Return to Reyjavík: Tourism & the Changing Face of Iceland

Everyone is talking about Iceland. That island in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean with Björk, an unassumingly victorious football team and those hard-to-pronounce volcanoes. Its convenient location between Europe and North America has been taken advantage of on a higher scale in the past few years, and with Icelandair offering up to seven days of stopover time for free, why wouldn’t you go and see what all the fuss is about?

I first visited Iceland in August 2013. It was becoming more popular at that time but still had a minimalist feel to it that made me warm to it. I sensed that things would be different when I returned for a quick stop in December 2016 en route to Canada.

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Some things remained the same. The FlyBus from Keflavík airport to Reykjavík still played the same man’s slow, soothing voice to welcome passengers. As we passed the same barren lands and swathes of lava fields, I still got flashbacks to medieval times, imagining Viking soldiers in battle. But as we entered the surrounding towns and suburbs of the city, I noticed more apartment buildings than before. Had they always been here and I simply hadn’t noticed? Maybe the sparkling Christmas lights just made them stand out more? No, there were definitely more. The place looked more developed and modern.

My friend picked me up from the BSÍ terminal and confirmed the development that had been taking place in and around the city. She asked if I had any plans for my two and a half days in Iceland. I realised I hadn’t given it too much thought; my main goal was to see the Northern Lights. But I also thought it would be nice to go to a geothermal pool, since I had chickened out of going to one on my last visit due to shyness about the nudity element of pre-bathing showering. I had always regretted what had later seemed like a pathetic reason not to go. My friend suggested we go inland to a place called the Secret Lagoon, which was a geothermal pool smaller, less commercial and more natural than the popular Blue Lagoon, a place I briefly stopped by at on my last visit and didn’t enjoy. She had also never been and so it seemed like a great idea.

After waiting for snow storms to pass the next morning, we set off to a town called Flúðir. The Secret Lagoon is definitely secret in that there are no signs indicating where it is. Once we arrived however, we were surprised by the number of cars parked up. I was expecting a very rustic set up with mostly native customers, but reception was bustling with a variety of nationalities. I paid 2500ISK for the ticket and followed my host to the changing rooms.

“So, we have to shower completely naked here, don’t we?” I asked, feeling the butterflies from three years ago begin to flutter back into my stomach. My friend nodded with a smile. I took a deep breath and undressed, looking straight ahead as I walked towards the shower. It was as if I thought this would stop people looking at me, but I soon realised that nobody was going to look at me anyway. Showering naked in public was so much less of an issue than I had previously let myself believe. ‘Good on Icelanders,’ I began thinking in support of their fearlessness and the motive behind it to protect their natural pools. Later on, I would even find myself shooting disapproving glares at the back of a bunch of Brits who I noticed proceed towards the pool having showered in their swimsuits. We are definitely a prude nation when it comes to public nudity (which seems ironic given that we have a fame-obsessed culture that promotes sex appeal in the form of body exposure through mediums such as sexting, glamour modelling and risque TV entertainment as a tool of socio-economic advancement.)

The Lagoon was very relaxing. There was even something refreshing about having your face pelted with hail stones from above whilst your body remained submerged in warm water. However it wasn’t as quiet as I’d hoped. Perhaps selfishly, I’d expected fewer people. As more loud groups entered the water and the drinking increased, the experience became more distracting than relaxing and we got out. Before arriving, I had already decided that I wouldn’t write a blog post about the place, in order to preserve its secrecy. I now realised that the Lagoon’s name had become an appealing marketing tool, and there was actually no secret to hide anymore.

The next morning over breakfast, my friend read a newspaper article which highlighted the growing problem of tourists feeding horses in the wild. These animals are not used to eating sugar or bread, and the treats were actually causing more harm than good, with more horses suffering from digestive problems without access to medical help. If you are reading this and planning to road trip through Iceland, please do not feed the horses or try to bribe them with food to come closer. They are self-sufficient animals and will not starve without your treats, nor suffer without your petting.

Another article discussed the rising number of car accidents on roundabouts as foreign visitors do not adopt Iceland’s road rules. On a roundabout, those in the inner lane have right of way to exit. I know – seems bonkers – but we should respect another country’s rules nonetheless. Another article reported that Keflavík airport had seen a record 6 million people enter its doors in 2016, a 25% increase from 2015. There are 323,000 inhabitants of Iceland.

That day, my friend took me on a rainy tour of the Reykjanes Peninsula in the southwest of the country. Lava fields smother the land  where you can find the Bridge Between Continents – a fissure in the ground where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet and diverge. The gap grows by 2 cm every year. Further on is Gunnuhver, the steam vents and mud pools of which are named after a female ghost whose shouting is supposedly symbolised by the eruption of the geyser. Reading her story reminded me of the mythologies I learned on my last visit – cultural traditions that helped make Iceland unique in more ways than its geology and landscape. Ferocious waves battered the cliffs as we drove further on. I read about a bird called the Great Auk, the last colony of which lived on a small island called Eldey off the coast of Iceland, before becoming extinct in 1844. Similarly looking to the penguin, it was flightless and stood no chance against human hunters.

In the town of Grindevík, we ate lobster soup in a small cafe decorated with ship memorabilia and an old piano. A group of Americans got up to leave shortly after we arrived, thanking the owner. The ditsy 20-something daughter then said to her mother, “How do you say ‘thank you’?” The mother had no answer. My friend grinned at me and I felt like dunking my face in my soup. A perfect example of one of the bad travel habits I wish I could see less of. Maybe I think too much, but I find that there’s something so rude about coming to a foreign country and not even bothering to learn one simple word (“takk”). You could argue that paying money for a travel experience represents enough ‘giving’ and justifies the ‘taking’, but I think this outlook promotes an imperial-esque sense of self-entitlement and disrespect for local culture.

On my final morning we took my friend’s dog for a quiet walk around a frozen lake. The only others we saw were a runner, another walker, and a party of horse riders.  I got the impression this was one of a decreasing number of places locals could come to where they wouldn’t find many tourists…at least in the early hours of the morning. In downtown Reykjavík later on, my friend pointed out the construction of new hotels. It’s a contentious issue, the threat that hotels and other tourist accommodation options like Airbnb pose to long-term rental space for locals. You get the sense that some natives feel they are prioritised below tourists when it comes to urban planning.

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Overall, my short return to Reykjavík was enough to illustrate the increased popularity of Iceland as a tourist destination since I last visited.  (Me ahead of a trend? Wow.) I’m not saying it’s bad that Iceland has become more popular. Afterall, as my friend acknowledged, tourism is good for the country’s economy. But my brief visit also illustrated the potential problems Iceland faces from its popularity growth. Its authenticity makes it popular and yet I worry that this is under threat from pressure to meet the expectations of tourists who come from more consumerist, materialistic and technologically advanced countries. I fear it’s in danger of becoming exploited at the expense of its culture, citizens and landscape.

I think of the slowly widening rift between the tectonic plates and relate it to what seems like a gradual tourist-takeover of Iceland. I think of the geographical mythologies and wonder if they’ll ever become regarded as archaic and unmarketable. I think of the Great Auk being hunted to extinction because of human greed. You’ll find ignorant and inconsiderate behaviour from tourists in any country, but for some reason I get defensive when Iceland is the victim. It’s perhaps because I have experienced the country from the perspective of both a tourist and local. I know how hard living in Iceland can be for Icelanders, and am able to see how large volumes of tourism can contribute to this. Are there any “secret” places anymore?  Apart from their homes, where can native Icelanders go where they are free from tourist-oriented advertisements, expensive cuisine, English-speaking “banter” and complaints about WiFi?

I grew up in the North York Moors National Park in England, a place that attracted tourists but never felt overrun by them. I was glad about this, because whilst I was happy for visitors to come and experience the beauty of the area, I didn’t like the idea of sharing my tranquil home with a mass of others. I don’t think there is anything rude or prejudiced about this. It seems a little too late for this concern in Iceland though; the main question is how a big a slice of the pie they will get.

I didn’t see the Northern Lights as hoped during my brief stay, as skies were too cloudy. Although it was a shame not to witness something I’d been hoping for, I took comfort knowing that there remains something in Iceland that can never be influenced and caused by tourist demands and actions. A natural phenomenon that doesn’t give a hoot about how much people want to see it and how much money they have to offer.

Please visit Iceland, just don’t plunder it. Support the economy, just don’t govern it. Embrace the culture, just don’t squash it. Take many a photo of the nature, just don’t leave a mark on it.

10 Ways to Help Guarantee a Happy Travel Experience

I recently spent a couple of weeks in Australia with my mum. As we set off on our long long flight across the world, I wasn’t sure how much I would get out of such a short trip, apart from the enjoyment of catching up with family friends and relatives. It wasn’t a holiday down under like most people would imagine; there was no time spent sunbathing and not even a dip in the ocean. Unbelievable, I know.

However the short time away proved more valuable than I anticipated because it reinforced some key points one should consider covering to help guarantee a positive travel experience.  You may be destined for one of the most renowned places on the planet, but its great reputation doesn’t promise you’ll have a great time. Whilst you can never guarantee that you will have a perfect travel experience, certain travel methods can minimise the risk of you coming away disappointed.

1. Go just before busy season
For the sake of space and spending habits, consider visiting a destination just before peak season. We were in Australia from early to mid-late October for the start of spring. Mornings were crisp, skies were (mostly) blue and tourist hotspots attracted a bearable number of visitors. Viewing points at the 12 Apostles on the Great Ocean Road were not rammed and, apart from a coach load of Asian tourists, Katoomba in the Blue Mountains was not heaving (albeit quite chilly – definitely bring a warm jumper!) Temperatures averaged 18 degrees in Victoria and reached the low 30s in NSW. Accommodation is also more likely to be available at this time of year and less likely to require reservations.
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dsc_01772Buy a proper map
My mum and I started our road trip with only the small sketched maps in our Lonely Planet guidebook for reference. This uncharacteristic lack of organisation caused quite a bit of stress at times along the way..! We were also surprised by the lack of regional road atlases on sale in petrol stations. Thankfully we were stocked up  for parts of our journey by relatives and tourist information centres.

Some people would say, “Just use GPS – duhh!” But part of the fun of a road trip is choosing your own route instead of being instructed by an annoying voice which may direct you on the fastest, least scenic route. Co-navigating a route around the western USA in 2014 was so much fun, but mainly because I had a proper map…

3. Get away from the popular tourist areas
There is more to Australia than surf and the Sydney Opera House, just like there is more to England than London and more to France than the Eiffel Tower. Part of the reason we didn’t go into Melbourne or Sydney was because of time restrictions, but also because whilst there are many elements of cities that I enjoy, there comes a point when you realise that they all mostly offer the same man-made things with small variations. I wasn’t curious enough to warrant the faff of finding a parking space for a few hours.

Instead, by going inland we witnessed some beautiful rolling Victorian countryside and lush green sheep-dotted pastures, spotted kangaroos in the wild (I admit that a fair few of them were sadly on the side of the road), and stopped by quaint little towns with local-owned cafes that made delicious fresh sandwiches.

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4. Learn from your parents
A road trip with anyone can be intense; you have to adjust to habits of the other and have limited outlets through which to release any stress. So bringing parents into the equation can be a catalyst for World War 3. You’re less likely to hold back on venting your irritation with them, and indeed, my mum and I got on each other’s nerves at times. But one habit I loved watching was the way she interacted with anyone she came across. She asks questions without worrying if she looks silly and I could see a change in the people she spoke to as their expressions transformed from autopilot make-the-customer-happy responses to genuine happy smiles. Unfortunately one person was a bit too charmed by her – I had to sit through a taxi ride in which the Italian-born driver kept telling my mum how young she looked. Vom.

5.  Prepare to be flexible with your plans
We were quite unfortunate in that we were forced to take a few diversions during our trip. The Great Ocean Road was closed between Lorne and Anglesea because of a landslide, so we detoured through bushland. There was still snow on the roads in the Snowy Mountains so, without chains, we couldn’t drive through this national park as hoped in our tiny Nissan Micra rental. We then had to take a 50 km detour en route to friends in Bellingen, north NSW, due to a traffic accident late at night. Annoying as these things are, it’s important to remain optimistic and look for the positives that the unexpected alternative might bring. Being unable to drive through the Snowys, we instead winded our way through Alpine National Park which brought us glimpses of snow-dusted mountains, silver slivers of rivers…and some curious cows.
dsc_0101dsc_01066. Ask locals for advice
Some people have too much pride to accept that they are lost or confused and need the advice of a stranger. Most people in London for example wouldn’t dream of stopping someone on the street to ask them a question unless absolutely desperate. In a day and age where people are excessively reliant on technology, my old-school mum and I opted for the old-school approach of face-to-face interaction when it came to asking for recommendations of the best routes, places to eat and places to sleep. Some people we asked still resorted to technology (indeed, one large lady in a gas station responded to my question by saying, “Just Google it” as if I was stupid) but others were very knowledgeable and had interesting tips.

7. Visit a small town
I think there is a lot to be gained from spending a night or two in a small sleepy town. You get a good feel for what the country is really like away from the tourist traps. A visit to a dear family friend in the country town of Lockhart gave me an insight into a local community. Greens Gunyah museum commemorated the role of the town’s residents in the World Wars. I also learned of an art craft I’d never considered before. Local artist Doris Golder’s incredibly impressive ‘Wool Art’ involves her recreating photos of animals, landscapes and public figures with sheep wool as the sole material. Way better than the Tate.

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Sunset en route to Lockhart

Whilst located on the popular Great Ocean Road, Apollo Bay also had a nice small seaside-town atmosphere. We found a motel late on a Friday night and the owner, Jim, was very sweet in advising us to get something to eat before everywhere closed. We ate pizza at a pub down the road where two gregarious girls threw back beers and mingled with the oldies and their dogs sat out on the deck. The next morning we saw one of the girls behind the only open till in the supermarket. We browsed the small Saturday market and chatted with a friendly stall-holder. You got the feeling that everyone knew everyone in this town, and it was refreshing.
dsc_00918. Every road trip needs a great playlist
Driving gets tedious and tiring, especially when driving Australian distances. You need something to keep you sane, entertained and in the correct lane. Old rock anthems are a great choice, Meatloaf’s “Dead Ringer for Love” being one in particular. And whilst she said nothing at the time, I’m sure my mum really appreciated my attempts to keep her awake by singing heartfelt harmonies to Bon Jovi’s “Bed of Roses”…

9. Don’t judge a book by its cover
These words of wisdom apply in two senses. In the lovely town of Richmond in the Hawkesbury region of New South Wales, a local pamphlet that I picked up after chancing across the library recommended staying in the aesthetically pleasing New Inn Motel. I asked the old man at reception if he had a vacancy and how much it cost. When he told me the rather high total, I politely asked if that was the cheapest room he had. He looked at me like a piece of dirt and grumbled, “I wouldn’t have wasted my time telling you [this price] if there was.” His unnecessary rudeness inspired me to stay elsewhere, even if there was nowhere else and it meant having to sleep in the car.

Opposite the gas station further in town we spotted a motel attached to a liquor store called The Bottle-O Richmond Inn Hotel. “What about here?” my mum suggested. I noticed the motorbikes and pick up trucks parked outside and made a face. “It just looks really laddish and is probably full of drunks,” I said. Mum tutted at my scepticism so I went inside the shop to ask. On reception was a man probably a few years older than me with a shaggy beard and a few tats. He was really friendly and understanding when I asked if he knew of anywhere cheaper, even taking me outside and pointing to a place down the road that might be worth trying. We ended up just deciding to take the available room here because his kind nature had convinced me. We found the room to have the nicest decor of all we’d stayed in, too!

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Lovely little Richmond Park

10. Never underestimate the power of the sun
I’m normally very diligent when it comes to wearing sunscreen, but managing to stay burn-free after a couple of hours of English summer weather can make one dangerously confident in their skin’s level of sensitivity. I completely forgot to apply lotion before spending a couple of hours in the morning sun in Richmond catching up with an old friend. I said goodbye looking like Rudolph having landed in the wrong country. Maybe that’s why the guy outside the train station was looking at me funny…

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People follow different methods of travel and I don’t wish to state that there is only one correct way. But by giving these pointers a go, you will hopefully get more out of your trip…and a lot less stress!

Descent into the Deep: A Daring Four-Wheel Drive in Canyonlands National Park

Most people still choose the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona when looking for breathtaking canyon views. But around 300 miles north in Utah lies another national park that will equally make your jaw drop, without having to be shared with as many tourists. Canyonlands is a mouthwatering mezze of proud mesas, deep canyons, awesome arches, and exciting drives.

There are four districts of Canyonlands National Park: Island of the Sky; The Maze; The Needles; and The Rivers. Separated by the Colorado and Green rivers,  it takes many hours of driving via the highway to get to each section. My boyfriend and I opted for the former for its easy access. About 40 minutes drive from Moab, the 191 north leads you past Arches National Park before you take a left down the 313 onto Grand View Point Road. With possession of an annual national park pass costing $80, our entry to the park was free.

It doesn’t take long after entering the park before the sweeping views from the Island of the Sky mesa take you by surprise. A remarkable vista of sprawling red ravines and flat sandy basins with jagged buttes and plateaus of sandstone rock sketched into the bare desert landscape, it is easy to see why this section of the park received its name. 1000 feet below the cliff edges, a narrow track was pencilled into the dry terrain. We knew little about this park before arrival, but soon discovered that it offers the opportunity for a drive of a lifetime.

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The 100-mile White Rim road begins with the Shafer Trail. No permit is required to drive along this section (however from 2015, those planning to continue along the White Rim road do require one). With our Land Cruiser we met the requirements of a 4WD vehicle to travel the route. It seemed foolish to refuse the chance for such an adventure. Those who get caught out by the rain can expect to pay up to $2000 for a tow. Confident that the puffy clouds above wouldn’t turn nasty, we took a deep breath and set off on an epic journey. (You can catch a short video of it here.)

Daft Punk’s ‘Disc Wars’ was the soundtrack of choice to our descent. Its rumbling first bars built up the tension perfectly as we began navigating the dirt track, careful to avoid potholes but also wary of driving off the edge in the process. The outburst of a higher tune began pertinently as we started a steeper descent towards a string of switchbacks that left me sucking in my stomach for the next 30 minutes as the edges of the steep cliffs repeatedly loomed closer before us.

If you see a car approaching, even if a few minutes drive away, it’s best to perch in the nearest space available rather than face a nerve-racking reverse back along the narrow track. Stay in low gear and use the engine brake rather than relying on the foot pedal. It’s important to keep a cool head – any loss of control and you could be doing a Thelma and Louise!

Finally we reached flat lands and could breathe normally again after our intense descent. All was quiet in our surroundings as we stopped at Gooseneck Overlook to explore the bottom of this dry ocean below the island. Lizards posed in a frozen state of camouflage against the rock painted with natural black bacteria, before darting through tiny cracks which, when peered through on all fours, might sometimes reveal a stomach-churning drop to the base of the canyon far below where rivers of sandstone snaked their way through the valley. Further on towards Musselman Arch,  giant statues of stone with bold faces stood closely together, looking like ruins from an ancient temple of the underworld. With nobody else around, it was the perfect playtime for young adults.

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The hairpin bends were just as hair-raising on the way back up the trail, however we were now more comfortable with the road. Reaching the top of the mesa and looking back down into the canyon where we had come from brought a huge sense of fulfillment. How many people could say they had conquered a road like this?! (Props to Andrew for driving it!)

Further into the park,  Mesa Arch attracts more tourists, becoming more reminiscent of the neighbouring Arches National Park. After our experience of tranquility in the canyon, the noise of clicking cameras and giddy children became a little irritating and so we drove north-east towards Whale Rock. The trail here was marked with piles of stone which gave it a more rustic feel. From the top of the rock you can see Upheaval Dome, an enormous block of rock with jagged peaks that looks very out of place in the canyon. The question on geologists’ minds is, is it simply an excessive sandstone deposit or a meteorite..?

After an adrenaline-pumping afternoon, the remainder of our day was spent basking in the evening calm at the Grand View Point Overlook. Looking out over Monument Basin, the way the canyons were carved into the plateau reminded me of the shape of bronchi from Biology lessons in school. On the other side of the road looking out over the Green River, a gang of hairy Aussie bikers on Harley Davidsons asked, “What’s for tea?” as we cooked sausages. We sat and admired the sunset beaming down on the basin below, the colours changing from intense reds to hot pinks and warm oranges. It was definitely a pinch-worthy moment. I remember seeing the tiny outline of a plane soaring overhead and suddenly feeling a flood of heartbreak because I knew I would have to be on a plane back to England in a few weeks’ time. We watched a spectacular show of shooting stars up above in an indigo sky where the Milky Way was the clearest I’ve ever seen it. Sat safely in serenity, I counted 50 flashes of lightning in the space of two minutes appearing hundreds of miles away to the west.

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Canyonlands is a place that could so easily be missed off someone’s list in favour of the more famed Arches National Park. This is a shame because it is a place quiet enough in popularity to make you feel like a local once having arrived, but crazy enough in auto-touring opportunities to make you feel like a VIP once having left! If you have a 4WD vehicle that you are confident using, definitely make sure to drive the Shafer Trail for an experience that you won’t forget in a hurry. I visited Canyonlands in August 2014, and it remains my favourite national park to date.

Chasing Angels & Discovering the Supernatural in Zion National Park

The noble faces of ancient towering cliffs gaze down with dignity over a desert kingdom of cottonwood trees, sandstone boulders and winding rivers where 12,000 years ago, mammoths and sloths would roam and pioneers would admire a land deemed “too stunning for mere mortals.” This was a destination to behold, a place of refuge for angels and saints who deserved a never-ending life that would invite them into a prestigious realm of supernatural wonders.

Your own eyes will tell you that Zion National Park is an example of the extraordinary, especially when it comes to hiking opportunities. Of the many routes available, there are two which stand out as unique in allowing visitors to immerse themselves in the natural environment and experience its mystical vibes. One takes you deep into a canyon in which you are enclosed by huge sheets of rock; another takes you high up a cliff where you are exposed to the wider world. The first national park to be established in the geological heaven of Utah, Zion is a blessed part of the world for hiking lovers who aren’t afraid of water and heights!

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The Narrows

Zion comes across as one of the more “untouched” national parks and one of the great things about it is its free shuttle bus system which prohibits cars from travelling on the Scenic Drive from spring to autumn, hence preventing congestion and promoting a cleaner environment. Grazing deer blend in against the creamy cliffs as the bus winds its way gently through the canyon, passing sacred natural landmarks such as the Three Patriarchs. Hop off at the final stop of Temple of Sinawava and let the adventure into the Narrows begin!

The easy 1-mile Riverside Walk will lead you to the river’s edge where the wading commences. At first it feels bizarre to be walking through water with shoes on, but you’ll soon get used to the temperature and texture as you make your way further down the gorge. It’s essential to wear sturdy shoes on this walk. Many walkers use sticks to help them navigate over the rocky river floor, but I preferred to test my natural balance, precarious as this was at first. I gradually gained more faith in my feet and was able to traverse the uneven ground without looking down so often. The miracle of walking on water came to mind…although I didn’t quite get that far! Parents would tow their little ones along in blow-up dinghies. I left my muddy hand print on the glistening wet walls decorated by visitors thousands of years after the first settlers made their mark.

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Stains of iron oxide on the canyon walls form varied patterns throughout the route, almost looking like they have been painted by former inhabitants of the land. When you reach the Narrows half a mile into the walk, this is where you really don’t want a flash flood to start! As the canyon walls begin to close in, the air turns colder and echoes grow louder. The atmosphere becomes slightly eerie, as if you are in the presence of ghosts whispering your name as you enter their domain. Perhaps it is their chiselled faces that jut out into your path.

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There are points when you might be waist deep in the water, so it’s advisable not to bring valuables with you on this walk. Do bear in mind however that you may be chilly after leaving the water. Nevertheless make the most of the water on your skin as the park only receives 15 cm of rainfall a year!

Angel’s Landing

This striking monolith gained its title in 1916 after the explorer Frederick Fisher claimed that”only an angel could land on it”.

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Starting from the Grotto shuttle stop on the Scenic Drive, the West Rim Trail up to the monolith is a 2 mile thigh-burning, zig-zagging route that hugs mountains of bronzed sandstone. Lizards dart between cracks in the rock only to become camouflaged against the dried leaves. A plentiful supply of sunscreen and water is essential! After a mile you’ll find shade in Refridgerator Canyon before you have to “squiggle the wiggles” and tackle a series of steep switchbacks. My partner and I foolishly decided it would be a good idea to start running up the first one, without realising how many were left…

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Many gasps for air and gulps of water later, you’ll reach the flat sandy area of Scout Lookout where you’ll see the ridged runway for Angel’s Landing begin ahead of you. Some people won’t even make it onto the trail because they are so fatigued after their sweaty uphill trek. From the start of the trail to the end point is only half a mile, but the path is steep, complex and takes time to maneuver. But for those who get a thrill from challenging routes, it’s great fun!

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At the time we did the hike (in August 2014), six people had died within the last 10 years on this trail. In a way this doesn’t seem like much when you consider the height and width of this monolith combined with the threat of heatstroke causing hikers to keel over. This hike is not for the faint-hearted. At times you will be walking along a very narrow path with a stomach-churning drop of over 1000 feet off the side, the Virgin River looking only a millimetre wide far below. Chains regularly have to be used to ascend steep slabs of rock and there are narrow crevices which you must hoist yourself up through. One of my strongest memories is the sight and smell of sweat-stained shorts as a (rather large) man’s buttocks loomed alarmingly close to my face while he struggled to squeeze through one of the thin gaps in front of me. I would not be offering to give him a push…

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Courtesy is definitely a requirement on this hike, as many times there will be not space for more than one person to pass through a certain part of the route. Those heading back from the end would offer support to approaching hikers with calls of “Not far to go!” We finally reached the summit with stunning views of the valley of Zion sprawled out before our eyes. We, the angels, had landed and it was easily one of my most fulfilling travel moments. Man-made rock piles stand proud near the cliff edge, showcasing the hiker’s achievement to the world in front. It may not have involved the elevation of Everest, but this hike had brought its own unique challenges. Gazing out at the view ahead, you can’t help but feel superhuman after this remarkable feat.

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I saw the large man produce his camera to take a photo as proof of his achievement. Whilst reaching the summit of a hike alone is very rewarding, I was grateful to be able to experience the physical and at times mental challenges of this hike with someone else, and share the subsequent sense of success. I now wish I had offered to take the man’s photo so that he is able to look back in later years at himself against this incredible backdrop and feel a great sense of pride. I did however compensate by asking a German couple if they’d like their photo taken. I particularly loved how much they appreciated me speaking their language.

It would be easy to get slightly complacent about safety on your way back along the ridge, but in your rush to finish the hike after having seen the best bit, it’s important to remain cautious and take your time. On the way back down the West Rim Trail we passed many tourists panting as they hiked up towards the monolith under the sweltering heat of the midday sun. It was definitely a good idea to set off on this hike early, to avoid both the peak sunshine and the greater numbers on the trail. When you’re back on ground level, dive into the Virgin River to cool off. You won’t even care that you’re not wearing swimsuits as your body will be so grateful for the refreshing water! It was here that we chatted with a family on vacation from Minnesota, and I began to understand better why some Americans might be so ignorant about other areas of the world, because they have so many amazing places to discover within their own huge country.

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With the amount of calories that you’ll burn off completing this tough 5-mile hike, you’re bound to feel hungry later. We drove into the village of Springdale to fill up on gas and my partner asked inside for a recommendation for lunch. We were advised to visit a Mexican restaurant around the corner called Oscar’s Cafe…and it was an excellent recommendation. This was an occasion where American food portions no longer seemed outrageous. Served by a friendly waitress, we shared a scrumptious meal of fish tacos, beef burgers and sweet potato fries. Then came dessert. We dived into the mountain of ice cream-smothered chocolate brownie devilishly, only to be distracted by the sound of a young girl on another table exclaiming to her red-faced mother: “They’re gonna get fat!” Andrew conceded defeat after a few mouthfuls, but the pudding-lover in me ploughed on until the end before I sank into a food coma all afternoon, exhausted by this final exertion of my recently acquired superhuman powers.

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If you love the idea of pushing your boundaries to out-of-this-world levels, definitely visit Zion National Park and chase the Angel. If you’ve been to Zion before or have any questions, please comment below!

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More information on the Angel’s Landing trail can be found here.

If walking to the Narrows, be sure to check forecasts for flash flooding beforehand.

Searching for Nature’s Treasures in Goldstream Provincial Park

Located off Highway 1 just under 20km from Victoria on Vancouver Island, Goldstream Provincial Park is a great stop en route to Tofino and a favoured destination among locals looking for a weekend walk with their dog. Parking is free, toilets are on site, and the staff in the tiny visitor centre will point out the park’s key areas on a map.

Autumn is a lovely time to visit this park as the maple leaves have a wonderful golden glow to them when they catch the sunlight, emitting that wispy wet sound as you wander through them. I spent much time staring at the ground looking for the perfect one to take away with me. Within these lush surroundings, the only fault is the faint sound of traffic from the highway nearby.

As you walk through the tunnel that remains fom the gold rush experienced here in the mid 19th century, you’ll come to Niagara Falls (a much smaller version of its eastern twin!) with a trail beginning on the right. There aren’t many signs so further on you have to follow the sight of flattened soil which highlights a path up to the right. Scramble steeply up and after leaping a few fallen logs, you’ll eventually reach the old railway trestle which, based on the number of Facebook cover photos I’ve seen that feature them, is quite a popular place with island kids.

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The park is most famous for its salmon run which takes place in mid October until December, featuring mainly Chum salmon as well as Coho and Chinook. I saw about 12 salmon struggle upstream to lay their eggs having journeyed from the Pacific Ocean after living there for the past three years. Conquering the current is quite a battle, with splashes erupting sporadically as the fish thrash to move upwards. Nests in the gravel are known as ‘redds’ and are chosen by the female, while the male guards the area. Her eggs, known as ‘roe’ are fertilised by the male after they have been laid. After a new life has been created through all this effort, the salmon will slowly die in the place where they were born. It’s quite the sacrifice! To add salt to the wound (or perhaps highlight the significant existence of the food chain in nature), bald eagles will eagerly feed on their corpses in the spring.

 

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Some visitors will come to the park for a 60 minute refreshing walk; others will spend a day exploring. I did the former but elsewhere in the 366 hectare park you can find a range of rich vegetation including red cedar and arbutus trees, while if you crave a workout there’s the hike up 419m high Mt. Finlayson.

When surrounded by such an abundance of natural goodness, it’s a shame that some visitors couldn’t put their Starbucks cups in the many bins provided in the park. But this is the risk when nature is easily accessible to urban society and the social habits that form within. The park is in close proximity to life in the fast lane, but as photos like this one below show, it’s a great little spot for when you need a breath of fresh air.

 

Why is Sunset Beautiful?

The title of this blog post comes from a question that someone I know once randomly posed – a question that I’ve never really thought about before. Being an everyday phenomenon, sunset is something we are so accustomed to that we don’t bother questioning why we value it so much.  Here are some thoughts.

Watching a sunset, we see a blend of soft colours ooze into a relaxing haven of warmth. This calms our minds and comforts our bodies, and the sensual gratification that we receive in turn creates a sense of romance, which everybody at one stage or another desires. People wish to be happy, and a sunset sources the chemicals that grant this. When we ourselves feel happy, we have a more positive outlook towards life, which makes us more likely to regard the things around us as being of beauty.

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Hawaii

The changing of colours that come with a sunset- from yellow to orange to red to violet – is unusual in that we are not used to seeing these colours during most of the day. The element of being unique can contribute to notions of beauty. Strong colours in the sky cast a glow over the land which we become immersed in, leading to a sense of escapism as if we are in a different world. When the colours reflect on water, a sparkling path invites us closer to the warm sun, which leads onto my next point…

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Changing colours around the Gulf Islands

We rely on the sun to live, because light is our planet’s main source of energy. Without photosynthesis, we and the other wonderful organisms that decorate the Earth wouldn’t be alive. A factor that contributes to visions of human beauty is health – healthy skin, healthy teeth, healthy hair. The health benefits of the sun therefore give it a saintly status; we regard it as beautiful because its physical effects make us as individuals feel beautiful. But it is only at sunset when we are safe to look at the sun and really appreciate its features and what it does for us. Just like we can describe a generous human as having ‘a beautiful soul’, describing the setting sun as beautiful is a (perhaps subconscious) way to express gratitude for yet another day of preserving and nurturing life.

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Tofino

Sunset may also be regarded as beautiful because of its accessibility.  Some people see it more than others depending on their country’s climate and location. To those ‘others’, the lesser ease of access to the sun’s company makes sunset seem more pure and beautiful in its value – like a holy temple that one must undertake a pilgrimage to see, or a highly-renowned hidden jewel that grants the power of immortality.

Sunset softens the surrounding landscape and gives it a new dimension that we may not have noticed in the daytime. It can add charm and character to a prairie landscape or bland city and help define key features. The silhouettes a sunset creates cause contrast, arousing a sense of mystery.  A sunset highlights patterns in the clouds which capture our imagination, as we try to trace recognisable shapes.  Ripples in the water off Vancouver Island become more noticeable in their neatness, as if each has been carefully crafted by hand.  Sunset stimulates our visual and emotional creativity.

Sunset in the Grand Tetons, Wyoming

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…and after

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Sunset is also something that we have no control over, and that aspect, whether you believe it to be caused by science or a religious being, captivates and fascinates us. From certain places such as the Grand View Point Overlook in Utah’s Canyonlands, one can’t tell where the sun is disappearing to. It looks like it will simply merge into the ground and flow out in all directions like lava. When it doesn’t, we often think nothing of it and do something else now that the show is over. But when you really think further than all the prettiness, our planet has just rotated without us even realising – a significant and yet minor process when one considers that this activity occurs alongside the other under-acknowledged activity in our huge solar system, which itself is just one of billions of galaxies. If you take a moment to really consider what’s going on behind the scenes, it’s a pretty beautiful thought.

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Early sunset in Canyonlands

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Goodnight from the Grand View Point Overlook

On a road trip, the sun’s slow setting encourages us to carry on going, teasing and taunting us so that we feel inclined to chase it. The sun can keep us company and out of boredom, we hope that its remaining light will lead us to our final destination for the day, somewhere interesting. It really can be ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’.

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Sunset even seems to make the surrounding environment and wildlife appear peaceful. We associate it with sweet bird song and the chatter of insects. It signals the winding-down of the day, with its slow process helping us to de-stress from a busy day. Psychologically, we can associate it with having accomplished something in the daytime and subsequently earned rest.

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Serenity in the Black Forest, Germany

Sometimes, the setting sun might make us feel sombre, as it symbolises the final hours of a beautiful journey and the closing of another chapter of life. But is any strong emotion that is inspired by something physical not beautiful in some way?

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Vancouver Island

To sum up, sunset is perhaps beautiful not necessarily just because of the visual aesthetics, but because of the secondary emotional, mental and physical associations that it stimulates.

Harming Nature Through Human Nature

In the past couple of weeks, a rogue artist from New York has been in the news for vandalising some of America’s national parks with artistic graffiti. As expected, this activity has been condemned by both national park rangers and the public. Type ‘lady defacing national parks’ into Google and the top searches begin with the terms ‘awful person’ and ‘terrible human’. The perpetrator has been slammed for drawing these images and uploading them to Instagram, i.e. for seeking fame and attention at the expense of nature.

I of course was also appalled when I heard about these acts , especially as I have many special memories of the magnificent topography in some of the victimised parks – including Canyonlands and Zion – that were formed only weeks before these images were drawn. But then I thought about this issue some more and asked myself: regardless of spray-paint, are tourists not already defacing the nature of the parks? Through our own desires to find fame from capturing the best photo of a wild animal, are we camera-crazy (albeit well-meaning) humans not causing harm too? Harm that is subtle and unintended in nature, but still damaging to nature’s routine.

The other day I read the George Orwell classic ‘Animal Farm’. Published in 1945 and banned in the USSR for its anti-Stalin sentiment, the beginning of the story involves the animals of a farm rising up in rebellion against their greedy human owner and establishing control of the farm themselves. As I read the (highly-recommended) novel, I thought back to the encounters I had with wildlife during my American road trip this past summer.

I thought about the Rocky Mountain goats in Glacier National Park being woken from their afternoon naps by invading tourists trying to take a photo of their babies. Often the mother goat would nudge her kid to its feet and they would trot off to find a new secret place – something hard to find on the particularly popular Hidden Lake Overlook trail. People would watch them go almost offended, as if it was an insult for an animal to reject human advances.

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I thought about the bison in Yellowstone demanding that traffic come to a standstill while they marched across the road to new pastures. For all I know, their deep grunts were a sign of resentment towards the cars that clogged the man-made partition of their resources. I was surprised at how gentle they were; they were more than capable of causing damage to the monstrous RV that obstructed their path, by bashing their huge heads against its artificial walls in a determined declaration of  “We were here first.”

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I thought about the regular signs on the roads of Yosemite that reminded tourists to drive carefully, citing recent bear fatalities (reports state that so far this year, the figure is at 25). How ironic that in our quest to see a bear, we actually end up killing them? We contradict the whole purpose of a national park to conserve a species. It is in Yosemite’s campgrounds that keeping food in cars is prohibited, since recently a few bears learned how to open doors. These bears were then destroyed to prevent the trait being learned by others and to avoid human casualties. But is it not humans that are invading the bears’ space, rather than vice versa?

Finally, I thought about the large group of elk on Highway 101 just outside Redwood National Park, who caused a traffic jam when they decided to block part of the road. I remembered a man with long hair who drove a VW campervan videoing the scene and asking out-loud, “What does this mean, animals blocking a man-made road?” At first I had smiled to myself at this apparent hippy-expressionism, then I realised that he actually raised an interesting question. Was this group behaviour a form of defiance against man’s interference in nature?

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Does our greed as humans for viewings of rare wildlife touch on the verge of exploitation? Are we not slightly reminiscent of the white man colonising sparse lands in order to generate revenue, killing native inhabitants in the process? It should be mentioned that it is because bison were brought under conservation in Yellowstone that the species was protected from poaching and was subsequently able to grow in numbers within the last century. But back when the park was established in 1872, who was to know that these animals would eventually become the target of the tourist paparazzi? For it has become human nature to stalk the world’s rarest wildlife through a lens.

Obviously tourists, including myself, want to get a close look at wildlife; it’s only human nature. Personally however, I try to respect animals’ privacy in doing so and not disturb them from their natural state. It’s the same way that I would attempt to be discreet if taking a photo of a human stranger doing something interesting, if it was a situation where asking for permission would ruin the moment. Animals have no voice to give consent and therefore cannot be ‘asked’ in the way we humans are familiar with, but that doesn’t mean they condone the behaviour.

After reading ‘Animal Farm’ and thinking about these issues, it almost seems plausible to imagine these animals calling for a revolution against us human tourists.

But then there is the issue of squirrels. At first, it’s cute and endearing when the tame, chubby ones in Zion scamper over to your feet and look up expectantly for food with their tiny paws out like Oliver Twist. Even my friend and I were at first caught in the trap of taking photos and ‘awwww’ing at them. However, you then see them picking on the skinnier squirrels, consequently depriving them of food. Like in ‘Animal Farm’, those animals that interact with humans benefit, and it becomes the case that ‘all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’. If humans weren’t feeding these squirrels, the inequality within the species would be smaller. Like the British Raj in India, it seems that human tourists have cemented power through a policy of ‘divide and rule’. Perhaps if the intrusive human presence left, the animal kingdoms would disintegrate into a state of instability and corruption.

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Of course, I expect many people reading to view the idea of an animal rebellion as an eccentric, far-fetched vision. But it is easy to imagine innocent things, just like it is easy to harm innocent beings. As history has shown, both are only human nature.