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Walking Across the Sinai Desert, Egypt

Hiking Posted on Thu, December 19, 2019 10:42PM

I’d first learnt of the Sinai Desert in the film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. Lawrence had traveled across it in a week by camel as he and his 2 friends had sought to reach Cairo after their unit had captured Aqaba during WW1. The crossing had seemed a great adventure, could I attempt the same thing?

I had such adventurous thoughts about various places every few months. But usually the follow up bought bad news. The area was now out of bounds, occupied by some military or bandits, or otherwise unsafe. Or it was overrun with tourists, or paved, or in some way not at all what it used to be. But this time, this didn’t seem to be the case. The Sinai was open to tourists but people seemed to congregate, naturally enough, around the areas they could easily reach by road. Mt Sinai, Sharm el Sheik, Dahab, Nuweiba. Which left the rest of it’s vast area empty.

Added to this was that flights to Egypt were cheap at the time. I’d thought about it a few weeks then, having asked for time off from work and not been allowed it, one day when my job was more boring than usual it occurred to me that it was really important I did things I felt this strongly about. A job was something important, of course, being able to pay the rent was something important also, I could put the trip off until I was better able to cope with life’s stresses, but would I still feel like hiking a desert, alone, sleeping rough and taking my chances, when I was old enough to afford it all?

I’d quit that evening and a week later I was in Egypt, had caught a bus from Cairo to Abu Zenima and located, after much searching, the un-marked and un-distinguished track to Serabit El Khadim, 2 kms south of town.

I felt brave and frightened as I turned my back to the Red Sea and began walking inland. I was planning on following directions from a book published in 1975 by the explorer Burton Bernstein called ‘Sinai – The Great and Terrible Wilderness’. Now, over 20 years later, if was the most recent book published on the peninsula. It gave me 2 vague directions to follow; after I reached Serabit I would head south east to Mt. Sinai and St Catherine’s monastery, and from there it was east to Dahab. About 130 miles in all, following what was many scholars thought may have been the route of the Israelite’s as they wandered with Moses from Egypt to Israel.

I had 10 litres of water in my pack and enough food for 5 days. A 10 pack of pita breads, 5 oranges, 2 falafel sandwiches I’d bought in Suez, and 2 tetra packs of feta cheese. It was all I could fit in my rucksack alongside my sleeping bag, camera and a few clothes. I’d loose a little weight on the trek, I understood that, and if I didn’t find water in a few days day I’d be in real trouble, but I was willing to take the chance to experience this beautiful wilderness.

I walked, and walked. The land was flat, stony. I saw a herd of donkeys, a few camels, and a truck laden with rocks that rumbled along across the flat horizon towards a destination I was never to know. Late that evening I met an old man, Mohammed, who pointed at some mountains across the desert and said ‘Serabit, direct.’ It was dark, too dark to continue on, and Mohammed invited me to share his campfire. It was a humbling experience. He lived alone in a small, open sided tent that afforded scant shelter. His possessions were a few oil drums that he had filled with water, a couple more drums of dry supplies like macaroni, a bed role, and various cooking and digging tools. He earnt about £10 a month he said, combing the desert surface for amethyst. His daily diet was half a pitta bread for breakfast with tea, and a cup of macaroni for dinner. I pulled 2 oranges and the falafel sandwiches out of my rucksack and he brewed tea. We sat sipping, picking at the food and looking at the bright blanket of stars that covered us until the cold drove us into our sleeping bags.

Morning came and I was away over the virgin desert. An hour passed before I remembered Bernstein’s advice in his book;

“Stay on the truck or camel tracks, there are minefields left over from the Arab-Israeli war everywhere. Walk over broken ground and you’re probably safe.” This was as close to sheer panic as I’d ever come, and for the next few hours every step was accompanied by baited breath and fear before I once again rejoined the camel track and walked into Serabit El Khadim (which means ‘Heights of the Slaves’).

Serabit used to be the site of the Pharaoh’s turquoise mines in ancient times and here, a great many miles from anywhere, is an ancient temple set on top of a mountain. Unfortunately it’s structure does not match it’s location, only a few columns remain, and the 2 hour climb up the mountain, which I had to complete with a local guide because in the desert every mountain looks alike and there are no signs, was worth it only for the view. Back at the bottom I had tea with Sheikh Barakat, lord of Serabit, and judging by the many magazines he’d featured in which he showed me, he was very famous in France and Germany (he had also featured in Bernstein’s book). After tea, and trying to sell me a camel safari, he gracefully pointed to a mountain in the south east and advised,

“Go that way, around the mountain, then carry on for 3 more days and you’ll reach Mt. Sinai.” I asked him about the possibility of wild animals. “Maybe, but most of the animals that used to live here are now stuffed and on sale to tourists in Cairo,” he reassured me.

“And minefields?” I asked.

“Of course,” he shrugged, “be careful.”

Occasionally I followed 4 wheel drive tracks but rapidly found that most of them headed in the wrong direction for me and increasingly I had to cross un-broken sand. Some valleys were accessible only on foot, and only reached by climbing up or down sharp scree slopes, so they were empty of animals or people. You don’t use energy to climb around in such a harsh climate, where any exertion means taking on extra (scarce) food and water.

In my spare time – if it got too hot, I’d sit below a large rock to shelter, or later in the day, when I’d stopped walking and was just winding down before it got dark – I read the Old Testament. I’d never read it before and the desert seemed a good place to start. You never know what you might pick up from a book that you’d have missed had you not read it in a certain location. I looked forward to my reading sessions almost as much as I did eating an orange in the late morning, when I was hot but it was still full of the chill of the night.

Before I had arrived in the Sinai I’d visualised Bedouin encampments of large black tents but when I did find a settlement the Bedu were living in bare concrete block houses. Sheik Barakat had told me never to enter a Bedu settlement without clapping my hands and shouting a greeting.

“Everybody here has guns,” he had advised, “and they’re used to using them. And people often grow their own marijuana as they can ship it to Israel for a good price, and they also smoke it daily. We are good people, but it’s not a good idea to surprise us.”

So I clapped hands when I was about 30 metres from a settlement, waited until somebody appeared, and all was fine. I had an idea of where I was heading yet still thought it best to ask the way. But nobody could give me a firm idea of the route or how far it was to Mt. Sinai. Some said 300 kms, some 500. Many didn’t even know where Mt Sinai was, or perhaps they just didn’t understand what I was asking for, or they were so stoned they couldn’t think straight, which is entirely possible. Such is the explorers life when Arabic isn’t your first language and the people you’re speaking to have a strong dialect, a love of chilling out and no start point from which to fix their ideas about you on. I was doing something pretty unusual, after all, no wonder many of them had no idea what I was asking about.

I knew it could be no more than 100kms. Regardless of the lack of direction, a route that felt right was easy to find. I would often come to a confusing junction of tracks or wadis but a quick check of the compass always revealed the correct course. Or at least one that I felt right taking. As in the photo below, when I looked at the scene and thought ok, I’m going right up the middle of the valley to that low rise at the centre of the far horizon, and then from there we’ll re-evaluate!

I slept outside without trouble for 2 nights – it was cold, about 2 or 3 C, but otherwise fine – and hit an asphalt road 30 miles short of Mt. Sinai. A traffic sign pointed the way and I started to follow. The mountains were all around, the road zig zagged, and the traffic was almost non existent but it wasn’t satisfying hiking, and I was happy to reach Mt. Sinai on my 4th day where the first thing I did was to replenish my supplies.

I had found no water in the desert up until then, I’d filled up at the Sheikh’s house but there’d been nothing else. I tried to refill in the village of El Milga just near Mt Sinai but the water was filthy. I remembered Bernstein saying that he’d filled up over 20 years before from a spring next to a tree above St Catherine’s Monastery so after buying some more pita and cheese supplies I headed there.

St Catherine’s is built around the well of Moses and the sight of the Burning Bush, I found the spring high on a hill facing the monastery’s entrance. It was an ancient spring, first mentioned in a text from the 6th century AD. Some Bedu were sat around it. I drank deep, filled up my bottles and then set off up Mt. Sinai, getting views over the plain of Raha as I went. This is where the Israelites were supposed to have camped whilst waiting for Moses to receive the 10 Commandments, although should they have arrived a few thousand years later they could have dispensed with the tents and stayed in the sprawling, characterless, concrete ‘St. Catherine’s Tourist Village’ which nowadays blights the landscape.

It’s a fairly easy trail to the top of this 2,200 metre peak, which is handy because unsteady pilgrims as well as adventure tourists come to climb the sacred mountain every day. On the trail I fell in with 2 middle aged package tourists from England, one very quiet (his loud Hawaiian shirt spoke for him) and the other constantly chain-smoking as he whined about his asthma and the lack of quality restaurants in the desert. I foolishly took pity and began encouraging them up the hill, a task I abandoned when the chainsmoker lunched into a totally unprovoked and obscene attack on a group of innocent American pilgrims that we passed. This was a viscous onslaught, going something like;

“***Americans, you *** make me *** sick, you think you know *** everything, *** off and *** kill yourself you stupid ***.” Whilst I was trying to work out where all that had come from even the Egyptian guides present, who normally aren’t above abusing tourists (financially, not often verbally) stepped in and asked him to keep his language down. I quickened my step, moved away and cursed the flowery hooligans for letting the side down, and heard one final onslaught as the chainsmoker turned his attention to the “filthy *** Arabs” before I rounded a corner and became thankfully out of earshot.

On the summit I was greeted by the odd site of several makeshift wooden shelters built around a small chapel selling everything from fizzy drinks and chocolate to blankets and religious trinkets. A cynic might say that far from being a holy site this blatant example of consumerism was the work of Satan himself, but after a few hours in the biting wind up there my moral objections were overridden by an urge to get a hot cuppa inside of me. I know, I’m weak.

The place was certainly filled with a vocal spirituality that I’ve rarely felt elsewhere as the sun rose the next morning. Hundreds of people had slept alongside me on the summit in freezing temperatures (that’s why the Bedu rent the blankets!), many others had made the trek up in the pre-dawn darkness, and all formed into national or religious groups to welcome the day with hymns. First the Japanese sung, greeting the rising sun, they were joined by Christians and Muslims from all around the globe, including a bunch of Bulgarians who didn’t sing but hummed instead. I left soon after dawn, eager to escape the crowds and return to the solitude of the desert, and after a quick look in the monastery down below (it had to be quick, the crowds were shocking) I backtracked up the mountain trail for 10 minutes and then headed off east over the lowest ridge I could find, below the white chapel that dominated the middle skyline looking south east from the monastery.

Perhaps it’s best to be quite factual at this point, as I stumbled onto an amazing route which isn’t easy to find but is entirely worthwhile should anybody wish to follow it. A path ran down the other side of the ridge, leading north east, at the bottom of the slope I carried on over a wadi and a smaller rise with Mt. Sinai at my back until I reached another wadi. There was a stone Bedouin encampment down on my right, I walked past it in a south east direction, following a gorge for 1 km before coming to a well worn path that headed away east. Another junction and a wide wadi led me south east to a rise where I took an easterly path over another small rise in preference to carrying on downhill. From the top of this rise a large plain spread out below me, and way over in the eastern corner, about 2 kms distant, was a 4 wheel drive track running into a gorge.

I walked into the gorge 3 hours after I’d left the monastery and soon found that it was zig zagging every which way, east, north, south, and that the walls were too sheer to climb out of. My choices were to go back, or carry on, so I carried on.

I saw nobody all day, the car tracks finished as the gorge became even narrower, in places only 2 metres across and very rocky. It occurred to me that if I were to slip on one of the many boulders that lined the route and break something then life would get very bleak indeed, no-one was there to help at all. Once I had got over that realisation of being totally alone the silence became the most attractive part for me, I have never been somewhere this quiet before. The gorge blocked out all wind, there were no animals, at times as I walked I thought that I heard something but when I stopped I found that there was no sound, only my breathing, my blood and a distant hum (magnetism?). I passed pools of water but judging by the dead camels I found nearby on 2 occasions perhaps they weren’t very good drinking. I could always tell when I was nearing a pool actually as the stench of rotting flesh was strong in the otherwise clean air.

As dark fell I passed a small army camp occupied by 2 soldiers.

“Only 10 kms to Dahab!” they said and I was amazed, settling down in the sand a few kms further, my exhausted sleep made sweeter with the knowledge that a much spoken about ambition, that of crossing the Sinai from coast to coast, was about to be realised in just 6 days!

Alas, this journey had a sting in it’s tail. Encouraged by the soldiers news I ditched most of my water supplies, easing my pack weight by 7 kilos and saving just one bottle to last me what should have been an easy 2 hour hike. Wrong. After 3 hours the gorge widened out into a massive wadi, at least a km wide and stretching away into infinity, a Bedouin was working a small patch of irrigated land nearby, he said it was at least 45 kms to Dahab, and incensed by my gullibility I stormed off in double quick time, my anger preventing the clarity of thought which would have advised me to fill my bottles at the irrigation tank.

I saw nobody else again until evening. The cliffs no longer sheltered me from the sun but they did block out the wind, leaving the afternoon stiflingly hot and my impetuous throat parched. It would have been much quicker to walk down the middle of the wadi, but I wanted to keep to the winding main track. The threat of landmines was always ever present and now, nearer the coast and potential 1967 Israeli war invasion points, increasingly I found areas fenced off with barbed wire. These meant nothing though, flashfloods through the years have moved the mines totally, and now even Bedouins occasionally get blown up as they wander, tending their goats. Around dusk, just as I was entering into the ‘This valley is getting boring, I’m no longer enjoying it’ phase, I saw a car streaking across the horizon, and after a few hours I had reached the road. I’d covered 5 minutes on asphalt when I saw the sign, ‘Dahab, 10 kms’, and I finally reached the Gulf of Aqaba the following morning after sleeping on a sand dune just out of town, 7 days after I’d left the Red Sea coast.

Dahab means ‘gold’ in Arabic, which supposedly refers to the golden beach just south of town. Although the old testament refers to Dizahab as a place where the Israelites rested on their long trek to Canan.

I rested up by the beach for a few days. At first I was intensely satisfied. I had made a crossing of the Sinai Desert, what a grand journey! But then I began gazing at the brown mountains that flanked Dahab, they looked like the missed me. I sure already missed them. Their quiet, the sight of a flash of a green Bedu garden among their barren slopes, the stilted, honest interactions, the glorious evening light. Even the harsh midday heat, I missed it all. Somebody at a cafe told me of a trail that went from the Egyptian border all the way to Jerusalem. It would take 3 weeks to walk. Desert and barren mountains all the way. How could I refuse that!



The English Lake District – Great Dodds to Helvelyn (18km Walk and Swim)

Hiking, Runs Posted on Wed, December 04, 2019 07:59PM

This is a full day walk or run up to the summit ridge that links the Dodds peaks and Helvelyn, and then down again to Thirlmere reservoir, offering excellent views and the chance to swim in several places. It would be a great walk for those with dogs, they’ll be off the lead almost all the way. I used the Ordnance Survey Map 0L5 (The English Lakes, North Eastern Area), and its best to take that map; I think it might be frustrating to try to find your way without it.

First of all, here is a short film of the central part of this walk, shows you what to expect up there on the summit ridge.

You can see the summit of Clough Head and Great Dodds from the CCC campsite at Troutbeck. It dominates the horizon to the west. Below is the view from my tent. Clough Head is the peak on the right, you’ll be walking from that to the peak on the left, which is Great Dodds, and beyond. It’s possible to walk to the path that leads up to the summit ridge from the campsite, but it’s a very long slog, and I was told the ground is often very boggy, so I did it another way.

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I drove along the A66 for 5 minutes until I got to the B5322 road on my left, turned down that and drove on for 10 more minutes until I reached the small hamlet of Legburthwaite, marked on the map. It’s on your left, and just before you join the main A591 road. There’s a church hall here, and free parking for about 5 cars. The path up to the ridge leaves from here, so if you can get a space, perfect. After you park, walk up the small road which peters out when you see this stile. Go over the stile and head upwards.

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The views as you head ever upwards will look like this. On the map, you are heading for Sticks Pass Cairn.

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The photo above shows the scene about 10 minutes before you reach Sticks Pass. As you can see, the path is well trodden and easy to follow. When you reach the pass, look left, the broad red earth path you see will take you all the way to Clough Head, and then you’ll retrace your steps and pass Sticks Pass on the way to Helvelyn. The paths are very easy to follow, as long as you have the map for reference, the gradients are mostly slight now you are up high, the views are supurb on both sides and there’s no steep edges to fear. Here are some views.

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The view from Clough Head, looking down onto the plain that the Troutbeck Campsite is located on, is above. From here, you’re just going to retrace your steps along to Sticks Pass. When you get back to the pass, the view looks like this.

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As you can see, the ridge is wide, and the path easy to see. You’ll have no issues following it. And the views just keep on appearing…

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The view above is from the peak known as Lower Man, looking at the route on to Helvelyn. To get here from Clough Head took me about 2 hours. You’ll have to descend from this point as well, so head up to Helvelyn peak if you wish, enjoy the great views, its an easy wide path, as you can see, no chance of getting lost, and then come back down to this Lower Man peak from where, if you look down, the view will be like this.

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The path here is well trodden, you’ll have no problem following it, and it leads straight down to the A591 road in about half an hour. It’s not that steep, just a long plod, and when you near the bottom you’ll have Helvelyn Gill on your right, a small stream which forms into a waterfall just above the wooden footbridge that your path will take you across. You can bathe here. It’s a small pool, only room for 2 or 3 at most, and not deep, but not too cold either, and very refreshing after that very long hike.

The path ends at a public carpark next to Highpark Wood. Cross the main road, then turn right, walk along the grassy verge to the layby on the opposite side of the road and find a noticeboard, which tells of a path from here leading down to Thirlmere Reservoir. Now, you’re not meant to swim in reservoirs, there may be underwater obstructions, but faced with a scene like the one below, I must say, it was so enticing that I did indeed go for a dip. It was extremely cold so I kept near the shore for safety, in case I cramped up. The water is very clear. I kept an eye out for any outflow pipes, which I never saw, which might have caused me trouble. I saw a few other people taking a dip too.

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The path onwards, along the shoreline, is marked on the ordnance survey map in red. You go as far as the hill of Great How, then skirt it on its right hand side, and eventually, after about 20 minutes, you reach the main road again, from where you can cross and double back about 500 metres along the verge to where you parked your car. The views as you go will be like this.

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The English Lake District – The Mosedale Horseshoe (17km Walk and Wild Swim)

Canoeing & Swimming, Hiking Posted on Wed, December 04, 2019 07:55PM

This is a circular route, and some would say one of the very best in the Lake District. I used the Ordnance Survey Map 0L6 (The English Lakes, South Western Area) to guide me, it only shows the start and finish points of the walk but once you’re up there, the route is very clear.

I set off from the Ravenglass Camping and Caravanning Club campsite where I was staying for a week and drove to Wastwater, and the free car park at Overbeck Bridge. It was a 20 minute drive at most. From here the path begins, and climbs immediately up the steep slopes of Yewbarrow. As you near the top of Yewbarrow there is some lively scrambling to be done, not for those a little scared of heights or unsure of their ability on rock. It’s not full on climbing, not at all, but the path is unclear in many places and there is no choice but to go up, and once you’re up you look back and wonder how on earth you made it. Here are some photos of the lake, and the initial climb.

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Above is the view of Sca Fell (right) and Sca Fell Pike (left) from the top of Yewbarrow. From this point you are going to head north, the path is easy to follow, once you get down from Yewbarrow, which entails another difficult scramble. At the bottom I had another one of those moments when I looked back and thought, how on earth did I get down that?

Basically, your route from Yewbarrow takes you on a very well trodden path to Dore Head, then Red Pike (826 mts), Black Crag (828 mts) and Pillar (892 mts), all on the same path that curls around to your right.

Below are some snaps of views en route to Pillar.

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From the summit of Pillar, the route heads back in the direction of Sca Fell. It’s steep here, you keep the metal chain/railing on your left. Actually, no chance of getting lost here, the path is very well trodden and if you go too far left you’ll fall off the edge! The path will take you down, eventually, to a saddle, from where another path goes on straight up to Kirk Fell, whilst the one I took goes down to Wasdale Head. Here are some snaps of the route…

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From Wasdale Head its a half hour walk along the road to the Overbeck Bridge car park. No hassle, the views are nice and the road isn’t that busy. Some people park at Wasdale Head and do the walk the other way round, but I think my way is better as there is a nice beach at Overbeck so you can have a decent swim at the end of this very long, and strenuous (at least, the scramble up Yewbarrow is) walk. The water of Wastwater is very cold, but also very soothing for achey muscles.

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The English Lake District – Loughrigg Fell (9km Walk and Grassmere Swim)

Canoeing & Swimming, Hiking Posted on Wed, December 04, 2019 07:49PM

This is a full day walk or run, offering excellent views of Rydal Water and Grassmere, and the chance to swim safely in both the lakes. I used the Ordnance Survey Map 0L7 (The English Lakes, South Eastern Area), and its best to take that map; I think it might be frustrating to try to find your way without it.

Leave the Windermere Marina Village and drive up the main A591 to Ambleside. Pass through the village and head on towards Rydal, but just before you turn the bend into the village, look for the old stone bridge on your left. This is marked up as Pelter Bridge on your map. If you drive over this bridge, then take the right turn, you’ll come to a car park.

It used to be free to park here but in 2013 the local toerags, sorry, council, put a pay and display machine in. Shame.

The car park gets full quickly, so arrive early in the day to be sure of a space. It’s an ideal place to park though, just 10 minutes walk from your car and you’ll start getting views of Rydal Water.

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When you first see the lake, you’ll have the choice of 2 pathways, the upper path and the lower. I chose to take the upper path on the way in, and the lower path on the way out, later in the day, after my swims. I came to a cave after about 15 minutes walk and then the path led on, always very clear and easy to follow all the way to Grassmere, which was a further 15 minutes walk.

If you walk this path on a clear day, as I did, you’ll be rewarded with one of the finest views, anywhere. That’s my opinion, anyway, Grassmere is a beautiful lake, no doubt about it. The path keeps level here, it’s known as the Loughrigg Terrace; you can walk for a while longer, enjoying the lake as it reveals more and more of itself.

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As you approach the forest, a path climbs up on your left, if you follow it, this will take you to the summit of Loughrigg. It’s a stiff climb, always on a clear to follow path though.

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The view above from the summit of Loughrigg. It’s a large summit, and from the central, highest point, marked with a cairn, you can see Lake Windermere very clearly.

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From the peak I headed back down towards the shore of Grassmere, to a point on the map that is marked ‘Landing Stages’ between ‘Dale End’ and ‘The Lea’. It took me about half hour to descend.

Grassmere is a warm lake, it’s shallow so the sun can heat the water quickly. I could splash about in it for a good 10 minutes before I felt cold enough to get out. It really was lovely swimming, although not secluded. On any clear day, this route is packed with hikers, and for good reason, the scenery is terrific.

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After the swim I walked back along the lakeshore, towards Rydal. This time I was taking the lower path.

Rydal Water beach is shingle, and easy to walk on. Rydal is warmer than Grassmere, and a real delight to swim in. The entry and exit point was firm and easy to walk on (no sharp stones here). The spot I liked was the bit of beach nearest to Little Isle, which is the island shown below, shrouded with trees. Out of all the lakes and rivers I swam in during my 6 weeks in the Lake District, I’d say that Rydal was definitely the warmest lake, and the easiest to swim in.

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And then you’re back on the path, heading away from Rydal, stopping one last time perhaps for a final look at this magnificent scenery, before descending to Pelter Bridge car park.

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Canoeing the River Medway, in Kent, England.

Canoeing & Swimming Posted on Sat, November 16, 2019 06:57PM

A 3 part canoe journey up the River Medway in Kent, England.

Part 1 – At the estuary mouth.
Part 2 – From the estuary mouth to Maidstone, via Darnet Island.
Part 3 – From Maidstone to Tonbridge, via Oak Weir Island.


The Milan Marathon

Runs Posted on Fri, November 15, 2019 10:20PM

To check out our full account of the Milan Marathon complete with restaurant review and a great many photos, see our ‘Issue 7, Summer 2019’ edition of our magazine which you can download for free from here – https://trekandrun.com/publications.html

Below is a short film that will give you a brief idea of the race day experience.

For further info about the race check their website here – https://www.generalimilanomarathon.it/en/



The Happy Trails Racing ‘The Beav’ 25k and 50k

Runs Posted on Tue, November 12, 2019 10:20AM

(All photos featuring the race logo are by Sue Sitki – https://suesitkiphoto.shotsee.com/)

The Happy Trails ‘The Beav’ event took place at Hilton Falls Conservation Area, near to Milton, Ontario, Canada. Jenn and Dave from our team took on the 25km and the 50km events; there were also a 10k event going on.

Before we go into our usual 7 point review, here’s a short film showing the course. If you’re viewing on a mobile and can’t play flash, you might try going straight to Youtube to view it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F1C4w4nnxok

1 – Pre-event info

Jenn – In addition to the detailed information available on the event registration page, participants received two pre-race emails; the first one encouraged participants to carpool to make sure parking was available for everyone, and the second email included race details and a very thorough participant guide that was like a mini magazine, complete with some great info for those new to trail running, such as trail running terms that you might not understand unless you’d been on the scene for a while. On race morning, the race director Jeff gathered us all for the standard (Happy Trails Racing standard, which is very high!) pre-race meetings before each of the different start times to go over course details and reiterate how the trails are marked and possible issues the runners should watch out for.

2 – Event location

Jenn – This is my second time participating in this race and I find the Hilton Falls area very scenic laced with extremely fun and challenging trails. It’s a little less than one hour from Toronto city centre, is easy to locate and has a good amount of parking. Additionally Happy Trails Racing encouraged participants to carpool to ensure parking for all, and even offered a prize draw as an extra incentive for all of us that did carpool. Porta-potties were available as well as one conservation area washroom. There was a constant line for the bathrooms, as is often the case, but nothing unusually long and frankly the bathroom line at trail races offers up a nice opportunity to chat with fellow participants.

Not a photo of the bathrooms because we thought you’d rather see a nice shot of a view you get from about the 18km point of the course!
And here’s a shot of the waterfall that you see when you do the 10km event.

3 – Aid Stations

Jenn – There were three aid stations to help participants fuel their way through the event. ‘Tanker’s Canteen’ was at the start/finish (and mid-point for the 50k), the ‘S’more’s Station’ was at the 5k/20k mark and then ‘Russell’s Roost’ was at the 8k/17k mark. The S’more’s Station offered water and electrolytes, the delicious vegan energy balls from ‘Mes Amis Catering’, and of course, S’mores. This aid station was located at a large fire pit too! The other two aid stations were fully stocked with lots of goodies; water, electrolyte drink, sodas, fruit, chips, pickles, boiled potatoes, sandwiches, pizza, hot dogs, quesadilla, and even apple and pecan pie was available!

The ‘S’mores’ Aid Station.

It’s hard to leave any of these stations hungry or thirsty. As always at Happy trails event the volunteers were nothing short of amazing. They always make sure their visitors are taken care of, even when they themselves have been standing there in minus temperatures for hours on end. We salute them!!!

4 General atmosphere of the Event HQ 

Dave – I always see many familiar faces at Happy Trails events, which makes for a nice day out even without the running. The race series is known for it’s unique events, well thought out swag and genuine feeling of community. I’m certain this draws people back time and time again, and also attracts new faces who are looking for an authentic trail running community and have heard that they’ll find it here. There are a few people who are fast so if you’re looking for a race and to test yourself you won’t be disappointed. There are also a great many people dipping their toes into trail or ultra territory for the first time because the cut off times are generous, the course well marked out and the aid stations really well stocked. There is also always a fun atmosphere at the event HQ start/finish line, so friends and family who want to come along to support runners have a place where they can hang out. Admittedly, on colder days like we had (expected for November), they might retreat to their cars whilst they’re waiting for much of the time, but at least there are bathrooms, hot drinks and good company available if needed. The race directors Jeff and Heather are very visible around event HQ and are happy to talk, and the volunteers I met there and at the other aid stations all seem to be bottomless sources of encouragement.

Obviously each race is different but on this course, if spectators want to cheer runners on from an aid station, it was possible to walk about 5km along the track to get to the ‘S’mores’ aid station where there was a bonfire and a washroom. It was also in a beautiful location, by a stream (it’s the last inhabited place you see in my race video before I hit the finish line). A lovely place to hang out I’d say!

Beautiful section of rolling trail at the 15km point.

5 – Course

Dave – If you are racing this then you’ve got sections of technical trail joined by very runnable track. If you’re out to enjoy the scenery and vibe, though, and are going slower, as I did, then the trail doesn’t seem so technical because you’ve much more time to find stable footing among the rocks and roots. The near constant up and down nature of the technical parts of the course makes sure it’s a good quad and glute workout though, however you take it on. Mostly the trail led through forest, with occasional openings onto marsh and river. Here are a few snaps I took as I ran.

The first couple of kms is mainly single track; if you’re racing make sure you start off quick so you have a clear run ahead of you.
If you’re not racing then no problem, chill out and enjoy the scenery! It’s especially nice when you pass a waterfall and look out onto the reservoir. See my video for a better look at both waterfall and view, I stopped here for quite a while!

Jenn – The race course was marked with a combination of orange ground flags, orange ties, and the occasional sign warning to slow down where the course turns into rocky outcroppings with a few gaps and even a crevasse to jump over, or where an arrow was needed to ensure we made the correct turn. The hand-drawn directional sign pictured below was definitely a fun highlight for me!

With the exception of the extremely technical (and fun) sections of the trail, the remainder of the course is made up of groomed double track trails weaving through the Halton Region Tract System of forest. As the race registration page notes “This course is primarily made up of fast, groomed trails with some short but tougher and more technical sections thrown into the mix.” Here are some photos I took on the way round.

A rocky climb.
Groomed trail.
A tricky route forward!
Crevasse Crossing!

Shoe choice: I wore my Hoke One One Speedgoat trail shoes and I’m glad I did; the technical bits on this trail were very rocky and the extra cushion this shoe offers was greatly appreciated by the 20km mark.

6 – Race kit, medals and awards

Dave – I love that there are Wolf and Bear Patches awarded to runners at all Happy Trails events. These are public shout outs that allow runners to recognize the kindness shown by other runners by nominating them for an award, like this;

As a 50k runner I got a brilliant hoodie – which I’m still wearing a few days later to prolong the vibe of the race and because it’s really very cold now and the hoodie is snug – and a wooden medal. Winners in various categories also got wooden plaques.

7 Post-event info (photography, films)

The photographer was once again the brilliant Sue Sitki (https://suesitkiphoto.shotsee.com/) and she was as good as ever. Sue is always very encouraging and fun, a perfect race photographer doubling as an enthusiastic supporter. The photos were online within a day and they were all free to download and of great quality. 

Jenn captured by Sue during the 25km event.
Dave captured by Sue during the 50km event.

To discover more about Happy Trails and their events see their website
https://www.happytrailsracing.com/



The Niagara Falls International Marathon

Runs Posted on Sun, October 27, 2019 08:56PM

This event took place in and around Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada (with the full marathon starting in Buffalo, USA). Jenn and Dave from our team took on the half and the full distance. There were also 5k, 10k, and marathon relay events going on, so something for all the family!

Before we go into our 7 point review here’s a short film showing the marathon course and some of our activities in Niagara over the race weekend. If you’re viewing on a mobile and can’t play flash, you might try going straight to Youtube to view it here

1. Pre-Event Info

Jenn – The race registration, website and pre-event email were very informative. They offered details on the courses, packet pick-up, expo vendors, and most importantly, details on getting to the start via car or shuttle. I didn’t feel the need to overly prepare for this run compared to others, knowing that shuttles would be easy to find and there would be a lot of water/nuun stations on the course. They covered cut-off times very clearly within the race details and in my experience, this event is one of the few Ontario marathons that offer a 7 hr cut-off for us back-of-the pack runners. I think this needs to be noted as it adds an extra level of enjoyment to an event when you know it’s inclusive to both runners and walkers alike with a wide range of paces.

Dave – In addition to the above, for marathon runners it was important to understand how the border crossing was going to work! And the race website made this very clear. Depending on what passport you had, there were different proceedings. I have done this event in 2015 when I had a British passport (and with that I had to get a visa waiver, which was an easy, low cost process that I did the day before the race by walking over the Rainbow bridge from Niagara Falls Canada to the US side and buying it from the border officer for about $6) and this year with a Canadian passport (no visa needed at all). Regardless of the passport, customs did have to be cleared the day before, at the race expo.

This was an easy process. Then on the morning of the race, the buses that were transferring us from Niagara Falls to Buffalo stopped at US customs for a very short while, our passports were checked, then we drove on. After that runners had the option of keeping their passport with them as they ran the marathon or putting it in their kit bag with the rest of the clothes they weren’t taking on the run, and handing it over to race officials who placed it in the baggage bus. It might seem risky to be leaving your passport in a plastic kit bag but the buses are staffed by race officials, and nobody is allowed on them, just the volunteer who will give you back your bag at the finish area of the event.

The expo was useful. There was free yoga all day (and what runner doesn’t need to stretch if they want to stay injury free), nutrition, shoe, clothes and training offerings, and a number of good talks, including Canadian adventurer Ray Zahab and also experts on plant based and keto eating.

Ray Zahab speaking.

2. Event Location (parking, facilities/washrooms, pavilion)

Jenn – Half Marathon: The half marathon, 10k and 5k all started at the same place; the Rapidsview Parking Lot. The lot seemed easy to get to by car, as many participants were taking advantage of the ample parking and drove to the start. Since we stayed at a hotel by the falls, I chose to use the free WeGo shuttle, as the pickup spot was right outside of the hotel (the Sheraton on the Falls). It made a second pick-up stop at the finish area and then took us to the start. The starting area had a couple tents for warmth/shelter. Luckily the weather was amazing and I found these unnecessary. Race kit pick-up was available at the start, as were a lot of porta-potties, several hand washing stations and bag check. The race assigned school buses for bag check, each bus was identified by a range of bib numbers, and the bags stayed on the bus until the finish when the runner went to collect them. I quite like this process. I felt as though the few items I put in my bag were well taken care of, and my belongings were not just laying on a tarp on the ground, as has happened at other city marathons.

Half Marathon start area.
Half Marathon start line.

Dave – Full Marathon: Buses were offered to take runners to Buffalo in the USA. They left from outside our hotel between 7 and 7:30am – so I didn’t have to get up too early which was nice! When we got to Buffalo we could go into the sports arena which was next to the start line. There were washrooms in there, plenty of space to warm up in, and it was heated (not a consideration for us as it was a lovely day but this will be important if your race day is rainy or cold). The baggage buses were just outside.

Inside the Buffalo sports arena.
Looking back at the Marathon corrals from the start line.

3. General atmosphere of the Event HQ (event staff, volunteers, other runners, what’s there for spectators)

Dave – The event staff seemed just as excited to be there as us runners, it was a great vibe from start to finish. Everybody, including all the runners, was respectful during the playing of both National Anthems before we started to run. The aid stations seemed to be staffed by volunteers from different community groups and they each had their own style of cheering, some like cheerleaders, and others playing music. This is not a big city marathon following a circular style course, you go from point to point, country to country, along a rural road so bearing that in mind the route was pretty well supported. I don’t think I ran for more than 10 minutes without getting cheered on, either at an aid station or by people stood outside of their houses.

The other runners were friendly, kind of half way between a trail race and a big city marathon level of friendliness, and whenever one passed me they asked how things were going. That was nice, as I wasn’t going slow – I came in 29th position in the end – and usually the people at the front of marathons are too fixated on running fast to make small talk, but this race was different.

For spectators, it looked like they would be best either waiting at the half marathon aid station (which was fun and lively) or at the finish area, as this was just in front of the mighty falls themselves and there was lots of hustle and bustle there, as well as washrooms and places to get refreshments. Plus they get this view whilst they are waiting for you!

4. Course (length, technicality, scenery)

Jenn – Half Marathon: The half marathon, 10k and 5k courses were all happening along the same ‘mostly’ out and back routes from the same start area. We started a couple of kilometers past the finish, so that we could run to the respective turnaround points and then run all the way back to the falls, which allows for fantastic views during those last few km when the spray from the falls reached high in the sky.

The distances and turn-around spots were very clearly marked for each separate race, and the course itself was very easy to follow. It was a standard road race with lots of paved road and only a couple of very small bumps along the way (they weren’t actually hills so I am referring to them as bumps!). The half marathon course also had very picturesque views of the riverbank and fall colours for most of the route. I snapped some photos along the way and have included these below.

Dave – Full Marathon: We ran around Buffalo for about 5kms – residential streets, quite pretty – then over the Peace Bridge, which is the link and border between the USA and Canada. That was as special as it sounds! I’ve never run over a border before, apart from this one. It was sunny by the time I crossed it, the river on my right and the lake on the left were bright blue, it was pretty exciting to drop down into Canada, pass the border police with a wave and then set off to the left before looping back after another 5km to begin the long push for Niagara Falls.

Leaving the USA, ahead is the Peace Bridge, leading to Canada!

We followed the Niagara Parkway. It really is a beautiful route. It can be prone to headwind but we had fine conditions with no wind to worry about. Always the blue river was on our right whilst on the left were mansions and fields, and often the road was shaded with magnificent trees.

A flotilla of Canada Geese!

The overall elevation of the marathon course was just over 170m; I imagine much of that was going up and over the Peace Bridge, which is so exciting I didn’t really notice it! Is this course a fast one? I’d say yes, it could be, and if the wind is kind to you as it was for us, then it could even be PB territory.

5. On course aid stations (water points, fuel)

Jenn – The aid stations available on course were plentiful. Water and electrolytes were available approximately every 2.5k, and in some cases the volunteers at the aid stations on the ‘out’ portion of the race moved their station across the road to the ‘back’ side of the road and set out more water. There were also Clif blocks available at 10k, 21.1k and 30k.

Dave – I ran self supported (meaning I took my own fuel – dates filled with peanut butter, and coconut water) but I did see that the aid stations were plentiful and well stocked with Nuun, water and Clif nutrition. I did like that the drinks were offered in paper cups, which looked recyclable, as opposed to the plastic cups that are often used at aid stations. There was enough on offer at the aid stations that a runner wouldn’t need to carry any spare fuel unless they had some special fuel strategy.

6. Race kit, medals and awards

Dave – The medals are nice (see below) and every runner got a race/running shirt as well as a couple of Clif bars (which were really useful for the morning of the run as I didn’t have time for breakfast!).

7. Post-event info (photography, films)

Jenn – Race results are available on the race page and easily searchable. The race had photographers posted in the last couple of kilometers and at the finish. They offer the standard post-race packages if participants want to purchase their photos.

If you’d like to discover more about the Niagara Falls International Marathon, or enter for 2020, check out their website – https://niagarafallsmarathon.com/



The Happy Trails Foxtail Hundred

Runs Posted on Wed, September 11, 2019 09:54AM

(For the full review and many more photos, see the September issue of our magazine. All photos featuring the race logo are by Sue Sitki – https://suesitkiphoto.shotsee.com/)

The Happy Trails Tally in the Valley event took place at Dundas Valley Conservation Area near to Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Jenn and Dave from our team took on the 50km and the 25km events; there were also a multitude of other events taking place including the 100 mile distance. Before we go into our usual 8 point review, here’s a short film showing the course. If you’re viewing on a mobile and can’t play flash, you might try going straight to Youtube to view it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jPAei-NGbOY&t=12s

1 Pre-event info
The concept of this race was very different than the other Happy Trails events we’ve done. It involved out-and-back routes of varying distances all on rail trail instead of circular routes, so the Happy Trails folks went a slightly different direction with this event and provided a very thorough event guide via email. The guide included course descriptions, notes on the different turn-around spots for each distance, information on where we could expect aid stations and it even outlined the pertinent cut-off times for the long distance events. In addition to this the race director held a pre-race meeting on race day for each distance to reiterate the more important details with us and address any questions. I personally love this step; it’s so helpful to have a summary of the key points as an additional reminder before heading out.

2 Event location (parking, facilities/washrooms)
Foxtail had us back at the scenic Dundas Valley Conservation Area (same as Tally in the Valley). The location was an easy 1 hour drive from Toronto city centre and the tree-lined rail trail was beautiful. Once parked it was just a short walk to our main race area where anyone who wanted to setup camp for the day had plenty of space to do so, or you could just drop your supplies in the designated bag drop area to have them taken over to an aid station. What was different than the Tally event is that our main race area was at the Train and Visitor Center this time, so we had indoor bathrooms and even little snack shop that was open for several hours.

3 Aid Stations (snacks and water/fuel)
There was one aid station at the start/finish area and several more out on the course. There was water, ‘Skratch Labs’ electrolyte drink, ginger ale, coke and all of the typical ultra running fare including sweet and salty snacks, PB&J sandwiches, potatoes, chips, pizza, grilled cheese, quesadillas, noodles and Mes Amis Catering (https://www.mesamiscatering.com/) brought in some of their lovely chocolate and fruit based energy bites that were vegan, dairy free and very good running fuel. I love them as they’re not so sticky that you have to chew them for ages but not so crumbly that the bits get stuck in your throat.

The drinks were served in reusable EcoCups, which we think is a brilliant idea. They can be washed, sterilized, and re-used over 100 times and then recycled. As always at the Happy Trails events the volunteers are well into the whole event and absolutely awesome.

4 General atmosphere of the Event HQ (event staff, volunteers, other runners, what’s there for spectators)
I completed 10km at this event so I had some extra time to hang out around the event headquarters after my race while Dave churned out a 50km distance. As usual the area was full of good spirit and cheers of encouragements for the occasional runner passing by. With the out-and-back nature of this course we didn’t get the chance to really cheer on other runners as much as a looped course offers, so I mostly visited with friends and checked out the vendors and the merchandise for sale. Additionally, spectators were able to make use of the grounds and could wander the trails while they were waiting to support their runners. True to the standard set at previous events, the volunteers were always at the ready to help with questions or any assistance needed and the other runners were really friendly – there is always a great sense of community and belonging at Happy Trails Racing events.

5 Course (length, technicality, scenery)
The course was a near flat rail trail. There was a slight incline over several kms that sapped strength deceptively but overall this has the potential to be a very, very fast course. Just because its on a rail trail, however, doesn’t mean it’s not scenic. The forest around Dundas is thick and beautiful, and the wide horizons that crop up now and again magnificent. The rich natural environment existing here and along the Niagara Escarpment has been designated a World Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Here are a couple of photos I snapped as I ran to show you how it looks.

There were a couple of minor roads to cross but there were marshalls at some and a police officer at the busier one. At the others I didn’t have to stop at all as there was no traffic in sight.

Shoe choice – I wore trail shoes with gaiters and I’m kind of glad I did. I could have done with more padding as the trail was gravel and quite hard on the feet after a while but then again, the gaiters kept out all the stones. If I had road shoes with an attachment for gaiters, I’d have worn them.

6 On course aid stations
There were 5 or 6 aid stations on the course, each managed by a different local run group and set about 5-7km apart. There was a fun competition going on set up by the race organizers asking us to choose which station was the best. It was all taken lightheartedly and seemed to encourage each aid station to pull out all the stops to make their station the most enjoyable and welcoming. Each offered the standard fare – fizzy drinks, electrolytes, bananas, chips – and then each had their extras such as quesadillas and other goodies that seem very welcome after a few hours on the trail. One place even had very comfy reclining chairs – the kiss of death for many tired runners! – and a bed. Good work!

The organisers offered up the following info about aid stations and drop zones before the event. As you can see, it’s got all you need to go into the race with a plan formulated.
“There will be 5 aid stations on the course and they are situated so that participants will pass an aid station approximately every 6 km, with the longest section between aid stations being just under 7.5 km. We are very pleased to announce that we will have a number of different local running groups hosting the various aid stations and that each aid station will have a theme as well as a specific food option that will only be found at that station. At the end of the event, please vote for your favourite aid station on our Facebook page on a post-race poll that we will put out. The best aid station will earn a prize. All aid stations will have a variety of sweet and salty snacks, sandwiches, fruit, an electrolyte drink, and water.

The aid stations, in order, are: 1) Hammer View – no crew access 2) Headquarters (Dundas Valley Conservation Area Trail Centre, 650 Governors Road, Dundas) 3) Opossum’s Landing (Hwy #52, small parking lot across from Powerline Road) 4) Friendly Coyote – no crew access 5) Telephone City – no crew access

Please go to the Maps & Details page for accurate information on the location of each aid station.

DROP BAGS: Participants in the 50 mile, 100 km, and 100 mile events are permitted to have a drop bag at the ‘Headquarters’ and the ‘Friendly Coyote’ aid stations. The positioning of these aid stations will allow frequent access to the drop bags. ALL participants are allowed to have a drop bag at ‘Headquarters’.

CREW ACCESS: Runners in the 50 mile, 100 km, and 100 mile events are permitted to have a crew vehicle meet them at the ‘Opossum’s Landing’ and ‘Headquarters’ aid stations. Crew members are not permitted at any other locations at the risk of participant disqualification.”

7 Race kit, medals and awards
This time instead of a shirt, participants were given a fun straw hat as part of the race kit as well as the bib, and snack bars were made available for those who wanted to try one.

The finisher medals and awards were entirely unique to the event as in prior races from Happy Trails. 100 mile finishers were given a belt buckle, 100km finishers earned a custom plaque with a railroad spike mounted on a nicely decorated piece of wood. 10, 25, 50k and 50 mile finishers were rewarded with a custom made finishers medal.

Category winners were awarded a striking wooden plaque painted with custom artwork commemorating their finish. There was even a special buckle for any finisher that completed the 100 miles in hour 29 (of a 30 hour course limit). Happy Trails puts so much thought into the awards and finishers items, it’s hard not to want to earn one the many different distance options.

8 Post-event info (photography, films)
I’m tempted to repeat what I wrote after the last Happy Trails race, as the photographer was once again the brilliant Sue Sitki (https://suesitkiphoto.shotsee.com/) and she was as good as ever. Sue is always very encouraging and fun, a perfect race photographer doubling as an enthusiastic supporter.

The photos were online within 2 days and they were all free to download and of great quality. Couldn’t ask for more from a race photographer, and bravo to Heather and Jeff for including them in the race package.

A few runners made their own films and the race organisers circulated them through their social media.

To discover more about Happy Trails and their events see their website
https://www.happytrailsracing.com/



Scuba and Snorkeling with Life Planet Project, Costa Rica

Canoeing & Swimming, Tours & Experiences Posted on Tue, August 27, 2019 02:32PM

We went on a scuba and snorkeling day tour with Carolina and Davide of Life Planet Project and consider them among the most ethically sound, caring tour guides we’ve ever experienced, anywhere in the world. We also saw more sharks than ever before out at Cano Island (even compared to when we went on a 2 week liveabord diving tour with the MV Sharkwater), and also learned so much about the ocean, the mangroves, and Costa Rican culture. If you’re looking for an honest, ethical company offering great land and sea tour experiences, you’ve found them.

We started our day with a transfer to Sierpe, from where we took a boat downriver and out into the Pacific, heading for Cano Island. The images and film below tell the story of our day.

Davide telling us about what was to come, as we sat on the boat in Sierpe.
The views as we motored downriver were spectacular.
The Sierpe River really is beautiful.
We stopped frequently to see monkeys, birds and sloths in the jungle that fringed the river.
Approaching the river mouth. Between the two headlands is the opening into the Pacific.
En route to Cano Island. We saw dolphins as we went, you can see them in the film at the end of this article.
Whilst some of us snorkeled, some of us went diving.
There were plenty of fish, and also sharks.
We didn’t get too close. The company is as ethical as they come and close interaction with wild animals is not encouraged. We agree with this wholeheartedly.
More sharks.
Fish and sharks. I love being underwater!
We even saw a hammerhead shark! It was too deep for my camera to work (nearly 30 metres) but I got a shot of us celebrating when we surfaced.
Then it was lunchtime.
Excellent pasta served up in a coconut shell.
Lunch with good friends. Tastes even better after you’ve just swum with sharks!
After another dive we went ashore to Cano Island, this is the rangers station and museum.
The view from a point about 10 minute walk inland.
Enjoying a stroll on the beach.
Then it was time to leave Cano Island and head back to the Sierpe River via a different route.
Enjoying the coastline as we motor back.
Davide explains how the mangrove forests are being destroyed and what that means for the oceans. The mangroves are the nursery for many species of animal and fish.
Another view of the Sierpe as we neared the town.

The emphasis all day was on showing us why it’s important to preserve the environment. It was a great tour, and this educational aspect was the icing on the cake. It’s worth re-printing a piece from their website here, we wish all tour companies thought like this!

“We aim at sharing the natural beauties of our planet, on land and underwater, promoting exciting activities merged with environmental awareness and collaboration with the key figures of today’s environmental conservation movement.

We have a desire to help nature, to give back. We want tourism to stop leeching our planet. We want to raise consciousness and give you the experience of a lifetime in the meanwhile. We want you to learn. To see with your own eyes. And we want you to have fun, lots of it!!!”

We recommend you look Life Planet Project up if you are in the Manuel Antonio/Dominical/Uvita area and want an ethically sound, fun day tour.

Check out what they offer on their website – https://www.lifeplanetproject.com/

Here’s a short video we made showing highlights of our day.



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