On one of our return trips to Laos we finally explored the waterfalls outside of Luang Prabang. I hadn’t wanted to go earlier, afraid it would be an over-run tourist spot. How wrong I was, because we visited a truly beautiful natural area. We used a simple open taxi to get there and then headed up past lovely pools.
The trail became misty with spray from the waterfalls the higher we hiked.
Uwe vanished with his camera, and I made my way on increasingly slippery wooden steps to the top.
My glasses kept fogging over with the permanent veils of falling water. At the summit I savored the peaks and the impossibly dense jungle all around. I had the views to myself.
I took my time on my way back down, not wanting to rush. To the side of the trail I discovered a salamander whose brown, green, and rusty tan colors exactly matched the layers of fallen leaves, twigs and wet rocks. I crouched slowly and held my breath, and the two of us were companionably still. No chance to reach for my camera; the lens would have been useless anyway. Instead, it’s one of those moments that stays fixed in memory. I’d never seen a newt in those colors, and I’m sure I never will again.
Back down at the pools I found Uwe, ecstatic as he photographed a spider as large as the span of my hand.
A water wheel bore witness to the fact that the quiet area is used.
On our trip back to town we stopped to give another taxi a tow.
I laugh and say I’m a travel tramp. A new place to see? How soon can we leave? After a holiday is really just the break before the next trip. But a few months ago I was working very very hard to finish my second novel. In my family we’re One-Tracks, and when we’re focused on a project the outside world vanishes. For the first time in our marriage, this year Uwe had to bribe me to go on vacation….
“How about a week on Madeira?” he suggested. “You can write while we’re there. What do you say to a working holiday?”
We were on the island a decade ago, and I liked the idea of returning. A place has a personality. You just can’t talk about the Greek islands or the Tunisia coastline without making mention of the quality of light and blue paint contrasting with whitewashed stairs and walls. My visit to Uwe when he was working in northern Sweden was all about snow and the aurora borealis.
Madeira means verticals. This Portuguese possession is located 520 km (280 nautical miles) from the coast of Africa. It’s lush. Madeira advertises itself as the garden island, and it’s a paradise of vivid flowering plants and trees.
Madeira is also impossibly steep.
We took the cable cars from the capitol of Funchal up to the various parks and botanical gardens. Later we rented a car and went exploring. Achadas da Cruz (Porto Moniz), population 159, on the northwest corner was a delightful highlight. The fields are down on the waterfront. To reach them the farmers use the cable car known as teleférico, a descent of 500 meters or over 1,500 feet. Prior to the opening of the teleférico in 2004, they made a steep hike of 5 kilometers down to their fields. Now, that’s dedication!
While the teleférico is popular with tourists and costs only 3€ for a one-way trip, the cable car really is used by farmers to transport crops.
Madeira was voted Europe’s Leading Island Destination in 2013. There are ample opportunities for hiking along the traditional water canals known as levadas. The island’s famous for Madeira wine, forests of bay laurels, and black scabbard fish.
The black scabbard or Espada Preta is one ugly fish. It is found only in extremely deep waters like those of Madeira’s coastline. The fish are abundant in waters between 800 and 1300 meters deep; adult fish swim at depths of 200-2000 metres and easily live and feed at substantially greater depths. Almost nothing is known about its life cycle!
A dish of black scabbard and bananas is the island meal (it’s okay. We preferred the fish cooked other ways: with garlic and wine, or in a fish soup, or…) The fish has no scales, and the delicate flesh melts in your mouth no matter how it’s prepared.
Most of our time in New Zealand I felt the landscape was alive. Especially on the North Island, I had the eerie sensation of standing on a very active volcano. The ground steams in places, thanks to the underground hot springs everywhere.
Three things remain fresh in my memory: Maori culture and architecture; the crisp Sauvignon Blancs that were all we drank; and the utter alive-ness of the nature.
The charming city of Rotorua contains all three.
We could view the wharenui (meeting house) of the Māori people from outside. I was taken by the use of local materials, symbolism, and the symmetry and beauty of every traditional building.
The Kiwis make great wine. When it comes to bottled grapes, I’m amused by the jargon. My own descriptions used to run to statements like, “A naughty little vintage. If this was a small child, I’d spank it and send it to bed without supper.” I loved it when I discovered that New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blancs are described as releasing a heavy whiff of cat pee when you first open the bottle. (I’m not making this up. Wine expert Jancis Robinson remarks, “Indeed one branded Sauvignon Blanc on sale in Britain is actually sold under the brand name Cat’s Pee on a Gooseberry Bush.”)* Yuck! If that’s the first impression you get from a wine, what could make anyone want to go past just opening the dang thing?
It was worth the adventure to try one.
We bought a bottle and opened it in our hotel room. Phew-ee! Sure enough, there was a heady stink of feral cat which thankfully faded immediately. I dared to fill a glass, took a sip… and was greeted by an explosion of quince, green apples, citrus fruits, kiwis and gooseberries. Those Sauvignon Blancs are so delicious that I never even bothered trying any other grape varietal while we were there. Why mess with kitty litter box perfection?
And then there is the natural world.
We visited parks where everything burbled, bubbled, exploded or engulfed us in clouds of steam. We did all of the hiking loops and were wowed by the spectacle of shooting geysers, blubbering springs, and mineral ponds containing colors I had no idea normally appear in Nature.
In one park gift shop I purchased mud for facials that someone dipped out of a pond on the park grounds. No small feat as most of the park waters are at boiling point!
The park had to post signs warning people not to step in the springs. I say, let Darwin’s theory of natural selection and Nature take their course…
We fondly refer to one trip we took as “Our Vacation of the Rocks”. We did a long loop of the American SW’s national parks. From the Grand Canyon we went to Zion, on to Grand Staircase/Escalante, Natural Bridges, Canyonlands National Park and Arches. We spent a few days at Mesa Verde and then headed south into New Mexico. We ended our trip back in Arizona at the Chiracahua National Monument Wilderness and the Sonoran Desert Park.
We had a national park pass and drove from one incredible natural site to the next. We spent each day in our hiking boots, holding a park map. The quality of the stones we clambered over changed daily. It was all stunningly beautiful, the hard landscapes like being on the surface of the moon. (Bonus points for those of you paying careful attention: I’ll refer back to this post when I get around to writing about Hampi, India and Mount Teide, Tenerifa.) We hiked up, around and over endless variations on red striped rocks and hillocks of crumbling yellow sandstone. We picked out way down hillsides scrubby with deceptively harmless-looking small cacti.
I needed to replace my worn-out day pack. In Moab, Utah I headed into a well stocked mountain bike shop; the young salesman actually sneered when I insisted that I didn’t want a high end all weather multi purpose pack. “I just need something for day hikes,” I repeated. He lifted the inferior item with one finger and dropped it on the counter in front of me. It was perfect (and, to this day 10 years later, I still get good use out of it).
I bought turquoise jewelry at a pawnshop in Gallup, New Mexico. We got to watch a naturalization ceremony in Sante Fe that was quite moving. Immigrants from at least 20 countries stood up when the judge called out the name of the country these new Americans hailed from.
We ate posole and regional Mexican-American dishes. In a Tucson restaurant we watched incredulous while a hot sauce seller set out samples on a table for the owner to try. One of them, he cautioned, was so hot that just one drop of the stuff would burn a hole in his tongue if he tried to taste it like a ‘normal’ hot sauce. (No, we did not try it!)***
Arizona’s Chiricahua Wilderness is like hiking through high stacks of pancaked rock. From beneath some brush a rattlesnake sounded a warning. I waited for the Swedish family I had heard talking on the trail behind us and pointed out the snake to their small boys. We met the family back up at the parking lot later, and the parents came over when they saw me. “Since we started planning this trip our boys have talked about nothing but how much they want to see a rattler! Thank you for making their vacations!” I laughed pleased (really I’d mentioned the snake both to warn the perhaps uninitiated, also to slow them down on the trail so that Uwe and I could have the section up ahead for ourselves). But I did feel I’d done a good deed.
Uwe loves the ‘otherness’ of the landscapes of the SW. I revel in the unabashed raw open nature. Rocks, stone, mountains and ravines, gorges and arches: all that geological strata. My heart resides in the leafy wooded Adirondacks, but any region with so much dedicated parkland is dear to me.
What is astonishing about the Southwest is the balance of stony terrain, flora and fauna. Cities will rise and fall; we build beautifully, or dreadfully, and reap our efforts or laziness. Mother Nature took millions of years to figure out what works. Maybe we should take our cue from her.
*** A side comment for any enterprising cooks out there: southern Germany needs a real Mexican restaurant. I have yet to find a great Mex spot! If you come here and open a restaurant, you will win hungry hearts and minds.
(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)