It was easy enough to rappel 30 stories into the cavernous abyss, watching a faint glimmer of light reflecting off a crystal clear pool at the bottom. By now I’ve rappelled on several continents, and just the day before, I had lowered myself 90 metres alongside a spectacular waterfall known as the Mouth of the Puma. But the Abismo Anhumas, sheltering a subterranean water wonderland, comes with a neat little twist. If I was ever to walk again beneath the glorious sun, I had to climb back up the very rope I rappelled down. Hand over hand, inch by inch, breath by breath.
Caves are plentiful here in Brazil’s Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland. A huge compression in the earth’s crust has created a 150,000km [squared] freshwater floodplain, stretching into Bolivia and Paraguay. With so much water, the Pantanal is one of the most biologically diverse regions on the planet, a birdwatcher and animal lover’s paradise. It has also been under threat, since over 95% of the land is privately owned, and rich waters make the wetland fertile for crops, cattle, and of course, mosquitoes. On the other side of the mountains that frame the wetland, a small town named Bonito has reinvented itself to become one of the most important eco-tourism destinations in South America. Besides wildlife trips into the Pantanal - where tourists can enjoy night safaris, river cruises, hikes and horse rides in protected areas – Bonito is also a launch pad for caves, waterfalls, and several tasty adventures. These include unusual dishes in the local restaurants, like grilled caiman and piranha stew.
After years of destruction in the Amazon, Brazil has committed to protecting this fragile environment. New laws have been passed, tourism standards created, and farm owners have increasingly begun to see the value of eco-tourism over traditional cattle breeding. Take Rio da Prata, where 80% of the farm’s revenue comes from its extraordinary attraction. In limited groups, we are handed wetsuits and snorkels to float on our bellies down a crystal blue spring, amongst thousands of freshwater fish. With a current ebbing us along, there’s no need to kick, or swim. The visibility is breathtaking. I’m relaxed in awe floating past schools of large fish, like the golden Dorado, which is big and ugly enough to demand a wide berth. It was an incredible experience, but I was looking forward to dropping into the abyss.
Although there are daily tours into the abyss, guides test their clients the day before to see if they can hack it. After all, anyone can be lowered down, but climbing up a 72m rope through a narrow rock shaft requires an adventurous kind of stamina. Don’t worry, if you can scale up their 7m high in-store platform, you’re set. Discovered in 1984, and opened to the public in 1999, the Abismo Anhumas has an unparalleled draw. Inside sits a cave pool 80m deep, lifeless save for tiny fish, but home to massive underwater cave structures that can be explored by scuba or snorkel. While your typical spectacular stalactites drip from above, some of the conical underwater stalagmites are over 20m tall. The descent is easy enough, in that terrifying “I’m only alive because of this wet rope” kind of a way. Once I arrive on the bottom, I put on a wetsuit, and with a flashlight in hand, float weightlessly above the alien world, a scene from a movie, a waking dream.
The tranquillity is shattered when I am strapped into a belay device to begin the long climb back. The modified harness cuts into my water-softened flesh, as I heave with my legs, and steady with my arms. After ten minutes, muscles are burning, but if I need incentive, all I need to do is look down. Suddenly, the darkness below looks like a watery grave. Connected as a backup to my climbing partner, the rope shakes as he quakes with fear. But each thrust brings more light, until finally, after squeezing through an unassuming crack the rock, we reach the top. Having spent a few hours in the cool abyss, floating in its calm water, the heat and humidity of western Brazil is like a punch in the gut. Next time, I’ll rent the scuba gear and enjoy the abyss just a little bit longer.
The Abismo Anhumas is located 27km from Bonito, an eco-tourism hotspot in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. Tours leave daily but due to the ascent are limited to 16 people. Only 4 scuba dives are allowed each day, and you must have Open Water certificate. Equipment and guides are provided. Visitors are assessed and trained beforehand in the Visitor Centre. More info at: http://www.abismoanhumas.com.br
Surrounded by twenty warriors clad in medieval uniforms, I felt as if I’d stumbled into a kung-fu movie. Only this isn’t China, it’s Georgia (the other one). I’m about to get a hands-on lesson in Europe’s only martial art, providing I can keep my arms from being wrenched out of their sockets, and my hands from being twisted right off my wrists. I am wearing a heavy, scratchy 200-year old outfit, resurfaced along with other aspects of Georgian culture repressed under decades of Soviet rule. The warriors move closer. To learn how to punch a man, I must learn how to take a punch. I crouch low, breathe deep, and steady myself for the blow.
Men in the mountains of medieval Georgia practiced a fighting technique as effective and powerful as any Asian counterpart. They developed reputations as amongst the fiercest fighters in all Christendom, which is not surprising considering practice sessions would often result in broken bones. Now known as Khrilodi, the fighting style is being revived as Georgia re-establishes its traditions, with schools beginning to pop up around the country. Head butting the pieces together is Lasha Kobakhidze, and he’s invited me to an old Soviet gymnasium outside of Tbilisi to learn some moves. For starters, warm-ups involve acrobatic leaps, and punching each other hard enough in the face to hear the echo reverberate around the gym. It’s all about focus, strength, and positioning. One arm is tied behind my back, and I participate in a fight not unlike thumb wrestling, only the object is to rip the thumb out of the hand of your opponent, and break several vertebrae in the process. One of the students gets a little enthusiastic with me, slamming me to the floor. His punishment is to be placed in the middle of the group and have the crap kicked out of him. “Wow, that looks like fun,” I say under my breath. Pity the Turk, Persian or Arab invader of yesteryear. I can imagine what their bones sounded like cracking throughout the mountains.
The class progresses to the 4th century Narikala Fortress that overlooks the city. It’s an impressive setting to bring out the weapons that truly gave Georgian warriors their edge. Jagged knives, spikes, hooks, iron balls, axes, chains, arrows, and a terrifying sort of spiked knuckleduster. All were designed to mortally wound, and cause the maximum amount of carnage to intimidate the enemy. I am handed a small shield and a short sword, its edges rusted and sharp. Ducking and thrusting, each sword is basically tetanus on a stick. Two fighters step up in a ledge as the late afternoon sun battles to break through thick cloud. Demonstrating a fight at full speed, it is just as impressive as any fight scene in Lord of the Rings.
Despite my namesake, I sucked at the bow and arrow, so focused instead on the tabari, the largest and heaviest weapon. This axe could decapitate anyone who came within 5ft of its holder, and if I wasn’t careful, could slice my neck off too. The headline: “Travel Writer Decapitated in Freak Medieval Weapons Accident” does have a nice ring to it.
Khridoli is all but unknown outside Georgia, although I expect it could be a big hit in the world of mixed martial arts. As for the Georgian military, Soviet instructors have made way for American instructors, but Lasha is hopeful Khrilodi will once again become integral to Georgian defence. In the meantime, old uniforms are being sourced from the mountains, and new weapons are being sharpened. Georgian legend believes a famed local warrior defeated champion samurais in medieval Japan. Curled up in a ball at the wrong end of punches and kicks, it’s easy for me to understand why.
Facts About Georgia
Population: 4.7 million
Location: Surrounded by Russia, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the Black Sea.
Religion: 82% Orthodox Christian
Language: Georgian (script is called Mkhedruli and looks almost Asian)
Known for: Hospitality, food and wine traditions, August War with Russia, 2008
Here on the rich coast, they say "Pura Vida". Pure Life. It beats Zanzibar's "Hakuna Matata" (No Worries) or Nicaragua's "100% Manana" (100% Tomorrow, which is akin to The Check Is In the Mail). So, as I sucked back my third "happy juice" on a yacht, watching the sun glow across the warm Pacific, I reflected on a week of canyoneering, ziplining, rafting, horse-riding, animal spotting, skinny dipping and beer drinking. The only way to describe it, naturally, would be "pura vida."
"Technically, um, this might be referred to as Golden Showers," I tell Nicole, who is clutching her lower leg in pain. Our group had spent much of the afternoon on the pristine beach inside Manuel Antonio National Park, checking out three fingered sloth, white-faced monkeys, iguanas, woodpeckers, and various bugs, before resting up under the shade of coconut trees. The sea was warmer than pee in a wetsuit, and Michelle (from Canada) and Margarida (from Portugal) seemed content to wade in it all day. Dennis and I went for a jog along the crescent beach, because the scene was begging for it, and he was a little jumpy after a rare armadillo fell off a tree and nearly landed on his head. It was unlucky for Nicole that no sooner had she taken a dip than she'd been stung by something stingy. Since it was a good half-hour walk out the park, the only solution, according to an episode of Friends that everyone could remember, was to pee on the sting. Just my luck that I'd been holding one in, being too damn lazy to get off the sand and flood a shrub. Thus, on Nicole's pleading, and as the group stared on incredulously, I whizzed into an empty water bottle, and she quickly poured 100% Esrock Piss onto her wound. Naturally, the pain subsided instantly. "You need to drink more water," says Michelle, who works in a medical lab, concerned that my output was more Belgian fruit beer than Bud Light. Whatever. Besides that minor hitch, and the odd roving coati (imagine a large rabid badger), it was another day in paradise, and difficult to believe that we'd spent the previous day zip-lining through cloudforest canopy in cold rain and gale force winds.
There really is no shortage of things to do in Costa Rica. While other countries in Central America have spent decades mired in civil war, and all their wealth buying the tools to fight them with, Costa Rica is unique for disbanding its army in 1949, conserving its nature, improving its economy and standard of living, and yet somehow still managing to ensure that its road are potholed to hell as to conform to worldwide developing country standards. All this peace and pure life attracted America, which protects Costa Rica as an important trading post, a surfing paradise, and a destination for US college kids who think Spring Break in Fort Lauderdale is like, so yesterday. It's my personal belief that tourists flock to Costa Rica because they get a kick out of drinking tap water in Central America. The fact that the country is scenic, friendly, affordable and full of perfectly legal prostitutes might also contribute. After a 5am start to catch the mini-bus, ferry, taxi, and bus to the San Jose from Nicaragua (including a painful 90 minute-stop at a flake-paint border), it took forever to find a taxi driver willing to rip-off our travelling bunch of gringos at the bus stop 8 hours later. Most visitors to Costa Rica arrive in San Jose so they can get the hell out of it, missing the charm of its transsexual hookers, trash-lined streets, and suicidal drivers. We left some more of the group behind, picked up a few more, and drank the night away at a hole in the wall bar with a great jukebox, broken pool table, and cross-dressing bartender. I would have liked to explore more of the city, the way I might explore the dirt behind my fingernails, but we departed early for La Fortuna, and the perfect thimble volcano of Arenal.
Now if you're going to travel to Central America, you're going to see a lot of volcanoes. You might even get the chance to poke sticks in moving lava (Guatemala) or fly down one on a plank of wood (Nicaragua). Arenal, one of the most famous and volatile volcanoes of the Americas, was covered in cloud and all but invisible. It erupted, unexpectedly, in the1970's, killing about 80 people, and launching a tourist industry. La Fortuna, the nearest town, seems a bit too small for the many tourist agencies offering all manner of adventure/eco-tourism activities. Each day, tourists flock here to see fiery rocks fall down the slopes of Arenal at night, or better yet, explode high above the crater. Even with the thick cloud cover, I saw sparks ripple down its side, but as travel-buddy Peter remarked with typical English dryness: "The lava is nowhere near as nice as when you're standing right next to it," referring to our previous adventures at Pacaya in Guatemala. For the new folks in our group, seeing an active volcano for the first time was still a major thrill. As was smuggling in booze into the Baldi Hot Springs. Costa Rica had mayoral elections that weekend, and instituted a three-day alcohol ban across the entire country. The idea being, if you're too drunk you might vote for the wrong guy, even if you're a tourist, even if you're not voting (according to the local Tico Times a few days later, not many people did). Maybe if they get voters blind-drunk in the US, they might vote for the right guy, but this has nothing to do with the fact that I soon found myself running between a dozen thermal pools and massive, fake-rock hot tubs, seemingly imported from the Playboy Mansion. We set up a wet bar behind some bushes, and spent the night flirting in hot springs in the moonlight shadow of a volcano. It's not every day...
But the thrill of La Fortuna lay in the Lost Canyon. Former tour guide Christina, possibly the only person from Wisconsin who can say "I've done the Inca Trail 16 times" and her adventure-mad husband Suresh, have painstakingly cleared a canyon a few miles out of town, and have added this "discovered" canyon to their list of impressive activities at Desafio Adventure Company. We were one of the first groups to rappel off the 50m plus wooden platforms. The last time I did something like this was in New Zealand, where I rappelled into a cave, yelping in agony as I'd caught my left nut in the harness. This time, I just yelped at the breathtaking sight one is privy to when dangling mid-air beneath a waterfall. It took a couple hours to make our way down river, including two huge drops and a couple fun obstacles. The other group encountered a snake, which may or may not have been poisonous (the way stingrays may or may not be dangerous), but everyone had a rosy watermelon smile at the end, perfect to fit the fresh-cut watermelon waiting for us after the steep climb out. Next up I went river rafting over a long, turbulent stretch of rapids that provided three thrilling moments: firstly, when Gary of Melbourne went over the edge, requiring a quick Gonzo rescue that provided one of those few moments of pure adventure we all crave outside the movies. Secondly, when we pulled into shore to find locals having a river party, selling cold beer despite the ban (punishable by three-months in jail), serenading us with an accordion. Finally, when I left the boat to float down the rapids on my ass, catching my toe in the rocks, which, were it not for the covered toes of my Keen sandals, would surely have broken just as sure as I was, later that night, when we attacked a bottle of Nicaraguan Flor de Cana rum.
Cloudforest is different from rainforest in that misty cloud passes through the trees, as opposed to constant rain. So there was really nothing to be surprised about when I arrived in Monteverde to find it wet and cold, with howling winds and a chill that planted itself in my very bones. It was the type of weather that renders glasses useless (if they're not wet, they're fogged), and is a general affront to good time sensibilities, especially if you're on a winter-sun vacation in Costa Rica. But the old saying goes: gale force winds should never stop a night walk, and into the Monteverde Cloudforest we go, searching for sleeping birds, bugs and fat, hairy tarantulas. Our knowledgeable guide informs us that animals are wiser than humans because other than some porcupines and the odd tarantula, most creatures know better than hang around a forest during a wind storm. Besides the thick forest teeming with wildlife, people also come to Monteverde to zipline, which involves strapping oneself onto a harness and jumping off a platform to slide through the canopy. It's generally not too extreme, unless you're on ziplines spanning over 700m long, 100m high, and operating in conditions that would send most people home to board up their windows. By the time our group reached the 11th line, we had to go two at a time to avoid being blown in circles. Wet, cold, extreme wind - in terms of Gonzo, the weather conditions were just perfect.
The Fire Doctor of Taipei has coated my back with a brown paste of herbs, covered me with a towel, and spritzed on some alcohol. After lowering the lights, he tells me to be calm, and then lights up the blowtorch. I hear a sound not unlike that of a gas burner being lit, and catch the reflection of flames off a nearby mirror. It takes a few moments to register that the source of the fire is my back, followed by the sudden rush of intense heat.
For over a dozen years, Master Hsieh Ching-long has been using open flame to rid the pain. Master Hsieh (pronounced Shay) created fire therapy a dozen years ago after medical training in Beijing, applying his knowledge of traditional medicine, martial arts, and pyromania to invent a powerful treatment for muscle aches and sports injuries. Photos on display in his small clinic depict the doctor with several dozen local celebrities, and he tells me that business is booming. “Not anybody can heal with flame,” says the Fire Doctor. It requires years of martial arts training, so that you can channel your inner energy and use your hands as iron. I’m not sure what this means exactly, but it sounded comic-book cool, and when he demonstrated the above by ripping an apple in half with his thumbs, I knew I was in good hands.
Being set alight was my thrill of choice in Taiwan, the “other” China. Officially recognized by only 23 countries, the island nation lives in a constant state of tension with its larger Chinese neighbour, with mainland invasion just a few missiles away. Established in 1949 after the communist revolution, Taiwan’s US-supported economy boomed, its democracy flourished, and today it is amongst the sharpest claws of the Asian Tiger economies. With political rhetoric heating up, many look to the success of Hong Kong as a potential future for the peaceful reintegration of Taiwan and China. In the meantime, I had my own heat to deal with.
I was hoping Master Hsieh could use his able hands, scarred with burns over time, to untie the thick plane knots in my back. My treatment would come in three stages. Firstly, he would use heated glass cups to realign the energy. Gwyneth Paltrow popularized this treatment a couple years back when she revealed the source of the circular purple welts on her back. It was only during my second treatment, when the blowtorch was fired up, that my nerves began sweating. The herb paste burns for a several seconds before the good doctor douses the flames with a towel, and massages the intense heat into my skin. “Now for the dangerous part,” he says, in which open flame is applied directly to the skin. Photos of other patients on the wall showed grilled skin, lines like steak on a barbeque. I sit upright, and feel the flame rolled down my back on cotton doused in alcohol. It hurts. A lot. I smell the sickly-sweet scent of skin being scorched. Finally, the doctor uses his vice-grip hands for a deep tissue massage, and signals the end of the treatment. My back is bright red, but thankfully free of burn marks. I step out into the heat of Taipei, my adrenaline ablaze; the stiff muscles from yesterday’s long-haul flight slashed, burned, and cast off into oblivion.
Master Hseih Ching-long’s Fire Clinic is located at No.2, Sec. 1, Chenggong Rd., Nangang District, Taipei City 115, Taiwan. Treatments typically last 40 minutes, and cost around $35 per session. Different skin can react to open flame in different ways, and heat bruises are common.
Karl, the facially scarred East German barman, had three teeth missing, and a grin full of mischief. Four days into an epic adventure up the tributaries of the Orinoco Delta, I am convinced he is mixing more than just rum into my stiff Cuba Libres. I had been warned that after a couple nights sleeping in a hammock wrapped inside a mosquito net, this high up in the northern Venezuelan jungle, chancing upon a remote lodge with a well stocked bar could lead to some vicious tropical jungle juju. Defined as: Taking the barman on the speedboat to view the sunset, and ultimately, diving into a river widely known to contain flesh-chewing piranhas. No sooner had we entered the water, than a rare pink dolphin leaped into the air, her skin glistening with all the colours of the rainbow. OK, I don’t know if it was a female dolphin, but only a pink lady could look that beautiful. According to the indigenous Warao Indians, seeing a pink dolphin is a sign of immense luck. This explains why I am able to climb back on board, at loss for words from the experience, but fortunately with all digits in place.
With teeth like razors and skin like barbwire, piranhas have the sunny disposition of a Filipino death squad. Sharks may be the grunt soldiers of aquatic terror, but South American piranhas are riverside hit men, shredding their prey with efficient ferocity. Found within rivers from Argentina to Colombia, they hunt in large packs, sending out scouts to locate the prey before initiating a feeding frenzy characterized by a scene of boiling water. Kayaking through piranha infested waters along the Orinoco sounds more like an adventure tourism sales plug than a reality, until my Warao guide Pina hands me a stick, some gut wire, and a crudely fashioned hook. Rather alarmingly, all I need to do is splash my stick on the water surface to attract the beasties, and within seconds, my bait has vanished. The combination of heat, storms of mosquitoes, and inhuman humidity make me want to dive into the river, but the combination of bloodthirsty carnivorous piranhas make me want to stay on shore more. Although they only grow to 2ft long, nature has equipped piranhas with deadly tools, from interlocked teeth to excellent hearing and unparalleled teamwork. Each fish takes a mighty munch and instantly moves out of the way for his pal. Theodore Roosevelt, on an expedition to Brazil in 1913, described a horrifying scene of a cow being attacked and stripped to the bone in minutes.
Eat me? Eat you! I am determined to catch a piranha, both as a challenge, and to reaffirm my place in the food chain. With dark clouds of mosquitoes raining down on my neck and a skinny loyal Warao dog at my side, I persist, constantly replacing the bait that seems to vanish seconds once it hits the water. Finally, I tug up at the right time, and a small, sharp, and thoroughly bemused piranha is on my hook. A hot makeshift grill, a dash of strong lime, some trusty Tabasco (I always travel with a bottle), and I have to confess: piranha is a tasty, albeit bony fish. It’s not enough to quench a major hunger, but at least you’re on the right side of the fork.
Cut to: The following day. For hours, a torrential downpour dumps its moist guilt on our twin-engine open-roof speedboat. I’m excited at the prospect of sleeping on a real bed tonight in a rustic shack so much more attractive than another wrapped up buggy night in a hammock. Large tapirs are running up and down the wooden boardwalks in this remote jungle lodge, while banana-beaked toucans and chirpy macaws rest on the tables at the bar. Drinks flow. Hey, lets go watch the sunset at the congruence of three tributaries! Hey, let’s bring our sketchy free pouring barman along! Swimming with piranha: a good idea at the time. Of course, the local Warao swim, drink and bathe in the same waters, and in truth have more problems with rabid vampire bats than bloodthirsty piranhas. For piranhas tend to attack weak fish first, and healthy humans last. Still, how big a thrill is a jungle adventure in the Orinoco Delta? As big as a piranha’s appetite.
When the going gets tough, the tough get wet. Presenting 10 of the world's mightiest rivers for bucket list rafters. Paddle up, there's rapids ahead!
The Nahanni, Canada
Rafting UNESCO’s first ever World Heritage Site is one of the grand Canadian adventures. From Virginia Falls, where a 90m cascade plummets in to the river, canoe and kayak trips typically spend a week paddling downriver through huge canyons and pristine wilderness.
The Colorado, USA
Spend a week in a motorized raft (or two weeks with paddles) floating down the Colorado River, through one the world’s true natural wonders, the Grand Canyon. Thrilling rapids, epic geology, waterfalls, creeks and companionship await.
The Zambezi, Zimbabwe
Regarded as perhaps the world’s best one-day whitewater rafting experience, conquer the mighty Zambezi River at the foot of Victoria Falls. The most thrilling runs take place during low water between February and July, when the rapids are so rough as to be almost unpassable. Do your best to stay on board, and watch out for the small (harmless) crocodiles.
Enjoy the staggering scenery of Patagonia aboard a whitewater raft, as you navigate the Class 3 to 5 rapids of the Futaleufu River. You don’t have to rough it during this week-long journey: Earth River Expeditions have permanent camps with hot showers, stone hot tubs and comfortable beds.
The Ganges, India
Raft the Ganges from outside the town of Rishikesh, as the river bursts forth from the Himalayas, safe from the pollution it gathers further down. Rafting trips run from hours to days, starting October through June, although it can get pretty chilly around December/January.
White Nile, Uganda
Flowing through the heart of Africa, the Nile is a mystical river with a storied history. Its source was the subject of doomed expeditions and controversy. You won’t be thinking about any of it as you crash through a series of Class 4 and 5 rapids. Half and full day tours depart from the town of Jinja, located about 80km northeast of Kampala.
Kaituna, New Zealand
It’s not the Ganges or the Nile, but the lush Kaituna River does allow you to experience the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world. There’s a 50/50 chance your raft will flip as you plummet over the 7m high falls, but that’s all part of the fun.
The Yangtze, Nepal
The Big Bend of China’s Yangtze River flows through a dramatic 10,000 foot deep gorge. That’s almost twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. A 10-day rafting tour runs 120 miles through the bend, crossing Class 4 rapids aplenty. Along the way you’ll get the chance to explore rural villages, and do some serious hiking too.
The Saint Lawrence River, Quebec
You don’t have to travel far to challenge the Saint Lawrence. Located close to downtown Montreal adjacent to Habitat 67, the Lachine rapids offer some of the world’s largest standing waves. Various class of rapids means even kids can conquer this mighty river.
Sharing its borders with Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, Iguazu is well known for its spectacular waterfalls. You can also climb into a raft to conquer the river from below, spending an hour crossing Class 3 rapids amidst the dense vegetation and exotic wildlife found in Iguazu National Park.
Thin metal rods are poking out of a giant tree, spiralling up and up (and up) towards a wooden platform, seventy-five metres in the Western Australia sky. These karri trees are among the tallest hardwoods in the world, and this particular tree, the tallest in the forest, was used as a fire lookout for any trouble smoking in the area. It seems like an innocent enough roadside attraction, just fifteen minutes drive from the gas and beef pie pit stop of Pemberton. How often we find Bucket List experiences in the most unlikely places.
I drive into Warren National Park out of curiosity, captivated by a sign directing visitors to the Dave Evans Bicentennial Tree. Playing on my iPod is U2, a sign of perfect synchronicity. Dave Evans is the real name of guitarist The Edge, and his namesake tree, a pure coincidence, seems destined to deliver the same.
At the top of this lookout tree sits a large platform weighing two tons. To get there I must climb 130 erratically staggered thin black rods, thrusting myself up between ever widening gaps. From the bottom it looks harmless enough, mostly because one can’t see the top. I start eagerly, one pole at a time, a little unnerved by the thin wire safety net. Good for a falling baseball cap, not the person attached to it. Looking down for the first time, my knees become as wonky as a Central African government.
I clutch the thin poles so tight my arm muscles cramp, my toes clenched so hard you could crack a bullet between them. Higher and higher, and just when I am sure I might absolutely wet myself with fear, I reach a small wooden platform. A truly unhelpful sign reads: "That was the easy bit, mate!" Aussie Aussie Aussie, oy, oy oy…vey.
A sturdy tanned Australian fellow crawls down from above. "C'mon mate, once you're this far, you may as well go all the way to the top," he says, in that typical Australian drawl which makes any stranger seem like an army buddy. It encourages me to continue my climb, cursing ever-present Australian sticky flies, relentlessly crawling into my nostrils and ears. I reach another rest platform, and another, and then another, until at last, I am on top of the tree, dripping in sweat, staring above the dense forest in all directions. The sea casts a blue glow on the horizon. My knees are still swaying, but that might have something to do with the tree itself, dancing to a gentle ballad in the wind. In strong wind, the trunk can sway almost two metres in either direction.
Cautiously, I make my way down, wondering why they don't sell T-Shirts at the bottom. Perhaps: U2 can survive the Dave Evans Bicentennial Tree. I wonder how many people have slipped, and if the safety net did its job. I wonder who Dave Evans is, and whether he might be the unfortunate chap who can answer both questions. Assuming the latter was affirmative.
The climb takes about an hour, and trust me, it is far scarier than any tree you ever tackled in your childhood. There isn’t even an official around to call an ambulance should you drop out the sky. Although if there is, he might tell you: “it’s just a tree, mate! We have spiders bigger than this.”
Los Angeles traffic feels like a stuffy nose. Sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the 405, or the 10, or the 91, you start wishing for a cosmic tissue to blow away the insufferable congestion. Eventually the jams peter out on the I-15, disappearing on Highway 79 South altogether. At last, some tumbleweed! My car slices through rolling brown hills that seem familiar from Hollywood westerns. Up ahead is the Warner Springs Airstrip, a saloon for modern sky sailors. We are here to tick off sailplaning, or sky sailing, or soaring, or whatever you want to use to describe the act of gliding a fibreglass dragonfly in the dreamy California sky.
Lining the airstrip are white coffin-shaped boxes containing easy-to-assemble sailplanes. Although fixed-wing gliding has been around since the Wright Brothers, the aircraft took off recreationally after World War II, when Germans were restricted to flying non-powered planes. Modern German-built gliders, withstand more pressure than fighter jets, have reached over 13,000 metres in altitude, and covered an incredible 2250 kilometres. It is said that the best pilots in the world are avid gliders, capable of feeling the winds beneath their wings. Case in point: when a section of a fuselage blew out, a pilot named Dave Cronin credited his gliding skills with saving all aboard his Boeing 747. Good to know as I cram into my seat behind the sailplane pilot. We are connected to a small prop plane with a sixty-metre metal tow wire. It’s a bumpy take-off, the glider rattling and flexing on the ground with the grace of a running swan. My nerves start to shake with the seat. Unless one is prepared to invest $300,000 for a new state-of-the-art Stemme, most gliders are designed for thrills over comfort. Before the tow-plane even leaves tarmac, our glider lifts gently into the air, tuned up and eager for altitude. The swan elegantly takes flight. Once we reach one thousand metres, the pilot signals me to pull a lever and cut our umbilical cord to the plane. Suddenly, I am inside the eye of an albatross.
Much like hanggliding or paragliding, sailplane pilots hunt warm pockets of air called thermals in order to gain elevation. Each pocket of warm air results in a dramatic upwards swing. Safely strapped in, there’s not enough room in the cockpit for too much bouncing around from the turbulence. Air gushes in from breathing holes on the sides, which I open up all the way in case of motion sickness. This increases the noise level, but takes nothing away the thrill of pure flight. No engines, no fuel – just air currents, speed and grace.
“Do you want to see what this baby can do?” asks the pilot.
That’s usually a rhetorical question, one I’ve been asked several times researching this Bucket List, and one I have never yet answered in the affirmative. Dave Cronin suddenly nosedives the sailplane and there is so much blood rushing to my head it might just explode. He's pulling a David Cronenberg!
You know that moment when you’re on a rollercoaster and wonder if you’re going to fall out? When you pull tricks in a sailplane, that moment doesn’t stop. The speed and pressure is incredible, increased as the pilot points the nose upwards, giving us the sensation of negative G-force. Weightless for a moment, his walkie-talkie floats above our heads. Worth noting at this point is the volume of my screaming, and the fact that I am wondering if vomit can cleanly squeeze through the diameter of the breathing holes. We level out, and after a twenty-five minute ride, land on the runway, speed along to the main office, and come to an abrupt stop. Gravity feels especially heavy, but there’s some relief when my feet touch the ground. Unfortunately, I’ll have to use those feet for the drive back to Los Angeles, where soaring is strictly reserved for the imaginations of would-be starlets.
For more info, including directions, weather and rates, visit: www.skysailing.com
Just as surely as humans have always felt an inexplicably strong desire to erect large buildings (all the way back to Babel, baby!), so a second group follow close behind with the desire to climb to the top of them. A third group wants to jump off with bungee ropes or parachutes, and we call them: lunatics. This post concerns itself with the more agreeable climbing party, including those ascending above the bronzed beach and looping canals of Gold Coast, Australia.
Gold Coast (which is a city, not a coastline) is a tourist mecca in Queensland, buttressed by sandy beaches that stretch on forever. The highest building in the city is the iconic Q1 Resort and Spa Building, and the highest external building climb in the country takes place above the Q1 Observatory. Suited up in grey overalls and a safety harness, I follow my cheery guide to the elevator which bullets climbers to Level 77 in just 42.7 seconds. The Observation Deck offers 360-degre views of the city, the coastline, the information placards and snack bar. Which is why we open the Skypoint Climb door, climb up a ladder, snap in our safety caribiners, and peer down a sheer 270 metre vertical drop (truly, the last place you’d ever want to drop your phone, which is why you’re not allowed to bring cameras or phones with you).
I follow my guide up the 140 stairs to the summit, sliding my safety hook along the angled rails. The breeze is brisk, the heavens blue, and the view extraordinary. Turquoise waves roll into the pretzel-coloured beach with the kind of consistency one would expect in a neighbourhood named Surfers Paradise. Behind and below me are the canals that shape the city’s character, framed by riverfront properties and boat docks.
“Must be fun to swim on those canals?” I inquire.
“Oh, nobody swims in the canals,” replies my guide. “Too many bull sharks.”
Best we keep our pleasure dips to the ocean then, where shark nets protects bathers and surfers from sharks confusing them for something they’d actually enjoy taking a bite of.
On a platform at the summit, I’m invited to lean back, trusting all my weight to the harness. You’d have to weigh as much as a bull to put pressure on the harness, so this is all completely safe, even for those afraid of heights (although the Sky Point website does say that a true acrophobic need not apply). I moonwalk. I ogle. I peer at the row of tall buildings that line the coast, and wonder why nobody thought to climb around the edge of their summits first. Probably because they don’t look nearly as striking as the Q1 Building. We return to the Observation Deck, where I learn more about Gold Coast, lifeguards, the canals, and the Great Barrier Reef. 47.7 seconds after stepping into the elevator, I’m back on the ground, popping my ears, craning my neck to see if I can spot the very top of this 325m building. Another day, and another high, ticking off The Great Global Bucket List.
The SkyPoint Climb lasts around 90 minutes, open to those 12 and up with no debilitating physical conditions. This includes being drunk, which is why they breathalyser you before you go up. Climbers must wear enclosed, rubber-soled shoes (leave the flip flops at the beach). Your valuables are locked up but you can bring sunglasses and prescription eyeware with a provided attachment. Overalls and harnesses are also provided. Parking is complimentary in the Visitors Parking, and your ticket includes access to the Observation Deck. Your guide takes photo and video, which is for sale after the excursion. You can choose a Day Climb, Twilight Climb, an early morning breakfast climb, or one of several Climb and Dine Packages.
For more info, visit: http://www.skypoint.com.au/
When we last caught up with travel-fanatic Rus Margolin, he had just been to over 100 countries. Well, he just ticked off his 200th. I met Rus at Arctic Watch, one of the highlights on The Great Canadian Bucket List, and the kind of remote shore where rather interesting people wash up. For example, former-bond traders from New York who decide to visit every country in the world. Many years ago, I remember telling a girl in Hungary that I was travelling around the world, and without missing a beat, she asked me: So, what have you learned?” I caught up with Rus for a conversation about travel, experiences, highlights, some places you might not have heard of, and what he has learned himself. Check out some of his incredible photos in the slideshow above.
RE: I bet a lot of people ask you what your favourite country is. Does it drive you crazy?
RM: It's pretty much the most common question. And the less travelled people ask it even more. And my typical answer is: It depends. Are you interested in culture, history, nature, landscapes, people, food? And so on…
RE: Travel is so personal. I always tell people, “just because I had a great time in X, doesn’t mean you will.” Perhaps folks just want reassurance. I do like throwing in amazing countries they wouldn’t have thought of much, like Sri Lanka, and Cook Islands.
RM: I do the same and go a step further - Mauritania, Greenland, Turkmenistan, Iran, Vanuatu. See how their eyes open wide in disbelief. Djibouti as well.
RE: At this point, you could just start making names up! I’ve got a text box in my new Global Bucket List book about the amount of countries in the world. “The United Nations currently has 193 members; the US State Department recognizes 195. FIFA has 208 members because it takes into account countries that are governed by other countries but can still kick a soccer ball. Most sources give the number at 196.” How do you define a country? How many are on your list?
RM: I have my own list of countries. To me a country is not a UN entity but more like a unique destination - with it's own culture, nature, people, history, geographic isolation, and its own government. You start with a UN list, add various former colonies and islands and territories, add a bunch of de facto independent countries and you get close to 300. Greenland, Cayman Islands, Transdniester, New Caledonia, Galapagos, Easter Island, Canary Islands - these are all countries to me. Here’s my full list of countries.
RE: And is your goal to visit all of them?
RM: Not the primary objective. I am interested in seeing the most incredible and unique places in the world, having incredible experiences while doing it, and meeting people from all over the world. Plus I like contrasts - one day you are trekking Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda, next week you are in Norway seeing Northern lights, next week you are clubbing in NYC and next week you are in the South American jungle. I am also still trying to see every possible animal migration and mammal species there is.
RE: I found the richness of the experience can become overwhelming, like eating too much dessert. How do you keep it fresh? How do you prevent becoming a jaded traveller?
RM: Alternate the experiences. When I got to "chateau-ed out" in France, I went hiking in Pyrenees. When the Western European democracy gets under your skin - you try Russia or Egypt.
RE: I’m sure many readers will be asking themselves: how the heck does this guy afford it? Were you a Wolf on Wall Street? Do you have to make personal and professional sacrifices to travel with such dedication?
RM: The fact is that travelling is actually often cheaper then living in a big metropolitan city. In many countries you can survive on $50 per day in relative comfort. The biggest expense of travel is airfare - which you minimize of you country to neighboring country, or allow for flexibility in finding cheap flights. You could lease a car in Europe for a long-term lease as cheap as 20 euro a day. South America, Asia, Middle East are all relatively cheap. Professionally it's definitely a huge sacrifice - but I’d rather look back at my life and think about incredible experiences than stare at a bank account or remember sitting in front of monitors and watching markets oscillate.
RE: Oscillating in Transdniester. That’s a good title for a book. And I confess I’d never heard of Transdniester until you mentioned it!
RM: In Transdniester you actually experience time travel. It's like going back to USSR - Lenin statues, rubles with hammer and sickle on them, beer in metal barrels sold in the streets. It's a completely independent country with its own government, money, military and police, language, sports teams. Just not recognized by UN
RE: I just looked it up on Wikipedia just in case you were making it up! OK, so what country did you find the most welcoming, and what country was the most hostile?
RM: For the most part I have to say that pretty much every country is welcoming. You always meet people who are proud of their country and want to show it to you. Iran was probably the biggest surprise in how open and friendly people were. Same for Cuba. Slovakia, Rwanda, the Pacific Island nations, Central Asia. Different culturally, definitely, but open arms everywhere. Perhaps maybe the Gulf Countries were a bit stuffy. But so are some states in USA.
RE: Have you noticed any universalities among the nations? Is globalization as prevalent in the cultural sense as the media would have us believe?
RM: Well, there’s cell phones. No matter how poor or isolated the country is - everybody has iPhones or smart phones of some sort, and most places have wifi. It was easier or find wifi in Egypt then in New York.
RE: Even in Transdniester and Djibouti?
RM: Transdniester absolutely. Djibouti, in the capital city. When I was camping in the desert, not so much.
RE: You’re chasing migrations and mammals too. What’s your favourite mammal? Some of them can be quite elusive. Like the virtuous and honest politician (or so I’m told...)
RM: I haven't met a virtuous and honest (or even either/or) politician yet. In the animal world - gorillas, orangutans, whales, grizzlies, elephants, lions are much easier and more enjoyable to deal with.
RE: You take some incredible images (some of which I’ve used in my books). Do you have a favourite? The pic that always brings a smile to your face?
RM: My top 3 stunning places, visually: Danakil in Ethiopia, Kamchatka in Russia, the Icefjord in Greenland. Most pictures bring incredible memories. That's the beauty of travel. Every country and city gets a real feel and taste and color, rather than just being a name on the map. Some of my favorite pics were from most insane experiences - like hugging a white baby seal in Canada, standing on top of Mt Kenya, stretching my arm toward a gorilla or whale shark, dancing my ass off in Ibiza during fluorescent spray-paint night. It's an endless list really.
RE: So, you travel around the world. What have you learned?
RM: Be open to other people and their views of life; be respectful of their cultures and traditions; try every food you can; take on all physical challenges; learn about everything and anything. Enrich yourself with knowledge and experiences, and then continue to repeat the process. The sky truly is the limit.
RE: I totally agree. And what’s next?
RM: A small trip to British Virgin Islands, then back to New York for DJ classes. And then: West Africa, Polynesia, Mongolia, India, more of Brazil and Russia
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your love.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.