Posts Tagged ‘Backpacking’

Here are some places which are really really calm.

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Sea Train (바다열차)

I had a very pleasant journey from Gangneung to Samcheok on the special tourist train. The seats faced sideways so the passengers could look out of the window to the East Sea. There was of course out of context Muzak on the journey but I have learnt to tune it out and focus on other senses – a useful skill in Korea. When I finally alighted I tried to find a way from the station to the centre of Samcheok. Despite the small size of the town, the train station is a considerable distance from ‘down-town’. As it was the height of summer and I had a backpack, I decided to walk. With hindsight, I believe I was trying to tire myself out so I wouldn’t have to attempt a visit to the famous caves on the same day. I had slept in a jjimjilbang the previous night so I was in need of a decent sleep. I looked in a couple of motels near the bus station but they were triple the usual price, that is literally the price you pay for travelling in peak season. I eventually found a place called the ‘International Motel’, although it was written in Korean which made me giggle. By this point I was sweating more than usual and I probably looked a little pathetic. After checking the prices I was crestfallen again, I asked if there was any discount and the ajumma said she would knock it down from 90,000 to 70,000. I took out 60,000 from my wallet and said this is all I have. She made a brief phone call to the boss and then let me stay. I don’t usually haggle to that extent but I had a strict budget and didn’t want to cut my trip short because of one motel. 

Samcheok River View

 

The evening approached quickly and I noted the bus timetable for the caves then wandered down the river through the long shadows. All the special cave museums watch over the river and face the usual apartment buildings on the other side. The style of architecture in the cultural type buildings of Samcheok is Vegas meets Disneyworld. They don’t seem to be going for the natural wonders angle. I enjoyed walking round Samcheok and I would like to visit on another occasion to stay nearer to the sea and to visit the crazy looking museums which were closed during my stay.

 

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I awoke fresh and well rested, the previous days exertions mixed with some cans of Asahi had rendered me comatose throughout the night. I got to the bus station early and found some other tourists waiting for the same local bus which was cavebound. Luckily the caves are by far the biggest draw in this part of Gangwondo, this makes getting the bus pretty easy because there is always an expectation from those working in the bus station; they know where you are going. The lady in the tourist information booth next to the bus station also spoke pretty good English. After a rickety journey through some spectacular valleys and mountains we finally reached Hwanseon. There were many minbaks and pensions along the way. This was a rustic part of a rustic province and the journey made me feel cut off from the rest of Korea. If I ever return I would like to stay in one of the small pensions in those valleys, a place to escape subways and mobile phone shops.

Hwanseongul is a huge cave. In Korean the word gul (굴) means cave, so you don’t need to say Hwaseongul cave. There are other cave systems around in this part of Gangwondo but this is the most famous and the biggest too. The main reason I wanted to see the cave was not to tick off another Lonely Planet highlight, it was to re live some experiences I had as a schoolboy. I was a pretty keen geography student at school, mainly because I love excursions. I even love the word excursion. Being from the Northern part of Lancashire the impressive limestone features of the Yorkshire Dales were only a short bus ride away. There seemed to be a trip to Malham every year and I always attended. I went on the trips to see limestone caves and features even when I wasn’t studying them. After I had finished studying them I still returned to visit the limestone features. Even on the other side of the world I was able to see some of the same things I studied in class as a child.

 

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On my solo geological excursion I couldn’t find any clints or grykes like in Malham, but the karst scenery was outstanding and has bestowed one of the largest limestone caves in Asia. The cave system was immense with over 6 kilometres of known passages. The problem with these delicate environments is the human contact. Many of the nearby caves are closed to the public and you are restricted from taking photographs or touching anything. Although I managed to get a few phone camera shots. I took a cable car up to the entrance because I was there for caves not for hiking. I expect it would take a minimum of 30 minutes to reach the top by foot but the cable cars or funiculars are a nice way to take in the scenery before you enter the huge natural gateway.  Once inside, the temperature plummeted from the outside summer highs of 33°C  to about  12°C. It was a great relief to be in the cool in what was a pretty vicious heat wave. Some of the rocks drip and spout water from crevasses, this then  joins other little trickles to make  streams, waterfalls and plunge pools. Some of the chambers are  higher than Gothic cathedrals at over 100m tall. In fact I have many theories about church architecture and caves, but that’s another post. Many of the difficult features have been made accessible by metal bridges which gives it the air of an Indiana Jones movie. Unfortunately the majesty of nature has been sabotaged by using glowing lights and exploiting some of the features with bizarre names. The bridge of seven hells, the chamber of coarsely whispered insults, the valley of misshapen croutons, the cascade of venereal diseases…etc. Actually, my fake names may be even better than the ones I saw. I don’t think it’s necessary to adorn such an impressive site with anything other the basic ways of traversing through the features. It was quite funny for a while but in the end I think I felt sorry for the rocks.

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I certainly recommend the effort it takes to get to Hwaseongul. The best place to travel from is Samcheok and given the local scenery it should be worth taking some pack lunch and going hiking. I expect it gets incredibly busy later in the day so to appreciate the place fully I think it’s a good idea to take the early bus.

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Kalbarri, Western Australia.

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Just under 600km north of Perth is Kalbarri. This tiny coastal town is found at the mouth of the Murchison River which snakes its way into the Indian Ocean, just as the locals tell in their Dreamtime navigational stories. The name comes from a local Aboriginal man. The history is similar to many of the towns on this coast: thousands of years of Aboriginals, some marooned Dutch mariners, then people selling some land and settling. Today, Kalbarri is a pleasant fishing and tourist centre. Outside of town there is a National Park of the same name. I stopped here without knowing too much, but as with the rest of the west coast, you stop because you can.

The end of Civiliztion

The end of Civiliztion

The beauty of travelling up Western Australia is the lack of choice. The population is so sparse that every place you come to seems exciting. It reminds me of those trips from school where everyone piles out of the coach to the vast excitement of a rest area. When you cover such large distances, getting off the coach to stretch your limbs and buy some snack treats is paradise. In Oz I think it’s called ‘beyond the black stump’. I have also heard it called the sticks. In Ireland there is beyond the pale. All expressions, despite local differences in meaning, have the same general idea – beyond civilization. Although there wasn’t much to see after the northern suburbs of Perth, there were still some agricultural areas and gas stations with shops. The journey up to Kalbarri felt like \I was finally beyond the black stump.

Coachgaze

Coachgaze

I suffer from what I call ‘coachgaze’. This is a condition which goes beyond boredom an into a kind of zen like traveller’s trance. It involves your eyes following the endless landscape and occasionally homing back in on the constantly blurred asphalt of the sun-baked roads. I think coachgaze is brought on by having a limited amount of technology to entertain yourself with, and by having vast distances to cover. The distances usually involve almost nothing of interest to look at. Coachgaze changes your perception of time and space until everything just stretches into one semisomnant blur. Sleeping on coaches is never real sleep, it’s more like being half awake, interrupted by a forgotten dream. I have only experienced coachgaze in Patagonia and Australia. I’m pretty sure you would get it if you travelled through the Midwest of the US or through many parts of Russia.

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My coachgaze ended as we pulled into another roadhouse and caught a smaller bus off the main highway, it felt nice just to be travelling west instead of north. After a nice sleep in a real bed I headed out to the Kalbarri National Park on a minibus organized by the hostel. In places with few historical and cultural assets it’s really easy to book a tour and head off on a bus. The guide was called Mike and he seemed like a typical Aussie, with a mix of crass humour and aggressive small talk. He did however; really know his subject. Snaking through the bends and canyons of the ancient looking Murchison river, he informed us of every tree, shrub, rock, and insect along the way. The strangest discovery of the day was a ‘legless lizard’. Everybody thought it was a snake, but the lack of legs isn’t the only thing separating these two creatures, their anatomy is completely different. It was a paraplegic lizard.

Legless lizard

Legless lizard

Despite the sun beating down, the rock formations kept much of the track in the shade. When we finally got the opportunity to take a dip the water was colder than anything I have ever experienced. Actually, only two of us were stupid enough to swim, just myself and a Swedish lad. The whole day was relaxed and I really got the true sense of being in a different continent.  A dry, red, almost Martian landscape. All my references were vindicated with the strange red rock formations and the unusual flora and fauna. From all the parks I visited in Australia this was my favourite for scenery.

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Wanaka, New Zealand. Sometimes I hate typing the comma after a place-name, especially ‘Wanaka’ As far as I know there is only one Wanaka, but I insert the comma for clarity. I also use the comma, and insert New Zealand because I didn’t really know about Wanaka until I was there. If I didn’t know then I presume many others won’t know either.

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It’s at the southern end of Lake Wanaka and serves as the base camp for the Mount Aspiring National Park. Wanaka has the tangible excitement of most resort towns, but it is still quaint and laid back. The town is part of the Queenstown-LakesDistrict and is often overlooked due to the proximity of the hugely famous Queenstown. If some people overlook Wanaka then I underlooked Queenstown. To underlook, is not a word as far as I know, but let me explain further.

One of my main reservations about New Zealand was the number of ‘adventure tourists’. I imagined really loud people with crass manners and a wardrobe similar to that of the old ‘Pepsi Max’ adverts. A common sight is white people with dreadlocks – which I’ve never been sure of. They spend so much time and energy seeking out carefully controlled fun, that they often forget there is an unfranchised world of excitement beyond the buses and bungee cords. I’ve never trusted manufactured fun. I believe fun is a spontaneous feeling which is driven by s state of mind and can exist in the most mundane places. If you have to travel from the UK or the Midwest to find fun then I think you need to have a long hard look at your life. A famous and venerated Zen Monk once said to me (whist tutting despairingly)

‘The only fun you find at a fun fair is that which you bring within yourself.’

Adrenaline junkies are genuinely hooked on their drug of choice. I would like to say ‘literally’ hooked but I don’t have enough science to back that up.

“Have you done a bungee jump? Really? I did two at the same time, in the dark, into a pit of cobras.”

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Adrenaline tourism is great for the economy of New Zealand. However, after working two jobs and having to cope with adrenaline numpties for too long I decided that Queenstown was not for me. I read about Wanaka being a smaller and quieter version of Queenstown, so I stayed there instead. I was happy, not just with the town and surrounding scenery; I was also happy with the demographic who chose to stay there. I met a few people who had underlooked Queenstown to get somewhere more relaxing. I only passed through Queenstown briefly so I cannot really comment upon the place. What I can say, is that Wanaka was one of the unexpected gems of New Zealand’s South Island.

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My pleasant hostel opened out to a lawn which ambled down to the Lake. I decided in Wanaka that promenades and waterfronts are nice but Lakeside proms are much nicer. The breeze is gentle and you don’t get salt and sand trapped between your toes all the time. The town has all the tourist infrastructure you would need for both seasons, you can ski here too! I was mainly interested in doing some hiking but I couldn’t be bothered waiting for the bus and I didn’t have enough time to do a multiday hike. In the end, I opted to go to Roy’s Peak to get a good view of the Lake and some of the bigger mountains. I walked along the road to Roy’s Peak which was interesting in the sense of seeing how people live outside the tourist centre. However, I strongly recommend not walking unless you plan on going round the lake; I was pretty tired upon reaching the start of the trail.

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This part of New Zealand was exactly what I had imagined. There were straw coloured grasses and turquoise lakes. The mountains unfolded as if they had just been laid by the god of terraforming. I had my back to the view while walking, so when I eventually reached the peak I felt very happy with the last vista. My only regret was not being organized enough to re plan and stay longer in this mountain paradise. Despite my creeping envy of everyone who passed me to continue hiking, I had one of my most memorable days here. I needed the rest, not just from working, but from others. Depending on your personality type, hiking can be a great escape from all of life’s distractions. Looking back I think I was always fond of hiking and walking but my experience in Wanaka started me on a gentle quest to always walk to the top of any nearby peak. This has reached a point where if I don’t walk a serious length each week I feel genuinely down. Mountains, lakes and forests always restore my humours, none more so than Wanaka.

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