Sverige, del tre: A birthday and urban adventuring in Stockholm

 

The scene: Vete-Katten, est. 1928, Kungsgatan, Stockholm. 09:30. En kanelbulle, and a final (early) fika before I depart this fantastic city for a colder, wetter locale.


Swedes are known to drink a lot of coffee (according to this report, 8.2kg per person per year – nearly double what we drink in the US). I’ve read that most Swedes drink up to 5 cups a day! It only makes sense that they invented the fika: it’s afternoon coffee and cake, and almost a mandate here. I’d had my first proper fika the day after we exited the forest, replete with home-made apple cake from fruit picked in the family’s small orchard…we weren’t even allowed to leave for Stockholm without sitting for fika. An outsider’s perspective: I think it borders on religion. A sacrifice to the cinnamon gods? I’m in!

So, we’ve returned from the forest and spent the last couple of days doing some urban adventuring. Stockholm is a great city in which to do it. As I’ve already noted, Stockholm is bounded by 14 main islands and an archipelago with thousands more, each with its own personality. I stayed on a boat moored on Riddarholmen, a short hop over a bridge to Gamla stan (the old city), and a walk across the island (by the Palace) and over a bridge (by the opera house) gets you to what qualifies as the mainland. From there you can get to Djurgården (we’ll get there).

The flat is in a neighbourhood of glorious 18th and 19th century buildings (barring some 20th century insults to architecture), and I’m instantly enamored with the windows and the rooflines and the animal statues heralding the old apothecaries throughout the city. I’ve seen a stork and an owl and bear and a moose (apoteket storken, ugglan, björn och älg, respectively!). It’s almost worth going back for a scavenger hunt just to find them all.

My birthday morning, I’m treated to a makeshift Swedish brekkie (that my Swedish companion created sweetly – Swedishly – with what was in the fridge), and then we’re off to find a sunken ship.

But first, the birthday indulgences begin: we find the perfect kanelbulle. The shop smells of fresh bread and cinnamon. The piles of buns (as they are called here) are simply gorgeous. There’s a reason the sense of smell is so evocative. This is what I will picture whenever I smell cinnamon again.

Buns are walked off as we crisscross Stockholm towards Djurgården and the Vasa museet.

As the story goes, there was a king (Gustav II Adolf) who fancied himself the equivalent of a Swedish Hercules and commissioned a ship to be the grandest warship in the fleet, adorned with lions and Greek gods to illustrate the king’s power and instill fear in the enemy. I reflect that though we’ve advanced nearly 400 years, male hubris still has a long way to go.

In 1628, the Vasa sailed from Stockholm harbour and promptly sank before the eyes of the thousands there to view its maiden voyage. Apparently, the King’s visions of grandeur exceeded his knowledge of shipbuilding and its relationship to seaworthiness. The ship’s architects hadn’t the guts to go against his wishes. These were the days of “off with thy head” after all, so the directive to “make it TALLER” was heeded (collective eyes roll, heads remain intact). And so, the top-heavy flagship set sail, hit a spot of wind, listed, then expeditiously sank in 30 metres of water just outside Stockholm harbour. It lay in the mud for 333 years until it was exhumed in the early 1960’s.

The ship is remarkably well-preserved, having been ensconced in mud in the (low-salinity) Baltic, and meticulously restored – the museum houses the massive ship (over 50 metres high and nearly 70 metres long), puzzled back together in its entirety, and showcases its ornate carvings. We watched the film, took the tour, gaped at the intricacies and the craftsmanship. On the water (for those precious minutes anyway), she must have been a sight to behold.

All this touristing makes a birthday girl hungry. C takes me to a fantastic (and classic) lunch at the Operakallaren café by the Royal Swedish Opera House. It’s great people-watching and lovely local food. Me: fisk; C: kött. It reminds me, in some strange way, of Sardi’s in NYC, with the old opera posters on the wall and harried waitstaff.

By now, we’ve mastered the art of urban hiking, having clocked something on the order of 15km today, all around Stockholm’s waterfront and surrounding neighbourhoods. C has promised me princess cake (prinsesstårta) for my birthday, so we’re off to fika at the classic coffee house: Vete-Katten. Coffee is free-flowing, and the place is abuzz with chatter in a mingle of languages, tho svenska predominates. From the black-and-white tiled floors of the main bakery to the intimate coffee rooms out back, the antique furniture, mismatched chairs, and simple tablecloths, this place has a character all its own. Truth be told, I’m not really a chocolate cake fan. But the princess cake: layers of perfect whipped cream, raspberries, and light sponge cake…all topped with a thin sheet of marzipan (points awarded for the special birthday marzipan rose ❤); this is the perfection to which all birthday cakes should aspire!

There’s more walking, and birthday dinner at a nice place close to the flat, where my Swedish guise fails and I quickly use up the 16 words I’ve managed to mangle. The chatty waiter is still at it, greatly amusing the interpreter; he then resorts to handing me a new menu (this one in engelska). Jag talar inte svenska, I think, issuing a slightly defeated sigh. But I fall asleep sated and maybe still thinking about the princess cake a bit. There are not enough thank yous I can find (in any language) to adequately appreciate this day.

And so we wake, on a brighter (yet blustery-er) autumn morn. Determined to deliver on his promise to introduce me to all things Swedish, C makes traditional pancakes (pannkakor) for brekkie. I learn that they are not necessarily eaten as breakfast (rather, for lunch on Thursdays; who knew?!), and more often than not, eaten with just some butter, sugar and cinnamon OR strawberry jam (no butter, that’s a sin!). It’s nothing like our bready, sweet flapjacks here in the US. These delights are like a crêpe, but eggier somehow. With proper instruction on how to serve, fill, and fold (Swedes are nothing if not precise), we polish off the stack of pancakes before heading out for the day’s adventures: kayaking Djurgården!

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The winds have apparently scared all kayakers away from the task, so it seems we have the waterways virtually to ourselves. It is a fantastic way to see this city, and with Njord’s winds at our backs, he carries us swiftly down the Djurgårdsbrunnskanalen, the canal that separates Djurgården from Stockholm’s mainland. Djurgården is the old royal hunting grounds, and has been turned into something of an island-park, housing a multitude of museums and things to do (Gröna Lund amusement park, an interactive Viking museum, and the Abba Museum, among others).

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It’s a brilliant day out, and we are literally the only kayakers on the canal, passed by just a handful of boats over the 2 hours we’re out. It’s such a spectacle that tourists are actually taking pictures of us. The city is sparkling, and the homes that line the canal are a sight to behold. C points out the home he will acquire when he wins the lottery, and I concur: this wouldn’t be a half-bad place to live.

We’ve been warned not to attempt a circumnavigation of Djurgården, as the winds (and boat traffic) will be even stronger out there, so we’re content to do an out-and-back on the canal. It’s the back part that’s the challenge: against the wind is an understatement, and it takes quite the effort to return to the kayak place. We’re greeted by a surprised kayak guy…I dare say he was impressed that we lasted that long, given the circumstances. But the views along the way were most definitely worth the effort. A pile of adventure points awarded for the 6 or 7kms paddled while braving the headwinds.

Urban hiking, it’s called, when you log at least 15kms traipsing across a city to take it all in. We spend the rest of the day exploring Djurgården, then wending our way, feet sore and with bright smiles on our windblown faces, back to the flat. I could not have asked for a better tour guide.


And so I find myself back at Vete-Katten, too early in the day for another slice of prinsesstårta and just too late to refuse to go West. I’m writing and reflecting on another week spent living in the NOW with my magical co-conspirator. And I’m soaking in these last moments of Stockholm before I board the Arlanda Express to take me towards the next leg of the journey: a 3-day stopover in the Nordic land of ice.

Hejdå för nu.

Read the earlier posts in this series: [Del ett: Sweden, Day 1]  [Del två: Hiking the Bergslagsleden]

Sverige, del två: Hiking the Bergslagsleden

Del ett: Stockholm…a cobblestone whirlwind, finding my feet in this cosy, multifaceted, vibrant, sparkling city. The middle, I’ll get into here: a foray into the forest in central(ish) Sweden. After that, we go back to the city to continue the outdoor adventuring, which is intertwined in one’s existence here. Friluftsliv.

Sverige, dag två: I meet my Calvin, Swedish interpreter and de facto tour guide, at the family flat in Stockholm, for a week of birthday adventuring in the homeland (my birthday, his homeland). My Swedish is admittedly atrocious (read: nonexistent), so I’m counting on his prowess combined with the 11 or 16 words I’ve managed to string together to get me through these next days. Luckily the trees don’t care much what language you speak, as long as you treat them with respect. And they do here; treat the forests well, I mean.

We are geared up to the brim with equipment and supplies to hike the Bergslagsleden from Kloten to as far as we can get in order to arrive back in Stockholm to celebrate my birthday on Friday.

Our first day, we arrive in Kloten to do some kayaking. It’s windy and a bit overcast, but we try our luck with the kayak place at the beginning of the trail.

The kayaks are nice…ditto, the company and the scenery. The wind, not so much. So we return the kayaks after a couple of hours and decide to begin the hike that afternoon (15:00ish), aiming to reach the first camp shelter, 11km in, by sundown. [For the record, I’m glad we decided against the kayak-camping option…]

And they’re off… It’s ambitious, our goal, but we lace up the boots, pile on the packs (on the order of 15 kilos each), and set off. Adventure points* earned for both the kayaking and the strong start!

By km 7, though, we’re tired from the drive, the kayaking, and the hike thus far. We’re hungry, and I’m feeling the jetlag. So we begin to look for a place to pitch the tent when we stumble upon a stuga along a little stream.

Åbostugan, it’s called: a semi-restored stone cabin built into the hillside (green roof and all!). The Bergslagsleden info sheet tells us that the name of the stream is Sandån, and the stuga was the type of house in which the area’s (very) poor lived…they’d harvest the reeds around the pond for food for the animal(s), and even bring the cow or goat inside in wintertime! The cabin is about 4 metres x 5, with a dirt floor, fire pit, sleeping platform, and table for eating.

We’re fully-content with our lodgings for the evening, but considering the (not-so) posh accommodations, we wonder where we’d put our cow.

We’ve logged 8km this afternoon and dinner is well-deserved and a little indulgent (and quite international): home-made knäckebröd with olives and sun dried tomatoes, reconstituted veggie masala and rice, Moroccan mint green tea and dark chocolate peanut butter cups for dessert. We toast to a pretty excellent start to our adventure, climb into warm sleeping bags, and consider ourselves lucky to be able to do this as lifestyle, not life.

The Bergslagsleden is broken down into stages. Stage 1 is 20km; Stage 2 is 17…and so on. We’re shooting to do a couple of stages, then double back to the car or figure out another way to get from Point B back to Point A, in Kloten. The Swedes are nothing if not orderly. So their maps indicate where to find clean drinking water, camp shelters, good places to pitch a tent, trail highlights, etc.

We wake up on Day 2 to that fine mist-type rain that soaks you to the core in minutes. We cook a trail brekkie fit for royalty (food dehydrator for the win!), re-pack our packs, thank the gods of Gore-Tex, pile on the layers, and begin the day. We’re shooting to finish Stage 1 and make some headway on Stage 2 today. There’s an established camp and conference center at the end of the Stage, so this should be a good place to rest for lunch and assess the rest of the journey.

By the time we reach Gillersklack, and the end of the stage, we’ve renamed the Bergslagsleden to the Bog Slog (laden). Intermittent rain has turned the lovely blue- and lingonberry-lined trail into a muddy skating rink. I deftly demonstrate how gravity works by sliding off a wooden plank (perhaps ironically placed to provide safe passage across a boggy patch) and onto the mossy forest floor. I briefly contemplate staying there for the evening but hoist my ego (and my heavy pack) upwards and onwards, for it’s the ego that’s bruised far worse than my arse. Fall #2 is my knee vs. a boulder: as they say, that one’s going to leave a mark!

We’ve hiked roughly 12km to Gillersklack in unfriendly conditions (but at least it’s stopped raining) and we’re now fantasizing about the sauna we’ll take when we arrive at the camp (this is Sweden, after all). And we do. Arrive, that is. What isn’t there is the camp. Its season has ended, quite literally; the owners have gone bust. So what greets us at the end of Stage 1 is 3 guys looking for a real estate deal.

The wind is still blowing, but at least the sun is out by this time… We resist the urge to accept a ride into town from the real estate guys, so we make a late-ish lunch at one of the defunct camp’s tables, take a much-needed siesta to dry out a bit, and after some grumbling we’re ready to roll again. Though it’s again late in the day, the goal before dusk is to find the first shelter in Stage 2.

The good news is that we’re rested and well-fed. The bad news is that my knee hurts, C’s feet are soaking wet, we’ve overshot the trail and have to ask a local for directions (he turns out to be a chatty Danish guy who runs a Spiritual Center in the nameless place we’ve wandered into by accident). Dusk is drawing near, but luckily after our long slog we find the camping shelter…just as the sun is setting.

Neither of us is in the mood to make dinner, rehydrated or otherwise. I coerce a grumbly tentmate to make a fire, hoping to fix the day’s shortcomings with s’mores, that weird and much-too-sweet American delicacy he’s never tasted. I’ve not made them since my Camp Waziyatah days, but this is one recipe you can hardly muck up. The combination of toasted marshmallows and chocolate does somehow make up for the soggy, boggy day, and smiles return to the forest. We fall asleep in the Olovsjön shelter, stora Björnen dancing over our heads. The day’s tally: 23km. I’m awarding 10 adventure points. Sleep: well-earned.

We wake up the next day with a plan: the weather has made the trails less than fun. We’ll hike to Kopparberg (8km or so), get a bus or taxi back up to Kloten, go touring in the Swedish countryside where C grew up, crash in a real bed, and hike in that area the next day.

Reality: Hatched plans don’t often take into consideration the what-ifs. Like, what if no buses run between Kopparberg and Kloten? What if the taxi company doesn’t answer the phone? What if we have to make camp that night beneath the Kopparberg Midsummer pole then hike back up to Kloten the way we came?

Kopparberg

Because of a little thing C calls trail magic, that last what-if didn’t turn into a when. For the record, the Kopparberg bus schedule is, erm, limited. And the taxi company is unreliable. But as C finally gets the taxi guy on the phone, a fairy godmother, in the form of a kind older woman, appears and volunteers (literally out of the blue) to drive us the 20km back up to Kloten. Trail magic indeed. Score: Soggy, boggy hikers – 0; Bergslagsleden – 1. Our elder savior lady gets the adventure points for the day. And the Belgian pralines C had brought me as a birthday treat. And a story to tell her grandkids.

A hot shower and clean sheets never felt so good. In fact, waking up on the right side of a real bed helped the weary wanderers manage 17km in the Swedish countryside, including a foray to forage kantareller for dinner!

Aside: Sweden has a law called Allemannsretten or freedom to roam. Essentially, anyone has a right to walk, hike, bike, ride horseback, pitch a tent overnight, and pick berries or mushrooms when and where they find them (all within the guidelines). It’s a law based on mutual respect of people, their property, and the environment. Instead of No Trespassing signs, it’s closer to, “Hello neighbour, I hope you have a nice time in the outdoors today. Would you care for a snack? Have a nice day.”

I’m liking the Swedish way of life more and more.

…to be continued, back in Stockholm!


*Adventure points: a system we devised a couple of years ago to reward our adventursome efforts in Sardinia. The concept stuck.

[Sverige, del ett: Stockholm…Part I]

Ett språkproblem

When I visit a new place, I like to know a few words or phrases: hello, thank you, please, how are you, where is…(the train, loo, exit), excuse me, help!

I’m lucky that my first language is English. I’m also unlucky. Because here, in this insular island-esque not-island, attached top and bottom to countries that speak languages other than ours, we’ve decidedly decided that we need not know more than one language to get by in the world.

Tidbit: Did you know that 58% of Americans do not hold a passport? (and that’s up markedly, mostly because passports are now required to get to the Caribbean and Canada)

I studied French in Junior High. Hated it, then switched to Spanish in High School. American Sign Language in college (because at that time nobody suggested it might be a good idea to have a 2nd language, so I thought this might be good to have in my back pocket if the tinnitus ever worsened 🙄).

I’ve been to Central America 9 or 10 times. The Spanish has come in handy (assuming a Duolingo brush-up before the trip): I can get by in broken Español.

I’m envious of my multilingual friends, my half-Brazilian/half-American niece (who can prattle in 4 languages before breakfast), those to whom another tongue is not a big deal to idly pick up and put on, as one does a new shirt.

Nearly 3-1/2 years ago, my most polyglot copain asked me, “how’s your French?” Horrors of 8th grade flashed on so many levels as I realised my answer was, “horrible.” In any language.

Since that day, I’ve studied 5, 10, 30 minutes of French pretty much every night. My longest Duolingo streak is well over 100 days. I’ve got a Babbel subscription. I’m able to read a newspaper article, understand (and tentatively participate in) adult conversation…J’ai lu Le Petit Prince (en Français!). Social media headlines baffle me, yet I went to Paris for my birthday last year and didn’t completely flounder. I had an interesting dinner with a Swiss couple and my B&B hosts in The Seychelles in May and wasn’t entirely underwater. It feels good but not nearly enough… My English-speaking brain is still trying to convert the other language into English as it comes in, then convert that into something French-like as it goes out. In the process, the time it takes to create conversation seems interminable. And I’m left, literally, speechless.

And so as I’m preparing to leave for my next adventure to Scandinavia (favourite Swedish interpreter literally in tow), I’m trying to learn some Swedish words. If to impress no one but myself.

It begins easily enough: hej. tack. ja. nej. Hello. Thank you. Yes. No.

Quickly the problems mount: There are now 3 new letters to learn and not mangle [ä, å and ö] while simultaneously trying to not sound like the Swedish chef (whose gobbledygook, I’m told, rings closer to Norsk than Svenska).

Hur mår du. snälla. hejdå. How are you? Please. Goodbye. And I’m trying to configure lips that are clearly inte Scandinavian. I almost instantaneously become a parody of myself…Bork. Bork. Bork.

It continues: Duolingo gives me jordgubbe (strawberry! I can do this!). And frukost (a girl needs to eat…brekkie!). And then this happens: skärp (bork. bork. bork.), which is not at all the same as en scarf or en halsduk. (or is it ett?) And kött. And fläskkött (use the ä, or else it’s bottle meat vs. pork!). But those are okay since I’m nearly veg. But at frukost we need to use a sked (no, really, try to pronounce that word with an American mouth). And we’ll be in the forest so we may encounter en sköldpadda or en groda, which is not the same as en fråga. Numbers: I should know there are sju dagar in en vecka. Health: what if I get hurt and need en sjuksköterska?! I have a “k” problem. F*ck. (this one is global)

So on one hand, I’m lucky: that most of the Western world speaks English. I’m lucky, because I get to travel to Sweden with a real-live Swedish interpreter (who cringes in horror as I contort my mouth to form the simplest of words without laughing). But I feel quite opposite: I’d like to participate and explore and learn about a place with a partial understanding of what makes it tick. Food and words and history and people…it’s all connected.

And so, if you see me walking down the street these next couple of weeks, earphones on, talking to myself and making strange faces: this is why.

And if you encounter my terrible Swedish in Stockholm, humour me? I’m just hoping to embarrass myself as little as possible on this trip.

Ursäkta. Förlåt. Tack så mycket.


CLICK HERE for the full and very beautiful language diagram by illustrator Minna Sundberg I used in the header photo.

 

 

Tropical quickie.

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Tropical ramblings on a Friday before a long weekend…

I woke up early this morn, half-dreaming of a place with palm trees and teeming reefs, half-real, half-fading in my morning haze.

I walked by the water a little later, the sea a bit less ultramarine here, contemplating the green-ness of late May, seeming late this year; I listened to the mockingbirds and blue jays and the distant knocking of woodpeckers. I made tea from ingredients I’ve collected from faraway spice markets.

I’m working from home today, listening to Zulu music between meetings while my dog’s snoring keeps time with the beat.

It’s a weird and wonderful world out there, all these places whispering their invitations to go exploring. Today, I’m collecting that feeling and brewing it, like a magic tea of sorts, to glean inspiration and motivation.

#HappyFriday

[more on the Seychelles] [more on Medium]

On sister-friends and dork-shaming

Sometimes my travels cross-pollinate and spark essays…

As I write this, I’m on a plane pointed towards South Florida, where my best college friend, and the closest thing I know to a sister, lives; her youngest daughter graduates High School this weekend. It’s a mind-bending thought that we met when we were her age, and now we’re here, sending her off to flourish, and to wreak her fabulous self on the wild and woolly world at large. As we did.

[Click Here to read the rest of this essay on Medium]

Seychelles, Part II: Into the (semi) deep, a climb, surrender, and the reward

[Seychelles: Part I] [Seychelles: Part III]

This morning, we load up the bikes with dive gear and the day’s necessities and point ourselves towards the dive shop. The sky shines a vivid, almost musical blue, and the sea competes with an azure rainbow; variegated cyan delineating reef from sand.

20180501_135055-1We had seen the rocky mound of an island from land, its sole palm reaching for the sky as if trying to escape Poseidon’s wrath. Ave Maria, it’s called; there’s no use attempting to mix metaphors here. This is our first dive site.

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The Seychelles’ reef system has suffered much the same fate as others in this ocean: a bleaching event a couple of years ago and a subsequent coral die-off, which leaves me sad but not surprised that the vibrancy isn’t as I’d hoped. It seems to be trying to come back, though, and the fish are here to stay. We see a few green sea turtles, and some decent-sized schools of fish; moray eels, humphead wrasse, unicornfish, triggerfish, butterflyfish and puffers; octopi, cowfish, un petit requin (black tip), moorish idols, and that silly-looking yellow and black one with stripes and spots whose name I’ve forgotten…we’re even graced with the appearance of the elusive pipefish. Clownfish are few, alas, as there are few anemones in which they live. But we tally 5 adventure points for the dives, including C’s earned by fending off a rogue sea urchin. This mermaid’s fins are sated for now.

Back on land…

As if the day’s humidity weren’t enough to sap one’s strength, we decide to ride our (15ish kilo) bikes up the island’s highest hill to take in the view at Nid d’Aigle. The road winds its way up, the hills at a 45° angle to the rest of the world; the humidity rivalling the consistency of, say, lobster bisque. Biking gives way to pushing said (leaden) bikes, which eventually leads to surrendering to the elements (we are, by this point, more liquid than solid humans; sweat becoming just another layer on top of sun cream), depositing them at the side of the road to climb the rest of the way à pied. This is one of the steepest roads I think I’ve ever been on, but the reward here is the view (bonus: also the restaurant, Belle Vue, from which we’re vue-ing makes the best fruit juice on the island). We make reservations to return the following night for dinner and sunset (transport inclus), then continue upwards on the gnarly trail behind the place to the mountain’s peak (hint: the view from the restaurant 350 metres below was better).

Adventure points earned: 1 for biking up the absurd hill on leaden bikes; 2 for surviving without suffering heat stroke; 1 for hiking into the jungle, to the top of la montagne, and not falling to the same fate as the storied German*.

One final adventure point is earned for wildlife encounters on the way down: a free-range tortoise greets us, out for its morning stroll (at a tortoise’s pace…arriving to us in the height of the afternoon), enjoying a snack of freshly-fallen mangoes. C befriends the beast and they share a moment.

☀️☀️☀️

20180504_120636-354.jpgThe next day’s dives are similar to the first, with a parallel state of corals and ditto sea critters. They are nice dives with fun swim-thrus and more interesting granite structures than the previous day, sea flora painting the rock its underwater patina. This being a nice but unimpressive dive overall, I was not prepared for what we saw next. As we exited a swim-thru and rounded a corner, a massive, majestic, magnificent marbled ray defied not only the m-adjectives, but my expletives as well, by making itself known. It was nestled between two rocks, flanked by several smaller stingrays, seeking or providing protection, I am not clear. We stayed close, watching their behaviour, the smaller rays coming and going, fawning over the larger in almost a caress; nature never ceasing to amaze. It is at these times I feel fortunate to be a diver, experiencing the undersea world in childlike awe and wonder, as if given special access to explore another planet.

Back on dry land, we bike to the north and then to the east (La Digue map), to where the road ends at Anse Fourmis; jagged rocks teasing the way to a jungle path we are determined to explore when we’ve got more hours (not tonight, tho, we’ve got a date with a sunset). The surf is wilder here, the rocks sharper: testament to a more exposed coastline on this side of the island. The views no less spectacular, and we’re awed anew.

Adventure points earned: 10 for the diving (attributed mostly to the ray and its entourage) plus one for the evening: a lorry ride up and down the giant hill, a sunset dinner and an overall lovely day. I fall asleep with a smile on my face and can’t recall the last time I road a bike with a basket in a bikini.

More diving the next day and a half, adding a handful more adventure points to the tally. The sites are good, but Pemba is still at the top of our list of favourites. We see dolphins from both the room overlooking the ocean, and the boat during the surface interval off Grand Soeur island. There are small black-tip shark sightings, barracuda, moray eels (one more massive than most!), swarms of Indian ocean fish… A collection of fun dives with more granite rock formations to swim thru and sea turtles to swim beside. There’s also a lovely little yellow frogfish, adding to the list of sea critters I’d not seen before this trip.

The diving has been fun thus far, but the end of the road calls… back on La Digue, we mount bikes and head for Anse Fourmis again, and our quest to reach Anse Cocos. It’s like a Monty Python meets Indiana Jones meets Bear Grylls: we’re not 200 metres into the jagged, rocky, jungly trail as the clouds decide to open and release monsoon-like rains. We can continue on and risk life and limb on the rocks and jungle brush, or play it safe and return the way we came. Opting for the latter, the bike ride home is like a 7-year-old’s dream: fat, warm raindrops form giant puddles through which we splash, laughing. We’re soaked to the core when we come across one of the local roadblocks: a massive tortoise, looking spic and span in the downpour. They’ve not yet become a novelty, so we stop to share our oranges with this friendly beast. It is not possible to be more drenched than we already are.

Adventure points earned this day: 1 for the dive, another for a remora that took a fancy to C and remained our dive buddy for the entire dive; add one for bushwhacking and jungle hiking in the rain.

☀️☀️☀️

It is only in hindsight that we declare, “do not eat the chef’s special.”

We return to Anse Banane by bike in the inky darkness, a headlamp and a torch lighting our way through the still-damp night. We’ve come to a highly-recommended restaurant, with its charming décor and seating facing the ocean, the storm-fueled waves crashing fervently across the way. The meal, a lovely smorgasborg of salads and fish of all styles: curry, fritters, grilled (chef’s special), with a home-made banana cake for dessert.

The day, the dives, the hike and the silly soggy bike ride: excellent. The night: not so much. We both wake in the wee hours, reeling from what can only be food poisoning. Details spared, this dashes our last diving day (my 1.5km bike ride to the dive shop to let them know we’re half-dead nearly does me in for good) and has us horizontal, indoors, for the day. With one foray to the beach in a failed attempt at a swim, we retreat to the relative safety of the hotel to recuperate and commiserate. This is not how we wanted to spend our second to last day here…I know C is cursing the elephant. Survivor points: 5.


*About the German: local lore tells of a German tourist who hiked up to Nid d’Aigle with his fellow travellers, spotted a house he wanted to see again, and went back up the mountain on his own. He was never heard from again; search teams and dogs couldn’t even find him. We heard this over lunch from the owner of a café on our way up to Nid d’Aigle…whether the story has morphed into island legend, we’re not clear.

[Seychelles: Part I] [Seychelles: Part III] [C’s recount of the week]

Seychelles, Part I: Dinosaurs, Jurassic beaches and going it by bike.

[Seychelles: Part II] [Seychelles: Part III]

After contemplating even farther-flung possibilities (and deciding they’re not possible within our time constraints), somehow we settle on the Seychelles: warm water in which to dive, jungle to explore, the possibility of seeing interesting critters, some fantastically cool topography…flights, booked!

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Thank you, Google Maps

20180428_115014-3Year of Africa continues. There’s always an elephant.

I arrive on the main island of Mahe first, whisked away by an uber-efficient taxi driver, and am greeted in my hotel room by a towel creature in the form of Ganesha, the elephant-god and my patron saint of sorts, bestowing well-wishes on a weary traveller. He’s my reminder that obstacles may be removed to charm a journey but may also be placed in the way as tests of mettle, meddle and might…all of which one might encounter on holiday in as far-flung a place as a speck of an island in the middle of the Indian ocean.

“Actually, the best gift you could have given her was a lifetime of adventures.” – Lewis Carroll

The Seychelles are volcanic islands, and as such, where jungle meets beach is displayed in spectacular form. Look inland, and the lush hills remind you of a scene straight from Jurassic Park – you expect to see T-Rex or one of his contemporaries bounding through the jungle brush at a moment’s notice. The enormous granite rocks that jut out of the sand like monstrous dinosaur teeth invite one into the bathwater-temperature ocean (if you dare…).

DSC_0105-20After a lazy day fending off jetlag, it’s an early airport run to fetch my flight-weary Calvin, travelling companion (and human) extraordinaire, then a dash to the ferry to take us to La Digue, leaving the relative civilisation of Mahe behind: traffic and construction and bustle, the din of a small city bursting at the seams, desiring to be something larger than it ought. Funny that what we call progress ends up shuttering out the natural world in favour of big buildings, motor vehicles and pavement. Regardless, we’ll be back to spend a day here on the other end of our week’s adventurings.

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What we didn’t realise at the time was that this lorry would haul us up the mountain later in the week…

We arrive on La Digue on a Sunday. It’s noticeably quieter than Mahe, the town itself (La Passe) bustling in that charming way you’d expect from an idyllic island where there are few cars and everyone gets around by bicycle. And because we haven’t obtained our bikes yet, we walk the 1.2km to the guest house, up and down the hills that are to become familiar this week, “Left! Left! Left!” on the mind, because even though there are very few cars, there are bikes (and European tourists and Aldabra tortoises) to dodge. English colonisation here has left at least one vestige: left-side driving.

It’s during this walk, about half-way to the guest house, where we encounter our first free-range tortoise.

An aside on the Seychelles and the Aldabra giant tortoise: Seychelles is an archipelago, consisting of 115 islands of all sizes, plunked in the middle of the Indian Ocean, east of Somalia (yes, there are the occasional pirates) and north of Madagascar (and unfortunately no lemurs or other primates). The farthest-flung outer islands are 1100+km from where we are. One island, Aldabra, is a World Heritage Site and the Indian Ocean’s answer to the Galapagos. Its native species include the Aldabra Tortoise, some of which have made their way to La Digue over the centuries. Being easy prey and a good source of food for La Digue’s earliest residents, the La Digue subspecies of the Aldabra giant tortoise is extinct, so the ones that remain on the island are the original Aldabra variety, many of which are kept, quite loosely, as pets.

Needless to say, encountering a 200-kilo walking dinosaur as you drag your luggage uphill on a 30° C day (with equal humidity) is more than enough reason to stop for a fresh fruit juice by the side of the road and interact with local (semi)wildlife.

☀️☀️☀️☀️☀️

We’re here mostly to dive, but our first full day on the island is spent exploring the world-renowned Anse Source d’Argent. This famous beach (Castaway and Crusoe were filmed here) looks even more unreal in person than it does splattering the pages of every travel mag’s world’s best beaches issue. Je suis d’accord.

20180430_123710To get here, a pleasant bike ride takes us to the southern end of the island, through a vanilla plantation that rends the air a sweet and salty mix. The path to the beach goes by the park’s tortoise pen; a weird sight really, with dozens of the massive reptiles lazing in the sun and engaging with chattering tourists who feed them leaves and grass in a United Nation’s collection of languages.

Then, it’s down some jungly paths which end at the promised Anse. It looks like a lost paradise; a sort of déjà vu, because the beach looks both familiar and surreal mere steps from the throngs of tourists sunning themselves (they don’t show you that on the InstaWeb). But we’ve come south of the equator largely to escape the world at large, so trekking farther south to flee the selfie sticks and instaglamourous beachgoers seemed the right option. Also, the tide was coming in. So we earned some of our adventure points* this day by coining a new water sport: aqua-hiking. The water, waist-deep (my waist) by the time we returned from our exploration, was a refreshing yet balmy bath verging on hot at water’s edge – in hindsight, more than a foreshadowing to what a warming planet had to reveal under the surface.

We’re rewarded mere metres from the selfie-crazed masses: we manage to find a completely empty beach and encounter only a handful of humans between Anse Source d’Argent and the southernmost tip of La Digue. The location scouts got this right.

After the aqua-hike back to the throngs, lazing a bit, and an attempt at sunning ourselves to dry out, we decide to air-dry instead: more biking, up and across the island, to Grand Anse.

An overall fantastic day awarded us our first set of adventure points for the trip: 5 for the aforementioned aqua hiking and discovering deserted beaches; 1 for bikes as mode of transport, navigating the wrong side of the road, and dodging the errant tourist and meandering tortoise; and 1 more for feeding (albeit captive) living dinosaurs, aka, giant tortoises.

Tomorrow, we dive.

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[Read C’s words on the trip here] [Seychelles: Part II] [Seychelles: Part III]


*A couple of years ago, C and I devised a system of adventure points to reward ourselves for tackling and completing myriad explorations and adventures. The silly ranking system takes into consideration physical effort, wildlife encounters, natural wonders, vistas, summits, mishaps, getting lost (we do this sometimes), finding unexpected treasures, being gobsmacked by the natural world, getting dirty, getting wet, and other general adventuring. [“let’s go exploring…”]