A new year brings both expectation and introspection. With 2014 rumbling into view and 2013 somewhere back behind us, I’ve suddenly realised just how much travelling I did in the last 12 months. As I think back, a few moments and places stand out as high points in another itinerant year. Here are my 13 travel highlights from 2013.
1. Overland Track through a Child’s Eyes
On New Year’s Day, I woke on the Overland Track with my nine-year-old daughter in the tent beside me. That day we climbed Mt Ossa, Tasmania’s highest peak, which was as perfect a start to a year as I can imagine. For the seven days we walked I was greeted by nothing but this wide, innocent smile – even as she nonchalantly picked a leech from her upper lip one morning, her smile only twitched. It was a walk and an experience that will stay with me for life.
2. Galapagos Islands
Why the Galapagos? Because they’re the Galapagos, a place like nowhere else on Earth, where the wildlife looks you in the eye and then gets on with its business. There were days I’d step over nesting blue-footed boobies and they’d simply stare curiously up at me, and here on Gardiner Bay, sea-lions basked in the sun as their pups often explored around my feet. My brief was to check out Peregrine Adventures‘ new catamaran – it was very good, but the wildlife was sublime.
3. Climb Every Mountain
Two months after walking the Overland Track with my daughter, I was back, checking out a new trip from Cradle Mountain Huts. On Climb Every Mountain, guests not only hike the 65km track, they ascend a handful of satellite peaks along the way. Over the six days of this crossing, we climbed Cradle Mountain and Mt Ossa, ascended onto the shoulder of Mt Pelion West and, for the first time, I stood on the jumbled summit of Barn Bluff (above).
4. Three Capes Track
At the end of 2015, the first hikers are expected to step out onto Tasmania’s newest trail, the Three Capes Track. In autumn I took a reconnaissance of sorts, joining a new Tasmanian Expeditions trip out to the ‘three capes’ in question. Over three days we hiked to Cape Hauy on the shiny-new path and past Shipstern Bluff to Cape Raoul, before heading by boat to distant Cape Pillar and Tasman Island, beneath the highest sea cliffs in Australia.
Abruzzo is Italy with a three-day growth. Rippled with mountains, including the highest peak in Italy south of the Alps, it’s wild in measures far beyond the time it takes to drive here. Wolves and bears still roam its ranges, it has Europe’s southernmost glacier, and it has more national parks than any other Italian region. For a week with Hedonistic Hiking I wandered through each of the parks, rising onto mountains and descending into valleys. The rare Marsican brown bear eluded us, but the distinctive Abruzzese cuisine did not.
Classically pretty cities – Florence, Salzburg et al – leave me cold, but a city with spunk, clamour and character is just my thing. Sarajevo, Naples and Addis Ababa have each won me in the past, and this year it was the turn of Cartagena, Colombia’s Caribbean city. In July I travelled to Colombia with the South America Travel Centre, discovering a country that bears no resemblance to its reputation. Every region was like a country in itself, and Cartagena was most seductive of all, a place as sultry as its equatorial air and as cool in the evening as its reliable sea breezes. And it has pirate stories to boot.
7. Tayrona National Park
Around 250km west of Cartagena is the extraordinary Tayrona National Park, a place where the world’s highest coastal mountain range falls into the Caribbean Sea, with beaches that have been rated among the finest in the world. Ancient tribes still inhabit its thick rainforests, and ruined cities quietly crumble away. For a day I hiked through the forest and mountains in the company of howler monkeys and poison frogs. After reaching the abandoned Pueblito village I descended to the coast, emerging onto the beach above to wash away the sweat. As rewards go, it was about as good as it gets.
8. Walls of Jerusalem
In the last couple of years I’ve become a convert to winter hiking. In 2012 I hiked the Overland Track in mid-winter, and in 2013 I joined a couple of friends for a winter hike into the neighbouring Walls of Jerusalem. Snow cover in Tasmania is fickle and we had no great expectations, but as soon as we rose into the Walls we were hip-deep in snow. It was slow, fatiguing and wonderful as we ploughed towards our intended camp, arriving long after dark. Two days later an overnight dump of snow made for an even slower exit. Wallabies toppled over in the fresh powder, wombats bustled about, and even in snowshoes we disappeared deep into the snow. It was truly the best walking I did all year.
For whatever reason, I have an affair of the mind with African mountains. For years I’d wanted to trek in the Ruwenzori, the Simien Mountains and South Africa’s Drakensberg. A few years ago I hiked in the Simiens to find they somehow exceeded expectation, and this year with Exodus Travel I finally journeyed into the Drakensberg, emerging with a wish to go back and explore a whole lot more. The Zulus called these mountains the ‘Battlement of Spears’, and it’s easy to see why as you scamper about beneath their sharp-tipped peaks.
You don’t really come to a country like Swaziland with any expectation, but spend any time hiking in Malolotja Nature Reserve and the place gets to you. I came to Malolotja for a couple of days out of South Africa, discovering a place where the bare hills were almost alpine yet the heat was very African. Ridge-top trails dipped into impenetrable gorges, and boulders crowned every knoll. Blesboks trotted across our trails and pincushion proteas sprang from the burned earth. There are no grand bucket-list features here and yet it affected me like few other places during the year.
In spring I had an assignment to write about family travel on Tasmania’s east coast. In Coles Bay, I took my two children on a morning of kayaking with Freycinet Adventures. It was a straightforward and simple paddle, circuiting the bay and cruising along the foot of the Hazards range. Sometimes the kids paddled, other times they just skimmed seaweed off the surface of the water and watched the attached bugs scurry about the decks of the kayaks. It was as peaceful as an office could ever be, though I chose not to tell the kids about the six-metre shark that suddenly appeared in the bay until we were back on shore.
12. Cook Islands
At a glance, the Cook Islands probably shouldn’t be my kind of destination. I’d pictured them as tropical, lethargic and lazy, and yet I left the islands thinking that maybe I’ve been unkind to the tropics all these years. The Cooks bustle with real life not just postcard scenes – though there are plenty of them – and though I came to sail a traditional vaka (canoe) between islands, the weather pinned us to land much of the time. In place of the sea, there was time on the razor ridge of mountains that splits Rarotonga, and even a pretty-scene heathen like me was wowed by the colours and clarity of the lagoon at Aitutaki. Perhaps I’ll take a tropical holiday one day, after all.
13. Kayaking in Port Davey
And so the year rounded out in Tasmania’s most remote corner, kayaking out from Bathurst Harbour into Port Davey with Roaring 40s Kayaking. It was a trip that scratched a long-held ambition to paddle into the Davey River Gorge, as well as providing some of the natural solitude that my mind and body demand. In six days, we saw just two other vessels – a yacht and a fishing boat – as we hopped between beaches, nosed into sea caves and rose and fell with the ocean swells. If you’d told me I was 120km from home – less than an hour on a German autobahn – I might not have believed you.