turquoise waters of Lake Malawi, but the people are among the most friendly, welcoming, and fun loving that we met on our journey. I think we wore a constant smile the entire week we were there.

8. Trekking with Uganda’s Mountain Gorillas

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is not a misnomer as trekking through the dense forest is not easy, but every step is worth it for the opportunity to spend one hour in the presence of mountain gorillas. These magnificent creatures left us all awestruck. They are impressive in size, in expressiveness, in the way they reflect so much of us and we of them. Another pricey experience, but again worth every penny. Plus we had the good fortune to get to share the experience with Jeff’s parents and sister.

9. Learning to Scuba Dive

Experienced scuba divers claim that once you start, you can’t stop, and they know what they’re talking about. We’re already addicted and can’t stop thinking about when and where we can next dive. Take any of the underwater shows you’ve ever seen and multiply the magic quotient by 100. It’s that good.

10. Exploring Rajasthan

India was tough, but we did greatly enjoy our foray into Rajasthan. The forts, palaces, and heritage hotels preserved fantastic architecture and the feeling of glory days now gone. Though hassle was still present, it was low in comparison to other parts of the country, and we met some very friendly and interesting locals. This seemed to be the India of lore.

Bad Timing in Borneo

For most of our trip we’ve been lucky. Without much advance planning, things have gone our way. We were able to snag a bed in the refugios at Torres del Paine a few days before we set off on our hike. In Uganda, on less than week’s notice, we managed to get five passes to trek with the gorillas. Luck was being a lady to us, as these are things that people tell you you must book months if not years in advance. We were assisted by the fact that in South America and Africa we were traveling outside of the high season. Additionally, the global economic crisis was keeping a lot of travelers at home.

Advance planning is not a friend of the long-term backpacker. When you have months in a region of the world, you don’t want to tie yourself down to being in any one place at any one time. It limits you…forcing you to leave somewhere you love before you are ready or linger longer somewhere that doesn’t much interest you. Unfortunately, it seems that sometimes that kind of planning is necessary.

When we entered Southeast Asia, we knew the game was going to change a little. It was summer, European vacation time as well as Australian winter vacation time, and SE Asia is a hotspot for these travelers. It’s also a backpacker haven with visitor numbers always hovering at a high number. But for the most part, things went our way. Crowds were bigger, but we weren’t kept from doing anything we wanted, as long as we maintained a bit of flexibility.

Then we hit Malaysia. Suddenly having the flexibility to wait a few days, or even a few weeks, wasn’t enough. Not only was it European holiday season here in Malaysia, which is buzzing with tourists who prebooked every little detail of their trip months ago when sitting in their offices watching the snow turn to mush outside their windows, it’s also school holidays for locals. Topping it off is the fact that it’s Ramadan.

I wasn’t aware of it but apparently Ramadanm, in addition to being a time of fasting and alms-giving, is a popular time for travel. (As a side note, Malaysia, though an Islamic nation, isn’t a difficult place to be food-wise during Ramadan. Thanks to the very multi-cultural population, lots of places stay open and serve food all day, in particular the Chinese and Indian restaurants.)

But back to the timing… It started on the Perhentian Islands, where we loaded a packed boat to arrive on an even more packed island. Every single accomodation option was booked. The room our dive shop had tried to reserve for us had been given away. People were sleeping on the beach, sleeping on the porches of already-full guesthouses. Our dive shop offered us a bed in a room behind the shop. It was literally nothing more than a bed next to a thumping bar, but it was the best we could do. The next morning we got up early to try to snag a room being emptied by one of the travelers returning to the mainland. We visited every single accomodation on Long Beach, Coral Beach, and every other foot-accessible beach. In the end, the best we could score was two dorm beds…as well as a reservation for a room the next three nights since someone at (the highly-recommended) Bintang View Cabins had had the courtesy to let the staff know when they were leaving.

You see, that was the biggest problem on the island. Bintang View was pretty much the only guesthouse that required guests to let the staff know at least one night before they departed. No other guesthouse knew what rooms they’d have available until the second the guest checked out. You had to be lucky and be there at that moment to snag that room, especially since nowhere took advance reservations. Why should they when they know they’ll have people begging at their door for a room?

From the Perhentians, our next stop was Taman Negara. Jerantut is the jumping-off point for Taman Negara, and where we found loads and loads of tourists securing boat tickets to the park. While Jeff joined the line, I went down the road to see if I could find another place selling the tickets. I wandered into an empty travel agency and when I inquired about getting to Taman Negara, the man who made a living by selling such tickets, advised me not to go to the park, to go far, far away in fact. He raged about crowds and told me to tell all my friends not to come. It wasn’t exactly what I expected from a travel agent.

And though we considered his advice, we were there and wanted to go, so we just tried to find a way to beat the crowd. Instead of the boat, we took the local bus, which not only got us to the park two hours earlier, it also cost us 1/5 of the price. There before the crowd, we were luckily able to get a room; the hordes wandering around after the boat arrived were not all as lucky. It seems all those “Malaysia Truly Asia” commercials all over television were too effective. The hordes were here; the accommodation options were not.

From the mainland we hopped over to Borneo, hoping that perhaps it wasn’t as crowded. No such luck. On a visit to the Tourist Information center in Sandakan, we were asked what we wanted to do on Borneo. Our answer was “dive Sipadan, climb Mt. Kinabalu, visit Gulung Mulu.” The very helpful lady there smiled and wished us luck, giving us a bunch of phone numbers to call to ask about cancellations. Getting a spot outright for any of these activities was not a possibility. And in the end cancellations weren’t to be found either. Diving Sipadan, one of the best dive sites in the world, would have to wait. For Mt. Kinabalu, we’d just have to be content with hiking around the base. And maybe Niah Caves would be as cool as Gulung Mulu. It wasn’t what we had planned (or, well, hadn’t planned) but it would have to do.

It looks like we’ll have to make a return trip to Borneo, but next time we’ll have it all nicely planned and booked up. Well, at least as much of it as we can. Seeing a rafflesia, the world’s biggest flower, in bloom isn’t something you can nail down, but it didn’t work out for us and our non-planning either. To add insult to injury, we missed the blooming of one of these flowers by one measly day. As they say, when it rains, it pours (which it literally is doing here today).

Pictures from the River

We’ve been starving you of a picture heavy post for a while now. Since we’re best inspired by wildlife, I suppose that’s because we haven’t been in nature for a while. Sungai Kinabatangan, a long river on Borneo cutting through long tracts of primary jungle, provided a great way to get back into it. And two river cruises from the village of Sukau through the Sukau B&B were a great way of seeing it.

The first was a sunset cruise, followed early the next morning by a sunrise trip.

On both we saw loads of birds.

Not to mention loads of monkeys, including the always hilarious Proboscis Monkeys.

But the highlight of the trips was the rare and large herd of elephants we found eating near the river. They apparently only pass through once or twice a year.

All in all, it was a beautiful trip through some beautiful scenery teeming with amazing wildlife.

Going Ape for Orangutans

During the three years I worked at the Louisville Zoo during high school, I found a way most days to pop in and see the orangutans. I swear that these hairy “men of the forest”* seemed to recognize me and other frequent visitors. You could tell from their eyes that they were smart. And you could tell from their behavior that they loved to play. sometimes I’d come in with the task of washing the visitor side of the window into their enclosures, removing the handprints and noseprints of all the people who couldn’t resist getting close to the orangutans. As I’d work, the orangutans would watch, and when they were feeling naughty, they’d look right at the part I’d just cleaned and then grab some banana and smoosh it right onto the window on their side, the side I couldn’t get to. It made me laugh, and I swear that this would just encourage them to do it more. What magnificent, human-like creatures I’d think.

So when I found out that we could go see orangutans in the wild on the Malaysian island of Borneo, I put it immediately on our itinerary. Plus seeing orangutans would mean that we’d see all four species of great apes in the wild on this trip: humans, gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans.

The exact number of orangutans left in the wild is not exactly known but estimated to be around 20,000. They are highly threatened as logging takes away more and more of their habitat. On Borneo, one of only two places they’re found naturally (Sumatra is the other), orangutans are being forced into smaller and more isolated tracts of forest. They’re also being injured, killed, or orphaned in accidents related to logging. And too often, the orangutans with nowhere else to go, find themselves on farms and plantations searching for food and risking being killed by angry farmers or taken home as pets.

Fighting to save the orangutans—rescuing them from cages, teaching orphans how to survive in the wild, and rehabilitating injured orangutans—is the Sepilok Orangutan Reserve. Here orangutans are given the care they need by trained and passionate staff, before they are weaned from human care and returned to the wild, the reserve encompassing a huge tract of forest ideal for the orangutans. Not enclosed in any way, the orangutans released here are free to stay in the area or move further and further into the remaining wild.

To help the orangutans adjust to the wild and become independent, the center has set up a set of five feeding platforms. The first platform is not far from the center where the orphaned, injured, or displaced orangutans have spent months or even years learning or relearning skills. The fifth is far from the center, in the midst of wild and unvisited forest (except by center staff). The other three fall in between. Twice a day milk and bananas are brought to the platforms to act as supplements to the orangutans diet. The idea is that newly released orangutans will begin by visiting the first platform, and then gradually they will move farther and farther away until they don’t visit the platforms at all.

For some orangutans, this is exactly how it works. Others, once released into the wild, immediately adapt and never visit a platform at all. And still others spend most of their time away from the platforms but occassionally venture back for a snack or to show off a baby. One measure of success is that many of the rehabilitated orangutans have, in the wild, given birth to babies that are completely adapted to life without any human assistance.

But what does this have to do with us seeing orangutans? Well, while we could just take our chances and hope to come across one while wandering around Borneo (possible but difficult since orangutans are actually solitary animals most of the time so you have to have a keen eye), we could also visit the center around feeding time and see if any orangutans come for a visit to platform 1 (the only platform accessible to the public).

Not wanting to miss seeing them, we made the trip to the center and headed out to the platform for the 10 am feeding. Gracing us with their presence were four orangutans, each of whoom took a long swig of milk, grabbed a banana, and then swung about on the ropes. Two went quickly back into the forest while two others hung around and performed acrobatic feats.

When the feeders left the platform, a large family of short-tailed macaques snuck out of the forest and raided the area for leftovers.

With our admission ticket to the reserve good for the entire day, we decided to stay around for the 3 pm feeding. In between we checked out the exhibition center and a film on orangutans, and also followed one of the nature trails in the hopes of catching sight of one high in the trees (didn’t happen). A bit before 3 pm, we returned to the viewing area, where we found something like 7 orangutans hanging around in the surrounding trees and venturing out to the platform. They were much more playful than the ones from the morning feeding, swinging about and wrestling.

It would have been a great feeding. But just as the men with the milk and the bananas came out, the sky opened, and orangutans apparently don’t like getting drenched anymore than we do. While us viewers stood and just endured it, many of the orangutans scattered off. A few did hang out to get the goodies. If we’d been able to get the camera out without dooming it forever, we could have got a few good shots: an orangutan putting his banana peels on his head as if they’d protect his head from rain, another opening his mouth and lifting his head like he was trying to drink the rain, another picking up the entire bucket of milk and pouring it into his mouth.

They were as smart and funny as I remembered, and the entire time we watched them, even as the rain soaked us right through to our underwear and left our shoes full of puddles, I had a great big smile on my face. And while I was thrilled to be able to have this encounter, I couldn’t help feeling a little bit sad that such a place as Sepilok has to exist, that we’re not good enough and smart enough to protect such a magnificent species on our own. For being the more evolved species, we sure do a lot of stupid things.

*The word Orangutan means “man of the forest” in Malay.

The Jungle Revisited

Its become clear throughout this trip, both to ourselves and probably you all, that we have a different idea of fun than most people. Take, for example, our latest foray into the jungle.

It started, as usual, with our transportation. Most people are perfectly happy taking the ubiquitous tourist minibuses from destination to destination, as was offered to us direct from the Perhentian Island jetty. We, with our strange sense of adventure, rejected this option to take the “Jungle Railway.” Which, you must admit, is a very enticing name for a train, especially with its reputation for beautiful scenery. To see it in the daytime, however, the trains only leave at 4 AM and 6 AM. so we got up at the buttcrack of dawn, headed to the station and hopped on the train. It turned out this particular train wasn’t scheduled to go all the way to our destination, Jerantut, which was a downer, but it never even got as far as it was scheduled to go. We broke down after six hours in Gua Musang, which we should’ve hit after three hours. And we weren’t even impressed with the scenery. After running around Gua Musang trying to find a bus out of town and always being a step behind all our fellow train passengers who knew what they were doing, we gave up and waited out the ten hours at the local KFC (complete with free wifi!) until the next train. This train, scheduled to leave at 10:15 PM, finally arrived at 1 AM. So we finally got to Jerantut at 4 AM, nearly 24 hours after we left. And I think we definitely ended up paying more for our transportation after all was said and done than we would have just taking the minibus. The jungle railway plan certainly backfired on us.

But the next afternoon, after sleeping in until 11, we hopped on the bus up to Taman Negara, the most well preserved virgin jungle rainforest in Peninsular Malaysia, home to all sorts of jungle animals. We started by heading to the canopy walkway, 280 meters of high-walking goodness, complete with – well, no animals, bird or otherwise. But the stroll was pretty exciting, especially when you looked down.

We followed that little warm-up with something quite a bit more intense, and in retrospect, a little crazy. We hiked 11 kilometers to a hide, spent the night hopefully observing nocturnal jungle animals, and returned the next day. Sounds ok? Yeah, we thought so too. Here are the things we underestimated:

—steepness of the trail – the trail wound along the river, but went almost vertically down and back up at every ravine that poured into it. Though we didn’t gain any altitude overall, we sure went up and down a lot.

—jungle heat – we started with eleven liters of water, and I had started to cramp by midday. I simply could not drink water fast enough to balance out what I was sweating out. It was dripping off my clothes all day.

—amount of leeches – although the final tally was 2 successfully bloodthirsty leeches for Theresa, 0 for Jeff, we both spent plenty of time flicking them off our shoes and clothes.

—comfort of hide – we knew it would be spartan, but wooden planks sounds easier to sleep on in theory than when you’re actually trying to do it. But the “toilet” was completely backed up and unusable. On the plus side, no rats.

And here’s what we overestimated:

—amount of interesting animals – we sat in the hide late into the night and early in the morning and never saw a thing. For that matter, on the entire hike including our time at the hide, we saw a few monkeys, a squirrel, and a lizard in addition to a mere handful of birds. On the plus side, we heard a lot of birds (and cicadas!)

—availability of boats to take us back downriver on day two – one day of hiking in the jungle wiped us out, so we used our backup plan and headed to a nearby “town” where we were told we could hire a boat to take us back to the park headquarters. We walked up to find a completely deserted town and an empty jetty. Fortunately, other people who had stayed at the hide with us had arranged a boat and a hour or so later we were able to hitch a ride with them.

So it turned out to be a lot more work and and a lot less reward than we were expecting. Is it weird, then, that thinking back to it now I still think it was fun?

Under the Sea: Getting Our SCUBA Certification

I remember as a child watching programs filmed underwater and being overwhelmed with awe. How amazing it seemed to be meters under the oceans surface hovering over coral reefs and watching marine life dart around you. But growing up in Kentucky, I didn’t have much of an opportunity to do things like snorkel or SCUBA. Sure the YMCA offered courses, but learning to SCUBA in a pool and then doing my open water dives in a lake with about 1 foot of visibility did not have quite the same appeal as learning to dive in the tropics. So mainly I just watched TV programs and thought about how cool it would be.

Later in life I’d visit a fair few tropical destinations with happening underwater scenes. I snorkeled off the beaches of Hawaii, in Egypt’s Red Sea, off the coast of Belize, in the amazing waters of the Galapagos Islands, and in a number of other places. But I never found an opportunity to get certified as a SCUBA diver, and I have to admit that as I got older, I became a bit more timid. I don’t really like confined spaces, and though the ocean is certainly not confined, being tied to an oxygen tank seemed like it might be the ultimate claustrophobic situation. I’m also a worrier, and movies like “Open Water” and episodes of “I Shouldn’t Be Alive” about SCUBA diving give my mind plenty of fodder for worry.

When we started this trip, however, we said that once we got to Asia we’d give SCUBA a try, and now with less than two months left in our trip (really, can that be right?), we found the time and place. From August 15-18, we passed our days squirming into wetsuits, donning weight belts and BCDs, and slipping regulators in our mouth as we worked to become certified PADI Open Water Divers. Our choice of location: The warm, turquoise waters of Pulau Perhentian Kecil in northeast Malaysia. Our choice of dive shop: The excellent (and highly affordable) Turtle Bay Divers.

Becoming a PADI Open Water diver combines theory with practice. Our class, which ran from 9 am until nearly 7 pm each day, involved sessions of reading, watching video, and taking quizzes; multiple confined water dives to learn and practice skills; and four to five open water dives to apply our skills. The theory was, at least for me and Jeff, cake. It all makes sense. (In fact, I aced the final exam and thus got a free t-shirt. Jeff. unfortunately, missed one and is thus shirtless.)

The skills were a mixed bag, though I have to admit Jeff was pretty aces with all of them. For me, removing and replacing the regulator underwater, using an alternate air source, gaining neutral buoyancy, skin diving, and the like were no problem. What I didn’t like was having to fill the mask with water and then clear it or remove it completely and replace it. Though you could still keep breathing just fine through your mouth (the way you breathe when diving), when my nose wasn’t secured in my mask, I felt like I wanted to breathe through it too. Also, because I wear contacts, I had to keep my eyes closed when doing these skills and that was pretty disorienting.

What I disliked the most, however, was the CESA (Controlled Emergency Surface Ascent) in which, at a depth of 6 meters, you pretend you have run out of air, and after taking one final breath you must ascend to the surface at the safe pace of 18 meters/minute while making a continuous “ahhhh” sound. Since you’re at 6 meters, that means the ascent has to take 20 seconds. Doesn’t sound long but feels like an eternity.

In the end, we managed to check off all the skills, accomplishing them with sufficient agility to know that we could, if ever faced with a situation, do them again. Hopefully–and most likely–we won’t have to. I did take one dive longer to accomplish it all then Jeff did, as he breezed through all his requirements in a quick 3 days. But really, let’s be honest. If I wanted to, I could have done it in three days too. But why would I pass up the opportunity for a free bonus dive? On the fourth morning, while Jeff just sat on the beach, I hopped back in the water, checked off two quick skills, and then got to spend an amazing half hour swimming lazily 15 meters below the surface, peeking at black-spotted puffer fish, watching Nemo play in the anemones, avoiding eye contact with the colorful trigger fish, marveling at the size of the grouper, and feeling absolutely free and at peace under the sea. It’s as awesome as I thought it would be back when all I could do was watch on TV and wonder.