One Step at a Time: Trekking Kokoda at Age 15

Long days. Cold nights. Fatigue and loneliness. Standing in the harsh sun, I’m surrounded by walls of tall jungle. Staring ahead at a steep overgrown path that never seems to end, I hyperventilate. Time passes with each step. My breathing softens as we make it to the summit. I wonder whether I’d be better off dead.

The Kokoda Track (or Trail) campaign of World War II took place in Papua New Guinea. The campaign involved a series of battles between the Japanese and Allied forces throughout the second half of 1942, during the Pacific War. The Allies prevailed in pushing the Japanese out of Papua New Guinea, at a substantial cost of lives.

Tourists now flock to Papua New Guinea’s capital, Port Moresby, for yearly dawn services of ANZAC Day and other war memorial events. I was never really interested in war, but I was up for the challenge.

The track itself has become a novelty excursion for war enthusiasts and fitness junkies alike. It’s a single-file foot thoroughfare of 96 kilometres through the Owen Stanley Range. From Ower’s Corner roughly 50 kilometres east of Port Moresby to the village of Kokoda in the Oro Province, we venture predominantly through the land of the Mountain Koiari people.

If the rugged terrain wasn’t enough of a selling point to the adventurous hiker, the tropical climate and risk of disease on the fabled expedition should be the cream. Picture luxuriously humid days dragging your feet through ankle-deep mud for eight hours, before settling in to a gourmet dehydrated meal. Enjoy a freezing night’s rest in a makeshift tent; doze off to the sound of torrential rain seeping through to your inflatable mattress, as the early morning sun signals the start of another day.

I can’t say that I expected luxury upon my arrival in Papua New Guinea. As restrictions and standards to who can attempt this trek are strict, I’d been training with a Victoria Police facilitated program for nearly a year. The trek was the end-game of a 12-month-long community engagement program for young people in Melbourne’s west. I’d been hand-selected alongside my peers, deemed future leaders by their schools and based on their merit.

Yep, that’s me. A future leader. A young lady with a bright future and the weight of the world on her shoulders, heading into battle. Yet, I’d been fighting a battle in my own head in the lead-up. A battle that was much bigger than I’d given credit.

At 15, in the depths of the Papa New Guinean jungle, came my first mental breakdown.

I’m sitting by the campfire, distant enough from the group that I can hear their mumbled critiques of me that my mind has conjured. I’d slowed the pack down. I wasn’t strong enough to keep up. In my haze, I spill my hot tea over my bare legs. I don’t feel the burn at first. It’s not until all eyes are on me that I burst into tears.

Sitting knee-deep in the river’s edge, the faceless figures of my peers pour freezing water on my fresh wounds. I could lay down and let the water pull me into obscurity, but I must make it to the end. I’ll be a failure if I don’t.

Yet, even when I cross the famous gates of the trek’s conclusion, I’m numb. Frozen.

Is it the constant anxiety twisting my guts in knots? Is it the guilt of watching my peers play footy in the rain while I watch from my sleeping bag? Or is it the self-loathing I feel for refusing to escape the dialogue of my depression to sing a song ’round the campfire?

I don’t want to “have fun”. I go to bed every night hoping that sleep would eventually come and that I would not escape its grips this time. I can’t understand why this “life-changing experience” is changing me for the worse.

The Kokoda Trek was the Aussie Battler’s playground. We speak of values of courage, mateship, endurance and sacrifice. In the face of inevitable suffering, maybe even defeat, keep pushing. As much as it hurts, as disillusioned as you may be, keep running head-first into a warzone. For me, battling on meant that I forgot to breathe.

It’s more than missing the feeling of a hot shower, the smell of clean clothes or the embrace of soft sheets. I am missing a piece of myself. A black dog follows me home from the trail. I’m learning that travel isn’t always best; being stuck in your own head can be the opposite of what you need when the time isn’t right.

We tumble into a village in single file, just a little over half way on our journey. I sit on a bench and pick at my lunch. By my side, a local sits and eats with me. I don’t remember his name, but he tells me about his family and where he grew up. For the first time, I feel at ease, like I can momentarily rest and take in the day’s events. I find peace in my own mind. Of all the horizons I’ve stared at in my life, waiting for meaning to jump out at me, this one is special.

I don’t regret this trip, not at all. Retrospect is a great thing. Things are never as they seem in the storm’s eye. I know now, that I am stronger than I could have ever imagined. I am still learning this. Every day throws curveballs, some bigger, sweatier and more uncomfortable than others.

I can push through, at my own pace. I will always make it home. There is life after the finish line. One step at a time.

Cover by the author

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The Beinn a’ Ghlo circuit by mountain bike

The circuit of the Beinn a’ Ghlo range of hills is considered a classic Scottish mountain bike route, a full 35-mile day out in a scenic and fairly remote part of Highland Perthshire.  If you’re looking for a circular route which is mainly on rough vehicle tracks – plus a pub and/or a chip shop at the end – then consider adding this one to your list.

I was checking out the route for my Silver Duke of Edinburgh group who are walking it over three days in early September.  The start point is at Old Bridge of Tilt, just near Blair Atholl.  The route then follows tracks and paths northeast and parallel to the Allt Coire Lagain to an estate house at Daldhu before turning north along a good track to Fealar Lodge.  It’s a singletrack path from Fealar Lodge west, dropping down to the Falls of Tarf, before the long descent of Glen Tilt along a rough track.

The route can be done in either direction.  How you ride it perhaps depends on the wind direction and/or whether you want to start off with a steep climb and have a long downhill ride at the end of the day (as I did it, anticlockwise) or whether you want to ease yourself in gently by tackling Glen Tilt first of all.

Route description – Anticlockwise

From the car park at Old Bridge of Tilt it’s a long uphill to Loch Moraig, a good opportunity to get the heart muscles pumping hard.  Having gained height, the views open out along the rough track west, with the Beinn a’ Ghlo massif directly in front.  While the main route continues straight on to the northeast, our Duke of Edinburgh takes a detour southeast to the remote farm at Shinagag and so did I.  While it stayed dry all day, dark clouds weren’t far away.

Standing stone near Shinagag

 

The Beinn a’ Ghlo hills from a distance, taken from near Shinagag

 

I took a faint grassy track north from Shinagag to climb a heathery hillside.  This was the start of a tough stretch – certainly easier walking than with a bike – following a path that skirted the hill Sron na h-Innearach (‘inner ear ache’ perhaps?).  The heather was just coming into bloom and the mountains loomed large over the landscape.  Following a fast but rough downhill, and through a couple of stream crossings, I soon arrived at the estate house at Daldhu.

The twisting summit ridge of Beinn a’ Ghlo taking from the hillside north of Shinagag

 

Navigating the path north of Shinagag, looking north to the summit, Braigh Coire Chruinn-bhalgain

 

It’s a long, gradual climb north from Daldhu along a good track.  I stopped for a well-earned breather at the summit where I met the only other cyclists I saw all day, a couple of guys who had done the route several times.  I wondered, if this is considered a classic Scottish mountain bike route, why on a Saturday in mid-August it was almost deserted?

The reward for a long climb uphill is a good old blast downhill; it certainly got my eyes watering.  A good track leads to another group of estate buildings at Fealar Lodge before the route turns west along a faint footpath.  Just as I’d needed to push my bike for much of the section north of Shinagag so I also needed to get off quite a bit of the way along this path.  While the last week had been fairly wet across Scotland the crossing over the River Tilt turned out to be easily passable and I hopped across the boulders.

After a short distance I came across the highlight of the whole route, the Falls of Tarf.  This really is a magical spot: two large waterfalls, still pools perfect for wild swimming and even a flat, grassy patch ideal for a small tent.  Maybe it’s just as well this delightful spot is over 10 miles from the nearest paved road since it would have been trashed in a more accessible location.

 

Approx. 2km south of Fealar Lodge with the remote munro Cairn an Righ behind

 

Steep downhill track towards the Falls of Tarf

 

A magical spot – the Falls of Tarf and the Bedford Bridge

 

At the Falls of Tarf the route turns southwest along Glen Tilt and path widens into a rough vehicle track.  I always find Glen Tilt to be quite a dark and foreboding place, with the river hemmed in by steep mountains at both sides.  The coming cold front had already shrouded the Beinn a’ Ghlo hills in low cloud and the gloom hung heavily.  It somehow seemed a spooky place in the dark, late afternoon …

However, all thoughts were erased out of my mind as I cycled down Glen Tilt.  I’m sure the landowners have done a good thing by filling in the potholes with new stones but on a bike, even one with suspension, I felt as though I’d survived an endurance test on a boneshaker by the time I reached the car park again.  My hands were throbbing with the handlebar vibrations.

While this is considered a classic MTB route I have mixed views on it.    Much of it are on rough tracks which can be a little dull, and the path sections can be hard going since they’re not all cycleable.  It took me eight hours, including the detour to Shenigag as well as breaks.  It’s a fairly long day out and a bit of a slog at times.

Having said that, the scenery is great and there’s a real feel of ‘getting away from it all’.  The path sections on the route are most scenic, particularly as the heather was just coming into bloom.  Other than two other mountain bikers doing the route the only other people I met all day were two backpackers just setting out at the bottom of Glen Tilt.

I’ve come to the conclusion that in spite of the long stretches of track I think this is a better route on foot than by mountain biking.  Why not take a tent and make a weekend of it?  In fact, roll on next month when I’ll return with my walking boots and a tent.

 

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Tracking the Exchange Rate of my Trust

In the winter of New Delhi, the birds of prey drew imaginary circles below the smog; they wouldn’t be seeing blue for a long time. The buildings that surrounded my hotel were hungover, power lines strewn over their stocky bodies like streamers at the end of a party. The horizon was heavy and vast, the streets siphoned activity from block to block with the incessant howling of horns and growling engines.

I never got truly acquainted with India’s capital, but the hotel bathroom and I were inseparable. They don’t call it Delhi Belly for nothing. But much like toilet paper, the rupees in my money-belt were dwindling; it was time to step outside and find an ATM.

I must admit I was nervous: watching India’s Daughter wasn’t the smartest move for getting pumped up to travel this part of the world. I had only just left the building when I encountered the familiar feeling of being followed. From my peripherals I spotted the rickshaw driver. He was barely crawling as he gestured to me with big waving hands.

Imagining cartoon dollar signs in place of his eyes, I changed my pace from dehydrated-and-fatigued to hurry-up-before-you-shit-your-pants. But the longer I ignored him, the more he persisted. This carried on for some time, until I realised that I had no idea where I was going.

It was in that moment the feeling seized my gut.

“Get in the rickshaw,” it told me.

My gut and I were on good speaking terms and it has proved me right before, so I did. I stepped in, shouting the word “ATM” like a tourist. When I confirmed that he had put the meter on, I settled into writing my own eulogy in the back seat. A minute later, he pulled up by an ATM around the corner, waiting patiently as I refuelled my wallet and faith in humanity.

The hotel in sight, I was touched by the fact he hadn’t ripped me off, so prepared some extra notes as a tip. But when he pulled up by my hotel, he shook his head in refusal.

“No money,” he insisted.

Me, the classic foreigner, assumed that he didn’t understand and continued to do the awkward “take my money” dance. It was useless. I ended up saying “denyavada” too many times (the word for thank-you in the wrong dialect) and left. I can’t remember what he looks like now, but he taught me that not all strange men are advantageous.

*

Two winters later I was in Athens, sinking Mythos with a fellow traveller on our hostel’s balcony. Every so often, we stopped to peer over the railing at the acropolis glowing from its VIP box. His name was Jan. It had been a week since we first met, having already made our way through Thessaloniki’s old town maze and the monasteries that roost on the cliffs of Meteora. He was lanky, with traveller’s stubble to compensate for his thin blonde hair. His eyes were blue; they drooped like a retriever’s. He wore his Norwegian nationality on a collar; when hostel-goers were drawn in by his charm they would check it to see where he was from. I liked him straight away.

We were playing ‘Never Have I Ever’ when he came to a shy stop in the banter.

“What is it?” I asked.

“I’m not sure if I should ask this one.”

“Do it anyway.”

“Never have I ever kissed an Australian.”

Needless to say, he ticked that one off his bucket list.

We started to gain confidence and lose clothes. I was part-way through drafting the encounter in my head for my friends back at home when we discovered that neither of us had a condom. We stopped there, settling for spooning each-other from either side of the line I had drawn.

The next day, I peeled myself from my nocturnal friend to explore the city. I bounced from cat-infested temples to the romping grounds of ancient philosophers with that post-hook-up buzz that has the power to turn a day into a montage. Jan and I had agreed to meet again in the evening at Lycabettus Hill. We watched the city disappear into the gold-tipped shadows. Many ouzos later, we bookended the day back in his dorm, making out “discreetly” under the covers. Again, no condom, but I was content without sex. Besides, my gut and I knew Jan would never —

We were wrong. My gut fumbled through the vital seconds to sound the alarm, calling to the rest of me through the drunken fog. In response, I did what I had been trained to do my whole life: nothing. Nothing and use a shit-tonne of bleach for the lies I was to recite to myself.

It took months to understand why I had to sleep facing the wall so I could cry that night. Jan taught me that nice guys can still put blindfolds on.

*

Earlier that year, I was on a tour-bus arriving at Erg Chebbi. It was day five of the trip, which meant we were scheduled to camp under the Moroccan sky. And what a sky it was; the moon was giving the sun a run for its money as it abandoned the stars to spill white light over the desert. Our tour group had dug itself into a crest of a dune, singing with a token guitar through red wine. We pushed the sand around with our bare feet like liquid. Eventually, the others decided to go to sleep, but I was on full charge from whatever power outlet was coming from this eerie paradise. I needed to be in the Sahara a while longer, so I walked down to join the resting camels.

“¿Eres la chica kangaroo?” A tour guide whose voice I recognised came up to me, his face shadowed by the large indigo turban sitting on his head.

Sí, soy la Australiana,” I laughed.

He introduced himself properly as Hassan before rolling a cigarette.

We exchanged all our English tokens for Spanish ones, breaking our words into small pieces so we could digest each other’s stories. He told me of his family, his mother’s passing, years of being a lonely nomad with a flock of sheep. It was the tourist’s desire to take camel-riding selfies that saved his life, which boomed in sync with the industry.

“Over there is Bob Marley, he’s the big boss,” Hassan said in Spanish. The alpha camel batted his lashes at us, like he knew the ring through his nose was a status symbol. Hassan put his cigarette out in the sand.

“You want to ride him?” My gut stood up, alert: this was the precursor for a 60 Minutes headline about the Australian girl that disappeared into the desert. Yet although the thought erred me on the side of caution, I didn’t feel in danger.

Por qué no?” I replied. Why not?

I hopped onto Marley´s surprisingly comfortable back, as Hassan pulled a tattered rope that rocked the mammal to life.

The three of us walked through the sandy quiet for the most part, only to be broken by Hassan saying, “Man, you Australians have the best music,” before proceeding to play Angus and Julia’s ´Mango Tree´ from his cheap phone speakers. I was pinching myself.

I don´t know what Hassan was looking for, most of the dunes looked the same to me, but he found a spot with dry grass to park Marley.

“Race you to the top!” he said, already gunning it. Up there we shared cigarettes and badly-translated riddles that would have left J. R. R. Tolkien cringing.

“Try on my turban,” he insisted, wrapping it around my head. He laughed at my naivety as I unfurled it. It was almost sunrise.

“I think it’s time I go back to camp.”

“Sí.” Hassan agreed, and that was exactly where he took me. He taught me that men are capable of asking for nothing in return for friendship.

*

Three men walked into the life that I manage. One helped me, one hurt me and one inspired me. For a long time, I framed my memories of them with “Lucky idiot”, “Don’t do what I did”, or the insidious whisper of “I should have known”. On the good nights, I’d rewind and hit play on my memories of their strange kindness. On bad ones, I traced hand-written apologies onto my skin. Yet, in the end, it was I that taught myself that it’s not up to me to know who to trust. None of us should be held to that.

Cover by Nischal Masand

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The Traveller’s Sacrifice

I just missed another friend’s wedding. A friend I have known since the age of 10. She sent me the invite months ago.

Absolutely no pressure if you’re not, but do you think you’ll be in Australia in June? We have booked the date and I would love you to be there.

When she asked, I didn’t even know where I was spending the next two weeks, let alone what country I would be in six months from now. So I had no choice but to decline.

This is a pretty regular occurrence when you are often jumping from one country to the next. Weddings, birthdays, baby showers. But as I dive shipwrecks in Egypt and hike mountains in New Zealand, I look around and, I’ll be honest, I am not thinking of Kellie’s 25th that I clicked can’t attend on the Facebook invite.

Sometimes though, constantly being on the road can be a bit of a lonely existence.

Don’t get me wrong. I have made friends all over the world. There are many people whom I spent just a few days with in some foreign country that I still consider close friends today thanks to that wonderful thing called the internet coupled with the relative ease of international travel when you come from a country of first-world privilege.

But when you are not there for event after event, there is only so much that Skype and Facebook messages can do. The distance and time definitely taking a toll on the strong bond you once shared with travel friends and high school friends alike.

 Romantic relationships are difficult for the same reason. When you’re doing long distance, eventually, all that chemistry is forgotten. I speak from experience. And when you don’t know your own future plans, how do you add another person’s into the mix? You meet someone you like. You end up dating. You stay long enough to build a routine – a life with the person. Then you get restless. Your feet begin to again tingle with that familiar travel itch. So you eventually tell them it is goodbye. Because you choose travel every single time.

While your friends from your hometown progress in their career and save for houses, you work three-month contracts until you’ve saved enough for your next plane ticket. The idea of me ever owning a home is currently laughable. Sometimes, I find myself tempted by cute trinkets but then reality kicks in. Where am I going to put a lamp?

These things can get to a person sometimes. As I prepare to again re-home myself, this time a 30-hour flight and $2000 dollar plane ticket away from my hometown, I say my farewells to the friends I’ve known since I was young. And I do feel sad, not only from saying goodbye, but also to forgoing the possibility of a life here. One with more stability. A job with possible promotions, a boyfriend to come home to and maybe even a cat.

That sadness is quickly replaced, though, by pure excitement when I’ve pressed purchase on a plane ticket. I’ve tried many things in my life to get that same high, from jogging to cocaine. But, truth is, nothing makes my heart pound harder than that confirmation of a trip to a foreign land. This is even though I know next time I set my feet on my home country again, my friends’ lives will have continued on without me, probably with more weddings and even a few babies.

But I have accepted this. I will continue to send my congratulations while I book that next trip. One day I will be ready to “settle down”, but not quite yet. Because when I look back on the experiences from travel – for me, at least – it’s a worthy trade-off.

Cover by Erik Odiin 

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Killing in the Name Of

The reactions are diverse when you tell someone you’ve decapitated a live chicken in Vietnam: I’ve been laughed at for my inept bravery, labelled as a bloodlust sicko and given a pat on the back. One thing’s for sure: it peels open a fresh can of controversial worms.

Nearly all of us kill animals every day. If it’s not for Friday’s steak night, it’s sporting trendy fur coats, leather boots or placing a bet on a lucky horse. Whether you like it or not, animals are being killed for our convenience. That’s a dry weetbix or two kinda breakfast. Fucked.

Killing something has always been on the agenda for me. Not in a murderous, cult-killing compulsive kind of way. I don’t idealise butchery and you’ll still see me sobbing through the scene where the horse drowns in Never Ending Story. But as a sucker for self-sustainment and self-growth, I had always wanted to see how capable I was of killing my own food, with my own hands, as opposed to conveniently allowing someone else to do it for me.

It was almost comedic that I found a place called ‘Pub with Cold Beer’ in the peaceful Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, where tourists are offered the violent opportunity to select and kill a chicken for their lunch. The ride out there was scenic and tranquil, and despite my spine feeling like it may be permanently hunched after 20 minutes of navigating potholes on a scooter, we passed farmers tending to their crops with a backdrop of limestone mountains.

After skimming through the menu, we washed down the dust we’d inhaled on our ride with local beer and ordered the signature dish — dinner with a killer’s touch. An old lady with a toothy grin lead us to an opening behind the restaurant.

On our way, we intersected with another traveller. Specks of blood dotted his shirt and socks. I reflected on my own poor choice of outfit: a white, loose, linen button up paired with denim shorts and white nikes. I was sweating profusely and not from the heat.

The owner disappeared into the coop, sending dozens of feathers into the air. A few chickens were weighed until finally one just over a kilo was deemed the right pick for our growing appetites. The owner handed me a machete with one hand and the chicken with the other and lead me to a small, rectangular wooden block on the ground. Fresh blood soaked the block and had spread to the surrounding dirt. My hands were now shaking; the owner had abandoned me to accommodate other customers.

Holding the machete and a chicken, I felt detached from my body. I crouched awkwardly, lost in limbo and unsure how to slap myself into the moment. Eventually, the owner returned and indicated to the neck, repeating “cut here” in a supportive but firm tone. I understood the task before me, but willing my body to digest what that meant for the chicken in front of me was hard to swallow.

The chicken was uncomfortably quiet as I held it firmly by the legs. It looked lifeless already, as if I could let go at any moment and it would still lay there with its head pressed against the block. I began to panic.

Does it know what’s about to happen? What if I miss the neck?”

I repeated these questions over and over in my mind, knowing that if I didn’t angle correctly, the chances of hacking into its face or shoulders, and conjuring a bloody mess, were high.

I went in for the kill. The blade met where I intended but I hesitated at the last minute.

Shit.”

The chicken began franticly flapping its wings and gurgling its last chirps. Its eyes rolled back in its near-severed head. The owner squealed, “Cut it! Cut it!” Her words dripped with empathy for the chicken, which I wholeheartedly shared. My arm repeated the motion of slashing into feathers and tendons, slowly opening a messy gash to allow blood to bubble over. By the time I completed the cut, blood splatters were visible on my clothes, hands and arms. I had never seen such a rich, red flow.

Seized with the overwhelming realisation of what I had done, my gaze failed to notice my hands were wet with blood. I was led to a tin bucket, congested with dishes and scraps, the likes of which brushed against my fingers as I attempted to clean myself up. Exhausted with guilt as blood dissipated into the lukewarm murky water, my stomach curled; the uneasiness suppressing my appetite. It was a weird sensation killing something.

In Vietnam, killing a chicken is a regular chore; cut the neck, place in scalding water, pluck and remove the innards. Personally, this seemed to be more naturally humane than purchasing a packet of meat no longer recognised as once-living; just a slab of protein that makes us salivate. The Vietnamese have desensitised themselves to killing what is necessary, and although that may sound like a deprecating jab, mass meat manufacturers inhumanely kill daily. I spent only a few moments interacting with my food alive and I knew it hadn’t been pumped with hormones to plump it up for the shelves.

I slinked back to our dining table. Conversation was awkwardly exchanged for silence, allowing space for our mutual discomfort to surface. No one had any lunch time jokes to share. Our meal arrived soon after, alongside rice, homemade peanut sauce and steamed snap beans, all sourced from the family’s farm. Polishing off the remnants of our meal, our bellies were full and for me, eating meat for the rest of trip was out of the picture.

Cover by Lesly Juarez; inset by the author

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Cycling the Scottish C2C

As I lay I listened to the sounds of two fisherman exchanging anecodates and laughter in the warm, summer air while they packed up their gear.  They’d spent another Saturday evening in relaxed company fishing the Tweed at an altogether slower pace of life.  Then as the two car doors slammed shut and the roar of the car gradually faded away, these noises were replaced by the sounds of distant livestock and the breeze softly tickling the trees.  I soon drifted off to sleep.

As I woke the next morning beside the river it struck me that cycling Scotland’s coast to coast (C2C) is really a misnomer.  Each coast is really just a fleeting moment, part of a much longer journey.  The time I actually spent along the coastline was relatively limited.  No, the journey is actually defined by the water in between, by the rivers Annan, Tweed and Esk that connect the landscape to the sea.  Waking up beside the River Tweed, it was comforting to think that I was getting washed in the same river I’d picnicked beside the previous afternoon, and the same river whose source I’d cycled past that morning.  What travelled quicker, I wondered, the individual molecules of water travelling downhill from the river’s source or me on my bike?

The Scottish C2C is a 125 mile (201km) journey from the Solway Firth in the very south of Scotland to the Forth Rail Bridge near Edinburgh.  It always takes a moment to explain to folk that unlike the much better known English C2C which goes east-west across the North of England, Scotland’s C2C dissects the country north-south.

Launched in 2014, it’s only now becoming a little more popular.  But it’s well signposted and has its own guidebook*, and offers most people a two- or three-day journey through some very quiet and scenic parts of Scotland.  If you like quiet country lanes and cycle paths following disused railway lines then this is the route for you.

Scottish C2C route

From Glasgow I’d taken a slow train down to Annan accompanied by Friday afternoon shoppers and commuters.  The train gradually emptied out by the time we passed Dumfries and I soon found myself outside the station trying to get my bearings.  While Annan’s not a big town it did take me three attempts to find the right road to Seafield Farm on the Solway Firth.  Here you can see the line of the old fords which connected Annan to Bowness on Solway, with danger signs warning that the river levels can rise by 7 metres at high tide.

 

My start point of the Scottish C2C at Seafield Farm, Annan

 

Annan

 

A convenient meal of fish and chips at the Cafe Royal saw me cycling about 10 miles northwards along undulating country lanes.  This is dairy country with fields of Galloway cattle everywhere you look.  There was very little traffic to speak of, just the sights and sounds of rural Scotland.  The C2C route traces the line of the River Annan and just west of St Mungo’s church, near Ecclefechan, I pitched up for the night as the evening light faded.  I camped a short distance away from the river’s gurgling and was soon fast asleep.

 

Wild camping near the River Annan

 

Day 2 would take me 53 miles past Lockerbie all the way to Peebles.  The peaceful start to my ride continued with very little traffic on the back roads.  At Millhousebridge I stopped to admire the old signpost, a relic of times gone by but still very much in use.  At Johnstonebridge, with the constant hum of vehicles whizzing along the M74 in the background, I saw another relic of former days.  But this time the old telephone box had been brought bang up to date.  The telephone box had been painted gold in 2017 to celebrate the para-athlete Shelby Watson winning no less than five gold medals in T33 wheelchair racing.  What an amazing achievement!

 

 

By the time I reached Moffat I was beginning to flag.  Coffee and a bacon roll in a cafe thronged with tourists hit the spot.  Renewed, I started the long climb on the A701 up to the Devil’s Beeftub.  This is the big climb on the Scottish C2C and I took it slow and steady, stopping half way up for a breather.  I was overtaken at speed by a young guy on a road bike carrying nothing and who said nothing.   It did seem just a tad rude; we are all cyclists after all.

From the top of the hill at the Devil’s Beeftub I relished the 10 mile continuous downhill all the way to Tweedsmuir.  I passed the source of the River Tweed and then followed its meandering as it became broader and slower all the way to Peebles and then beyond (the next morning) to Innerleithen.  Like a young child the river begins life bubbly and playfully, gains character by the time it reaches Tweedsmuir then enters middle age by the Central Borders as its waistline expands and its movements slow.

I camped at Manor Bridge, just outside Peebles, a place where I’ve often fished myself when I lived nearby.  Several families were camped beside a tributary, chattering beside campfires – I’ve never seen the place so busy – and so I found a quiet spot a stone’s throw from the river.

 

 

Wild camp at Manor Bridge, near Peebles

 

After a great catch up with friends in Peebles over breakfast, day 3 saw me cycle 63 miles from the town all the way to the Forth Estuary, within sight of the C2C’s end point.  The sun shone as I rode along the almost deserted former railway line to Innerleithen.  Quiet, traffic free and very scenic, this was one of the most enjoyable sections of the whole journey.

Leaving the Tweed, a long, steady climb from the small town of Innerleithen saw me cycle over the Moorfoot hills.  Although the B709 is well off the beaten track, this Sunday morning it was almost like the Tour de France and the Isle of Man TT rolled into one.  Almost 50 old-style motorbikes passed me going south – clearly a club outing – and I’m pleased to say that almost all of the road cyclists exchanged greetings with me.

Looking north from the Moorfoots gives a great vista over the Forth.  The Pentland Hills, Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh Castle and the Fife coast all pointed to my route for the rest of my journey.

 

View to the Firth of Forth from the Moorfoot hills

 

Following a fast downhill to Middleton and lunch in the tiny village of Carrington I met urban Scotland on the outskirts of Edinburgh at Bonnyrig and Dalkeith.  I lost the C2C signs here and instead followed the National Cycle Network (NCN1) signs past industrial estates and urban parks.  The constant start-stop to check navigation meant I lost my cycling rhythm for a while.  However, on finding the pleasant River Esk Path between Whitecraigs and Musselburgh my mood improved.  The sound of seagulls meant that the coast was getting nearer.

Being Sunday afternoon meant that … well … there was a definite ‘Sunday afternoon’ feel to this part of the ride.  Families with pushchairs and dogwalkers shared the promenade from Musselburgh, past Joppa and on to Portobello.  Cafes spilled out on the the prom.  Kids splashed in the sea and their dads constructed elaborate castles.  My incentive for getting this far was to get an ice cream on Porty’s prom.  I needed (lots of) cold, cold drinks and food to quench my thirst, and an ice cream sundae and iced coffee were just what the doctor ordered.

Suitably reinvigorated I cycled along the seafront to Leith.  I retraced the route where I’d previously run the Edinburgh Half Marathon, past the swimming pool where I’d tried (unsuccessfully) to learn to roll a kayak a few decades earlier, and passed the drab Scottish Government office at Victoria Quay where I’ve often sat in work meetings.  Leith’s harbour front was buzzing with tourists at festival time and the cricketers were absorbed in their game on Leith Links.

From these familiar sights I turned left on to the Warrington Path in Leith to discover the delights of Edinburgh’s cycle network.  I didn’t own a bike when I lived in Edinburgh and so I’ve never really experienced these traffic-free routes along disused railway lines.  What a delight.  Along the Warrington and Chancelot Paths and through the Trinity Tunnel I avoided the busy streets and soon found myself coming out beside Granton’s gas tower.

 

 

Camping at the Edinburgh Camping and Caravan Club site at Silverknowes probably wasn’t the smartest decision I’ve ever made.  There’s nothing wrong with the site itself (unless you like regimented rules and aren’t dismayed at the exhorbitant £22 cost for a bike and one-man tent of course).  However, the site’s location means that it’s directly underneath the flight path to Edinburgh Airport and I soon discovered that planes were screeching just 500 metres overhead every 5 to 10 minutes until 11pm at night.  Whether any planes did arrive after that time I don’t know but I think I was so tired that I was dead to the world.

All that was left of the C2C route was to cycle the remaining stretch of the seafront to the pretty village of Cramond before following the quieter lanes through Dalmeny Estate to the Forth Road Bridge.  I was a little surprised that there’s no sign or plaque to say that this is the end of the C2C, or at least if there is I missed it.

 

At the end point of the Scottish C2C, South Queensferry

 

I rewarded myself with a mid-morning snack in a South Queensferry cafe before stealing myself for the last leg home.  Having cycled 125 miles to get this far it didn’t seem too much of a stretch to tack on another 40-odd miles to get home to near Stirling.  I enjoyed riding over the Forth Road Bridge, still open to bikes, buses and tractors now that the new Queensferry Crossing has opened.  While most folk seemed desperate to take a trip over the new bridge when it first opened I was more concerned about not having a last chance to go over the old, familiar bridge.  But here I was once again.  The real highlight though was hearing a maintenance van pass me, making that very familiar “da-duh” sound as it crossed the big concrete slabs over the roadway.  Ah, memories …

There are several cycle routes round the Forth and my goal was to navigate past Rosyth, up to Dunfermline then join the old railway line (now the NCN76 cycle path) to go west.  This proved to be a really great route and I whizzed the 12 miles or so from Dunfermline to Clackmannan meeting almost no one.  In fact, once past Alloa’s housing estates the traffic-free route continued past Cambus until I was well within sight of the Wallace Monument.

A refreshing milkshake at Corrieri’s famous cafe in Bridge of Allan spurred me on for those last few miles.  At this point the heavens opened and I arrived home wet, tired, cooled-off but very satisfied.  I thoroughly enjoyed the Scottish C2C.  It may be billed a coast-to-coast route but from river to river and railway to railway, what matters most is the journey and not the destination.

 

Crossing the Forth Road Bridge

 

* I recommend buying the Ultimate Scottish C2C Guide by Richard Peace, available from excellentbooks.co.uk

 

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St. Ansgar

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St. Ansgar is an active church located near Tiergarten, in the Hansaviertel housing project. It was built in 1957 as a part of the modernist Interbau project, constructed for the International Building Exhibition.

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The church is located at the place of an old Chapel, destroyed in World War II. The church itself, together with its surroundings, was a part of a great effort to rebuild Berlin after the city was ruined during the bombings and the battle of Berlin.

 

As a symbol of breaking with Germany’s past, it was decided that the new church will be constructed in modernist style.

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As such, its structure is very simple, it is built out of repeatable concrete elements and glass. It, together with the other church constructed as part of the Interbau, the Kaiser-Friedrich-Gedächtniskirche, was supposed to show the new trends in sacral architecture – a break with lavish ornamentation and expensive materials. Just as the plattenbau apartment buildings, such church could be mass produced in factories and assembled very fast on the spot.

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Because of its simple construction and heavy use of glass, the building is very spacious and bright, producing an experience simmilar to more traditional places of worship, but with greater simplicity and, what follows, at much lesser cost.

Today the church still preforms its role as a center for the Catholic st. Laurentius parish.

You can visit their website here

 

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Hakuba: Climb Shirouma-dake (or Hang in the Carpark)

Get There: Drive to the end of Route 322 and park in the carpark — about 20 minutes from central Hakuba.

At the very windy end of Route 322 is the rather thrilling Sarukura carpark. We say thrilling because, unlike most expanses of concrete, this one is a pleasure to be in thanks to the phenomenal power and beauty of the manmade waterfalls that surge alongside it.

If you’re just as into climbing as you are carparks, this won’t even be the end of your adventure, as Sarukura actually marks the beginning of the trek to Shirouma-dake. This is Hakuba’s highest mountain, and one of few in Japan that boast snowfields all year round.

An avalanche in July 2008 tragically proved deadly for a couple of hikers and rockfalls are not uncommon, so it’s worth enquiring at Hakubajiri Lodge – an hour into the trek and just before the Daisekkei snowfields – about the day’s conditions and risks. You may want proper gear to attempt the Daisekki, including crampons and a helmet, but the former can be purchased at the hut, and as long as you’re not walking in knockoff Nikes, you should be sweet.

The ridge takes between two and four hours to reach from the beginning of the snowfields, and provides unreal views. There are two lodges up there, as well as a campsite, with the usual thing to do either being to continue to the summit in time for sunset and stay the night, or wake up at 3:30am and catch the sunrise from the top.

From there, you have a couple of choices depending on how hardcore you are. Either you can return to Sarukura, continue south to other peaks, or keep going to Yarigatake, which has one of the highest onsen in the country, before finishing where you started back at the carpark.

Back to Hakuba

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Why You Should Add Hakuba to Your Summer-in-Japan Itinerary

Australians love Japan. We crave its sushi, we embrace getting pissed at karaoke, we marvel at the novelty of being naked in a public bathhouse. We also love to shred the powder that coats the mountains of the country’s many ski destinations. This is especially true of Hakuba, one of the most accessible snow resorts from the capital, just a few hours’ train or bus ride away from Tokyo. But underneath all of its melted snow, Hakuba is just as great, and most definitely worth adding to your itinerary in the warmer months. Here’s why.

Hike Karamatsu-Dake

There’s nothing more wholesome than scaling a snow-peaked mountain covered in alpine wildflowers. Though in winter you can ski and board down Karamatsu-Dake, in the warmer months, it’s a spectacular place to go for a stroll.

The walk officially begins a fair way up the mountain, which you reach by way of gondola and chair, and like everywhere else in Japan, is dotted with snack and souvenir shops. The best part is that the lifts are actually lowered for the green season, meaning your feet literally skim through fields of lilies on your way up. Though the path is clearly marked with occasional staircases, it’s super rocky and steep in places and surprisingly not that well maintained, so watch your feet.

Just over an hour into the walk, you will happen upon a rather stunning pond called Happo-ike, which is the perfect place to stop for lunch and a wee. If you’re the conquering type, you can continue on until you reach the 2696-metre peak which, from the top of the third lift, is 10.5km one way.

During the height of summer, the mountain tends to be swarming with elderly Japanese tourists who don’t exactly set the most cracking pace, but even when it’s busy, the hike is so worthwhile. Take a hat if it’s a sunny day, as there’s no shade at all and it can get pretty sweaty.

Spend a Day at Lake Aoki

Lake Aoki is a glorious place to pass a whole afternoon alongside. Given its lack of a proper public beach, you can be hard pressed to find a good spot to plonk your picnic, as many of the most ideal entry points have been snaked by paid campsites whose owners are unlikely to let you on their land unless you’re a guest. If you don’t mind swimming without a shore, you can park at a few places in the forest on the northern side of the lake and hack your way to the water through the forest, but if you want the ultimate chill spot, we suggest heading to one of the many SUP and kayak rental places that fringe the edge.

Our favourite is Aoki Lake Club and APC on the eastern side of the lake: a little wooden shack marked with a Swiss flag. Not only is the guy who runs it a mad chiller who doesn’t own a million other businesses in town, but he has built a beautiful terrace and pier out the front of his shop where you can wallow in the shallows and sip on a beverage whilst soaking in the immense beauty of the lake. You obviously also have to rent some sort of water device in order to be there, but it’s totally worth it, as Lake Aoki is enormous and fun to explore.

Frolic in the Snowfields on the way to Hakuba’s Highest Peak (or just hang in the carpark)

At the very windy end of route 322 is the rather thrilling Sarukura carpark. We say thrilling because, unlike most expanses of concrete, this one is a pleasure to be in thanks to the phenomenal power and beauty of the manmade waterfalls that surge alongside it.

If you’re just as into climbing as you are carparks, this won’t even be the end of your adventure, as Sarukura actually marks the beginning of the trek to Shirouma-dake. This is Hakuba’s highest mountain, and one of few in Japan that boast snowfields all year round.

An avalanche in July 2008 tragically proved deadly for a couple of hikers and rockfalls are not uncommon, so it’s worth enquiring at Hakubajiri Lodge – an hour into the trek and just before the Daisekkei snowfields – about the day’s conditions and risks. You may want proper gear to attempt the Daisekki, including crampons and a helmet, but the former can be purchased at the hut, and as long as you’re not walking in knockoff Nikes, you should be sweet.

The ridge takes between two and four hours to reach from the beginning of the snowfields, and provides unreal views. There are two lodges up there as well as a campsite, with the usual thing to do either being to continue to the summit in time for sunset, or wake up at 3:30am and catch the sunrise from the top.

From there, you have a couple of choices depending on how hardcore you are. Either you can return to Sarukura, continue south to other peaks or keep going to Yarigatake, which has one of the highest onsen in the country, before finishing where you started back at the carpark.

Soak in an Onsen

Speaking of onsen, the Japanese word for natura hot spring, they are plentiful in Hakuba, and are still just as enjoyable in the warmer months as they are in winter. Many offer to cure your physical ailments too, which is always nice, and no doubt after a day’s hike, your muscles will be sore and in need of some healing.

To give some background, onsen are split according to sex, and you bathe fully naked – but only after you’ve given yourself a bloody good scrub at the sit-down showers first. Just be sure to dose up on water and green tea once you get out, as a hot bath can actually be pretty dehydrating. Our favourites are the onsen with outdoor baths or big windows where you can treat your eyeballs to views of the mountains, such as Kurashita-no-yu. You can find a full list of bathhouses with more details about their location and facilities in English here.

Hang Out With Bathing Ape

Japan only has one species of monkey, and in the Nagano prefecture, they’ll more often than not be soaking their monkey bones in a hot bath in Yudanaka. Unless you have a car and can rely on the sweet gift from god that is GPS, from Hakuba, you’ll need to get to Kanbayashi Onsen via Nagano Station, which takes about two hours. From there, it’s a clearly-signed 30-minute walk to Jigokudani Monkey Park through a cedar forest.

The monkeys are at the very end of the rather scenic trail just maxing and relaxing in the hot springs without a care in the world. They’re so fucking chilled it’s not funny – you can get right up in their grill to take photos and admire their monkey-wisdom and they don’t even bat an eyelid. It’s not as el naturale as you may think: there are ropes for the monkeys to play on and the springs are totally man-made, but they’re still wild animals, and it’s an awe-inspiring experience to watch them bathe.

Gorge on Ramen at Zebrik

Zebrik may not be a very Japanese-sounding name, but the tastiness of its ramen will seriously knock you sideways. It’s located opposite Lake Aoki in a cutesie log cabin, and not only are the giant steaming bowls of soup delicious and so filling that you’re unlikely to finish them, they’re friendly on your wallet too. We recommend getting the spicy miso with an extra serving of melt-in-your-mouth chashyu, accompanied by a side of crisped-to-perfection gyoza.

If summer in Japan sounds right up your alley, come and do a writing workshop with us in Tokyo in June/July 2019! You’ll spend a month refining your journalism and pitching skills, learning Japanese and frolicking amongst the lakes and wildflowers of the countryside. Applications are now open — click here to find out more.

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I Thought I Would Die in a Bunk Bed in Hanoi

I land in Hanoi the second week of February.  Not winter, not summer, and not comparable to any other middle season in the rest of the world. Arriving from the coldest months of Europe, I expect some kind of warmish welcoming, but end up surprised at how much of an optimist I can sometimes be.

In the taxi from the airport to the hostel, I realise I don’t have enough cash with me, and that I also forgot to check if my credit cards would work in Vietnamese ATMs. While the taxi driver yells all his frustration at me in his incomprehensible language, I feel guilty and stupid, but still somehow – and respectfully – find the situation funny.

He drops me at different ATMs, but none of them take my cards.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” I repeat.

He drives me to a little shop with walls green as beans straight out of a can, where a guy hands me an Eftpos machine. The unexpected swipe of victory eventually melts the tension between me and the driver, and leads to a sincere hug.

At the hostel, after calling my bank and fixing my card problem, I impatiently open my first Vietnamese beer and smoke a cigarette at the front. The cold breeze is persistent; soft acid rain textures the windows, romantic, sure, as the perpetually grey sky.

That night, sitting in a comfortable chair at a café, I start coughing copiously. The waiter’s face is as surprised as mine when we both hear my, “No, thanks,” answering his kind proposal of another drink. That should have been an alarm bell. I go back to my bunk bed, pull the curtain after me and lay down. I feel tired and feeble, but do not know that it will be my crypt for the next three days.

I wake in the middle of the night shivering with a high fever. I reach for my backpack in the pitch dark of the room; my towel becomes an extra blanket. I miss the free breakfast included in the hostel price. Another bad sign, but I can’t move. I can’t read or watch a movie either, ’cause my eyes are burning. I just manage to take some flu meds and sleep again.

It’s dark outside when I next wake up. Bravely, I go out. I am starving and, in my multiple experiences in Vietnam, I’ve learned that there’s nothing a warm, spicy bowl of pho can’t cure. Sitting on this little red plastic chair, I order a rare beef one. I’ve always eaten on the streets in South East Asia and have never been sick once, despite what blogs and my mum have told me. The looks I receive from the other customers are horrifying; I must look like shit. Once I consume my meal following all the conventional rituals, I retire quickly. The lights are on, but I fall asleep anyway.

In the middle of the night, I open my eyes with an impelling urgency to vomit. I run for the toilet, trying to be as quiet as possible, but fail immediately after the second step. I crash on the ground; my legs are as mellow as if they are made of fresh noodles. This situation is repeated several times before the first lights of the morning hit side of the building where the huge window on our room stands. I sleep again, another free breakfast missed.

What if I’m seriously sick? I think, staring at the ceiling later that day. What if I die here alone and nobody notices it? I’m far, really far from family, friends, or even whoever I know on this planet. I feel alone and helpless. Should I ask for help? No, don’t exaggerate. I will be fine.

I hear people talking, making love, making love to themselves. Nobody suspects that I am going through a near-to-death experience behind those thick purple curtains. Big dorms are like tiny buildings with tiny apartments.

I listen, partially voluntarily, partially not, to a two-hour phone call between a Mexican guy and his girlfriend. She is back in Central America, and he is defending his right to fuck whoever he wants because “it wouldn’t mean anything”, while demanding that she remain totally loyal to him, of course.

A  French couple argues over an ex-boyfriend’s dick size. “Stop it,” she says. “You are sick, someone may understand us.”
“C’mon,” he replies, “they are all Americans here. They don’t speak French.”
Well, “Pas tout le monde apparemment,” I mumble at the lowest tone I can produce.

A guy from Texas hears me, and I hear him back saying to his friend, “Oh, so there is someone in that bed.”

I ask for a piece of bread at the reception, hoping that I will not see it again later in the night. Just 16 hours later, I finally join my first free breakfast. The options are Continental, American or Vietnamese. The hot chicken broth goes down carefully and nicely. It’s my third day in Hanoi and this is just my third meal, I muse, reflecting that I’d planned something more like four-to-five meals a day.

I make eye contact with the only other guest who chose the latter breakfast option: a 200-year-old little Vietnamese woman. She is so skinny she looks made of paper. She smiles, and I wonder what she is doing in a hostel like this.

Back in my room, in bed, I stare at the ceiling: Maybe I’ll feel better today. Maybe I’ll go out and see the lake and water puppets and the war museum and Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, and even have a Bia Hoi, the cheapest and freshest beer in the whole world. But then I fall asleep again. I am weak as a leaf.

The reception guy comes in.

“Hey, I’ve notice you booked just until today.”
“Oh wow. Time went so fast. Can I stay more?” I ask.
“We are actually fully booked.”
“Oh.”

I book the hostel next door with my phone and prepare myself for the travel. Eight floors of stairs in total; 37 meters covered outside in the cold rain. Exhausted, I check in.

I wait for three hours on the couch reading and waiting for a sign from the lady at the reception desk in front of me. Nothing. Then, still weak and shivering from my sickness, I stand up.

“Aaahhh, your room has been ready for two hours!”
Perfect, I think, and finally lay down in another coffin-looking bed.

I check the Vietjet website and book a flight to the centre of Vietnam for that same night, where the weather is more clement and the beaches not too crowded. I’ll come back to the beautiful cold of Hanoi four weeks later and fall in love with it, just like you fall in love with someone who almost killed you on a first date. But for now, I’ll pull the curtains and sleep for another 12 hours.

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