A Travellerspoint blog

Middle Earth

(Cliche, I know, but I just couldn't resist. And yes it looks like the movies, no there aren't any orcs, and yes there are beautiful elvish queens)


The place was the Kepler Track, one of New Zealand's "Great Walks", a trail passing through beech forest and over mountain ridges giving views of huge peakes rising straight out of huge glacial lakes. Along the way on the four day walk are huts maintained by the New Zealand Department of Conservation (think US Forest Service with no guns and fewer trucks). Because of the way the huts are located, as you walk the track each night you see the same group of people along the way and end up becoming quite friendly, sharing meals, hiking together, taking pictures...becoming a fellowship, so to speak.


Our crew consisted of (and I'll omit names here to protect the innocent) myself, an Aussie chick, two Brits, at least half a dozen Israelis, a Canadian photographer guy, a German Alex Supertramp, and a few others. It was a nice crowd and I could fill an entire entry with lots of marvelous (and not so marvelous) things about each one of these people, but for the sake of this story you really only need to know about ER and Captain Tom.


ER and Captain Tom were the childhood friends from the UK who were taking a holdiay from their current jobs; Tom a captain in the British military, just back from Aghanistan and ER was )surprise surprise) and ER doctor. Both were holding on to the "child" part of childhood quite strongly and were execellently immature for their age (thirties). As you would expect, Captain Tom was built like a linebacker and could move like one too. It was a good thing too, because ER had agreed to do the trek under one condition: Captain Tom carries the wine. Enough for every night. And so Captain Tom, as we learned in the first night, carried three 3 liter bags of wine in addition to steaks and at least one box of milk, and not the powdered kind.


Before the final night, the wine had run dry and ER did not look happy. As a result, Captain Tom hiked 10 to the final hut, dropped off his pack, ran 15k to the parking lot, drove into town, bought two more bags of wine, drove back to the parking lot, and ran (with 6L of wine!) back to the hut by 4:30 in the afternoon completing 40k, only a few kilometers short of a marathon. A fine line between stupidity and alcoholism. Or maybe it was both. Nonetheless, after his victories in Aghanistan (and he had them, beleive me) and his "walk" to town for wine, Captain Tom was a true hero for sure.


Believe it or not, this is the last entry, at least for this trip. But wait, he just gave us a few bungee jumping photos a month ago and that's it! We missed all of New Zealand, except for Captain Tom! That's unfair! Well, while I do apologize for ignoring all of you a wee bit, I will have to deflect to the words of a family friend told to me before I left: "I don't want to read too many blog entries because that means you aren't spending time having fun." And so I was having too much fun and decided to leave the last bit of story telling for back at home, where you will have to put up with me in person to hear more about the last part of the trip. I will let the pictures at least tell most of the story...


There were whales, dolphins, mountians, fjords, sounds, birds, glaciers, kayaks, kiwis, volcanoes, boats, waves, caves, sunsets, orcs, wizards, elves and hobbits, the details of which you will have to get in person, or at least over the phone. After all, an author has to leave room for a sequal.


Posted by Jazzob 14:30 Comments (1)

A Lesson in Hooke's Law

More to come form New Zealnd, I promise.


Posted by Jazzob 20:47 Comments (0)

Long time no see!

With plenty of pictures because I made you wait so long.



I had heard that the crowds can be brutal on Mt. Kinabalu, so I asked our guide if we could leave the half-way point earlier than the crowds. "3:15," he said, referring to the AM.
"I know, I know, but everybody else will head to the summit at 3. Do you think we could leave at 2:30?" I asked.
"No, no. 3:15."

Twelve hours later, our group of four being the last to leave the lodge, I was standing behind a line of tourists on the side of a mountain. I hate tourists and I love mountains which converge to make one helluva situation. "There are more places on the mountain than the summit," I reluctantly reminded my self under my breath. The line inched forward toward the small checkpoint where everyone was bottlenecked. Small lights dotted the black sky where the summit lay, a good two kilometers climb ahead. I knew that some climbers had had at least an hour head start at this point and that some quiet time alone at the summit was all but lost. "Just enjoy the mountain," I reminded myself again.

I wanted to make it to the top not just to be first, or to have the summit to myself for a while, or to fly by everyone to the top, or to pretend that I was one of those mountain racers who race up the thing every year, or to be the best, or to feel really good about myself,or - well, it wasn't going to happen anyway, ok?! We left too late! But by the time we had gotten to the check point I had, in all seriousness, let go of being first and just walked.

The crowd began to thin out as the air did the same and I had stretches of dark, crisp, clean mountain air to myself. I couldn't as much see the bare rock faces stretching out on each side of me as feel them. "Hey!" As I approached the a light in front of me I could see it was Andre, one of the German guys in our group. "How you doing?"

"Fine. Hey turn your light off for a second."

Andre did and we hiked for a minute or so. I guess he didn't like my explanation of "to feel close to the mountain" very much, so he dropped back after a few minutes to hike avec le torche. With my light on, I continued forward largely by myself, but with a few lights off in the distance ahead of me. The patch of dark sky I was assuming to be the summit still had no indication of people on it, but it was probably a false summit. There had to be people up there by now.

But there wasn't! I had heard from a friend that a group of French guys where the first ones out, and as I passed the last group of lights, they were French! At the top, I had a beautiful, brisk, dark 10 minutes alone with the mountain before the crowds came up for sunrise.

While the sunrise was beautiful, it was actually the sunset the night before (from halfway up the mountain) that was the most magnificent. Sunsets have been described by much more prolific writers than myself, but this one deserves the effort anyway. I have included the picture, but neither words nor high count megapixels can do it justice. Michaelangelo would have cried because the colors would have been impossible to create on his pallet. The spectrum from reds, oranges and gold to deep dark celestial blues could not have been wider. God himself would have said,"Damn, I'm good!" As if the sunset wasn't enough, a distant thunderstorm to the south treated us to lightning which itself was accompanied by a rainbow high up on the mountain. It was like living in painting, only no no one could ever capture its magnificence on canvas or on film. It was beautiful.


CO2 Concentration Gradient

I must also warn you that any tone of complaint or whining in this entry should be taken with an Einsteinian chunk of relativity. I realize that as all (most) of you wake up everyday to go to work, earn money, or sit through lectures, I get to prance around Southeast Asia. How can he complain when he is on vacation? I respect that and I'm sure that soon enough a parasite or cryptosporidia will seek your revenge for you in my stomach when I drink from the wrong stream. Until then, just enjoy the story.


The darkness was gone, out of touch, once in reach but now gone. It will remain unfinished business. My disappointment is abated only by the fact that the emptiness will remain for the next billion years.

The Sarawak Chamber is the largest known underground chamber in the world. It can hold 16 Boeing 747s. The Sistine Chapel would fit inside. I was only 3 hours from it. There were no guides. Damn.

Mulu National Park is perhaps Borneo's most popular one because it is the location of some of the most impressive caves in the world. The combination of limestone, warm temperatures and heavy rainfall have formed some of the biggest caves in the world amongst pristine rain forest. It is truly a sight to see.

In contrast, the scheduling at the park is one of the worst in the world.

"When can I visit the Racer Cave?"
"Tomorrow at 9am"
"Excellent, I'll sign up for that."
"Sorry, it's full."
"When is the next one?"
"No more."
"No guides. Christmas."
"Well when can I go?"

And so on...

The guided trips to the Sarawak Chamber (my ultimate reason for visiting Mulu) were rare to leave from the park, which did not allow non-park, local guides to lead their own trips. And so to the local bar I went... After watching a game of gin rummy, the uncle of the guy who was playing cards who led trips to the Sarwak Chamber finally arrived.
He introduced himself in excellent english and explained how expensive the trip would be all to look at a huge black void (yeah, I thought, but it is the huge black void). Interestingly, the park didn't seem to care that he led trips on his own and that they even provided him with helmets. This guy knew his stuff, too. When Plant Earth was being filmed, he was the local guide who took the guides into the chamber and other various caves in the area to do the filming. With that resume, I took his advice to forget the Chamber and do the Clearwater Connection, a wet, technical 8 kilometer narrow passage that was much more fun. So, as some fortune cookie must say, when in doubt about big caves, listen to old guy at bar.

As it turned out, the park had a guide available to the Clearwater Connection in two days. Seeing as that I had no time line, I signed up and waited. And I would've been rather bored (I had already seen the other big ticket caves at this point) had I not met Microwave.


Microwave was a plumber from Germany traveling the world looking for places where there were no microwaves so he could "see what it feels like." As we shared a table for dinner one night at the local canteen he explained to me how microwaves on the Canary Islands (where he had lived for 7 years) started effecting his meditation and the local people. Even here in Mulu, he said, he can see how people are a bit off; just look at how they use calculators to do simple math at the register. Withholding my diatribe on Occam's Razor (think "education", not microwaves), I continued to listen about cell phones, mysterious frequencies, reality-mind devices, and most importantly the caves he had found that were not open yet. I sat up a bit in my seat. "Yeah," he said,"there are two caves that have the wooden walkways, but no lights. I think they will open up in a few months." Needless to say, my next two days were occupied exploring these "closed" caves, of which the unfinished pathways are shown below (300m in complete darkness alone...yes, spooky).


Finally! Tomorrow we go to Clearwater Connection! It's not Sarawak Chamber, but it's a long, technical cave! What I came for!

"How's the water level for Clearwater?"
"Looks good. It would have to rain all night for it to get too high."

3:37pm - 8:44am

Trip canceled

The wheels of the Twin Otter aircraft heading out of Mulu, including angry caver(I'm sorry, non-caver), lift off.



I ate the wild boar.

I promised myself (and my dad) before I left on this trip that I would break my vegetarianism if it meant respecting or experiencing a new culture. I mean, Mili cooked me this wild boar. And someone had [i]hunted[i] it, probably within the past day. It was time to eat up. And I did. As a matter of fact I ate a bunch of meat that week as I visited the homes of other people in the village with Lian, as is the Kelabit custom on Christmas Day. There was satay, wild boar, venison, cakes, Bario rice (of course), sweets, dried anchovies with peanuts (you'd be surprised, actually...), and tons of other food that was generously shoved in my face. As was the alcohol. There was the beer, which was served traditionally luke warm, and then the local rice wine (which is 50% alcohol by volume, mass, any any other way you measure it). As each place offered us some of their own, "beer before liquor...." went out the window. Between the meat and the alcohol, my stomach was like Michael Vick's basement on betting night.


Lian was my local guide for my stay in Bario, the small town in the Kelabit Highlands of central Borneo. The people here originally lived in longhouses with the entire community under one roof. For sustenance they grew rice and used the cast amount of resources of the jungle. Both the longhouses and use of the jungle, or "supermarket" as Lian called it, still remain, but are now alongside many more private dwellings, a tele-center, and about 8 trucks. The land is beautiful with the rice fields laying beneath rugged jungle mountains. It was here that I was going to spend the next four days which happen to constitute the busiest days in Bario - Christmas time.


Douglas waited impatiently in the driver seat of his pickup. He was chairmen of the committee organizing the Christmas Eve events and it was taking a bit long for Lian to come out of his house. We had driven from his house (where I was staying). After picking up Lian (and actually anyone else who wanted a ride) we would head to midnight mass. I was a bit nervous about going to mass. I had been to masses before, but this was a little different. First of all, I would be the only American there. Now in America it is not necessarily a huge surprise nowadays if you are not Christian. But here...well I'm white and from America so I [i]must[i] be Christian, right? I mean we are after all the un-official, official Chrisitian nation. This, along with the language barrier, made me a bit more nervous than usual of any misunderstandings about participation, involvement, etc.. I mean what if they take communion? As a Jew I have my limits: I might eat pork, but not Jesus.

But I had Lian! Ah yes, Lian my faithful guide, a 60 year old 55 year old man who had spent twenty years working for Shell as a designer and the past ten years back in his hometown farming and guiding. While he was religious, he didn't seem to keen on churchgoing. "It's all a bit...pretentious," he had said earlier that day on a hike, and indicated that he preferred to just read his bible at home. "We'll just sit in the back," he said, and I knew that later that night at mass I would be ok, as long as I had Lian. And then we left without him.


We drove past the beautiful school, the rice fields, and all the people walking, riding, or scootering to the church. The large multipurpose-type building was located towards the center of town and all the surrounding village churches attended mass here for this night. There were lots of people. As we pulled up and I got out of the truck, as if through divine intervention Lian hopped off the back - I don't know how he got there, for we hadn't stopped since his home. "Hey!," he said. Good luck and friendly people always there for a smile. I shouldn't have been surprised; I was in Bario.


And now off to the new land in the sea, New Zealand.

Posted by Jazzob 04:47 Comments (0)

In Light of Recent Events....

Having taken the 10 hour train ride from Krabi (in the south) up to Bangkok, I was greeted with the news that the airport had been shutdown due to protests. My friend, Lindsey, who was to meet me there from the States was stranded in Hong Kong. Lindsey and I got in touch and decided that we would meet in Kuala Lumpur (and subsequently Singapore), a location she could fly to and that I could get to even if all the airports in Thailand were shutdown (train, bus, taxi, horse, swim, walk, whale-shark...you know, the usual). From my guesthouse 20 minutes from the airport, I went back to the train station. In Bangkok long enough to take a piss.

Having taken the 10 hour train ride from Bangkok down to Krabi (still in the south), I was greeted with the news that out next destination following Singapore had suffered an awful attack. India. For the benefit of everyone, I am no longer taking overnight train rides as they seem to bring only bad luck in the morning.

More seriously, I am safe and the protests are quite localized around the airports in Bangkok. While many tourists are starting to scramble and are a bit peeved about the airport delays, most people seem more discouraged about the unseasonal rain at the beaches. My overall opinion of the protestors is "good for them". The government is largely corrupt and it is fascinating to see a strong public voice at work. (A brief history: Prime Minister T was largely corrupt and fled to the UK out of which he was recently kicked out. Prime Minister S, a puppet of the former Prime Minister T, recently flew to the north of the country right as the protests started. He can't come back; the people in yellow shirts you see on TV protesting want new elections and a new government. The military is caught in the middle, wanting new elections, but the generals not wanting to lose their jobs. From what I can tell, things are likely to tighten up and escalate more now than in the past few months. The airport stuff is the real deal.)

Anyway, now that my plans are slightly up in the air, it's time for a little interactive blogosphere action. While I reserve the right of veto power (a does Lindsey, being as that she is my travel buddy for right now), I'll throw the decision out to you...where should I travel next? Any ideas? I have a few preferences myself, but I like you guys (most of you). Respond via comment or email [email protected]

(and for those of you readers in a particular collegiate demographic, "Nudie Bar" is not a country)

Peace out!

NOTE (added 3/12/08): After reflecting a bit on the above entry, it occurred to me that its light tone may have been perceived as ambivilant or even inconsiderate of both current events. That was never intended. Both situations were (and are) serious, with the events in India particularly grave. The sadness, surprise, and my high degree of unease and concern for the Thai people and victims of the attacks in India were not meant to be lost or covered up in the above entry. My apologies to anyone who was offended by any unintended tones, or lack thereof.

Posted by Jazzob 00:04 Comments (2)

Finding Nemo

A marine adventure as my time in Thai Muang, and Thailand, winds down.


We were staring at each other both equally perplexed at the situation. I was standing there soaking wet with dozens of tropical fish at my feet, tied in little plastic bags like the goldfish you get at a carnival. He was at the steering wheel of the small fishing boat not knowing what to say. I had, after all, been dumped onto his small boat with loads of fish only moments earlier. “Ken, you stay longboat. OK?” my friend Wut had said as the little red dingy from the national park pulled away.
“No problem!” I said as if it was my day job. And there were two. Just me and the fisherman on his little wooden boat. With the mystery black bag.

The morning had started off by speeding around the ocean searching for buoy lines, attaching the buoys, speeding off to the next site (using GPS), snorkeling, finding the line, attaching another buoy, so on and so forth. The buoys were going to be used for…oh that’s right, I had no clue.

After about four hours, Skill stopped the dingy about 100 yards out from the beach avoiding the breakers. Wut and I swam in to a scene I was not used to on the quite beach front of Thai Muang. There were about 40 chairs set up, all of them full with reporters, civilians, and all of the staff from the national park. There was also a man in a military uniform at a podium giving a speech. Under the shade of a tree were about twenty bags of tropical fish and two tanks filled with rare giant clams. I had known we were releasing some fish today from the nearby research center, but I hadn’t expected the pomp and circumstance.

“Ken!” The deputy who was in charge of my volunteer work was coming up to me in a nervous quite whisper. “The director will hand you a giant clam, then go to the boat, then release the clam, ok?” I hadn’t even taken off my fins.

“Ok, so-“

“And take a picture too! Here give me those,” he said as he took my finds and mask. A fun day of snorkeling and swimming had just had the pressure raised a bit. The deputy, I assumed, was the man giving the speech at the podium who had more medals than General Schwarzkopf. There was also the issue of getting the clam to the boat. Breakers of 3-6 ft didn’t have me worried, except that I would be doing it with a rare giant clam in front of forty people. And cameras. Ok, no problem, I said to myself starting to formulate a game plan for the swim. And then everyone broke into applause. The speech was over.

To my relief I was not the only person receiving a clam. As a matter of fact, I didn’t receive a clam at all. Everyone and anyone who wanted to give a bag of fish to someone did so (actually, I didn’t see any clams exchanged). An older farang approached me with a bag of fish and seemed as confused as I was. “I think I give this to you?” he said.
“I think you’d be right!” I replied as I took the bag.
“This one here is Pete. Can you make sure he makes it out there safe?” he joked, pointing to one of the small fish.
“I’ll remind him to swim down, not up.”
“Great. Where are you from?” I told him about volunteering in Thailand, what I did at the national park, and that as far as I knew I was supposed to set up buoys the entire day. He was from the UN, having something to do with tourism and apparently fish. As we followed the crowd to the beach I was relieved again to see that Skill had pulled the red dingy up to shore so that Wut and I wouldn’t have to shuttle the fish back and forth. We set off to the fishing boat waiting 200 yards out, which is where I believe this story started…

So it was me and him. I’m sure he was thinking how great a blog entry this would make, too. Seeing as that he didn’t speak English and his Thai was too quick for me to understand, we each found something to do. I organized the bags of fish and he smoked some tobacco. I still didn’t know what was in the big black bag that had been loaded onto the fishing boat along with all the fish. What could it be?

After about 20 minutes the dingy came back from who knows what and someone I didn’t know yelled, “Ken, you release fish, ok? Fifty meters out. No problem!”.
“Ok. Just…anywhere?”
“Release the fish. Yeah. Fifty meters!” Hey, if they wanted me to do it, no problem. But no guarantees. I mean, these fish didn’t stand much of a chance anyway. They would have to swim through 30 feet of open water down to the reef and they already had the two worst characteristics a fish could have: tiny ‘n shiny. But the fisherman pulled away, steered the boat fifty meters out and I began opening the bags into the ocean. I laughed to myself as I realized the irony of releasing rare fish from a fishing vessel.

After a rendezvous with the red dingy, we continued setting more buoys in the pouring rain. It was fun, but I was getting tired. We couldn’t find the last line snorkeling, so it was time to don our dive gear. Wut (a dive master) got in and headed down, saying that I would meet him down there. With a dive computer low on battery, no idea where my dive buddy was, and struggling with the gear, I embarrassingly said no-go to the diving. At this point Wut had surfaced and had found the line, but I was still embarrassed ( I learned from the best and I don’t like having any troubles diving, especially simple things). Growing tired of finding buoys and having spent almost 8 straight hours on the water, I had had enough.
“I’m going swimming, boys,” I announced.
“You go swim?” Skill and Wut gave me quizzical looks. Skill and I had done a swim before, but that was 1k boats to spot us. This was about 50% farther in a steady downpour.
“Yeah. Mask, fins. No problem. Mai lom,” I said, indicating that there was no wind.
“Ok, we check on you later.”
“Sounds good. See ya later!” I said as I rolled of the small boat. The current was easy, there was little wind and I had fins and a wet suit for extra buoyancy. It felt good to exercise. After a great day, I enjoyed a slow easy swim to shore, feeling the cool fresh rain on my face as I swam through the warm clear ocean below.

P.S. (because I can’t end like a James Peterson novel) – the mystery bag had a fuel canister. The national park had “paid” the fisherman for his service that day by providing him something more useful than money. I wonder what the blog entry of ThaiGuyFisher43 looks like?

Posted by Jazzob 06:02 Comments (2)

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