Monday, January 30, 2017

JAPAN: Train Ride to Nikko, from the Memoir of Aunt Carolyn

Carolyn T. Arnold, Nara, Japan 1969
My husband's Aunt Carolyn traveled to Japan in the 1960's and 70's as the leader of a tour group. Here is an account of one of the challenging moments of her life as a tour leader. Although she took many photos during her years of traveling, some, including those of Nikko, were on film that deteriorated. For photos and information about Nikko, click HERE.

    One day in Tokyo, my group was scheduled to go by train to Nikko, a mountain resort and national park. All were assembled in the hotel lobby and were casually visiting with one another. The transfer bus driver had reported early. I was relaxing while I waited for Mike, our Japanese guide. (Japanese guides always assume American names.) Suddenly, an uneasiness made me check my watch and I realized it was high time we were leaving. As I was going to the desk to inquire if there was a message from Mike, I was paged to answer the phone. It was Mike calling to tell me his taxi had been involved in an accident; he was being held as a witness. I told him there wasn’t any problem; I could take the group to Nikko, but he had the train tickets. What to do? We agreed that I should immediately “kidnap” one of the hotel bellboys to act as my interpreter, get my flock on the bus, and head for the station immediately. Mike would call the stationmaster, explain the situation, and after lunch in Nikko, he would join us. So off we went all alarmed about possibly missing the train and the day’s excursion.
    We hopped on the bus, drove through the early morning traffic to the station. I led the group to the proper platform where we were stopped at the gate. There stood the train, and the large clock showed just five minutes for us to negotiate. I pushed the bellboy under the barrier and into the office to get an okay from the stationmaster for us to board the train. We all watched the clock. Four, three minutes until departure time and still no word from the office. Wildly gesturing I pointed to the clock, to my group, and to the train. Evidently, Mike’s call to the station had just come through. We had two minutes until departure when the stationmaster slowly rose from his chair, walked to where we waited, and personally escorted us to our coach, where he bowed and left us. Without any warning or fuss, promptly on the last minute, the train slowly moved out of the station as I collapsed in my seat. As Bob said later, “Now you know how to get twenty people on a train without tickets.” Mike met us at Nikko, and we continued with the scheduled sightseeing.
    Nikko is a delightful place, ninety miles north of Tokyo. The scenery of mountains, lakes, and waterfalls is spectacular. The Toshogu Shrine is a Shinto shrine built in the 17th century. The Yomeiom Gate to the shrine is very elaborate, almost gaudy. It is awe-inspiring to walk along the long avenue approaching the gate between the towering cedar trees arched overhead. Before entering the Inner Court, we removed our shoes as is customary before entering anyone’s home or shrine. Here we were provided with cotton slippers, so ill-fitting that I felt like I was a web-footed duck.
    To one side of the Yomeiom Gate is a five-storied pagoda dedicated to Buddism.
    There is so much to see in Nikko. My groups always enjoy the bus ride from Nikko village to Lake Chuzenji at 1,000 feet elevation, at least until we start the uphill climb. Judging by the chorus of shrieks from the women on the bus, the ride is a real thriller. The narrow, twisting road has 47 hairpin turns as it rises sharply up the mountainside. The up-grade bus always has the right of way. Each switchback was numbered so we knew how many there were to go. This did not help the nervous ladies. At the parking place there are always “ohs” and “ahs” as we looked down at the twisting road over which we had come. The thought that we must return by the same road was not reassuring. Today the road to Chuzenji is one way as another approach has been built. However, there are still those sharp curves and breathtaking views below. Yes, I am glad we did not miss that train to Nikko.

Perhaps the original intrepid tourist was Carolyn Arnold, my husband’s aunt.  A single school teacher in Des Moines, she began traveling abroad when she was in her forties, beginning with a bicycling trip through Ireland in 1950.  She went on from there to spend a year as a Fulbright Exchange Teacher in Wales, to more trips to Europe and beyond, and eventually became a tour leader, taking all her nieces and nephews (including Art) on her travels.  When she retired from teaching, she wrote of her experiences in a memoir called Up and Down and Around the World with Carrie.  Today, as I read of her travels, I marvel at her spirit of adventure at a time when women did not have the independence they do today. 

Monday, January 23, 2017

MADAGASCAR: Leaping Lemurs, Guest Post by Owen Floody, Part 2



A pair of Coquerel’s sifakas, 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 2 of a short reflection on his Madagascar trip and a few of his excellent photographs. 

The second half of my Madagascar trip involved an extended drive down the central spine of the country, from Tana in the central highlands to Tulear, on the southwest coast.  As this was a long trip along one of Madagascar’s main roads, it gave us the chance to see a lot of the country, including many towns, villages and local markets.  Some in my group relished the opportunities this created for people-watching, other cultural experiences, and shopping.
Isalo National Park
I was primarily interested in exploring a series of national parks promising dramatic contrasts in their environments and wildlife.  Chief on my list were Ranomafana, Andringitra and Isalo National Parks.  The first two comprise one third of the Rainforests of the Atsinanana, a World Heritage Site.  In its emphasis on rainforests, this designation applies perfectly to Ranomafana but strikes me as slightly misleading in the case of Andringitra.  Ranomafana is one of Madagascar’s premier rainforests.  Likewise, it is one of the country’s prime sites for lemur-focused research and tourism.  In contrast, Andringitra’s claim to fame is based more on its mountainous landscape, unusual vegetation and opportunities for hiking.  And quite distinct from both of these, Isalo National Park features expanses of dry grassland, rare endemic plants, and especially striking sandstone formations and canyons.
Ranomafana National Park
In Ranomafana, the forest itself was the star attraction.  We did see lemurs, although they were difficult to spot, let alone view clearly, in the dense vegetation.  On the other hand, the absence of large predators makes it possible to search for wildlife at night as well as during the day.  Indeed, we were able to do this in most of the parks and reserves we visited, and these walks were very productive, since a significant number of lemurs that are nocturnal.
Mouse lemur
In Andringitra, we did two demanding hikes, one up onto a high plateau known for its lunar landscape, the other into one of the bands of rainforest extending into this park.  The first of these was especially rewarding despite the mist that obscured much of the landscape on the day of our hike.
“Dancing” Verreaux’s sifaka
Finally, we had a great time at Isalo.  One highlight was a hike up a canyon leading to the Cascade des Nymphes.  We had rewarding encounters here with lemurs, both on the hike and immediately afterwards, as we attracted quite an audience to our picnic lunch.  
Ring-tailed lemur
The other Isalo highlight was the viewing of sunset at La Fen├Ętre (the window), a natural opening in a rock formation through which the setting sun can be viewed.  I strongly think, however, that the far better sunset views here are those looking away from the sun and at the glowing slabs of fantastically-shaped sandstone basking in the sun’s dying rays.
Sunset from La Fenetre
If you haven’t ever considered a trip to Madagascar, you should give it some thought.  The remaining natural areas and wildlife need the support of foreign tourists.  Furthermore, some of these areas are as impressive as I’ve seen anywhere and there simply cannot be any animal anywhere that is as endearing as a lemur.

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 those with an interest in unusual wildlife, to give Madagascar a try.

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.