“Can we tick this one off Dad?” I ask?
“Yes we can.”
And so we did.
I was recently invited to speak at the annual leadership conference for Coast Hotels, which took place at the Coast High Country Inn in Whitehorse. The theme of the event was Bucket List, and so naturally, I felt right at home. Since it’s January, and Whitehorse is the most accessible northern city to see the aurora, especially from Vancouver, I brought my Dad along for the ride. It’s been his dream to see the aurora since watching an 80’s movie called St Elmo’s Fire, which doesn’t feature the lights at all, other than, as I write in my book, the “light going out of Ally Sheedy’s acting career.” No offence to Ally Sheedy. Or Andrew McCarthy, an actor in the movie who is now an editor-at-large for National Geographic. #Everythingisconnected. My Dad and I had previously spent five nights in Yellowknife and saw no lights, but we did kinda-sorta see the aurora (if you squinted just so) in Hay River after flying over with Buffalo Air, but never got the full razzmadaddle. Whitehorse would be another kick at the aurora can. What’s more, Coast had arranged for attendees to tick off a full blown Whitehorse bucket list, including dogsledding with Muktuk Adventures (as featured in my books), slurping back the Sour Toe Cocktail brought down from Dawson City, and dipping in the thermal springs of the Takhini Hot Pools. Throw in some elk sausage and Arctic Char from Burnt Toast, my favourite restaurant in the city, and you’ve got a comprehensive winter Whitehorse bucket list covered!
We arrived via Air North, which is the only airline I know that serves hot baked cookies, refreshments at the gate, and affordable flights to a northern city. Settled into the Coast High Country Inn (which is owned by the same folks who own the Best Western Gold Rush Inn, so they have you covered), we took off for our first shot at seeing the lights at a remote aurora viewing cabin. Fire pits were burning, the tent cabins were heated and cozy, and the sky cleared nicely. The aurora report gave us just a 4/10 chance at seeing a 4/10 display, but sure enough, green waves began to pop on the horizon. No fireworks, but fine enough. That we threaded the needle on our first night in Whitehorse is a testament to Coast marketing director Sarah Kirby-Yung’s delightful optimism trumping my Dad’s northern lights jinx.
“Can we tick this one off Dad?” I ask?
“Yes we can.”
And so we did.
Racing a dogsled on a frozen river is pure bucket list too. I’ve had the good fortune to dogsled with Muktuk Adventures filming an episode for my TV show, and researching a chapter for my book. The happiest puppies on the planet were lined up and rearing to go on our arrival, and off they go, running along the side of the Takhini River, pausing only for breaks and cuddles from Muktuk’s caring staff. Go dog go! It was the highlight of the trip for my Dad, which speaks volumes about the quality of the experience (and perhaps the performance of the aurora as well).
If only I could do all my book signings at a bar, beer in hand. Every attendee received a signed copy of my book at an evening event, soundtracked by a three-piece jazz band, and the arrival of the notorious Sour Toe Cocktail. It’s the fourth time I’ve had someone else’s severed toe in my mouth, although this time I think some of it flaked off and got stuck in my teeth, which continues to make me gag just writing about it. I got my Dad to join the club too, the toe stubbornly refusing to slide down the tumbler of Yukon Jack to touch his lips. As the Toe Captain will tell you: “Drink it fast, or drink it slow, but your lips must touch this gnarly looking toe.”
After finally getting a decent photo of Whitehorse's iconic wooden skyscraper, Tourism Yukon's Jimmy Kemshead drive us along the Alaska Highway to check out the Mount Sima Ski Hill outside of town, and the scenic taiga on the drive to Carcross. Our final night featured a soak in the Takhini Hot Pools, a natural thermal spring located 25 minutes drive from Whitehorse. It was a late night soak, well enjoyed by all and spiced (and chilled) with a half-naked roll in the icy snow. As usual, the travel buzz moment came when I least expected it. Our bus got stuck in the ice in Takhini’s parking lot, and while the driver revved and tried to roll free, the cold night sky burst forth with stars, falling meteorites, and the wispy dance of the aurora herself. Not quite green, but a large distinct light flickering across the dark sky. Eventually we managed to free the bus by lining up and pushing it out in reverse. Rescuing a passenger bus beneath the northern lights in the Yukon? Now that’s bucket list.
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
You can catch up to Rus on Facebook and Instagram.
Hot, cold, dry, wet and windy – there are some places in the world where everything is taken to the extreme. Those craving excitement might put them on the radar. Others should make a mental note to avoid these spots at all costs.
The World’s Hottest Place
Here’s a contentious category, with various contenders vying for the top hot spot. Historically, the victor was El Aziza in Libya, where the ground temperature was recorded in 1922 at a whopping 58°C. Furnace Creek in California’s Death Valley clocked in at an impressive 56°C, but it was not until satellites could measure thermal temperatures that the true victor could scorch their way to the top. Researchers at the University of Montana analysed infrared satellite data and the results were surprising. According to five years worth of data, the hottest place on Earth is Iran’s Lut Desert, where the land skin temperature was measured at 70.7°C. At that heat, you can fry an egg on your hand!
The World’s Coldest Place
On November 23, 2010, Alberta recorded temperatures that made it the second coldest place that day on the planet. What’s remarkable about this fact is that it included populated cities like Edmonton and Calgary, where the wind chill cranked the chill to around -41°C. Pollockville, 250km east of Calgary, had to deal with -49°C. But that’s toasty compared to how cold it can get in Antarctica, which reigns supreme for recording the coldest temperatures on Earth. Scientists in Vostok, near the magnetic south pole, recorded land temperatures at a brrrr-isk -89.2°C, measured during the dark winter months of June and July. The coldest permanently inhabited town is said to be Oymyakon in Russia’s northern Sakha Republic, which clocked in at a frisky−71.2 °C.
The World’s Wettest Place
There are half a dozen contenders in this category, with different research methodologies determined to soak up the glory. When I visited Kauai, Hawaii’s Garden Island, I was told by proud locals and guides that Mount Wai-‘ale-‘ale is the wettest spot on Earth, with rain falling between 335 and 360 days a year, drowning in up to 13,000mm each year. The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes this achievement, but the US National Climatic Data Center gives the title to Colombia’s Lloro, which receives over 12,000mm a year. Cherrapunji in north-eastern India is another contender, even more remarkable since its annual rainfall (almost 11,000mm) falls mostly in the monsoon months between June and August. Back in Colombia, a freak rainy season in 1974 deposited 26,303mm of rain on the town of Tutunendo. It puts living in rainy Vancouver, where the average annual rainfall is just 1588mm, in perspective.
The World’s Windiest Place
For 75 years, Mount Washington in New Hampshire held the record for the highest wind speeds ever recorded, 231 miles per hour at the top of its peak. It was a freak event, much like the cyclone in Barrow Island, Australia that blew right past the record, clocking in at 253 miles per hour. The most consistent windiest place on the planet is Commonwealth Bay in Antarctica. As for the windiest cities, forget Chicago. Citizens in Wellington New Zealand, Reykjavik Iceland and Cape Town South Africa would do well to invest in extra strength umbrellas. As for the windiest city in Canada? The title goes to St John’s, Newfoundland.
The World’s Driest Place
The Atacama Desert stretches across northern Chile into parts of Bolivia and Peru, and is known as the driest place on the planet. Average rainfall is as little as 1mm a year, with some weather stations having never recorded any rain at all. The town of Arica, a launchpad for tourism excursions into the Atacama, did not record any rain for over 15 years! Crossing the Atacama in a 4x4 is one of my highlights of visiting South America, witnessing its otherworldly landscapes and rock structures. Scientists have compared the Atacama to conditions of Mars, which is why NASA test-drove their Mars Rovers here. Oddly enough, the driest continent is Antarctica, which receives less than 2mm rain a year, even though it is primarily made up of compacted snow and ice.
The World’s Deepest Place
James Cameron, director of Avatar and Titanic, broke the world record to become the first human to visit the deepest spot on the earth – the desolate, alien and lunar landscape that sits almost 11km deep at the bottom of the ocean known as the Mariana Trench. Located in the Western Pacific, the 2550km long trench forms the boundary of two tectonic plates. While pressure at the bottom is over 1000 times that found at sea level, researchers have still found life in the form of fish, shrimp and other organisms. Decaying animal skeletons, shells and other organisms give the seabed a yellow colour. Cameron filmed his descent in 3D for a documentary, and collected samples for scientists to shed more light on the darkest of ocean deeps.
The World’s Highest Place
The world’s highest mountain is Mount Everest, towering at 8848m above sea level. If you dared to climb atop its dangerous peak, as thousands of climbers do every year, you wouldn’t however be the closest to the moon. The planet’s shape is an oblate spheroid, much like the shape of balloon if you were to sit on it. The result is that mountains close to the equator stick out further than mountains closer to the poles, not in terms of height above sea level, but in terms of its closeness to the stars and distance from the earth’s centre. Cleverer people than I have done the calculations, and determined that the 6310m high Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador lies on the bulge, and as such is about 2.4 km closer to space than Everest!
The Deepest Place Below Sea Level
On dry land, you can’t get any lower than visiting the Dead Sea, the salty lake that shares its banks with Israel and Jordan. To get there, you’ll drive along the world’s lowest road, and float in its famously buoyant waters 423 metres below sea level. 67 kilometres long and 18 kilometres wide, this lifeless sea is 8.6 times saltier than the ocean, which is why you can comfortably sit back and read a newspaper during a dip. The health benefits of the mineral waters and thick mud of the Dead Sea have been prized since Biblical days, making it one of the world’s first health resorts. A drop in groundwater and flow of water from the Jordan River has resulted in significant shrinking of the Dead Sea, causing much concern for both the tourism and cosmetic industries that support it.
The World’s Most Dangerous Country
Forbes Magazine went through data looking at crime rates, risk of terrorism and kidnappings, police protection, corruption and political stability to determine the world’s most dangerous countries. Receiving the bronze medal on the podium is Somalia, which has not had a real government for 15 years, where militants run wild and piracy is rampant. The silver medal goes to Iraq, a hotbed of fundamentalism and instability, its citizens living under the constant threat of bombings and deeply corrupt government officials. Winning the gold medal, which will probably make its way to a Swiss bank account faster than I can type this sentence, is Afghanistan. Tribal warfare and corruption is rife, especially on the Pakistan border, where it is estimated that every citizen owns an automatic weapon.
The Youngest Place on Earth
Iceland, the real land of Fire and Ice (Game of Thrones notwithstanding) boasts the youngest place on the planet with its southern-most point, Surtsey Island. This 1.4 km2 island dramatically emerged from the sea during a volcanic eruption in 1963. The volcano stopped erupting almost four years later, with the intense flow of lava resulting in a newest island in the Atlantic. Since then, erosion has whittled away some of the land, but its hard igneous core has remained firm. The island was declared a nature reserve in 1965, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, for its scientific value. Scientists are studying how plant, bird and marine life are evolving on the island, with human impact carefully monitored and kept to a minimum.
Most visitors to Costa Rica inevitably beeline to the small town of La Fortuna, in hopes of seeing molten rock tumbling down the steep cone of Arenal Volcano. There are few sights to scare the hell out of you quite like an active volcano, but what the brochures conveniently fail to mention is that Arenal is clouded over for much of the year, and many visitors spend days looking at cloud when they’d much rather be baking on the sandy beaches along the Pacific coast. So as I waited for the clouds to lift and reveal the Mount Doom-like volcano in all its glory, I discovered the unusual but thoroughly thrilling sport of canyoneering. Thus I found myself dangling 60m above the ground like a fly wrapped in dental floss, soaked to the bone, beneath a recently discovered waterfall.
Canyoneering combines aspects of climbing (ropes, abseiling), hiking, and where applicable, swimming. The idea, simply, is that you climb, walk and slide your way down a canyon, often on your butt. In this particular case, alongside stunning waterfalls and thick jungle foliage. Former adventure guide Christine Larson and her husband Suresh Krishnan call it “The Lost Canyon” because they only discovered it a few years ago, clearing the canyon of natural rubble, and preparing wooden platforms from which to abseil. Every effort was made to conserve the rich eco-system, while at the same time allowing inexperienced climbers to rappel down two large waterfalls. Climbers like myself – the last time I abseiled I unfortunately caught one of my testicles in the harness, arriving back on solid ground well capable of reaching Michael Jackson’s high notes. Through Christine and Suresh’s adventure company Desafio, I joined a dozen other nervous tourists for a short drive from the town and a quick lesson in safety. Being one of the first groups to visit this rediscovered canyon meant extra precautions, and amongst the group was canyoneering legend Rich Hall - a certifier from the American Canyoneering Association. Rich, who bore an uncanny resemblance to the actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, told me about the time he got lost for three days and almost died in a canyon. This calmed my nerves the way hot cheese cools your mouth. After a few small practice rappels, we arrived at the first major drop. A wooden platform had been built alongside a tree, and the idea was to jump off it into the ravine below. I swung myself around the last safety pole, leaned back (making sure my family jewels were well positioned), and slid down into the lush canyon below. I could whoop in joy without a high-pitched falsetto.
Kitted out with gloves, helmet and harness, the group slowly made our way into the ravine. Even with my camera in a plastic bag, I was nervous about wading through the rock pools, preferring to remain relatively dry by pulling Spiderman maneuvers along the narrow canyon walls. This made no difference once I descended over another 60m drop, since Suresh, guiding below, swung the rope directly into the waterfall - a thrilling natural baptism that defied photographs anyway. Safely at the bottom, I joined the rest of the group, all wearing the “did I really just do that?” expression one finds in similar thrilling activities, like skydiving, or not paying traffic fines. With the jungle teeming with life around us – toucans, lizards, bugs – Suresh explained the exhaustive work it took to clear out old logs, wood and muck, and also to navigate Costa Rican politics. The country has strict laws when it comes to protecting its natural assets, and it’s no accident Costa Rica has become one of the best places on earth for eco-tourism.
After three hours, we reached a narrow exit point, unprepared but ready for a short, steep hike up the canyon to the road. Everyone had a rosy watermelon smile at the end, perfect to fit the fresh-cut watermelon waiting for us after the steep climb out. Phillip S Hoffman gave the experience two-thumbs up, and so did I. The cloud over Arenal never did clear up. Some days you win, some days you discover canyoneering.
Visit Desafio for more information about canyoneering in La Fortuna.