My Top 10 Travel Memories of 2016: #1

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Number 1: Walking the Bibbulmun Track

The Bibbulmun Track is a long distance hiking trail in my home state of Western Australia. It starts in the Perth Hills and winds its way through the diverse landscapes and ecosystems that form the beautiful South-West region of W.A, finishing in the historic port city of Albany.

In mid-July, smack bang in the middle of the coldest and wettest winter W.A. had experienced in many years, I embarked on what would become the most epic adventure of my life so far. Over 53 days, I walked the entire 1,002km that make up the Bib.

The experiences and the challenges I encountered are too vast to even attempt describing here. But if there’s one thing this adventure imparted on me, it’s a greater sense of gratitude for what is truly important in life. I am so lucky and blessed.

On that note, thank you, 2016, for all the incredible opportunities you bestowed on me this year. It has truly been one of the best years of my life. I’ve met awesome new people, visited incredible places, wandered through stunning landscapes and been inspired with creative energy. I know that being able to pursue my travel dreams and go on amazing adventures has contributed hugely to the happiness I feel in my soul and for that, I will be forever grateful.

 

My Top 10 Travel Memories of 2016: #2

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Number 2: Standing 5,555m above the world

For many people who undertake the trek to Everest Base Camp, standing at the foot of the highest mountain in the world becomes their proudest achievement. Not so in my case. It’s a good thing there’s photographic evidence which proves I did get to Base Camp because I may have otherwise doubted that the experience had been anything more than a surreal dream. When I look at the photos, I am proud of myself for getting there but it was such a tough day that I was just too tired to really enjoy my accomplishment when I finally made it.

My personal moment of exhilaration and satisfaction came a day later. No more than twelve hours had passed since we’d returned from Base Camp when my alarm went off at 3am. It was cold, it was dark and it was time to climb. I was about to attempt to reach the summit of Kala Patthar, along with half of my tour group. There was a moment when I contemplated if I shouldn’t just stay behind with the other half of my group. I’d taken such a mental beating the day before that I wasn’t sure I could do it. But deep down, I knew I’d be furious with myself if I didn’t at least try.

Kala Patthar means ‘black rock’ in Nepali and is located on the south ridge of Pumori, a 7000er sometimes referred to as Everest’s daughter. It overshadows the tiny village of Gorak Shep which lies 400m below it. I was actually very glad we were starting in pitch black conditions because it meant I couldn’t really see how steep the path leading up to the top was.

I definitely felt how steep it was, though. I had energy for the first 20 minutes and then, Snail Julie returned. But even snails will get to where they need to go, if they just keep moving. Today, I was not going to let the mountains defeat me. It became a mantra that I repeated over and over.

I made it to the summit as a pastel dawn broke out over the roof of the world. It had been a difficult walk for sure, but the key difference this time was that as soon as I’d made it, my weariness just fell away, like the curtain of night that was retreating before my eyes.

I’d reached the top about 15 minutes after most of the rest of my group. By that stage, they were feeling extremely cold and started their descent. I, on the other hand, was just so goddamn happy that the cold didn’t bother me in the slightest. I stayed on the summit for a good half hour, drinking in the view and positively bouncing with joy.

There are no words to describe how elated I felt as I watched the mountains wake up. This was the reward for my struggles and I just stood there with a huge smile on my face. I also remember thinking this was the most magnificent view to bring in a Saturday morning- in a week’s time, I’d be waking to a white fence outside my bedroom window, so enjoy the moment. And this time, I really did enjoy it. I was on cloud nine for the rest of the day.

If there’s one thing walking at altitude has taught me, it’s what a difference a day can make.

My Top 10 Travel Memories of 2016: #3

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Number 3: Making it to Everest Base Camp

If I could go back in time and tell my teenage self, one day you will make it to the base of the highest mountain in the world, I’m pretty sure Teenage Julie would’ve laughed in my face. I may as well have announced I’d made it to the moon- that was how out of this world I considered the pursuit of mountain climbing back then. Teenage Julie would also have snarkily reminded me that you have to be fit to climb mountains. Given that for most of my life I haven’t even been able to run 500m down the street without getting a stitch and gasping for breath, I can see why she would’ve been skeptical.

(Ok, it’s getting confusing referring to two concurrent versions of myself.)

In my long list of travel destinations, trekking in Nepal never featured in any of my ambitions. I guess it’s hard to imagine a world of 8000m peaks when all your life, you’ve lived in a city whose elevation is a whopping 31m above sea level. I can’t even recall how the idea first came into my head. I think it was just over a year ago that I read about tours that take you to Everest Base Camp. I probably thought, hmm, that sounds cool, that could be fun.

Cool it may be (literally and figuratively) but fun? I suppose it depends on your definition of the word. If not being able to breathe is your idea of fun, then trekking to Everest Base Camp will certainly be an extremely fun experience.

Ok, so it really wasn’t that bad. I flew into Kathmandu in October and spent sixteen days trekking through the incredible Himalayas. It may not have been a walk in the park (literally and figuratively), but actually, I felt pretty good in general. I didn’t get sick, I didn’t need Diamox, I slept like a baby every night. The walking part was hard and I was certainly the snail of the group but as soon as we arrived at our lodge, I was fine, and I’d bound out of bed every morning, happy to do it all over again.

Of course, as luck would have it, Base Camp day was one of only two days when I woke up not having had a restful sleep. We had a three hour walk to the village of Gorak Shep first. It’s the last settlement before Base Camp, 5,160m above sea level. Once there, we had breakfast and then set off for another three hour walk to reach our goal and stand 5,364m above the sea, in the shadow of the mother of all mountains. (And let’s not forget the two hour walk back to Gorak Shep.)

I can easily say it was the hardest walk of my life. I had absolutely zero energy. I felt like the walking dead. I became very aware of how barren and unforgiving this terrain was. There was no colour to lift my spirits. As I stumbled through the valleys of jagged grey rock and ice, I felt as though I was walking through a giant catacomb, the bare bones of a broken earth lying exposed before me.

Apart from my fellow trekkers, there were no living things in this environment. There’s a reason for that. There is a raw beauty to this harsh landscape but it is most definitely a world that is not meant to be inhabited.

Now, I am not one to give up or concede defeat when I encounter a challenge. You got yourself into this, now suck it up, princess, and get yourself out. I like to test my willpower and push my endurance. But I was not in a good headspace and I’ll admit, this walk made my cry. Twice. I think what frustrated me the most was that I’d been feeling really great the previous three days and thought, hey, I’m finally getting the hang of this acclimatisation business!

So, of course, altitude decided to slap me in the face and my body wouldn’t listen to me.

All the while, the mountains loomed over me, like a row of giant teeth glinting in the blinding blue sky. They seemed to be laughing at me. They knew I didn’t belong here, that I was completely out of my element.

Oh, so you’ve done a few hikes in a previous life? That’s nice, good for you. Now, run along, back to your sea level walks, you silly little girl. This is a playground for the tough kids. The strong kids. And that ain’t you.

(The great thing about admitting you feel like you had a conversation with the mountains is that you can blame it on oxygen deprivation.)

My previous hikes certainly did not prepare me for the physiological challenges associated with walking at altitude. But they did teach me that although your legs are carrying your body and doing the physical walking, it’s actually your mental resolve that puts one foot in front of the other, time and time again.

In the end, that’s all I had to do. Tell myself to take one more step. One more step. Just. One. More. Step. Sometimes, the hardest things in life are deceptively simple in their reality. But eventually, I got there. I was so exhausted that I don’t think I really comprehended that I’d finally made it. I just plonked myself down on a rock, pulled out my celebratory chocolate bar and thought, wow, this has got to be the most picturesque place I’ve ever eaten a Snickers.

In summary: Was it tough? Y.E.S. Would I do it again? Absolutely.

 

My Top 10 Travel Memories of 2016: #4

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Number 4: Sailing around the islands of the Bacuit Archipalego

I love the ocean and always find the sight of it, stretching infinitely out beyond the horizon, so calming and peaceful to look at. I take comfort in its constancy and timelessness. The lives of humans come and go but the ocean remains where it always has been and always will be.

I’m not much of a swimmer but I love being out on the water. Unfortunately, since I do not have a millionaire husband with his own private yacht, it is not an opportunity that arises very often! That’s why if I’m travelling somewhere warm and it has any sort of coastline, one of the first things I’ll do is arrange some sort of sailing experience.

So, it’s safe to say that when my friend and I visited the Philippines, there was definitely going to be some sailing involved. After all, a country with over 7000 islands was practically made for living life on the sea.

The main sailing experiences we had on our holiday were in El Nido, a municipality situated in the north of the island of Palawan. As you enter the town, a sign proclaims Welcome to El Nido- A Paradise Within Paradise. El Nido has also been called the Best Beach and Island destination in the Philippines. Again, given the number of islands that make up this country, such acclaim meant that our expectations were high.

We were not disappointed.

My friend and I only had two full days in El Nido and spent both of them doing ‘island hopping’ tours. As El Nido is the gateway to the wider Bacuit Archipelago, there are 45 enchanting tropical islands which you can explore. We visited ten of them over the two days.

Our first island hopping tour was my favourite and the highlight of my entire Philippines holiday. A calm, clear ocean and the balmiest sea breeze set the scene for a perfect day of sailing. The gentle swaying of the boat was so soothing that I could’ve easily dozed off, if it wasn’t for all the rugged karst cliffs rising around me. It is awe-inspiring and humbling to see the work of eons towering over you.

The day offered many opportunities to swim and snorkel and it was such a treat to be able to do so in such magnificent natural surrounds. Striking contrasts were everywhere- ivory shores, ebony outcrops, emerald forests and crystal water. But what I loved most of all was just sitting at the front of the boat, the sun on my skin, the wind in my hair and the presence of freedom all around me.

 

 

My Top 10 Travel Memories of 2016: #5

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Number 5: Walking along White Beach while listening to Mark Ronson

At the beginning of April, my friend, Suz, and I spent two weeks holidaying in the Philippines. Considering there are over 7000 islands to choose from, it was difficult to decide which ones we wanted to see. In the end, we settled upon four islands: Bohol, Cebu, Boracay and Palawan.

We’d read mixed reviews about Boracay. In fact, the first article that popped up when we searched ‘Boracay’ on Google was It’s the worst island I’ve ever been to. While my friend and I are not big on the whole party island vibe ourselves- one of the author’s main gripes- we thought her assessment was a bit harsh and that we’d be better off making up our own minds.

After further research, we found out that White Beach, which is the main beach on the island, is divided into three ‘stations’ and if you stay in Station 1 or 3, it’s far less crowded than in central Station 2. As fate would have it, a picture of an amazing looking location called Spider House popped up on my Facebook newsfeed. It was in Station 1, at the very end of the 4km long beach. The decision was made. We were going to Boracay.

I’m glad we decided to visit Boracay because both my friend and I ended up really loving the place. Spider House was the perfect spot to stay- about a 20 minute walk to the busy part of White Beach but even there, we didn’t find it to be more touristy than any other island in South East Asia.

We did a lot of day tours over the two weeks but decided, for our three days on Boracay, we would just chill out and do nothing. It was blissful. The added advantage of our accommodation being further away was that we did a lot of walking each time we headed to or from Station 2.

Walking along the beach became my favourite thing to do. I was captivated by the tides and how they changed the colour and texture of the shoreline.A turquoise dream at high tide and an intricate web of wavy streams at low tide.

One afternoon, after having had lunch in Station 2, Suz decided to have a massage while I opted to go back and relax at Spider House. I put in my headphones, ready to pass the 30 minute walk with some tunes, and pressed play on ‘Uptown Special’, the album by Mark Ronson that I’d recently acquired. At this point, there were a couple of songs on the album which I loved and kept listening to on repeat. I soon became too wrapped up in the stunning surrounds to notice what songs were playing.

Until the twentieth second of the third minute of a song called ‘In Case of Fire’ started playing. The dreamy twangs of this short instrumental interlude jolted me and I had one of those transcendental moments where you look at the world around you and realise that, right here, right now, everything has aligned into perfect harmony- the water, the wind, the sand, the palm trees, the people, everything.

And to think I had always skipped over this song. Needless to say, I found a new song to listen to on repeat. Even though I never recaptured that same feeling of zen, I think the reason I love this memory so much is that it provided me with one of those rare times in life when you are truly living in the moment. And in that moment, I heard the soul of Boracay sing.

 

My Top 10 Travel Memories of 2016: #6

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Number 6: Swimming amongst phytoplankton on the island of Koh Rong

The inspiration for my Cambodia trip in February came from an article I read about the country’s tropical islands, of which I had not even been aware. The author described an island escape where electricity was only available from 6-10pm. I couldn’t think of a more perfect place to detox from the technological world and disconnect from the frenzied pace of modern life.

So, after my group tour ended, I made my way to the island of Koh Rong. That was an experience in itself and as I disembarked off the ferry from Sihanoukville onto the main shore of the island, I was quite shocked to see how quickly the claws of commercialism are making their mark here. I suspect this once unspoilt paradise will eventually become just another cheap tourist party island. I know I cannot begrudge a developing country the opportunity to tap into tourism as a source of revenue but it always makes me feel sad when it leads to nature being destroyed in the process.

Luckily for me, I was not staying on the main shore of Koh Rong but rather on the eastern side. I felt far more comfortable when, after a further 40 minute boat ride, I stepped onto white sand and saw nothing but a handful of wooden bungalows peeking out from amongst palm trees swaying lazily in the breeze.

My accommodation for my three night stay was a tent on the shore of the beach. The same chorus of waves welcomed me when I woke in the morning and provided a soothing lullaby as I drifted off to sleep each night. I switched off from ‘time’ in between and lived a simple life of eat, swim, sleep, repeat. (Do not repeat falling asleep in a hammock and waking up with tiger legs though. It makes for a most unfortunate tan.)

One of the things I was most excited about was the bioluminescent phytoplankton in the area. I’d seen incredible pictures of midnight seas aglow with electric blue water- a direct result of some pretty amazing chemical reactions occurring within these microscopic marine plants.

On my second night on the island, I had my first experience with phytoplankton but it was not quite what I was hoping for. For starters, the water was pitch black as we made our way to the beach for a late night swim, which made me wonder whether the photos I’d seen hadn’t been a bit generous in their adjustment of saturation levels. This was no big deal though, because when we entered the water, the phytoplankton were certainly there- however, I couldn’t really focus on their quiet beauty as I had to convince the somewhat inebriated owner of the bungalows that I was not interested in being anymore than his friend that evening, thank you very much.

I decided to try viewing the phytoplankton again on my last night. Around midnight, I walked the short distance to the beach with high hopes that this time, my experience would be better. The shore was deserted. Perfect. The night air was balmy and the water warm and inviting.

What can I say? This time, the experience was mesmerising! A real magic show produced by some of nature’s tiniest creatures. I was simply transfixed each time I twirled my hands through the water, to see hundreds of tiny sparks of liquid light shooting past my fingertips.  I don’t know how long I swam in that water but afterwards, I noticed even my skin was glowing!

It’s safe to say I will never forget the memory of this midnight swim. After all, it’s not every day that the sea becomes a galaxy of fallen stars, allowing you to dance in the light of the universe itself.

My Top Travel Memories of 2016: #7

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Number 7: Dancing among the crowds along Pub Street in Siem Reap

Disclaimer: I cannot dance.

When it came time for the fates to decide upon my ability to move rhythmically to music, they decided to bestow me, not with the elegant and graceful steps my mum is capable of, but rather, with the two left feet my dad possesses. Thanks a lot, gene pool.

Over the years, this has left me with the following options:

a) dance in the company of little kids who are just as uncoordinated as me (easy enough to do when you’re an early childhood teacher, though it makes it embarrassing beyond belief when you are outperformed by a five year old)

b) drink a lot of wine to boost confidence in my dancing skills and then, when I evitably fall over, blame it on the boogie booze

c) go to my room, lock the doors, close the curtains and dance like nobody’s watching (because nobody is watching, thank god)

d) think of the children and just don’t even go there

Lo and behold, when I visited Cambodia in February this year, I discovered that there is actually another option:

e) find a group of awesome people and just all dance like crazy together

Cambodia was my first adventure for the year and for the first time ever, I joined a multi-day group tour. I’ve done a lot of solo travel in the past and had always been happy just doing my own thing. But this year, I decided I needed to step out of my comfort zone and meet new people.

Now, in addition to being a terrible dancer, I’m also terribly awkward when meeting new people. Ask me to introduce myself to a group of strangers and I’ll probably mumble something along the lines of hello, I’m, um, Julie, and like, I like stuff, you know.

Safe to say, I was actually feeling a little bit terrified when it came time to meet my tour group. Which I laugh about now because they turned out to be the loveliest bunch of people.

Our tour was very short- only six days, and the first and last days were too short to really count. So, essentially four days. We checked out Phnom Penh and then took a bus up to Siem Reap.

On our second last night, we had a fun dinner at a karaoke bar and then proceeded to check out some of the bars along Siem Reap’s main nightlife strip- the aptly named ‘Pub Street’.

In one of the pubs along Pub Street, we hit the dance floor. We were happy when ‘Happy’ was played, we danced and jumped on it when ‘Uptown Funk’ funked us up and I may have screamed with joy when my request of ‘Billie Jean’ was played- because if there’s one artist which I’m willing to humiliate myself for, it’s MJ.

The best part though was actually when we decided to go back to our hotel. We stepped back out onto Pub Street, which was still teeming with life. We could’ve taken the normal option of walking through the crowds but no. We decided to dance down the street, adjusting our moves to the various styles of music that were blaring out from each bar that we passed- a little bit of rock, a little bit of rap, some disco here, some hip hop there.

And all this with a group of people who I’d known for a whole three days.

What a joy it was to dance with absolutely no inhibitions- and not because I was drunk, but simply because I was so happy and felt so alive.

What I love about this memory most of all is that, during our interpretation of dancing in the street, there was a lady who filmed us on her iPad. I know that somewhere in this world, there is now actual footage of my shockingly bad dancing- and I don’t even care.