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About the journey For the next couple of months, it’ll be peak travel season thanks largely to the European summer holidays. This means not only more crowd, but also pricier ground costs – and possibly higher airfares – due to higher demand. However, this issue we’re not exploring just classic destinations, but rather classic journeys. From the far north to south, and around the globe, we’ve got much of the world covered. As they say, it’s not the destination, it’s the journey. We kick off the issue with a series of island hopping – first to Japan’s chain of islands in Okinawa prefecture. Whether you’re looking to spot whales, see its traditional homes, or check out its version of Atlantis, there’s something for everyone. Not far away is Taiwan – which also has outlying islands. One of them is the arhipelago of Penghu Islands, or the Pescadores, so named because of its Portuguese heritage. These days, it’s popular for its sandy beaches and collection of well-preserved Fujian villages – a highlight is travelling along a sea bridge that connects the three islands of Magong, Baisha and Xiyu. We also feature a number of mountainous adventures, ranging from a 3-day Rinjani excursion up to the pretty volcanic caldera overlooking Bali, to a longer 11day trek in the Himalayan foothills of Annapurna. Further afield, you can also check out Simien National Park in Ethiopia for a hike that encompasses exotic wildlife – from the bleeding heart baboon to the Ethiopian wolf – and breathtaking canyon scenery. Add a 4-day hike in the Bale Mountains to top off your trek on the roof of Africa. It won’t be a ‘journeys’ issue without highlighting some of the longest journeys you can undertake by rail. Our epic rail journey takes you from Singapore all the way to Europe via Indochina, China, Mongolia, and Russia. If you have the time and patience, it’ll be well worth your time. We’ve also broken down the Trans-Siberian portion in a separate story. For a really short ride, you can try the unique Hurricane Turn train – you won’t need to book a space as you can simply hop on and off this scenic train that services Alaska’s backcountry. Another form of long distance travel can be done via cruises, so we’ve compiled a number of round-the-world cruises ranging from the cheaper ‘university in the sea’ to one of the world’s most expensive condos in the sea. Visit our website for our blogs, or drop us a line if you want to give us some feedback or contribute a travel story! Until then, happy trails!
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Located at the southernmost tip of Japan with Taiwan looming on its outskirts, Okinawa is made up of 49 inhabited islands (including Okinawa Island) and 111 uninhabited islands with sub-tropical temperatures year round. Island hopping is a great way to experience each island’s unique personality, and from Okinawa’s main island, you can get to other islands by ferry or a short flight. Since the emergence of direct flights from Singapore to Naha via Jetstar (just over 5 hours’ flight time), it’s now easier to visit these islands.
ISLAND HOPPING OKINAWA OKINAWA ISLAND
The main island of the Okinawa chain – also called Okinawa – is the main hub for transport to the region. It’s home to an international airport, as well as ferry terminals to nearby islands. However, Okinawa itself is also home to a number of attractions, ranging from historic sites to shopping streets, scenic sites, and night spots. While many of the attractions are centered around its capital, Naha, further afield are attractions like picturesque capes, castle ruins, and the world-famous Churaumi Aquarium. Okinawa’s most famous shopping street is Kokusai-dori, which is packed with souvenir stores and restaurants that stretch for about 2km through downtown Naha. Just off this street is Yatai-Mura, where over 20 outdoor food stalls serve mostly Japanese fare made with Okinawan ingredients, and Makishi Public Market where you can get fresh produce and seafood; restaurants here serve fresh seafood in the same fashion as Tsukiji in Tokyo. Castles: The main drawcard in Okinawa island for visitors is Shuri Castle. Shuri was the former capital of the Ryukyu kingdom from the 15th to 19th centuries when Okinawa was an independent nation, and the castle was its stronghold.
Shuri’s biggest attraction is the main hall of Seiden, the imposing vermilioncoloured landmark of Okinawa. The former venue for major state affairs, its architecture differs significantly from other Japanese castles. At certain times of the year, the castle hosts reenactments of royal processions and other important historic moments. Shureimon – the castle’s second gate – adorns the ¥2,000 note issued in 2000 to commemorate the G8 summit held in Okinawa. At one point, Ryukyu had more than 220 castles, with Shuri being the only fully-restored one today. Other castle ruins can still be seen in various parts of the island, including Katsuren which
was built on a peninsula surrounded by the ocean, Nakagusuku with its six courtyards and unique stacked stone walls, as well as Nakijin Castle which features sacred groves and cherry blossoms. Capes: If you’re on a road trip, you can check out Okinawa’s famous capes: Manza, Maeda, Hedo, and Zanpa. Each has its own unique attraction – Manza is famous for its elephant-shaped cliff, Maeda is known for its rock formations (and the access point to the famous Blue Cave dive site), Hedo is located on the northernmost tip of the island, and Zanpa is known for its lighthouse. All of these are great for watching sunsets.
Miyako-jima is practically pancake-flat and easy to get around. The main draw here are its soft sandy beaches which are protected by bays, making the entire island suitable for snorkelling, and best enjoyed from April to November when the water is warm. Popular beaches include Maehama’s white sand beach, Sunayama’s rock formations, and Yoshino’s beach which is a coral reef. The most famous dive site on this island is Yabiji – it’s nicknamed ‘Phantasmal Island’ as it’s only exposed to open air once a year. This reef shelf is home to the largest cluster of coral reefs in Japan. With over 100 coral mounds and pinnacles, it’s covered with table corals and branchshaped corals where reef fish live.
Ishigaki is famous for its beaches, and as the jumping off point for excursions to nearby islands like Iriomote and Taketomi. An interesting site on the island is the Ishigaki Limestone Cave, a natural formation created over 200,000 years boasting gigantic stalactites and stalagmites, as well as giant clam fossils all beautifully illuminated in bright colours.
Ishigaki itself is also worth exploring for its number of dive sites – perhaps the most famous is the Manta Scramble (or Manta Point) located near the town of Kabira which is popular for leisure seekers. As its name suggests, it’s an area where mantas congregate near the coast to feed and be cleaned by remoras that frequent the reefs. The sight of these graceful giants hovering above the coral reef is truly one to behold. The site is suitable for divers of all levels, and the mantas visit year-round.
Iriomote is Japan’s southernmost national park, synonymous with mangroves, wildlife, and even hot springs. You can go hiking, kayaking, or fishing. Plenty of outfitters offer adventure tours; the most popular involves an easy kayak up the Urauchi River, followed by a short jungle hike to the waterfall. Another popular tour is a bullock cart ride to Yubu-jima, a small island separated from Iriomote by a sandy strait. Iriomote is legendary among the Japanese for the yamaneko – a very rare “mountain cat” that exists only on this island. While it’s difficult to see this nocturnal feline, you may spot manta rays on Manta Way (the strait between Iriomote and Kohama Island) where they congregate in spring and summer.
Accessible only by ferries from Ishigaki island, the tiny island of Taketomi is famous for historic houses that are built in traditional Ryukyu style. These abodes feature stone walls and red tiled-roofs adorned with the ubiquitous shisa. Often seen perched atop homes, walls, and
temples across Okinawa, shisa figures were first brought over from China in the 14th century when Okinawa was the Ryukyu kingdom. These ubiquitous guardian lion-dog statues always come in pairs – one has an open mouth to ward off evil spirits while the other has an closed mouth to keep good spirits in. There is also a variation where a shisa has a sphere under one paw to symbolise a concentration of wealth and bountiful crops.
The island is small enough to walk or cycle; there are bullock cart tours where the driver also performs on the sanshin (a traditional string instrument). To get a view of the entire island, climb the 4.5m-tall Nagominoto Tower in the middle of the village. The ‘star sand’ beaches of Kaiji and Hoshizuna are also popular, as the sand is actually made up of teeny, tiny skeletons of starfish-like creatures.
A hilly island, Zamami-jima is popular for its marine life, especially humpback whales. Boat tours run from January to March when these giants come to Okinawa’s warmer waters to breed. You can also try to catch sight of the whales from one of three observatories on the island. Zamami-jima is a 1-hour ferry ride from Okinawa, with a stopover on Aka Island which is home to the unique Kerama deer – a subspecies of Japanese deer that is able to swim between the islands. Another famous animal here is Shiro, a dog who swam the strait to Zamami to meet his love, Marilyn. Both are immortalised as statues: Shiro is on Aka, and Marilyn on Zamami, both looking out across the ocean at each other.
Yonaguni is the furthest island from mainland Japan, and is actually a lot closer to Taiwan, therefore it’s also the last place in Japan to experience sunset. To add to the frontier feel, there are no hospitals, banks, high school, or even book stores. The island is known for its diving scene, its remoteness, its cliffs, its miniature horses, and most especially for its marlins.
Being so close to the cold underwater currents, fishermen here haul the largest catch of kajiki (marlin) in Japan, making this tiny island the country’s authority on the big fish. Not surprisingly, you can dine on everything marlin here – from marlin sashimi to marlin hotpot and everything in between.
the underwater currents in winter from January to February. However, the biggest underwater attraction lies just offshore: ruins thought by many to be proof of an ancient advanced civilisation – dubbed ‘Atlantis’ or ‘Yonaguni Pyramid’, a debate is ongoing to determine whether they’re natural or manmade.
If you’re in the mood to catch your own fish, there are live bait fishing tours where you have to first catch bonito and tuna as bait, and then float them while trawling for your predatory marlin. The marlin season is from February to November, and most operators can also fillet and pack your catch for an extra fee.
Due to strong currents and waves, only experienced divers can see these ruins, with their angular blocks and stair-like structure, up close but even non-divers can have a brief peek at these structures from a glass-bottomed boat.
Yonaguni is also famous for its dive scene, as it’s one of the best places in the region to see hundreds of hammerhead sharks when they cruise along
In addition to its ocean attractions, the island is surrounded by picturesque cliffs with offshore rock formations, and rolling grasslands which are home to rare Yonaguni horses. Barely 4 feet tall, there are only about 100 of these free-roaming horses on the island.
POWERD BY THE SUN
HYDRAPAK Reversible Hydration Bladder 2L
Powertraveller’s 25 Solar Kit brings together two of their most useful chargers in one pack: the Sport 25 power pack and the Falcon 7 foldable solar panel. The Sport 25 is a lightweight 6700mAh power pack that can charge virtually any 5V electronic device including tablets, smartphones, GoPros, GPS and more, and it houses a 150 Lumen torch with an SOS mode. Rated IP67, it’s dust-proof and can be submerged under 1m of water for up to 30 minutes. The Falcon 7 is an ultra-lightweight foldable solar panel that can charge most 5V electronic devices with its high-efficiency monocrystalline cells which produce 25-35% more power compared to conventional cells. Made of high-wear fabric, it’s rated IPX4 (waterproof up to 5 minutes). Metal eyelets to allow the panel to be attached via the included carabiners to backpacks, bike panniers and more for easy charging. Available at Adventure21 at S$219.
DRINK ON THE GO
The Hydrapak Reversible Hydration Bladder (2L) is also known as the ShapeShift Reservoir. This durable pack fits nicely in most packs and it’s fully reversible for easy cleaning and drying (it’s top-shelf dishwasher safe). It can be frozen or filled with hot water (max temp 60° C). You can easily disconnect the drink tube (an auto shutoff valve prevents leaking) and remove the reservoir from your pack for convenient refilling. The top opens wide for easy filling and closes tight for a leakproof seal. Now available at Campers’ Corner at S$55.
Osprey’s Hikelite 26 is a simple technical pack that is made for dayhikes and everyday use. It features a ventilated AirSpeed backpanel which keeps the pack off your back to eliminate the discomfort of hoisting a sweaty pack. Its added features include an integrated raincover, trekking pole attachment, 3L internal hydration sleeve, removable webbing hipbelt, as well as pockets for sunglasses, electronics, and mesh pockets for smaller items. Now available at The Planet Traveller at S$149.
WATCH WITH MUSIC AND MAPS
Garmin’s Fenix 5 Plus Series is a high-performance GPS smartwatch that lets you bring your maps and music along; you can store 10GB of songs and connect with Bluetooth headphones for easy listening. In addition to wrist-based heart rate technology, this rugged watch also features routable colour mapping using its built-in navigation sensors which include a three-axis compass, gyroscope and barometric altimeter. It also uses a multisatellite (GPS, GLONASS and Galileo) network capability for more challenging environments. There’s also a built-in Garmin Pay contactless payment solution with OCBC credit cards. Its battery life is 12 hours (smartwatch) and 8 hours (GPS mode with music); the Fenix is available from S$1,199 (depending on model).
MYSTERY RANCH Booty Bag
BAG TO GO
GARMIN Fenix 5 Plus
Mystery Ranch’s Booty Bag is based on a simple design that is a backpack and tote bag hybrid, making it ideal for use whether you’re toting gym gear, heading to the beach, or using it as a bike commuting backpack. It’s built with highly durable 500D Cordura nylon for sufficient abrasion resistance. You can carry it by the sturdy handles as a tote bag, or use it as a backpack; comfort is provided via the padded, sliding shoulder straps and foam back panel for support. Now available at Outdoor Life at S$88.
OAKLEY Tour de France 2018 Jawbreaker
Oakley’s latest range of sunglasses for cyclists commemorates the Tour de France 2018 with their patented innovative Prizm Road lenses which are coated with Iridium to optimise colours and provide contrast to accentuate your vision. The Jawbreaker range has been designed to give improved vision in the upper peripheral region, and the Switchlock Technology makes lens swapping lenses easy. The impact-resistant, lightweight glasses has a ventilation system, while Oakley’s patented designs keeps the glasses secured to your face even when wet. Adjustable temples come in three different lengths for helmet compatibility.
Lowe Alpine’s AirZone Trek+ is a series of expandable backpacks equipped with an improved adjustable AirZone Centro back system which delivers extra ventilation by reducing contact and allowing air to flow freely between your back and the pack. The wrap around the hipbelt offers increases support to give stability especially over uneven ground. The twocompartment design offers ease of packing with the option to expand (by 10L). Multiple pockets line the pack: stretch pockets can hold drink bottles, the hipbelt pockets hold small devices, and a mesh front pocket for to-go items. An internal hydration bladder and holders for ice axes and trekking poles round out the features. Now available at Gearaholic at S$269 (for 35:45L), S$289 (for 45:55L), and S$309 (for 55:65L). LOWE ALPINE AirZone Trek+
BASALT ARCHIPELAGO JIBEI
Situated off the Western coast of mainland Taiwan lies the Penghu islands – an archipelago of 90 small islands in the middle of the Taiwan Strait between Taiwan and mainland China. Also known as the Pescadores Islands (as they were first christened by the Portuguese in the 1500s), it’s changed hands between the Dutch, French, and Japanese before finally becoming part of Taiwan in 1945. Today, visitors come to Penghu for a variety of reasons: for its pristine beaches, watersports (especially windsurfing and sailing), seafood, historic villages, military history, unique geology, and scenic beauty. In addition, fireworks festivals are held in spring and summer, while in fall it hosts the Penghu Seafood Carnival.
Baisha Island and Xiyu Island – along the unique Penghu Great Bridge which connects the three islands on a 2.5km-long deep ocean bridge. Known as the ‘north perimeter’, the route passes some of Penghu’s famous sites, including Tongliang Great Banyan on Baisha, as well as Daguoye Columnar Basalt, Chixi Rock Waterfall, and Erkan Historical Village on Xiyu.
The main island in Penghu is Magong, which is the main transport and accommodation hub of the islands. The island is shaped like a crescent moon, with Baisha and Xiyu Islands just offshore and connected by an ocean bridge to form a horseshoe shape. Magong City’s Zhong Zheng Road is its main artery, which becomes a pedestrian street at night. Just off this street is the famous Tianhou Temple (the oldest Mazu temple in Taiwan), the Four Eyes Well (a 400-year-old well with four holes that still holds fresh water today) and the Old Street which is lined with well-preserved nostalgic houses and shops. Not far from town is Duxingshi Village, the oldest military housing in Taiwan where you can explore the abandoned living quarters. One of the most popular ways to explore Magong is to take Highway 203 from Magong City all the way to
Connected to Magong and Baisha islands via the Penghu Great Bridge, Xiyu is home to numerous geological and historic sites. A highlight is the Xiyu Western Fort, one of two forts – the other is the neighbouring Eastern Fort – erected during the Qing dynasty (19th century) to protect against pirates and invaders. Here, you’ll see old canons and tunnels complete with ancient artillery shells. The best-preserved and largest of Penghu’s ancient forts, it was capable of housing a thousand soldiers. Situated on Xiyu’s southern coast is Yuwengdao Lighthouse, the first lighthouse to be built in the Taiwan area, back in 1778. While no longer a working lighthouse, this well-preserved cluster of whitewashed buildings is worth a visit for its stunning views. Another historic gem is Erkan Village,
collection of about 50 heritage houses built in the Minan style of China’s Fujian province, constructed of coral, stone, brick, and any conceivable material salvaged from the ocean or mined from the local area. Here, you’ll find items of long-forgotten days, like Qing-era scales, ceramic jars, and winnowing equipment. About 1km south of Erkan is the Daguoye Columnar Basalt, one of many beautiful basalt cliffs that faces the inland sea, formed from the cooling lava that created Penghu millions of years ago. Nearby is a set of three columnwalled dead-end canyons called the Secret Three Stone Walls, and a spectacular scenery of basalt pillars nicknamed Chixi Rock Waterfall that resemble waterfalls cascading above the horizon. Another geological wonder is the Whale Cave, a wave-cut rock promontory that resembles a giant sperm whale located on Xiyu’s north coast.
TAIWAN’S PENGHU ISLANDS OFFSHORE ISLANDS Jibei To the north of Baisha is a small collection of islets known collectively as the North Sea Islands – they’re popular with visitors because of their white sand beaches. The largest of these is Jibei island, popular as a watersports heaven thanks to its pristine white sandbar that extends out into the clear blue waters for about 1.5km. The beak-shaped sandbar is a hotspot for watersports – the action is limited to one side of the beak, with the other side being ideal for relaxing in the calm waters. Thanks to the windy conditions and shallow waters, it’s an ideal location for windsurfing and kiteboarding. Accessible via a 20-minute boat from Magong, the island is famous for its stone weirs built by fisherman using basalt and coral reefs as traditional fishing traps. An ancient fishing method that’s been passed down for over 700 years, there are over 550 stone weirs in Penghu, with up to 88 of them distributed around Jibei.
Qimei South of Magong is a collection of sparsely-populated islands known as the South Sea Islands – Qimei, Wangan, Hujing, and Tongpan – which are popular for day trippers to Penghu. Each of them have different attractions, which range from scenic basalt rock formations to pretty weirs. The southernmost island of the Penghu archipelago (at a 70-minute cruise
away), Qimei is known for its legends of chaste women. The island’s name – Qimei, or ‘seven beauties’ – was built around a well down which seven Ming dynasty maidens threw themselves into to escape from lecherous pirates. Local residents then filled the well and left it as a tomb which later sprouted seven trees. Today, the Tomb of the Seven Beauties is a popular tourist site. Another local legend is centered around a rock formation – which resembles a reclining woman – called ‘Watching for Husband Rock’ located on a shore below Nanhu Lighthouse. It was named after a woman who is said to have turned to stone while waiting for the return of her fisherman husband. Basalt rock formations make up much of Qimei’s coastal landmarks: there’s the Little Taiwan Rock which looks like a miniature version of Taiwan, and the Stone Lion which vaguely resembles its namesake creature. Qimei is perhaps most famously known for its iconic Double Hearts Weir, one of Taiwan’s most emblematic landmarks which is shaped like two intertwining
hearts. The stone weir – once used by fishermen to catch fish – is the most well-preserved in Penghu, and best viewed during low tide when the two hearts are clearly visible.
The most convenient way to get to Penghu is to catch a domestic flight to Magong Airport from Songshan (Taipei), Taichung, Chiayi, Tainan, or Kaohsiung. Alternatively, there are ferries available from both Budai Harbour in Chiayi City and the Port of Kaohsiung. There are plenty of operators at Magong that will take you to both the South Sea Islands and the North Sea Islands – you can choose from single- or multi-island tours. It’s recommended to take a full day for the south, and half a day for the north. The best time to visit Penghu is in May and September when the weather is dry and the winds are tame. In summer, the sun is very intense during the daytime, while winter can be very cold and windy. Visit Penghu National Scenic Area: www.penghu-nsa.gov.tw.
Mountain climbing is often the holy grail of adventure sports – think of the tiny frame of Kilian Jornet sprinting up and down the jagged peak of Mt Everest. It’s that exhilarating and terrifying blend of extreme weather and extreme physical exhaustion that ironically draws so many visitors to the mountains. Mt Rinjani, towering above its home island of Lombok, is probably one of the most challenging peaks to summit in our neighbourhood, and the closest you’ll get to a tough mountain climbing experience in the region. At 3,726m, it’s second only to Mt Kerinci (3,805m) in Indonesia, but it’s still a manageable thrill compared to the rugged, raw, and deadly Hkabo Razi (5,881m) in Myanmar.
At 1,000m above sea level, Sembalun is lush, full of colourful tropical flora – but as you progress uphill, it dramatically changes into a wispy savannah, a kind of bare grassland that looks painfully beautiful with low clouds rolling through. Occasionally deer will pass through, but it’s mostly a pleasant walk through grassland, followed by an exhausting climb up dusty slopes to the Sembalun crater rim.
All you need to complete the Rinjani experience is three days, an affinity for adversity, and some warm clothes. Not everyone is in peak physical condition – some of us hardly even scrape the surface when it comes to exercise – but climbing Rinjani is an exercise in patience and determination, and not your physical capabilities.
It’s a painful start before sunrise – a long three hour drive to the sleepy village of Sembalun at the base of Rinjani. The summit dominates the view, a massive dome with gentle slopes and rocky rivets running down the sides. If all goes well, you should be looking down from the summit early the next morning.
Dozens of tents dot the crater rim – the staging point for a summit push early the next morning. The mountain has no facilities to speak of, but porters bring enough gear to cook full meals like nasi goreng and even club sandwiches for those preferring Western fare. The rim overlooks Anak Segara, a caldera formed by a massive eruption in the 13th century. Enjoy the clouds rolling over the lake at sunset and rest your throbbing feet ahead of the 3am ascent to the peak.
The sky should be completely dotted with stars when you rise early – and if you stare long enough the bright spots will start to coalesce into the Milky Way. You’ll need something beautiful to look at while making the summit push – the route is steep and, during the dry season, is full of loose gravel. Climbing will start to feel like a losing battle, but the guides somehow remain perky despite the biting cold and fierce winds, shouting encouragement to stragglers. The determined climbers make it to the summit before sunrise – and the reward is a stunning view. To the west, Bali with the peak of Mount Agung catching the first rays of the sun, and to the east, Nusa Tenggara across the Lombok Straits. There’s a hardy metal plaque to pose for photos with – Rinjani’s altitude printed in large triumphant letters. Head back down to the camp at the crater rim for a well deserved breakfast, and then a relatively relaxed downhill trek to the Anak Segara lake.
take a bath since leaving your hotel 48 hours ago. For the occasional trekker, this could be a long day with a climb up to the Senaru crater rim – although it is amazing to look back at the peak of Rinjani from across the caldera, knowing that you summited that same morning.
Pancakes await for breakfast, somehow tasting pretty good despite being cooked in the wilderness. Ask if there’s any Lombok coffee – a particularly strong and pungent local brew. From the rim, Bali sits about 50km across the sea, and is visible all the way until you descend into the forest below.
should be in sight – a little village with barking dogs and parked jeeps waiting to ferry you back to civilisation. If you’re battered and bruised, you could take a short ferry trip from Bangsal harbour to one of the Gili Islands – an idyllic retreat with no motorised vehicles, a healthy range of resorts, and plenty of rejuvenating massages.
The exhaustion of the climb is quickly replaced by a peaceful descent through a lush rainforest. By noon, the end
From the Gili islands, Rinjani looms large on the horizon. While you ponder your successful climb – remember that despite her placid appearance, Rinjani is still active. She last erupted in 2015, and has been spouting regularly since 2010 – so check for news alert if you’re planning a trip up her steep slopes.
Rinjani blew its original conical top in the 13th century, and the remnants are a lovely caldera at 2,000m, with a hot spring about a half hour from the lake. Head to the warm waters (about 50ºC) and take a dip – it’s probably your first chance to
Pack light, since you’ll be carrying your own bag up and down the mountain. Porters abound, but they’re burdened by your other essentials like tents and food for camping. There won’t be time to read books, so leave them in the library. Rinjani gets wet during January to March, so bring a raincoat and waterproof shoes if you don’t want to be miserable. Otherwise, just cover your essentials like strong walking shoes, warm clothes, gloves and warm socks, a hat for the piercing sunshine at high altitude, a headlamp for night climbing, and maybe some swim wear if you want to take a dip in the natural hot springs by the lake. A walking stick isn’t just for the elderly – have at least one handy to reduce the strain on your knees during your descent.
SilkAir does direct flights to Lombok, otherwise you can transfer through Jakarta on Garuda. Spend a night in the Senggigi Beach area which has a good variety of accommodation from musty backpacker lodges to luxurious villas. You’ll need that time to head over to a climbing shop and get acquainted with your guides and the climb itinerary for the next day. Rinjani Trek Club runs a number of different Rinjani treks – ranging from 2D1N to 7D6N – although the 3D2N option (USD200) has the best mix of climbing with plenty of time to spend on the beach in Lombok or the neighbouring Gili islands afterwards.
Tucked into the soaring mountains of Mexico’s far south, Oaxaca (pronounced “waha-ka”) is home to some of the country’s most authentic indigenous cultures, its best food, and (many) of its most famous ancient sites. Historically, the state’s ruggedness made it inaccessible – a fact that’s helped Oaxaca retain its indigenous roots better today than anywhere else in the country. And now with the ascendance of its native tipple, mezcal, Oaxaca’s gone from being one of Mexico’s best-kept secrets, to a global name. At nearly the size of South Korea, the state of Oaxaca is a diverse destination. Much of Oaxaca sits at over 2,000m in altitude, giving it relatively cooler temperatures and heavy rains each summer; while its landscape is arid, it’s also starkly beautiful, ranging from forested mountains, to grassy plains and rugged desert. The Central Valleys Oaxaca’s main tourist trail runs through its famous Central Valleys: the Etla, Tlacolula and Zimatlán, the traditional homeland of Oaxaca’s ancient indigenous peoples for millennia. Together they form a vast, Y-shaped lowland, where the rugged mountains of the Sierra Madre Oriental and Sierra Madre Del Sur meet, converging on the city of Oaxaca de Juárez (aka Oaxaca City).
streets, lined with colonial-era buildings, cafes and churches, the two most famous of which are the city’s cathedral and the Iglesia de Santo Domingo.
The Central Valleys are dotted with ancient sites and architecture, some dating back more than 10,000 years, making Oaxaca home to more historically significant sites than any other place in Mexico. These range from its earliest Mesoamerican inhabitants at ancient Monte Albán and the religious ruins of Mitla, to the colonial-era heart of Oaxaca City. Oaxaca City Oaxaca’s capital was founded on the site of earlier indigenous settlements by the invading Spaniards in 1532, and the centuries of relative obscurity that followed left its historic architecture practically untouched, leading to its UNESCO listing in 1987 alongside nearby Monte Albán.
its colonial Centro Histórico is still small enough to be walkable. The city’s centred on the pedestrian-only zocalo, Oaxaca’s airy central plaza, which is ringed with cafes and surrounded by historic buildings including the Governor’s Palace and the French-modernist masterpiece, the Teatro Macedonio Alcalá.
With around 500,000 inhabitants, it’s large enough to have everything, while
From there, Oaxaca’s historic centre radiates out along dozens of nearby
Monte Albán Located just west of Oaxaca City, the ancient site of Monte Albán dates back nearly 2,500 years and was the historic heart of Oaxaca’s indigenous Zapatec culture for over a millennia before being abandoned in the 8th century. The hilltop site sits 400m above the valley below, and can be seen for miles around. Once home to 25,000 inhabitants, today visitors can wander its vast Gran Plaza, which is ringed with structures including the imposing Pirámide temple, various residential buildings, nearly 170 tombs and a juego de pelota – the quintessential Mesoamerican ball court.
Mitla and Yagul The UNESCO-listed ruins of Mitla (and nearby Yagul) are located 45km south of Oaxaca City, at the head of the Tlacolula Valley. While the more famous site of Monte Albán was the undisputed political heart of the ancient Zapotec world, it was Mitla that was its most important religious site. The site sits within the modern town of San Pablo Villa de Mitla, which the Spaniards built after conquering the area, making ruins of much of the once-grand Mitla in the process, as they harvested the “pagan” site’s carved rocks and stone bricks to build with. Mitla is Oaxaca’s second-most famous ancient site (after Monte Albán), and includes underground tombs, the imposing Salon of Columns and El Palacio, the site’s historic temple, with its incredibly intricate, inlaid geometric stonework,
The nearby ruins of Yagul (also a UNESCO site) is an ancient Zapotec settlement that rose to prominence in the 8th century after the decline of Monte Albán. Today the site has dozens of tombs, extensive walls and rooms of El Palacio de los Seis Patios, and a towering fortress.
along with the ruins of numerous other tombs, forts, and buildings.
Yagul is also home to Juego de Pelota – the city’s large ball court, second only in size in the Americas to the Gran Juego de Pelota ball court in Chichen Itza. Yagul is located roughly 35km from Oaxaca along the Mitla-Oaxaca road.
Oaxaca is home to some of Mexico’s best-preserved indigenous cultures, with over 50% of the population still speaking indigenous languages. These include 16 recognised communities, such as the Mixtecs, Olmecs and Zapotecs. Together these modern communities formed an ancient, unbroken chain of advanced indigenous societies, with written languages and sophisticated farming techniques that stretched across pre-colonial Mesoamerica. Today they remain concentrated in their cultural heartland in Oaxaca’s Central Valley, where their archeological and cultural legacy lives on at sites like Monte Albán and Mitla.
You can fly to Oaxaca’s Xoxocotlán International Airport from Mexico City, the closest international airport. For more on Oaxaca and its various trails, visit www.visitmexico.com.
no one official “Mezcal Trail”, there are dozens of palenques within an hour of Oaxaca City, making it easy to visit distilleries like famous local outfit El Silencio, or via operators like Mezcal Educational Tours.
FOOD TRAIL MEZCAL TRAIL
Oaxaca’s most famous drink is mezcal, related to, but not to be confused with tequila. It’s made by distilling mashed liquid from the heart of the agave plant, which is traditionally cooked in a fire pit, imparting its famously smoky flavour. Unlike mass-produced tequila, mezcal is entirely small-batch, with many farmers also producing pulque, an agave-based beer. The state is dotted with hundreds of palenques, small distilleries where mezcal is still hand-made. And while there’s
Long cut-off from the rest of Mexico by its rugged mountains, Oaxaca boasts the most diverse cuisine in the country. Famous dishes include fried chapulines (grasshoppers) and mole negro, the most popular of Oaxaca’s 7 famous moles – the ubiquitous name for a wide variety of sauces. Another famous food is Oaxaca cheese. Made by stretching and rolling it as it solidifies, it’s similar to Italian mozzarella, and used in typical Oaxacan dishes such as the tlayuda, a cheese-covered tortilla.
While Oaxaca’s always been known for its mezcal, the state is also one of Mexico’s biggest coffee producers, with the capital having seen an upsurge in local cafe culture, including Café del Jardin overlooking the zocalo, Café Nuevo Mundo near the charming Plaza Alcalá, or local favourite, Cofetarika along Calle Macedonia.
Located at the edge of North America on one of the four corners of the world, Newfoundland and Labrador is the kind of place you go to see and appreciate nature in all its glory. Dramatic coastlines, sweeping barrens, thick boreal forests, and ancient rock formations – the natural, wild beauty of this place surrounds you at every turn. At just over 400,000sq.km. (about the same geographic size as Japan), the living landscape is its own wonder – teeming with seabirds, moose, caribou, and rich marine life. With more than 29,000kms of rugged coastline, you’re never far from the ocean. You can see houses of yellow and blue, lime, aqua, and green that cling to the shore in villages, outports, coves, guts, and bays. The inhabitants are more than proud to show their true colours to visitors; uniquely, the locals speak more dialects of English here than any other place in the world, and they even have their very own Dictionary of Newfoundland English.
VISITING NEWFOUNDLAND AND LABRADOR
EXPLORE: HIKING TRAILS The pristine coastline of Newfoundland and Labrador is dotted with beaches, sea stacks, and close to 300 hiking and walking trails, including historic footpaths between abandoned fishing communities, trails to deep fjords, towering cliffs, and sub-arctic barrens, through lush inland forests, and over the Earth’s mantle. Along the way, if the timing is right, you’ll see seabirds, whales, and
icebergs. And keep an eye out for moose and boreal songbirds as you connect with the unspoiled wilderness. The diverse trails and the fresh sea air is rejuvenating for the mind, body, and spirit. The hiking experience varies greatly, ranging from short 2km strolls to multiday hikes. There’s the 6km Shoreline Heritage Walking Trail in Bay Roberts, which is a coastal walk that wanders
along sheer cliffs, sweeps of beach, sheltered coves, and craggy headlands where you can see whales follow capelin, squid, and other fish into the bay, especially in June and July. For a longer hike, the Labrador Pioneer Footpath is a 65km coastal trail that combines a series of traditional walking paths along the shore of the Labrador Strait between L’Anse-auClair and Pinware. Once the only land link between these communities, you can look out for shipwrecks, whales, icebergs, and Atlantic Canada’s tallest lighthouse. The multi-day 265km-long East Coast Trail meanders along the scenic shores of the Avalon Peninsula. The saltscoured seaside trails take you through 30 coastal communities and each trail has its distinctive topography, history, and surprises – like a geyser powered by the waves and the first sunrise in North America.
When it comes to viewing icebergs, Newfoundland and Labrador is one of the best places in the world. On a sunny day, these 10,000-year-old glacial giants are visible from many points along the northern and eastern coasts. They come in every shape and size, with colours from snow-white to deepest aquamarine. If iceberg watching is something on your list, Iceberg Alley is the best place on the continent to see these ancient frosty giants. These huge bergs arrive from the Arctic every spring – roughly 90% of icebergs seen off Newfoundland and Labrador come from the glaciers of western Greenland, while the rest come from glaciers in Canada’s Arctic. Their sheer size is awe-inspiring, and that’s without seeing the 99% still below the surface of the ocean. Since icebergs are so plentiful around these parts, locals actually drink them – as Berg water, or use them in spirits like Iceberg Vodka, Gin, Rum, and of course Iceberg Beer.
Newfoundland and Labrador is home to four unique and different World Heritage Sites, and no visit to the province would be complete without making it to at least one of them. The Gros Morne National Park provides a rare example of the process of continental drift, where deep ocean crust and the rust-coloured rocks of the Earth’s mantle lie exposed at the Tablelands. Recent glacial action has also added to this spectacular scenery. You can explore the park’s breathtaking vistas on amazing hikes (or relaxing
tours) of its geological wonders – and take in 485 million years of Mother Nature’s work. If you prefer human history, check out the Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site at the tip of Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula. It was the first real evidence of these Europeans reaching the new world over 1,000 years ago (long before Columbus) and the excavated remains of wood-framed, peat-turf buildings are similar to those found in Norse Greenland and Iceland. For more recent history, visit the Red Bay National Historic Site which is home to a whaling industry and a major source of whale oil that lit the homes of Europe, established by Basque
mariners in the 16th century. Called Gran Baya by those that sailed here every summer, this archaeological site showcases the earliest and most intact evidence of European whaling tradition – including whale bones and a restored chalupa – located along the Labrador Coastal drive. At Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve on the southeastern tip of the Avalon Peninsula is a narrow, 17km-long strip of rugged coastal cliffs that predate the age of dinosaurs. Dating back 580 million years ago, it’s home to the world’s oldest known collection of large, multicellular fossils that illustrate the beginning of life on Earth. You can see these fossils and walk on rocks that were once the deep ocean floor.
There’s no shortage of wildlife in this relatively remote part of the world. Along the coastline, it’s not hard to spot plenty of whales and seabirds; you’ll find more species, more often, in more places around here than anywhere else in North America. There are 22 species of whales alone, including the world’s largest migrating population of humpbacks. As icebergs drift south, humpbacks migrate north. This is the place where their paths cross and is home to the world’s largest population of feeding humpback whales. These whales return each year to feed on capelin, krill, and squid along the coast. Another 21 species of whales and dolphins visit along with them including the minke, sperm, pothead, blue, and orca. Between May and September, you can see these them feed, frolic and even breach near Newfoundland’s shores. Catching a single glimpse of these majestic mammals is an exciting and unique experience, whether it’s from the deck of a tour boat, the side of your sea kayak, or a seaside trail.
While Newfoundland and Labrador is off the beaten path, it does get a lot of visitors during the spring/ summer season when bookings can fill up fast. The best months to visit are April to June, when icebergs are most plentiful, whales can be seen breaching and frolicking in the waters, and seabirds start to come ashore. To avoid disappointment, you should book accommodations, car rentals, flights, and ferries in advance. While it is remote, flying time to the main airport at St. John’s (on Newfoundland) is about 3.5 hours from Toronto and about 5 hours from London. Air Canada, WestJet and Porter fly here daily. For more, check www.newfoundlandlabrador.com.
Whales can be seen in all bays along the coastline; spectacular viewing sites are Signal Hill, Cape Spear, Trinity, Cape Bonavista, Twillingate, White Bay, Strait of Belle Isle, St. Vincent’s, Cape St. Mary’s, Cape Race, Witless Bay, and St. Anthony. Newfoundland and Labrador is aptly named the seabird capital of North America as it’s home to the most spectacular and accessible seabird colonies. More than 35 million seabirds – northern gannets, kittiwakes, murres, Atlantic puffins, osprey, falcons, hawks, storm petrels, razorbills, and bald eagles – gather at the six ecological reserves here every year.
Experience the chaotic gatherings of 25,000 gannets and 7 million stormpetrels, just to name a few. Witness more than 500,000 Atlantic puffins at the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, North America’s largest Atlantic puffin sanctuary. Or, stand a mere 20m from Bird Rock at the magnificent Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve, one of the most accessible seabird nesting sites in the world. Birds of prey such as hawks, falcons, ospreys, and owls also patrol these parts. They share their nesting grounds with over 800 bald eagles – one of the largest populations on the continent. On land, the pristine landscape and abundance of large and small game make for incredible sightseeing, by car or hike. For example, in Gros Morne National Park the moose population density is one of the highest in North America (so be cautious driving, especially at dusk or dawn). The region is also home to woodland caribou and an abundance of black bears, some topping the scales at 600lbs.
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Everest, Machapuchare, Dhaulagiri, Nuptse – the legendary peaks of the Nepalese Himalayas loom large in the fantasies of mountain enthusiasts. But the imagination (or photographs) don’t do these gargantuan mountains justice, since they are best seen up close, in person.
If you’re new to mountain trekking in the Himalayas, the Annapurna Base Camp trek (ABC) is an ideal introduction to the sport. There are clearly marked trails, plenty of food and rest options all the way to Base Camp (4,130m), and stunning views all year round.
Just as well known is the Annapurna Massif – a collection of 30 peaks in the middle of Nepal, with one over 8,000m (Annapurna I) and thirteen over 7,000m. Little wonder that the Annapurna region is the most popular for trekking in Nepal, with incredible views throughout the year. There are towering peaks in every direction, and the tourist trade has resulted in a well-developed trekking trail with comfortable lodges dotted throughout the hills.
TEXT & PHOTOS BY Yusuf Abdol Hamid
11 DAYS IN THE HILLS Most trekking companies can tailor the length of the ABC trek to your schedule – anywhere between 7 and 15 days. You should note that the shorter the trek, the more intense it will be and with a higher risk of getting altitude sickness. The 11-day itinerary seems to strike a good balance, with roughly 8-12 hours of trekking daily, and ample time to rest in the evenings and enjoy stunning sunsets over the Himalayas. The trailhead is in a bustling town called Nayapul – full of donkeys hauling their burdens up the hills to all the trekking lodges along the trail. All those imported American chocolates at Base Camp? They start their journey here.
Expect to spend about 2-3 days in the lower hills (2,000-3,000m). Spend your first night in Tikhedunga, which is lush with forest and brightly colored flowers even in winter. Rhododendron forests then mark the way to the relatively large town of Ghorepani (2,850m) – and by this point you would have climbed to 1,500m in just two days. All the guesthouses serve the Nepali staple of Dhal Bhaat, a simple dish of rice, watery lentils, potatoes and vegetables, and an egg (if you ask for it). It’s surprisingly satisfying, like a warm hug on a winter day. But don’t be surprised to see more familiar dishes like pizza or even kimchi on the menu – the kitchens evolve quickly to match the needs of the trekkers.
While 11 days would cost you a fortune in any city, the hills of Nepal remain affordable to all. Rooms go for about $2 a night, and food and drink won’t cost more than $20 a day. Most trekkers pass by Poon Hill (3,210m), a vantage point with spectacular views of the Annapurna range – Dhaulagiri (8,167m) to the far west, and the fishtail peak of Machapuchare (6,993m) to the east. About six days in, the trail goes vertical. The landscape changes above 3,000m; no longer will you hear the twittering birds in the lower hills. In winter, most of the surrounding forests and slopes are smothered in white snow.
fore that, heading up to Machapuchare Base Camp (3,700m). The wind can be severe in this exposed, rocky outcrop, while the heady altitude makes the final push on to ABC doubly difficult. It’s about four hours across a seemingly endless slope uphill to ABC. It’s here where a good guide can make a difference by picking out easier trails, or spotting soft snow traps in winter. The blue-zinc roofs of ABC may not look homely, but they are your only refuge in this harsh landscape, set in
a valley surrounded by the imposing peaks of Hiunchuli, Annapurna South, and Annapurna I. After sundown, the stars put on an amazing show for those who can bear being outside in the freezing cold. If you’re fortunate, you’ll witness one of the greatest sights in nature – an avalanche rolling down the slopes of a mountain – but from a safe distance.
Deurali is a cold, desolate station at 3,100m, about a day from Annapurna Base Camp. There are occasional wifi signals even in this remote spot, but for most of the trek you will be free of connectivity to the outside world – a welcome relief for smartphone addicts. The route up to the base camp leads through the Bagar Valley, a few kilometres across and split by a river called the Modi Khola. In winter, only a small trickle of water flows downstream, but once the ice melts it gains momentum and eventually exits into the Bay of Bengal via the Ganges, more than a thousand kilometers away. Gangapurna casts a long shadow on the valley, but the route swings left be-
OTHER POPULAR NEPAL TREKS
Poon Hill (5 Days) It’s just five days to Poon Hill from Pokhara. The trek starts with some intense uphill climbing, but the remainder of the trek is relatively leisurely with beautiful stretches of Rhododendron forests. There are unobstructed views of the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri range – including three mountains above 8,000m, from the peak of Poon Hill.
SilkAir has direct flights to Kathmandu (5 hours). Nepal’s capital has plenty of sightseeing, from ancient temples to the more modern shopping alleys of Thamel, where you will rub shoulders with backpackers. Be wary of air pollution (one of the worst in the world).
community of trekking companies have made Pokhara home – all the guides and porters are certified and well-versed in the routes leading up to the base camp. Not everyone speaks English fluently – so take some time to chat with your potential guides before agreeing to anything.
Most treks to the Annapurna region begin from the lovely lakeside town of Pokhara, about a 5-7 hour bus ride west of the capital. Pokhara was often the destination for European hippies heading to Nepal overland in the 1970s. Over the years, a large
The April 2015 earthquake devastated large parts of the country, but the Annapurna Conservation Region has been restored to its former state, although there are still risks from snowstorms, which claimed the lives of 43 people in 2014.
Everest Base Camp (16 Days) The highlight is the world’s highest peak, but you’ll have to spend a week in extreme high-altitude. Enjoy the hospitality of the local Sherpas, many of whom are excellent guides. If you’re worried about altitude sickness, allocate an extra day or two to acclimatise at higher altitudes. Manaslu Circuit (16 Days) The Manaslu trek is a little rougher compared to the well-developed Annapurna trail. There are still many active villages, and plenty of opportunities to watch the locals working the fields or building homes. The best views of Manaslu, the 8th highest peak in the world, are between September and December.
When it comes to Thailand, many of us have probably been to some of its most famous sites – whether it’s Chiang Mai in the north, Bangkok in the central region, or Phuket in the southwest. However, there are other attractions beyond these famous sites that are worth exploring depending on the region you’re in.
THAILAND’S HIDDEN GEMS
NORTH: LAMPANG whitewashed Lannaperiod Buddhist temples with views over the misty mountains. Despite these charms, this riverside city sees relatively few visitors. But with the slow spread of hip cafes and trendy hotels, it’s only a matter of time before tourism booms. Many visitors to the north have Chiang Mai on their agenda, but at just a 1.5hour drive away is Lampang, famous for its horse-drawn carriages and beautiful
Lampang is the only town in Thailand where horse carts are still found – exclusively for tourists, these open-air tricycles can take you around popular temples and
NORTHEAST: SA KAEO Bangkok is not only a popular destination, it’s also a transport hub to the rest of the country. At about 3 hours’ drive away is Sa Kaeo, a popular border town to Cambodia’s Siem Reap. This ‘frontier of the east’ is made for history buffs – the Prasat Sdok Kok Thom temple complex provides a glimpse into the ancient Khmer civilisation, and it’s older than Angkor Wat. Built in the 11th century, this sandstone sanctuary is dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva. Another religious
stop at important monuments like the 100-year-old City Pillar Shrine. Some of the most picturesque Lanna temples within the town include Wat Mon Chamsin, Wat Chedi Sao (with its collection of 20 gold-tipped chedi), and Wat Phra That Lampang Luang, a complex of religious teak structures that date back centuries and showcase the best of Lanna architecture in Thailand. Perhaps the most dramatic temple complex in Lampang district is Wat Chalermprakiat, with white stupas perched precariously on the pinnacles of Pu Yak mountain – it’s worth the 1.5 hour drive from the city.
SOUTH: TAI ROM YEN site is the Wat Tham Khao Chakan, an ancient cave temple complex boasting a dozen caverns – by night, you can witness an exodus of millions of bats. At the Buddhist retreat of Nana Dhamma Sathan, you can see 300 pure white Buddha images sitting in the open, plus more than 5,000 smaller versions, all created with donations from devout Buddhists. The lush Pang Sida National Park is home to wildlife like the rare Siamese fireback pheasant, muntjac, tiger, and more. It also features stunning waterfalls (Pang Sida and Pha Takian), which explode in colour in June/July when over 400 kinds of butterflies flutter near the falls. At Ta Phraya National Park is Lalu, where unique natural soil sculptures resemble giant termite mounds set amidst the verdant rice fields.
Visitors to Thailand’s south are no stranger to Hat Yai or Koh Samui, however, the nearby Tai Rom Yen National Park is rarely visited. Previously the stronghold of communist rebels in the 1980s, today it is a refuge of forest, waterfalls and caves that house wildlife like mountain goats, tapirs, and chevrotain (a type of mousedeer). In addition to its misty mountain peak and numerous hiking trails, you can visit its two waterfalls (Tat Fa and Mueang Thuat), explore the Khamin Cave complex, and drop in on the Communist party’s old campsites: Camp 180 and Camp 357.
As of 10 July 2018, Singapore is still expected to have a high-speed railway (HSR) link to Kuala Lumpur in 2026. The buzz about it is that the direct journey will take a mere 90 minutes from Jurong East to Kuala Lumpur – it beats flying to get there, if you take into account check-in and baggage clearance procedures. Although uncertainty still lurks on Malaysia’s side due to the hefty cost of building this railway, they have not given an official report about terminating this agreement, hence the continuation of the construction of this link on Singapore’s side.
FROM SINGAPORE TO EUROPE
TRAINS FROM SINGAPORE
Even if this does not come to pass, thanks to the British who built railways throughout the neck of the woods way back in the 19th century, one can still actually travel from Kuala Lumpur to Vientiane completely by rail. If you have (a lot of) time, an overland train trip might be just be your thing. Unlike the often cramped quarters of an aircraft, trains have bunks wide enough to lie on, and the longer journey means you’ll have time to read, sleep, watch the scenery, or stretch your legs. Not limited to Vientiane, rail travel actually connects us to exotic destinations as far afield as Hanoi, Beijing, and even Europe. Intrigued? Here’s what you can look forward to on these three overland journeys.
With the closure of the famous Tanjong Pagar Railway Station back in 2011, rail travel from Singapore effectively began from Woodlands. However, as of late last year, even the last of the KTM (Malaysian railway) services stopped servicing Singapore altogether. Instead, the journey between Woodlands CIQ and JB Sentral has been taken over by a dedicated shuttle train service called Shuttle Tebrau. The short journey takes about 5 minutes across the causeway to JB Sentral,
from where a network of KTM trains operate throughout Peninsular Malaysia and beyond. This means that all of the railway journeys from Singapore technically begin from JB Sentral. If all goes to plan, the high-speed (HSR) railway line is expected to link Singapore and Kuala Lumpur by 2026, with 8 stations along the way. The direct journey will take just 90 minutes, and from Kuala Lumpur, there’s just one transfer to get to Bangkok by rail.
SINGAPORE TO BANGKOK AND VIENTIANE countries entirely on trains. However, there is no direct route as it requires multiple transfers within Malaysia alone. Beginning from JB Sentral, you can take the train to Gemas and board the high speed train (ETS) towards Butterworth.
You can technically travel overland all the way from Singapore to Vientiane, effectively taking you through four
Due to the train scheduling, you’ll need to spend the night in Butterworth (the mainland half of the state of Penang) in order to connect to Padang Besar in the northernmost Malaysian state of Perlis where Train 36, also known as the International Express (Ekspres Antarabangsa), connects you to
Bangkok on a daily overnight sleeper service. The onward journey from Bangkok (Hualamphong) to Vientiane is via the Bangkok-Nong Khai railway (Train 25/26) which has first- and secondclass sleepers on newly-commissioned carriages. The 15-minute shuttle train service extends across the Friendship Bridge into Laos at Thanaleng station, just 13km from Vientiane (you can get there via tuk tuk or bus) where you can board the bus across the border to Vietnam.
The entire journey: under 40 hours � Singapore: Woodlands CIQ ͢ Johor Bahru: JB Sentral Via Shuttle Tebrau, 5 minutes � Johor Bahru: JB Sentral ͢ Gemas Via KTM Shuttle train, 4 hours � Gemas ͢ Butterworth Via ETS train, 6.5 hours � Butterworth ͢ Padang Besar (border) Via ETS train, 1.5 hours � Padang Besar ͢ Thailand: Bangkok Via Train 46, 16 hours � Bangkok: Hualamphong ͢ Laos: Nong Khai Via Train 25/26, 10 hours 45 minutes � Nong Khai ͢ Thanaleng Via Shuttle train, 15 minutes � Thanaleng ͢ Vientiane Via tuk tuk or bus, 20 minutes
VIENTIANE TO HANOI AND BEIJING While a rail journey to Beijing is possible, it’ll require a bus ride between Laos (Vientiane) and Vinh (Vietnam). The modern sleeper buses have bunks and toilets, with spectacular scenery along the way. You can take the bus all the way to Hanoi or alight at Vinh to transfer to a train to Hanoi Station onboard the 6-hour Reunification Express. If you’re arriving by train from the south (like Hue or Hoi An), you’ll most likely pass by ‘Hanoi Train Street’ (as locals call it) in the Old Quarter – it’s a narrow residential street that has a railway track running through it. The street is so narrow that residents must ensure their personal belongings are all safely inside the house before the train passes twice a day. From Hanoi’s Gia Lam Station, the
hop on the direct 37.5-hour service to Beijing with its soft sleeper train (the Z6). If you prefer to break your journey within China, you can go via Nanning, Guilin and Xi’an. By 2021, the new Sino-Thai Railway will cut the rail journey between the two countries short – the 1,272km journey between Bangkok and Kunming is expected to take about just 12 hours on board this high-speed rail service. From Kunming, there are numerous connections to Beijing via high-speed rail (under 11 hours) or high-speed sleepers (33.5 hours). Construction of the line began in December 2017, and when completed it will run through China, Laos and Thailand, and it will cut the journey time from Bangkok to Beijing overland by about 46 hours.
SIDE JOURNEY TO KOREA (SOUTH AND NORTH) From Beijing, you can journey to the Korean peninsula, with views of Southern China’s landscape along the way. Onboard amenities include an LCD TV for each bunk, lockable compartments, and a restaurant car serving Chinese dishes. If the mysterious and forbidding North Korea intrigues you, there is a sleeper train that plies between Beijing and Pyongyang – open only to nonAmerican travellers. Once across the border, you’ll get a firsthand look at the hermetic dictatorship, including the rural neighbourhoods not often shown to tourists. Among the train passenger rules: apply for a North Korean visa before boarding, and
any mobile phones, tablets, laptops, USBs or DVDs you bring are subject to searches for banned content. As a side note, the world’s longest rail journey is from Pyongyang all the way to Moscow, on a limited bi-weekly service that’s not (technically) open to westerners. As the land border between North and South Korea is closed, you’ll need to take a ferry journey from Qingdao – accessible via bullet train from Beijing – which takes you to Incheon in South Korea.
Here are the routes: � To North Korea: Beijing South Railway Station ͢ North Korea: Pyongyang Via K27 train, 26 hours � To South Korea: Beijing South Railway Station ͢ Qingdao Via bullet train, 5 hours Qingdao Ferry Station ͢ South Korea: Incheon Ferry Terminal Via Ferry, 15 hours
The entire journey: 3 days, 8 hours � Vientiane ͢ Vietnam: Vinh Via bus, 16 hours � Vinh ͢ Hanoi: Hanoi Station Via Reunification Express train, 6 hours � Hanoi: Gia Lam Station ͢ Beijing West Station Via Train Z6, 37.5 hours
BEIJING TO MOSCOW What’s more mind-blowing than a trip to North Korea? Answer: a journey on the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway. Although the original Trans-Siberian is between Vladivostok and Moscow, there are branch lines that connect to China and North Korea.
You can also stop over along the way to places like Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) and Ulan Ude (an ethnic Mongolian part of Russia), and several points in Russia proper, like Irkutsk (for Lake Baikal), Ekaterinburg and Vladivostok.
From Beijing, there are two options to get onboard the Trans-Siberian towards Moscow: the 8,986km-long Trans-Manchurian (built around 1900) and the Trans-Mongolian (completed in the 1950s) which meet up with the Trans-Siberian at Ulan Ude. The latter is arguably the more interesting of the two – the 7,621km journey takes 6 nights, taking in views of fertile rice fields, parts of the Great Wall, the Gobi desert and stops off at Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) before crossing into Siberia where the train changes tracks at the border (China uses a different gauge track from Russia).
There is no open hop-on-hop-off ticket on the Trans-Siberian, as it’s an all-reserved long-distance railway where everyone gets their own sleeping berth (tickets indicate specific travel date, train number, and berth number) but you can arrange stopovers along the way using a separate ticket for each train. It’s easier to arrange with a travel agent to do this. The Kupé 4-berth sleepers (2nd class) is a comfortable choice for most travellers, with the 2-berth Spalny Vagon (1st class) being double the price.
The Trans-Manchurian is less popular but there is no need for a Mongolian visa as it bypasses the country, going via Harbin instead.
The Trans-Siberian Railway operates all year round, with the summer months (May to September) being
the most popular thanks to the longer daylight hours. The seats are heated in winter when it’s easier to get tickets, but daylight hours will be shorter and station stops will be chillier. April is the least attractive time due to the slushy snow and barren landscape. Both the Trans-Manchurian and TransMongolian make the one-way journey once a week from Beijing.
Here’s the route � Beijing South Railway Station ͢ Moscow Via Trans-Siberian Railway, 6 nights
MOSCOW TO NICE One of the world’s longest train rides, the MoscowNice train which stretches across 3,315km, connects you from the Russian capital to the Mediterranean coast via cities like Minsk and Warsaw before reaching Nice. As one of the longest trans-European rail routes, it traverses the route through 8 countries – Russia, Belarus, Poland, Czech Republic, Austria, Italy, Monaco and France – in just under 47 hours. The railway line from Moscow to Nice was popular with Russian aristocracy since 1864, when trains first started running the route. The railway connection had existed until 1914, and was reestablished 96 years later in 2010; in 2015 the 150th anniversary of the rail connection was marked by a considerable upgrade of the carriages, and it now boasts a Luxury Class (VIP) car as well as first class sections.
Here’s the route � Moscow (Byelorussian station) ͢ France: Nice Via Moscow-Nice Train 18, 47 hours
THE HASSLE AND MAGIC OF RAIL TRAVEL While air travel has made it possible to travel the globe, there’s just something about train travel that can add a journey’s worth of experiences to a trip. Travelling all the way to Beijing, Moscow or Europe may work out cheaper, and there’s more to see. The only (possible) fly in the ointment is the journey between Singapore and Vietnam. From Singapore, multiple transfers are required within Malaysia before you even reach Bangkok. From here, trains don’t extend beyond Vientiane or Aranyaprathet (on the border with Cambodia), which really means the ‘rail’ journey ends here. And of course, there is also a chance that the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur HSR might not be happening due to the overwhelming cost of building its
infrastructure. However, there are plenty of overland options that could bring you across the border to Kuala Lumpur. While an overland journey (by bus) is possible, it is probably less of a hassle to fly to Vietnam (either HCMC or Hanoi) in order to connect to a train to China, and onwards to Russia and beyond. From Vietnam, one can journey all the way to Europe completely by train without much of an issue in terms of transfers. The next time you’re looking for an epic journey, you can skip Changi Airport and head for the rails. If you have an adventurous spirit and a lot of time, it’ll be a roomier, more picturesque journey with lie-flat beds at a fraction of the cost to fly.
Since the train changes gauges at the Belarus-Poland border, you’ll need to a Belarus transit visa to cross the country. Today the line (which runs once a week) follows almost directly the original route that once connected Russia with Southern France in the 19th century.
Comprising 7 countries including Montenegro, Kosovo, and Macedonia, the Western Balkans is one of the oldest settlements in the continent, and ironically home to some of the newest countries in Europe. This mountainous region is home to dramatic karst landscapes – and some of the deepest canyons and caves in Europe – sluiced by fast rivers and dotted with glacial lakes. The pristine coastlines are outshined by incredible walled cities and pastel-coloured old towns that hark back to Roman and Ottoman times, while the imposing mountains cradle yet more majestic towns, brilliantly set against teal rivers and lakes. There may be nowhere else in the world where you can see such a seamless blend of natural and cultural beauty.
KOSOVO, MACEDONIA & MONTENEGRO
KOSOVO Kosovo is Europe’s newest country – after the Kosovo War of 1998-1999, it spent almost a decade as a UN protectorate and only gained independence in 2008. While there’s still some conflict in the border areas in the north, it’s one of Europe’s most exciting travel destinations. A landlocked nation, its geography is defined by a central valley bordered by high mountains. Kosovo is dotted with UNESCO-listed churches, and Serbian and Ottoman medieval architecture; a great place to start is from Pristina, its lively capital city that is known for its thriving
cafe culture. Nearby is the village of Gračanica, home to one of the most beautiful examples of a Serbo-Byzantine style monastery. Sharr Mountains of the South Kosovo’s real cultural draw is in the soaring Šar (Sharr) Mountains to the south; situated at the foot of the mountains close to the Rahovec (Orahovac) wine region is the medieval city of Prizren. The castle-topped hill town of Ottoman hammams, mosques and 14th century basilicas is a walkable historic district lined with a labyrinth of terracotta roofs, minarets and cafes. It’s a great base for hiking; explore the wineries of Rahovec along the ‘wine trail’, or head into the Šar Mountains for its wellmarked trails. While many remote villages in the Šar are abandoned, the picturesque town of Brod, with its Ottoman houses and cobblestone streets, is thriving. Western Kosovo Peja (Peć), with its narrow streets, oldstyle Turkish houses, mosques and spectacularly frescoed churches.
Known as the “City of Tourism”, it’s also a good base to explore the Rugova Gorge with its high canyon walls, and the rugged Accursed Mountains National Park, home to the highest point in Kosovo (Gjeravica, at 2,656m).
Airlines from Europe and Turkey service Prishtina International Airport. There are also rail connections between Pristina and Skopje in Macedonia. Entry into Serbia from Kosovo is only possible if you entered Kosovo from Serbia and are going back; entering Kosovo from elsewhere and then continuing to Serbia is prohibited.
MACEDONIA Also known as FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), Macedonia has a fascinating past that incorporates rich Greek, Roman and Ottoman history. Like Kosovo, it’s a landlocked nation with a rugged central valley – formed by the Vardar river – that is framed along its borders by scenic mountain ranges over 2,000m high. Three large lakes – Ohrid, Prespa and Dojran – lie along the frontiers with Albania and Greece.
The capital, Skopje is an intriguing city where old meets new – a historic hilltop fortress overlooks the never-ending series of modern constructions that sit next to the Old Town’s maze of streets that hide quaint courtyards and cafes. West from Skopje is Canyon Matka – a lake surrounded by the steep walls of a dramatic gorge. The area boasts 10 caves, including Vrelo Cave, the deepest underwater cave in Europe. Bistra Mountains Further west are the Bistra mountains, the largest mountainous part of the country. Bistra also boasts the highest peaks in Macedonia, making it a popular place for skiing. In summer, the slopes reveal a large lake which is popular for boating, swimming, and for the submerged St. Nicholas Church (built in 1850) that was purposely flooded in 1953, but is now partially exposed. The Bistra mountain range is great for hiking, as it is dotted with countless mountain villages linked via scenic hiking trails. The village of Lazaropole (over 1,350m) is one of the highest settlements in Macedonia, with 400 houses and several 19th century churches. The most famous village in the area is Ga-
lichnik (Galičnik), home to over 500 traditional houses. Lake Ohrid South of Mavrovo lies the glimmering Lake Ohrid and its historic town dotted with terracotta rooftops. Ohrid is a UNESCO site, set beside the beautiful lake with narrow, winding streets that reveal gems like a Roman amphitheatre, castle fortress, and church with 11th century frescoes. Hike up the hills to the multi-domed Byzantine-era Sveti Kliment i Pantelejmon Church, and the massive turreted walls of the 10th century Car Samoil Castle – both offer fantastic views over the town and lake.
You can fly into Macedonia either Skopje (Alexander the Great Airport) or Ohrid Airport.
MONTENEGRO Unlike Kosovo or Macedonia, Montenegro is mostly made of mountains, where the high ranges of the Dinaric Alps abruptly end along a narrow coastal plain. Throughout its history it has always sat on the borderline between east and west and its rich cultural tapestry – from Roman villas and flamboyant Orthodox churches to elegant mosques and medieval fortresses – is complemented by its spectacular natural beauty where mountains jut sharply from crystal clear waters. Ancient walled towns cling to looming rock faces, while scenic coastal towns line the narrow strip of shoreline. It’s these seaside towns – like the ancient walled cities of Budva and Kotor – that seem to attract the most visitors while its capital, Podgorica is touted as the “least visited capital in Europe”. Kotor and Bay Even within Kotor – with its narrow cobblestoned streets and picturesque plazas that are fairly untainted by tourism – you can easily escape the crowds by hiking the steep trail to the Castle of St John at the top of the mountain, where there are stunning views of the town below.
The best way to explore the Bay of Kotor, however, is to tackle the Ladder of Kotor – a trail that descends from the 940m-high Krstac pass to Kotor following an old Austrian military route, featuring more than 70 switchbacks and breathtaking views of the entire Bay of Kotor. Durmitor National Park In Montenegro’s soaring hinterland lies the Durmitor National Park, home to more than a dozen sparkling glacial lakes, and three breathtaking canyons including the wild Tara Canyon which is Europe’s deepest gorge (1,300m). Rafters and kayakers can enjoy a unique thrill on the 68km-long whitewater run along the Tara River through the canyon’s impossibly steep walls, passing Ljutice falls and the 165m-high Roman bridge. Žabljak (1,450m), at the eastern edge of the range, is the park’s principal town and home to a major ski resort from December to March. In summer, it’s a good base for hiking the many trails in the park.
Nature in the East The jaw-dropping Prokletije range to the east of the country is another hiker’s paradise. The grandiose mountain massif is home to Lake Plav and a collection of karst wells; the town of Plav is famous for its 17th century watchtowers, as well as monasteries, churches and mosques.
Montenegro has 2 international airports: Podgorica and Tivat, serviced by airlines from the rest of Europe.
One of the best ways to explore Australia is on a road trip, and since it’s a big country, you can split the regions up into manageable holidays. Most visitors would probably tend to visit the east coast, since it’s home to the biggest cities – like Sydney and Melbourne – and most of the country’s attractions. From surfing beaches to wildlife parks and spectacular wineries, one of the most popular road trips in Australia is along the Pacific Coast Touring Route which stretches 3,140 kilometres all the way from Sydney to Cairns. Following this itinerary, you will experience city life as you cruise along the coast, dropping in on famous beaches from Byron Bay to Surfers Paradise, world-class cellars of Hunter Valley, and plenty of wildlife reserves that are home to indigenous critters.
DAY 1: SYDNEY TO NEWCASTLE
From Sydney, head north along the Pacific Motorway for 1.5 hours before stretching your legs on the Bouddi Coastal Walk near Gosford which weaves through Bouddi National Park from Putty Beach to MacMasters Beach. There are plenty of sea views, wildflowers and photo ops along this 8.5km (4 hours) one-way walk.
DRIVING ALONG AUSTRALIA’S EAST COAST plenty of swimming beaches, ranging from the historic Mereweather Ocean Baths which was opened in 1935, to Nobbys Beach, and Bogey Hole (carved into ocean rocks by convicts in 1820). Newcastle’s most famous beach, Merewether, features both white sand and spectacular waves and the Surfest festival, Australia’s largest surf festival, is held here every February.
natural habitat on a morning cruise into Port Stephens-Great Lakes Marine Park. There are 26 sandy beaches here, some sheltered in bays that are perfect for swimming, snorkelling and kayaking. The towering Stockton Beach sand dunes are great for quad-biking and horseriding.
DAY 2: NEWCASTLE TO POKOLBIN
Bound by a harbour and glorious beaches, Newcastle is also the gateway to the Hunter Valley which is Australia’s oldest wine-growing region. You can spend an afternoon dropping in on some of the 120 wineries – from the picturesque Audrey Wilkinson to concert-hosting Bimbadgen – that dot the region which is renowned for its Semillon and Shiraz. A further 30 minutes north is Newcastle, Australia’s second-oldest city – once home to the largest coal shipping harbour in the world – that’s affectionately known as “Newie”. The Bathers Way is a scenic two hour (5km) walk from Nobbys Headland lighthouse to the coastal wilderness of Glenrock Reserve and the early coal workings at Burwood Beach. Few cities in the world have a city centre surrounded by eight beaches; Newcastle is one of them. This means
In addition to wineries (and cheesemakers), you can also explore the region’s diverse calendar of festivals and events. One of the best ways to soak in the views of the area is from a hot air balloon ride.
DAY 3: POKOLBIN TO PORT STEPHENS
A further 100km drive east takes you to the sandy beaches of Port Stephens, Australia’s dolphin-watching capital where you can swim with the playful residents (the waters are home to around 150 bottlenose dolphins) in their
DAY 4: PORT STEPHENS TO COFFS HARBOUR
You can cycle along the 8km-long Nelson Bay to Fingal Bay cycleway to explore Nelson Bay’s busy marina and along the coast. Hop back into the car for a 246km drive north along the Pacific Highway to Port Macquarie where you can visit the Koala Hospital, the first of its kind in the world. It’s the world’s first hospital dedicated solely to the care and preservation of koalas. You can join their daily Walk and Talk tours at 3pm.
DAY 5: COFFS HARBOUR TO BYRON BAY Just off the coast from Coffs Harbour is Solitary Islands Marine Park, the third largest protected marine area in New South Wales. Spanning 71,000 hectares, it is home to an incredibly diverse range of marine life, from coral and colourful fish to turtles and dolphins, making it an underwater wonderland for divers and snorkellers alike. The marine park includes the tidal waters of estuaries, beaches and headlands within its boundaries and is protected by a special zoning scheme to protect fish habitat.
A three-hour drive north takes you to the bustling coastal town of Ballina, which means a ‘place of many oysters’ from the Aboriginal word ‘Bullenah’. The town is known for its seafood, both for fishing opportunities in the ocean and estuary, as well as for its Big Prawn – “The World’s Largest Artificial Prawn” that weighs almost 40 tons. Slated for demolition in 2009, the oversized crustacean statue was saved by the community of West Ballina in 2013. During the winter months (June to October) this coastline offers great vantage points for whale-watching
DAY 7: BYRON BAY TO GOLD COAST
Take a sunrise stroll along the Cape Byron Walking Track and see the first rays of light turn the Byron Bay lighthouse pink. Then hit the road for the 90 minute drive north, over the border, to Queensland and the glitzy Gold Coast.
when these graceful mammals move in family pods, often breaching and slapping their flippers and flukes. All the headlands along the coast, apart from Cape Byron, afford humpback whale sightings early in the season, as well as on their return journey in September and October. Drive a further 36km north, and you’ll reach the bohemian beach paradise of Byron Bay.
DAY 6: BYRON BAY
Kayak through clear waters beside a pod of bottlenose dolphins in Cape Byron Marine Park, or snorkel or scuba dive among sea turtles at Julian Rocks. Walk the Cape Byron Tracks, a 3.7km loop that leads through rainforest and windswept cliffs, with panoramic views across the ocean and hinterland. Keep your eyes peeled for humpback whales, which migrate along the coast between June and November. Bangalow, located in Byron’s hinterland, is where you can spend the afternoon exploring the joys of this quaint country township, which contains a fantastic selection of boutiques and high-end restaurants.
Spend the day exploring the Gold Coast – renowned for its white sand beaches that stretch across 57kms of coastline. Choose from the sheltered waters at Coolangatta and Currumbin beaches or the popular surfing breaks at Main Beach or Burleigh Heads. Surfing is not the only activity at Surfers Paradise – you can also try a paddleboard lesson. Turn away from the beach and explore the Gold Coast hinterland, where you can explore the three-day Gold Coast Hinterland Great Walk, which passes an ancient volcano and goes through World Heritage-listed Gondwana Rainforest, or follow a cycling trail through the wineries and boutique breweries of Mount Tamborine.
DAY 8: GOLD COAST TO BRISBANE
The next stop is Queensland’s relaxed yet sophisticated capital city, Brisbane, an easy 100km drive north. Combine art and outdoor adventure here, where creative spaces, music and hip new restaurants meet pretty riverside gardens and man-made beaches. Climb Brisbane’s Story Bridge for panoramic views across the city, north to the Glasshouse Mountains and south to the World Heritage-listed Gold Coast hinterland. In a two-hour excursion you will ascend 80m above sea level as you learn about the bridge’s history and construction. Keep the adrenaline going with an optional 30m abseil back down the anchor pier.
DAY 11: BUNDABERG TO ROCKHAMPTON The lush Cania Gorge National Park is 225kms west of Bundaberg, where you can tackle the 2.5-hour Dripping Rock walking track through eucalypt woodland and dry rainforest before reaching the base of Dripping Rock and the Overhang, where water has eroded the base of a sandstone cliff to create an interesting formation.
Rockhampton, founded in 1853, is home to heritage post offices, historic streetscapes, majestic cathedrals and quaint homes. It also happens to be Australia’s beef capital where you can sample some of the country’s best steak. Six bull statues are dotted around town representing the main breeds of the area, and there’s a weekly rodeo at the back of the pub at the Great Western Hotel.
DAY 9: BRISBANE TO FRASER ISLAND
Hit the highway for a 300km drive north to River Heads, just south of Hervey Bay, where you can catch a 50-minute ferry across to World-Heritage listed Fraser Island, the world’s largest sand island. The protected waters between the island and Hervey Bay is regarded as Australia’s whale watching capital. Here you can hop on an afternoon whale watching cruise where your chances to spot them are higher between July and November when they make their annual migration.
white sand dune where you can have a cooling swim. Containing only rainwater (and no groundwater), this ‘perched’ lake is not fed by streams and doesn’t flow into the ocean. The pure, white silica sand and organic matter at the base of the lake prevents the water from draining away, and acts as a filter to give the water its signature blue and green colour – the water is so pure but ironically supports very little life.
DAY 10: FRASER ISLAND TO BUNDABERG
Before hopping on the ferry back to the mainland, explore more of Fraser Island by hiking 3km along the Balarrgan Circuit which starts at the Kingfisher Bay Resort and winds through eucalyptus woodland to the picturesque White Cliffs lookout. A 1.5-hour drive north through vibrant sugarcane fields leads you to Bundaberg, made famous by its sugar industry. The town is home to three local brands – Bundaberg Rum, Bundaberg Brewed Drinks and Bundaberg Sugar. Drop in on a tour around the famous Bundaberg Rum Distillery, which dates back to 1888, where you can blend your own rum to take home.
Fraser Island’s vibrant blue Lake McKenzie is perched above a powdery
Head east to Mon Repos Beach which is home to the largest loggerhead turtle rookery in the South Pacific, and there are evening tours that take you to protected parts of the beach to see turtles lay their eggs (November to February), or turtle hatchlings as they make their way to the sea (January to March).
DAY 12: ROCKHAMPTON TO MACKAY
around the island are also ideal for snorkelling, especially on one of the Snorkel Trails at Nelly Bay and Geoffrey Bay.
A 30-minute drive north on the Bruce Highway takes you to the Capricorn Caves, an extensive network of ancient limestone caves. Squeeze and crawl your way through the cave’s tunnels and shafts on the way to the surface ridge for panoramic views.
DAY 14: TOWNSVILLE TO CAIRNS
A 30-minute drive east is the charming tropical village of Yeppoon, where you can walk along the town’s picturesque esplanade with its backdrop of offshore islands. Then head 350km north to the laid-back township of Mackay. The historic town of Mackay – once a sugar boom town – is filled with 1920s Art Deco buildings and public artworks, and is situated in the middle of the Queensland coast which encompasses secluded islands off the coast, golden sand beaches, and sub-tropical rainforests. You can catch sight of wallabies and kangaroos as they congregate in numbers to fossick through the sand at sunrise on the beach at Cape Hillsborough National Park. Look out for shy platypus at the Finch Hatton Gorge in Eungella National Park, a fairytale land of waterfalls, rock pools and lush foliage. Scuba dive in the rainforest at Oliver’s Pool near Finch Hatton Gorge to try and come face to face with a platypus.
with a picturesque esplanade and hosts grand, refurbished 19th-century Federation-style buildings with loads of landmarks. It is also a major gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and the Queensland outback. Townsville is close to a number of spectacular islands, like Hinchinbrook Island – Australia’s largest island national park – with Thorsborne Trail, a 32km hike through spectacular wilderness. Magnetic Island, a 20-minute ferry ride away, is another draw, with its 23 beaches and excellent dive sites; one of which is the shipwreck of the SS Yongala, one of the best wreck dives in Australia and one of the top five in the world. The warm, shallow waters
Heading further north along the highway to Ingam, you can take a short detour to see Wallaman Falls, Australia’s highest single drop waterfall. Continue further north for a short pitstop at Paronella Park – built by Spanish migrant José Paronella in 1935, the park is home to a romantic castle, complete with waterfall, set within 5 hectares of tropical gardens beside Mena Creek. The final leg of the journey takes you to Cairns, the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, the Daintree Rainforest, and Tropical North Queensland. No trip to Cairns is complete without booking an excursion to the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral reef system that’s made up of 3,000 coral reefs and 600 continental islands. The World Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest is two hours north, where you can stay overnight in one of its wilderness lodges. For a bit of arts and crafts, you can head to the mountain village of Kuranda, tucked within the tropical rainforest where local markets are open daily.
In Australia, laws and driving regulations differ from state to state. In most Australian states and territories (except the Northern Territory), you are allowed to drive – and rent a car – with an overseas licence as long as it is current.
Mackay is a great place to haul in some fresh catch – whether it is ocean, lake or river, the region sits at the meeting point for southern and northern species, so you can catch an incredible variety of fish.
DAY 13: MACKAY TO TOWNSVILLE
The route north towards Townsville takes you past lush mango orchards, sugarcane fields and the “big mango” in Bowen. You can spend an afternoon at Reef HQ, the world’s largest living coral reef aquarium, which also features a turtle hospital. Townsville is Northern Queensland’s less-visited, pedestrian-friendly city
The mention of Ethiopia as a hiking destination – across the roof of Africa, no less – may bring surprise and intrigue in equal measure to most. After all, there is a surprising lack of available information on the 17-day trek from the Simien Mountains near Debark to the historic village of Lalibela. Never having been to Africa before I didn’t think my first visit to the continent would be trekking in mountainous terrain, but Mitiku, a local Ethiopian mountain guide from Debark ensured us it would be a great adventure. STORY AND PHOTOS BY Linda Cash
ETHIOPIA’S SIMIEN MOUNTAINS AND BALE NATIONAL PARK SIMIEN NATIONAL PARK One of the best ways to start an Ethiopian adventure is with a tour of the castles of Gondar (or Gonder). Who would’ve thought that castles reminiscent of King Arthur’s reign could be found in landlocked country located in the Horn of Africa? Gondar previously served as the capital of Ethiopian Empire and the city still has the remains of several royal castles and is often referred to as the “Camelot of Africa”. A local guide in Gondar is part of the entrance requirements to view the castle which is a World Heritage site. However, with their knowledge and training, it is well worth the small cost required to enter the site. After a day in Gondar, trekking guides will purchase supplies for the trek before embarking on a 1.5 hour drive to Debark – and to the UNESCO registration and permit office for Simien National Park. It’s also where you
can pick up a scout, a requirement of the National Park Authority. It may sound daunting to have a scout with a Kalashnikov following your trekking party, but rest assured the weapons are not used very often. Thirty minutes on from the National Park entrance takes you to the beginning of the trek – the first day is a four-hour acclimatisation hike to the campsite with stunning views. You may have your initial encounter with the unique Ethiopian primate – the Geladas (aka “bleeding heart monkey”), baboonsized monkeys which only live in the high mountain meadows of Ethiopia. The Geladas live in family groups and you may encounter hundreds during your few days trekking in the Simien Mountains just grazing peacefully in their native homelands. Sankaber to Ras Dejen With much of the massif sitting above 3,000m, the Simien Mountains involve high altitude trekking. The first camp is Sankaber at 3,250m, which offers spectacular views of the canyon. Over the next few days you’ll trek to Gich via the Jinbar waterfall, then onto Chennek which has some of the most spectacular views in the National Park. A highlight will be trekking along the mountain ridges with little idea of the
surrounding landscape due to low cloud. You can stop for a tea break and when the clouds part, you may find yourself sitting amidst a hundred Gelada baboons – definitely an extraordinary experience. After four days of trekking you’ll be at Ambiquo having visited Mt Buwahit, believed to be the second highest peak in Ethiopia. An even higher peak awaits on day five. After a 3am start from the campsite – you’ll summit Ras Dajen at 4,543m, the highest peak in Ethiopia. The views in the Simien Mountains National Park and from the top of Ras Dejen are nothing short of breathtaking. In addition to the views, the endemic wildlife in the park – the Geladas, Walia Ibex, and incredible birdlife – make it a nature-based trekking experience not to be missed. However, it’s also not for the faint of heart.
Ras Dejen to Lalibela From Ras Dejen, you’ll begin your journey into the lowlands, trekking through rural villages, camping on the Sava River, onto Debra Selam, walking across the Tekeze river (the largest river in Ethiopia and one which uses hydroelectric power), through to Sekota after 12 days of hiking.
the mid to high 30’s. In the villages we walked through, many villagers had to walk for up four hours per day just to obtain water. Instead of continuing on foot to Lalibela, you can take a local bus from Sekota to Lalibela. You can spend a couple of days walking through and marvelling over the extraordinary rockhewn churches of Lalibela, and immersing yourself in the history of Ethiopia.
The hike through these regions can be very challenging, especially once you hit the lowlands. When we were there, the wet season rains had not arrived earlier in the year, leaving many of the waterways and rivers without adequate supply. Also, the daytime temperatures reached into
Bale National Park is around a 400km drive from Addis Ababa – the first 100kms are along a modern, multi-lane freeway built by the Chinese as part of their One Belt One Road Strategy. However once the freeways finish, you’ll encounter the more traditional rural roads for the remainder of the journey, complete with single lanes, huge potholes, and the occasional camels, goats, and dogs travelling along the roads. You can opt to overnight at Lake Zway enroute, one of the freshwater Rift Valley lakes of Ethiopia, where you can experience the extraordinary birdlife in this region. You may be able to spot Great Pelicans, Sacred Ibis, African Maribous, and countless other wading birds. A 4-hour drive will bring you to the Bale Mountains, where it’s estimated that only around 200 people a year trek into. The Park is dominated by giant lobelia trees, and the trekking is
You can fly back to Addis Ababa; alternatively you can extend your trip and explore the Bale Mountains.
more or less “up and down”, with the Park being located high on the Sanetti Plateau. Much of the walking is above 3,000m which make for magnificent days, but very cold nights. One of the highlights of visiting Bale is spotting the elusive Ethiopian wolf, which you can see on almost every trekking day (we saw around 20 in total throughout our trek). You may also encounter warthogs, mountain nyalas, Menelik’s bushbuck, and an incredible number of birds, including spectacular birds of prey such as the Augur-Buzzard and Lammergeiers. The Bale trek starts at the Park Headquarters in Donsho, and you trek to Adelay via the Geysay valley and the Web River. From Adelay to Sodoto, you’ll hike across the Kotera Plains amidst giant 6m Lobelias, with one night camping at the beautiful Habera
waterfall. From here, you’ll trek through the Wolla Valley (where you can spot numerous birds) and the lava plains of the Sennati plateau before meeting your transport back to Addis Ababa. There were many highlights of our trekking adventure in Ethiopia, but the one standout for me was the extraordinary effort our guides, chef, porters, and others who made this experience a safe and memorable once-in-a-lifetime adventure. One thing is for sure: it won’t be my last visit to this part of the world.
Cruise ships are getting bigger, and journeys getting longer and more exotic. Cruise holidays are also one of the fastest-growing sectors in tourism, and with such stiff competition, there can only mean more choices for travellers. Apart from popular cruises to places like the Mediterranean, Caribbean, and even cross-Atlantic, there seems to be a small but emerging market for even longer-distance cruises. These are catered to those who can, of course, afford all that time and spare cash to float in the ocean, dropping in on new exotic locales as they wake up each morning. With the current advancements in technology, this new breed of ‘cities in the sea’ are more than just extended cruises; some are actually floating abodes that cater to the ultra rich crowd as ‘second homes on the move’. Here are some super long-distance cruises that take passengers all around the world in the lap of luxury, just like hotels on the move.
ROUND-THE-WORLD CRUISES SILVERSEA Based in Monaco, Silversea is no stranger to luxury cruise holidaymakers, with a range of itineraries that take in popular regions like the Mediterranean, and to every continent on the planet, covering over 900 destinations worldwide. This esteemed cruise liner also boasts exceptional service, having an almost one to one crew-passenger ratio and a private butler serving each room on the ship. In addition to regional travel, Silversea also offers a round-the-world cruise which spans across five months, sailing from San Francisco to London across the majestic Pacific and Indian Ocean. Along the way, passengers will wake up to views of busy cityscapes like Tokyo, Lisbon and Cape Town, as well as sunny holiday islands such as
Tahiti and Bali. You can even join their land programmes and excursions at various ports to learn more about the destination you are visiting. The Tale of Tales – World Cruise 2019 will take a total of 133 days, calling in at 31 countries and 52 ports along the way. The cruise itself is broken up into nine routes, starting from San Francisco, it calls in on Tahiti, Sydney, Bali, Tokyo, Singapore, Mombasa, Cape Town, Lisbon, and finally London, allowing you to hop on the cruise at whichever port is closest to you. This itinerary will set sail on 6 January 2019 from San Francisco, and finish on 19 May 2019 in London, offering suites starting from US$82,000. For an even longer journey, Silversea will launch their Legends of Cruising –
World Cruise 2020, which will take 140 days, calling in on 30 countries and 62 ports. This cruise touches all seven continents, and will also be broken into nine stages, but will set sail from Florida, and call in on the Antarctic Peninsula before making its way across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, stopping at cities like Buenos Aires, Valparaiso, Sydney, and Singapore. Upon reaching the Red Sea, it crosses into Europe (Rome) via the Suez Canal in Egypt. The cruise travels along the Mediterranean and towards the north of the UK and Norway (Flam and Bergen) before finally docking at Amsterdam. The Legends of Cruising – World Cruise 2020 sets sail on 6 January 2020 from Florida and ends on 25 May 2020 in Amsterdam, with suites starting from US$62,000.
AZAMARA CLUB CRUISES into the renaissance splendour of Florence and Pisa and finally end up in London via the alluring Thames River. Starting from Sydney and ending in London, participants will have also have the option to board earlier at Auckland, and alight later in Stockholm. Prices start from USD$29,374. Azamara Club Cruises is part of the world’s second-largest cruise line operator, Royal Caribbean Cruises, and is based in Miami, Florida. But unlike many cruise operators with gigantic liners, Azamara’s vessels are known for their medium-sized cruise ships that are
able to access places that larger ships cannot, docking you right at desired city centres and navigating through famous, but narrower, waterways. Also, these smaller-sized ships, which hold only about 364 rooms as compared to the usual 2,000+ rooms on larger cruise liners, is perfect those who prefer quieter luxury cruises with amenities that focus on adults rather than young families. Their World Journey itinerary will span across 102 days, visiting a total of 60 ports across 29 countries including India and its famous Taj Mahal and the opulent westernised cities of the East such as UAE and Dubai. Following that, the ship will bring you on a journey into ancient times in the ruins of Turkey and Sicily’s volcanoes. You can even golf at the most prestigious courses in Europe with PerryGolf before sailing
PEACE BOAT CRUISE Singapore where the ship is scheduled to call in on 5 January 2019. Peace Boat Cruise offers a range of accommodation, from shared cabins priced at S$12,250 to individual rooms at S$26,880. You can even get a room with a balcony at S$35,380. This is a unique cruise that is not geared towards luxury or making profit, it’s about connecting people around the world, with the common goal of establishing peace and raising awareness of world issues such as human rights and sustainable development.
Originating from Japan, Peace Boat cruise picks up people from all walks of life, from toddlers to the elderly in their 90s. Instead of your usual casinos, this cruise offers events and programmes with invited guest speakers to share more about pressing issues our world is facing, earning its reputation as a “floating university of sorts” as described by the San Francisco Chronicle. Their 100th Global Voyage will run from Yokohama on 26 December 2018 to Kobe on 1 April 2019, stopping by the vibrant streets of Rio De Janeiro, relaxing Bora Bora beaches and more. You can join the 96-day cruise at any of their 17 destinations, which includes
VIKING OCEAN CRUISES Viking Ocean Cruises recently launched one of world’s longest cruises – a whole circuit that takes almost an entire year to complete. For 245 days, you will be travelling from continent to continent, exploring its mainland and outskirts before sailing along every waterway imaginable in the world. Starting from London, this cruise takes you to six continents, visiting 112 of the world’s greatest cities and charming smaller ports. With overnight stays in 22 different destinations, there are opportunities for you to explore a myriad of cultures and cuisines in 59 countries. The Viking Ultimate World Cruise will depart from London on 31 August 2019, calling in at Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Greenland before reaching Canada via Labrador. It then continues south along the east coast of North America before dropping anchor at some islands in the Caribbean. Continuing south along the coast, it visits Brazil,
Argentina and Falkland islands before going around Cape Horn and the Beagle Channel. From there, the cruise heads north along the Chilean coast up to Mexico and Los Angeles, and sails around the Polynesian islands. The round-the-world trip continues towards New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, and Singapore and sails back up the Indochina peninsula towards Sri Lanka, India, and Muscat before returning to Europe via the Suez Canal. It arrives back in London on 2 May 2020. Prices start from US$92,990.
CUNARD LINE The Cunard Line is probably the world’s most famous luxury cruise company, thanks to its royal British history with vessels named after its queens, Mary, Victoria, and Elizabeth. Lasting between 89 and 120 nights, the Cunard World Voyage can be undertaken on one of two vessels: the Queen Mary 2 or the Queen Victoria, and both set sail in January. In 2019, Queen Victoria will be the only Cunard Queen to sail a full westbound circumnavigation of the globe: 107 nights, 24 countries. This majestic vessel will start with the beaches of Honolulu, Sydney and Bali before sailing to the busy streets of Hong Kong and Singapore. It will then cruise along the vast Indian ocean to explore South Africa before heading up north to the Caribbean and docking at Apia after going through the Panama Canal and along San Francisco. An Oceanview room starts from S$33,000. Their iconic flagship Queen Mary 2 sails on a classic global journey as part of its
99-day 2020 World Voyage. Unlike other cruises, it’s a westbound voyage to Asia and Australia via the Mediterranean and Arabian Gulf, and returning via the Indian Ocean, and Southern Africa. In summary, Queen Mary 2 will visit 38 UNESCO World Heritage Sites from 38
ports, in 26 countries. She will transit the Suez Canal with overnight calls in Haifa, Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Sydney, including three full days in Cape Town. Prices start from S$20,000 for an inside room.
The World’s itinerary is voted on by all owners, created by the ship’s staff, which allows for unique expeditions around the world. The 2019 circuit will begin in January on the stunning shores of South Africa. The ship will then sail toward the Mediterranean islands in spring, stopping by Madagascar, India and Israel on the way.
On this 12-deck beauty with only 165 homes, studios go for $3 million and three-bedroom pads for $15 million, and they are owned by Residents who must have at least a net worth of $10 million.
THE WORLD This cruise ship made news over a decade ago as the world’s largest residential cruise ship. Originally owned by a hotel, it has since been converted into a sort of condo in the sea, with each suite and room owned by high net worth individuals who are strictly vetted before gaining ownership. Residents of The World will also have the privilege to attend the ship’s Enrichment Program which brings onboard expert guides and lecturers in various fields of expertise such as wine-tasting or world cultures to prepare the Residents for their next stop in the voyage.
It will then journey to the UK and the Faroe Islands before heading north to the stark beauty of Iceland and Greenland. Finally, Residents will step into the rich culture of East and Southeast Asia, spending their New Year’s Eve in Hong Kong.
An epic rail journey from Beijing to Moscow on the Trans-Mongolian Railway is as much about the journey as it is about the destination, and it’s not a stretch to say that it’s a lifetime travel dream for many. Covering a distance of 7,621km, this journey offers a glimpse into a range of worlds speeding across the landscape from the comfort of a first class carriage. STORY BY Karenn Singer
TRANS-MONGOLIAN RAILWAY BEIJING
The gateway is a modern railway station in Beijing. Smartly-dressed railway attendants stand at each carriage, checking tickets and ensuring everyone is seated at their allocated space. The train then begins its journey through Beijing’s cityscape. The suburbs of tall apartment complexes quickly disappear, replaced by the vast open space of rural China as it opens up. The journey is a visual feast, especially once the train slips past the Great Wall as it snakes across the brown hills and towards the mysteries of Mongolia.
Ulaanbaatar is the world’s coldest capital city and a convenient stop to break the journey. The city highlight is the Gandan Khiid Monastery, home to over 800 monks and houses the goldcovered 26.5m tall Buddha.
However, the main attraction is not the noisy city but the vast grass covered plains and staying in a traditional encampment. Many people still live their nomadic lifestyle herding cattle but some now offer their gers, or yurts, to visitors. These white-clad tents do not look like much from the outside but inside are rich deep carpets lining the walls and floor, a comfortable bed and a small fire creating a cosy escape from the cold, dark night.
the corridor or gathering in the dining compartment to share stories, drink and food. The ever changing view and stops at stations become part of the backdrop.
With the 40m-tall imposing statue of Genghis Khan on horseback in mind, anyone can sign up and join the Mongol Hordes and swoop across the Mongolian Steppes on horseback. The reality may be different from many people’s imagination: local guides wearing traditional gear will help you onto small ponies – not big stallions – and lead you on a gentle ride into hills where you can see the endangered Argali Sheep. The trip back was very different, with the ponies throwing all caution to the wind and charging for home at speed. Unlike the armies of old, a hot meal and a comfortable bed await each traveller.
The stations give a chance to stretch the legs, buy local food for the next meal and watch the passing parade of people and goods. Travelling in first class is very different to the rest of the train which is full with locals, blackmarket goods and hardy travellers – these carriages are noisy, smoky, crowded and smell of food and sweat. They offer a lifeline for people along the route and an experience of a lifetime for the intrepid traveller.
Life on board the train quickly takes on a rhythm. It is tempting to bring many books and activities but fellow passengers may prove to be more interesting, with small groups milling in
An easy, though stern, border crossing in the middle of the night and a change of running gear marks the entry into Siberia; the land of salt mines, penetrating cold, and vast forests.
The former military outpost of Irkutsk is now a modern city and a popular stop due to its proximity to Lake Baikal. After a quick recharge travellers can head out of the city to its playground on the lake. The 64km long and 1.5km deep lake holds around 20,000 cubic kilometres, or 20% of the world’s fresh water and is therefore a must see. One of the many places to stay is the small village of Bolshie Koty which can be accessed by hydrofoil. Its main appeal are the scenic walks and the welcoming locals who can provide an insight into Russian life, food and vodka. In the summer, professionals from Irkutsk open their summer homes to visitors to supplement their meagre incomes which provides travellers an
authentic experience. Many laughs and stories are shared over the evening meals of traditional food including Borscht, a traditional beetroot soup. For the energetic, a 20km walk to Listvyanka along the shore and forests of Lake Baikal is a must. Others may prefer to take the ferry – with their luggage in town – before returning to Irkutsk before continuing on the final 3 to 4-day leg to Moscow. If time permits, this leg can be broken up with stops at the various cities along the way. Although 3 days on a train sounds daunting, time passes very quickly with several stops a day, usually for 10-20 minutes which give you time to stretch the legs, take photos, and purchase local cuisine.
While it remains a popular option for travellers, booking the railway journey is not simple – it’s recommended to use a travel agent to make all the necessary reservations. While it may sound cliche, getting to know the carriage attendant is handy, as they can smoothen the journey. It’s important to choose the class of travel to suit your needs and budget – you want to be able to balance ‘experience’ with comfort for your once-in-a-lifetime journey. Prior to the trip, some handy resources include the Trans-Siberian Handbook by Bryn Thomas, and the ‘Man in Seat 61’ website.
As the train edges into Moscow, it’s not unusual to experience a bit of anticipation and restlessness. The terminus is the busy Yaroslavski Station, located in downtown Moscow which is a short distance away from the severelooking Hilton Moscow. The hotel is part of Moscow’s Seven Sisters – a group of skyscrapers built in the 1950s Stalinist neoclassical style which focuses on socialist realism art. Mixing Russian neoclassical style with the style of American skyscrapers of the 1930s, the hotel was designed to be the finest luxury hotel in Moscow when it was completed in 1954. The hotel’s staircase features one of the longest lighting fixtures in the world. The hotel towers above Komsomolskaya Square – with its three ornate railway stations of Leningradsky, Yaroslavsky and Kazansky – along with a main ring road of downtown Moscow, making it easy to access the city’s sites including the Red Square.
WORLD’S LONGEST LIST
TEXT BY Rachel Lim
1 LONGEST BRIDGE Spanning a startling 1,648kms, China’s Danyang-Kunshan Grand Bridge is the longest rail bridge in the world. This bridge is the winner of this title by a long chalk, as its nearest contender, the ChanghuaKaohsiung Viaduct in Taiwan, is more than 70kms shorter. The Danyang-Kunshan Grand Bridge hosts a high-speed rail line that runs between Shanghai and Nanjing in eastern China’s Jiangsu province. Supported by 9,500 concrete pilings, it crosses low rice paddies and a portion of the Yangtze RIver Delta, with a couple of miles of the bridge hovering above the open waters of Yangcheng Lake in Suzhou. It took
SGD$11.6 billion, 10,000 people and four years to build. China is also home to the longest bridge over water, the Jiaozhou Bay Bridge. Constructed with 450,000 tons of steel, which is enough for almost 65 Eiffel Towers, this bridge is reported to be sturdy enough to withstand the impact of a magnitude 8 earthquake. However, Louisiana still holds the official Guinness World record for the longest continuous overwater bridge as their Lake Pontchartrain Causeway spans 39 kilometres without the curves that the 42kmlong Jiaozhou Bay Bridge has, and hence covering a greater distance of water than the latter.
3 LONGEST NON-STOP FLIGHT 2 LONGEST ESCALATORS 7
The longest metro escalator can be found in Russia. It takes you a full three minutes to ride this at Park Pobedy metro station – it measures up to 130m long and operates at a depth of 68 meters, with 740 steps. Outdoors, the world’s longest pedestrian escalator is the one in Hong Kong’s Mid-Levels; built to ferry office workers from the lower sections in the Central district to the apartments in the hills above, it stretches for 800m over several segments. Meanwhile, the world’s longest sightseeing escalator is situated in China’s Enshi Grand Canyon in central Hubei province. This jagged ride entails a 18-minute journey along the scenic mountainside, stretching a total of 688m.
Currently, the honour of providing the longest non-stop flight goes to Qatar Airways’ 17.5hour Auckland to Doha route which covers a total of 14,535km. Following closely behind is Qantas’ 17-hour flight from Perth to London which launched earlier this year. However, it’s time for both airlines to step aside this October, when Singapore Airlines will fly passengers on a 19-hour journey from Singapore to Newark, New Jersey on the new Airbus A350-900 ULR (Ultra long-range) aircraft. Equipped with enough fuel to conquer the 15,300km trip, it’s designed with higher ceilings, larger windows and lighting specially tweaked to reduce jet lag. With fares from SGD$2,200, the service will only accommodate Business and Premium Economy class passengers, seating a total of 161 people instead of the usual 253.
Think you’ve checked off everything on your travel bucket list? Here’s one more for you to conquer— the ‘longest journeys’ in the world. From a 130m-long escalator ride to an upcoming non-stop 19-hour journey in the air, you can now stretch your grand odyssey out for as long as you can.
4 LONGEST CONTINUOUS WINE ROUTE Situated in the South African countryside, Route 62, which is flanked by dramatic landscapes and friendly towns, is the longest continuous wine route in the world. It connects to the Garden Route, cutting through the wine-growing areas like the mountainous Franschhoek valleys, Montagu with its thermal baths, Calitzdorp for its port wines, and Robertson, the centre of South African wine with over 50 cellars. Stretching an impressive 850kms from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, it takes you on a scenic ride through majestic mountains, past lush green foliage and along meandering rivers. It’s not only wine tasting that you can do along the route – there are opportunities for safari drives, hiking, mountain climbing, 4WD, caving, and ostrich riding.
5 LONGEST STRAIGHT ROAD
Highway 10 in Saudi Arabia is an approximately 256km-long road which entails a tedious 2 hour drive, according to Google maps. Judging by its scenery — or lack thereof — it could very well win the award for being the most boring drive unless you’ve got a thing for staring at 162 miles worth of barren desert land and cactus. Linking the city of Haradh, which is famous for its abundant supply of oil and natural gas, to Al Batha near the UAE border, Highway 10 is as straight as the Pope except for that little bend right before it ends at Al Batha. The next longest straight drive is Australia’s Eyre Highway; there’s a portion called the “90 Mile Straight” which measures approximately 145.6 km.
As of 2016, Switzerland stole the limelight from Japan as home to the world’s longest rail tunnel, the Gotthard Base Tunnel. This 57km-long tunnel is also the deepest in the world, at a depth of 2.3km as it zooms from the towns of Erstfeld in the north to Bodio in the south, deep underneath the Swiss Alps. Dubbed Switzerland’s “construction of the century”, it took 17 years to build and costs around SGD$16 billion to construct. Norway holds the trophy for the
world’s longest road tunnel with the Laerdal Tunnel, located in Aurland in West Norway. It takes a whole 20 minutes to drive through the entire length of the 24.5km-long tunnel; it cost SGD$208 million to build. Its hefty cost probably stems from its colourfully-lit caverns that are designed specially to alleviate fatigue and claustrophobia. This tunnel is split into sections – one of them was actually used as a wedding ceremony venue – with rest stops built in between them.
6 LONGEST TRAIN RIDE According to Guinness World record, the longest train ride with no transfers is 10,214 kilometres long on the famous Trans-Siberian line from Moscow, Russia to PyongYang, North Korea, in slightly more than a week. However, as there are very rigid rules regarding foreigners’ entrance into North Korea, an easier ride would be the 9,289 kilometre journey on the same railway to Vladivostok. This railway journey, which would take about a week to conquer, is expected to be even longer, with Japan’s hopes of linking London and Tokyo in the future. If the Trans-Siberian Express does indeed reach the northern tip of Hokkaido as planned, it would be possible to travel from London to Tokyo via the Eurostar from London to Paris, then the ParisMoscow Express, the Trans-Siberian Express, and finally the high-speed bullet train from Hokkaido to Tokyo.
Connecting remote villages in Alaska is the unique Hurricane Turn train (part of Alaska Railroad), which is perhaps the USA’s last remaining ‘flag stop’ passenger train that allows riders to catch a lift at any point along its route. There’s no need to head to a train station – all you have to do to get on the train is to simply walk up to the tracks and hail it with a white flag (you can reportedly also wave your arms or use a white t-shirt).
The train operator will stop the train and pick you up; since the twoengine train is only three cars long (with two passenger cars and one baggage car), it’s relatively easy to stop on short notice.
station by 1910, supplying miners and trappers in the nearby mining districts. After a brief population boom during WWI, it declined after the Alaska Railroad was completed.
The tiny hamlet of Talkeetna, which only has one paved road, is straight out of many visitors’ mental image of ‘small town Alaska’. Located in the Mat-Su Valley in Southcentral Alaska, this is an outdoorsy and artistic town which has retained much of its early Alaska flavour from the time when it was a gold mining centre at the turn of the 20th century. Thanks to the discovery of gold, Talkeetna became a riverboat steamer
However, it’s since bounced back as the jumping-off point for ascents of Denali, Mount Foraker, the Moose’s Tooth and other high peaks in the region. Lying in the shadow of Denali, North America’s tallest peak, log cabins, a roadhouse and clapboard storefronts line Talkeetna’s dirt streets. With its mixture of heritage, natural wonder and good coffee, Talkeetna is easy to explore in a leisurely afternoon. Complimentary shuttles run into town from the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge throughout the day. Some of the
hotspots to visit include the Talkeetna Roadhouse, which has been a go-to spot for baked goods and savoury pies for 100 years. Popular with worldclass alpinists, the walls are coated with paraphernalia relating to Denali mountaineering history. Meanwhile at the National Park Service headquarters, you can see who is tackling what routes on Denali on any given day in the Alaska Range. In addition to historic artifacts, experienced rangers are eager to share stories about Denali here. The history of Denali and the climbers who made the first ascents is well preserved at the Talkeetna Historical Society Museum, a small complex consisting of four restored buildings. Beyond the small town, there’s plenty to do other than viewing Denali. You can visit Talkeetna Canyon, Devils Canyon, Chulitna River and Tokositna River on riverboat and jet boat tours; the areas are also popular for charter fishing trips. On land, there are horseback excursions that offer majestic views of Denali.
THE ROUTE Winter In winter (October to May), the Hurricane Turn makes the roundtrip journey from Anchorage north to Wasilla, Talkeetna, and the flag stop area south of Hurricane Gulch. At 268km-long, this service is much longer than the summer version.
The Hurricane Turn route cuts through the wilderness around Denali National Park, in a remote stretch of the Alaska Railroad between Fairbanks and Anchorage. The unique flag stop system allows riders to get on and off in the backcountry – including those who own remote, off-the-grid cabins in the area – between the Indian River Valley and Hurricane Gulch which is known for its picturesque bridge, the railroad’s longest and tallest that looms 90 metres above the waters of Hurricane Creek. There are actually two different routes: summer and winter, which has an extended service to Anchorage. Summer During the summer (mid-May to mid-September), the 88.5km-long trip which takes approximately 2 hours starts from Talkeetna, a village north of Anchorage at the base of Denali, and leaves civilisation behind as it makes its round-trip journey through the wilds of the Indian River Valley. While locals use this service to access their remote cabins for hunting and fishing, it’s one of Alaska’s best-kept secrets for visitors to this part of the world. Most of the region’s residents live in an area known as Chase, at 16km
from Talkeetna, which is home to around 40 year-round inhabitants. The railway is their lifeline to transport necessary goods from the larger cities back to their homes in the wilderness. Often these individuals are very open to sharing their stories, and will paint a picture of what life is really like in backcountry Alaska.
However, it only operates once a month on Thursday, allowing residents living in the remote cabins to spend Friday in Anchorage before catching the northbound Aurora Winter Train back to their cabins on Saturday. Those visiting Anchorage in winter can also hail the Hurricane Turn to explore Talkeetna, or simply enjoy the ride through the snowy landscape by rail.
As the passenger train brakes only when it needs to pick up or drop off passengers, the schedule can be quite erratic. Unlike all other Alaska Railroad trains, there is no dining service on Hurricane Turn so passengers are advised to bring their own meals aboard or buy to-go lunches at the endpoints. The panoramic views at the train’s turnaround point – Hurricane Gulch – is a highlight for many visitors, with views of Denali towering over the braided Susitna River on a clear day. You can also opt to head to Chase, then slowly float back down to Talkeetna on the glacial river with Denali View Rafting. Along the way you’ll be able to see salmon spawning areas, or walk on glacial silt islands, keeping an eye out for bald eagles, bears, beavers, foxes, and moose along the way.
The easiest way to access the Hurricane Turn and Talkeetna is from Anchorage, which is 185km away. The Hurricane Turn train only has Adventure Class seats, which offer large picture windows and openair vestibules between railcars to provide fresh air and photo ops. The summer return fare from Talkeetna to Hurricane Gulch costs US$106 (US$65 in winter). The summer route runs from Thursday to Monday, while the winter route is only operational on one Thursday a month.
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Singapore's free adventure travel magazine. Pick up your free copy now: www.sportsandtravelonline.com
Published on Jul 23, 2018
Singapore's free adventure travel magazine. Pick up your free copy now: www.sportsandtravelonline.com