Today in Manuka

Delightful or Frightful?

Today, in Manuka, I wandered past a young man standing in the sunlight. The red shirt he wore looked brilliant against his dark skin. There was a sheen to his shaved head – perhaps sweat from an abnormally warm winter sun. He moved up and down the pavement’s edge with athleticism and would confidently lock eyes with anyone who happened to look his way. I looked and was met with eyes encased by long, thick lashes. Eyes with lucid whites and a certain warmth and challenge to them. He was beautiful. He smiled.

Smiling up at him from a seated position on the edge of the pavement was a young girl. She had long, raven-black hair pinned haphazardly to the top of her head. Her hands, hampered by talon-like acrylic nails, switched between clutching at her mobile phone and plucking at an upward-inching skirt. Her pale, wintery arms looked taught and cold. She didn’t have jacket. She shivered and stopped smiling.

I went to return the young man’s smile, but before I could he had spun round and began railing at the girl. Her head sunk between her knees but not quick enough to hide a dark and spreading blush. I was wrong, he offered no warmth.

The words he nailed into her bowed posture were base, vile and as bloody as his foul, red shirt. The sweat on his head spread, cold. He rallied to stay confident and challenging. The spring in his step, the athleticism he conveyed was not down to his fitness and youth; it was fueled by something else – something synthetic and dark. A drug. Lucid was also a mistake.

The girl said nothing. She had forgotten her skirt. Her messy, shiny hair fell forward over her hung head. She was faceless. She was also nameless. I had a hundred names for the young man who had become increasingly louder and shameless. He debased her sex and screamed the power of his. “So powerful” was his anatomy, he screamed to the empty street, “so pathetic was hers and so immense was his, that gay men would have him in a second”. He had it so wrong.

He was worthy of no one. Female, gay or otherwise. He was frightful.

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Ink conversations with Binh

At 18:00 Da Nang’s vicious sun had already set but I was still struggling with the humidity alongside hunger. ‘Bread Of Life’ had been recommended to me, so sitting in the window of the cafe (right next to the air conditioning unit) I waited patiently for my Vietnamese iced coffee and mushroom burger.

A second waiter approached me but before I could smile and indicate that I had already ordered, he sat down next to me with a blank docket/receipt and pen. He wrote “what is your name?”. I wrote back and also asked for his name.

Meet Binh.

Binh is 26, originally from Hoi An, now married, has been working at Bread Of Life for some years and is deaf. He’s not the only deaf being in the cafe either. The chefs, baristas and other serving staff are all deaf too.

Binh’s receipt quickly fills with questions and answers around Australia vs Vietnamese life and I am forced to rummage in my bag for more scrap paper. Turns out Binh was born all hearing and speaking but at the age of four he had a horrible fall – cracking his skull open. After numerous months in hospital he was pronounced stone deaf in both ears.

The deaf, in Vietnam, are more often than not seen as a burden on family and society. Schools for the deaf are far and few between, consequently a large proportion of deaf adults today have minimal literacy skills and many are unable to communicate with their own family members (sign or otherwise).

This is where the little cafe I’m sitting in becomes a life-line for some of Da Nang’s deaf. Bread Of Life teaches new deaf recruits to sign in Vietnamese, the skills required of a chef/waiter/barista and more importantly Bread Of Life gives these folk their independence.

I had intended to eat and run within an hour but instead stayed for over two ‘talking’ with Binh and some of the other staff. By the end of it, I’d been offered a ride back to my hotel and I happily agreed. Perched on the back of Binh’s motorbike and with a piece of boxed apple pie tucked under my arm, we accelerated off into the night and mayhem of Da Nang – Binh, oblivious to the thousands of honks, beeps and all other manner of traffic sounds.

Crossing with confidence

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Perched on the back of a motorbike taxi and puttering past uneven pavements filled with food vendors, open-aired plant nurseries, tailors and old men hawking mechanical bits and pieces; I sat as high as possible to take advantage of Saigon’s hot, thick ‘breeze’. My driver, for the last ten minutes, had kept up a constant stream of advice, pointing out interesting places we passed – temples, parks, mosques, markets – and shouting questions over his shoulder at me. Such a shame I can’t speak a word of Vietnamese. But, my smiles and nods of agreement to everything he relayed allowed for an easy hour of orientation in the city we had just landed in,

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Image by Ross Walker

Scanning the sea of bicycles, scooters, Vespas and motorbikes of all descriptions; I spotted Ross further ahead, photographing Kathy (also motoring along close by) one handed while clutching the back of his seat with the other hand. Seeing Ross is exciting. Having left home and Australia over seven years ago, I’ve had very little interaction or contact with him. In the time I’ve been away he’s graduated from both school and university, widened his acting experience, gained niche skills as a barista, he’s become his own person and now … he’s seeing more of the world. And with me. I’ve waited a long time for this.

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Image by Katherine Griffiths

Pulling up to red traffic lights I realised it was necessary to become as streamlined with the bike as possible. Slotting in between other motorbikes with relaxed legs meant a possible loss of knee caps or contact with exhaust pipes. All limbs need to be tucked in and then eeling through Ho Chi Minh’s revving humanity, unscathed, is possible.

Pulling up to red traffic lights.
Image by Kate Walker

Ignoring very obvious red lights, some drivers took off veering around crossing pedestrians and beeping in irritation at oncoming or turning traffic (who by the way had right of way). Bemused by this, I caught the eye of my man and he shrugged, pulling away in the glow of red lights too. Gracious, this was getting interesting.

Image by Kate Walker

Twisting in my seat, the scene behind me was pure mayhem. Drivers in their hundreds were picking up speed, yet those on foot continued to walk the intersections with small children, baskets of produce across shoulders and with the elderly hooked into the crooks of arms. Nobody dithered, lost courage or changed direction. To do so would mean an accident. Smiling to myself, I quietly agreed with Lonely Planet – those without wheels must cross with confidence.

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Image by Kate Walker

Day one in Vietnam and we still had a full three months ahead of us. Perhaps by the end of it all, we’d dither less and simply stride out (confidently) into the mayhem of SE Asia.

Into The Wild

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Image by: Katherine Griffiths Photography

Hundreds of dragonflies dart haphazardly around me, fracturing the silvery pink light. They snatch at small clouds of gnats and unsuspecting mosquitoes as afternoon turns to evening. The humidity slowly drops. Standing in the ‘open window’ that is my bedroom wall, I witness the sounds of larger forest life quieten and the smaller insect world increase in crescendo.

I can hear distant laughter and the tinkling of glasses. The sweat on my arms and face dries as the air cools. It’s now the twilight. The dragonflies feed with less abandonment, the forest with her large palm fronds and the vines near to me, morph into one giant silhouette against a now blue-black night sky. The last of the light disappears and standing in the dark I reflect on what an amazing place I’ve landed in.

I’m in Tambopata National Park in the South East of Peru with the award-winning ecotourism outfit – Rainforest Expeditions. I’m here to experience the Amazon, to search for the elusive Jaguar, Anacondas, the very rare Giant River Otter and the Harpy Eagle. These four species are considered, by my guide Aldo, as the top four endangered predatory creatures in the area.

Squinting at the glow of my watch I realise I’ve almost missed sundowners at the lodge bar. With the smell of dinner in the air I grab a torch, stroll the walkways to the main hub of ‘Refugio’ (the lodge) and find some of the guides and other guests already at the bar, tucking into Pisco Sours and discussing the coming days’ activities.

Refugio Lodge
Image by: © Katherine Griffiths Photography

 

Lodge walkways.
Image by Kate Walker

The perfect spot to while away the afternoon hours…
Image by: © Katherine Griffiths Photography

His incredible ear for faun calls and eye for the tiniest of movements sees me witnessing Saddle-back Tamarinds for the first time, different species of Tucan, teasing Chicken Tarantulas out of their ground burrows (this is not for the faint-hearted) and learning about the stranger of beasts (Screaming Pijas and Hoatzins to name a couple) in this huge conservation area.  We pass Walking Trees, Strangler Figs and Kapoks – the incredible and majestic trees that inspired James Cameron in the making of the film ‘Avatar’.Life, in this part of the world, is at its busiest early in the day; I’m up each day at around 06:00am to the awakening calls of Howler Monkeys and within the hour, walking the forest trails with a belly full of breakfast and in the footsteps of Aldo.

Chicken tarantula
Image by: © Katherine Griffiths Photography

Tambopata NP really is a special place. It has one of very few Macaw research/conservation and protection centres in all of South America and along with Colombia it is ranked the top spot for bird watching in South America.

Tambopata lies within the larger region of Madre de Dios (Mother of God) where 52 per cent of the forests are protected by the government. Of the 120 ‘world climates’, 80 can be found in this setting and wider Peru. This nook in the world is all about halting development and promoting conservation – it’s fantastic to see.

One of many forest trails..
Image by: © Katherine Griffiths Photography

Perched silently in a hide overlooking the clicks, I watched vibrant yellow, red and blue Scarlet Macaws socialise and parakeets group together in their tens. Bird enthusiasts can sit glued to telescopes and high-tech binoculars for hours, so if you’re all about the avian world – this is the place to be.Traipsing the forest trails and crushing dry vegetation underfoot is not conducive to glimpsing some of the more shy fauna in the region. So this is where the Clay Licks come in handy. A Clay Lick is an area, usually on the edges of a riverbank, where creatures great and small gather around exposed soil and eat the nutrient-rich clay to assist in their digestion of fruits and other vegetation. Some also believe it’s a place where Tambopata’s 1,800 species of bird come to socialise. And, Tambopata is home to the largest ‘Clay Lick’ in the world.

All you need it a cold beer and a spot to perch.
Image by Kate Walker

Afternoons saw me scaling canopy towers allowing a peak at the expanse of green I’d been moving under for days. By night there’s the opportunity to go Caiman spotting – these creatures that grow up to two meters long are far more active at night. And if the reptiles are proving difficult to hunt out then a boat ride with your head hung over the side is just as good – the stars and clarity of night sky in this corner of the planet is incredible.

Fading light on a sandy bank.
Image by Kate Walker

Sadly, I never got to see any of the mentioned top predators but I saw a huge array of other wonderful species and I’m far richer for the exposure. Refugio’s guides and staff make the experience; the lodge is an oasis of comforts in what is a wild, remote part of the world.

Chasing dust trains

Bitter winds whip at my exposed face as I make my way over to border control. Around me the early morning light paints a deceivingly warm hue over grand mountains and snow-capped volcanic scenes. A land rover hurtles past me, spraying gravel and creating a cloud of dust. Hunkering further down in into my fleece (and five layers beneath that) I hurry over the invisible line that denotes Chile and into Bolivian territory.

The border between Chile and Bolivia
Image by: Kate Walker

Sunlight streams through the dust covered windows of the immigration ‘shed’ I stand in. Being in seriously rugged terrain and a long way from anything civilised, one can forgive the lack of facilities and comfort immigration offers here. An elderly man seated on a three-legged stool thrusts his hand out, refuses to acknowledge me, takes my passport and without reviewing the ID page stamps me in.

Well, ‘hola’ Bolivia.

Covering my eyes with a gloved hand, I dash back to the smaller shed we parked at and join the group for breakfast. At over 4000m altitude my 50m dash leaves me heaving and narrowly avoiding a coughing fit. Wow, the air up here is dry. Not only that, it comes with about 40% less oxygen that I am used to. Recovering over a plastic up of instant ‘cafe con leche’ (the regular out here…coffee with milk), I burrow in with the French, Welsh and Kathy for body warmth.

The breakfast shed
Image by: Kate Walker

Cafe con leches and peach jam sandwhiches
Image by: Kate Walker

Edgar – our ‘Spanglish’ driver and guide joins us for peach jam sandwiches and advises us that there are no baños (loos) here. The next possible baño stop is 30 minutes drive from here. Great! Having already sipped water for hours and now cradling my second cup of hot coffee; this is not good. I think of mom and agree she would hate this. No loos and with winds being sub degree, it prevents you from discreetly dropping you pants behind a mound of rubbish.

Image by: Kate Walker

“Vamos”, Edgar shouts. We go….

I stand and watch my backpack, along with others, get thrown up onto the roof racks of our 4×4. Wrapping the load in tarpaulin and tying on additional fuel tanks on top, Edgar doesn’t even puff with the exertion. He later tells me he has been doing this for over 20 years and that it takes a lot for him to wheeze at near to what we gringos do. Fair call.

As I climb into the back of our land rover, I look back out at the scene we’re leaving. Abandoned truck skeletons lie covered in thick layers of dust, a multitude of other land rovers gear up and pull away leaving the old, unperturbed man on his three-legged stool hidden in a blanket of swirling yellow and red dust.

The only way to move around this part of the world.
Image by: Kate Walker

Here we go. Three days through Bolivian National Parks, deserts, volcanic plains, geysers, lagoons and her famous salt pans/flats (the largest in the world).

Train skeleton
Image by: Kate Walker

With six of us layered and padded for warmth, along with Kathy’s camera equipment, it’s a tight squeeze. Edgar asks us to not open the windows or play with the air vents. They must remain closed or risk choking on streams of dust. Pulling away and into the dust trail of a 4×4 in front of us, I silently ‘whoop’ with the excitement of all of this. London certainly doesn’t cough up scenes, space or the extremes I’m currently moving through. This is insane. It’s liberating and it’s only hour three of 72.

Kathy
Image by: Kate Walker

Valentine
Image by: Kate Walker

Me – happy to be back in a land rover!
Image by: Kate Walker

Clocking near to 100km/hr in our land rover, mountains and volcanoes (both dead and alive) move past at a snail’s pace outside my window. The vivid colours out here are just mesmerising. Below a crisp blue and cloudless sky lie brown, rust, orange, yellow and purple-ish undulating shapes. White, white snow lathers the tops of higher peaks, pink and yellow dust trains swirl in the air and rogue yellow tufty grasses lie flattened in the freezing winds.

Colourful landscapes
Image by: Kate Walker

Valentine – my back seat French friend – mutters “Mon Dieu”. Indeed….My God.

Thirty minutes later and Edgar slows, the land rover wheels swishing in the soft sands and gravel. We’re approaching the first of three lagoons for the day. Blanco (white) Lagoon rests in Eduardo Avaroa National Park and if you’ve never seen a winter-layered lagoon before (like me) it’s pretty special. Ice-fringed lagoon edges sparkle in the mid-morning sunlight. Soft brown muds mix with snap-frozen green and red algae. Encircling us and this colourful icy spot are even more dramatic mountain scenes. Wind-streaked clouds break the horizon and ….it’s quiet. So quiet.

Our first view of Blanco Lagoon.
Image by: Kate Walker

Being at altitude, the heart pumps faster. And here at Blanco Lagoon I can hear my heart. The thumps and pulses echo in my ears.

Kathy & Me at Blanco Lagoon.
Image by: © Katherine Griffiths Photography

Icy shores – Blanco Lagoon
Image by: Kate Walker

Blanco Lagoon
Image by: Kate Walker

Frozen ‘chicas’ – Kate & Kathy
Image by: Kate Walker

Ten minutes is all we can bear. Wide, open lands are conducive to ‘sideways winds’ and it’s exhausting to stand out here for too long. Cramming back into our trusty 4×4 steed and with Edgar’s Bolivian tunes sounding out, it’s “vamos” once more. Again, we leave in a veil of dust and aim for a far off dust train – the ‘only’ life out here; another land rover.

Mad geyser winds and flying grit
Image by: Kate Walker

We can only withstand a few minutes…
Image by: Kate Walker

We visit two more lagoons for the day. Verde (green) and Rojo (red). Both beautiful, wild and very different in their makeup and resulting colours. Rojo Lagoon is home to flamingoes but being winter, sadly, there are very few tip-toeing the ice-encrusted shores. Edgar tells us during summer, it’s difficult to spot a pool of water between the tens of thousands of pink legs that migrate here in the season.

Strong winds at Verde Lagoon
Image by: Kate Walker

Rojo Lagoon is my favourite. It’s huge, the reds are dramatic, the slopes down to the shores of the lagoon are not for the feint-hearted and it’s a place where you can’t help but seek a little solitude and squat with your own thoughts.

Rojo Lagoon
Image by: Kate Walker

Rojo Lagoon – difficult shore slopes
Image by: Kate Walker

Rojo Lagoon & me
Image by: © Katherine Griffiths Photography

Light footed Delphine & Valentine – Rojo Lagoon
Image by: Kate Walker

Day two is all about covering distance. We settle in, the Bolivian tunes are on repeat, puffa jackets have been removed and the car is quite. Some sleep and some nurse altitude sickness. Me – I’m propped in a sunny corner and I watch incredible landscapes go by for hours. I have never seen anything like this before. I try to piece together scenes of the Judean Desert/Israel’s Dead Sea with a touch of Namibia’s sandy landscapes – but it just doesn’t work. This part of the world is completely unique and almost looks untouched and un-inhabited. The few local faces we do pass are terribly weathered. Skin that starts out as light brown quickly turns dark and before middle age, many folk look near-black in the cheeks and hands. The sun is vicious in this part of the world and coupled with that, the winds suck what moisture they can. Within one day my hand were chapped, swollen and my cuticles split and bleeding. Doing up/un-doing frozen jacket and backpack zips is an art by day three.

One of few active volcanoes in the region
Image by: Kate Walker

06:45 on our last morning and I’m sitting up in bed, swaddled in everything I own plus the blankets provided by our ‘Salt Hotel’ – looking out over the edges of The Salar de Uyuni. This is what we’re here for. Sunrise creeps into existence and the black and blue hues of the salt flats change to purple, pink and finally a blinding white. Again, I’m taken back by the sheer space out here. It’s salt for as far as the eye can see.

Dawn on the salt flats
Image by: Kate Walker

With hot cafe con leches lining my stomach along with a bit of dulce de leche smothered bread, Edgar has us packed up and spinning tyres in the direction of …well salt. How he knows where to drive and without navigational equipment, is beyond me. He turns and winks at me, somehow knowing my thoughts; and quietly comments that he drives this route every three days. And remember, he’s been doing this for over 20 years. I wink back and give him a small salute too.

A fellow 4×4…the only other moving object for miles on the salt pans
Image by: Kate Walker

Forty minutes later and we pull over. I laugh as there is no difference to the salt we’ve been driving over to the salt we come to stop on. But, it’s here where the fun begins. For hours our group happy-snaps away. Folk ‘hang off’ the hair braid of Delphine, our German friends traipse my horizontal body and the girls hold each other in the palms of their hands.

In the palm of their hands
Image by: © Katherine Griffiths Photography

Hanging by a braid
Image by: Kate Walker

‘Walking Kate’
Image by: © Katherine Griffiths Photography

Snapped a second too soon.
Image by: Kate Walker

The jump shot – super fun!
Image by: © Katherine Griffiths Photography

It feels like such a short time, but apparently not. “Vamos” we hear.

Post all the fun on the salt flats. “Vamos”…we’re off again.
Image by: Kate Walker

There are more dust trains to chase and we set off – a tiny moving speck in the brilliance of the salt flats of Bolivia.

Image by: Kate Walker

Buzios’ beat

The night is young and the beat is pretty slow in our boutique hotel.

Perched on bar stools, Kathy and I are about to discover molecular mixology. A little over excited I subtly eyeball the bar manager and enquire as to what this involves. ‘Intensity. Lots of flavour. Caviar. Foam and a little stimulation’, she whispers. ‘Holy bejesus’, I’m thinking, does it involve a man, flesh and possible palm frond too?

Gripping my stool I prepare for the worst (perhaps the best).

And placed in front of me is a chilled martini glass. Cradled within are what look like strawberry coloured fish eggs. Blinking and taking a proffered spoon (from a barman sans palm frond…sigh) I scoop up a few of the blobs and squish them between my lips.

Mini lumps of strawberried vodka. Strange, but flavoursome. And mighty dangerous too… Many more pink blobs later and it’s time to move on and increase the beat.

Orla Bardot (street) has more of a pulse and it’s here we find ourselves amongst food festival revellers, stalls lit up and steam swirling in the night air. Buzios’ food festival (now its 11th year) is in full swing. Glasses of Sangria are being passed around and it takes just a few seconds and our arms join those already outstretched for more. Like juice, she goes down smoothly and again I find myself macerating alcohol infused strawberries between lips. The beat is certainly stronger out here.

23:59 PM sees us testing Billabong caipirinhas. Sadly, this cheap open-aired and free joint lacks any strawberry class – but it’s fun. The folk here are from all corners of the world. Buzians with but a few bucks to their name dance with Skols in hand. The DJ increases the beat, the night evolves into a new day and the crowd only increases. Argentinians dominate the throng of uninhibited souls, the sweat runs and for a short six or so hours my beat is strong, footloose and I couldn’t be happier.

Buzios’ beat will stay with you….

Hang checks, views and soaring high

A Hang Check:

‘The act of a pilot to check that one is properly connected to the hang glider before flight (and hanging at the correct distance above the base tube). This is accomplished by the pilot laying down in flight position to ensure all connections are properly made and putting pressure on that system.’

…I was told in a round-about, more simplified way as I hung in my harness on the edge of a cliff in Tijuca National Park.

Just making sure he’s strapped me in good and proper.
GoPro image by: Beto Rotor

The Hang Check….

I’m about to willingly run off the side of a mountain but for a few seconds I’m arrested by the views. Tijuca National Park is the largest urban forest in the world and it slams right up against the Atlantic Ocean. Hard not to appreciate that for a few minutes. But, before I can recap all the rules to gliding in my head one more time, my wings move forward by pilot Beto Rotor and then it’s “run, run, run, 1, 2, 3…..feet up!”

I’m slammed into my harness, pulled into the V of our glider and Beto is whooping with delight. He lives for this stuff. For a few seconds I can’t get a word out, my head is craned back and the wind is causing my eyes to tear. Eeewwww – this is insane.

Seconds after launch
GoPro image by: Beto Rotor

Strong up-winds throw us nearly higher than the height we launched at. We are up and over Tijuca, Rocinha – favela and our home is incredible and the sea looms closer and closer.

Soaring high…
GoPro image by: Beto Rotor

This is the truest form to flying…really. So much to take on, you see everything, you feel the winds dip, surge and press down upon you. No comparison to bungee jumping and skydiving.

Free flying with Rocinha in the background
GoPro image by: Beto Rotor

GoPro image by: Beto Rotor

Preparing to land – gut wrenching
GoPro image by: Beto Rotor

Inches away….
GoPro image by: Beto Rotor

Down – Eeewwwww
GoPro image by: Beto Rotor

Quick Facts:

Who to hang glide with: Beto Rotor (www.betorotor.com)

Where: In, up and high above Tijuca National Park – Rio de Janeiro