Take Me Back To Swaziland!

It’s true that a job, and not my backpacking itinerary, brought me to Swaziland. In fact, I had originally planned on traveling though more of the Asian continent after my time in Nepal. But the opportunity arose to work on a short-term project on the ground in Manzini, so I made a “quick diversion” to the bottom of Africa to put my MPH to work for a few weeks.

Driving into Swaziland.

Driving into Swaziland.

Swaziland has the best sunsets I have ever seen in my life.

Swaziland’s sunsets leave you breathless. Photos really don’t do them justice.

It's pretty here.

It’s pretty here.

It's pretty here, but I will never get the red dirt out of every piece of clothing that I wore here.

Lovely colors, but I will never get the red dirt out of every piece of clothing that I wore.

Since May 2012, I’ve been working with a small team to help a Swazi organization design a sexual/reproductive health program that engages sex workers. We’ve been supporting the organization remotely, but the program recently received funding (with promises of more), so it made sense to make a field visit and take the first steps towards implementation (woohoo!). You can read about Ungakwenta! here.

Office shot! It's amazing what not working for a few months will do for your motivation. I am so pumped to be back at it. Yay!

Office shot! It’s amazing what not working for a few months will do for your motivation. I am so pumped to be back at it. Yay!

HIV testing campaign messages. Yay Public Health. Feels so good to put on my nerd glasses again.

A man knows – to be the best, he has to test! Woo, Public Health Messaging! Feels so good to put on my nerd glasses again.

I spent 11 days in Swaziland. It was not enough. I LOVE IT THERE. My colleague Matt and I put in long, productive, awesome days with the SRH program, and squeezed in a bit of wilderness adventuring whenever we could. It was phenomenal. Not only did I get to do the work I love, in the field, with amazing, dedicated people, but I learned so much about Swazi life and culture, met so many interesting expats and locals, and saw how my life might look if I worked here full-time. And, of course, I got to hike through crocodile-infested swamps and climb giant granite mountains and see a buncha crazy animals and finally eat fresh fruit all day instead of rice (sorry, Nepal. I don’t want rice for a loooong time because of you.)

This is Nyonyane Mountain, or Executioner Rock, so called because one upon a time, criminals were hurled from the peak. We climbed it in between rain storms.

This is Nyonyane Mountain in Milwane, or Executioner Rock, so called because once upon a time, criminals were thrown from the peak to their deaths. We climbed it in between rain storms.

A sign at the beginning of the trail on one of our hikes.

A sign at the beginning of the trail on the Nyonyane hike in Milwane. The hike took us through dense, jungle-y swamps. I thought I might die.

Baby zebra! Seen in Milwane Reserve, where we hiked up our first mountain.

Baby zebra! Seen in Milwane on our hike up Nyonyane.  More animal photos to come in Swaziland Post #2.

Seriously though, hiking in Swaziland was like hiking in Jurassic Park.

Seriously though, hiking in Swaziland was like hiking in Jurassic Park…

Matt up ahead, hiking Nyonyane Mountain or Executioner Rock.

Matt up ahead, preparing to climb Nyonyane Mountain, which you can see in the distance.

Swaziland is a tiny country, with a soft, gentle, rolling beauty. The area where I lived and worked is lush, with steep green mountains covered in giant boulders that appear to simply pop out of the earth. It was summertime in the Southern Hemisphere, and though it was the rainy season, we were lucky to have mostly clear, hot weather. The mangoes and papayas and pineapples were the best I’ve ever had. There were amazing animals and so much nature for them to enjoy, in several huge wildlife reserves throughout the country. The culture is rich and proudly held by its people. Everyone we met was friendly and helpful. Everything moves slowly.

Matt and I stayed in an expat's house right next to Sibebe, this beautiful mountain made out of a single, giant chunk of granite. It's the second largest monolith in the world.

Matt and I stayed with a colleague right next to Sibebe, this beautiful mountain made out of a single, giant chunk of granite. It’s the second largest monolith in the world.

I hiked up Sibebe with Ben, whom we stayed with while working in Swaziland. This is Ben's arm holding some kinda crazy nature.

I climbed Sibebe with Ben, who is awesome and let us stay in his beautiful house while we worked and played in Swaziland. This is Ben’s arm holding some kinda crazy nature.

Hiking Sibebe.

Hiking Sibebe.

Sibebe again. I hiked 3 days in a row in Swaziland. So glorious.

Sibebe. I hiked 3 days in a row in Swaziland (after work or on weekends only, of course!). So glorious.

Interesting rock formation on Sibebe.

Aliens did this.

The third hike we did

The third hike we did was in Malolotja, a large wilderness reserve with tons of beautiful animals and its fair share of sky porn.

The hills are alive!...with seven different kinds of poisonous snakes.

The hills are alive…with seven different kinds of poisonous snakes.

These anemone-like flowers are called proteas.

These anemone-like flowers are called proteas. They were everywhere in Malolotja.

Of course, for all its beauty and kindness, Swaziland is not without its challenges. It has the highest HIV prevalence in the world. Much of its population lives in extreme poverty. Serious public health and development problems are apparent everywhere. There are issues with dependency on foreign aid. But while all of this is important to know and understand, it’s just as critical to recognize all that Swaziland has to offer, to learn just how intricate and interesting the culture and history are, and to develop a well-rounded awareness of how things in this country really work. And I only just scraped the surface, but I can tell you with confidence that I would absolutely love to live and work there for a while. And I just might try to, when I start job-hunting later this spring.

My fellow hikers in Malalotja.

My fellow hikers in Malolotja, admiring what beauty lay before us. Although, while those hills are pretty, they’re a b*tch to climb when it’s 99 degrees out. Just sayin’.

As a final note, I took a million sunset photos in Swaziland because they were the most intense sunsets I’d ever seen. The Swazi sky alone may be reason enough for me to move there. And though sunset photos seem a bit cliché by now, I feel I have to share at least a few. So here’s a random sampling of my shots.

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Almost Heaven, Himalayas

The highlight of my time in Nepal was an eight-day hike into the Himalayas, alone but for my guide, Bijay. Bijay lives outside of Kathmandu but spends the majority of the year in the wilderness, trekking or guiding or staying at his parents’ “mountain home” in remote Western Nepal (you have to hike for several days to reach it; there are no roads). I met Bijay on Couch Surfing, he gave me a good deal, and he turned out to be a fabulous guide. Here is the link to his personal trekking website.

After discussing about a thousand trekking options with Bijay, I decided to hike to Tsergo Ri Peak in Langtang National Park. This trek involved a 9-hour bus ride from Kathmandu, 6 straight days of wilderness hikin’ for a total of 80+km on foot, and another 9-hour bus ride back to the capitol.

Langtang is well known in Nepal for its beauty and environmental diversity. Its extreme variations in topography enable several different vegetation zones to exist within just a few kilometers of each other – one of very few places in the world where this happens. It was really cool hiking through a thick, damp jungle-y forest one day, the next day through alpine timberline, the next through a red-bush-filled prairie, and the next over a snowy, rocky, barren, Mars-like terrain.

It’s hard to organize this post, because the entire experience covered 8 days and I want to share exactly 8 million stories and experiences with you. But that’s not possible, so I’ll try to condense and be succinct and also show you several yak pictures because I know that will make you happy.

Yak pictures make everyone happy.

IMG_5515Anyway. The trekking adventure began with the bus ride to the village near the trailhead, at the edge of Langtang. This village is only 36 km, as a bird flies, from KTM. The road that leads there is 140 km long. It took our bus around 9 hours to make the drive. It was, for all intents and purposes, a 9-hour-long adrenaline rush. I was completely and utterly exhausted by the time we arrived, even though I’d just been sitting all day. It was both terrifying and exhilarating. But mostly terrifying. Dad, maybe you shouldn’t read the next few paragraphs.

Bijay and I boarded a public bus and departed from KTM at 7:30 AM. Within a half hour we were out of KTM Valley, heading up into the mountains on a single-lane road. Another half hour and the road turned to dirt, and dust, and rocks. Big ass rocks. And no shoulder on either side. On one side, a steep wall of earth. On the other, a plummeting drop far, far, far down. Now the cliff’s on your left. Now it’s on your right. Now left, now right again. Up and down the mountainsides, up and down, between 1400 and 4000 meters altitude, crazy switchbacks all the way. You’re maybe going 20-30 miles an hour, but it seems mighty fast. Your bus is loaded, packed with people, with bags and boxes, with a huge metal wheel (?), with sacks of grain, with lumber. Bijay tells you there will also occasionally be a cage of chickens stuffed in the aisle, or a goat.

IMG_5750The bus is full, with people standing in between the seats, and there are between 5 and 15 people riding on the roof at any given time, as well. You can see their shadow when the sun is just right, the silhouettes of teenage Nepali boys clinging to your and 60 other peoples’ bags strapped to the roof. The bus careens down the road, kicking up dust, hitting and rolling over rocks you think are just a bit too big to be safe. The bus tips precariously as it rolls over the boulders, just far enough onto the edge of its wheels, cliff-side, to make your heart skip a beat. Again, and again. You clutch the seat in front of you, which is broken and falling hard against your knees.

IMG_5698You are torn between admiring the beauty of the terraced farmland below you and panicking at the thought of the bus rolling down the hill, which seems wholly possible with one false move of the driver. Bollywood and Indian rap songs play loudly, on loop. The girl in front of you vomits out the window three times. Two boys in the back are passed puke bags, as well. The winding road is single lane all the way, and really a bit too narrow for the large bus. But it’s the only road there is. You realize this is going to be one hell of a ride.

You can see the thin line of brown road curving around the mountain on the right.

You can see the thin line of brown road curving around the mountain on the right.

Sybrubesi, the village where we stayed the night before beginning the trek.

Sybrubesi, the village where we stayed the night before beginning the trek.

Just 70km outside of Kathmandu, my Nepali guide stopped recognizing the language spoken by the people living there. The culture had completely changed. If you read about it, Nepal is actually crazily diverse. All the more reason to get out of KTM! I wrote in my journal after the long bus ride: “The people live so remotely in their little stone or metal houses, placed here and there amidst steep mountainsides of terraced crops…no roads but the ‘main’ one…near Tibet, just 25km away as a bird flies. Police checkpoints every 15 minutes of driving. Buddhist area – prayer flags and stupas everywhere.”

Prayer wheels being turned by the stream water, in the middle of the remote mountains.

Prayer wheels being turned by the stream water, in the middle of the remote mountains.

The next four days, Bijay and I trekked into the wilderness, away from electricity, away from dirt roads, away from people, away from civilization. Into the wild, into the forest and icy Himalayan air, into these massive mountains, into Sherpa country and nearly into Tibet. (Then we hiked back out in two more days. Much less epic, but still amazing).

IMG_5785IMG_5767Here’s part of my journal entry after the first day: “…a beautiful and interesting hike. All the while, alongside a bright blue, freezing glacial river. Swift and powerful. Subtropical forest. Steep rocky trail covered in donkey and cow droppings. Passed a shepherd’s makeshift home as well as a few traditional mountain villages. Houses of rocks and mud. Monkeys everywhere. /…Tomorrow we’re going to end the day at a ‘big village’ of about 300 people. No roads – only walking in and out. Unbelievable how remote everything is. Bijay said this is nothing; some people in remote areas of Western Nepal can only get food by helicopter. /…At least a few hikers/guides die or go missing doing this trek every year. One was a 25-year-old woman from Colorado, missing since 2010, no one has any idea what happened to her. She simply disappeared. This fall, a guide died by falling off a cliff, though they think he may have been drunk…  Constant reminders to play it safe, never underestimate this nature. The mountains will always win. It’s humbling…”

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You can just see the red-and-white-striped peak of Tsergo Ri in the distance, my ultimate destination!

This is called a Mani wall. They are built periodically along the valley by Tibetan Buddhists. The stones are carved with ancient spiritual inscriptions to remember the dead. Some of the Mani walls are over 400 years old.

This is called a Mani wall. They are built periodically along the valley by Tibetan Buddhists. The stones are carved with ancient spiritual inscriptions to remember the dead. Some of the Mani walls are over 400 years old.

The second day of hiking, we reached Langtang Village at over 3,000 meters, the point at which you begin to feel the effects of altitude. From my journal: “…In a Tibetan language, Lang=yak and Tang=home (this village is home to yaks). / …Prayer flags everywhere. Walk clockwise around the stupas. Vast valley below us, snow-capped peaks all around. Huge no-name waterfalls. Yaks and monkeys. Red berry trees. I stood outside when we got here, watching the thick clouds roll up towards me from below, covering the Buddhist flags in a white haze. I can’t believe I’m here…”

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A frigid Himalayan dusk and my fabulous new Aussie friend Priya, the only other woman I met on my trek.

Clouds rolling up towards me from the valley below.

Clouds rolling up towards me from the valley below.

The third day, we reached Kyanjin Gumpa, a town near the end of a broad valley, at 3,870 meters. I wrote, “It is freezing in this mountain village. Freezing and unbelievably beautiful.” I did not feel my hiking ability had diminished due to altitude, though perhaps I slowed down a bit between Langtang Village and Kyanjin Gumpa. However, I could tell I was way, way high up when I tried to sleep. Breathing in bed was almost painful – mostly, I think, because the air was icy, icy cold, and before acclimatizing, you have to breathe deeply to get enough of that precious O2 into your lungs. The cold air woke me up a little bit more each time I took a breath. Trying to keep my head inside my sleeping bag was also ineffective, as this was suffocating after just a few minutes.

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See that reddish mountain in the distance, on the left? I climbed that.

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Another Mani wall.

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GIANT YAK.

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Another view of the mountain I will soon climb, as well as a stone structure housing a prayer wheel, spun by the rushing water of a hidden stream below.

I should mention at this point that the air in my bedroom was ice cold because the trekking lodges Bijay and I stayed in along the route were made of rough stone, uninsulated, and unheated. You could often see through the gaps in the stone walls to the frozen ground and windblown yaks outside. The only warmth we received was during mealtimes, and then only in the lodge kitchens from the small wood or gas fires used to prepare food. And starting on the second day of trekking, temperatures fell near or below freezing from early evening until mid morning.

This type of cook stove was used in every tea house along the trek, for cooking and warmth. But mostly for cooking.

This type of cook stove was used in every tea house along the trek, for cooking and warmth. But mostly for cooking.

It was really cold.

It was really cold here.

A little explaining: along major trekking routes in Nepal, there is at least one small guesthouse located every 4-8 hours of hiking. These guesthouses are staffed by locals year-round, paid for by trekking fees. The accommodation is very basic, usually involving a single bed in a simple room and an often cold shower or bucket bath. Hot meals are available, but in the off-season, when I did my trek, options may be limited. After all, every single item of food (and everything else, for that matter) must be carried in on foot from the nearest town, which becomes progressively farther and farther away the higher into the remote Himalayas you climb.

Along the trek, we frequently crossed paths with local people carrying MASSIVE baskets of goods up the mountain. I always felt super lame when we’d pass a little old man with a towering basket of firewood or canned food or water bottles strapped to his back and around his forehead, as I panted and sweated up the trail with my much lighter pack, its name-brand hip-straps snugly fitted to maximize comfort… Another effect of seeing these porters was that I never, ever wasted any food along the way. I would just cry if I spent my days lugging 60- or 70-pound containers of food up the mountains only to see a dumbass tourist toss out half her plate of rice.

Bijay told me that during high season, the guesthouses may become so crowded with trekkers that you have to wait hours for a meal. My trek was in mid-December, at the tail end of the shoulder season, and I was pleased that I wasn’t constantly surrounded by other people. I love hiking because it takes me into the woods, away from society, into places where I can be present with nothing but nature and my thoughts and huge, vast, sprawling landscapes not even worth attempting to photograph for all their glory and beauty and intensity and otherworldliness.  Also, after physically strenuous hiking all day, the last thing I would want to do is have to navigate a social situation involving a small kitchen packed with tourists from all over the world, all vying for food and heat from the fire. I only met a few other people along my trek, and this was wonderful because I really got to know a few of them, which I doubt would have happened if there were many more of us out there. However, throughout the entire trek, I didn’t run into any other Americans, I met very few women, and I didn’t meet any other woman trekking alone but for her guide.

The view from Kyanjin Gumba.

The view from the small mountain village of Kyanjin Gumpa, 40km from the nearest road.

Sunset in Kyanjin Gumba.

Sunset in Kyanjin Gumpa.

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Kyanjin Gumpa, 3870m.

IMG_5479 IMG_5483 IMG_5476The fourth day, Bijay and I awoke early and quickly ate porridge in the freezing and dark final moments of Himalayan pre-dawn. Our goal on this day was to summit Tsergo Ri, a 4,875m peak overlooking Kanyjin Gumpa, its top covered in waving prayer flags and offering a stunning 360-degree panorama of snow-capped peaks all around, some nearly 8,000m tall. I had never been that high before – my record was just below 4,000m in Colorado, and even that, I wasn’t totally sure about (I had to turn back on that hike due to lightning above the tree line, so I don’t know exactly how high I made it). But I really, really wanted to make it to the top of Tsergo Ri. I prayed the altitude wouldn’t do me in before I summited the clouded peak.

Just beginning the hike up to Tsergo Ri, that stripey peak up ahead.

Just beginning the hike up to Tsergo Ri, that stripey beast up ahead.

Bijay and I set out for the mountain just as the sun was coming up, though the sky was dark and foreboding, and the wind strong. The water in my Camelbak froze after just a few minutes of hiking. Thankfully Bijay was smart enough to fill his canteen with warm water, so we were able to share that on the way up. We climbed silently. Soon, we reached the 4,000m mark, after which I noted that every step I took was a new personal altitude record. And every step was slower than the last. I didn’t feel dizzy or faint, but I felt winded and tired. I reassessed my physical state every few minutes, knowing that I’d have to turn back if I started to feel altitude sickness. Happily, I never did, I think because I went so slowly. That said, we still made it to the peak in 3.5 hours, though Bijay said it usually takes at least 4. I consider that a win.

A few views from along the hike up:

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Nearly there...

Nearly there…

About the hike to the peak, I wrote in my journal: “Extremely steep dirt trails, near vertical but no plants or trees to hold on to. Windy and icy cold all the way. I felt like a snail. Wind blowing violently. Snow made visibility very poor.”

About an hour from the peak, it began to snow. The wind whipped the clouds around us, obscuring our visibility. For the rest of the climb, I couldn’t see farther than about 3 meters in front of me – just enough to catch the blue of Bijay’s hat up ahead. The hiking was safe, as we were simply going up, not along a cliff or through a forest. We were climbing up a huge field of big rocks, using hands and feet, and at times pulling ourselves up very steep, barren dirt paths. Exhausting. I had one of those brief mental fallbacks where I took stock of how it felt to be there in that snowstorm, at that altitude, not being able to see any view at all – “This sucks! Why do I do this? Why do I think this is fun? What is wrong with people, that we do these tortuous things for fun?!” – but then, suddenly, we were at the top.

Visibility during the snow storm, close to 5,000 meters.

Visibility during the snow storm, close to 5,000 meters.

A view of the peak, through the blowing snow.

A view of the peak, through the blowing snow.

Couldn't see too far in the storm, but what we could see was splendid.

Couldn’t see too far in the storm, but what we could see was splendid.

We sat behind a boulder in an attempt to shelter ourselves from the whipping wind and the stinging snow. We huddled and we shivered and we laughed at the fact that we worked our asses off to climb to the top of the world, only to be caught in a white whirlwind that kept us from seeing anything around or below us. The fact that I may have physically and mentally pushed myself harder than ever before, for no reason other than the challenge itself, made me feel a bit silly. But miraculously, within about 10 minutes, the snow suddenly stopped. The cloud around us blew to another peak across the valley. And we saw the vast, vast earth below and around us on every side.

IMG_5430 IMG_5399IMG_5428 IMG_5413I was so excited by the view that I actually started running and skipping back and forth across the summit, snapping photos and joyfully exclaiming expletives. But very quickly, the altitude reminded me that I really shouldn’t be running and jumping or doing anything faster than a snail’s pace at this point, so I surrendered my physical enthusiasm and simply stood in awe, munching a frozen piece of chapati and trying to keep my fingers from going completely numb. “The Himalayas are f*cking huge.”

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Above the clouds…

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Before we began our descent (“I felt like shit most of the way down”), I pocketed a tiny pebble from the highest point on the peak of Tsergo Ri. I am not really a sentimental person, and I certainly don’t collect things, but this mountain was not only my biggest physical feat ever but is also higher than the highest mountain in the Alps and the highest I may ever climb. I hope it’s not, but you never know.

Rocky trek down over 1,000m...

Rocky trek down over 1,000m…please excuse my finger, the goin’ was rough.

OUR HOME PLANET IS SO INCREDIBLE.

OUR HOME PLANET IS SO INCREDIBLE.

Side note: A 33-year-old Swedish personal trainer I met in Kyanjin Gumpa also climbed Tsergo Ri during the snowstorm. He’d previously summited Everest Base Camp and Mt. Kilimanjaro. He had the body of a god and was clearly born to overcome all sorts of physical challenges in his life. But he told me that Tsergo Ri was the most challenging climb he’d ever done, due to the weather conditions and the rapid increase in altitude (we climbed up over 1000m [after already starting at 3870m above sea level] in a matter of hours as opposed to taking a few days to gradually reach higher altitudes, like on Everest). So, this made me feel pretty empowered, as a smallish American woman who is certainly not a gloriously chiseled Swedish personal trainer and certainly not built by the gods to champion all types of incredible physical feats in life. I JUST REALLY FRIGGIN’ LOVE MOUNTAINS! IT WAS SO EPIC!

The next two days, Bijay and I made our way back down through all the vegetation zones, starting in snowy Kyanjin Gumpa, hiking along scenic ridges, and across glacial streams, to the warm and sunny village where we began nearly a week earlier. Then came the 9-hour heart-stopping bus ride back to my host family’s house in Kathmandu, where I gleefully took a real hot shower and hand-washed my absolutely disgusting trekking clothes.

View from the way down.

View from the way down. You can see a squiggly road on the mountain across the valley. That’s the way home…

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Almost back down to the town!

IMG_5355I miss the Himalayas already. My brief journal entry from the final day of the trek reads, “Trying to reflect on how I feel but maybe it’s too soon…I feel like I just completed something amazing, like I am so much physically stronger than I could ever have imagined, and that I really want a good, long, hot yoga class.”

By now, I’ve had some more time to think about the trek, but I’ll just share one brief note on my reflections. Since August, I have written in my journal, “Actually, this was the most incredible thing I have ever done in my life” on three separate occasions.  I think it’s safe to say 24 turned out to be a pretty fab year.

Here’s another yak photo.

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Five Days in Florence

My five days in Florence centered around a few major themes: exploring magnificent old churches and art galleries, cozily hiding from the rain with countless espressos and a book in my hostel’s common area, improvised hiking in places I was probably not supposed to be, and, most importantly, feeling my Great Grandma’s presence everywhere.

Though my much-loved Great Grandma Iole (pronounced Yo-Le) immigrated to the US when she was quite young, her family was from Florence. Maybe it was simply projected, but every time I stepped down a particularly old cobblestone street, or walked into a historical church, or meandered through a more “local” part of town, I felt so connected to my Great Grandma. This made my time in Florence extremely meaningful to me – just knowing she had been there, and her family had been there, just about a century ago.

Photo-worthy highlights of my time in Florence included “hiking” to the top of Piazzale Michaelangelo and exploring a secret forest at the top, climbing Campanile di Giotto and seeing a 360-degree panorama of Florence and the surrounding Tuscan hills, visiting the famous Uffizi art museum (Botticelli everywhere!), and, of course, simply meandering through this glorious, ancient, artistic and architectural wonder of Italy.

Here are some photos from my experiences.

Magic on Kramerspitze

The main reason I decided to go back into Germany from the Czech Republic was that I had been promised an Alps trek, which has been a dream of mine since reading Heidi when I was probably 7 years old. (Also, of course, I wanted to meet David, the allegedly wonderful twinsy of my friend Robin, and promiser of said Alps excursion.)

I hope this post is as epic as I’ve been building it up to be. I think I’ll just start with a photo – the first glimpse of up-close, snowy Alps from the train speeding towards our mountain-town destination, where the trailhead is located.

Yes, yes, a million times, yes!

David and I decided to climb Kramerspitze, which could supposedly be completed in a day if you started early enough for it to still be light out during your descent.

The hike we did starts at the lower righthand side near the town. See all the switchbacks? That’s the way up. The peak is where it says “Kramerspitz” (how Bavarians spell it). Then we followed the snowy ridge to the left, and down the mountain on the next dotted red line.

The afternoon before our hike, David and I took a train from Munich to Garmisch, a small town nestled in the snow-capped Alps on the Germany-Austria border. We’d booked a hostel for the night, with plans to begin our Kramerspitze climb around 8:00 the next morning.

We arrived to the hostel with about ½ hour of daylight remaining, but decided we wanted to do a quick, shorter hike that very day, known as Partnachklamm. David’s “spare grandma”, Dee, had recommended this hike, which took us into a deep gorge in a mountainside, through caves and rugged rock tunnels, alongside a roaring, icy stream.

We did the hike in the dark.

It was incredible.

I had two headlamps; a tiny bit of dusky light was still showing through the trees by the time we got to the trailhead; and the trail was clear and quite easy, so there was little risk involved in making this a night hike. In the beginning, I wished it was daylight, so I could see the true beauty of the gorge and river flowing down from high Alps. But as we hiked on, the experience was just amazing. It was misty and cold; we could look high up above the crevice’s opening and see the mountain stars; we were continuously splashed by waterfalls flowing down right beside the rocky trail; we worked up a sweat climbing, climbing, climbing up into the gorge.

Eventually we took a rickety cable car back down the mountain and hiked back into town.

Obviously my photos from the night hike are no good, but here are a few of them that kind of came out:

Just leaving town; closing in on the trailhead in the fading light.

Almost in the forest at dusk. That huge ski jump was used in the Winter Olympics when they were held here in 1936.

Oh, beautiful Alps. Thank you for letting me gleefully climb all over you, at all hours of the day and night!

Yeah, no photos in the actual gorge. You can Google Partnachklamm for daytime pics, if you feel so inclined.

Anyway, back to the purpose of this post: Kramerspitze!

David and I woke up early and dressed in silence, packing our Camelbaks with food, a first-aid kit, extra layers of clothes, and plenty of water. Thankfully David is no more of a morning person than I am. Few words were exchanged, and that was juuuust fine.

After a hearty breakfast and coffee at the hostel, we headed to the Kramerspitze trailhead just on the edge of town.

Hiking, commence! (Note this sign says the summit can be reached in 5 hours. WE DID IT IN 4! Win.)

The trail started out nice and easy, with just a gentle incline.

Don’t be fooled. This is the only “flat” part for the next 9 hours…

Soon we came to this lovely bridge to help us around a giant boulder. In reflection, I feel the first 25 minutes gave me a false sense of security of how well we’d be provided for on the rest of the mountain…

Beautiful view already, and we’re basically still at the bottom!

Serene blue Alps. Only the low ones are blue. The high ones are rocky and white and sparkly and magical.

Soon enough, we came to this:

See that steep crevice? Time for a lil’ scramble!

But of course, this early in the hike, we were generously helped by some metal cables bolted into the rock.

Another amenity only present at the bottom of the hike. I wasn’t kidding about that false sense of security.

Yeah, that was the only cable we encountered. But the scramble continued for some time…

David killin’ it behind me.

We scrambled up near-vertical rocky slopes, like that in the photo above, for about 2 hours. It was physically strenuous, but extremely exhilarating – especially each time we reached a level point and stopped to look around!

Waterbreak! Oh, and not a bad place to take one.

As we climbed higher, the trail became steeper and more narrow, with sharp cliffs opening up to our left. Soon, we came to this memorial for a schoolboy who’d fallen from this point. More than anything, this reminded us to be extra cautious and safe with ourselves today. This is no Appalachia! (Though I do love my rolling blue Appalachians. It’s just that the Alps are very clearly a different beast).

The memorial.

The higher we climbed, the better the view…

Eventually we were up on the first ridge. It was incredible there; totally exposed on both sides, opening up to the vast valley far below and the magnificent Alps all around.

David on the ridge, admiring what magic surrounds him…

And soon, we caught sight of the summit. It looks deceptively close in this picture. The trail actually winds around behind it, with at least another hour of navigating steep, slippery switchbacks and icy patches before hitting the top.

The peak! It looks close, right? It’s not. If you look EXTRA hard, you can barely see the cross at the top, glinting in the sun.

And then, suddenly, the trail turned to ice.

Just a tad slippery.

It was around this time when we spotted a mountain goat! And I had my first Heidi moment, which involves me being ridiculously giddy about where I am and what it looks like all around me – “I’m basically Heidi right now!!!” That’s a Heidi moment.

We carefully hiked along the icy trail, being careful to step down hard – crunch! – along the trail’s outer edges, to ensure our boots had a solid hold in the less icy snow. Before long, we rounded a bend and saw what lie ahead:

You can just make out a faint black line in the snow, all along the right side of that mountain. That’s the trail, running through an avalanche field. (The peak we’re heading for is up and to the left of this photo).

Yep. An avalanche field.

This was my first experience with a hike of this level of risk (it was much more intense than Leggjabrjótur), so at this point, I was extra grateful to have David there. David has experience doing snowy treks, and knew that we could cross the avalanche field with minimal risk because there was just one layer of snow on the mountain. He also taught me how to stop myself if I slipped and started sliding down the side of the mountain (lie on your back, spread your arms, and pray…).  I let him lead the way through this tricky (but epic/ridiculously amazing/”sick” [David’s word of choice]) part of the hike.

A closer view of the avalanche field/trail.

What’s up, guys?! I’m just crossing an avalanche field like it’s a normal Sunday activity! (Slash, peeing my pants).

David scrambling up some snow/ice. This is when we started referring to it as the “trail” (emphasis on the quotation marks). And why yes, he IS in shorts!

This part of the hike wasn’t necessarily steep (at least not in most places), but it took us a long time because of the intense focus required to take every step. Again, we had to stomp down hard to ensure a good foothold; we had to keep our eyes peeled up ahead for icy patches; we had to maintain a safe distance between us to decrease the risk of causing an avalanche or tripping one another. And on the steep bits, the focus was that much more extreme: not only were we already in a risky situation, but now we were also climbing up slippery, icy, sharp rocks with our bare hands.

Even with the intensity of this part of the hike, the views around us made it worth taking the time to stop for photo breaks!

This is a crazy-light photo of David hiking up ahead of me. You can just make him out – a dark patch on the left. This picture gives you a sense of how monstrous these mountains are.

Finally, we made it safely across the avalanche field, and into a saddle between two peaks. We just had a final incline to wind our way up before reaching the summit.

I’m basically Heidi!!! Can you tell how freakin’ happy I am in this moment!?!?

Big snowy rocks and smaller blue mounds surrounding us on every side.

Thanks for the awesome pic, David. That’s me, on top of a mountain, in the middle of the Alps, Germany, Europe, Earth, Solar System, Milky Way…feeling so blessed to be present here!

After a short break in the saddle, we were ready to make the final haul. We rounded the back of the peak, and saw that yet another icy patch lie ahead – this time much steeper than the avalanche field, with a sharper drop to one side.

Scary/Worth it.

Up, we climbed…

So close! Just one long icy scramble to go…

Until….

Nailed it.

We reached the summit (about 2000m) after hiking for just over 4 hours. I think we could have done it faster, but I was all about the photo breaks. No point in speeding up such a beautiful mound of earth and rock, anyway!

The. Views. Were. Insane. Just across those mountains to the right? Austria.

The hills are ALIVE, you guys. THEY ARE SO ALIVE!

I really wanted to spin around and sing The Sound of Music, but decided against it since we were on a tiny peak surrounded by nothing but thin air and a long, loooong fall…

What’s up, blackbird? Just enjoying the view? Me too, man. Me too.

In the above photo, that especially tall peak on the far right is Zugspitze, the highest mountain in Germany. David and I originally planned to climb that, but it snowed and made it impassable. That’s ok, though. Kramerspitze most certainly did not disappoint.

Little houses in a tiny town in a big valley far, far below.

Blackbirds on a wire. (The wires were holding in the giant cross that is staked into the peak, known as the Gipfelkreuz).

The cross, and some other hikers who joined us on the peak.

We found lunch to be extremely necessary when we made it to the top…

David eating while I continue to photograph everything in sight (which is a lot).

Finally, after recuperating, eating, and consulting our map, we decided to start the hike down. We opted for a longer, but more gradual route, which ended up taking us about 5 hours. We reached the bottom just as the sun was setting.

The first part of the hike down was still a bit intense, as the rocks were steep and the trail icy.

David making his way down from the peak.

Soon the trail opened up to another incredible, exposed ridge on top of the world. Follow the ridge and you’ll follow the trail…

David on the ridge.

Mountains. Man. Cliff.

Soon we caught an awesome view of a lake in the middle of a ring of mountains. This is Eibsee (“-see” means “lake” in German), and it was quite beautiful in the late afternoon sunlight.

Eibsee.

You can see the fading sunlight reflecting on the lake, down below me on the left.

We thought we’d left the snow and ice behind, but rounded a bend and came upon a lengthy slope absolutely covered in slush and ice chunks. It wouldn’t have been too bad if we were going uphill, but coming down was a different story. We both slipped and slid chaotically most of the way down.

Ice is trickier on the downhill.

Not my favorite part of the hike down.

The ice soon ended, and we were met by a gradual decline into a broad meadow of small alpines and lots of mountain goat hoof prints.

What a lovely spot for a bench. Somebody was a thinker!

David and I frolicked in the meadow before re-entering the forest, which came next on the hike down.

Mountain handstands! My version of frolicking. Oh, Alps. Everything about you is just perfect and wonderful.

This can’t be real, right?

Once we left the meadow behind, we hiked downhill, through the woods, for about 2.5 hours. This was still incredible – tall alpines, cool air, lots of shade and sunbeams sliding through the trees, the smell of pine and fresh dirt – but I have to admit, my knees were pretty much ready to quit after the first hour and a half of this steep, wooded descent.

I don’t have many photos from within the forest, as it was quite dark – and the photos would have just been trees, anyhow.

We gradually made our way down series after series of quick switchbacks and steep dirt trail…

Them’s some switchbacks…At this point all I wanted was a mountainbike to take me the rest of the way down!

Finally, as the sun was sliding down behind Zugspitze, we reached the bottom.

The Zugspitze and a darkening sky.

As we walked several kilometers on harsh pavement back to the hostel, I turned around and took a final look at the incredible Kramerspitze.

We climbed that.

Feeling exhausted but satisfied, David and I picked up our things and hopped on the train back to Munich, where we cooked a huge dinner and promptly fell asleep.

What an incredible adventure! Thank you, Kramerspitze, for finally allowing me to realize my Alps-climbing dream. And thanks, David, for sharing such an amazing hike with me! I will most definitely be back for more…

A Glimpse of München

I traveled from Prague to Munich to meet my friend Robin’s twin brother David, who had promised to take me hiking into the Alps in addition to hosting me for as long as I wanted (!). I ended up staying with him for 5 days because he was so awesome.

Emily hearts David 4-Ever!

My time with David will comprise 2 posts: the first one on Munich in general, and the second on our incredible, breathtaking, challenging, EPIC hike/climb up Kramerspitze, which lies just on the Germany/Austria border in Bavaria.

To begin. Post #1: A mere glimpse of Munich, in photos.

Here is a photo from my train ride from Prague-Munich.

Even though it’s dreary, I loved the colors. Roofs all over Europe are so pretty – always red or yellow. It makes things look cheerier, no matter how much it (always) rains.

David and I spent a few days exploring the city together. He was full of random facts about many different things (after all, he was born in Munich). This kept me interested, despite the fact that I had begun to grow a bit weary of city after European city filled with beautiful buildings, magnificent churches, famous art, and rich, long histories.

I’m kidding about the weary part, of course. Though I can get tired of city life, I have not been bored once on this entire adventure. I think boredom would mean I’m trying too hard…

Anyway, here are some pictures of Munich! The city’s just full of fancy buildings and interesting stories…thanks to David for the ongoing narration 🙂

“DRAGON!!!”, I squealed in excitement. “Actually”, replied David, “That’s Wurmeck. Part worm, part dragon. Rumored to have brought the plague to mankind, out of the depths of a well.” Fun fact #283.

A busy area in central Munich known as Marienplatz. Lots of nice buildings, expensive shops, and stroller-pushing, T-shirt buying tourists!

I have been searching high and low for gargoyles since I landed in Europe, and I finally found some in Munich! They were all over this building. It was awesome.

This is a famous clock known as the Rathaus-Glockenspiel (I love the name). Every day at 11AM, tourists flock to its base to watch the life-sized figures re-enact two stories from the 16th century – one involving a joust (the Bavarian knight wins every time). It chimes and plays music, and the figures dance around, for something like 7 minutes. We kept expecting it to end…and it just kept going…

We climbed that! This is “Alter Peter” (Old Peter), the oldest recorded parish church in Munich and presumably the originating point for the whole city. I ordered our tickets in German, by the way. I’m pretty sure David was proud (or just amused at my horrific pronunciation). (Photo: Wikicommons)

A view from Alter Peter of the Glockenspiel and Frauenkirche cathedral, a landmark and symbol of the Bavarian capital city. Did I mention Bavaria is super religious? They even have a church tax – and you have to opt out. (All information from David Jakob, Munich Historian).

Another view from Alter Peter.

Ok, yes, I took a lot of photos from the top of Alter Peter.

LOOK! THE ALPS!!!! Note that I took this photo before actually climbing any Alps. I could not have been more excited to see these snow-capped beauties in the distance, just knowing they were waiting for me…

Doesn’t this just make you want to shout “Bavariaaaa!” from the top of a bell tower?

One day in Munich, I visited the famous Deutsches Museum. It’s huge, but I found it a bit anticlimactic. It’s full of machines and technology and engineering things. Not really my cup o’ tea.

Really only two things excited me about the Deutsches Museum. First, this huge astrological clock (and there were a bunch more inside).

And second, this gigantic, working replica of actin and myosin, ATP and everything! (Nerd alert – if you have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry. I think this is probably the most boring part of the museum to most people.)

Once when David was at work, I made my way to Nymphenburg Palace, a baroque palace previously used as a summer residence by the rulers of Bavaria. It was built in the early 1700s.

A closer view of the palace. Fancy, but with a mole problem.

Why the crankypants, Neptune? So much attitude…

Just one of many “smaller” houses in the forested parks behind Nymphenburg palace.

A little pavilion and babbling brook on the Nymphenburg properties.

A beautiful yellow cathedral, just beside Siegestor (Victory Gate). Man, they love their churches here.

Siegestor! David and I ran into the middle of the road to take a better photo – such tourists – but it came out blurry. That’s karma for stopping traffic, I guess.

Cloudy Munich.

This is a traditional Bavarian cake. I forget the name…as soon as David reminds me I’ll stick it in. It was chocolate on the outside and spiced inside. Good with coffee!

We took a long walk through Englischer Garten, bigger than Central Park. It’s really pretty in autumn. And there’s a Beer Garden in the middle of it. And a lake. Double win!

Munich skyline at sunset, seen from the pavilion in the photo above.

David found this tiny swan in the park. You’re welcome for this amazing photo, David.

Next post…ice-climbing in the Alps!

Arthur’s Seat, and Edinburgh in photos

I was in Scotland for an entire week, yet have only 3 blog posts to show for it. This is because for the majority of my time in Edinburgh, Robin and I just chilled out, caught up on what we’d been doing for the past few years, and relaxed around town and in his flat. It was a much-needed respite from my constant traveling, hostel-ing, and Couch Surfing, and I’m glad I got to rest, do my laundry, watch some movies, and – most importantly – make lots of home-cooked food! Eating out all the time is not only expensive, but also not nearly as good as cooking your own dinner. Thanks, Robin, Louise, and Barry for letting me use your kitchen every day! 🙂

Edinburgh finally blessed us with a sunny day, and Robin and I decided to take advantage of the blue sky by climbing to the top of Arthur’s Seat, the highest point in the city.

Here is a view of Arthur’s Seat from the Edinburgh Castle:

You can see Arthur’s Seat in the distance. It was formed by an extinct volcano system that was eroded by a glacier, according to Wikipedia…also, it might be the location for Camelot.

Approaching Arthur’s Seat from below.

The climb itself wasn’t too bad, and there were lovely views of the city from several points along the trail.

You can barely see some ancient ruins over on the right-hand side of that rocky part. That was once St. Anthony’s Chapel, which fell into disrepair in the 1500s. No one knows when it was built, but the assumption is 1100 AD. So, it’s just a little bit old.

Hiking up the muddy slopes.

The view from one point along the trail.

The trail was only steep in a few areas. Robin and I always opted for the more challenging routes, though we felt a little less bad ass when we noticed all the grannies and little kiddies taking these routes as well.

It’s a pretty popular hill to climb, being the only real one in Edinburgh…

Finally we made it to the top… but not before a little scramble!

This was a totally optional route, and Robin and I opted in.

Robin doing some weak scrambling behind me.

Nice view of the ancient city from atop Arthur’s Seat.

Another vista.

Robin was super proud to have successfully completed this extremely strenuous hike. And by extremely strenuous I mean the easiest hike I’ve done in Europe.

And here I am at the very top of the pile of rocks that forms the tip of Arthur’s Seat:

Me – and all the other “hikers” (read: tourists) who “climbed” this hill.

Once we’d enjoyed the view from the very windy peak, we walked down the opposite side a bit to enjoy lunch in a more sheltered area.

The view during our picnic lunch.

As soon as we’d eaten, storm clouds rolled in and we briskly made our way down Arthur’s Seat to seek shelter from the sudden rain.

It rained the rest of the time I was in Edinburgh.

One day, even though it was pouring, Robin and I ventured to a coastal town about a half-hour train ride from Edinburgh. Our plan was to walk along the ocean, see a different area of Scotland, and maybe make our way to a castle that was supposedly still standing somewhere along the beach. We thought we could brave the rain to have this adventure.

The Scottish beach!

Unfortunately, it was about a 2-mile walk down the beach to reach the castle, and the wind was horrendous, and the rain was freezing, and here is how Robin (and I) felt about making the trek:

Yeah….no.

(We later found out you had to pay like 30 quid to get into the castle, so, sour grapes and all, we didn’t regret our decision to bail).

Instead, we wound up having tea in a pub we found in the little coastal town.

Much happier about this decision. Also because those are homemade brownies he’s about to devour.

So, as I mentioned, Robin and I didn’t embark on too many more Scottish adventures while I was in Edinburgh. It was very rainy and very grey and very cold, and we thoroughly enjoyed making a ton of delicious food and watching bootlegged movies (just like old times in Kenya!…) and drinking ample bottles of wine in the warmth of his apartment.

Here are a few remaining photos from the rest of my visit:

This is where Robin got his Master’s! (University of Edinburgh)

What can only be described as some kind of horrific Panda massacre in downtown Edinburgh.

This picture isn’t of anything important (at least not that I’m aware). But I really like it, and it sums up the beauty of this old city.

Part of the University of Edinburgh (I think?)

A little love on the path.

One view from the roof terrace of the National Museum of Scotland (which was worth the trip!). Quite Mary Poppins-esque, don’t you think?

And last:

Lumos! (In the Elephant House again, where J.K. Rowling started writing HP).

Until next time, Edinburgh.

Welcome to Edinburgh

I arrived to Edinburgh after a nice, quick train ride from Kings Cross in London. My friend Robin was waiting for me on the platform. I hadn’t seen him in over three years so was very happy!

I met Robin when we were both volunteering for the Kenya Network for Women with AIDS in Korogocho Slum, Nairobi. We had an excellent time together that summer, working for KENWA and adventuring around Nairobi and on the Kenyan coast. Here we are on the night before I returned to the US:

Robin and me in Nairobi, 2009

And here we are today!:

Robin and me in Edinburgh, 2012. My hair has clearly been a hot mess since at least 2009.

Robin led me the 25 minutes back to his flat. He explained to me that Edinburgh is divided into two areas known as Old Town and New Town – but New Town was built in the 18th century, so it’s only new by European standards, I suppose.

After we dropped off my pack and met Robin’s wonderful Scottish flatmates, we walked down the hill to the Royal Botanical Gardens. It was so nice to be outside (even in pseudo-nature!) and in fresh air after being in London.

I had a hard time obeying this sign.

Lovely Royal Botanical Gardens of Edinburgh.

This greenhouse is the tallest greenhouse in the United Kingdom. And it’s Victorian, as well. Thanks, Robin, for these useful tidbits.

Highest greenhouse ceiling in the UK. Glassy and ornate. And tropical inside.

Royal and spicy peppers in the greenhouse.

We spent the afternoons of my first few days walking around the city, and Robin offered a running commentary on the history of beautiful old buildings, colorful tartan shops, and mysterious little alleyways we passed.

Here are some pictures from the City of Edinburgh:

This is the Sir Walter Scott Memorial. Looks just like the Disney castle, only darker and much cooler.

In Old Town.

Beautiful and ancient.

Sun shining on Edinburgh.

That big hill in the distance is Arthur’s Seat. We climbed that. See the next post.

We went inside this church. Some knights were buried inside it in the 1600s.

Poor Archibald was beheaded near this cathedral in 1661 AD.    Dude.

Reading the names of streets and stores in Edinburgh makes it clear where J. K. Rowling got all the names for stuff in Harry Potter… “34 Candlemaker Row”, “Greyfriars Bobby”, I mean really.

Edinburgh after a rain.

So this post ended up just being a mishmash of random Edinburgh photos, but Robin is nagging me to publish it so he can read it before we go adventuring. The next post will have more direction. I have good stories about the following:

  • Castles and knights and unicorns
  • Murder in dark alleys
  • Climbing a big hill
  • Awkward tartan-overload Scottish family photos

Stay tuned…

8 Rainbow Day

After our days of nonstop, treacherous, incredible hiking and exploring throughout Iceland, Hannah and I took a much-needed Day of Rest in Reykjavik. We hanged out in coffee shops, walked around the city, went to the Penis Museum, ate some questionable food, and went to bed early. The next morning, we were ready to get up and at it again.

Iceland’s Golden Circle tour is extremely popular among tourists here, but we had absolutely no interest in sitting on a crowded bus with a hundred angsty foreigners all day, so we decided to do yet another self-guided tour with our little Kia, a grocery bag of snacks and our Camelbaks.

It snowed the night before we drove around the Golden Circle.

The Golden Circle is a big loop of highway that takes you around to several of Iceland’s most spectacular views and unique geological phenomena. The drive itself is incredibly beautiful, and we were enthralled by the weather throughout the day:

Mountain squall on the left, sunshine on the right. Rainbows at every turn.

We were driving alongside Iceland’s largest lake on our right, with looming snow-capped mountains on our left, and massive expanses of flat field, gentle hills, or rocky landscape in between. Clouds were doing funny things because of this, and all day, we drove in and out of beautiful sunshine, sideways rain, high wind, and even hail and snow. The lighting was perfect for taking photos along most of the drive, and we counted a total of 8 – that’s EIGHT – rainbows (including at least one double).

Rain on Iceland’s largest lake in the distance. Mystery cairns all over the field right in front of us.

Another shot of the same view, but this time with sunshine.

The Golden Circle doesn’t have to take more than a few hours if you’re speedy, but we stopped all the time to take pictures of the views from the highway, so it took us all day. Just normal Iceland, being ridiculously, crazily, astonishingly gorgeous.

Yeah. It’s pretty here.

The first “formal” attraction we came to was in Þingvellir National Park (Þ is pronounced like something between “d” and “th”). Besides more amazing views, waterfalls, hiking trails, ancient churches, and streams, the Þingvellir area is situated on the tectonic plate boundaries of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. It is one of only two places on earth (the other is the Great Rift Valley) where you can actually see how two tectonic plates have drifted apart (and continue to drift apart at 2 cm per year).

We were standing on the Eurasian plate, looking across at the North American plate, 7 km away. In between the rifts in the earth’s crust, a sprawling lowland of trees and rock and lake. We hiked around down there in between the two tectonic plates.

Standing in Middle Earth, looking across at one of the great tectonic plates. Oh, we climbed that, by the way.

Along our walk we came upon Drekkingarhylur, the Drowning Pool, where, under Danish rule, women who were found guilty of various offenses were drowned up until 1838. Over 300 women were apparently drowned here, for crimes such as “witchcraft” or having children out of wedlock. Þingvellir is where the Icelandic parliament, Alþingi, was founded in 930.

Once full of the bodies of murdered women, the bottom of Drekkingarhyl is now covered with Icelandic Krona coins…not a wishing well, people.

This church is an historical structure in Þingvellir, built just shortly after Iceland’s “adoption” of Christianity around 1000 AD.

The church has, of course, been entirely rebuilt and repaired several times. It looks like a toy.

Anyway, enough history. Here is a waterfall:

This was in Þingvellir, and fed the Drowning Pool. This waterfall is cascading down one of the tectonic plate edges.

We continued on around the Golden Circle, next coming to some geysers. I’d never seen a geyser in person before, and it was pretty awesome.

A view of the field containing the geyser Strokkur and other boiling water pits.

Strokkur, the main geyser we saw, goes off quite violently once every 4-8 minutes. I watched it, like, 4 times. It startled me every time.

Strokkur erupting up ahead.

It was really windy, and Hannah and I nearly got splashed with the boiling water one time, as it blew horizontally out of the geyser as opposed to its typical vertical spout. Icelandic safety standards are not on par with US standards. I guess they like their adrenaline rushes a bit more than us wimpy Americans (for more on this, see Leggjabrjótur).

Hannah and I walked around the geothermal area a bit more, checking out a variety of boiling water pits and old volcanos…

I’m still enthralled by the fact that this is my home planet.

Some tourists walking quite close to a volcanic opening in the earth’s crust…

On the left: Giant bubbling hole in the earth. On the right: Hannah.

After we’d had our fill of the geyser area, we got back in the car and made our way to Gullfoss, which translates to “Golden Falls”. Gullfoss is massive, powerful, misty, and, obviously, breathtaking:

Misty falls.

Gullfoss is actually a double waterfall.

Huge, swirling mist above the falls completely soaked us as we walked up above Gullfoss.

The last stop we made was a quick one, but it was still incredible: a HUGE volcanic crater!

This picture shows nearly the entire crater, which is was apparently formed when a volcano imploded (?!) on itself. It is now filled with freezing cold water. Iceland is a land of extremes.

Here is a picture for scale:

See the tiny hikers up on the right hand side? Hannah and I were good tourists, for once, and didn’t walk past the safety rope like these kids.

That was the end of the major points of interest along the Golden Circle. Of course, while these attractions were good, the drive itself was an incredible experience, what with the weather and landscape and 8 rainbows. Here are a few of my better rainbow pictures:

The luckiest house in the universe.

Fin.

Leggjabrjótur to Glymur

Our third day in Iceland, Hannah and I drove to a fjord to the SW of Reykjavik, with the goal of hiking to Glymur, the tallest waterfall in Iceland. We had pretty questionable directions from a guy at the hostel (he took Hannah to the hostel window, pointed, and said, “You will need to drive between that mountain range and the one behind it, and you’ll find it…”), and the GPS was useless since we didn’t have a destination address. So, though it was only supposed to take us an hour to get to the trail head, we ended up lost for 2.5 hours on the winding, mountainous roads along the edge of the fjord.

But that’s ok, because if I am going to be lost anywhere on earth, I want it to be in Iceland:

A view from somewhere along Hvalfjörður.

Me being lost in Iceland.

Me being lost in Iceland.

Eventually, we found the trail head for Glymur Falls. We had read online that we could hike up the right side of the stream, which was harder, or choose to take the left, easier side. We’d also read on various blogs and websites peoples’ opinions of the trail, which ranged from no mention of difficulty at all to the statement, “this hike is not for the faint of heart.” Thus, we had no idea what to expect, but considering ourselves regular Viking Queens after the volcano mountain hike we’d done the day before, we immediately opted for the harder trail.

The challenging trail is known as Leggjabrjótur – literally, Legbreaker. The remainder of this story is best told in pictures.

The trail head is right up ahead. That mountain on the left – yeah, we climbed that.

We parked our car and began following the trail, which was rocky and rough, but marked every 50 feet or so with a yellow dot spray painted on a boulder. The incline wasn’t too bad in the beginning, and we were totally enthralled with the scenery around us. Bright yellow birches, red rocks, green moss, snow-capped mountains up ahead.

Just starting the hike.

The trail progressively became less clear and more treacherous.

Hannah hiking.

After climbing uphill for a little while, we had an amazing first view of the valley below and, in the distance, the fjord we’d driven around to get to the trail head. Our car is down there near-ish the water, somewhere.

One of the first major views after only about 20 minutes of hiking up Leggjabrjótur trail.

Soon we left the ground and began climbing higher and higher up the rocky mountain. The trail snaked along small, but ever-growing, cliffs, with a beautiful glacial stream below to our left.

Hannah hiking along a cliff edge.

We climbed that…

Another view of the rocks we were climbing over.

Whoever maintains this trail was thoughtful enough to give us a ladder up a particularly steep incline.

More ladder than stairs.

At one point early on in the hike, the trail went through a cave, under part of the mountain.

Here is Hannah on the trail in the cave.

The cave was really awesome. I have a video of it but haven’t figured out how to upload it yet. Soon!

We had two different cave exits from which to choose.

One of the exits took us over some rocks and then across the stream. The other exit took us directly over the stream. We decided to climb over the rocks and then cross the stream because at this point, we were still feeling like Viking Queens.

The stream we had to cross is visible through the right cave exit.

Eventually we came to a log that had been placed across the stream. We made our way across it. It was windy and slippery and there was a very loose rope to hold on to, but it didn’t provide much support…

Hannah crossing the stream on a slippery log. And my finger. I was a bit distracted by how much the log was bouncing Hannah around over glacial waters.

After we crossed the river, we began a steeper ascent. Parts of the trail were so steep that there were ropes staked into the ground to help us pull ourselves up the mountain. It was rocky, muddy, and slippery, with a steep incline on one side and a sharp drop on the other.

Hannah and I took a break when we finally reached an almost level point, as we just climbed up this cliff nearly vertically. And we were only about halfway up this cliff – the first of many.

It quickly became clear to us why this trail is the “harder” side.

I took a break at another great vista point. Windy and chilly up there, but we were sweaty and panting.

We kept climbing…

You can see the trail winding off to the left, behind us, along the cliff in many places.

And climbing…

Another view from the trail, which began to wrap into the mountains.

And climbing…

Hannah up ahead! And hikers up ahead of her, tiny dots in the distance.

We were nearly in the clouds, and felt a distinct drop in the temperature. Of course we were both in t-shirts, having removed our woolen sweaters and winter hats long ago.

Up, up, up.

It was all rock and sky up there. But we still had a lot of climbing to go…

Hannah. Rocks. Clouds.

Finally, we rounded a bend, and saw Glymur Falls at face level. When I took the below picture, we were standing on the edge of a cliff similar to the one on the right in the photo. You can even see our shadows if you look closely. We’re like two little bumps on the giant shadow the cliff has cast.

Our first good view of the falls.

We enjoyed this breathtaking view for a few minutes before continuing on, up and over the cliffs to our right in the photo above.

I should point out that a while before this, the yellow dots marking the trail had disappeared, and we had to make several decisions as to what direction to take at different points along the most challenging and dangerous areas of the trek. It was evident that several previous hikers had done the same, as we saw faint trail traces in various directions as we went along.

[After the hike ended, I realized that this part of the adventure required a different kind of hiking navigation than I’m used to. Often, when walking on a trail, it’s easy to daze off, just watching the ground in front of you. But on Leggjabrjótur, we had to not only watch the ground right in front of us for rocks, cliffs, and slippery patches, but also keep an eye turned up ahead, to ensure we weren’t walking into a dangerous area.]

Nope, not there yet. You can barely see two dots way above the falls – those are other hikers, and that’s where we’re headed!

Soon, we were above the falls. I don’t have pictures from up there, unfortunately, because I was paying too close attention to the slippery trail so as to avoid plummeting to my death from the top of Iceland’s tallest waterfall.

After exploring the stream above the falls a bit, we decided we would need to come down the other, “easier” side of the falls for the hike back down. It would be dusk soon, and we thought it was far too risky to take Leggjabrjótur DOWN the mountain. But we faced a dilemma: there was no log placed over this stream to deliver us safely and dryly to the opposite bank. We decided we’d need to ford the river, as we’d read might be a possibility on a few websites before the hike.

We walked up the stream a bit to ensure we were a safe enough distance from the edge of the falls. The stream was quite shallow, but fast-moving and cold. We tried to strategize how to make it across by stepping on rocks, but there weren’t enough to carry us all the way without getting our feet and lower legs soaked. We decided we’d have to cross barefoot, carrying our shoes.

I tried to comfort us by saying, “Oh, well, you know, it’s been sunny all day, so it’s probably not as cold as we think it is, plus it’s really shallow, and we can just run across really fast…” Wishful thinking, to be sure.

We timidly removed our shoes and stepped into the icy stream. It was colder than any water I’d ever been in. The rocks were slippery, and the water came up to my lower calves. It was incredibly painful. I remember feeling my mind and body immediately going into overdrive, as I hobble-ran across the stream with Hannah. We both almost fell a few times, but thankfully, never all the way down. Hannah was cursing all the way across, but I couldn’t make any sound – I just heard myself gasping in disbelief. It was incredible, in a terrible way.

Finally making it to the bank on the other side and jumping out of the water, I found my voice and I’m sure the mountains around me have never heard such a string of expletives.

Hannah pulling on her shoes after fording the glacial stream above Glymur Falls.

As we pulled on our shoes on the mossy banks of the opposite side, my toes completely numb, I looked far up steam and saw a whitish patch in the mountain where the stream originated. I said, “Oh my god, Hannah, is that a GLACIER right there?” She looked, nodded, and replied, “Yes…that’s f*cked up.” We knew the water came from a glacier at some point, but didn’t realize it had literally JUST MELTED OFF A GLACIER MOMENTS BEFORE IT FLOWED OVER OUR FEET.

Invigorated, adrenaline pumping, we settled ourselves on some mossy rocks for a break and a snack before heading back down the other side of the trail. As we ate, we watched two other hikers come up around the bend on the opposite side. We observed them curiously, as we could tell they were contemplating how to cross the river, as we had moments before. We relaxed, munching on Icelandic cheese and crackers, as we watched them remove their shoes and socks. I’m not proud of what happened next. We just sat there, commentating from afar, as they clumsily crossed the icy stream. It was like we were spectators, being entertained by these poor souls undergoing horrific pain inflicted by freezing glacial water. They eventually made it across, and we continued eating. The hikers walked below us and continued down the mountain ahead of us.

Eventually, we packed up and decided we’d better get going, as the sun was beginning to peek down over the mountain opposite us. Unfortunately, the “easier” trail we were promised was barely less treacherous than Leggjabrjótur.

View of the mountain we climbed up – on the left, now shrouded in clouds – from the opposite trail.

We soon learned that there were no markings on this trail, and though there were some cairns here and there, there was seemingly no order to their placement. Bits of trail were visible here and there, but we had to make our own way for much of the descent – which was tricky, since the descent seemed to have been created not by Parks and Rec officials, but rather by an avalanche or rock slide.

Hannah in the clouds, on top of the world. Just beginning our descent.

Hannah took this picture of me climbing down the “trail”…or, perhaps, making my own trail.

We wound our way around cliffs, over boulders, through thick underbrush, over small streams, down, down, down the mountain.

You can see the stream flowing down in between the cliffs. We were up above that left slope when we were near the falls.

Dusk was rapidly approaching, so we tried to be hasty, but the going was rough.

Hannah, climbing down, looking across at the trail we climbed up.

In the below photo, you can see the trail to the left of that bright bush. And to the left of the trail, a steep, faaaar drop into the ravine below.

Breathtakingly beautiful views from a crazy trail.

Eventually, we came to the bottom of the mountain. I have a great little video I shot after we were once again on level ground, but haven’t had the connection required to upload it.

We thought we’d easily spot our car when we got back down to the fjord area, but ended up getting lost in the dusk for another 30 minutes or so. The trail back had no markings, and cairns proved useless. We backtracked and re-backtracked multiple times. Luckily I had my headlamps with me, in case we needed to walk all the way out to the highway in order to find our way back in to where our car was parked. We didn’t need them in the end, but I was grateful that I had them just in case!

At the end of the day, this hike was easily my greatest physical feat in a long time. It was challenging in every way, and still so, so incredible. I would do it again in a heartbeat. As I collapsed back into the driver’s seat of the car, I gave a special thanks to my legs, for carrying me up and down those mountains, and to my feet, for carrying me safely across that glacial stream. And I thanked my dad, from afar, for giving me all those protein bars and his extra head lamp before I left for Iceland.

So, fellow adventurers, take note: if you plan to hike Leggjabrjótur, be sure to do the following:

  • Start the hike with at least five-six hours of daylight.
  • Wear shoes with the best treads you can find.
  • Understand that Leggjabrjótur is really not an exaggeration…it. is. hard.
  • And finish the hike feeling like a Viking Warrior Queen, totally covered in mud and moss and rock, thanking your stars that you made it down unscathed.

Secrets of Iceland

Before Hannah and I arrived in Iceland, we’d hardly done any planning. We were both busy and preoccupied, and the concept that we’d be in ICELAND in T-x days’ time was so surreal that neither of us put any thought into what we’d do when we got here. At some point a few days before we left the US, one of my friends sent me a random website entitled “The 5 Best Kept Secrets in Iceland”. Hannah and I perused the site on our first day here, and decided that we’d take on at least three of these adventures during our trip.

Our second day in Iceland, I unintentionally misdirected us on our first adventure. We meant to hike up to Iceland’s tallest waterfall, but I misread the town on the website and ended up taking us to another Best Kept Secret – hot springs in a stream in remote NE Iceland, accessible only after trekking over moon-like mountains and fields studded with hidden, sulfur-gas-emitting, boiling water pits in the earth. Unsurprisingly, this Best Kept Secret did not disappoint.

The Earth has a lot to say in Iceland.

The directions read, and I quote: “30km east of Reykjavík there is a small town called Hveragerði (you´ll find it on highway 1). Drive through the town and follow the single road until you come to a river with a small walking bridge. At the bridge you´ll find a sign that says “Reykjadalur 3.2km”. Follow the path into the mountains and walk for an hour or so. In the valley in the hill you will find a warm creek running down the hills. The creek, or small river, is quite warm at the top and gets cooler down the hills.”

“Find the creek in the valley in the hill, eh?”, we thought. “Seems simple.” Not so simple.

We got lost, but we climbed that.

Regardless, after about 2 hours of hiking around a windy mountain, which was emitting plumes of sulfuric gas from giant, boiling mud pits scattered here and there, we found a trail and followed it up, up, up. Hannah and I argued whether the terrain looked more like the Moon or Mars. The only conclusion we came to was that this was definitely not Earth.

The ground near these boiling pits was significantly warmer. I didn’t dare get closer since it looked like the mud around this hole could just cave in at any moment. Death by boiling mud does not seem like a pleasant way to go.

We came upon many beautiful sites during the hike. The trail was somewhat well-maintained, but that did not make the hike easy. Part of it was along the edge of steep cliffs, or involved crossing streams – either glacial or boiling – on slippery rocks. We also had to be very aware of where we were stepping:

Welcome to Mordor.

I should mention here that Iceland has very few trees, and very little flora. The terrain on this hike was about 95% red and gray rock, and 5% green or gray moss clinging to red or gray rock. Beautiful, but again, wholly unearthly. It took us about twice as long to reach the hot spring as it should have because we kept stopping to take pictures and exclaim, “WTF?!”, or, “Oh my god, that’s soooo pretty!”, or, “Where ARE we?”.

We also made up a fun game which we call Cloud or Volcano? This game is played anytime we see a mountain with a plume of white or gray at the top. One of us points and says, “Cloud or Volcano?”. The answer is usually Volcano. (Except it’s actually usually a cloud. Though sometimes, yes, it is a volcano. The game is somewhat subjective.).

Hiking the volcanomountains.

Throughout the hike, we kept coming upon the same stream. Each time, we’d feel its temperature, and it became increasingly warmer the higher we climbed. Finally, after being totally engulfed in a cloud of sulfuric gas spewing from a huge, gaping hole in the earth’s crust, we found a wonderfully bath-like temperature. We stripped to our underwear – and at this time, I’ll mention it was FREEZING and WINDY as all hell – and jumped into the stream.

Hannah enjoying the stream — heated by boiling water coming from a giant hole in the ground, obviously…

We lounged in the stream for a while, enjoying the sharp contrast between the icy wind blowing through our hair and the jacuzzi temperature of this sandy creek in the Icelandic mountains. Thanks, Mother Nature.

The only sucky part of this day was getting out of the warm stream, dripping wet, and having to put our clothes back on on the frozen riverbank. At this point we were so cold that we didn’t even care that we were basically (or, in my case, totally) naked, out in the open, frantically pulling on our dry clothes. You’re welcome, random Canadian man enjoying the stream – and the view – a couple yards upstream. I hope you enjoyed the show.

Probably not Earth.

After we made our way down from the mountains (extremely faster than our ascent), we found a coffeeshop where we got directions to some other towns that were not Reykjavik (you have to understand that “town” is used very loosely here, because besides Reykjavik, all towns we’ve been to have only a few houses, a church, and a gas station/restaurant combo. Also, they all have a playground with a fun twirly slide. They must really love their slides here). We got back in our little hatchback and I drove us on, into remote, barren, and beautiful eastern Iceland, the land of sheep and snow-covered mountains.  More in the next post on this adventure – and on what we found for dinner.