Monthly Archives: March 2017
The Lake District is one of Britain’s most popular hiking destinations, but in winter it sees far fewer walkers. Ben Lerwill went to beat the crowds and take in this stunning landscape out of season.
They do a mighty fine goulash in the Dog & Gun, using a recipe that’s been bringing in hikers for five decades. It’s the kind of sustenance the body craves after seven cold hours on the fells. We spill into the rosy warmth of the little Keswick pub, peeling off damp jackets and stamping the muck off our boots. The windows are fogged with condensation. Two pints are pulled, food ordered, a corner found. We settle. “Yep,” says Daniel, one long swig later. “Tired.”
The two of us have travelled up to the Lake District for four days of winter walking. A trip here is always something of a meteorological lottery, so by arriving at the start of the year there’s already an acceptance that getting chilly, and probably soaked, is a given. It helps take the uncertainty out of the equation.
At the same time, it’s also a season that heightens the solitude and bristling drama of the hills. We’re here – with about seven months to spare – to beat the summer rush. And when you’re alone on Maiden Moor in February and it’s blowing a gale, you know about it.
At the river bridge, there’s a man lobbing a ball into the water for a soggy spaniel. The dog is half delirious with joy. We veer south and clamber up past the falls of Greenup Sikes.
My last time in the Lakes was a winter two years ago, when everything had been snow and ice. The temperatures are less fierce now, but the winter skies are still raw and blustery. Beds of wilting bracken lie across the slopes, coating the hills in a coppery red. We pause to watch a sparrowhawk glide past us: it tilts its wings to gain speed, then disappears over the brow of the rock.
For the next few hours the massed grey clouds tease us, revealing deep views then closing them up again. At the pinnacle of Cat Bells, a sudden, mighty panorama opens up to the west. We debate: is that Grasmoor? Grisedale? Ten minutes later it’s gone, and we hike on into the spitting wind, gossiping our way back to Keswick.
The mountain forecast is poor for the next day. Bad visibility, relentless rain, but little wind. There’s a chance of beating the cloud by rising above 750m, so we opt to trek up Scafell Pike – not a handsome mountain, but the tallest of them all.
The results are glorious. After a two-hour climb we find ourselves in the clear, striding above a thick bed of cloud, every underfoot sound made crisp. At the summit we gorge on sausage rolls and apples, the highest, hungriest men in England.
Neither of us are true, feral outdoorsmen – picnics yes, pick-axes no – so by the time we thread our way down the gully under Broad Crag and join the downhill trail, the distant lights of the Wasdale Head Inn have taken on the feel of a promised land.
It’s cold early evening when we arrive. The famous old climbers’ pub sits near-isolated in the valley. There’s a log-burner glowing in the bar, and Yates Bitter on the pumps. A blackboard reads: “No, we don’t have wi-fi. Talk to each other.” It’s a hard place to leave.
The following morning we’re spoiled. It dawns a billowing, bracing February day, with wind rushing through the dales and a charged, purple atmosphere on the uplands. We’re now in the southern fells, and make the most of the conditions by snaking our way up to the Langdale Pikes. The tops are gusty but the views are extraordinary: an ocean of ridges and clefts, Windermere glinting in the distance, sporadic sunbeams spearing through the clouds. In six hours of hiking, we pass one other walker.
People obsess over the Lake District. Some dedicate – even lose – their lives to it. It has much to do, I suppose, with how consuming the place can feel.
Squeezed between the North Pennines and the Irish Sea, it always seems far bigger than its borders, folding and contorting itself so endlessly that even when you’re poring over an OS map, it seems impossible that the valleys, peaks and overhangs all find the space to fit together. Wainwright famously described 214 fells, but each one is a world of its own.
The weather hurls its worst at us on the final day. Fuelled by flapjacks and a sense of duty, we troop up into the wet clag to reach the Old Man of Coniston, getting lashed with rain. The view from the summit is non-existent: 360 degrees of murk. Only when we reach the surface of Goats Water on the way back down does the land re-emerge, unfurling a windblown spread of yawning basins and far-off tarns.
1. Creating parks in Patagonia
The Parque Pumalín is not the end, but the beginning: Tompkins Conservation, which was the subject of our latest travel podcast, will continue its rewilding mission in Patagonia. But the organisation can’t do it alone and is encouraging volunteers to come to Chile or Argentina, where they can get involved in tree planting, wildlife monitoring and, sometimes, reintroducing locally extinct species.
2. Going on safari in Laos
The last remaining home for tigers in Indochina, Nam Et-Phou Louey is a hotbed of biodiversity and an unexpectedly brilliant place to go on a safari. And we’re not talking about any old safari; we’re talking about the Nam Nern Night Safari and Ecolodge, which ploughs most of its profits into local outreach programmes that educate locals about conservation and sustainability. Twice a winner at the World Responsible Tourism Awards, guests on the safari not only support admirable conservation work but also have the opportunity to spy endangered species, mingle with locals and sleep in low-impact bungalows.
3. Crashing with locals in India
For remote Himalayan communities there can be scant opportunity for employment. However, thanks to an organisation called Village Ways, some of these isolated societies now have a steady income from sustainable tourism. The organisation puts intrepid explorers into homestays in India and Nepal, providing locals with a revenue source and an opportunity to celebrate their Himalayan traditions, culture and cuisine.
4. Supporting Maasai landowners in Kenya
The Mara Naboisho Conservancy in Kenya is a 50,000-acre reserve created by 500 Maasai landowners. The park is home to bountiful wildlife – including big cats – and revenue from tourism provides the Maasai community with a sustainable livelihood, which in turn helps preserve this diverse corner of Kenya. The conservancy’s stellar work was rewarded in 2016 with a gold medal at the African Responsible Tourism Awards.
5. Trekking with ethnic minorities in Vietnam
As tourism booms in Vietnam, not everyone is feeling the benefit: some of the country’s ethnic minorities are reportedly being left behind. However, Shu Tan, from the Hmong ethnic group, is trying to address that. The former street vendor has set up an award-winning social enterprise, Sapa O’Chau, which offers guided treks and homestays for tourists in Sapa, northern Vietnam. Managed by ethnic minorities, her organisation generates revenue for impoverished communities, where some people can’t afford to send their children to school.
6. Turtle conservation in Mexico
The deserted shores of Veracruz are just the tonic for hectic lives. They’re also a breeding ground for endangered turtles, which face a range of challenges including pollution and habitat loss. Cue the Yepez Foundation, a non-profit organisation that has spent the best part of half a century safeguarding turtles and their habitats in this corner of Mexico. They’re always on the lookout for volunteers who can help with a range of projects, from beach clean-ups and community outreach programmes to coastal reforestation.
7. Conducting reef research in Malaysia
The world’s coral reefs are, alas, in grave danger, as pollution, disease and climate change wreak havoc with these underwater ecosystems. Cue Biosphere Expeditions, which is running an eight-day excursion to the colourful colour gardens of Malaysia, where participants can help collect data from reefs, which could be used to preserve the beleaguered ecosystems. Open for qualified scuba divers only, the 2017 expedition takes place August 15-22.
1. Plan a rough itinerary
Spontaneity is one of the best things about backpacking, but in Australia it pays to have at least a rough itinerary, as it’s easy to underestimate how long it takes to get around this vast country. Spending longer than planned pottering around South Australia’s wine country – fun though it is – might mean you have to sacrifice that eagerly awaited trip to extraordinary Uluru or exploring the billabongs of Kakudu.
Three weeks is the absolute minimum to “do” the East Coast by land: Sydney to Cairns via the broad beaches of Byron Bay and the Gold Coast, self-driving the length of Fraser Island (the largest sand island in the world), sailing the gorgeous Whitsundays, diving at the Great Barrier Reef and trekking in Daintree, the oldest tropical rainforest on earth. So to see the rest of Australia, you’ll need to fly or have much more time.
2. Plan where to go when
At any time of year, Australia is a great place to visit but it can get unbelievably hot, as well as surprisingly chilly and rainy, depending on where you go. Avoid travelling north during the “build-up” – the unbearably sticky weeks before the wet season rains bring cooler temperatures (November–March).
It’s far better to spend time in the more temperate south during these months, for example driving the Great Ocean Road or on a hiking trip in the Blue Mountains. The winter is generally a lot quieter so it’s a lovely time to see the country.
3. Pick accommodation to suit your needs
For solo travellers, Australia is a breeze. Staying in hostels is the best way to meet people, and staff can help you orientate yourself and make travel arrangements, while other backpackers are an invaluable source of information.
Whilst not to everyone’s taste, “party hostels” provide social events to break the ice, but you can also find rural retreats, city hipster hangouts, and most have private rooms if you’re a couple or dorms don’t suit.
Airbnb is a popular alternative while campsites are usually well-equipped with kitchens, toilets and the ubiquitous barbecue.
4. Choose transport to suit your needs
Without doubt the easiest way to cover the great distances around Oz is to fly, but travelling by bus allows you to see more and is cheaper. Gaze out of the window on a long journey and be mesmerised by the changing landscape: the rust-coloured bush where kangaroos bound alongside, swaying grasslands, blue-tinged mountains, and occasional tiny settlements flashing past.
Greyhound buses offer hop-on hop-off travel passes, and the Oz Experience – the party backpacker equivalent – provides excursions along the way. If you want more freedom, hire a car or camper van, pack a tent or bivvy bag and camp out under the stars.
5. Be savvy about safety
Throughout Australia, be prepared for summer heat waves when forest fires are a frequent danger. The arid interior is a hostile environment so take the necessary precautions if you plan to drive – breaking down here is no joke. Like in big cities anywhere in the world, be streetwise – watch your valuables and let family and friends know where you are going.
6. Don’t be spooked by dangerous animals
Australia has more than its fair share of scary critters but don’t get paranoid – the risks are actually very low: more people die each year from bee stings than from encounters with snakes, sharks, dingoes, saltwater crocodiles or jellyfish.
Spider bites are rarely fatal thanks to the availability of anti-venom. That said, do take simple precautions: redback spiders hide in sheltered places so always check under toilet seats, especially in outside lavatories.
Reduce the risk of encountering a shark by swimming between the flags on patrolled beaches, and don’t swim in estuaries, rivers or mangroves where saltwater crocodiles like to hang out. When hiking in the bush, wear protective footwear to avoid snake bites.
7. Go west
Most visitors to Australia follow the well-trodden path up the East Coast. While it’s undoubtedly a highlight, the Ningaloo Reef on the remote West Coast is an equally spectacular and, unlike at the Great Barrier Reef, it comes right into the shore.
At Coral Bay, you can wade out through turquoise water to the reef or take a glass-bottomed boat and watch an exhilarating frenzy of fish at feeding time. When you’re done snorkelling or diving, see the reef from a biplane or speed on quad bikes along a glimmering white beach.
Head inland to spend the night at an isolated sheep station, cooking over a campfire as the sun sets over the never-ending ochre landscape.
8. Don’t dismiss anywhere
You can have a good time in the most unlikely places: for example, a stopover at a one-horse town with nothing but a pub and a few bungalows may turn out to be the venue for one of the most surprisingly good nights of your trip. The town probably won’t make it into the guidebooks but finding adventure where you least expect it is one of the best things about backpacking in Australia.
Glen Tilt, Blair Atholl
One of Scotland’s lesser-known glens, this magnificent walk begins at the Old Bridge of Tilt, a hint of many ancient stone bridges hunkered in widescreen landscapes to come. This is Big Tree Country, populated by the tallest trees in Britain. Stay in a Scandinavian-esque woodland lodge on the Atholl Estates, which has been visited over centuries by everyone from Mary Queen of Scots to Queen Victoria.
Sandwood Bay, Sutherland
Bleak and lunar-like, this bracing hike is punctuated by glimpses of the lighthouse at Cape Wrath on the horizon. Here, at the exposed north-western tip of Scotland, the rewards are great and hard-won. Sandwood Bay is one of Britain’s most inaccessible beaches, flanked by a skyscraping sea stack – a ruin said to be haunted by the ghost of a shipwrecked seaman – and sand dunes the size of houses. It’s perfect for wild camping, if you can face carrying your gear in and out of the boggiest of moorland. Make sure you go for a pint and plate of langoustines.
Castle Tioram, Ardnamurchan
Ardnamurchan, the most westerly point of Britain, is a slender calloused finger of a peninsula pointing outward to wild seas. For a varied walk through coastline, heathland, moorland and woodland, begin on the banks of Loch Moidart where Castle Tioram, a ruin raised on a rocky tidal island, presides. Meander along sections of one of the Highlands’ most beautiful paths, the Silver Walk, then head into the heather-clad hills, passing lochs, reservoirs and pretty much every marvel of nature that the the area has to offer.
Glen Etive, Glen Coe
The most dramatic of Scotland’s glens, featured in Skyfall, is just as powerfully experienced by walking through its valleys rather than up the giant backs of its mountains. In one day you’ll encounter snow, hail, sleet, rain, the brightest of blue skies and a white-out on this long, consistently jaw-dropping hike. The deer on the steep flanks of the surrounding mountains were so far away they looked like ants on a hill. A walk to end all walks, in all weathers. Stay at the Red Squirrel campsite, make a fire and pour a whisky.
Kyle of Durness, Sutherland
Stand on the tip of Faraid Head, surrounded by nothing but the squall of seabirds and wide open seas, and you’ll feel you’ve found the very edge of the island of Britain. As long as you don’t mind sharing it with an MOD training facility. A remote, surprisingly gentle walk, criss-crossing vast dunes and grassy headlands, happening upon some of the most stunning white-sand beaches you’re likely to encounter anywhere in the UK. Don’t bother seeking paths. This is about dawdling, stopping to pick up shells, and paddling in the coldest and clearest of waters.
Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh
Robert Louis Stevenson described the extinct volcano forming Holyrood Park as “a hill for magnitude, a mountain in virtue of its bold design”. The views back across Edinburgh, the Scottish Parliament, Leith, the Firth of Forth and out to the Bass Rock are fabulous. There’s no need to climb Arthur’s Seat either. Circle the crags, wander the paths, and take refuge with the dog walkers in Hunter’s Bog. It’s extraordinary enough to find hillwalking like this in a capital city. Afterwards, go for a pint at Swedish hipster bar Hemma.
East of Glasgow‘s old cathedral lies one of the great Victorian cemeteries, a reminder written in 3500 stone monuments, many of them crumbling away, that this was once the second city of the empire. Explore the city on a dark day under low skies, the way many would say is best to enjoy the cheek-by-jowl views of the Tennents brewery, high rises, grand civic buildings, and all that gives Glasgow its burnished beauty. Finish up atGlasgow Green’s West brewery, located in an ostentatious Victorian carpet factory, with a beer brewed on site.