Monday, January 16, 2017

MADAGASCAR: Leaping Lemurs, Guest Post by Owen Floody, Part 1



Diadamed Sifaka, Madagascar

In June 2016, our friend Owen Floody planned and led a trip to Madagascar.  Owen recently retired from a career of teaching and research at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. He has always been an avid photographer and in his retirement has taken several trips that allow him to pursue his passion. He has been a frequent contributor to The Intrepid Tourist. Here is part 1 of a short reflection on his Madagascar trip and a few of his excellent photographs. 

One of the world's places that might best be seen soon, in case it is not preserved over the long term, is Madagascar.  The history and isolation of this large island off the east coast of southern Africa have blessed it with some wildlife that is unique (especially its lemurs) along with some that is unusual though not unique (e.g., its array of colorful chameleons). Madagascar also presents a wide range of habitats, including several types of rainforest at different altitudes (coastal to montane), dry deciduous forests, grasslands, deserts (“spiny forests”) and large expanses of sharp limestone pinnacles (“tsingy”). 

Tsingy

Alas, some if not all of these habitats are at risk, in part due to the widespread use of charcoal for cooking: Most or all of Madagascar’s unprotected forests already are gone, increasing the pressure on the protected areas that remain.  Tourism can help in this regard, by giving local residents a stake in forest preservation.  Evidence for such beneficial effects can be seen, for instance, in the requirement for local (in addition to national) guides and in the development of community-based wildlife reserves.  The net effect is that a visit to Madagascar can have the immediate effect of exposing you to some wonderful scenery and wildlife at the same time that it encourages the preservation of these resources for future visitors.
Bamboo lemur
Madagascar’s roads can make it a challenging place to tour. On my recent trip, we began with an abortive trip from the capital Antananarivo (Tana) to a pair of rainforest parks directly to the east, hoping to see and, even more to the point, hear the dawn chorus of the indri, the largest of the lemurs.  Alas, what we discovered is that the indri hunker down and clam up in the rain.  Still, this excursion permitted us to visit the semi-captive lemurs on Lemur Island, as well as the residents of a local reserve specializing in chameleons and other reptiles.
Chameleon
Once back in Tana, we boarded a flight for Morondava, on the west coast.  From there, we drove north with the goal of visiting Madagascar’s premier tsingy site, the Tsingy de Bemaraha (a World Heritage site).  Along the way, we were enchanted by Baobab Avenue, an amazing concentration of huge baobab trees.  
Baobab Avenue
In addition, we stopped to hike within the dry deciduous forest at Kirindy Reserve, looking both for lemurs and their major predator, the fossa, which despite appearances is a type of civet or mongoose, not a cat.
Fossa
Nevertheless, it was the tsingy that stole the show. Within the park, we took two hikes, through the Petit Tsingy and Grand Tsingy.  Both provided great opportunities to view the tsingy from above (viewpoints), within (as we hiked along gaps in the formations), sometimes even below (as we crawled through short caves or tunnels within the rock).  This variety of perspectives helped to impress upon us the height of the limestone pinnacles.  Combining this with the aerial extent of the formations emphasized at the overlooks, one could not fail to come away from this site in awe of its stark majesty.

Once we tore ourselves away from the tsingy, we retraced our steps, first to Morondava, then on to Tana, where the second major phase of our trip began. 

Note: I devised the trip itinerary, which was ably implemented by Cortez, USA, a California-based tour-operator that specializes in Madagascar.  In the past, Madagascar has been criticized for the quality of its tourism infrastructure.  With respect to the roads, this was and still is justified.  In all other respects (accommodations, food, guides), however, I thought that we were extremely well treated on this trip and so would urge others, especially others with an interest in unusual wildlife, to give Madagascar a try.

Look for Part 2 next week.

Monday, January 9, 2017

HIKING THE ANDES, the HUAYHUASH TREK: Owen’s Peruvian Adventures, Part 2, Guest Post by Owen Floody



Glacial Lakes on the Huayhuash Circuit, Peru
Our friend Owen Floody is in the midst of a series of three treks in Peru, with two down--Machu Picchu in May 2015 (see his post for 1/2/17), Huayhuash in July 2015--and one coming up in mid-2017, Cordillera Blanca. Owen recently retired from a career of teaching and research at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. He has always been an avid photographer and in his retirement has taken numerous trips that allow him to pursue his passion. He is a frequent contributor to The Intrepid Tourist. Here is the report of his Huayhuash trek and a few of his excellent photographs.
One of our camps.
The Huayhuash Range (Cordillera Huayhuash, pronounced “why wash”) is a compact cluster of mountains in the Peruvian Andes, approximately 225 miles from Lima.  It only extends over about 20 miles but contains more than 20 peaks, six of which exceed 6000 meters (19,685 ft) in height.  One of these is Siula Grande, the scene of the adventure described by Joe Simpson in the book and movie “Touching the Void.”
Our pack animals awaiting their day’s assignments.
My trek encircled much of the range, covering roughly 85 miles in 12 days.  As the area is very remote and sparsely populated (e.g., we never did pass through a village), we camped throughout, though the excellent support provided by our tour operator, Peruvian Andes Adventures (PAA), freed us of many of the normal rigors of camping: We were able to hike with just day packs, avoid the hassle of setting up or breaking down camps, and enjoy great meals all due to the efforts of the PAA staff and animals.
On the Huayhuash Track
Though the distance we covered may suggest a rigorous trek, the real challenge was in the altitude.  Most of our time was spent above 13,000 feet and most days saw us crossing at least one pass exceeding 15,000 feet, the highest of these at 16,400 feet.  One can prepare for some aspects of such a trek with an appropriately challenging exercise program, ideally including a healthy dose of actual hiking wherever you can find significant ascents and descents.  But how can most of us prepare for altitudes such as encountered here? 
Day hike from Huaraz
What I did was to arrive in Huaraz (the trek’s starting point and PAA’s base) four days early and then take full advantage of the many half-day and day hikes offered by PAA.  These covered beautiful ground and were graded in difficulty, making it possible to put together a package of pre-trek acclimatization hikes that were manageable and enjoyable, and that very much helped me to prepare for what was to come.
Soaring snow-covered peaks of the Andes and wetlands
The scenery encountered on this trek was spectacular, the most impressive of any of the seven major treks that I’ve done. Many of the types of scenes that we enjoyed are the ones that you would predict, i.e., soaring snow-covered peaks, high mountain passes, pristine valleys and meadows, wetlands.  But the Huayhuash is especially well known for its beautiful glacial lakes.  Some of these treated us to the sights and sounds of repeated avalanches. And many, if not all, presented an array of contrasting and beautiful colors. 
Avalanche
Altogether, then, this trek around the Huayhuash circuit provided an outstanding visual feast.  But this did come at the cost of considerable effort.  Why go to the trouble of trekking, especially when so many outstanding scenes can be seen from roads?  One answer is that the Huayhuash and like destinations are so remote as to be accessible in few ways other than by foot.


Monday, January 2, 2017

MACHU PICCHU: Owen’s Peruvian Adventures, Part 1, Guest Post by Owen Floody



Machu Picchu, Peru
Our friend Owen Floody is in the midst of a series of three treks in Peru, with two down, Machu Picchu (May 2015), Huayhuash (July 2015), and one coming up in mid-2017 (Cordillera Blanca.) Owen recently retired from a career of teaching and research at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. He has always been an avid photographer and in his retirement has taken numerous trips that allow him to pursue his passion. He is a frequent contributor to The Intrepid Tourist. Here is his report of his Machu Picchu trip and a few of his excellent photographs.

My Machu Picchu trip included three major parts: the several days prior to the trek that I spent acclimating to the altitude as I explored Cusco; the trek itself; and the two days spent exploring Machu Picchu.
Cusco was great and I strongly recommend that anyone visiting this part of the world not shortchange it.  The city presents a fascinating mix of very old and not-so-old streets, walls and buildings.
Stone wall in Sacsayhuaman; similar walls can be found in Cusco
I am not a museum enthusiast, but found several here that were very enjoyable.  One of these was the Pre-Columbian museum; I think that another favorite was the Museo Inka.  The restaurants were excellent, with the introduction to ceviche being, for me, a special treat.  
Some of the salt ponds at the Salinas de Mara
Finally, there are many very interesting sites on Cusco’s outskirts or within easy day-trip distance (e.g., the Sacred Valley, Moray Agricultural Terraces, Salinas de Mara.)  I could easily have spent a week exploring these and more.
On the trail to Machu Picchu
The trek was strenuous, covering 41 miles in seven days.  But it was the altitude (mainly 6700-12,800 feet, with a single pass at 15,200) that presented the greatest challenge.  Was this effort fully repaid by the scenery?  
Lake in the Andes
The scenery certainly was attractive.  Still, I would not put this among the few most scenic treks that I have done.  Bear in mind, though, that this was not the famous Inca Trail and I simply don’t know the relative merits of the two routes to Machu Picchu. 
Not being religious, I was surprised to react very positively to the opportunity our trek provided to participate in a ceremony in which we were blessed and our wishes conveyed to the Andean gods by a pair of Quechuan shamans.  This ended up being for me one of the trek’s highlights.  I found the symbolism fascinating and the ceremony overall very appealing, in no small part due to the gentle manner and charm of the shamans.  And who can complain about the potential divine reinforcement of one’s wishes?
Overview of Machu Picchu from Huayna Picchu
Machu Picchu itself was wonderful, fully justifying any and all hype.  The setting is matchless, the ruins are quite a bit more extensive than I imagined, and the beauty and intricacy of the stonework are breathtaking.  Its extent and beauty more than justified the choice of REI as a tour operator: Whereas most of the tours that I considered included just one day at Machu Picchu, the one offered by REI included two and any less than this would have been inadequate.  Partly because of the extra day, our tour included a climb up Huayna Picchu, for the overview of Machu Picchu that this peak provides.  Of course, it also gave us more time to wander around Machu Picchu.  Especially effective in this regard was the opportunity to have Machu Picchu largely to ourselves in the late afternoon of our first day there, after the day-trippers had departed.

In sum, visits to Cusco and Machu Picchu are highly recommended.  

Sunday, December 25, 2016

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

As we decorate our tree with family treasures and mementos from our travels through the years, we send best wishes to all of you for a very
HAPPY HOLIDAY
and
JOYOUS NEW YEAR!

Monday, December 19, 2016

HIKING THE ALPS: I’ll Take the High Road: Trek from Mont Blanc to the Matterhorn, Guest Post by Owen Floody



In June 2016, our friend Owen Floody hiked the Haute Route from Chamonix, France to Zermatt, Switzerland. Owen recently retired from a career of teaching and research at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.  He writes, "A personal goal in the early years of my retirement is the completion of many of the world’s most scenic and famous treks: These fit perfectly with my interest in landscape photography and also represent activities that are best done now, while you know that you can." Here is his report of his trek and a few of his excellent photographs.
The Haute (High) Route is one of the most famous and challenging of European treks.  It begins near Mont Blanc, in Chamonix, France, and ends near the equally famous Matterhorn, in Zermatt, Switzerland.  My specific trek (the Classic Haute Route, offered by Wilderness Travel) involved about 65 miles of hiking spread over 8 days (total duration of trek = 12 days, including practice and rest days) and concentrated at altitudes of 6000-9600 ft.
The significant physical challenge posed by this trek related to altitude, but also to the many ascents and descents.  These each averaged about 2900 feet per day, with maxima of 4300 (a descent about which one of my knees still complains).  
Second and possibly most important of all, the terrain was varied and often very difficult, including everything from slippery loose scree to large rocks to even larger boulders to ledges and even ladders.  Imagine a steep descent over scree or hopping from rock to rock or scrambling through a boulder field and you will get the picture.
Any negative impact of these challenges was greatly eased by our amazing luck with the weather: In a summer of very mixed weather in Europe, we were blessed with clear sunny skies on all but one day.  In addition, we could recover in comfortable lodgings (dormitories in mountain-top refuges on two nights, rooms in small village hotels on most of the others), though only after enjoying the wonderful meals and wines forced upon us by our enthusiastic guides. 
I am sure that all of us expected to also be compensated for our efforts by spectacular mountain views.  I am happy to say that we were not disappointed.  We enjoyed the expected, but still wonderful, views of snow-covered mountains.  In addition, we marveled at massive glaciers, lovely lakes, high mountain passes, and beautiful Alpine meadows.  Still I think that my favorite section of the trek was that passing through the Grand Desert, a relatively stark, but starkly beautiful, moonscape of a valley scoured out long ago by a retreating glacier.  And, of course, the stunning views of the Matterhorn that greeted us upon our arrival at our ultimate destination of Zermatt didn’t hurt either.
In conclusion, this clearly was a successful and impressive trek through a beautiful and easily accessible part of the world.  Even so, I am uncertain about how to compare this with my other European trek, the equally famous Tour du Mont Blanc.  These share a focus on the Alps and even have routes that overlap in part.  The Haute Route definitely is the more strenuous of the two.  But are the views that it offers superior to those on the TMB?  My personal belief is that the views are more similar than different in quality, and that the TMB, as a consequence, may offer the better value for the money and effort.