Monday, February 26, 2018

MAMMOTHS: GIANTS OF THE ICE AGE at the Australian Museum, Sydney

Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age at the Australian Museum, Sydney
I never expected to see mammoths wooly or otherwise in Australia, a continent where mammoths never lived. But on my recent trip to Sydney I had the opportunity to see a wonderful exhibit called Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age at the Australian Museum, which featured not only mammoths, but mastodons, other Ice Age animals, and information about early humans who hunted and interacted with these animals.. The exhibit will remain on view until May 13, 2018.
Lyuba, which means "Love" in Russian is the most complete mammoth specimen ever found. Contents of her stomach included milk, pollen, pond algae and mammoth dung
My favorite part of the exhibit focused on Lyuba, an intact 42,000-year-old baby wooly mammoth found in Siberia, whose body had been buried in mud and almost completely preserved, down to her fur and the contents of her stomach.
A thick fur coat would have kept baby Lyuba warm
A life-size mural of Lyuba included a present-day muskox  pelt providing the opportunity to feel what mammoth hair may have been like.
Mammoth skeleton. Mammoth tusks could grow as long as 16 feet and weigh more than 350 pounds.
During the Ice Age, mammoths and mastodons roamed the northern regions of Europe, Asia and North America. The Imperial or Columbian mammoths found in North America were the largest of all.
Model.  Mammoth bone huts like this one were constructed about 15,000 years ago at Mezhirich in Ukraine.
In parts of eastern Europe people used mammoth bones and tusks as building material. In the exhibit, a model of one of these mammoth bone houses, along with tiny figures, functioned as a kind of Ice Age doll house.
The Hyde Park Mastodon
Among the many mammoth and mastodon remains found in North America is the Hyde Park mastodon, discovered in 2000 near the town of Hyde Park, New York. The bones were used to make casts for an assembled skeleton on display in the museum exhibit. I was also interested to learn that Thomas Jefferson had a collection of mammoth bones, collected for him by William Clark in 1807 from Big Lick, Kentucky.

The remains of Ice Age mammoths and hundreds of other animals can be seen not far from where I live in Los Angeles at the George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries and have long fascinated me. They inspired my book When Mammoths Walked the Earth which focuses on worldwide mammoth discoveries. But I had never seen the preserved body of a baby mammoth until I went to Australia.
If you are heading to Australia before May 18th, a visit to Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age is well worth your time.

Monday, February 19, 2018

JAPAN: A Ride on the Bullet Train, from the Memoir of Aunt Carolyn

Bullet Train, Tokyo, Japan
My husband's aunt, Carolyn T. Arnold, traveled to Japan in the 1960's and 70's as the leader of a tour group. Her humorous description of her group’s experience taking a bullet train for the first time brings back memories of my own experiences riding trains in Japan.
We had been looking forward to a ride on the bullet train. One express train leaves Tokyo Station every twelve minutes and is capable of traveling 130 miles an hour. We boarded the train at Atomi. Our luggage had been sent earlier by truck to Kyoto since the train stops at the station exactly three minutes.
When we arrived at the station we found the sign for No. 8 embedded in the concrete platform.  Mike, the guide, and I had divided out group of twenty; one-half to board No. 8 coach at the front of the car with me, while the other half with Mike would board at the rear of the car. People were probably frightened at the thought of being left behind so everyone was already lined up when the train came speeding around the bend.
I never really believed our car would stop precisely at the figure 8, but, as you know, the Japanese are noted for their precision. Right on the spot, No. 8, the door of our car was right in front of us. I had put Hazel at the head of my line, and I brought up the rear. No one was moving.
 “Hazel,” I yelled, “get cracking up there!” Still no one moved. I thought about pushing from behind or letting out a war whoop. Finally, the door of the car opened, and we all fell inside just in the nick of time.
Later, I said to Hazel, “For Heaven’s sake, what took you so long?”
“Well,” she said, “first I pulled at the door, and then I pushed it, but it wouldn’t open.”
That was how we learned that all Japanese doors slide.

Perhaps the original intrepid tourist was Carolyn T. 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 and look at her photos, I marvel at her spirit of adventure at a time when women did not have the independence they do today. 

Monday, February 12, 2018

YOSEMITE VALLEY IN WINTER: Surprisingly Warm and Uncrowded

Upper Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park
Earlier this past year I signed up for a conference in Yosemite for the first weekend in February, expecting to see the mountains covered in white and to hike or snowshoe along icy trails. Instead, an unusually warm and dry winter in California made the weather seem more like spring and the only patches of snow were on high north facing slopes. It turned out to be a perfect time to visit the park.
On the valley floor
This was my second trip to Yosemite National Park in the past year. In contrast to last summer, when the valley was flooded with snow-melt filled rivers and waterfalls were thundering down the rock walls, the atmosphere on my recent trip was much more peaceful. While there was still plenty of water coming over the waterfalls, the river had returned to its banks, and there were far fewer visitors. The scenery was spectacular as always.
Tunnel View of El Capitan with Half Dome in the distance
My conference was held at Tenaya Lodge, just outside the park’s Wawona entrance. My friend Gretchen and I came a day early so we could enjoy the beauty of the park before the meetings began. The next morning we drove to the park entrance where we picked up a map and chatted with the ranger. We then continued on Highway 41 through the park (about an hour’s drive) to Yosemite Valley, getting our first impressive view of the valley as we exited the tunnel. The morning light was just making its way over the rim of the canyon walls, framing a distant view of Half Dome. The air was crisp and clear and the view was breathtaking.
Valley View at Cathedral Beach
We proceeded down to the bottom of the valley, making our way to the one-way road that circles the valley, stopping for views of Yosemite Falls and taking a short hike to view Bridal Veil Falls up close.
After parking our car at Yosemite Village, we toured the Visitor Center, which is filled with excellent displays explaining the geological history of the park as well as its natural and human history. (Compared to last summer, we had no trouble finding places to park and there were relatively few people.)
Sculpture of John Muir inside the Visitor Center
We ate our picnic lunch at a table outside the café near the Visitor Center, enjoying the sunshine and warm temperatures. We then visited the Ansel Adams Gallery, filled with prints by the photographer who helped make Yosemite famous. The gallery also had an excellent selection of books as well as a variety of beautiful hand-made art objects.
Beginning of trail to Vernal Fall, Nevada Fall and John Muir Trail
We wanted to do a moderate hike and decided to follow the trail to the Vernal Fall bridge. It was more uphill than we had expected, but after multiple stops to catch our breath we finally made it to the bridge. Other hikers told us that the trail up to the falls was even steeper than the one we had come on! 
View toward Vernal Fall from the bridge over the Merced River
We could see the falls up the creek in the distance and decided that was enough of a view. The hike back to the trailhead, almost all downhill, was much easier! There we caught one of the shuttle buses that circle the park, which took us back to Half Dome Village parking lot where we had left our car. It was time to return to our hotel and get ready for our conference. It had been a lovely, warm winter day.
Post Office in Yosemite Village
See my posts about previous visits to Yosemite in October 2016 and June 2017.

Monday, February 5, 2018

TREKKING EVEREST, Guest Post by Owen Floody

Everest with the famous Khumbu Icefall; view from
Kala Patthar

Our friend Owen Floody has embarked on numerous treks in the past year and a half, including the ambitious "Ultimate Everest" trek in the Himalayas. 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 Everest trek and a few of his excellent photographs.
Since my retirement in mid-2012, I have completed 12 international treks.  Of these, the longest and most demanding was Wilderness Travel’s “Ultimate Everest”, a trek that extended over 25 days in November-December of 2016.  My group of five trekkers assembled in Kathmandu and spent several days exploring this and other sites and royal cities in the Kathmandu Valley.  We then were flown to Lukla, where the trekking began.  The trek’s initial leg took us to the vibrant town of Namche Bazaar.  Beyond this point, our route followed an elongated loop, with the town of Lobuche at its far end.  At Lobuche, we spent several days following a spur out to and back from the Mount Everest base camp before circling back to Namche Bazaar along a different route.  Though we had hiked from Lukla to Namche Bazaar at the trek’s start, all in my group opted to return to Lukla by helicopter.  In addition to its obvious attraction of ease, this provided a very useful bird’s eye perspective on some of the terrain through which we had trekked.  Except in Kathmandu, we stayed in basic lodges and were fed well by our own traveling kitchen staff.
Everest (marked by the leftmost cloud) is just behind the Nuptse Ridge, with Lhotse to the right and below the larger cloud formation
As you would expect, views of Everest and other Himalayan peaks (especially Ama Dablam, Lhotse and Nuptse) were a primary goal and achievement.  However, the closest and best views of these (e.g., Everest with the famous Khumbu Icefall ) were not easy to come by, requiring climbs to 17,500 ft (at Gokyo Ri) and 18,365 ft (at Kala Patthar).  To some extent, but only this, the earlier parts of the trek prepared us for later demands by exposing us to gradually increasing altitudes.  For example, our lodges on days 4, 8 and 12 were at 11,270, 12,650 and 14,100 ft, respectively.  And Lobuche, the gateway to the base camp, sits at 16,200 ft.  Still, there is a significant difference between 14,000-16,000 and 17,000-18,000 ft and all of us found our highest climbs to be very challenging, even with the help of the Diamox that we took to ward off altitude sickness.  One tip I would give future Ultimate Everest trekkers is to strenuously avoid exposure to colds or other illnesses borne by fellow travelers.  All in my group paid the price for failing to do this.
Icefield at the top of Cho La Pass
Most of this trek’s figurative highpoints coincided with literal highpoints.  These included the aforementioned views of Ama Dablam, Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse.  In addition, I very much enjoyed the Cho La Pass, Ngozumba Glacier and some of the mountain views near the town of Dingboche. 
Views from Dingboche
In contrast, I found our visit to the Mount Everest base camp to be anticlimactic: The time of year at which the trek runs is not the Everest climbing season so that the base camp amounted to a sign-posted rock field, not a bustling climbers’ village.
Mani Rimdu Festival
On the other hand, an unexpected personal high point was the opportunity to see the Mani Rimdu Festival in Tengboche, as we passed through this town.  This visit was an option on just one of the season’s three Ultimate Everest treks and I would strongly urge any future trekkers to take advantage of the opportunity, if available.  
The festival highlights a set of 16 masked dances performed by the monks at the Tengboche monastery.  These dances depict the establishment of Buddhism in the Himalayas, partly by representing the struggle between the legendary Padmasambhava (aka Guru Rinpoche) and demonic forces.  They were complex, incredibly colorful and provided the opportunity to hear traditional Nepalese musical instruments and music.
All told, this trek was very demanding but also unique in both artistry and landscapes.  What other trek can boast sightings of two of the four tallest mountains in the world (Everest and Lhotse) that begin early and continue to improve as you approach the ultimate destination more and more closely?  If this sort of experience appeals to you and you’re ready for the challenging altitudes, then this trek belongs on your bucket list.