Monday, 22 April 2019

Big Bend National Park - Texas

Butte - Chihuahua desert

I have always had a love of John Ford's classic western films.  So I could not help but be stirred by the simple act of heading West of the Pecos River in Texas en route for Big Bend national park and the Rio Grande.  

I95 - Texas
As we drove the endless (well about six hundred) miles from San Antonio to our destination looking at barren desert scenery I reflected back to how the journey had begun a year earlier by the slightly greener banks of Loch Lomond on the West Highland Way. 

The Pecos river - Texas

Being a somewhat lazy navigator I had come to a fork in the path.  Rather than get my map out I let a pleasant looking American couple pore over their map and decide on which way to go.  The couple, clearly unperturbed by a stranger watching their deliberations began a conversation as people sharing a journey often do.  Several hours later (and a few glasses of whiskey it has to be said) a discussion on what the US has to offer in comparison to UK national parks  led to an invitation to visit Texas with a trip to Big Bend national park being part of the experience.  Finishing the walk and returning to normality could have resulted in nothing more than a pleasant memory of a hare brained scheme never to see the light of day.  But when opportunities are offered you have to grab them with both hands.  So, a year later in late March there I was, with my new friend Richard, driving through the desert looking at scenery I had only seen before in westerns.

Big Bend, in South West Texas is a long way from anywhere which means visitor numbers are low compared to many US National parks.  Only about 300,000 people a year visit the parks 1,200 square miles and with only five paved roads the scale is huge.  

The small town of Marathon is 40 miles north of the park entrance at Persimmon gap.  From there it’s a 26 mile drive to the visitors centre and another thirty to the Rio Grande.  

The  area is classic high desert with the Chisos Mountains rising from it.  Elevation varies from between two and three thousand feet above sea level on the desert floor to Mount Emory in the mountains at 7,825 feet)

Accommodation options vary.  There is a guest lodge in the Chisos Mountains, three small campgrounds dotted around the park which operate on a first come first served basis and a lot of set single pitch camp areas close to the few roads.  You can also back country camp which is basically anywhere else provided you are half a mile from and out of sight of the road.  You need a back country permit which can only be obtained from the visitors centre on arrival.  
As the visitors centre closes at 1800 and a $150 dollar fine for camping without a permit it pays to get travel timings right to arrive in good time.

Richard brews coffee - West of the Mountains
It’s hard to do justice to the few days we spent in the desert.  My host, Richard, is now a professional photographer but spent thirty years in the US Army.  I was therefore in very safe hands given the environment which varied from 35C (95F) degree dry heat during the day to 7C, puffa jacket temperatures at night.  

Author, Dawn - Chihuahua desert

I also had expert tuition to assist my amateur attempts to capture the majesty of the landscape and variety of plant life which flourishes for a few short weeks in the spring.

Occotillo cactus - on The Dobson Trail

Pitaya cactus - Chihuahua desert

We photographed spectacular desert sunrises over Panther peak and walked through the Chisos mountains to epic views through "The Window" out to the Chihuahua desert beyond.  

Through The Window - Chisos Mountains
Sunrise on Panther Peak - Chihuahua desert

We trekked and backcountry camped through evocatively named places like the Dobson trail, the abandoned Homer Wilson Ranch and the Burro Mesa pour off.  

Back country camp - Rio Grande

We listened to Coyotes in the night close to the Mexican border near the Santa Elena Canyons' 800 foot cliff walls and stood in awe of the Milky way in a moonless, truly ‘dark’ sky.

Santa Elena canyon - dusk

A few abandoned houses and the ever present vultures and buzzards showed how challenging and fragile human existence has been in this stunning but potentially hostile environment.

Buzzard over the Dorgan House - Big Bend

Our time in the park was way too short to see all there is to offer and a multi day rafting/canoe trip calls for my next visit.  

Getting to Big Bend is a challenge from the UK (its pretty hard for Americans!) but it was made possible through a lucky meeting with someone, now a friend, who took the time to start a conversation with a stranger and the willingness on my part to to say Yes! 

Water flowing by The Windows Trail - Chisos Mountains

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Thinking time - planning for the year

I’ve just spent a couple of ours reflecting and thinking about my coming year and thought I’d briefly share the process and the results.  It might assist others currently doing the same.

I’m in the incredibly lucky position to not need (or want!) paid employment.  That carries the risk that activity expands to fill the time available with a tendency towards chores and maintenance. 
I want to ensure I live a productive, satisfying and happy life.  I’ve separated the last two as I’m not sure I can live in a permanent state of happiness (though it’s important to try and be happy often!) but I can aim for long term satisfaction.

My life breaks into five broad and often interlinked themes. 
·         Stuff I need to do to live – chores  cleaning, shopping etc.
·         Stuff that constitutes my routine daily/weekly life – fitness, admin, practicing skills etc
·         Stuff that gives me satisfaction and a reason to get up (what used to be work) - longer term projects, house and home changes, volunteering, planning and preparing for trips etc.
·         Short term weekly bursts of fun that make me happy– trips and meals out, visiting friends, cinema etc.
·         Bigger fun - multi day trips, holidays, adventures etc.

Having established those themes I’ve grouped activities that I do, or have planned etc. around them.  I’ve highlighted where things overlap, compliment and link.

I now have a picture that will help me plan my week to assist in getting a balance between the necessary, the routine, the satisfying and the fun.  It summarises what I’ve already got planned or need to sort out which gives things to look forward to and will allow celebration when complete.  It will also ensure I strike a balance between doing stuff and getting stuff done which I can review and adjust as necessary at least once a month.

When I finished this I reflected on how the size of the activities varied and how they may be added to or ticked off as the year goes by.  I also found it interesting how writing, blogging and photography seemed to form a core link.  As I don’t do enough of these things at present.  I’m interested to see how they develop over the year.

Friday, 31 August 2018

Road trip!

The Oxford English Dictionary defines adventure as ‘an unusual and exciting or daring experience’.  There is often an urge to compartmentalise people or experiences.  I think it’s important to ensure that adventure is kept as broad as possible.  Adventure can be a truly daring, exciting and potentially hazardous experience but who defines that?  The person doing or the person watching?  
I’m firmly in the camp of adventure being a self defined activity.  
There are so many things that can then be done with the after effect being a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.  Clearly for some that will be climbing the North face of the Eiger.  For many more it will be an activity that took them out of the norm with exposure to the new or different.

This year my wife Lesley and I had to clear a family house in Austria.  It had the potential to be an upsetting experience, one that we needed to get done as quickly as possible then move on.  The option of flying out from the UK, doing a few days work then flying back was the simple one.  However it left little in the way of positives.  
We were keen to find some good in the situation (and needed to bring back a few personal items) so settled on the idea of making a road trip of it.  There is so much of Europe that we have not seen and what better way of getting some ideas for future trips than to make one.  
Rather than fly we decided to drive down to Northern Austria over a week, visit some cities and towns that took our fancy and get a sense of places we might want to spend more time around in the future.

Ill admit this was not necessarily daring but it was, for us, unusual and it promised to be the sort of excitement born of new and different experience rather than pumping adrenaline.  For us therefore this qualified as an adventure.

I love the idea of loading a rucksack, canoe or car with the basics and setting off independently.  Ill admit I would rather be self powered but we had to take a vehicle.  The feeling of just leaving the front door and not having to conform to mass transport timetables is a good one though.  
A drive to the coast, a ferry and a short drive later we were in Ghent.  A charming city with beautiful medieval buildings.

We had undertaken to spend no more than a couple of hours on the road each day.  After a taster of Belgium, a country whose small towns and cities I now want to see more of, we were on the road again and within a couple of hours we were in Cologne.  I had a definite sense that Northern Europeans go South in August and this city, like everywhere we stopped, was less crowded or frantic than I expect cities to be.  Rebuilt after the war Cologne still retains some of its charm and there is a heap of ancient Roman history to soak up (provided you don’t turn up on a Monday when the museums are shut!).

After two nights and a drive we had our next stop.  Wurzburg, on the Main river, the centre of the Franconian wine region.  A reminder of Europes highly civilised relationship with alcohol!
Wurzburgs (in)famous 'wine bridge'.

The Prince Bishops castle, Wurzburg.

Our final day heading South brought us to the Danube West of Linz and our base for a couple of days of house clearing.  I’ve visited this area many times.  Cyclists will have passed through pedalling the river to Vienna, Budapest and beyond as one day I plan to do.  It remains a calm, pretty and friendly region with great opportunities for walking in the Bohemian Forest just a few miles away.

After a busy three days of house clearing, visits to recycling centres and car loading we headed for home.  After a brief overnight stop in Regensburg and a longer drive then normal we overnighted in Koblenz.  This city at the confluence of the Rhine and the Moselle rivers offers great potential for further visits and can act as a base for a ride or trek along the Rheinstieg trail through a UNESCO world heritage region.

Cable cars across the Rhine

With appetite whetted for a return we headed for Brugge.  Famous again for its medieval buildings, canals and something called beer!
Beer flight in Brugge

Ten days after setting off we returned home.  A short trip by many adventurers standards.  A very gentle trip compared to some parts of the world.  However we were reminded of the beauty and history of what is effectively our own back yard.  I was also inspired to visit places just a drive or train journey away.  The cities of Belgium and the low countries.  The major Rivers of Europe, most with long distance trails alongside them.  The tranquility and beauty of central Europe away from the ‘stag night cities’.  I think all of those offer opportunities for ‘adventure’ in what to me has to be the widest sense of the word.

Saturday, 28 April 2018

Sometimes its about the journey

There is a saying that when life hands you lemons make a gin and tonic!  So when injury and work dictated a shorter adventure we made the most of the journey rather than the destination.

From humble solo microadventures a couple of years ago trips are now developing with other like minded individuals.  I am lucky enough to have access to a house in the UK Lake District and have agreed to start getting there for a couple of long weekends a year with good friends Steve and Carl.  As April approached I started to look at an itinerary.  I thought it was important to make the most of our relatively short time together with as much ground travelled as possible.  A good long walk up something or to a feature was going to be the mark of success. 

As our agreed weekend arrived however plans had to be changed and, what for me was a bit of an epiphany, took place.  Steve was struggling to get time off from work so had to travel separately with only Saturday to spend out and about.  On top of that he was struggling with a knee injury that precluded long distance walking or travelling on difficult terrain.  I also had to meet someone on the Saturday morning to discuss some work on the house where we were staying.  I also forgot my walking boots !  This meant whatever I walked had to be suitable for trail shoes.  Overall things were looking like a bit of a washout but we were all loathe to cancel a rare trip away.

As luck would have it I found a newspaper article (The Times) with a relatively straightforward walk of less than five miles to Haystacks from the top of Honister pass.  Whilst there would be some height to gain much of it would already be below us and the route followed mining paths for much of the way with no exposed walking which, if I’m honest, always leaves me feeling very uncomfortable.

So, we arrived at Honister Pass just before lunch with the whole afternoon to travel a relatively short distance.  This changed the whole approach to the day.  Far from wanting to crack on to achieve great things I adopted the mindset of enjoying the journey rather than focusing on the destination.  Many people will be well ahead of me in developing this attitude but as someone who has always focused on the end having to be better than the beginning and achieved only after hard work this was a liberating mindset.

Parking behind the Youth Hostel (for free thanks to NT membership!) we set off at a leisurely amble pretty much due West along the dismantled tramway which served the surrounding, mainly disused slate quarries.  We were blessed with fine, clear weather with only the slightest of breezes.  Knowing how quickly the weather can change in the hills we stopped after less than half an hour to enjoy lunch.  As you tuck in to a pork pie on a hillside far from work and the stresses of daily life you quickly start to appreciate how important trips away, even short ones, are to well being.

Lunch finished and with the weather improving we carried on with the heights of Grey Knotts to our left.  Dropping down briefly to cross the stream near Little Round How we carried on to Blackbeck Tarn.  Again we took our time looking North between the Crags to the valley of Buttermere well below us.  I began to appreciate how fresh I felt not having trekked up from the valley floor.  I know it would have been satisfying but there is something equally satisfying about enjoying a pretty view feeling fresh. 

It was as we headed North West for the final kilometer to the top of Haystacks that the highlight of the day took place.  The breeze had dropped and the sun was getting equal billing with the light cloud.  We turned a corner to Innominate Tarn which was flat calm and totally quiet.  In absolute silence we were treated to the reflection of the sky and the distant heights of Pillar in the totally flat waters of the tarn.  I know Wainwright was moved by the beauty of Haystacks and had his ashes spread there.  Seeing the tarn as it was that day I can understand why.  The calm, tranquil majesty matched any cathedral I have visited.  We all tried to capture the moment and having done so just stopped and enjoyed the moment speaking only in whispers to avoid breaking the spell.  How glad I was that circumstances had dictated a short, no pressure walk.  

We had all the time we wanted to enjoy the experience without the need to make for the next way point.  That feeling of calm and tranquillity followed us to the top of Haystacks which is really a series of tops with stunning views of the surrounding peaks and valleys.

Having spent as long as we wanted admiring the view we had a leisurely descent via the Southern edge of Blackbeck tarn and the Northern contours of Grey Knotts back to the disused mining path and the car park.  The slower pace allowed us to watch birds of prey circling and Steves gimlet eye to pick up the remains of their catches including tiny bones and teeth in droppings that we would have just marched past if we’d had a schedule to keep.

As if on cue the weather began to turn as we reached the car in the late afternoon.  Emphasising even more the treat we had just been given of a fine afternoons leisurely walk with time to really savour the beauty of the fells.

Steve had to leave for work the following morning.  Moved by our experience Carl and I agreed on a short walk to Rannerdale Knotts on the South of Buttermere.  Reaching a high point we looked towards Haystacks and our discussion turned to plans for future visits.  We both agreed they would be more about shorter, quality exploration of this stunning landscape than trying to pack too much in and miss the majesty.  With that came the realisation, perhaps late, that it is all about the journey.  

Saturday, 14 April 2018


How many of us have seen that post from a stranger - ‘anyone fancy getting together for an adventure’ and hovered the finger over the keyboard for a moment before moving on?  I know I have on many occasions.  In many ways its unsurprising in a world of internet stalkers and on line threats that the adventurous spirit we try to apply to our normal lives does not always transfer to our on line ones.

The root of my April 2018 microadventure began with a simple reach out on the Berkshire microadventure Facebook group just after Christmas.  Perhaps it was the fact that New Year plans were still in gestation that made me click yes to a meet up for coffee.  Whatever the unseen motivator I can only say that taking a small risk can lead to big rewards.  A few as yet unknown souls also seemed to grasp the potential opportunities of a New Year and one cold January Sunday afternoon eight of us, a mix of genders, age and outdoors experience met up for a chat.  Unsurprisingly really we all got on, seemed normal and enjoyed the opportunity to chat over mutual interest.  In effect following the common sense advice readily available on how to meet on line contacts for the first time paid off.  Discussion finally turned to the prospect of a group night out on a hill, already spotted by one of our number, and the principal was agreed.

Its remarkable how once the initial challenge of meeting is overcome like minded people can progress common objectives.  Inevitably finding a commonly available date took us forward a month or two but in early April six of us met up at a pub just outside Reading.  Again safety in numbers for those who may have had remaining concerns about going off in to the dark with a group of strangers!  A drink and a meal allowed any possible final concerns to disappear and as dusk fell off we went. 

Overall a night on a hill is a simple but satisfying experience.  Spending it with others who share that simple satisfaction helps magnify it I think.  One of our number had a title for our first adventure which absolutely summed things up.  ‘Kambwesi’, meaning ‘a coming together’.
The dawn brought its usual understated beauty and as is always the case a short overnight trip felt like a great deal more.  On this occasion it opened up the future opportunities that having like minded people to call on presents.

Social media is often criticised but it can have great value.  It gives people the opportunity to adventurously reach out and others the opportunity, if they’re equally adventurous, to respond. 

Go to the video courtesy of Tim:-

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Meandering round Menorca, July 2017

Having taken myself on a few one or two day Microadventures and in anticipation of having more time next year I found myself in Gatwick airport at the beginning of July about to test myself a little more than I have previously.

The best advice I have heard on undertaking a challenges is to be really clear on why you are doing it.  When things get difficult it’s less tempting to give up when you have a sense of purpose.  So, knowing I was going to be away, alone for a week I was keen to get a bit of understanding and experience.
  • Do I actually enjoy multi day adventures?
  • How far could I walk comfortably day after day?
  • How much of a plan can I get away with not making?
  • Can I live with my own company and if so for how long?
  • What kit do I actually need?

The Cami de Cavalls is a 110 mile trail round Menorca.  It’s a fairly new internationally recognised route (GR223) which I said I’d walk after discovering it on a family holiday to the island.  I kind of committed myself to exploring it when I bought the guide to the route as we waited in the airport to leave last year.  (The Cami de Cavalls ISBN 978-84-8478-505-7  I used the book to break up the route in to 8 day sections covering about 25km a day.  However in view of wanting to make sure the journey was actually fun whilst I was doing it I gave myself permission to be flexible.  I am glad I gave myself that permission.  I can be pretty single minded and after a three days of walking in 32 degree heat I was only averaging 20 Km a day. 

My first day had started well despite showers (!).  

C18th century watch towers mark much of the trail

The pretty village of Es Grau

Id made good progress and wild camped in a pretty cove.  The heavens opened during the evening and I spent a clammy night under a tarp.  

The next day had taken me through a mix of rocky coves and the beautiful Albufera national park. 

The heat however was pretty oppressive and slowed me down.  After a long haul in to Fornells I was in need of a shower and a rest so checked in to a hotel which I used as a base for the next day.  Whilst a tourist Island the Northern side of Menorca only has a couple of urbanisations and very limited access to water.   So wild camping is dependant on carrying in the weight of water needed for a night and possibly the whole following day.  Not always welcome extra weight in the heat!

Platges de Fornells

Menorcan gates 

Posts mark the route

I walked a leg beyond Fornells but then had to make a call.  I could go with the plan and walk a long remote stretch carrying a lot of water with no escape route if anything happened or re appraise.  Over a beer I re visited what I was trying to achieve.  I wanted to have fun rather than present myself with an exhausting physical challenge.  I was behind my tentative schedule anyway so rather than beast myself I decided to  relocate to the South of the Island.  There are a couple of campsites that give access to the South and there are shorter hops between places where you can re stock on water etc.

So having seen a good portion of the wilder North of the island I bussed it over to the South and found a campsite .  

After 60 km and three days of walking it was nice to have what was in effect a rest day.  I’d also found the idea of not knowing where I was going to sleep more mentally taxing than I expected.  In hindsight I think I would have done more research and logged some options at expected stopping points.  It’s one less thing to worry about when you are hot and tired and gives an anchor to the end of the day.  I am sure not everyone needs that but it mattered to me at that point and that was useful learning for the future.

I spent the next three days following the trail on the South of the island.  The contrasts were really interesting.  Long stretches of deserted trail, pretty scenery, wildlife etc interspersed with tourist packed beaches and bars.  I found I really did not want to stop in busy places.  I felt slightly incongruous as a sweaty bloke with a rucksack among people in swim wear.

By my second to last day I had settled in to walking.  I was comfortable with up to 20 Km a day in the heat and while I was active I was pretty happy on my own.  However, I do enjoy the company of other people and that was also good learning for the future in terms of how long I want to go alone and whether I might value a partner or being in a group on longer trips.

I had an opportunity.  On my first day I’d met a couple at a lunch stop and got chatting.  They had been staying on the island for a couple of months and offered their assistance if I decided I needed help.  I could have stayed on a campsite for my last night but I wanted a bit of adventure so I dropped them a text to see if they could put me up on my last night.  The power of human decency always amazes me and I quickly got a text back with the offer of a free night in Mahon.  So, after a final days walk I was picked up by a great guy who turned out to be renting a luxury villa overlooking Mahon port.  

A sociable evening of tapas and cocktails followed.  It ended with drinks in one of the roughest but friendliest bars I’ve been to in a long while.  As my host explained ‘if the Police want to know what’s going on, this is where they ask!’.

Slightly hung over the next morning I woke in the villas annex to see the overnight ferry cruising past my window.  A short week for me was over.  I had not completed every meter of the Cami de Cavall but I had used it as the back drop for some learning about myself and future opportunities.  

I can walk multi day without issue.  I’m comfortable with myself but value time with other people.  Its good to be flexible.  Its good to research options on transport, accommodation and food ahead of time but be prepared to flex if something better comes up or things just aren’t looking like fun.  Above all, take a risk, talk to people and when offers come up (which they will) just say yes!

Kit list:
Osprey Talon 44 rucksack
DD lightweight tarp
Snugpak jungle sleeping bag and silk bag liner
Alpkit nuomo sleeping mat and light weight carbon walking poles
Wild stoves woodgas stove, alpkit Titanium mug and plate.  Spork.
Summit to eat dehydrated meals – breakfast, dinner and pudding x2
Montane Terra trousers, spare socks, Mountain warehouse merinho T shirt, spare Rab merinho boxers.  Tog 24 lightweight water proof
Washing kit, buff and travel towel
First aid kit, suncream and insect repellant
Leatherman, head torch, fire starting kit, trowel
Phone, camera, rechargers and small power pack


Patagonia shirt,  Shorts, Lowa renegade boots, merinho socks and Rab Merinho boxers, hat.