“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller
I live in the tropics and I thrive in hot and humid weathers. The sun, sand, and sea are common sights, and the seasons are just dry and rainy, in my part of the world. So for one of my recent travels, I purposefully chose to venture into the world of ice, a new and uncharted territory in my personal map.
I took the Haast Pass of Strays Journeys. Its first big stop of the 10-day journey around the South Island was Franz Josef, a town in New Zealand where the Franz Josef glacier is located. There were several options for activities in and around the town. But even before I bought my plane tickets, I already knew I wanted to do the Ice Explorer trip, a four-hour glacier exploration.
This was outside of my hot and humid comfort zone and beyond my world of sand and sea. But this was definitely within the realm of the cliche “once in a lifetime experience.” So I resolved to take it. I powered up Google for articles and images about trips to Franz Josef glacier well before I set foot on this glacier land. There was no problem ticking off the list of suggested things to bring, from 2-4 layers of warm clothing, quick-drying trousers, snacks for the day, sunscreen, sunglasses, to camera. But I was stumped when I read that it was one of the steepest, if not the steepest, glacier in the world. Its height drops from 2, 700 meters above sea level to 240 meters in only just 11 kilometers. I was close to panic when the images of the steep glacier made the facts real and concrete. While the trip was graded as moderate in difficulty, I took this with much considerable doubt because this was New Zealand, after all. Their senior citizens still climb high mountains and bike long trails.
Reeling between anxious and excited, I signed up for the Ice Explorer trip with the Franz Josef Glacier Guides. I learned that there can be one major setback in this trip – the weather. Because this includes a helicopter transfer to and from the glacier’s pinnacles, they cancel trips when there are heavy rains, high winds, or low clouds. So I relied heavily on prayers and partly on my lucky streak in bringing sunshine where I go.
On the morning of my scheduled trip, the sky was indeed clear and the helicopters were whirring up on the air. After a briefing with the guide, gearing up with the jacket, over-trousers, boots, and packing crampons (metal spikes for the shoes) and snacks inside the bag, I was good to go.
While we were in small groups of ten, we were transferred in smaller groups of five on the helicopter. The ride was short but spectacular, offering incredible views of the glacier, mountains, and ground landscape. Then we were dropped on the edge of cold reality. Before us was the steep incline of the glacier. We stationed shortly on the rocky portion of the mountain, lacing up our crampons and waiting for the second batch to be transported by the helicopter. The guide climbed first and always stayed in front of the group, slicing and breaking the ice with his axe to make a path for us. There are no permanent paths on glaciers. Like rivers of ice, it moves and flows, creating new forms and breaking the old.
The climb culminated somewhere around 2,500 meters above sea level. We passed incredible ice formations akin to an artist’s sculptures. Then we explored and squeezed our way into caves and tunnels, where we were enveloped in the awesome blue ice.
Our guide wore shorts for the duration of the hike. While it was comforting to know the temperature was shorts-worthy, his endurance to bare his muscular legs was definitely not a realistic gauge of the temperature on the glacier. The temperature changed drastically. It was warmer in areas where the sun shone brightly. But it was icy cold in the caves. Generally, the temperature was surprisingly tolerable for someone from the tropics like me. I even had to take off my outer jacket at some points of the hike.
While the walk was a slow and careful tread on the ice, I was challenged by conditions completely new and foreign to me. For one, I had to get used to walking with the crampons on. Then there were steep icy inclines and descents, deep crevasses, tight spaces and narrow paths.
I may have slipped two or three times and mired with a bit difficulty on the steep paths, but I tremendously enjoyed the experience. It will be one of those trips I will look back with an “adrenaline-rush” kind of exhilaration and regard it as one of the greatest trips in my lifetime. Am I willing to do it again? Definitely. But before I breach the “once in a lifetime” cliche, I will hibernate in my tropical comfort zone.
Photo gallery of the Ice Explorer trip:
New Zealand is a place of superlatives – the most, the best, the greatest. Choosing a favorite in New Zealand is a difficult task for one whose senses have been overloaded with so much splendor and grandeur.
But if I were to choose one from among the few places I visited in the North island of New Zealand, it would be Tongariro National Park. It is one of the limited number of places listed as a dual World Heritage Site for natural and cultural significance. The three imposing volcanic mountains of Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, and Ruapeho located in the park are not only natural wonders, the mountain of Tongariro bears cultural significance as well for being regarded as a sacred area by the Maoris.
The most popular activity in the park is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, ranked as one of the best single-day treks in the world. The added attraction to this crossing is the fact that this was the location of Mordor and Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Dream big, they say. So that was the dream when I first planned the travel to New Zealand – to trek the 19.4 kilometer crossing, which passes between Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe. With an estimated 9-hour journey of steep tracks and unpredictable weather conditions, I declared a cessation on sedentariness.
However, when my friend and I reached the park, we were short in both time and physical preparation to do the alpine crossing. Reality bites, but we took it in stride. We did not have the time, not to mention the physical capability to endure the difficult graded tracks. But, the park offers a variety of other walks, for free, from a short 10 minutes to a long 6 hours. We kid each other that we were in full gear from head to foot, but we will end up having the time to only do a five-minute walk!
After a brief consultation with the staff at the park’s I-site (Visitor Information Centre), we head to the Taranaki Falls track in the Northern Circuit. The promise of excellent views of two volcanic mountains, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu, sans the steep tracks and 9 hour trek of the crossing, sounded good enough for the time-challenged and underprepared.
At the start of the Norther Circuit, we stand before a vast stretch of dry wilderness, with a view of Mount Tongariro in the background. It is true, what they say, the mountains do call. We move forth at 11:18 a.m., eager to get a clearer view of the mountain. The walk is a revelation of Tongariro to be a land of great contrasts, making it a magnet for those seeking the unusual panorama. The brown landscape changes to verdant scenery upon nearing the river banks and to harsh barren land at the edge of the lava flow area. With its varied typography, the winds are cold and chilly in the areas close to the ice-capped Mount Ruapehu and warm when away from it.
The walk is long and scenic, but relatively easy, with only short portions of steep steps. The clearly defined paths unravel with no confusion, requiring no map, compass, or even an inherent sense of direction. And with the diverse landscapes and temperatures, the walk is surely far from dull and monotonous. It elicits very striking and lasting impressions of how there is extraordinary wonder in walking through contrasting sceneries and even in the unadorned landscapes. For us, the place is seemingly mysterious and unearthly, like Frodo’s long journey in the Lord of the Rings movie.
The views of Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Ruapehu, as promised, are excellent in this path. Mount Ngauruhoe, the real Mount Doom, is an impressive sight, towering over the flat wilderness lands. Its snow-capped edges, remnants of winter past, softens the stern mountain. Mount Ruapehu, on the other side, is resplendent, emerging from the horizon and beautifully blanketed with snow.
But, as it turns out, the unexpected never fails to kindle an exhilarating surprise, like how the Taranaki Falls, after a lengthy scenery in brown, suddenly presents itself thundering down from a stunning rugged ridge. Like any other travel moment, it is best experienced, not merely admired from afar. We clamber down the slopes and over the boulders to get a closer feel of the cool mist and the resounding splash of water. Having been warned of icy cold waters at this time of the year, we did not prepare to dip in the pool.
The 6-kilometer loop is estimated to be a two-hour walk. We disregard the two-hour estimate and our own personal time constraints, as we wandered in our languid time, immersing in the scenery and taking more than several photographs. We allow ourselves to lose track of time in the vast wilderness, rocky river, thundering falls, lava rocks, and majestic mountains.
We finally reach the end of the loop at 2:43 p.m., happy but with an eager sense of wanting to do more. We look back at the mountains with a staunch promise to return soon. Next time for the epic alpine crossing.
“The mountains are calling and I must go.” – John Muir
A photo gallery of the Northern Circuit:
*Most photos by Lilibeth Po.
The privilege of solace comes in long and distant journeys. Literally. Aside from the plane rides from the Philippines, I had to travel through towns, a lake, an alpine pass, and a fiord.
I journeyed via a 3-4 hour bus ride from Queenstown, my last home base, to Manapouri; an hour or so boat ride in Lake Manapouri; another hour and a half bus ride in Wilmot Pass; and an overnight boat cruise in Doubtful Sound. While it may seem forever, the path in both land and water were scenic contrasts of serene and astonishing, I somehow wished it was indeed forever.
“Welcome to (Nearly) the End of the World,” the sign read.
Doubtful Sound is the second largest fiordland situated in the declared World Heritage Area of Fiordland National Park in the deep south west of New Zealand. While its Maori name is Te Wahiponamou, or “the place of greenstone,” its name “Doubtful” was said to have been coined after Captain James Cook, the explorer who circumnavigated New Zealand, doubted if they would be able to navigate through the very long and narrow inlet.
Because it is unoccupied by civilization, it is an unspoiled place of nature. Doubtful Sound is a spectacular sight of a long, narrow, and traversing body of water completely surrounded by lush green mountains, some of it snow-capped, dramatic valleys, and sporadic waterfalls. It is home to dolphins, seals, penguins, and on certain seasons, humpback whales. And due to its remote location, there are less visitors in this place compared to another smaller-sized fiordland, the Milford Sound.
While the distance, landscape, and seascape made it an amazing and tranquil journey, there was no time and space for boredom to set in. The boat crew provided settings for swimming, boating, kayaking, and even dolphin, seal, penguin, and whale watching. I chose the kayak activity, which lasted for about an hour across the waters of Doubtful Sound, because I revel in the solace and scenery it brings. More, the stars aligned during the cruise as the weather was perfect for all the activities and the dolphins, seals,penguins, and as a perk, humpback whales appeared.
The cruise was fittingly capped by a pass in the epic Hall Arm of Doubtful Sound. The boat slowed upon entering this cove and eventually stopped its motors. The captain and cruise moderator urged the passengers to find a space on the deck, to be silent, to be still, and to simply take in the immense beauty and power of the natural scenery. And as soon as the passengers started to find their space, the water became completely tranquil and revealed a crystal clear reflection of the looming mountains and glacier. And then only the sound of absolute silence…an occurrence close to extinct in this day and age. It was a surreal culmination of the journey to this distant part of the world.
For more photos, click the gallery below:
Postscript: My awesome journey was made via Stray Journeys (http://straytravel.com), a New Zealand bus tour company which takes you off the beaten track in New Zealand. Stray partnered with Real Journeys (http://realjourneys.co.nz) for the trip to Doubtful Sound.
The appeal of Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay is magnanimous. Its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994, along with its proclamation as one of the new natural wonders of the world in 2012, were compelling enough reasons for me to put this place in my life list and to journey there—and journey there, I did.
Ha Long Bay, translated as the “Bay of the Descending Dragon,” is a wide expanse of water with thousands of limestone karsts and islands. It is located in Vietnam’s Quang Ninh Province, and the jump-off point to the bay is easily accessible via a comfortable three-hour bus ride from Hanoi, the country’s capital.
The package for an overnight cruise is reasonably priced, filled with gustatory delights and fun-filled activities, and it includes the bus ride to and from Hanoi. In my opinion, the breathtaking scenery and the experience we had were definitely worth more than the cost.
Ha Long Bay can be a romantic setting for couples, a fun excursion for the family, or an exciting getaway for friends. It’s best to see this natural wonder for yourself because the consummate beauty and splendor of the place cannot be fully appreciated through words and photos, but only by being in the midst of it. If you can’t visit Ha Long Bay soon, though, the gallery might be enough of an incentive for you to add this marvel to your travel bucket list.
*As published in Female Network.com. Click here for photos and reasons why you should have a life-list worthy moment in this wonder of the world.
Sometimes, the best travel experiences come from spontaneous trips. Last summer, we took a little adventure, went off the map, and discovered the secrets of Matnog, Sorsogon.
Matnog, the last frontier of Luzon, is popular as a transport hub for goods delivered in and out of the region. Though it is relatively unknown as a tourist destination, we decided to explore it on a whim when we heard about its hidden secrets. Traveling from Legazpi City in Albay via a chartered van, we reached the port of Matnog after about an hour. From there, we rented a motorboat to go to the unmapped islands of our destination.
Matnog’s islands are both a playground and a paradise, with its diverse attractions capable of satisfying both the adventurous spirit’s urge to explore and the weary soul’s need to relax. If you have one day to spare in the Bicol region, take the off-beaten path and explore the treasures of Matnog. Scroll through the gallery to find out why the possessive in me would want it to remain undiscovered.
*As published in Female Network.com. Click here for photos and reasons why you should take the road less traveled and see some of the Philippines’ best-kept secrets in this pristine paradise.
There is a mysterious aura in ancient kingdoms like Angkor, located near Siem Reap, Cambodia. Back in the day, it was ruled by kings or proclaimed god-kings, each of whom steered the construction of some of the greatest architectural wonders by dedicating a temple to their patron god, usually Vishnu or Shiva. Aside from these, other majestic structures were also built for the king and the rest of the royal family, making Angkor the now-renowned site of the majestic Angkor Wat, the bizarre Bayon Temple, the towering Pre Rup, the famous jungle temple Ta Prohm, the intricate temple of Banteay Srei, and the ancient city of Angkor Thom.
However, Siem Reap and the rest of Cambodia have gone through historic highs and lows. Far from being the catalyst of a great empire, it was said that the place was in suspended animation for three decades after the dark period of war and genocide it experienced just a few decades ago. But visiting the region today, you will be amazed by the tenacity and optimism of its people. They have picked themselves up, restored their faith and confidence, and anchored their ascent on their strengths: their rich ancient history, their magnificent creations, and the beauty of their hometown and their people. They are a testament that by gathering strength from your personal triumphs, you always have the opportunity, the choice, and the conviction to rise and move on from a period of ruin.
The time I spent in Siem Reap was not only meant for me to discover and appreciate the wonders of this once-lost world. It was also an opportunity to learn from its people and the value they have placed on themselves, their family, their city, and their gods. I would have wanted to wander the temples alone, to appreciate in solitude its beauty and magnificence, but deciding to have a guide during my first visit added an enriching texture to my experience. I otherwise would not have acquired as much information about the minute details of every nook and cranny of the temples without my guide, nor would I have heard of the triumphs and difficulties of the Cambodians from his own accounts of the war, as well as how they lifted up the challenging moments they faced to their god, Vishnu.
Those are the echoes of my time in a world once thought to be lost and forgotten. I realized that one does not travel to Siem Reap to merely see it. One sojourns to discover it, and one reflects to learn from it.
It was our last day in the Land of the Rising Dragon. I just wanted to linger by the lake, have a little bit of me-time, and capture my own view of the Turtle Tower found in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake.
While my friends were in a frantic last minute shopping quest, I chose to get off our cab and detach myself from the frenzy.
I couldn’t bear to leave without a glimpse and a feel of the ancient lake and Tower. I have encountered countless photos of the 17th century tower by amateurs and professionals alike. I wanted to take one I could call my own.
As soon as I disembarked from the cab, the waft of cool air from the waters was a soothing welcome to a lake so picturesque.
There was the olden tower, aged structures, still waters, colored foliage, and the red wooden Huc Bridge. Silhouettes of the old tree branches curving in ways so dramatic, Vietnamese lovers oblivious to the world, local mothers cradling their precious child, students frolicking around, and the women wearing the traditional ao dai were a beautiful presence by the lake. The Vietnamese life added interest to the sight of the lake and tower.
My favorite view of the tower however was framed by a foliage in color, bright enough to add contrast to the ancient structure but with a subtlety adequate enough not to overwhelm it.
My friends had urged me to forego the lakeside stroll and to make the Turtle Tower a reason to return. But I am impassioned by carpe diem, for I may never pass this way again…
Not another book of rules, I thought. But having been written by a celebrated woman author of contemporary writing, who was once put on trial for her writing, I had to give it a try.
The Forty Rules of Love is a tale about friendship and love. It is an allegorical writing about personal journeys. One that does not necessarily entail going far and wide physically, but about the passage through life – the choices and the changes. And on this note, I personally favored how the author, Elif Shafak, phrased her thought useful to all the travelers in this journey of life:
“East, west, south, or north makes little difference. No matter what your destination, just be sure to make every journey a journey within. If you travel within, you’ll travel the whole world and beyond.”
The book has been described as kitschy by some. True in some portions, but it is not overbearing, just enough for some sentimental moments in the book. Nevertheless, the story is enchanting, inspiring, and a less preachy reminder on the so-called rules of love and life. The Forty Rules of Love finds significance not on romantic love, but on the more essential spiritual love, irregardless of religion. And as nota bene, the women characters are compelling, clearly mirroring the author.
This book is engaging, prompting one to read quickly and know what will transpire next. But read this unhurriedly, take time to ponder and ruminate on the messages and its bearing:
“Most of the problems of the world stems from linguistic mistakes and simple misunderstandings. Don’t ever take words at face value. When you step into the zone of love, language as we know it becomes obsolete. That which cannot be put into words can only be grasped through silence.”
“Whatever happens in your life, no matter how troubling things might seem, do not enter the neighborhood of despair. Even when all doors remained closed, God will open up a new path only for you. Be thankful! It is easy to be thankful when all is well. A Sufi is thankful not only for what he has been given but also for all that he has been denied.”
“Patience does not mean to passively endure. It means to be farsighted enough to trust the end result of a process. What does patience mean? It means to look at the thorn and see the rose, to look at the night and see the dawn. Impatience means to be shortsighted as to not able to see the outcome. The lovers of God never runs out of patience, for they know that time is needed for the crescent moon to become full.”
“Just as clay needs to go through intense heat to become strong, Love can only be perfected in pain.”
“Try not to resist the changes that comes your way. Instead let life live through you. And do not worry that your life is turning upside down. How do yo know that the side you are used to is better than the one to come?”
“Fret not where the road will take you. Instead concentrate on the first step. That’s the hardest part and that’s what you are responsible for. Once you take that step let everything do what it naturally does and the rest will follow. Do not go with the flow. Be the flow.”
“If you want to strengthen your faith, you will need to soften inside. For your faith to be rock solid, your heart needs to be as soft as a feather. Through an illness, accident, loss or fright, one way or another, we are all faced with incidents that teach us how to become less selfish and judgemental and more compassionate and generous. Yet some of us learn the lessons and manage to become milder, while some others end up becoming even harsher than before. The only way to get closer to the Truth is to expand your heart so that it will encompass all humanity and still have room for more Love.”
I just flew out of the volcanic island, where I bid adieu to summer. The skies were in its bluest hues and the clouds were perfectly Cumulus. While I marveled at the blissful summer sky, I caught the evanescence of a colorful spectrum. In that rare and fleeting moment, I was somewhere over the rainbow!