Elephant Freedom Project (PM)

13th February 2017

***

The sun is beating down intensely as we follow Manika back to the Elephant Freedom Project. Once we arrive back in the enclosure, she is hosed down with cool, refreshing water. A layer of dust and grime, accumulated on the morning’s walk, steadily trickles off her body and onto the floor. We all take turns spraying Manika. The water sparkles on her grey skin, making it look as though diamonds are dancing on her back.

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After her shower, Manika retreats into her enclosure for an afternoon nap. The morning’s activities have left us feeling hungry, so while Manika is resting, we all eager to take part in a cooking demonstration. We are invited into the kitchen, and help to prepare the ingredients for fried rice and a potato curry. I take particular note of all the spices being used, so that I can recreate the dish at home. When lunch is served, about half an hour later, there are another five accompanying dishes. It’s a traditional Sri Lankan feast, and all the food is delicious.

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After lunch, we head down to the local river, where we spot Manika in the water. She is lying on her side and enjoying what looks to be a very relaxing bath. Her mahout is using a coconut husk to thoroughly scrub her body. We’re told this is usually done twice a day to prevent the accumulation of bacteria.

What follows next is the most amazing part of the day. We’re given our own coconut husk and are invited to help wash Manika in the river. It’s an incredibly humbling experience. Here is an animal of enormous power and size, and I’m standing right next to her, giving her a bath, as she lies in the water, placid and content. Manika is the very definition of a gentle giant.

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It’s strange to say this about such a massive creature, but she is lying so peacefully in the river that she almost seems vulnerable. I am in such close proximity that every detail of her features is observed as if in high definition. One is immediately drawn to her gentle, brown eyes, which shine like smooth, tiny gems amongst her crinkled exterior. Her skin is criss-crossed with deep-set wrinkles. Her rusty coloured trunk looks like a long concertina fold. Depigmentation has decorated her floppy, pink ears with polka dots. I stroke her leathery back, which is covered with coarse hairs that bristle at the touch, like a broom.

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Further down the river, we catch sight of another elephant. This one stands forlornly in the murky water, and there is a look of sadness about him. It’s such a stark contrast to the blissful water experience that Manika is having only a couple of hundred metres away. While Manika splashes around, this elephant is chained to a tree, and he stands silent and still, as if resolved to his fate. His mahout is crouched on the bank of the river, and our guide goes over to him to ask if we can approach his elephant. The mahout has no objections, so we make our way over to the lonely elephant and give him a scrub, too.

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When we return to Manika, her mahout is prodding at her to stand up so he can wash her other side. She is obviously feeling very relaxed, as she doesn’t want to budge. Eventually, she lifts the massive bulk of her body out of the water and heaves herself onto her feet, with a great effort. She turns around slowly, readjusting her position before plopping down, delighted to be back in the water. It’s fascinating to watch the relationship between Manika and her mahout. He’s a bit of a gruff man, and his tone of voice often sounds harsh, but he obviously cares deeply for Manika and is committed to looking after her. In return, Manika seems to trust him explicitly.

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When bath-time is finally finished, we walk back to the enclosure with Manika, and bid her farewell. It’s been an unforgettable day, and my heart is happy to know that after a tough life lived in the logging industry, Manika is now free, and will never have to live in chains again.

I leave the Elephant Freedom Project around 4pm, and since I am not pressed for time now, I decide to walk back to my hotel. This time, there’s no shortage of tuk-tuk drivers that stop to say hello and ask where I’m going. I keep insisting that I’m happy to walk, which seems to baffle them, as if no-one in their right mind would be happy to walk 4km. But I do, and I arrive back at my hotel in time for the golden hour of twilight. I sit out on the balcony and read my book until the horizon turns a russet colour. A noisy chorus of  birds erupts from the trees and I watch as the never-ending flock takes to the heavens and streams across the sky, reflecting on the day, and the beauty of creatures, great and small.

A Perfect Day in Ella

11th February 2017

***

The most perfect day starts with a cockroach. It’s a giant one, light brown in colour, lying half-dead in the corner of the bathroom with its legs up in the air and its long antennae twitching wildly. I have a huge phobia of cockroaches, and it takes me a good five minutes to be able to approach it. My friend offers me a shoe and I thwack the critter over and over again. The bloody thing seems to be tougher than steel and refuses to be squished. Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! Eventually, there’s a crunch. I work up the courage to pick up the remains in a wad of tissues and quickly fling it into the toilet, before flushing it to a watery grave. And one more flush, for good measure.

Undertaking a cockroach extermination mission may not be the most ideal way to begin one’s morning, but the drama is quickly forgotten when I step outside and see this glorious view from the balcony of the Ella Paddy Field View Guest Inn.

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The day is warm, bright and beautiful, as my friend and I set off into town to have breakfast. We enter a cafe, and the waiter asks if I’m Sri Lankan as he leads us to a table. Not quite, buddy! We start the day with coconut roti, though this roti is nothing like the roti we had the day before. It’s still tasty and filling, though, which is just what we need to see us through a day of hiking through the hills of Ella.

The beautiful views begin as soon as we head out for Little Adam’s Peak, which is about a 2km walk from the town centre. We pass by several home stays and cafes, which are nestled between a colourful maze of tropical flowers, ferns and palms, before the path starts winding gently upwards through glossy tea plantations. Along the way, local women pose for photos while picking tea leaves, a snake charmer plays a pungi to a cobra in a wicker basket, and a young boy runs up to every tourist he sees, asking for lollies.

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Reaching the top of Little Adam’s Peak involves climbing some stairs, but it’s nowhere near as taxing as the climb up Adam’s Peak. This is a good thing, as my legs are still sore from Tuesday’s hike, so I take it easy. Besides, the views are absolutely spectacular, and deserve to be savoured. I have never seen such lusciously green country before in my life.

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When we get to the top, it’s not crowded, which makes it far easier to appreciate the view. We take some time to sit and simply enjoy the stunning landscape that stretches out before us, as far as the eye can see. Ella Rock lies directly in front of us, a striking formation which is softened by the vibrant vegetation that blankets it, as well as the rolling hills that surround it, rising like waves before fading away into misty horizons. I could easily stare at this view forever, and find myself rating this hike far more than Adam’s Peak. With Adam’s Peak, it felt like an experience I did to say that I’ve done it, but with Little Adam’s Peak, it’s an experience I’d come back to do again and again.

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With the midday sun starting to beat down upon us, my friend suggests visiting Cafe 98, which is located at 98 Acres Resort & Spa, a five star accommodation complex tucked away in the hills. The thatched roof bungalows which make up the property are visible from our vantage point on the top of the peak, and we make our way down towards them. Once we reach the cafe, we order a refreshing iced tea (since they’ve run out of the passionfruit juice we’re both craving), and dream about staying at the resort. How lucky are the guests, to be staying amongst such panoramic views.

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We decide to visit the Newburgh Tea Plantation after finishing our drinks, as it is only about 500m away from the resort. We don’t stay long, as the factory is closed, although we are still able to sample and buy some green tea.

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After consulting her guidebook, my friend realises that we are not too far from the famous Nine Arches Bridge, which is situated between two railway stations, at Ella and Demodara. The bridge, which is 24m high and spans a length of 91m, was built in the British Colonial period, and is considered somewhat of an engineering marvel, due to the fact it was constructed without any steel. Instead, the entire bridge is made up of rocks, bricks and cement.

We reach a lookout point and settle into some plastic chairs, as the next train is not due to pass for another 45 minutes. Conveniently, there is a juice store on site. The sun is now shining directly onto us and has reached its peak intensity, so the mango juice I order goes down a treat. While we wait, a small group of people starts to gather, and I have a chat with a Canadian lady whose husband has walked down to the tracks for an up close and personal experience. There are several people walking along the bridge, though they look like ants from where I’m seated. I’m content to observe the train from the lookout point, and fall into a drowsy reverie as we wait in the heat of the afternoon.

At 3.30pm, the train horn sounds, and shortly after, a rusty-coloured train chugs into view, its gleaming roof shining silver in the glare of the sun. It comes and goes in a flash, and with the main spectacle now over, the group of people on the bridge rapidly begins to disperse. The onlookers from the higher viewpoint also begin to leave. My friend and I follow suit, and we begin our leisurely stroll back into town.

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After a long day of walking, my friend and I stop by a street vendor and treat ourselves to a final dessert-style roti. Again, it’s completely different to the previous rotis I’ve eaten- more like a crepe- and I wash it down with a wood apple juice. Then, we buy some snacks and souvenirs from the local supermarket, before heading back to the guest inn. The perfect day ends with a delicious home-cooked Sri Lankan dinner in the evening. The view of the hills on the balcony is now cloaked by a curtain of darkness, but far off, under the pale glow of the moon, the tiny lights of a train can be seen. They twinkle like stars on the horizon, before disappearing into the shadows of the night.

A Stroll into Secrets

7th February 2017

***

It’s 6pm and I’ve just finished dinner at Ayos Hill. I’m counting on my delicious potato roti and mango shake to sustain me for my hike up Adam’s Peak in eight hours time. Twilight is falling and I head out for an evening stroll in the little village where my guest house is located.  The setting sun is casting a golden glow over the summit of Adam’s Peak and I walk up the street to try and capture a photo, but doing so actually ends up blocking the peak from view, so I don’t end up venturing very far.

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I smile and nod at an elderly lady who is observing me from her front garden as I walk back down the street. She returns the gestures and asks me where I’m from. Australia, I tell her, and she disappears inside her house. I don’t understand the chatter coming from inside, but it would seem the old woman has informed the other inhabitants of the house of our encounter, as I do catch the word ‘Australia’. A minute later, I pass a couple of school girls who smile brightly and say hello. What a friendly village.

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I walk past my guest house but it’s getting dark and I don’t really expect to go much further down the street. I’m just about to turn around when I catch sight of a trail, which is brought to my attention by a group of young cricketers who have just emerged from it, obviously having called it a day given the deteriorating light. I can’t resist checking out the trail for myself, though, and I head down the path to see where it leads. It winds downhill through rows of green bushes, but it is impossible to see where it ends. Tendrils of smoke from an orange flame below me curl up to meet the twinkling moon above. My feet lead me onwards.

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As the final colour of day fades quickly from the world, I stumble out of the bushes and into a secret paradise. It feels like I have walked into a pastel dream the world itself is having; a memory of a forgotten land lost in the mists of time. There’s a grove of trees to my right that look like they’ve come out of an enchanted wood, soft and sparkling in the shadowy hues of twilight. In front of me, a calm and clear lake stretches, its surface as smooth as glass, a mirror in which the very soul of paradise is reflected. Birds sing their lullabies, insects chirp to the moon, and far away the tiny lights of villages twinkle while a hum of distant voices carries on the gentle breeze like a lullaby.

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Not only have I come across this magical scene by happy chance, amazingly, I have it all to myself to enjoy. There is no-one else around, and I’m grateful for this unexpected solitude. Quiet experiences like this are my absolutely favourite, and I sit on the bank of the lake, silent and still, to soak up my serene surrounds. I am loathe to leave, even though the curtains of night have almost closed in around me.

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Sri Lanka has been so busy and brimming with life that it almost seems unreal to have come across such a tranquil place. I feel like I’ve been let in on one of the island’s most secret treasures, and I’m thankful for my sense of curiosity which allowed me to discover it. What a special way to end off a magical day- definitely my favourite day so far.

Journey into Hill Country

7th February 2017

***

It’s just after 9am and a tuk tuk takes me away from the ease and comfort that has defined the past week I’ve spent on tour. We are swallowed up by the traffic before being spit out onto the side of a curb at the train station, where I’m now left to fend for myself in the chaotic cavern of Columbo Fort.

I’m on edge. My recent tendency to travel in tour groups has spoilt me. It’s been a while since I’ve had to be totally independent in figuring out how to get around a foreign country by myself and organising my own transportation. Nothing makes it more apparent that I’m not on top of my game than when I board the wrong train.

What an encouraging start to my week of solo travel around Sri Lanka.

Thankfully, the only consequence to this mistake is a dent in my pride. The compartment is devoid of any passengers, and the train is entirely still. Even I know that no-one gets so lucky as to board a completely empty train in Sri Lanka. I step off the train bound for nowhere almost as quickly as I stepped onto it, and look around, confused.

I glance up at the platform numbers and realise the error I’ve made. My train for Hatton departs from Platform 3, but I am currently standing on Platform 4. As I turn my gaze towards Platform 3, I notice a guy who has apparently also picked up on my mistake. He waves to catch my attention and gestures that I need to walk back over the overpass. I nod in acknowledgement and sheepishly make my way over to the right platform.

The train arrives barely a minute after I’ve crossed over, and I know it’s going to Hatton because there’s a throng of people rushing to get on it. I board a second class compartment and find an empty window seat right at the back. Perfect- until the young man who helped me out with the platform knocks on my window and starts gesturing at me again.

What now? Am I in the wrong seat? Am I in the wrong carriage? He’s saying something, but it’s noisy around me and the window is closed, so I can’t hear him. I try to lift the window open, but can’t. It’s my second fail of the day. I don’t want to step out to ask what he wants and risk losing my seat, so I shrug my shoulders, and he disappears.

I’m relieved to finally be on the right train, but still flustered from the whole experience of actually getting on it. I just want to sit back and relax for the next few hours. A sense of calm is slowly returning to my frayed nerves when Mr Helpful reappears. Now, he is in the carriage, and he comes over and opens my window. This is my first experience of the friendliness of Sri Lankan people, but certainly not the last.

He walks off the train, and back around to my window. He starts up a conversation and I can actually hear him now. Where are you from? Of course. I reply I’m from Australia. Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth? I’m surprised when he mentions Perth (and not Sydney). Whenever I’m overseas and tell people I’m Australian, people automatically assume my home is in Sydney, or Melbourne. When I answer I’m from Perth, their expressions usually go blank, and tumbleweeds threaten to roll by. So how does this young fellow know about my oft forgotten city?

The answer soon becomes clear. I’ve watched some cricket matches from Perth. So have I, I reply, and he’s a bit surprised by this. But there’s not really much time left to exchange sporting stories. The train is gearing into life, and out of the corner of my eye, I notice a young couple with oversized backpacks running from carriage to carriage with the same flustered expression I was wearing not that long ago. I’m so glad to be settled into my seat. They disappear into a compartment, and Mr Helpful asks if I would like a newspaper as the engine signals departure. I decline- I know I’ll be too busy watching the world go by to need any reading material on this journey. The train chugs out of the station, and immediately, my anxiety melts away.

***

It doesn’t take long until I’m convinced that travelling by train is THE way to travel around Sri Lanka. It’s an experience that engages all the senses, and best of all, it’s cheap as chips. For 290 rupee- not even three Australian dollars, I am treated to what feels like a six hour movie, with each rolling landscape offering another breath-taking scene of Sri Lanka’s natural beauty.

A passing mirage of palms and ferns and banana trees colour the land in vibrant shades of green, from the edge of the track all the way to the far-off horizon. In between are lush fields of canary yellow, where scattered cattle sway their tails in lazy strokes and graze contentedly on grass, while short-bodied birds with long legs dance on their backs, like ballerinas twirling in the radiance of the sun.

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Every twist and turn of the track reveals secret glimpses into the daily life of the people who reside in the towns and villages which line the railway. There’s a spectacle of sights to behold: men in suits ambling along the tracks, completely unperturbed by the possibility of encountering an oncoming train; women strolling along the streets in bright saris, clutching umbrellas to protect themselves from the intense glare of the midday sun; farmers toiling in the fields with bent backs; motorbikes and tuk tuks bumping along country lanes; passengers waiting with vacant expressions as we pass through peach-coloured stations; curious children gazing at our rushing train with wonder in their eyes and their hands over their ears.

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Every now and then, the inside of a family home is on full display. In one house, I can make out the details of the sofa chair in the corner of the hallway. Other houses have corrugated rooftops and threadbare interiors, shacks stacked together in a shanty town. I don’t mean to pry but they’re so close to the tracks that there’s nowhere else to look. Sometimes, there are clotheslines supported by bamboo poles serving as fences, adorned with colourful shirts and pants and undergarments that flap flimsily in the breeze. There is little peace and less privacy, and whenever we pass by a line of washing, I wonder about the family it belongs to, and whether they like living next to the tracks and listening to the trains that thunder past multiple times a day.

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***

The train is like an orchestra that has decided to revolt against the maestro’s signal for quiet, and every instrument is trying to drown out the others. There’s the constant clanging of compartments; and then, suddenly, a grating jerk as the train stops to change lines, followed by a prolonged screech of metal which can only be likened to nails scraping a chalkboard, only more extreme. There’s the thundering echo of metal on metal as we pass over bridges, and it feels like there’s a giant gong reverberating right next to my ear.

Inside the train, people talk quietly, if at all, except for the vendors selling food, who wander up and down the aisles with baskets on their heads, or under their arms. They yell out words I don’t understand (but can guess at), always with the same intonation and in a frantic pace, as if they’re being chased by a conductor. Otherwise, it’s noisiest when people get on the train, before the sharp whistle of the engine announces that it is preparing to leave the station, and the station-master replies with a whistle of his own.

Sometimes, there’s a soft whoosh of reeds in the countryside. Other times there are tunnels, where eerie, high-pitched screams bounce through the air, as if ghosts are hiding in the shadows, and the train itself is afraid and rushing to get out of the dark. But above all of this noise and commotion, there is always the steady, rhythmic click-clack, click-clack of the wheels grinding over the tracks, a soothing and comforting sound of perpetual motion.

There are times when I close my eyes and manage to block out the sounds. My mind focuses on the air, instead, which is scented with spice and smoke and dust and engine grease. The air is not clean, or fresh, but the smell of it is heady nonetheless, and I breathe it in deeply because it is laced with the secrets of dreams.

It’s as if the trains in Sri Lanka were made for sticking your head out a window so that you can inhale the fragrance of the island. And when Paradise sees you smile, it delights in your joy, and it asks the world to send forth its balmiest tropical breeze, borne out of time in lands that know only harmony, and this gentle wind tickles your face and dances through your hair, and all you feel is gratitude and peace.

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I open my eyes and there’s a tree almost in my face. I’m close enough to touch the leaves of its overhanging branches, and then I’m running my fingers over the rock walls that rise far above the train.

***

I experience a sense of deja vu as we pull into the train station near Peradeniya. This is where I boarded my first train in Sri Lanka, not even a week ago, with my tour group. For a moment, I feel sad thinking about how we have all now gone our separate ways, and likely will never see each other again. A man from Argentina sits down next to me and breaks my reverie. He is travelling to Ella, and we talk about hiking. He recommends that I check out the Seven Lake Zone if I am ever in Argentina.

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I am now travelling the same route as I did a few days ago, yet my memory of what’s ahead is a blur. I’m stunned at how much I apparently didn’t notice the first time around. I may as well be journeying on a new route, and this time, I make sure to take it all in. Funnily enough, a tour group boards the train at the next stop, and they’re enchanted, just like we were, taking photos hanging out of doorways with beaming faces. Nostalgia makes me feel old.

Not long after Nawalapitiya, where our train journey finished last time, there’s a change. It’s imperceptible at first, but gradually I sense that the air feels brisk instead of balmy, and palm fronds are being replaced by forests. This is the beginning of hill country, where the sprawling estates of some of the country’s most renown tea plantations reside upon rich undulating plains.

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The train arrives in Hatton at 3.15pm, about forty five minutes late. I’m not bothered by the delay, though I still have an hour to travel to get to Ayos Hill, the guest house I’m staying at on the outskirts of Dalhousie. This small village lies at the base of Adam’s Peak, which I’ll be climbing in less than twelve hours.

I take a tuk tuk up some very bumpy, winding roads to get to my guest house. My driver, Sanga, is lovely, and kindly stops at a few viewpoints along the way, including an old British church lined with graves, destined to linger forever on a hill. Sanga’s softly-spoken voice matches the solemn surrounds, but the topic of conversation that arises is hardly sacred. Do you like cricket? It turns out that Adam Gilchrist is his favourite player, and he likes Mitchell Johnson’s bowling. I tell him about the latter’s impressive performance in the Big Bash League. He’s not familiar with the BBL, and I’m not familiar with the players on the Sri Lankan team, including the former captain, Kumary Sangakkara, who Sanga is obviously delighted to share a nickname with. Being all out (of conversation), we head back to the tuk tuk.

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The road slopes ever upwards over a sunlit land. Below me, there’s a glittering lake that draws attention and takes centre stage in the landscapes, that is, until a very triangular peak looms into view from up above. Sanga pulls over and I have my first glimpse of Adam’s Peak, or Sri Pada. It is shrouded in sunlight, bathed in an ethereal glow. At 2230m, it’s less than half of the altitude I managed to reach while trekking in Nepal, but I know I’d be foolish to dismiss it. Whatever challenges await, I am officially ready for them.

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A Moment of Zen

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There are two memories that stand out from yesterday’s trip to Rottnest Island. They were moments of zen, where you just feel the world and notice how everything is connected and co-existing in harmony. These are my most treasured memories because they are a reminder that life can be perfect.

What I’ve come to realise is how simple perfection seems to be at its core. This particular experience started off with me sitting by a salt lake, eating dried mango. It was early afternoon, the sun was warm and a salt-laced sea breeze stirred the air. My entertainment consisted of clouds rolling by, while raucous water birds and chirpy crickets provided a free soundtrack.

Rottnest is a busy island and yet there was no-one else about. These pristine surrounds were all mine to enjoy. It was incredibly peaceful and I felt incredibly content.

 

My Top 10 Travel Memories of 2016: #8

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Number 8: Listening to music atop The Blade

At the end of April, my friend and I travelled to Tasmania to try out the Three Capes Track, a new hiking trail stretching 46km across the state’s south east coast. I had visited this region exactly a year before and loved it- the coastal cliffs were some of the most majestic I’ve ever seen- so I was very excited to revisit this beautiful corner of the earth.

Over four days of walking, the Track brings you right to the very rim of two of the three famous capes in the Tasman Peninsula- Cape Pillar on Day 3 and Cape Hauy on Day 4.(The third, Cape Raoul, is visible on the horizon on Day 2, but is not yet encompassed by the Track.)

The guide book that you receive on the first day is entitled ‘Encounters on the Edge’ and let me tell you, the experience of hiking the capes certainly lives up to that name. Especially when you make it to the top of The Blade, which is the premier viewpoint of the Cape Pillar region.

The steps leading up to the summit are, surprisingly, not as strenuous as they seem but make no mistake, climbing this pinnacle of dolerite rock is not for the fainthearted. There are no barriers to protect hikers from the cliff edge, making it a 262m free fall to the depths of the Tasman Sea below. Now, I’m not afraid of heights but being mere metres away from such a sheer drop, I certainly felt a cautionary sense of respect for my surrounds.

And what surrounds they were. From atop The Blade, you have unobstructed views of an ancient host of sea cliffs that march along one of the most rugged coastlines in the world. It’s also an unsurpassed look-out point for viewing Tasman Island, a giant plateau rising 300m above the sea and the site of one of the most isolated lighthouses in Australia.

We were lucky that the weather was as perfect as can be: clear skies, warm sunshine and not even the slightest whisper of wind- quite remarkable in a region famous for the Roaring Forties. This meant that we could sit back and enjoy the magnificent landscape around us.

So naturally, I pulled out my iPod and put on some tunes because nothing makes me feel more zen than a pretty view and some chilled melodies. I looked out towards the horizon and my mind became a reflection of the calm and still waters shimmering like glass around me. In a world that is constantly go-go-go, I treasure any experience that wipes my mind of everything except the feeling of contentment of living in the present moment.