Adventures, Beaches

A beachy winter holiday to Western Australia

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In the great south-western tip of Australia, the beaches are vast with soft white sand and clear blue bays. Most days you’ll be there on your own, especially on a weekday in early December.

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Based in Denmark, WA, I spent a significant amount of time swimming in the protected natural Greenpool (like a saltwater swimming pool) and walking on the surfy Ocean Beach. Denmark had a bunch of markets and arts events on. Did you know hippies still exist? There was yoga a plenty, river kayaking in town, and coffee and cake stops throughout town. Raw chocolate cake anyone? Iced coffee with ice cream was a daily treat. A great little yarn shop and a bookshop are also there.

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The two long distance tracks from Perth to Albany go through Denmark: the Munda Biddi Mountain Bike Track and the Bibbulman Track, both approx 1,000km. There is also the long-distance Denmark to Nornalup track.

Despite the flies being in peak season and the snakes, I did a bit of walking. A tiger snake about as tall as me did cross my path at one point on the Bibbulman — the Denmark section has a lot of marshy reedy areas so prime habitat for this snake.

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The wildlife is everywhere — huge lizards, parrots, pelicans and birds everywhere, including the local Blue Wren, emus, and kangaroos. They find you as well. No need to go on a wildlife search.

There were a tonne more beaches and parks around Albany to explore. Only 30 minutes away.

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There are more nature reserves and national parks in the Southwest than private land or so it seems. No need to go anywhere else.

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Adventures, Mountains, Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc: Day 1

TMB Day 1: Les Houches to Les Contamines

From Gite Michel Fagot to Chalet Contamines with a hot lunch stop at the restaurant in Bionassay. Six hours of walking including a few stops to wait out the rain, plus a one hour lunch stop.

Trail notes: gentle uphill to the col in the rain, lots of road walking, beautiful rivers and forested sections.

If rushed on time, I would recommend skipping this section — the easiest day of the Tour — and the scenery gets much better.

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Adventures, Europe, Mountains, Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc: my route via the mountain huts

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My route (aiming to sleep up high but on the main track): my skill level for hiking is fairly moderate (I don’t do ice axes or crampons and have very little snow/ice experience) and this hike is perfect for my level. The only new thing for me were two ladder sections, but the handholds were fine, and despite my fear of heights I made it up them.

 

The trails are very well groomed (even some of the variants) and the river crossings without bridges were easy to do without getting your feet wet. There was little scrambling or using hands. I think I only really used my hands on the last day on the steep and rocky downhill section (1,500m descent!). Hiking poles may have been useful at some points, but I was fine without them.

The terrain is either uphill or downhill, pretty much the whole way. The Swiss section is relatively level and is the easiest part of the walk, which is perfect since it sits about half-way.

I’m also quite slow and stopping to take pictures all the time doesn’t help with that. My comfort level is to hike 4 1/2 to 5 hours a day (solid walking!). With food and picture stops it usually means a seven hour day. If you use the Kev Reynolds book (most popular), its times are for solid walking and we added a few hours onto a 5 hour day to account for our 1 1/2 hour hot lunches (you cannot pass up pasta in Italy for lunch!).

I wasn’t very fit for the walk with only a handful of day walks under my belt from the start of summer. It was planned only a month out so little opportunity for training. However, most summers I do about 3-4 backpacking/tramping hikes of usually only three to four days length. The first trip of the season is always the hardest!

This schedule was perfect. I started off with longer days and eased off significantly as the walk progressed. Some days I wanted to do more and others I was very grateful for a short walk.

*Walk times given below exclude lunch breaks. Any deviations from the main route are indicated.

  • Day one: Les Houches (official start location) to Chalet Contamines in the valley village, 6 hour walk
  • Day two: Les Contamines to Refuge Bonhomme (CAF) at 2,400m, 5 hour walk
  • Day three: Refuge Bonhomme to Refuge Elisabetta at 2,195m, 7 hour walk
  • Day four: Refuge Elisabetta to Refuge Bertone at 2,000m, 7 hour walk
  • Day five: Refuge Bertone to Refuge Bonatti at 2,025m, 2.5 hour walk (rest day),
  • Day six: Refuge Bonatti to Hotel Edelweiss, La Fouly, 6 hour walk
  • Day seven: La Fouly to Au Club-Alpin, Champex Lac, 4 hour walk
  • Day eight: Champex Lac to Hotel du Col de la Forclaz, 5 hour walk
  • Day nine: Col de la Forclaz to Refuge Col de Balme, 4 hour walk
  • Day ten: Col de Balme to Gite Auberge la Boerne, Tre Le Champ, (detour via Argentiere for lunch), 2 hour walk excluding the detour (rest day)
  • Day eleven: Tre le Champ to Refuge de la Flagere (via the short Lac Blanc variant for lunch), 4 hour walk excluding the variant
  • Day twelve: Refuge de la Flagere to Les Houches (Gite Michel Fagot), 7 hour walk.

This was a great route for sleeping up high. Although, if I were to walk it again, I would avoid staying at Col de Balme (terrible food, unwelcoming, hard to make reservation) and walk straight down to Tre le Champ (easy two hour walk down, although the higher-level variant did look great for good weather, which we didn’t have). I would also try to stay at Lac Blanc Refuge because the view was incredible and it would be nice to experience it when the hordes of day walkers have left. From there I would walk to Refuge de Bellachat (excellent view, small hut, make sure to reserve early as it was full a month out). This way would also break up the brutal descent on the last day.

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Adventures, Cycling

Isle of Wight Cycle Tour

 

 

 

Two days. Two bikes. Bank Holiday Weekend. Last adventure of the summer?

Two small Ortlieb panniers (made for the front, but I use them on the rear) fit all my gear with plenty of space to spare. Stayed in a great loft room with friendly hosts and delicious breakfast (AirBnB) in Totland Bay (near Freshwater) and about half-way around the island. Very scenic part of the island with tall chalky cliffs.

Signposted route around the island for bikes so easy navigation. Gently rolling terrain with a few steeper climbs. 50-65km/day of cycling each day.

First cycle tour. Great fun.

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Adventures, Europe, Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc: my gear list

Day 1

 

My gear list: very comfortable (comfort over weight!), for sleeping and being fed in huts

Clothing

  •  Zamberlain gore-tex boots (most people were wearing trail shoes and next time I’ll do the same unless it is cold, ie, snowy spring or late-autumn). I’d also pack flip flops as not all huts had crocs and it was a bit embarrassing being barefoot in the village restaurants.
  • Patagonia down jacket (in its stuff sack), next time I would take a light fleece instead as the huts were warm.
  • eVent rain jacket (waterproof, but my lightest one)
  • Marmot waterproof pants (I almost brought my water resistant pair, but was glad for these!)
  • North Face zip-off pants (too heavy and I’ll leave behind next time and bring a second pair of shorts and long tights)
  • Running shorts
  • Base layer bottom (REI mid-weight)
  • Long-sleeve base layer top (REI mid-weight)
  • Synthetic t-shirts (two, but wish I had three as I used one exclusively for hut wear and had to wash my hiking one most days and put it on wet in the morning)
  • Synthetic sleeveless running top
  • Wool sleeveless base layer (sleeping/hut wear)
  • Socks x 4 (one light liner pair for wearing in the huts, three mid-weight hiking socks, eg, smart wool)
  • Beanie
  • Cap (running) with good brim
  • Gloves (light pair, but I used them a few times and was glad to have them with me)
  • Sports bras (2)
  • Underwear (4)

Other

  • 40L pack: much too big. Next time will go with a 30L, which is what my partner used
  • Dry bags x 3: used to sort my clothing, gear and food. Particularly useful for rainy days as I didn’t have to empty all the pack’s internal pockets as they were already sorted in weather proof bags
  • Sleeping bag liner (poly cotton, didn’t miss not splurging on the silk at all): the dorms were mostly very warm so pure cotton may have been slightly better as more breathable.
  • Head lamp with extra batteries
  • GPS with extra batteries (used the GPS in the mist, but mostly didn’t really need it as the track was well sign-posted).
  • Map (very useful back-up and fun for reading at night and planning. It also shows the variants, which may not be on your GPS map)
  • Emergency blanket and first aid kit
  • Ear plugs (absolutely essential for dorm rooms. There were a tonne of chainsaw snorers!)
  • Blister pack (if you are hiking in boots, pack a few of these. Trail shoes are less likely to cause blisters.)
  • Sunscreen (50ml bottle was not enough and had to buy more en route)
  • Chapstick with SPF
  • Toothbrush and paste
  • Disinfectant wipes (not used)
  • Moisturiser (face)
  • Shampoo (100ml bottle lasted the whole trip)
  • Kindle with two books pre-loaded, but I wish I’d brought three (some huts had WiFi but the connection was often too poor to add books).
  • Nalgene 1L water bottle (wish I’d brought my camelbak instead so I didn’t have to pause for a drink so much)
  • Granola bars, chocolate covered pretzels, candy, mule bars (bring your favourites as you may not find them en route, the huts mostly only stocked bars of chocolate, which is not my favourite hiking fuel. The larger villages have supermarkets where you can restock).
  • Empty plastic bags (for rubbish and wet/dirty clothes).

It probably all-together weighed about 8kgs including the pack (but excluding the boots).

 

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Adventures, Mountains, Tour du Mont Blanc

Hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc

 

 

On the way to Lac Blanc (short variant)

I’m always looking for long hikes where I can sleep up high in the mountains. This summer’s big adventure took me to the Alps in Europe. They’re special. You can hike, eat well (French cheese, Italian pasta), stay in mountain huts and enjoy the best scenery for days and days (or even months) all while carrying a super light pack. You don’t even need hiking boots (trail shoes are all the craze) or a sleeping bag. It is a perfect summer activity for those of us who live in small city apartments. No need to store tents, big packs, boots, etc. Get yourselves a 30L pack and some trail shoes and you’re all set. Well almost.

Choose the Tour du Mont Blanc. Take 10-12 days to do it and it leaves you with enough travel and recovery days at either end while only taking a two week vacation. Another popular route is from Chamonix to Zermatt (the Haute Route), which is a bit longer and you may struggle to have a weekend to recover before going back to work if you want to stick to two weeks off. Also, it doesn’t have as many mountain huts so you’re mostly sleeping in the valley villages. There are plenty of village sleeping options on the Tour du Mont Blanc as well though. It is nice to do it occasionally during the walk so you can stock up on supplies.

What you’ll see: glaciers are everywhere, chamois, marmots, wildflowers of every possible colour (the alpine meadows were in full bloom in mid-July), the tallest mountain in Europe and the beautiful range it sits in, cows with bells, dogs with bells (everything moving has a bell on it!), mossy forests, fast flowing rivers, and tiny stone/wood villages (my favourite was in the Swiss section).

Wildflowers!

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Where to stay: if you want to be up high in the mountains for the sunsets (and sunrises!), then stay in the refuges (mountain huts). I particularly enjoyed those at around 2,000m to 2,400m (highest on the track). I didn’t go off-track to any of the super high ones, but they did look spectacular if you had the right skills to get to them. Most of the refuges include dinner and breakfast (half pension/demi pension) rates averaging at about 45 Euros per night (ranging from 30-55 Euros) for a dorm room, much less if you go without the meals. Not all the huts had self-serve cooking facilities so if you’re cooking for yourself, you may need to carry a stove or eat cold food. You can often buy a la carte options so you could play it by ear. Or, you can have your hot meal for lunch (which isn’t included in demi pension anyways) — there were usually huts with food at a convenient lunch stopping time.

Hot showers are often included (yes, there are hot showers!) and there was a hot shower at every hut I stayed at (except for a cold one at Bonhomme because it was a rainy day and the water is solar heated). You can book many of these online or make reservations over the phone (most wardens speak English, but everyone speaks French).

Refuge Bertone

Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme Refuge

When to go: I started the Tour in mid-July, which was perfect timing for the wildflowers. The weather was mostly sunny, warm, and settled (although a few rainy days) with highs ranging in the valleys up to 33C, but much cooler high up (still t-shirt weather, until you stop!). Not warm enough for glacial lake swims, but I don’t think it ever would be! Most of the snow had melted and there were only a few patches in a couple sections of the hike. These were easily passed through with lots of footprints to follow. Also, if you time it well, you can watch the Tour de France cycling while you’re close by — maybe the finish in Paris?

Check out my next posts on my route and gear, as well as day-by-day imagery. 

 

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Adventures, Beaches, Europe

Escaping to Sicily from London

View from Taormina

Sicily is one of those special places where the mountains meet the sea. Mt Etna, nearly as high as New Zealand’s tallest mountain, is a spectacular sight as you drive along the coast towards Taormina, and on a clear day it can probably be seen quite far inland. When it’s not too active, you can hike right up to see the bubbling lava. While I was there it was active and off-limits, but Stromboli — an island volcano — was accessible to hikers on the other side of Sicily, and was highly recommended for a visit.

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The Catania region had the most delicious food. Pasta with the freshest vegetables, pizza with torn mozzarella, almond and pistachio desserts, and all very affordable. My favourite was the local dish pasta a la norma or pizza al a norma with aubergines and aged ricotta. I’m going to try and recreate it at home, but am so far struggling to find the aged ricotta. A great excuse to visit an Italian deli.

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The sea was cold in early May, but the sun was warm so quick refreshing dips were perfect. There wasn’t much else to do besides eat, swim, and gaze at the gorgeous hilltop views over the bright blue Mediterranean. We walked through the botanic gardens most evenings with views to Etna, hiked up to Castelmola and explored a few beaches. Unfortunately, the weather was too bad up at Etna so we didn’t have the chance to do any more serious walking. Overall, it was a great trip. Next time I’ll rent a car (the drivers were scary though, especially in Catania on a weekday, the weekend was fairly quiet and I would recommend picking up a car at the airport then and avoiding the city centre) and explore the interior as well.

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