Iceland’s Ring Road, Part 2

From the north we headed southeast to see Iceland’s magnificent Eastern Fjords. We had viewed what seemed like hundreds of waterfalls already along the Ring Road, but as we neared the fjords the falls grew even more impressive. With a geologically young landscape and tons of rain, snow, and ice, Iceland happens to be the ideal setting for waterfalls.

The Eastern Fjords cover a 120 km stretch of the Ring Road. The road twists and turns as it follows the rugged coastline and travels through remote farms and fishing villages. The sheer cliffs give way to black rock beaches dotted with milky white agates.  Being rock hunters, we were ecstatic to find agates strewn along the beach.  They were even in the road beds!

We camped along this rock beach and went agate hunting.

Vegetation at our campsite along the beach.  We even found our first Icelandic mushrooms (middle photo).

Sheep on the beach in the Eastern Fjords. We saw more sheep than people!

In the small fishing village of Stöðvarfjörður, we discovered a kindred spirit in Petra María Sveinsdóttir. For 80 years, Petra walked out her front door and up into the mountains above her home to go rock and mineral hunting. This area is famous for minerals, such as the zeolites, jasper, onyx, opal, and agate. Over the years as her collection grew, she turned her house into a rock and mineral museum. We were so bummed it was closed when we were there but we got to peek at some of the incredible specimens outside.

Petra’s stone collection

Layers upon layers of basalt line the steep glacially eroded cliffs of the Eastern Fjords. We were fortunate to have a sunny day as we drove the winding coastline. Reindeer only live in Eastern Iceland and we were lucky to spot one along our drive.

A reindeer!

One of the small fishing villages

Iceland’s Eastern Fjords

From the east, we turned and headed southwest along the Ring Road. Skógafoss waterfall is one of the largest waterfalls in Iceland with a width of 25 metres (82 feet) and a drop of 60 m (200 ft). The spray from this waterfall often produces rainbows on sunny days.

Rainbow at Skógafoss

Southern Iceland

Our destination for the night was Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. The lagoon is famous for its icebergs that calve off the nearby Breiðamerkurjökull glacier and then drift to sea. From the lagoon we walked to the beach and watched as the icebergs were swept out into the ocean.  The beach itself is littered with hundreds of icebergs that were washed back onshore by the large waves. See the video below!

Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon at sunset

Icebergs on the beach

Up close and personal with icebergs

As we set up camp near Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, we were super excited since it was our first clear night in Iceland and we wanted to see the Northern Lights. Unfortunately, we checked the Aurora Borealis forecast and it predicted a 1 out of 9 on auroral activity scale, which meant we probably weren’t going to see them.

Bummed, we prepared for bed in the camper van. At around 10 pm, we checked one last time before turning in and the Aurora was streaming across the sky! We spent the next 2 hours enjoying the show until we could no longer feel our hands and toes and had to head inside.

Heading back towards Reykjavík we veered off the Ring Road to visit the Golden Circle, a 300 km loop that extends from Reykjavík into central Iceland and back. Along the Golden Circle we visited Kerið Volcanic Crater and Geysir, home of the first ever geyser described in a printed source. The name Geysir  is derived from the Icelandic verb geysa meaning “to gush.” Geysir has been dormant since 1916 but other geysers in the area continue to erupt regularly. The Strokkur geyser erupts every 8-10 minutes, shooting up water 15 – 20 meters into the air as seen in the video below.

An Icelandic turf house. Turf houses provide excellent insulation against the harsh Icelandic climate.

Kerið Volcanic Crater along Iceland’s Golden Circle

Strokkur geysir erupting (top photos)

Our favorite stop on the Golden Circle was at Þingvellir National Park. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge slices through Iceland and is exposed at Þingvellir. Here the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling apart at a rate of quarter-inch per year, creating spectacular scenery.

Standing in the rift zone Þingvellir National Park

Fungi at Þingvellir National Park

From the Golden Circle we headed to Reykjavík, the capital and largest city in Iceland. The city was officially founded in 1786, however it is believed that Ingólfur Arnarson and his wife founded the city in 874 as they became the first permanent Nordic settlers of Iceland.

Today, Reykjavík is home to colorful buildings, unique public art, and the famous Hallgrímskirkja church. Standing at 73 meters tall, Hallgrímskirkja is the largest church in Iceland. Constructed between 1945-1986, the church was designed to resemble columnar basalt, a tribute to the numerous basaltic lava flows that dominate the country’s landscape.

Reykjavík,Iceland

A friendly cat in downtown Reykjavík

On our way to the airport, we stopped at the famous Blue Lagoon Iceland. While we did not have time to enjoy the geothermal spa, we did walk around the lava fields and hot springs surrounding the area.

 

The Blue Lagoon

From Iceland we flew back to the US where we would spend three weeks before heading to South America. On our flight back to the US we were treated to a six hour sunset due to the time change. It was a beautiful end to an incredible adventure in Iceland!

Sunset over Greenland

 

 

Iceland’s Ring Road, Part 1

Mývatn Geothermal Area, Northern Iceland

We have been excited to go to Iceland for months and the time has finally arrived for our eight day trip. Originally, we had planned to spend most of that time around Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, and visit areas closer to the city. After a little more research (mostly through looking at pictures on Google Earth) it became clear that we wanted to explore much more of the Island.

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Iceland’s Ring Road

Route 1, more commonly referred to the Ring Road, encircles the entire country covering 828 miles. We mapped out the sights we wanted to see, rented a sweet campervan, and hit the road! The major benefit of renting a campervan was that it enabled us to pull over and sleep pretty much anywhere.

Our comfy campervan

Kirkjufellsfoss Waterfall with Kirkjufell Mountain looming in the background on the Snæfellsnes Pennisula

Our first day in Iceland, we headed north from Reykjavik to explore the country’s west coast. A little over three hours from the capital we veered off the main highway to visit the Snæfellsnes Pennisula, the setting for Jules Verne’s novel “Journey to the Center of the Earth.”

Our “campsite” on the Snæfellsnes Pennisula

The next day we made our way back to the Ring Road and continued our journey north. Along the way we spotted some Icelandic horses by the road and pulled over to give them some face and neck scratches. Icelandic horses are smaller than the average horse and have much thicker hair in order to survive the fierce winter weather. The horses were brought to Iceland In the 9th and 10th centuries by the Vikings and Icelandic law prevents other horses from being imported to maintain breed purity.

Friendly Icelandic horses

View driving on the Snæfellsnes Pennisula

One of the things we learned driving the Ring Road is that Iceland is home to hundreds of waterfalls. They are literally everywhere you look. They range in size from a trickle to the massive Dettifoss waterfall, the most powerful waterfall in Europe.

Geitafoss in Northern Iceland

Dettifoss Waterfall

Dettifoss and Selfoss waterfalls in Northern Iceland

Northern Iceland is stunning. Iceland is roughly the size of Ohio and is home to about 300,000 people with 200,000 of them living in the capital, Reykjavik.  Once leaving the capital, we encountered only small towns, situated hundreds of miles apart. 

The view from our campsite in Northern Iceland

Akureyri, a small city in northern Iceland (upper left) is Iceland’s second largest urban area

After a few days on the road we made it to Mývatn Geothermal Area, a region consisting of boiling mud pots, steaming fumaroles, geysers, hot springs, and volcanos. After hiking around, we decided to relax and soak in the hot pools at the Mývatn Nature Baths.

Lake Mývatn, formed 2,300 years ago after a volcanic eruption

Dan overlooking the boiling mud pots at Námaskarð in Mývatn Geothermal Area

Dan soaking up the heat at a steaming fumarole

Mývatn Geothermal Area in Northern Iceland

Bubbling hot mud pots at Myvatn Geothermal Area in northern Iceland.

Relaxing in the hot pools at Mývatn Nature Baths…yes….with beer 🙂

A rainbow at Hverfjall Crater, a 2500 year old, nearly symmetrical tephra crater

Leaving Mývatn, we headed to the east coast of the island. Stay tuned for Iceland’s Ring Road, Part 2 as we explore the EasternFjords and Southern Iceland! Enjoy Dan’s video compilation of our trip so far posted below 🙂

The Ring Road crossing the pass from Northern to Eastern Iceland

 

 

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

The turquoise-colored cascading lakes at Plitvice

We left the incredibly scenic Croatian coastline and headed inland to Plitvice Lakes National Park. Founded in 1949, Plitvice is the largest national park in Croatia and one of the oldest in SE Europe.

View from our Airbnb accommodation in Poljanak

Staying within the park was a little outside our budget, so we opted rent a room on Airbnb in the small village of Poljanak, about a two mile walk from the park. The hike to the park took us past rolling countryside and dense forests of beech, spruce, and fir.

View from our daily hike to Plitvice

Early morning mist on the lakes

Plitvice Lakes is famous for its vividly colored cascading lakes and waterfalls. The 16 cascading lakes are separated by travertine dams, which grow at the rate of about one centimeter per year.

Once in the park you can walk miles and miles of wooden plank boardwalks and dirt trails that navigate through and over the lakes and waterfalls.

Silent, electric boats shuttle hikers across the park’s biggest lake

A Beech forest

Part of the wooden boardwalk crossing over a waterfall

Waterfalls flowing over mossy travertine dams

Waterfalls galore at Plitvice

The placement of the wooden boardwalks make visitors feel as if they are walking on water

We tended to visit the park in the early morning hours just as it opened. We visited once in the afternoon and were shocked by the overwhelming crowds of people lining the narrow pathways as seen in the video below.

I found this antler while hiking in the park. The first one I had ever found!

What most people do not realize is that the park covers an astonishing 73,350 acres.  Tourists usually just plan day trips from Zagreb to walk the boardwalks and trails around the lakes, but few seem to explore the many trails that extend outwards, deep into the national park.

We found this hericium mushroom on our hike. Hericiums are edible mushrooms with medicinal properties and happen to be very tasty.

We spent a day hiking northwest of the main lakes. The national park has a wide variety of plant communities due to its range of microclimates and varying levels of altitude. We found an incredible number of mushrooms!

Just a few of the mushrooms we found

Flora in Plitvice National Park

On Lake Kozjak, one of the 16 cascading lakes, we rented a row boat to escape the crowds and to tour the lake by ourselves.  Dan showed off his rowing skills as he rowed us back and forth across the lake for an hour.

Fish in the crystal clear waters

The only downside of staying two miles away from the park was when we had to catch a 6 am bus to Zagreb in order to board a train to Slovenia. We woke up at 4 am to start our hike in the dark. As we stepped outside, we discovered that it was pouring rain. We miserably trekked in the dark and soon became drenched from head to toe. Fortunately we made it to our bus and Zagreb, albeit soaking wet.

Laid Back in Laos

Kuang Si Falls, Laos

After our longest bus ride yet (28 hours!), we arrived in Luang Prabang, Laos.  Luang Prabang is a small city tucked away in a mountainous region in northern Laos. The city is built on a peninsula formed by the Mekong and the Nam Khan Rivers.

The Mekong and Nam Khan RIvers from town

We spent most of our time in Luang Prabang strolling the old town center through the French colonial buildings and numerous wats and monasteries.  The fusion of French and Lao architecture led the old town center to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995.

Haw Pha Bang

A novice monk sitting at the entrance of a temple

At the center of the city lies the temple-topped hill of Mount Phou Si. A short hike to the top takes you past several Buddhist shrines and ends with a near-panoramic view of the surrounding countryside.

The Mekong River and surrounding mountains from the top of Mount Phou Si

Technically, Laos is one of a handful of communist countries left in the world. As time has gone on, however, the government has leaned more toward a capitalist system and the current reality undoubtedly does not resemble what Engels or Marx had in mind.

A mixture of  materials, colors and textures at Wat Xieng Thong and Wat Sene

Wat Nong Sikhounmuang

Buddha at Wat Xieng Thong

Nagas often line the entrance to Wats in Luang Prabang.

The funeral chapel at Wat Xieng Thong

Delicious buffet-style meal at the night market – as much as you can fit in a bowl for about $1.50

Kuang Si Falls is a multi-tiered waterfall that cascades over travertine terraces into crystalline turquoise-colored pools.  Surrounded by dense, lush forrest, the falls are approximately 30 kilometers south of Luang Prabang. We had heard that the falls get pretty crowded in the late morning and afternoon, so we rented a motorbike hoping to be some of the first people to enter at 8 am.

Our reward for being early was to swim in the cool, pristine swimming holes all by ourselves.  The pools even included small fish that nibbled at our feet and legs.  No need to pay for the expensive fish pedicures in town!

At the entrance of the falls is a Moon bear rescue centre.  When we arrived we briskly walked past the bears eager to get to the falls. After swimming, we spent time at the rescue center and were lucky enough to catch feeding time.  It appeared volunteers had hidden tasty treats for the bears all over their enclosures. These bears here were rescued by the Lao government from those who had illegally taken them from the wild for use in bear bile farms – a despicable aspect of traditional medicine in many parts of Asia.

The view on the ride back from Kuang Si – Luang Prabang and the 100 meter high temple-topped Mount Phou Si in the center of town

Our next destination after Luang Prabang was Chiang Mai, Thailand.  A bit sick of long bus rides, we chose to take a scenic two day river boat ride to Huay Xai, Laos and then a five hour shuttle bus to Chiang Mai.  The slow boat ride down the Mekong is popular amongst tourists with the majority of people taking the boat from Thailand to Laos.  We, however, chose the less common and less busy way: Laos to Thailand.

While passengers endured overcrowded boats on the passage from Thailand to Laos, we had a 60 passenger boat practically to ourselves.  The journey was scenic and relaxing as we passed small villages, locals fishing, and herds of water buffalo cooling themselves in the Mekong.

A boy riding an elephant along the banks of the Mekong

What are you lookin at buddy!?

A small river-access only village in northern Laos

Different boats along the Mekong

We spent the night in the small town of Pakbeng before setting off on the river again the next morning. As twilight approached, we landed in Huay Xai, Laos.  The border was closed for the day, so we enjoyed sunset from the balcony of our guesthouse overlooking the Mekong with Thailand in the distance. A five hour journey the next day brought us to Chiang Mai, Thailand and the subject of our next post 🙂

Sunset on the Mekong

Water World of the Mekong

Looking for a reprieve from the intense Cambodian heat, we set out from Phnom Penh with the goal of making it to the cooler climate of Si Phan Don, Laos, also known as the 4,000 islands. The halfway point of our journey was a small town along the Mekong River called Kratie in northeastern Cambodia. Twenty kilometers to the north of Kratie is one of the best spots to see the critically-endangered Irrawaddy dolphins swimming in the Mekong. These dolphins are are small and gray with the shape of their heads being reminiscent of a beluga whale. There are only 70-80 Irrawaddy dolphins estimated to be left in the Mekong River.

Our boat driver for the morning

Unsure of our chances of getting a glimpse of these dolphins, we hopped in a tuk tuk and travelled 30 minutes north to an area where they are known to congregate.  Since it was the low season, we got a boat all to ourselves.

At first, we were one of two boats on the river, but others soon followed. One boat carried a group of brightly-dressed monks.

We only headed five minutes upstream before we saw the first fin break the water.  Our driver killed the motor and we spent the next hour watching several dolphins swim up and down river by our boat.  We tried our hardest to get pictures of their uniquely shaped heads, but ended up only getting a few pictures of their fins since they surface and dive very quickly.

Irrawaddy dolphins

Cambodian hipster style…

Kratie was very different from other places we had been in Cambodia. Life is slow-paced and the town is almost untouched by tourism.  We liked the local atmosphere, so we decided to stay an extra day.  Across from Kratie is the large island of Koh Trong.  We boarded a small ferry with mostly locals and crossed the Mekong.  On arrival, we rented bicycles and followed a bumpy and sometimes muddy nine kilometer trail around the island.

The ferry to Koh Trong

The “port” at Koh Trong

The trail took us through small, rural villages and lush scenery.  Local children sporting big smiles eagerly waved to us as we passed by their homes.

Scenes from Koh Trong

The next morning we set out on a long day of travel to Si Phan Don.  Our four hour bus ride turned into a twelve hour day (including a 5-hour bus break). At the border crossing we managed to avoid a visa-scam, but it took another 2 hours to get moving again. We arrived too late to catch the boat we had a ticket for, so we had to pony up more cash to get a “private” boat out to the islands. We caught the sun setting on the boat ride out and could feel the tension of the long day drop away as we approached the islands.

The most popular islands to stay on in the 4,000 islands are Don Det and Don Khon.  We opted for the less touristy island of Don Khon and chose a guesthouse on the river that included a large deck with hammocks.

Local water buffalo

The best way to explore Don Khon is by bicycle.  We spent two days biking and getting lost on the muddy trails around the islands. It rained much of the time we were there, but being Portlanders, we don’t let a little rain stop us from having fun! On the northwestern corner of the island we biked to a raging set of rapids called Li Phi waterfalls.  The falls do not have a massive drop, but the volume of water and the fury in which it roars downstream was impressive.

Li Phi waterfalls

Two fisherman minding a bamboo trap that funneled unlucky fish out of the water and onto the wood

Don Khon

One of the few non-muddy trails on the island

A giant centipede and a large snail feasting on some fruit

Khone Poi Soi waterfalls

Towards the east of the island, an incredibly muddy path took us on a trail to Khone Poi Soi waterfalls.  After crossing a rickety suspension bridge, we headed to see another set of raging rapids.  At the base of these rapids, numerous bamboo traps have been set up by fisherman in hopes of funneling fish out of the river.

Bamboo fish traps

WARNING: RANT ALERT..if you are tired of reading just look at the pictures from this point onward 🙂

These fishermen reminded us of the old photos of Native Americans fishing the waterfalls on the Columbia River before the waterfalls were submerged by the Dalles Dam. Unfortunately, the Lower Mekong River and the people and animals that live here are also under an imminent threat from a huge dam project that is moving forward in Laos. The Don Sahong Dam is being planned for a large channel of the Mekong just upstream from Don Khon. This dam will block passage to the main dry season channel on the Mekong, preventing fish from going up or downstream.

Fisherman and their bamboo traps

The Mekong River has the largest freshwater fishery in the world and has the second-most fish species in the world – only the Amazon has more. Downstream from here the Mekong flows through Cambodia and Vietnam. Cambodians get the majority of the protein in their diets from fish – mostly freshwater fish from the Mekong. Not only that, but many Cambodians make their living from fishing this rich resource.

Further downstream in Vietnam, the silt from the river annually replenishes the Mekong Delta – the region that feeds half the country. This dam will block sediment from flowing downstream to this region, critically stressing this important food-growing region.

To make matters worse, the soundwaves from the explosives that will be used to clear rock from the channel are expected to kill many of the remaining endangered Irrawaddy dolphins that live directly downstream from the site.

Laos is under a treaty that requires it to consult with neighboring nations on decisions along the Mekong before moving ahead with this type of project. Late last year they had this “required” meeting with Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, even though they had already started building roads and infrastructure for the project. The neighboring countries called for the project to be immediately halted so that impact studies could be carried out but were basically ignored by Laos’ single-party socialist government who clearly saw the meeting as a rubber stamp to continue with their plans. 

The truly sad part of this is that viable alternatives to this project have been proposed that would produce the same amount of electricity without blocking channels on the main stem of the Mekong. These have been ignored as well.  As a metric, this dam will only produce about 1/50th of the electricity of the massive Three-Gorges Dam in China.  As of right now, it doesn’t appear that the project will be stopped, and millions of peoples’ food security and livelihoods, not to mention hundreds of animal species’ habitats, will be horribly affected.

Tourism, perhaps the least important item, will also be adversely affected.  We came to this area to see the amazing natural landscape along the Mekong River. We came to see dolphins and waterfalls and local culture.  We spent our money in small, poor, rural communities that derive much of their livelihood from travelers coming to their corner of the world for these reasons. If the Don Sahong Dam moves forward this could all go away.

The government of Laos claims to have a plan to turn their country into the “battery” of Southeast Asia by producing energy with massive dams and then selling it to their neighbors, thus pumping much-needed cash into their economy. Unfortunately, in their shortsightedness, they have failed to see the many ways that hasty and poorly-planned engineering projects like this will further impoverish their country and their neighboring countries, not to mention the world as a whole.

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Biking through one of the monasteries on Don Khon

A Cool Reprieve in the Bali Highlands

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Pura Ulan Danu Bratan Temple

After a 5 hour ferry ride we arrived back on Bali.  Initially we had decided to cross the island immediately for Java, but there was one place more place that we wanted to go to: Bedugul.

Located in northern Bali, Bedugul lies inside a volcanic crater on the shore of Lake Bratan and is home to the famous Pura Ulan Danu Bratan Water Temple, built in 1663. Since Lake Bratan is a major headwater for irrigation on Bali, Pura Ulan Danu Bratan is used to give offerings to the Balinese-Hindu water goddess Dewi Danu.  We went early in the morning, so we were able to explore the entire temple complex with almost no one around.  Our only companion was a very friendly dog who appeared to live there.

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Our temple companion

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I couldn’t resist a little puppy love

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Back at our hotel, we were trying to arrange transport across Bali to the ferry terminal when we met Wayan. Wayan and his family own a farm near the hotel and he supplies orchids to the hotels in town.  We struck up a conversation with him and he offered to take us to the ferry as well as stop at several sights along the way. He also brought us to the local botanical garden, Eka Karya Botanic Garden, and gave us directions to visit his farm afterwards.

Eka Karya Botanic Garden is huge (around 400 acres) and houses around 2,100 species of plants, mostly native to eastern Indonesia. It is one of four official national botanical gardens of Indonesia.  We spent several hours perusing the gardens, mostly by ourselves since it is the low season in Bali.  Afterwards we walked to Wayan’s farm where he showed us his orchid greenhouses and his family served us coffee and fried jack fruit (delicious!).

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Orchids at Eka Karya Botanic Garden

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Desert plants at Eka Karya Botanic Garden

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Lotus Blossum

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Honeysuckle

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Hibiscus blossom

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Go ahead and try to get the cookies out of this jar…

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The Ethnobotany Garden

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One of several types of butterfly we encountered on our walk through Eka Karya Botanic Garden

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One of Wayan’s orchid plants

At 6am the next morning, Wayan picked us up and drove us to a viewpoint to watch the sunrise over nearby lakes Buyan and Tamblingan.  The fog and clouds prevented a colorful sunrise but the view was still incredible.

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Lake Buyan

After sunrise, we drove further north to a small village where we hired a local guide.  We then trekked through rice fields, descended down steep hillsides and forded numerous streams to reach several large waterfalls in the gorge below.

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View of the rice terraces that we crossed on our hike

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The last river crossing to our destination in the background

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Dan at the base of the third waterfall

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Sekumpul Wateralls – Their enormity was hard to capture in a single photo.

Halfway back to the top, we met the village leader who guided us the rest of the way back, showing us the local fruit and coffee trees.  As we heard a rustling in a nearby tree, he pointed out a chameleon.  Dan and I had never seen one in the wild before, and the village leader explained to us the the chameleon was starting to change from green to brown on his feet as it moved onto the tree bark. At the car, the he cut open young coconuts for us to drink from and offered us durian since we said we had yet to try this strange fruit.  The first thing you notice about durian is the smell, which is stinky and pervades everything around it.  The fruit tastes slightly sweet and much better than it smells, but I think that might have been our last tasting of it…

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Our first ever chameleon sighting

After a quick ride from the village, we arrived at Air Panas Banjar, a sacred hot springs surrounded by jungle.  Here we soaked in the sulfuric water springs and cleansed our bodies after our long hike.

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The warm, sulfuric water pours out of eight stoned carved serpents

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Dan getting a serpent bath

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Our final stop before we hit the main road that would take us to the ferry on west coast of Bali, was the Buddhist monastery of Vihara Brahma Arama, the largest Buddhist temple in Bali.

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After an great day full of sights and adventure with Wayan, we said our goodbyes to him and Bali and headed west to Java, our final stop in Indonesia.

Routeburn-Caples Circuit

We left Glenorchy in the early morning hours to catch a shuttle to the start of the Routeburn Track. New Zealand has nine “Great Walks” through diverse scenery, including the 32 kilometer Routeburn Track.  We decided to combine the Routeburn with the Caples Track to make a 60 kilometer five day circuit through Mount Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks in the the Southern Alps.

The beginning of the track followed the crystal clear waters of the Route Burn (small streams are called “burns” in NZ) and offered clear views of the Humboldt Mountains.  Past Routeburn Flats, the trail climbed steeply to the Routeburn Falls Hut where we stayed for the night. The hut was situated next to the Routeburn Falls (video below) and offered stunning views of the valley below us.

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Humboldt Mountains

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Clear blue waters of the Route Burn

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Falls along the Routeburn Track

The next day we started the climb to Harris Saddle.  The track guided us through wetlands and grasslands and past Lake Harris on onto the saddle.  Harris Saddle is the highest point on the track at 1255 meters.

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Expansive views along the Routeburn Track.

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A tarn along the Routeburn Track

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Lake Harris

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Lake Harris panorama

At the saddle, Dan decided to climb Conical Hill, a steep climb with views of the Hollyford Valley, Darren Mountains, Martins Bay, and the Tasman Sea.

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One of the many glaciers in the Hollyford Valley from the top of Conical Hill

From the saddle, the track traverses along the exposed Hollyford Face, with views of the Darran Mountains and even the Tasman Sea.

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Kate at Harris Saddle

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The Tasman Sea from the Conical Hill

At the end of the second day, we descended to Lake Mackenzie and camped by the lake for the night.

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Mountain Daisy after flowering

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Mossy temperate rainforest surrounding Lake Mackenzie

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View of Lake Mackenzie

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Lichen and moss-covered trees along the bushline.

The third day, we climbed from the lake and past Earland Falls that cascaded 174 meters from the cliff above us. We camped near Lake Howden for the night.  The snow level had dropped that day which provided a frigid night’s sleep.

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Base of Earland Falls

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The clear pools around Earland Falls

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Pools and cascading water along the Routeburn Track

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At times, the moss along the track was a meter thick!

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A small milkcap, possibly a Candy Cap

Day four, we split from the Routeburn Track towards the Caples/Greenstone tracks.  The Caples track climbed steeply towards McKellar Saddle, but the difficult ascent rewarded us with a rainbow spanning the valley below us.  Mckellar Saddle crossed fragile subalpine vegetation and bogs.  Dan was super excited to see sundews, a small carnivorous plant.

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Rainbow at McKellar Saddle

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Close up view of sundews. Notice the small bug it has captured!

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Bog at McKellar Saddle

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It was a bit cold at the top!

As we descended from the saddle into the beech forest, the temperature heated up and the forest teemed with fungi and native birds.

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Coral fungi

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Amanita emerging

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Karearea, New Zealand’s native falcon.

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A native South Island Tomtit

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A Rifleman, New Zealand’s smallest native bird (about the size of a golf ball)

We stayed in the Upper Caples Hut which is no longer part of the parks system and has been transferred to the NZ Deerstalkers’ Association.  Most people don’t know that this hut can still be booked, so we ended up with the whole hut to ourselves!  The hut came with a wood stove that kept us nice and toasty which was very welcomed since our previous night camping had been freezing.

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A hut to ourselves! Upper Caples Hut

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A swing bridge near the hut

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Plum chalkcaps, native russulas, in the beech forest along the Caples Track

We left our cozy hut behind the next day and started our last day of hiking.  The track followed the Caples River and followed the valley all the way down to the carpark. After five days we were tired and hungry, so we caught the shuttle back to Glenorchy and rewarded ourselves with a shower, burger, and beer.  What an incredible 5 days in the Southern Alps!

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Red Beech trees on the Caples Track

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The Caples River

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Looking into the gorge near the Mid-Caples Hut.

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Fly fishing on the Greenstone River.

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View at the end of the Caples Track.