City hopping

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The network of fast trains in Italy has really opened up easy travel between cities. With Firenze only 1h40 by Frecciarossa from Milan it’s easy to plan a day trip there. There is nothing keeping one from making it a weekend either, but having been away all weekend the previous one, I felt a day trip would be enough and boarded the train on Saturday morning. My anticipated glimpses of Bologna came to nought, when I realised that the fast track is entirely underground and barely getting out of the spectacular tunnel system through the Apennine Mountains just before Firenze. Not a lot to see, but it sure is quick!

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The weather was cold and wet when I arrived in Firenze and I set off walking at a good pace to get warm. Firenze is full of history; every corner, every way you turn you find incredible historical buildings, churches and statues. I wished a few times I had access to Mary McCarthy’s book The Stones of Florence or had brushed up on my history knowledge to get more out of it. And in between the historical buildings there are tourists. Lots of tourists. Including me.

The first church you encounter is Santa Maria Novella, after which the train station is named; from there it doesn’t take long to see the telling shape of the cupola of Santa Maria del Fiore, a giant dome covered in red tiles. Notwithstanding the cold weather, tourists were everywhere, lining up for a chance to see the inside or going up the steps to the Cupola for a view. I had decided to just go with the flow today, rather than try and cram it all in. So I skipped the lines and walked into less crowded streets and in the general direction of the Galleria dell’Accademia de Firenze, the home of the David by Michelangelo. Somewhere on a corner I ducked into a local cafe to grab a hot cappuccino. Suitably warmed up I joined the queue for admission, which looked quite manageable and within 15 minutes I was inside and in possession of a ticket. I think I was just lucky that most people were still in the queues at Santa Maria del Fiore or at the Uffizi.

I had on previous visits seen replicas of the David statue, but never the original. It was incredible, hard to believe that hard marble can be made to looks so soft and sinuous. I was particularly fascinated at how his hands were sculpted, every vein and tendon so visible and realistic that you want to reach out and touch it, to make sure it really is what you are seeing.

This cultural experience was followed by hedonistic one, given I was near the leather shop that had been recommended to me by a friend. Ciro and Sofia took good care of me and it didn’t take very long for me to walk out with two fine leather jackets to add to my collection. By now the sun was out and Firenze looked even prettier now, the white, pink and greyish green stones of Santa Maria del Fiore illuminated in their intricate patterns.

It was time to look for some food for lunch and I decided to find the restaurant that had been suggested by a colleague. The directions took me through Via de’ Tornabuoni, the luxury designer strip of Firenze until I arrived at the river Arno, just as the sun radiated on Ponte Vecchio, the perfect location for some photographs of the bridge itself, rather than from the bridge.

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The recommended restaurant was closed, but not too far from Ponte Vecchio I found another restaurant serving Tuscan food and had lunch there, before continuing my meanderings over Ponte Vecchio, briefly to the other side, Oltr’arno, and back towards Piazza della Signoria and from there to the Basilico di Santa Croce. By now the weather had deteriorated again and it started to rain and the light started to fail quickly.

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It was almost time to make my way back to the station through the small streets to board my train back to Milano, but not before looking at a few window and market stall displays: a cornucopia of gloves, chocolates and spreads.

On the train back I pondered that there is so much to see in Firenze and it is all so steeped in history that one day simply doesn’t do it justice. You could spend a lifetime here and still not see it all. And the tourist crowds don’t facilitate good sightseeing either. This is a problem not unique to Firenze; other tourist cities suffer the same and it raises the question how you keep tourism in balance, to provide income for a place, but not disrupt normal life for its residents to such a large extent. I have no idea how the Florentines live in this city, particularly not in the summer months, or at least from Easter onwards until September. Are we killing all the beautiful places in the world with our desire to see it all?

 

Peaks and troughs

1803_AU_BogongWalk-0331When friends and fellow walkers suggested an Easter ramble over the Bogong High Plains in Victoria, I immediately jumped at the idea. With a fair bit of driving to get there for each of us, the intended circuit was reconsidered and I thought I had come up with a clever car shuffle to make the final day a bit more palatable. At least that is what we thought…

From the start things didn’t quite go to plan, but sometimes the walking gods like to test our resolve and the only way is to persevere. After some trouble locating my share car, I eventually made it up to Bogong Village an hour later than our agreed rendezvous time. From there we drove up to Watchbed Creek outside Falls Creek and started our walk after we’d had a quick lunch.  We were striding out in our boots over the 4WD track and we made quick progress, until we reach Roper’s Hut. Our plan was to camp downhill after we crossed Big River and so we started out descent. The topo map did say steep in places, but there is obviously steep and steep. It was an exhausting descent that took us far longer than we expected and it was only when we had crossed the river that we could see how steep it had been. It was just on dusk as we made our way across the river and scrambled up the far side. Our camp site wasn’t far from there and we quickly put up our tents, so we could start to cook dinner. We rejoiced in a pasta dinner, lubricated by a shiraz from Cat Amongst the Pigeons, under the bright lights of the full moon. We were much surprised when we discovered we were still sitting yakking away well after 10pm that night and scuttled off to our tents for some shuteye and to recuperate for a tough second day.

1803_AU_BogongWalk-0293Apparently the climb out of Big River is described as an “ovary-smashing, ball-busting” climb and I have to somewhat agree that it was one of the tougher ones I’ve encountered. Very steep at the beginning the climb is relentless and took us close to three hours. Granted our progress was slow (probably thanks to all that pasta and red wine), but eventually we made it out onto the plateau and got our share of beautiful views. As we came onto the plateau we noticed a small cluster of tents, occupied by the Bayside Bushwalking Club, who provided invaluable information about our planned walk out. Although topo and satellite maps were showing a track, the prevailing wisdom was there wasn’t one where we wanted to walk out and that it would involve bushbashing down a steep spur that would be easy to get on the wrong side of. None of us were particularly keen on that scenario and after due consideration of all the alternatives, we decided on walking out via the Staircase Spur and putting our faith in humanity for securing a lift back to our cars.

Before we set up camp we walked down to have a look at Howman Falls, which were very pretty, seemingly perched in its steep environment. Although there was still 1.5K to go to Cleve Cole Hut, we decided to stay put where the other walkers were, because here there was easy access to water, which was not the case at the hut. Damir cooked up a fabulous Indian dinner with rice and naan bread and completely casually proceeded to pull a bottle of Wynns Coonawarra Shiraz out of the bottom of his pack, which was just about the best surprise anyone could have given us right there and then.

1803_AU_BogongWalk-0339After a good night’s rest for our sore muscles, we woke up to a slightly overcast morning which cleared up rapidly to more sunny skies. After breakfast and packing up the tents, we set out on the path to Cleve Cole Hut, which was reached after about 20 minutes walking. It is a pretty campsite, quite spread out under trees and well worth camping at (provided there is water). The hut is striking from the outside.

From the hut we started following the ridge line soaking in the views that stretched as far as the NSW Snowy Mountains, ridgeline after ridgeline of mountains fading into a blue/grey background. The views were truly 180 degrees and the wind was strong, sometimes almost knocking me off my feet, notwithstanding the heavy pack I was carrying.

1803_AU_BogongWalk-0346There is something special about walking the high plains, whether in New South Wales or in Victoria. You are high above everything else and you can see as far as the eye can reach. It feels like you are a million miles away from all the minute issues that clog our daily lives. We walked steadily and quietly, until we got to the junction with the Staircase Spur, where we left our packs to climb up the last little bit to the summit cairn of Mt Bogong, the highest mountain in Victoria. The wind blew, the views were spectacular and we felt smug simply being there… until the first runner came up. (I mean, seriously!)

1803_AU_BogongWalk-0352After a little time at the summit, enough for photos and a meander around, we returned to our packs and started our descent, which was initially very steep and then levelled out a bit before getting steep again; it’s clear why it is called the Staircase Spur. The total ascent from Mountain Creek to the top of Mt Bogong is 1400m and to descent is another 1400m. Most people do this as a day walk and some, well, as a training run. We also saw plenty of kids doing the walk and were very impressed by that. We were quite happy to rest our weary knees and quads when we got to Bivouac Hut and made it a short day, relaxing for most of the afternoon.

As we were finishing dinner, two Kiwi walkers came scoping out whether there was still space where we were camped to escape a bunch of noisy campers near the hut. We found them a spot that secured them a better night of sleep and they decided they could offer one of us a lift back to our car in Bogong Village. It was a win-win.

1803_AU_BogongWalk-0354The next morning we made quick tracks and followed in the footsteps of our new Kiwi friends, who were a tad more fleet-footed than we were. Two hours after setting out we arrived at the Mountain Creek camp site where they had just finished repacking their car, so I could fit into the backseat, as we drove up to Bogong Village – a drive that took longer than one would have thought. Once there, we said our goodbyes and expressed the hope to bump into each other in Melbourne at some point. I dashed off to pick up Karen and Damir, to drive all the way up to Falls Creek again to get their car and after another quick lunch, we went our separate ways again as we headed off to Canberra and Melbourne respectively.

It was another great long walking weekend – not without its challenges – but full of surprises and nice encounters.  And so as not to suffer again as much as we did this time, we’ll have to keep our walking up in between before we meet again for a walk up Mt Feathertop or the Three Capes Walk in Tasmania – whichever one comes first.

But before that, there are other adventures to be had. In just a little over a week I will be on my way to Tanzania and Zanzibar for a long anticipated trip to photograph the wonderful African wildlife on the Serengeti Plains. I can’t wait.

 

Return from the realm of the gods

Pumori floating

On the return walk from Everest Base Camp to Gorak Shep, I came to the conclusion that I had done my dash and that it was time to descend, rather than attempting the Cho La pass or even descending and ascending again to get to Gokyo. My body was sending signals of fatigue and it didn’t feel right to continue.  Instead, Ram and I agreed to take our time descending back to Lukla; we would ascend Kala Pattar first to reach the high point of the trip, then descend over 1,300 meters in one day via Pheriche to Pangboche, followed by a stay in the sherpa village of Khumjung, back to Namche, then Phakding and, if possible, flying out a day early from Lukla to Kathmandu. With the decision lifted off my shoulders, I felt a lightness returning.

Dawn on Kala PattarDespite a cloudy start to the day, the skies cleared as we walked out of Gorak Shep offering an uninterrupted look back to this stunning place. During the descent to Lobuche we watched rescue helicopters fly in and out of Gorak Shep. I counted a total of eight helicopters flying in and out for medics. Not a good day.

Our walk posed no problems, moving from sublime sunshine, through windy fluvial valleys, to fog-shrouded mountain trails, before arriving in a state of exhaustion at our accommodation for the night. Hot chocolate and dinner were a welcome treat, as was my sleeping bag.

Leaving Gorak Shep and the end of the worldThe next morning the external fog was gone, but an internal fog had taken over: a sore throat and the onset of flu. If we had persisted with the Cho La plan, this would have been the day of the pass crossing. I clearly made the right decision as I would not have had the strength to do the crossing in this physical state. As it was, the day was hard enough for me with uphills and downhills to Khumjung, followed by an uncomfortable night due to breathing difficulties.

The village of Khumjung itself was a delight; a quiet Sherpa community where people went about their daily lives without too much disturbance from tourists. A neat and tidy village, most of its inhabitants were busy harvesting potatoes when we arrived. Early the next morning I was woken by the sound of drums, cymbals and horns from the nearby monastery; a procession heading off into the hills to perform last rites. With the monks and caretaker away, it meant that I was not able to see what the monastery is known for: the head of a yeti.

KhumjungThe short walk from Khumjung to Namche was mainly a steep downhill walk in gorgeous sunshine. Near the Hillary School in Khumjung a very long mani wall stretches along the path and from there we climbed to a bucolic pasture with cows, flowers and beautiful views of the surrounding mountains before commencing the at times dizzying descent to Namche. An early arrival at the tea house meant I had plenty of time to give my body a rest.

Don't get in the yak's pathWe covered the final descent from Namche to Lukla in two days and what struck me most on the way down was the odd assortment of trekkers that were coming up the trail. Several walkers had boom boxes in the side pockets of their backpacks, loudly playing their particular taste in music. Apart from the need to charge these devices at every tea house (or carry a large supply of batteries), the concept of forcing everyone around you to listen to your favourite music seems very selfish to me, when you have the option to use a pair of ear phones. And heaven forbid one should not list to music at all, but to the sounds around you!

The other technology increasingly visible are drones. As we descended from Namche to the Hillary Bridge, we spotted a young trekker who had his small and delicate drone laid out right on the trail, ready for a sturdy hiking boot to step onto it. I suggested to him he should move it off the trail as there was a yak train headed for the bridge not far behind us. He looked at me dumbfounded and I had to repeat my advice to him several times before he moved it off the trail with visible reluctance. Thirty seconds later the yaks thundered past; his drone would have been in smithereens if he had not moved it. And in case you wonder, no, he did not thank me.

Yak train on the Hillary bridgeIn our last few days, the amount of people coming up the trail grew steadily. We watched large groups of Chinese and scores of young backpackers as they commenced the trek, chattering away how it looked just like the movie. And then it hit me: I realised that this was the flow on effect of last year’s movie release of Everest, resulting in this increase of tourism. The increase in tourism is a positive for Nepal, particularly after the earthquake, but not everything associated with that increase is positive. Unfortunately, it is also resulting in culturally inappropriately dressed tourists. With tonnes of websites providing clear information on what is culturally appropriate to wear in Nepal, it was surprising to see the amount of deep cut and sleeveless tops on women, tight leggings with net cutouts and minuscule shorts.  I’m certainly no prude, but as a visitor in a country you show respect to that country’s culture. The Nepali people are far too polite to say anything to you directly,  but don’t be surprised if they laugh at your sartorial faux-pas with their compatriots. Do your research!

We did manage to catch an earlier flight out of Lukla and while I looked forward to warm showers and comfortable beds, the return seemed almost too fast, reminding me of the sadness I used to feel as a child returning from holidays, when I would watch the scenery outside the train gradually but inevitable change to the familiar scenes of home. And I don’t think I will every lose that feeling at the end of a holiday; the despair of not being “away” anymore.

Khumbu Icefall and Glacier