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Hacienda Baru National Wildlife Refuge, Costa Rica

Hiking, Tours & Experiences Posted on Fri, April 10, 2020 03:57PM

Hacienda Baru is a couple of kms up the coast from Dominical, a small town on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, about a 4 hour drive from the San Jose airport. We visited whilst staying in Dominical, in 2019 and again in 2020. The hacienda website can be seen here – https://www.haciendabaru.com/

There are a few ways of getting to Hacienda Baru. If you’re driving, it’s just 2km north of Dominical on the main road to the car park in front of the Hacienda’s ticket office. There are also taxis available from town but you have to book in advance. Ask your hotel about that. Buses are also an option. You can walk on the main road, if you go early there’s not so much traffic.

For this visit, because we’d been to the Hacienda several times and walked back to Dominical via the beach and were pretty confident of the way, we decided to walk there via the beach. We wouldn’t advise this for first time visitors though as there are no signposts from the beach to the Hacienda, and there’s little chance of you knowing where to leave the beach if you don’t already have a good idea where the track to the ticket office begins.

We checked the tides and, seeing that it was low at about 8am, we set off just before that to wade the River Baru, which cuts through the beach just north of Dominical. If it’d been high tide or if it’d rained hard the night before we probably would have taken a taxi instead. But the weather had been fair the night before and it seemed calm now so off we went. It was only about calf deep but it was a very strong current and the rocks underfoot were sharp. If you’re going to do this wear water sandals!

Wading the River Baru

From the north bank of the River Baru we then had a beautiful 2km walk along a completely empty beach. For nature lovers, this is a dream approach to one of the very best wildlife viewing areas in the world.

It was just us 2 on the beach. I dropped behind to take this photo of N walking ahead.

Once at the turn off point we walked up the dirt road to the Hacienda Baru office, got our day passes and then started to walk the lowland trails. We’ve done this before with a guide and recommend signing up for a tour. On this occasion, however, we were in the mood for just being in nature. We had no list of animals we wanted to see, we were going to be happy with whatever crossed out path. We were actually just as interested in seeing the trees as we’d been studying them at home for a few months and were excited to learn more about them as we walked around. We had a couple of books to help us and also we knew there were frequent information boards along the trails that tell you fascinating facts about certain trees, as well as the animals. The first animals we came across were a troupe of white faced monkeys. We’d decided to leave the big cameras at home for this trip and so what you see here is a faithful representation of what you might see yourself if you visit with just a compact camera and a phone.

Socks pulled up as protection against biting insects! I prefer not to wear insect repellent if I can get away with it and in this case there weren’t many insects, and they were only there early and late in the day, so socks pulled up and long sleeved shirt was enough protection.

The next animal we came across was a sloth, it was an excellent sighting. Sometimes you have to look really hard to find them but this one was only about 10 metres off the ground, unsheltered by any foliage, and pretty much unmissable!

There were agouti scampering through the undergrowth. We heard them gnawing on food often, and occasionally they’d scamper across the pathway.

We heard an incredible back and forth bird call conversation as we approached the upland region of the Hacienda. We had binoculars and through them we could see a pair of toucan, far away. We were excited. Later in this trip we were to see plenty of toucan but this was our first sighting ever. They were too far away for a photo, but we stood there for half hour listening to their call. Then we carried on to the viewpoint, where we planned to have a rest and a snack for lunch.

The hike to the viewpoint and upper walking loop.
The viewpoint panorama. The sandy estuary of the River Baru can be seen.

We sat in the shade for an hour or so, enjoying a cool breeze, then walked the upper loop. This was excellent for bird and tree spotting. Then just after 2pm as the heat began to ease off we descended and headed to another forest loop that we hadn’t done before. En route we passed this anole…

…and these mushrooms on top of a huge ants nest….

…before meeting up with another agouti.

We also saw many birds. With our binoculars and the birding pamphlet that we bought from the Hacienda shop we identified a fair few, but we didn’t forget just to be present and enjoy the moment as well. Knowing what something is called is fine, it puts your education to good use and it certainly helps if you’re trying to talk about your experience to others. But it’s also very important for me to experience the moment for what it is, and to see also what it has the possibility to be. The agouti doesn’t know it’s called an agouti, or that it’s part of this genus or that order or family, and it’s good to meet it in that space of being unknowing, but also aware of what’s happening right there at that moment. The moment always has a subtle sort of contentment in it for me. Not perhaps the big emotion that comes with hearing a lion roaring next to your tent or seeing a scarlet macaw explode from the tree above your head, but equal to those things in it’s own way and perhaps even a touch further on the path back towards a more natural interaction. I know, that’s me talking about some golden age that probably never existed. But, it might have done, and if it might have done once it might do once again, if we will it into being, right?

With this in mind I was also trying not to take as many photos as I used to. My normal way of being is to raise the camera each time I see anything at all of interest. On this trip though I tried to experience the sight first, and only when I’d enjoyed that initial looking and experiencing did I start taking photos. I was glad of this change, it seemed a fuller trip because of it.

The last great sight of the day was crossing the River Baru again, this time via the road bridge as the sun dipped into the Pacific.

What a sunset!
The view from outside Cafe Mono Congo.

We headed back for a well earned meal and an early night. We were excited to be going back to Hacienda Baru the next day. I’ll share news of that in due course, for now, if you’d like to learn more about the Hacienda, the website can be seen here – https://www.haciendabaru.com/



Life For Life Sea Turtle Rescue – The Volunteer Experience

Canoeing & Swimming, Hiking, Tours & Experiences Posted on Thu, February 06, 2020 10:20PM

We met Caroline when we visited the Life For Life Sea Turtle Rescue Project in the Osa Peninsula, on the southern Pacific coastline of Costa Rica. Caroline is from England and was volunteering at the project for 10 days.

We asked her a few questions about her experience as a volunteer. If after reading you’re inspired to volunteer at Life For Life yourself, feel free to contact Caroline for more details on cazerra@yahoo.co.uk (she’s now volunteering as a coordinator for the project back in England) and check out the volunteering page on the Life For Life website for all details, including how to get there, what you’ll be doing, and what it’s going to cost you, here – https://www.lifeforlifehosteldrakebay.com/sea-turtle-conservation-project

Hi Caroline! How did you arrange your stay at Life For Life? Did you look into volunteer opportunities before you left England? 

Yes, I did do some research on the internet before I left, but its so hard to pick something from the internet. I only had a month away from work in total and I wanted it to be awesome, so in the end I decided to not arrange anything and just arrive in Costa Rica and see which way the wind took me.

What led to you volunteering with Life For Life for the 10 days then?

I had been in Costa Roca for 2 weeks and had arrived on the Osa Peninsula for Christmas.  I was staying at a tent camp and the camp suggested I go on Ricardo’s River Claro tour. Ricardo organises the Life For Life project, and the Rio Claro Tours raise funds to keep the project going. I had spoken to other travellers at the camp who had done the tour before and they told me it was the best tour they had done in Costa Rica. Well, I had to go there after those recommendations.  I was only an hours walk from the River Claro but I had a guide who took me bird spotting on the way, there was lots to see, and when I arrived at the river I met Ricardo and saw his sign saying he needed volunteers.  We got chatting and as I was looking for somewhere to spend my last 10 days in Costa Rica I said I would come back the next day with my rucksack and volunteer for him for the rest of my trip.  This was the best decision of my trip.

Ricardo at the sea turtle hatchery.
Caroline during the Rio Claro Tour.
Rio Claro view from the canoe.

Can you describe what you did as a volunteer? 

During my stay I helped at the Turtle Project Centre which is located at the beach and the mouth of the River Claro Wildlife Refuge.  There were no turtles laying while I was there but there was still plenty to do. I chatted with tourists and gave them information about the project and the work Ricardo was doing. I made jewellery which we sold to raise funds for the project, using some shells I found from the beach. 

I also helped out when the River Claro tours got busy by making tea for guests. While I was there Ricardo taught me how to make some Costa Rican food and especially the fried plantain which was delicious. In the evening back at the hostel I chatted to guests and swung in the hammock.

The view of sunset and the Pacific from the hammock.
View from the hammock deck.

What about accommodation, food, and costs? 

I stayed in a tent when I was at the hostel, but the best nights were when we stayed at the turtle project. There was no electricity so we cooked by head torch and candle light and listened to the sounds of the waves crashing on the beach. Ricardo kept me well fed with typical Costa Rican beans and rice and lots of vegetables. I am a vegetarian and so is Ricardo so this was really great for us both. I left a small donation at the end of my stay to contribute to the project, but apart from that I did not need any money whilst I was volunteering.

Tent accommodation at the Life For Life hostel.

Has your perspective on the environment, and sea turtles, changed as a result of your time there at Life For Life? 

Definitely, I have a much wider understanding of the threats to turtles and the plastic pollution of the sea.  Being in this remote location I saw how much rubbish washes up on the beach.  Its incredibly sad how much plastic is in the ocean.  Since returning to the UK my shopping habits have changed and I am very focused on reducing my plastic now.

Some of the plastic collected on the beach, on display at the centre.

What are your main take away thoughts from your experience? 

This experience was one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ experiences, although I will go there again!  I have never experienced such a wonderful, remote, beautiful place as the area around the Life for Life project.  I learnt so much from Ricardo, and my environmental focus has strengthened as a result.

View from the path between the Life For Life hostel and sea turtle project.

Will you be going back, or using your experience in similar projects, do you think? 

I will definitely go back.  Ricardo and I became great friends at Life for Life and I am now a friend of the project.  Now I am at home I am using my internet skills to find Ricardo more volunteers.  I am dreaming of my next visit and I hope it won’t be too long before I am back there helping the sea turtles.

Caroline, Ricardo and Trek and Run’s Nita.

If you’re inspired to volunteer at the Life for Life project yourself, feel free to contact Caroline for more details on cazerra@yahoo.co.uk and check out the volunteering page on the Life For Life website here – https://www.lifeforlifehosteldrakebay.com/sea-turtle-conservation-project



Mid Morning Tour of La Paz Waterfall Gardens, San Jose, Costa Rica

Hiking, Tours & Experiences Posted on Thu, January 30, 2020 09:21AM

La Paz Waterfall Gardens is a privately owned ecological attraction near to San Jose (the capital of Costa Rica and likely where you’ll fly to when you visit the country) that offers spectacular waterfalls, hiking, and animal encounters, and a solid environmental education program.

We often fly in and out of San Jose and like not to rush our onward transfers after a long flight, or to chance getting back to the airport from either coasts on the day of leaving (roads can be very busy and buses can be late/delayed). So this means we have time to spare in San Jose, and this time we chose to take a tour to these gardens with a company called Mid Morning La Paz Waterafall Gardens Tour. You can find the company on Facebook here – https://www.facebook.com/WaterfallGardensTourMidMorning

or you can send them a message via the La Paz Gardens official website, since they’re the official tour company working in partnership with the property. You can find that page here – http://www.waterfallgardens.com/tours-with-transportation.php

In summary, we loved our day there. The drive to La Paz, winding through coffee plantations as the road climbs up and over the continental divide, was a beautiful surprise. Kind of like Switzerland at times with it’s lush pastures, but also with volcanos! Our guide, Olman, was a kind, enthusiastic and knowledgeable local man who spoke perfect English (also German and of course Spanish), he made for a wonderful companion. And the park itself was beautifully landscaped, with waterfalls as impressive as any we’ve seen during our 4 tours of Costa Rica (they were also more accessible than most, too. If you can walk up and down paved pathways, you can reach the viewpoints, no problem).

Olman picked us up in central San Jose at 10am. That’s why the tour is called the ‘Mid Morning’ tour. Most tours out of the city start earlier (which is nice in a way as sunrise is a wonderful time to be up and about) but one of the great pleasures of being in Costa Rica for us is waking up slowly over a great cup of local coffee as the early sun streams through the window, so a 10am start time was perfect for us as it allowed us to enjoy a leisurely breakfast.

It also meant the rush hour traffic was over, so we were able to move easily out of the city in the direction of the mighty Poas Volcano. We stopped briefly to get a view over the central valley, where San Jose is…

…and then we were off again, heading upwards, passing coffee plantations. Olman drove up a side road so we could get a good view of a coffee field with Poas in the background…

…and then we continued on into the plantation centre, where we got out and looked around. The panorama so reminded me of the vineyards of Tuscany, which I’d toured early in 2019. Rows and rows of greenery, dotted with red, only here it wasn’t grapes but ripe coffee.

The fields were bordered with flower and rainbow eucalyptus. I’d never even heard of such trees before, their multi coloured trunks are incredible.

We bought some coffee in the shop, enjoyed the view from the terrace for a while more…

…then continued upwards, past clumps of blue hydrangea and green pastures grazed by cattle under the clearest of skies.

We’d never expected the drive to La Paz to be such a thrill but it was truly spectacular and by the time we got out of the van, about 90 minutes after we’d been picked up in San Jose, we were smiling widely and very excited to be on the tour.  Olman led us into the reception area and introduced us to some of the staff. He takes tours to La Paz almost daily so he’s very well known there.

“Over 95% of the 120 staff here come from nearby towns and villages,” he explained, “La Paz offers many opportunities, and has done a lot of good for the local economy.”

We exited the reception to the site of the mighty Poas Volcano across the valley, rising out of a vision of banana leaves and rainforest. Amazing.

To our right were washrooms, to our left a feeding station for hummingbirds. Now, being animal lovers, we don’t like to see animals in captivity or being fed unnaturally, and we were to see a lot of that in La Paz over the next few hours. It would be easy to pass a negative judgement, but having toured many a national park and animal rescue centre around Costa Rica and indeed the world and spoken at length to the people working in them, we understand that there are many issues to take into account that should prevent us from passing any sort of judgement at all. 

Signs around La Paz state that none of the animals you see there have been taken from the wild, that they’d been entrusted to the care of La Paz by the Costa Rican Wildlife Ministry, that many of them had been kept illegally as pets before coming there, and that for various reasons they couldn’t be released back into the wild.

Let’s delve into that a little. What might prevent an animal being released back into the wild? Several things; here is a short list of actual cases we have personally encountered at other rescue centres.

1/ A crocodile that was so well treated by its owners that it loved humans, so when it was confiscated it still moved towards human voices when it heard them. It had to be kept captive because if it’d been released and had moved towards humans in the wild, they wouldn’t know it was friendly, and they’d most probably kill it. 

2/ Spider monkeys that understand, after being kept as pets, that they’re stronger and more aggressive than most humans, to the extent that they lose their fear of us. When released into the wild they often become pests, attacking humans for food, and then the humans find a way of killing them. In fact, the Costa Rican government commissions yearly culls of spider monkeys that were once tame and have lost their fear of humans. It’s not ideal to keep them in cages, but at least they’re alive and helping their species by educating the public about why we shouldn’t keep wild animals as pets.

3/ A cage may seem small, but it’s most likely bigger than the space the animal was being kept in before it was rescued. 

4/ In the case of the toucans and scarlet macaws that you see at La Paz, some of them have clipped wings, or wings that are faulty due to accidents (flying into glass windows is a problem for birds in all countries), and others are so used to humans that they couldn’t survive at all in the wild. At least at La Paz they are able to live, they’re providing that public education I’ve spoken of, and also they’re an attraction. Tourists pay to enter places like La Paz to get close to them (they’re beautiful, so it’s understandable) and that money goes to support the whole centre, including all the other animals and the rescue program. 

5/ Finally, for now, animals that are raised in captivity often don’t have an idea of what they should eat, or what is looking to eat them. They can’t hunt well, or defend themselves. To set them free would be sending them to their deaths.

One day we hope that all animals will be free and people will be educated and brave enough to live with them in harmony, but until that day comes we hope tourists choose where to spend their money wisely, and support animal rescue centres and education programs that are working towards helping animals. There are almost 300 animal rescue centres in Costa Rica and unfortunately some of them are just tourist traps, using animals to take your money. We think La Paz is one of the good ones and that it’s worth your money, and that it will spend it in service of the environment and the animals that you will see there. 

Ok, back to our tour. We passed the hummingbirds, a fair few tourists were photographing them, it’s understandable, they glittered in the sun and looked so delicately innocent and beautiful. Some fed from the sugar water dispensers, I was unsure about how good that was for them (it’s no good for us, so likely not great for them either) but they did have the option of feeding from flowers or flying off into the forest and like the other animals here they were responsible for bringing tourist money in to support the less visually exciting elements of the park, so we understood what was going on. (After returning home I looked at the La Paz website and found this very interesting page, which does go into detail about the hummingbirds and the feeding – http://www.waterfallgardens.com/hummingbirds.php)

We moved down a path, under the shade of towering ferns, and into the aviary.

We’d seen macaws and toucans in the wild quite often during the previous couple of weeks (in Carara National Park and in the areas around Drake Bay, where a toucan sat about 2 meters from our hotel balcony, and macaws swooped down to feed from a tree under which we were having a picnic) and it was always a huge thrill, and bearing in mind all I’ve said about cages and animals in captivity, we now appreciated seeing them up close here. 

It’s a privilege to be this close to wild animals, but one should take into account that this is not what one should expect to happen all the time, and that animals can find proximity to humans quite stressful if they neither chose the situation and haven’t got a clear exit. If you come here, please don’t try to touch them (we saw some tourists doing this, it seemed to disturb the birds a lot). We moved slowly and let the birds come to us if they wished. It was magical to be there. These birds really help you appreciate how incredible our world is. We were sad that for various reasons they couldn’t be free, but at least they were alive and with others of their own kind instead of being kept alone in a small cage. We left with a true appreciation for how magnificent they are.

We passed through the sloth house, and then the butterfly house, where Olman pointed out the eggs of a Blue Morpho on the tops of leaves, and their caterpillars underneath. He didn’t need to point out the actual butterflies, they’re huge! 

A Blue Morpho egg.
A Blue Morpho caterpillar.
A Blue Morpho, about 4 or 5 inches from wing tip to tip.

Then it was time for lunch, and what a lunch it was, in a spectacular location.

One of my plates.
The view from our table. Beautiful.
The tables further into the restaurant had views of a waterfall.

It was buffet style with lots of options (rice, beans, many local dishes and salads, fruit, pizza, garlic bread, fries, juices, and more), and the restaurant was so open plan and peaceful that a rare Black Guan flew in from the nearby forest and began walking about. This turkey-like bird is a much-wanted bird on many a bird watcher’s target list and is considered ‘Near Threatened’ because it has such a small range and is susceptible to hunting pressure. But here it was, wandering around the restaurant, offering us a rare sighting as we ate. Fantastic. 

After lunch we visited the monkeys and cats. One of the cats was 22 years old. In the wild she would have been lucky to reach 15. Her enclosure was pretty large, larger than the condo she’d been kept in before her rescue, and I was happy to see her still active and living out her days in peace. 

Jaguar.
Puma.
The puma enclosure.

Next came the orchid garden. My partner is just studying landscape gardening and we’re both keen on house plants so this was another place to pause, study the available information, admire the possibilities, learn and gain inspiration. 

There was much to educate us in the snake and frog houses, we skim read the extensive notices that told of how venom is collected, how most bites occur when locals are working in the fields beside snakes, and the facts and figures that offered so much more than the newspaper headlines that are designed more to frighten us than inform us.

It was a great opportunity to take photos of the frogs as they were all free to move around the ponds but easily seen, which they aren’t always in the wild.

Then we passed through a traditional homestead where coffee was ground old style, where we tasted sugar cane juice and where outside cattle roamed.  

The paths down to and between the 5 waterfalls are all laid with solid flagstone and are the most easily accessible in the country. The lower falls, called ‘La Paz’, is one of the country’s more famous waterfalls as tourists driving to Arenal pass by it on the roadside and more often than not stop to take photos. It’s scenic, but perhaps not so scenic as the falls further up in the property, which we explored.

There are viewing platforms above, halfway down (at one point almost behind) and at the bottom of each falls, making it a fine place to stroll and to linger, soaking up the atmosphere whilst you perhaps get soaked by the spray (not compulsory, only if you want to get close!). The jungle is so lush, there’s birdcall and the roar of rushing water all around and the gardeners have done a superb job of getting the sightlines spot on. If it’s waterfall photos you’re looking for, they are waiting for you to take them here. We spent an hour in this area but could easily extend that to half a day or more. I urge you to put aside a few hours for it. 

There are way more trails on the property than we managed to cover and we hope to return one day soon and stay in the onsite hotel, the Peace Lodge, so that we might explore them all at varying times of the day when the changing light would offer different insights into this landscape that is dripping in color and atmosphere. 

One of the information signs beside the path.

La Paz Waterfall Gardens really does offer a fine day out in the most beautifully landscaped gardens. The lunch is tasty and eaten in wonderful surroundings, Olman knows the gardens intimately and answered any questions we had (or in the case of a single bug we saw on an orchid which had antenna on its nose and which we didn’t know the name of, he knew the staff member to ask), and the walking trails and waterfalls offer you the dream you probably had of tropical Costa Rica in an accessible format. 

We were exceptionally happy with our tour, and consider it one of the finest available from San Jose. I can’t imagine anybody visiting La Paz with Olman and not being overwhelmingly happy that they did so. 

If you want to learn about the countries wildlife before you begin your tour, La Paz is a good place to do it. Olman can pick you up from the airport and bring you straight here before your onward travel, or bring you here before your flight, or any variety of combinations, he’s 100% flexible. Just email him your requirements. He’s a friendly, knowledgeable and extremely accommodating guy, and this is a great tour.

You can reach him by email at waterfallgardenstour@gmail.com

Or by phone in Costa Rica on +(506) 83714679
If you’re in the U.S.A you can phone 209 207 3140

And the La Paz official tour page website is here http://www.waterfallgardens.com/tours-with-transportation.php




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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