Zenning out in Zagori

I have an injured Achilles and am not supposed to be hiking….. but the lack of outdoors and exercise is making me grumpy, so I persuaded my physio that some ‘gentle’ hiking in Greece, with long spells reading a book in the high mountains would be beneficial. So I am off to Zagori … to hopefully climb Tymfi and wander down the Vikos Gorge

Day 1 – Vikos to Vitsa – about 18km

My plan had been to head up to the mountains but the forecast at 2400m was for 30cm of snow and 105km winds, and my intended campsite was at 2200m. Hmmmmm. Change of plan and I decided to wander down the Vikos Gorge from Vikos to Vitsa.

Vikos village trail head
View south down Vikos Gorge

I left Vikos at 9 and wandered down the hillside with a local sheepdog. The view was amazing down to the Voidimatis springs (which I missed somehow, so will have to get it on the return journey). The gorge is stunning with the Astraka Towers looming over the fall leaves and the dry river bed

View down the gorge descending from Vikos village
Inside the Vikos Gorge
Astraka towers
Midway down the gorge

I saw very few people in the gorge, only three until the springs at Klima where I stopped to make a coffee. The rain kicked in shortly after as a mooched up the hill. A badly injured Achilles and a steep hill are not great companions so it was slow going with quite a lot of wincing.

Klima springs – brewing a coffee
Climbing to Monodhendri

I made it to Monodhendri around 2.30pm and was pretty soaking wet. I stopped at Kikitsa’s for huge serving of outstanding feta and flour pie – it was amazing. I then wandered down to see the view from the Agia Paraskevi. Apparently it is normally busy, I didn’t see a soul.

View down Vikos Gorge from Ayia Paraskevi

The rain let up so I took a slippery shortcut down to Vitsa, and managed to land on my butt. While I had planned on camping, the 40mm of forecast rain even at this altitude didn’t make that seem sensible so I ended the day at 4pm with a hot shower in a junior suite in the Kores hotel (it was the only room they had left :-)) . I then snuggled in bed listening to the thunder until dinner time – lamb chops! Yum. Then back to bed for the thunder and lightening show

Day 2 – Vitsa to Vradeto about 15km and 1000m ascent

The morning started off well with a hearty feta and tomato omelette and several cups of coffee. I then headed down the Vitsa steps as the sun was breaking through the clouds and I stopped for some excellent views over Missious bridge from the chapel above.

View from Vitsa
View down to Missious bridge
Vitsa steps
missious bridge

After that I wandered along the river side around to Kokoros bridge, one of the most famous in the region. And then the rain started. The river was high and the walk along the riverside wasn’t advised so I found a route around the road passing some lovely views and the Plakidis bridge

Kokoros bridge
View down to Vikakis river
Plakidis bridge

I arrived in Kipoi dripping wet in my poncho to the amusement of a cafe full of old Greek men smoking, drinking coffee and occasionally passing comment.

Two coffees and an hour of torrential rain later there was a break in the weather so I headed up the Vikakis stream through the forest and up a steep hill to Kapesovo. The rain started again fairly promptly and by the time I arrived in Kapesovo I couldn’t feel my fingers and it was still pissing down. I hadn’t seen a single hiker all day. I optimistically tried calling all of the three hotels in town but no one was home – they were all in the city

Kontidomous bridge en route to Kapesovo
View back on the climb up to Kapesovo

Oh well, nothing for it then but to continue up the Vradeto steps to Vradeto. The steps were stunning but hard going with an Achilles injury that doesn’t like incline. I was a great source of amusement to the two hunters I met when I rolled into town still soaking wet. They took me to the local ‘tavern’ (three tables and a lady cooking food in the corner) and bought me souvlaki and tsipouro.

Vradeto steps zigzagging up the hill in the background
Vradeto steps
Vradeto steps

The plan had been to pitch the tent but there were more thunderstorms forecast and there was no local hotel. So I used the great hiking invention (my phone) and found someone to come get me and take me back to the excellent hotel I stayed in the previous evening – the only amusement being I wouldn’t have carried all my gear if I knew I was going backwards. So I had another excellent dinner and an epic long sleep in the junior suite

Day 3 – more bridges and some strolling

I slept in and tested my heel gingerly when I got out of bed. Hmmmm. Suspect the physio was right about not overloading the heel. Oh well. I had an excellent breakfast and then went and recovered my rental car from where I left it in Vikos (still intact)

I mooched around for the day, driving my ‘cool’ rental car (a Seat Ibiza) around the windy roads singing along to bad 80s classics on my phone, punctuated by stops to stroll.

Astraka towers

I checked out the Voidamatis river and sat on the river bank soaking my heel

Voidimatis river

I then backtracked to Kipoi to see some more bridges

Kokoros bridge
Vikakis river
Kontidomous bridge
Petsioni bridge
Mylos bridge, kipi
Captain Bear bridge
Ayios Mina bridge

I adore this part of Greece. Driving around with the windows down, there are very few people and those that are there are hunting (men with big guns in fluoro orange overalls) and picking blackberries (old ladies in crapped out cars who drive slowly along the kerb hunting out the next patch). It’s a gorgeous sunny day made better by the smell of woodsmoke in the villages.

At 3pm I was starving so I returned to the excellent Kikitsa pies in Monodhendri for their awesome pie which is across between pizza, pie and Yorkshire puddings – it’s just flour, butter and feta but it’s amazing

Kikitsa flour pie

After my late lunch I headed up to see the Stone Forest and the view from the Oxia viewpoint north of Monodhendri.

View from oxia north up the Vikos gorge
View up Megas Lakkos which intersects Vikos gorge
View of south Vikos Gorge from Oxia viewpoint
Stone Forest

Day 4/5 – Aristi and Papigko hanging out

So it was raining and raining and my foot hurt! So I did something quite uncharacteristic, I read books, drank tea and enjoyed the view. And managed to have an excellent lunch and dinners. I love Greece

Exceptional deconstructed moussaka for lunch
Dinner – entree of fried metsovo cheese with cucumber jam
Local lamb chops
Epic custard pie

I had another moochy day and popped up to Papigko for lunch, largely because the road is so much fun to drive up. Koukounauris has excellent carrot cake and an awesome spinach pie. I had a lovely chat with George who works there, and apparently I was the first Māori he had ever met. I am loving the locals here, and everywhere I go, people keep paying for my coffees and teas. The hospitality is delightful. Often the hospitality is accompanied by a ‘where is your husband’. I had a wander around the Papigko and up to the rockpools. And then the rain came rolling in so I retreated for some more tea and enjoyed the view.

Papigko rock pools

Day 6/7 hike up to dragon lake

I had a day and a half of clear weather before I had to get back to the airport…. so I decided to take my tent up dragon lake. I left Mikro Papigko around nine. The trail was all up but very gentle with graceful switchbacks, with increasingly lovely views of the valleys below with the morning mist still resting. I am injured and going slowly but I must have passed at least 30 young Greek hikers, most of whom were entirely in the wrong gear.

I stopped at the krouna springs after 90 mins for coffee and breakfast and then wandered the final 30mins to the refuge and had another hot chocolate.

Making coffee at Krouna

The views are amazing from the refuge and it is proper alpine territory. From the refuge I meandered the final hour to Dragon Lake, past the Xerolimni lake. It was quite crowded by the lake but George, Iannis and Alex lent me some hot water and we talked about restaurants, mountains and why it’s not bonkers to hike by yourself. Iannis is a mountain leader working on the Pindos way so I got some tips for future routes in the region.

Astraka towers from below
Xerolimni lake

By 14.30 the crowds had disappeared and I had the mountain and the lake to myself. Stunning views up to Gamila peak (one for next time). I pitched the tent (I have never pitched so early in the day), drank tea, enjoyed the sun and contemplated life.

Dragon lake from above
Gamila peak
Glad I took my winter tent

I had the place to myself until just before six pm when two Greek guys showed up, and I could tell they were disappointed I had taken the best pitch (excellent view and the most sheltered). They wandered around the other side of the lake and then I didn’t see them again until morning. I had a quiet supper, watched the sun go down and was asleep by 9.30

Sun going down

It was cold during the night (I am guessing minus 5), and I did hear some rustling around my tent at 3am. Best guess it was the mountain ibex I saw at sun up. Either that or it was the rare Greek bear (either way I didn’t stick my head out of the tent)

Astraka towers
Making my breakfast coffee and watching the sun come up from bed

The sun came up around 7.30 and after making a coffee in bed I wandered up to take a look down the Aoos Gorge and across to Mt Smolikas. It was a view worth climbing the hill for. I know some people don’t understand why I camp. It isn’t for my love of canvas (though I do love the self sufficiency of hiking), it is so I can wake up in epic places like this and have them all to myself

View to Smolikas across the Aoos gorge
Ice on my tent
Dragon lake at dawn

I headed back up to the refuge but was stuck in a cow traffic jam for a while. For no good reason about 50 cows (with horns and babies) were blocking the narrow path along the hillside up to the refuge. I tried to scramble around them and bypassed a few. After about 20 minutes I was rescued as two hikers came from the other direction and the cows en masse started stampeding back towards me on the trail. I stepped up out of the way and off they went. I couldn’t help chuckle at how unimpressed I would be if I ended up dying because a cow pushed me down the hill, especially after some of the adventures I have been on

Cow trail jam

I had an excellent Greek coffee at the refuge and then skipped down the hill to Mikro Papigo where I grabbed some pie, coffee and cake from the wonderful Koukounaris and headed back to the airport.

Xerolimni lake

I have absolutely loved hanging out in Zagori, the scenery is spectacular, the food delicious, and the hospitality immense. I’ll be back for more hiking.

Goat road block as I was leaving

Mikro Papigko, 18 October, 2020

Additional notes

  • Flew direct to Preveza from London and rented a car to drive to the region (£15 per day for the car). It’s an easy 2.25 hour drive from the airport.
  • For getting from place to place, you can negotiate a ride with most locals for considerably cheaper than london cabs, there is no public transport
  • Stayed at the excellent Aristi Mountain Refuge in Aristi and also the lovely Kores hotel in Vitsa
  • I used the cicerone guide books for Zagori and the Pindos Way. I also downloaded the avenza maps but didn’t find them that much more useful than gaia.
  • Best food was at Salvia (in the Aristi Mountain Resort). Eat the Zagori pie at Kikitsa and the carrot cake and coffee at Koukounaris

Hiking the Haute Route

The Haute Route is a high-level traverse in the French and Swiss Alps, from Chamonix (France) to Zermatt (Switzerland) over 180km. The route traverses below the summits of 10 out of the 12 of the highest peaks in the Alps, and crosses several high passes. The highest pass is at 2964 m (9,800 ft). I had already done most of the route near Chamonix (while doing the Tour de Mont Blanc) and likewise the Zermatt end (doing the Tour de Monte Rosa), and so I am hitting off some of the nicer sections in the middle between Verbier and Zinal with my buddy Tamara

Fair warning this is mostly a photo post!

Day 1 – Le Ruinettes to Prafleuri – c. 17k, 1000m of ascent

This was a pretty easy day as we dodged hours of boring walking up from Le Chable to Les Ruinettes by using the cable cars. Normally I am a purist but the trail up was 1350m of ascent next to a road.

We strolled from the cable car at Les Ruinettes around to Cabane de Montfort and then took the alpine route (blue and white markings) up over Col de Chaux at 2940m There was still a fair amount of steep snow to cross (shame I forgot my poles, so I used my hands instead on the steep bits) and the steep sections on rock were sludgy underfoot so there was a bit of back sliding involved. The col was lovely, but the other side was sludgy too so there was a bit of but sliding down the first 50m until we managed to crab across to the path skirting around the melt.

The views were stunning and it was a lovely stroll over a rocky moraine, sidling up to the Lac di Petit Montfort. We stopped for cheese sandwiches before taking on the col de louvie at 2924m

After the col de Louvie, we entered into the Grand desert, a surreal alpine bowl with a lovely grey green lake being fed by the Gran Desert glacier.

The trail wasn’t well marked so there was a lot of boulder hopping heading in the general direction of Col de Prafleuri. It was a col that just kept giving as there were several false cols before hand that tricked us into thinking we were close. There was a slightly hairy rock traverse which gave onto three lovely lakes before the final approach to Col de Prafleuri at 2987m

Looking down from the Col, the refuge was nestled in a surreal valley about 300m below, a weird flat bowl area which looked slightly geothermal and I suspect was an abandoned damn project

We arrived around 4pm and got the Covid induction. Blissfully there are many fewer hikers in the huts as they attempt to maintain social distancing. This hut has a bad rap on trip advisor but the hut was clean and well run, the welcome was warm and dinner was delicious (soup, beef stew rice and salad and dessert). It’s expensive at 75 francs but that’s normal in Switzerland

We were in bed by 7.30 but both of us were suffering slightly from the altitude so I didn’t get a lot of sleep

Day 2 – Prafleuri to arolla – 18km 740m of ascent, 1340m of descent

We were up for breakfast at 6am – thanks to the excellent refuge system of catering for early morning risers. It was a typical breakfast in a refuge far from town – tinned fruit salad, yogurt and crackers and jam. They also gave us apple sauce which is a weird french hut thing too

We started the day with a straight up climb of 180m up to Col des Roux at 2804m and then had a leisurely stroll down the mountain side enjoying the views of the Barrage de dix and cows

We passed a few wild campers who still had tents up at 8am (a bad idea when camping is illegal, I am always packed and gone by 7) but they were lovely camping spots.

After a nice flat stroll along the lake we left the lake at Pas de Chat and started the climb up to Pas de Chevre

It was a stunning hike skirting around big boulders with views ahead to the Glacier de Cheilon and the well situated Cabane de dix, and views back down the barrage

The final 150m of ascent was slightly tricky as there were a sludgy slippy bit with a bit of a drop, but the boulders were firmly in place and fine to scramble. The final approach to the Pas de Chevre at 2855m is via a trail along the rock face with a chain to hold on to, and an ascent of four ladders (I am assuming I could have clipped on if I had had a harness, but I didn’t and no one I saw did either). The ladders were easier than expected and easier than the slippy bit at the bottom

Crossing the pas, we encountered a lot of day hikers from Arolla, and it was a very easy stroll down into town. We were delighted at the bottom when we found a grand hotel with a big garden and stopped for a beer before the bus

We took the excellent post bus down the valley to Les Hauderes as the walk isn’t particularly interesting and we were saving our legs for the next day.

Les Hauderes was an excellent village, we showered, had a cider and then had dinner at 18.45 – an epic combination of cheese and morelles fondue and Rosti with bacon, and then we rolled into bed

Day 3 Mayens de Cotter to Col de Sorebois – 14km, 1400m of climbing

We had planned a bit of a sneaky taxi short cut for this morning to cut out the climb on the road. Tamara decided to have an easy day, so I took the cab up to Mayens de Cotter reasoning that the ascent I skipped, I could make up for by extending the days hike to Col Sorebois. The cabbie dropped me and two Germans off at 8am and off I went, slightly hampered by the absence of caffeine and breakfast

The climb up to the col de torrent (at 2916m) was as gentle as a 900m ascent can be, with gentle switchbacks through alpine pasture.

The view from the col down onto the Lac des Autannes 200m below was lovely, and I skipped down the descent.

From autannes down to the Barrage de Moiry (damn) the views just got better and better with epic views up the turquoise barrage to the Moiry glacier. The sun was shining and the cows were not aggressive and it was a lovely 40 min stroll from the col to the barrage

There was a lovey cafe at the barrage so I had an excellent sandwich, coffee and Coke Zero to fortify me for the next 600m climb up to Sorebois.

I figured out later that no one climbs up Sorebois, everyone takes the cable car from Grimentz to the top, then strolls down to the barrage to catch the bus back. But it wasn’t a challenging hike and the views back were lovely.

The views from the top were better still, looking out on Weisshorn and Zinalrothorn, if you looked past the scarred slopes from the ski infrastructure

The path down to Zinal is closed as they are rebuilding the cable car, so I hopped on the teleferique down to Grimentz to head back to the airport via the post bus and train

Grimentz, August 16, 2020

Additional notes

Stayed at Refuge Prafleuri which was fine, must pay cash, and then at the very budget (by Swiss standards) hotel des Hauderes

Train and bus connections easy from Geneva airport – use the easy ride widget on the SBB app and it will charge you for the cheapest possible fare. The postbus coverage in Switzerland is awesome (and again covered by the SBB app), but be warned it is not cheap

The best guide was the Cicerone Chamonix to Zermatt book, and I had downloaded the Swiss Topo maps on Gaia. Be warned these are alpine sections so take appropriate gear. I didn’t bring my poles and they would have been handy. Earlier in the season, crampons and an ice axe would have been smart

I put the routes on strava, but with the exception of day 3, I forgot to have the watch on for most of the day

Ambling the Laugavegur

Its been a busy few months, and post lock down, I am craving some outdoors time. Like everyone else, all of our holidays (Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, Madeira, and Russia) have been cancelled this year. However, Iceland is open for business, and I have always wanted to hike the Laugavegur and Fimmvordhals trails. I had never prioritised it before as it looked very over-crowded, but I suspect not this summer.

Iceland is organised. Landing from a very empty BA flight, a nice young lady swabbed my throat, and then rammed the cotton swab so far up my nose I can still feel it hours later. It wasn’t pleasant, but it is a sensible way for the Icelandic government to protect the locals. I treated myself to a cab to town and am staying in a nice hotel (original plans had called for a bus and a dorm bed in a hostel, but I figured I have saved a lot of money this year given the dearth of holidays).

Its been a few years since I have been to Rejkyavik, and I had an excellent day eating hotdogs (worlds best hotdog from Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur – so good that I had two for lunch and went back and had one for dinner) and cinnamon buns (Braud & Co). I interspersed the deliciousness strolling around town and visiting the excellent trio of modern art museumsHafnarhúsKjarvalsstaðir, and Ásmundarsafn (one ticket gets you entry to all three).

They were excellent as were the buildings housing these museums. I also loved the iconic Hallgrimskirkja.

A long day strolling and eating and then an early night as the bus was at 7am

Day 1 – Skogar to Volcano Huts at Thorsmork (28km, 1000m of climbing)

Up early to get the bus, I was the only person who boarded to Skogar, though there were about 80 people going to Landmannalaugar (some of whom joined my bus as overflow and they got another ride when we reached the refreshment stop at Hvolsvollur). Given most people start the trail at Landmannalaugar and go south I didn’t find it that odd. I asked the bus driver if he had heard the forecast and he said it was all fine. Arriving at Skogar, I also stopped by the camping to check the forecast but there was no one on duty. Oh wel, the weather looked clear so I headed up onto the trail. There were about 100 people in the first 500m looking at the waterfall. And after that blissful solitude

The first 7k of the trail follows the skogar river up through a series of lovely waterfalls. The landscape is vibrantly green and it was a gloomy day with ominous clouds but the rain held off and the worst clouds were behind me. The views were stunning back to the coast, and I passed three day hikers on the way up but that was it

Then, after crossing the skogar on a battered and rickety bridge, it’s a 4.4km mostly flat jeep road to the Baldvinsskali Hur across a wind blasted gravelly volcanic plateau heading to the pass between the Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull glaciers. That 4.4k took me almost two hours. For most of the way I was bent over double leaning into the wind, with the gale force winds flicking gravel into my face. Several times I was pushed back and twice I was lifted off my feet. It was quite something. It made the epic winds in Patagonia on the Torres trail feel like a gentle summer breeze. I was in no imminent danger as fortunately there was good visibility, and while cold it wasn’t raining, and there was nowhere I could have taken a dangerous fall. Suffice to say I was delighted when I made it to the hut.

The hut warden (Kerstin from Germany – one of the worlds best wardens), was quite surprised to see me roll in (and more so given I was in shorts) as apparently the trail was closed given the extreme storm warning. We chatted through options and the only sensible plan was to stay the night as there were some sketchy ridge lines further down the trail which could be lethal in an unpredictable gust. Happy to be inside – the winds were so high the walls were shaking – I cooked a hearty lunch, had three coffees and put all the clothes in my pack on to warm up.

A couple of hours later the winds had calmed somewhat and Kerstin had been monitoring the weather. She told me I could keep going if I hoofed it, as the winds would be a little calmer for the next three hours. My alternative was to descend the next day in a forecast which had rain and low visibility. I chucked all my wet gear back on and took off and that was an excellent decision. It was an epic afternoon – windy enough to know you are alive but not dangerous. Passing between the two glaciers was stunning, and made more special by being the only person on the trail. The Magni and Modi craters were glorious and I was treated to a stunning rainbow at the highest point of the trail.

Descending was fun down some steep scree slopes, and there was a vertigo inducing (literally stomach in my mouth) chain section to traverse at Heljarkambur. The final descent into the glacial Thorsmork river was a stunning pitted lush green valley – I felt like I was on the set of Vikings. Kerstin was amazing and texted me to check in with me while I was descending. Hut wardens play a very special role in the outdoor community and she was a terrific example of a fantastic warden. I got roundly but gently admonished for my rookie weather error but she absolutely made sure I got down safe from the mountain (she nicknamed me ‘master of storms’ but also ‘ignorer of forecasts’).

I reached Basar campsite at around 6pm and still had another 5k to walk to the campsite I was staying in (which had a restaurant), so it was an easy stroll across the river (traversing a weird bridge on wheels) to get to Husudalar around 7). An epic c30km day, which took 9 hours, with about 7 hours of walking. Dinner was an excellent lamb stew and I retired to my lovely glamping yurt to enjoy clean sheets and listen to the wind howl

Day 2 – Husadalar (Thorsmork) to Hvanngil 30km 700 m of ascent

I woke up at my standard hiker breakfast time of 6am UK, which happened to be 5am Icelandic time. And breakfast wasn’t until 8 – and I definitely wasn’t going to miss a buffet breakfast. And it was raining, so I made a coffee on my stove lay under the cosy duvet reading the papers on my phone. Breakfast was worth waiting for, and I made an extra ham and cheese sandwich for the road.

First river ford of the day

I hit the trail at 9.30 in a break in the weather. It was grey and cloudy but visibility was ok. 3km in and it was time to get the feet wet (and as it turns out the thighs). Fording rivers takes practice and it isn’t super advisable to do it solo, but I have kiwi river experience so I plotted a route from the bank and waded in. The water was glacial – literally – melt from one of the glaciers further east.

After crossing the river the trail more or less followed the Markarflijot river for about 8km which had carved some extraordinary deep gullies. The trail meandered up and down and had some amazing views…. though sadly the glaciers I passed yesterday were mostly obscured. I finally traversed the river about 2 from Botnar hut where there is a foot bridge wedges above a particularly angry section of the river with chains welded to the wall to help you descend.

After taking a deep breath to get across the river, I needed to take a few more as there was a sheer 100m climb up the scree on the other side to get to the plateau where the hut is nestled. I have an Achilles injury so going uphill isn’t as much fun as normal. I reached the top, by which time the rain had decided to resume, so I stumbled towards Botnar looking forward to making coffee and soup to eat with my breakfast sarnie.

I had been warned the hut warden at Botnar wasn’t effusively charming, so wasn’t surprised when he refused to let me in the hut but said I could eat my lunch outside – where there was no shelter in the rain. Oh well! I enjoyed my soup and coffee and chatted to some locals about the trail ahead. They had gotten stuck the day before at Hvangil as the river was too high to cross but they made it across this morning

The next 10km was like walking on a black sand beach plateau with the odd luminous green peak rising up in the distance. It would have been very surreal if not for the steady stream of brightly attired tour groups coming towards me. I don’t get why anyone would hike in a group – it kinda defeats the purpose for me.

I arrived at the river ford at Blafjallakvisi around 5 and it was in fairly swift flow. Several motor bikers were trying to figure out how to cross. If you haven’t forded a river before, it isnt to be taken lightly, especially solo and especially after a storm (several hikers apparently die every year in NZ through misjudging river crossings). I picked a line, but was persuaded by a local to try another route – where apparently someone had crossed in the past hour. It was waist deep and the current was really strong, but my tree trunk thighs did the job and I made it across.

Looking back after fording the river
Final footbridge before Hvanngil

One more footbridge and I descended down to the Hvanngil hut where I decided to stay the night. This is apparently one of the quieter huts on the trail and the valley was lovely with the mighty Hvanngilshauser ridge protecting us from the wind. The warden told me the hut had 25 people in that evening, so I decided to pitch down by the old stables about 300m away from the main hut. I had an excellent pitch near the river, a private en-suite, and sole use of the stables where I spread out and enjoyed a three course dinner while listening the rain on the roof.

Day 3 – Hvangil to Álftavatn 5km, two novels

So I had a bunch of side trips planned for today, but I woke up at 7 to low lying clouds and rain. I made a cup of coffee and listened to the rain and read the handmaidens tail from cover to cover – at the end of which it had mostly stopped raining.

Hvanngil from above

I packed up my tent and headed to Álftavatn where my plan was to go and climb torfatindur as I had an extra day in my schedule due to a cancelled flight. Visibility had worsened by the time I arrived so I pitched my tent and went to the ‘bar restaurant’ optimistically wondering if they sold burgers or pizza. Sadly not – just Mexican chicken soup or vegan curry. The ‘restaurant’ had six tables and at 2pm was full of Icelandic blokes in brightly coloured sweatshirts drinking eye wateringly expensive cans of beer in what felt like a sauna. I beat a retreat to my tent for more tea and read Nadia Hashimi’s the pearl that broke the shell from cover to cover. Not exactly what I had planned to do with my day but an excellent day nonetheless

Day 4 Álftavatn to Landmannalaugar

My bus out was at 3pm and I didn’t want to miss it so I got up at six, had breakfast, and headed out into the mist. In the Álftavatn valley visibility was fine but the clouds were very low and as soon as I began to climb (after fording a river with a useful rope) visibility dropped to about 20m. It was a game of spot the next pole and try not to lose the trail when the poles had succumbed to the wind and were no longer there. Fortunately I have had plenty of practice at most navigation in NZ and Wales so I didn’t get lost. The smell of sulphur hit when I reached 950m and it was a bit like walking through Mordor in the mist

River ford with a rope
Misty morning

About half way to Hrafntinnusker hut,visibility improved slightly and it was a lovely stroll in and out of the snow on the fells. In the last couple of kilometres I started meeting those leaving the hut who had had a chilly night. Camping there is described (appropriately) as rugged, and over the years campers have built stone walled enclosures for their tents.

The guidebook had said six hours to the hut and it had taken three, so I stopped for a cup of coffee and a muesli bar and enjoyed the view

The scenery after the hut was spectacular. From a high mountain snow plateau to a multicoloured geothermal zone with deep oranges and reds and luminous green moss and a lovely hot spring. It was two hours of hiking bliss where I barely saw anyone. I did stop and chat to two solo chicas – the only ones I saw in three days, one was on her first solo thru hike, the other her second. I really don’t know why more women don’t hike by themselves, it’s much safer than being in the city.

And then the final hour down to Landmannalaugar where the scenery was just as good but there were way too many people for me and landmannalaugar was a zoo with day trippers and buses and campers. Thankfully most of them don’t do the trail.

Arrived at 1pm had a cheese toastie from the mountain mall (three converted green buses) and waited for the bus. Ironically after days of bad weather the sun came out ten minutes before the bus left.

The bus ride was a bumpy two hours back to Hella and then on to Reykjavik (after a gas station stop where I had yet another hotdog)

I am tempted to come back and do it again as it would be spectacular in fine weather, so will be watching the weather next summer (the trail is only really hikeable for a couple of months) and might opportunistically book some late flights

Additional info

  • Book highland bus tickets with Rejkyavik excursions – the hiking pass was £60 and allows you to enter the trail at Skogar (or Thorsmork) and exit at Landmannalaugar (or vice versa). Three hours to Skogar from Rejkayvik, or 4.5 hours to Landmannalaugar. Given the timetable, and the fact that I prefer up hill to downhill, i started in Skogar, but pretty much everyone else ends in Landmannalaugar
  • I stayed in Thorsmork and upgraded to a yurt with sheets for the night – thought i would treat myself. The other two nights I camped in my tent (I took my most robust tent – the hilleberg akto)
  • Gas for your stove can be bought from the https://fjallakofinn.is/ store in town (closes at 6pm). Or the N1 station where the bus stops en route to the trail (Hollsvollur) also sells stove gas if you come in late and take the early bus. If staying in the huts they have pots and pans

Light and fast in Lanzarote

Time for stage three of the GR131 in the Canaries, this time to Lanzarote. Its an easy 75km, so fine to get done over two days. Most of the reviews I read of the trail weren’t amazing, so I have low expectations….. but the canaries haven’t disappointed so far.

I landed on Friday night in an easyJet flight stuffed to the gills with Brits looking for summer sun, cleared the airport in nine minutes and got a taxi to Orzola. I stayed at the lovely Perla del Atlantico with a view of the sea, and was amused to meet a Canarian who had been an exchange student in NZ – in Invercargill of all places, which as she pointed out what’s about as remote as Orzola. It was blustering like mad, with 25mph winds, so I stocked up on provisions and retreated to the apartment for supper and an early night.

Orzola harbour

Day 1 39k from Orzola to San Bartoleme and some extra bits, c. 950m of ascent

The wind blustered all night and I had decided to sleep in as the distances didn’t look very long. The sun was up before I was, so I had coffee and a muesli bar and started strolling up the road around 7.30. Although the winds were still blowing a gale, thankfully they were blowing from behind. The first section was a nice stroll from Orzola to Haría, over a small pass. The light was lovely and it was fascinating to see the farming practices – lots of retaining walls to keep the wind off, and I passed several ancient farmers in dapper hats doing tough physical labour, bending from the waist to plant seeds in the black volcanic dirt (my job feels easy in comparison).

Near Orzola
Typical Lanzarote country house
Boat on a dry dock inland

I arrived in Haría around 10 and had a look around the market before stopping for a cafe con leche. It was a delightful town


Strolling on, next up Teguise, but only after climbing up the side of an excellent hill (Valle del malpaso) with the hiking trail cross crossing a vertiginous switchbacked mountain road, which was beloved of cyclists – I must have seen 50 coming down. Reaching the top of the hill, the views would have been epic on a clear day with the beaches on both sides of the island in view. But I had to make do with just ‘pretty good’ views through the haze.

I arrived at Ermita de las Nieves, the high point of the trail, and was surprised to see a big group of hikers (after only seeing two people all morning). It was a popular spot, with a gang of motorbikes and many lycraclad mountain bikers.

Ermita de las Nieves
View from Ermita
Field near Teguise

I moved on swiftly, meandering down hill to the lovely town of Teguise. All of the villages appear uniformly white and pretty. The central church was lovely, and there must have been a festival on as there were about 30 boys dressed as what looked like bulls with bells on their backs chasing kids around. I sat in the sun admiring the town square and had a coffee and a toasted bocadillo.

Man dressed up to chase kids

The final section of the day was a short 10k to San Bartoleme, which you could see across the valley from Teguise. It was a flat easy stroll across a blasted dusty desert wasteland.

I arrived at Casa Natur around 2pm having clocked 33km. I checked out the maps and decided to stroll some of tomorrow’s trail so I could take a short cut in the morning. It was a nice little bonus 6km stroll around a small peak and a caldera. I couldn’t find any good restaurant so I had a bocadillo and a piece of cake and retired early to bed to listen to the wind blustering outside

San Bartoleme
San Bartoleme

day 2 37km to Playa Blanca with c. 450m of up

I slept in until seven, had two coffees a muesli bar and a banana and headed off into a quiet Sunday morning. There wasn’t much movement around town, and it was mostly road walking until coming over the little pass near Montana Blanca. Road walking is my least favourite type of walking, followed by dirt trails. But surprisingly it isn’t irritating me that much as I am enjoying the quite bizarre volcanic scenery and I have my most padded trail shoes on.

The villages came relatively close together… after Montana Blanca, I skirted Tias, then Conil and then La Asomada. None of them had cafes, and nothing makes a hiker sadder than a town with no cafes. The road was skirting along the side of several volcanic hills, so the views down to the Arrecife coast were lovely. I remember to put my hat on as my forehead was sizzled from the day before.

The highlight of the day was coming over a small pass between La Asomada and Uga – the farming creativity is extraordinary – the terracing to carefully protect the trees from the high winds was lovely . The route was slightly marred by excesses of mountain bikers coming by without much warning.

There was a bar open in Uga so I grabbed a coke but kept going to Yaiza. I was unlucky and didn’t see the camels that regularly patrol that section of the trail. The route picks its way through mounds of volcanic rock. My morning endeavours were rewarded by an exceptional bocadillo ‘racing’ (with egg, cheese, ham and chicken), and a coffee at Miguel’s in Yaiza.

Heading off into the increasingly hot sun, it was a flat dusty stroll to Las Brenas, which was a ghost town baking on a hill about 7k from the coast. I was so hot by this point that I took refuge in the bus stop for ten minutes to get some shade.

I summoned up the courage to keep going and strolled the final 7k to town (taking my time as I was parallel processing and doing a work conference call at the same time (thank goodness for modern communications).

The town of Playa Blanca was everything I don’t like about the canaries – heaving with tourists and cheap Italian restaurants. I had a callipo and stuck my feet in the water -and drank several litres of fluid. Then back to the airport to get ready for work tomorrow

The verdict – definitely my least favourite so far of the islands, mostly due to the road walking, but I enjoyed the scenery immensely. I wouldn’t do it again, but am glad I did it

March 8, 2020, playa Blanca, Lanzarote

Hiking style – This time, I decided to go fast and light, with less than 3kg of gear and hotels booked every night.

Maps and guides – Paddy Dillon’s cicerone guide is excellent as usual But you can download the full maps here . The full maps and trail notes are available for free here. I load the gpx files onto gaia, onto which I had pre-downloaded the OS maps for spain

Packing Given the hours of daylight, I told a headtorch with me, but kept my overall pack very light.  Full packing list here

Hotels – I stayed at Perla del Atlantico in Orzola and Casa Natura in San Bartoleme.

Trailhead transport I took a taxi direct from the airport to Orzola to stay the night before starting the next day. I finished the hike in Playa Blanca – a busy resort, from where you could either get a bus or a taxi to the airport. (This is partly the reason I hiked north to south, as finding transport from Orzola would have been a pain). As it turns out north to south makes even more sense as, at least when I was there, the prevailing winds came from the north

Flights – Direct flights from Gatwick to lanzarote with Easyjet.

Trails in Tenerife

I am working a few more hours than normal this year, but to ensure I keep sane I have planned monthly hiking trips to get some exercise. This month, I am off to Tenerife to continue the GR131 trail which covers the Canary Islands, which I started doing over Christmas, completing the trail in La Palma. Its February so the weather is perfect

day 1 – Arona to Villaflor 18km, 1400m of up

It was an unpleasant 5.45am wake up call to get to Gatwick, but worth it. I flew to Tenerife on a heaving full easyJet flight full of elderly packaged tourists, I felt like a teenager but did have to carry some bags up the stairs. We landed in Tenerife 90 minutes late, so I threw on my shorts, grabbed a couple of bottles of water and high tailed it to the cab rank. My driver was bewildered that anyone would want to walk from one end of the island to the other and seem to think it was an incredibly dangerous proposition. I got to Arona (a lovely little village) and the starting point of the trail, just after two hoping for coffee and lunch, but it was not to be, as the only restaurant had just seated a table of 15, and there wasn’t a shop. Oh well, fingers crossed I would find something en route.


The first section of the gr131 is through the lovely ilfonche preservation zone. The best views were obscured by the clouds, but the glimpses of the craggy cliffs were lovely. There was also stunning desert flowers and cacti. It was hot as hell and I was sweating buckets going up hill. As luck would have it, I passed a bar in Ilfonche (6km in) and had three bottles of Aquarius (my secret Spanish hiking weapon – it is like Gatorade but nicer and the Spanish had it for at least 15 years before Gatorade was invented).

Trail marking
Barranca near arona
Excellent plant with clouds obscuring the cliffs in the background
Terraces on the hillside

After that the trail to Vilaflor was through a lovely pine forest on beautiful red soil. I started late, so only arrived in town as the sunset, which meant I had some lovely views as the sun lit up the trees. The best views were down on the clouds which were c400m lower down, and it wasn’t possible to see the sea at all.

Lovely scented pine forest
Clouds below and sunset
Clouds down far below

I had a lovely welcome at the El Tejar, where for a bargain €15 they served me tomatoe and avocado salad, soup, grilled tuna and cake. The canaries really are a bargain. And I was asleep by 10pm

Day 2 38km to la caldera with 1700m up

It was a brutal start to the day, primarily due to the absence of coffee. The hotel had made me a breakfast the night before but there was no kettle in the room, so no coffee, in spite of me having some with me. I was awake at six and left at 6.20 with the head torch on. The mornings endeavours consisted of a 1100m climb up to the Degollada de Guajara, and I love seeing the sunrise from the top of a hill. The paths here are gentle even when climbing and the Spanish sensibly put nice switchbacks in place (unlike NZ where we save money and mileage by making the trails go straight up the hill).

Sun coming up

I took it slowly, pacing myself for a hot day and the views were epic. Starting by climbing through delicious smelling pine forest and then eventually hitting barren red volcanic rock and sand, with stunning barrancos (ravines) cut through them.

Trees in the dawn light

I had the entire trail to myself for the three leisurely hours strolling up to the Degollada and when I crossed over the ridge line the views of Tiede (the highest mountain on Tenerife) were spectacular.

It looks flat but it wasn’t, looking back down the hill
Morning haze

The next section of the trail was a flat but spectacular 13.5km stroll to el Portillo, with tiede to the left and cliffs to the right. After the uphill slog, the flat was nice, though I was disappointed to actually see some humans (8 trail runners and 4 hikers) in that section. It was hot and the windy and I was hungry (not much breakfast and I hadn’t packed many snacks), I was ready for it to be done….

First view of Tiede from Degollada
The long flat bit to El Portillo

Arriving at el Portillo was a blessing and a curse. I mistakenly went to the visitors centre in search of food and coffee. After waiting 15 minutes they sent me 150m down the highway to the restaurant. That was the most dangerous bit of my day….. bloody frightening with cars zipping by.

I was delighted to see the restaurant but horrified in equal measure at the mass of humanity – tonnes of men in leather with motorbikes and lots of Lycra clad cyclists of both genders. I had two coffees, a Diet Coke, a roll and a donut as big as my face. I shovelled food in my face looking like a hobo, and then headed out buying three Aquarius for the road.

My spirits were well restored with food, and made even better by a hilariously eclectic mix of music that kept me dancing and entertained for the 13km to aquamansa, where I didn’t see a soul. Just as well, as I was singing along to meatloaf, Dire Straits, Glen Campbell and the Moana soundtrack among other things, and I can’t carry a tune

I arrived at 16.20 in time to catch the bus down to Orotava, which is another lovely Canarian town on the hill with beautiful colonial architecture. I suspect the beaches here are horrendous and full of resorts but the hills are lovely. I’m staying at the delightful Hotel Rural Victoria, in a beautiful building but the rooms have probably seen better days 🙂

Sun 9th 30k hike to la Esperanza 1500 up, 1870 down

Another early start, thankfully with coffee! And I had a taxi take me up to La Caldera at 6am (no buses until 8am). It was a glorious morning and I meandered up the hill in the still darkness. After about an hour I started hearing cocks crow, and at one point I turned around to see lovely views of El Tiede in the south peeking through the trees looking like it was in fire.

There is an excellent few km of trail hanging off the side of the caldera. There is a sheer drop down the side into the ravine, and fortunately there are sections where the trail has handrails to stop you falling. The views out over the ocean were lovely

Path zigzagging on the other side of the ravine
Peligroso = dangerous

For the first 20km, I didn’t see a soul. The path was lovely, but not spectacular, as it was all in the forest so there were limited views.

The last 10 of the trail was a fairly uninspiring forest road which was largely an obstacle course in dodging Spanish mountain bikers. It was nice but not amazing

My feet were ready for the end when we hit la Esperanza, and google maps reliably led me to an excellent establishment where I refuelled with carne machado (pulled pork), multiple coffees and a piece of red velvet cake.

9 February 2020

Additional notes

Hiking style – The key issue on Tenerife is lack of water. Originally I had planned to wild camp the route, but I didn’t enjoy lugging 5-6kg of water when I hiked the GR131 in La Palma, together with a tent, sleeping bag and mat, as well as food and a cooker (with 17kg in total on my back). This time, I decided to go fast and light, with less than 3kg of gear and hotels booked every night. There is very little water on the trail, only at Vilaflor, Parador (a 7k detour), El Portillo, La Caldera and Siete Fuentes (not guaranteed).

Maps and guides – Paddy Dillon’s cicerone guide is excellent as usual but to be honest, quite a lot more information than you need. The full maps and trail notes are available for downloading at this site and are very good and detailed, and you can download all the gpx files also. Caers Bart wrote the best blog that i found, here . I load the gpx files onto gaia, onto which I had pre-downloaded the OS maps for spain

Packing Given the hours of daylight, I took a headtorch with me, but kept my overall pack very light. Full packing list here

Hotels – I stayed at El Tejar Hotel in Villaflor and Hotel Rural Victoria in Orotava. To get to Orotava from La Caldera I took the last bus down from Caldera. The buses are good and reliable, and details can be found on the amusingly named Titsa website.

Trailhead transport I took a taxi direct from the airport to Arona to start hiking (I landed at 13.35). I booked a pick up from La Esperanza with https://www.booktaxigroup.com. I was a bit sceptical about it arriving as I paid in advance, but it arrived

Flights – Direct flights from Gatwick to Tenerife with Easyjet. Annoyingly the late flight landed too late to take the Gatwick express, so I Addison Leed it home, arriving at 1am in time for a few hours sleep before heading to the office

Next time – I probably wouldn’t do the section from el Portillo to La Esperanza as I suspect there is better hiking in the Tiede national park, particularly on some of the ridge lines. The forest walks are lovely, but the landscape at altitude is stunning

Chasing the Northern Lights in Tromso

Its time for January date weekend with hubby, and this time we are heading to Tromso, optimistically hoping to view the northern lights. Hubby is an avid photographer and is all prepped with 10kg of camera gear including a tripod and a remote shutter. I have done some googling, and my expectations are managed, in that I am expecting to see absolutley nothing. Duncan Craig from the Times has managed my expectations well….

The northern lights isn’t really a holiday. It’s a bucket-list impostor, a low-season-filling, opportunistic marketing exercise propped up by a million calendars and screensavers and a swanky Latin name — “Behold the aurora borealis and its mystical wallet-emptying powers.” Your chances of seeing that? Vanishingly small. It’s a £2 scratchcard of a holiday. Which costs £2,000.

Norwegian Air conveniently has direct flights from Gatwick to Tromso, which is one of the many places where you can see the lights (there are so many articles to be honest, it was all a bit of a crap shoot but I had narrowed target locations down to Tromso and Ivalo, and only Tromso had easy flights). After a wonderful quiet three hours on the plane getting work done (i love planes for working), we arrived in Tromso at 7pm, in the pitch black and took a quick taxi to town using the extensive network of tunnels

Tromso Harbour

Gastronomy in Tromso – Hubby had done his homework and we headed out for an outstanding meal at SMAK – run by a delightful husband and wife team, the service was wonderfully friendly, and the food would have held its own next to Noma, but was truly extraordinary to find in a tiny town like Tromso. Everything was locally sourced but the highlights were the wild lamb hot dogs, the cod tongues, the local veal with mushrooms, a yogurt sorbet with toffee and an amazing blackcurrant souffle.

Escaping the city to Malangen – Waking up the next morning, I was surprised that there was some light in the sky at 8am. After a sturdy Scandinavian breakfast we wandered around town and then took the shuttle bus out to the Malangen Resort with Steve the worlds friendliest driver. Malangen is a c 90 minute drive from Tromso across islands and around fjords. The weather was clear and the views were stunning, with the sun tantalisingly just below the horizon.

View through the trees at 1pm
View of the cabins
Malangen Fjord

10 minutes of sunshine – We arrived at 12.30 and the sun was peeking above the mountain, apparently, it surfaces for ten minutes every day at this time of the year. We went for a stroll and by 1.30 it was already getting dark. It was a balmy minus five degrees. Our cabin was a lovely typical red scandinavian cabin, so we ended up having a very very lazy afternoon doing not much with the log fire roaring and the sky getting darker and darker outside.

Lake front cabins (ours was one of the further cabins)

Dinner was an uninspiring arctic char for me, and a very dry reindeer shank for Stephane. But we were happy to have full stomachs to keep us warm for our evening activity of waiting for the Northern Lights.

A man fishing
Morning on the fjord

The northern lights – We rugged up, (the resort lends you very fetching onesies and boots) and headed up the hill to Camp Nikka which is secluded spot facing North which has the best local viewing and no light pollution. We got lucky and the lights came straight away. I was expecting extraordinary dancing green lights, and that wasn’t actually what I got. With the naked eye, it was more like looking at standard city light pollution, but when viewed through the lens of a camera photo (with a long slow shutter), you have the terrific green effect. Hubby had a ball playing with all his camera gear, the highlight being an intervalometer so he could leave the camera running while popping back to the fire for a hot chocolate. It was brisk (minus 15 degrees), but quite lovely to wander around in the dark enjoying the stars. It was a late night, getting back to the resort around 2am.

The Sami Lavuu with fire pit to warm up while watching

Cross country skiing virgins – Up bright and early (at 9am), we headed out to go cross country skiing. I haven’t alpine skied for over twenty years, as I am not a fan of cold and am rubbish at balancing so have never really figured it out. I had never kind the cross country version before, and I loved it! We had a guide and we had a wonderful time, apparently we went further than the guide normally gets to go, and the highlight of the morning was having a cup of tea looking over the fjord from the top of the hill. The lowlight (well it was fun) was trying to figure out how to get my butt out of the powder after taking a tumble. Skis don’t quite feel like an extension of my feet. At the beginning my hands were numb and I couldn’t feel my fingers, but we soon warmed up scooting along the snow tracks. by the end I was zipping along pretty happily and quite warm in spite of it being minus 20 degrees, although my eyelashes and nostril hairs had icicles in them. We saw the dog teams taking other people out, and that would have been much colder – sitting on a sledge in the wind at minus 20 would have been too cold for me.

Looking uber fetching in my onesie
Dog sledders going by

More lazing – we got back in time for the 10 minutes of sun and then headed back for more relaxing in our cabin. I can see how locals struggle with the darkness. It is pretty challenging to get motivated to do much when it is minus 20 degrees and pitch black outside. We were mildly social in the afternoon and had a couple of hilarious women we had met on the bus over for a cup of tea and then had dinner together – more char and halibut, but better cooking skills this evening.

Running in the snow hmmmmm so my plan for our last day was to have a sleep in and then go for a lovely arctic run. I woke up with the roof shaking from the wind and the meteo registering minus 20 degrees….. the wind was howling across the fjord and the waves looked fantastic…., but totally put me off going outisde. So instead we walked to the restaurant for a substantial Scandinavian breakfast (and in the two minute walk my face froze). We then lounged around for the day enjoying the entertainment put on by the weather outside of our windows. After a leisurely afternoon, we headed back to the airport for a late flight back to London.

Malangen, January 27, 2019

Additional info

Stayed first night at Tromso Thon, and then two nights at Malangen resort. Activities were organised through the resort and they weren’t cheap. It is worth looking for a package as it might be cheaper.

Direct flights to Tromso with air Norwegian were pretty cheap, just as well as everything else is eye-wateringly expensive

Take warm clothes, lots of them. Definitely take a few buffs to cover the face and heavy winter gloves. Any ski gear you have would work

Gr131 and the Caldera on La Palma

This is the first winter in years where I haven’t retreated to the Southern Hemisphere to go hiking and I desperately needed some long days walking and some tent time. I did my homework and decided to give the Canary Islands a go. They have never been high on my holiday list (although I have been previously for work), as I imagined them to be overrun with package tourists. However there are some epic trail races on the islands and the weather should be great as the islands are only a few hundred miles off the coast of Africa.

I am headed to La Palma, which has the most rugged terrain. The plan is to do the volcano route from Fuencaliente to Tazacorte (about 70Km), and a few routes in the national park of Caldera de Taburiente (about 40km) over a total of four days. I have my tent and a permit to sleep in Taburiente for one of the nights and will make up a plan for the other nights on the fly

I came to La Palma via Gran Canaria airport (which was candidly my idea of hell, heaving with package tourists) and I hoped like hell La Palma wouldn’t be the same. Arriving at La Palma the excellent taxi la Palma were there to pick me up and had bought me a bombona (gas canister for my stove), as it is the one thing you can’t fly with. He dropped me at the hostel in Fuencaliente, a bargain 30 euros per night for a private room with bath, albeit not much in the way of soundproofing, and I grabbed some supplies from the shop and hit the sack.

Day 1 Fuencaliente to Puenta de las roques (32km, 2200m of climbing 17kg pack)

I got up at six-ish and finally left at 7 in the pitch black with a head torch on. The sun doesn’t come up until 8, but I knew it would be a long day and the early bit wasn’t that scenic on the map.

It’s been so long since I hiked with 17 kg on my back that I have forgotten how hard it is!!!! All my gear is very light but I was unsure what conditions would be like on the tops so had bought a winter tent (1.8kg vs my normal O.4kg), and spikes for the snow (0.3kg), but nothing can make water ultra light and I wasn’t sure there would be water for the whole route so I took 6 litres with me! It was bloody heavy hauling it up the hill (and unsurprisingly I was over prepared but better to have than not have)

Heading up from Fuencaliente
First volcano through the trees

With the sun on my back I eventually got in a rhythm, albeit a really slow one as I slogged up the hills. I had the first three hours in blissful solitude. I had succumbed to putting some music on and was singing away happily to myself really enjoying the views when I passed the first of the many day hikers I would see coming the other way. I lost count at 60, by the speeds they were going I didn’t expect them all to make farocaliente before dark. The landscape is surreal and alternates between pine forest and pitted volcanic craters and pointy mountains. The nicest peak was The Volcan of Deseado which I could see for most of my day, it’s a distinctive point on the southern part of the islands spine

The volcanic rock paths were really well marked
One of the craters

I made it to El Pilar (after about 18km and 1400m of climbing or 450 flights of stairs according to the Garmin and 500m of descent) just after lunch where it turns out there is a tap so I carried an extra 4 kg for 18 km for nada. But I still need it for the next leg. Even better there was a snack truck! Two Aquarius (an excellent nonfizzy Spanish soft drink) , a cafe con leche, a hot dog and half a packet of biscuits later and I was a new woman!

After snoozing in the sun for a bit I strolled the 6km rolling path to reventon which was nice and easy as it was all in the forest. I stopped for a break and some food again when I got there (it took me an hour and a half, I swear I have never walked so slowly!). Apparently there is a good natural fountain at Reventon but I didn’t see it

After that it was a slow grunt up the final 700m climb over 6km to the punta de Los roques, punctuated by many breaks ostensibly to check my email, but really cos I was knackered. I saw the refugio de Los Roques peeking through the trees with the setting sun shining on it and I tried not to be too hopeful it was empty or not crowded. I was happy to tent but it was going to be cold at 2000m and I hadn’t seen too many flat spots. I eventually made it up the hill and the refuge looked delightful and was happily inhabited by a solo danish guy. So more than enough room for me (it probably sleeps 16 or 20 at a push).

Can finally see the refuge on the hill
The refuge well disguised

I set about hydrating, soup, decaf coffee, hydration fluids, cooking and eating in front of the refugio watching the amazing view. The sun went down and the light was breathtaking on the caldera. A bit more food and a good gossip with Soren (environmental law professor from Copenhagen) and we retired to bed at 8pm after checking out the stars (which are quite famous here as there is limited light pollution)

Sun going down from the refuge
The view down the island to Deseado from the refuge balcony

I had a mild fright at 10.30 when I woke up with someone crashing through the door of the refugio. Two spanish guys who had had a long day, they were suitably quiet while they ate and went to sleep so I managed to get back to sleep for awhile until one of them started making the weirdest snoring noises I have ever heard. I thought he was going to die as he kept stopping breathing. I gave up trying to sleep at 6am and got up to have a leisurely breakfast.

Luxury refuge – yes that’s all my gear, it explodes out of my pack
There was even solar power

Day 2 Refugio to Mirador El Time and then a shower (29km, 900m ascent, 2400m descent, 15kg pack)

The sun started to peak through the darkness around 7.15 so I went outside with my coffee for an epic sunrise with a stunning view of Tiede summit on neighbouring Tenerife.

The summit of Tiede on neighbouring Tenerife peaking through the clouds

I strolled out slowly at 7.30 less weighed down than yesterday but it was slow going. The route was stunning, for the first two hours I saw no one and the views out to the caldera with the sun hitting them were amazing. The walk meanders up and down the spine of the island though in most places the ridge isn’t narrow enough to give any cause for concern but I wouldn’t want to be up here in the fog.

The pine trees persist until about 2100m of elevation, and are lovely
Narrow path on the ridge

At some point after Pico de la Nieve the route comes close to the road and car parks, so I started running into ill equipped tourists skidding on the trails which were a tricky blend of sand, volcanic rubble and scree and rocks. I was already tired, so found a quiet spot to take a break and cooked up an early lunch.

It took me quite a while to hit the summit of Roque de los muchachos at 2430m, every summit was a false one, and I was low on water and thirsty. And I took a lot of breaks! When I did get there I didn’t stay long as there were about 500 tourists. There was a water tap next to the information booth marked ‘agua non potable’ which technically means it’s not drinkable but I was desperate. I had a litre and then saw the ranger and asked him if itnwas drinkable. He said they mark it that way to deter the tourists from drinking it, but the hikers ‘should know’ it’s ok as they block the tap if there is a problem (hmmmm not sure how I would have ‘known’, but was grateful nonetheless).

Part of the extensive observatory complex at Los Rocas

I left the summit at 13.30. My original plan had been to hike all the way down to the coast and then back up into the caldera. Checking out the map, the section from el time to Los llanos was entirely urban and not pretty and the route up from los llanos looked long and hot. So I decided to hike down to el time, bus to Los llanos and sleep in a hostel for the night for a shower and then head up to the caldera the next night.

That plan though did mean I had to book it down the hill to get the bus. It wasn’t far – 16km, but it was a 2200m drop. The path was rocky and while it eventually dropped under the tree line and had shade, the shade came with very slippery pine needles. The views on the first 8k were epic though, and there were very few people

Steep cliffs dropping down to the caldera with the trees holding on

The last 4km down (with 450m of descent) from the Torres to El time was interminable and without redemption. Rocky, steep, no shade, no view, and just the type of gradient where your toes get slammed into the front of your shoes (I’m pretty sure both big toe nails will be dropping off in a month). The only positive I could find about this interminable section was that at least I wasn’t walking up it. I had a mild sense of humour failure about 1km before the end as am sunburnt (forgot sunscreen and a hat) and was thirsty, so I stopped and downed my last litre of water and hoped like hell there was water at EL Time. Better than that, there was a bar with homemade cake. Two more Aquarius and an awesome slice of the owners banana caramel cake, and I whiled away 45 mins waiting for the bus to Los Llanos (and yes I know I can afford a taxi but I like buses)

Ok the bus was late, but I did get chatted up by a retired Swiss farmer on the bus who rents a room down here for six months in the summer. He was worried about me so walked me to the hostel. The hostel Vagamundo was all I needed, not as good value as Fuencaliente as it is shared bath and I had to rent a towel for €2, but €30 is fine. Then off to the important business of getting some fluid and calories in – off to the Argentinian steak house!

Day 3/4 into the caldera

After the gr131 the most recommended hiking on the island is in the caldera de Taburiente, you can hike into the crater and then take different routes up the sides. I had a campsite booked (free, see below) and had a plan for different hikes). After a leisurely 6km stroll into the camping from the mirador los brecitos, I was checking in and the ranger told me all the routes were closed due to landslides. I feel like this is the universe’s way of telling me to have a day off, so I pitched my tent, made some lunch and spent the afternoon reading and intermittently admiring the views

View from my tent up to Los Roques de muchachos
View from the playa de Taburiente
My new akto hilleberg getting its first outing

When I arrived this morning there was a loud party of Spanish people leaving – around ten of them with shiny gear, and I was hopeful they wouldn’t be replaced. Fortunately the campsite is vast and I pitched at the remotest end with the best view. I did go for a late afternoon stroll to check out the hills in the afternoon light and there was one other couple camping about 200m away, but still blissfully peaceful

Same view, different light

After an excellent and quiet sleep I extricated myself from my tent to watch the sun come up, had a coffee and slowly packed up. It was a delightful walk back to Los brecitos, though I passed about 20 people on their way in, and on the way back to Los Llanos I passed ten heaving van loads of tourists on their way to the trail so I had made a good choice on what day to visit (apparently Sunday is always quiet as the tourists go to the market)

Sun coming up hitting the top of the peaks
Same view in the morning

Day 4 afternoon chilling in Los Llanos

I spent the afternoon strolling around the lovely town of Los Llanos, stopping from time to time to have some tapas and a drink! There isn’t much to do but it’s quite lovely. I will be back as the hiking here is excellent and the infrastructure works quite well (taxis will drop off and pick off easily at trail heads and the buses work well).

Los Llanos de Aridane, December 30, 2019

Additional info

  • Water is the most problematic part of La Palma at least on the volcano route, so plan accordingly
  • Paddy Dillon’s cicerone guide to walking on La Palma is a good one, but is more set up for day walkers than long distance, and it doesn’t helpfully outline water sources
  • Senderosdelapalma.es was an excellent resource and had most of the gpx trails to download
  • Buying gas for my stove was my one issue that I couldn’t figure out, so I asked the taxi company to buy me some and bring it with them to my airport pick up, and tipped them generously as it saved me a lot of hassle. ww.taxilapalma.com. (Note it turns out cooking of any kind is illegal in the national parks.). They also provide drop offs to trail heads, or if you have more time and less money the island bus service (guaguas) is excellent https://www.tilp.es/regular/
  • It’s easy to book a campsite in the caldera de Taburiente for free, and bookings open 15 days in advance https://www.reservasparquesnacionales.es/real/ParquesNac/usu/html/inicio-reserva-paso2-oapn.aspx?cen=4&act=%202
  • Mountain weather forecast for the high route here (I was worried about snow when I went, as it has happened in December before)
  • Stayed at the hostel pension in Fuencaliente and the hostel vagamundo and hotel benohoare in los llanos

Christmas in Laayoune/ El Aaiún (Western Sahara)

I am only half-heartedly ticking off territories these days, with 47 still to go, (and at least 17 I am not that keen to see), but sometimes I can’t resist visiting somewhere new…. and I found a cheap flight to Laayoune (El Aaiun) in the disputed territory of Western Sahara for Christmas

Disputed between Morocco and Sahrawi Western Sahara is a disputed territory in the Maghreb in North Africa. A former Spanish colony, it was annexed by Morocco in 1975. Since then it has been the subject of a long-running territorial dispute between Morocco and its indigenous Sahrawi people, led by the Polisario Front. A 16-year-long insurgency ended with a UN-brokered truce in 1991 and the promise of a referendum on independence which has yet to take place. The Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), declared by the Polisario Front in 1976, is now recognised by many governments and is a full member of the African Union. (More here). The United Nations considers the Polisario Front to be the legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people, and maintains that the Sahrawis have a right to self-determination. Morocco have flooded the territory with people and investment since the green march of 1975 and have military and economic control over much of the region.

As far as Morocco is concerned Laayoune is firmly in Morocco, hence why I found myself sitting in the grim domestic section of Casablanca airport at 6.30am on Christmas Day after a few hours sleep at the airport hotel, with a motley crew of Chinese business men and brightly robed Sahrawi women and their families.

Laayoune airport

One of the few strangers arriving ….We landed in Laayoune and almost everyone knew the two immigration officials, and were waved through. Only the foreigners had to stop and have their details registered, and I had a few minutes of questioning as to why I was here – the questions were slightly hard to answer as they didn’t really believe tourists would come here, but given the political situation it would have been a poor idea to say I was here to tick off a disputed territory. I asked for a passport stamp but was refused as I had been stamped in in Casablanca.

It took me a while to find my bag. Uncharacteristically I had checked luggage as am heading next to go hiking so have a tent and pegs which I can’t take on board. Everyone left with their luggage and I was feeling the inevitable sense of dread at my hiking holiday being slightly palled without my gear…… but I took a closer look at some of the intensively plastic wrapped bags, and found my pack which had obviously been diligently wrapped in transit at Casablanca. It was barely recognisable it had so much plastic on it (they clearly haven’t heard of Greta Thunberg in Morocco)

Why pay for a taxi, it’s a nice day for a stroll…..The airport looked like a 20 min stroll from the hotel, and it was a glorious day so off I meandered. Taxi drivers always look so aggrieved when I walk out of airports, it’s like a personal insult. I attracted quite a few stares en route to the hotel, so I changed out of my leggings t-shirt and jacket into a more appropriate but hideous dress I had bought for the occasion – covering all potential vestiges of flesh like a big sack. That helped, but I still had people stop and stare, including a van full of Moroccan soldiers

First up, caffeine…The light was lovely so I headed off for a stroll, not getting far before stopping for a coffee. There were a multitude of nice cafes around the incongruous McDonalds, and I recce’d a few to see if I could find one with a woman inside, but gave up at the fifth cafe full of men, and took a seat in the cafe Lima for two coffees to compensate for my early wake up and four hours sleep.

Grandiose construction……Caffeinated, I started meandering around town, no one seems to move that fast here. The town appears to be a construction zone with grand plazas and gardens being constructed all over the pace with some extremely conformist palm trees. The wiry men who are the labour force, wrap their scarves around their heads to keep out the wind and sand. The spaces are grand but not particularly welcoming.

Place Oum Saad ….There is not much to see – Trip advisor lists four sites (the top two have a huge six reviews each). I started with the Place Oum Saad, which they are making into a football stadium.

The two main sites….I then wandered over to the mosque, which was largely closed and then across town to the st Francis of Assisi cathedral.

Main mosque

I stopped for another tea and then headed down to see the Dait um saad the edge of the desert

Dait um saad

I much prefer the quiet pink alleys with interesting doors and mangy resident cats. The locals were friendly and numerous women smiled and said hello (I pretty much ignore men who smile and say hello, as no well behaved local man would be saying hello to an unaccompanied woman).

The grand place mechouar is vast, and I stopped for a while to enjoy the sun and read a book. The guys cleaning the square were most fascinated and after much discussion they sent one of their number over with some cardboard to keep my butt warm instead of sitting on the marble bench

Looking across to the palais de congress

Tea anyone …..I whiled away the afternoon drinking mint tea and reading a book, watching the local men actively engaged in sitting around chatting. I had a pizza at the recommended La Madone (with my brain not properly engaged it took me a while to figure out what was wrong with the menu – no ham, pepperoni or bacon. It was pretty good though.

McDs as a women’s study group…..I popped into the McDs after (clean loo), and made a surprising discovery. This was the only place I had been in Laayoune where women were eating and mostly in twos and threes. Actually they were eating and studying. 80% of the clients were women and most of the staff. It never occurred to me that McDonald’s could be a safe haven for women to study!

Breakfast with a view…. The sun doesn’t come up early here…. I had a leisurely breakfast (the buffet seemed to consist mainly of cake and pastries) and enjoyed an epic slow sunrise (8am) over place oum saad (no filter or editing)

Wandering….I wandered up to the hotel Massira to check out the mural which I am assuming is commemorating the green march.

After a cursory stroll around the souk and then wandered back to the gardens at place mechouar. I amused myself for a good hour alternating between watching the school kids do their PE lessons and the elderly wandering around the park on their morning constitutionals.

After another stroll around the hood, I shouldered my pack and wandered back to the airport. It was an interesting sojourn. I appreciate coming to random corners of the world not least because it makes me learn more about things I wouldn’t have otherwise – the history here is quite harrowing and I will now start paying more attention to the Sahrawi refugee challenge.

Additional notes

  • Flew to Laayoune via Casablanca with (not so) Royal Air Maroc.
  • There are cheap flights out via the Canary islands with Binter if you want some sun on the way back
  • There isn’t much in the way of hotels in Laayoune, so I stayed at the Emilio Moretti, a relatively new place on the plaza
  • I tried out a new airport hotel in Casablanca- the onomo, which is the same standard but better organised than the atlas sky and the relax. It’s walking distance from the airport (1.5km) in the daylight (there was not much in the way of light or footpaths when I tried walking it late at night on arrival, so I gave up and waited for the shuttle (which runs every 30 mins for free)
  • Not much in the way of travel info on Laayoune is available …. but a couple of good articles here and here

Laayoune, December 26, 2019

Jewellery stores near the mosque
Place mechouar with the tower from the mosque in the background
Water towers
Obligatory selfie

Monkeying around in Gibraltar

Time for December date night with hubby, and this time we were headed for Gibraltar. Gibraltar has the benefit of being a new territory to tick off, only a 2.5 hour flight from the UK, as well as having an interesting history.  Population c. 35,000, it has been in British hands since 1704, and the Gibraltans are proudly British.  The airport was wee, and it was a mere 3km from the airport to the hotel.  We were lucky, no flights were landing, so the road from the airport (which crosses the runway) was open.  

Wandering about Town
We had planned to head up to the rock straight away, but the cable car was closed ‘due to wind’, and there was an army of touts offering us bargain tours of the nature reserve.  Uninspired, we decided to stroll for a few hours through Main Street, Irish town and the lovely casement square.   We popped in and out of a few churches, much amused by the novel approach to candles in the churches…. Here you pop a coin in to light a plastic electric candle.   

An odd melange
Its an odd place, a mix of Spanish workers (50% of the employees come over daily from Spain), daytrippers from Spain coming for VAT free goods, brits enjoying fish and chips and plenty of Moroccans (unsurprising, given you can see Morocco from here).   The architecture is equally confusing, some lovely historical buildings with beautiful shutters, and some utterly hideous new buildings.   The shops are a mix of British implants and Spanish high street brands interspersed with obligatory tat shops selling Gibraltar monkeys. 

Chip fat, casinos and ugly apartment blocks
Adjacent to the old town is a hideous over-developed marina, complete with a monstrous ship/hotel permanently moored and with a huge casino, surrounded by oversized apartment blocks.  We had intended to stop somewhere for a snack, but neither of us could get our noses past the pervasive odor of old chip fat which seemed to be pumping out of all the air vents.  

Bottom of Europe
Meandering back to casement square, we had a slice of pepperoni pizza and a coffee, before taking the bus to Europa point.  This marks the southernmost tip of Gibraltar and has excellent views over the straights to Jebel Musa and Ceuta.   The sun was going down and the lighthouse and the ocean looked spectacular.  There is also a well-located mosque at the point, with the rock towering over it.  

Two soups?  
Strolling back to the hotel, we dodged traffic (pavements were absent for sections of the route), and enjoyed an amusing three-course date night dinner at our hotel – it was pretty bad.   Amusingly our most recent date night in Albania was cheaper and more delicious.  Our hotel restaurant was a little like Fawlty towers meets two soups.  

Yay sleep! After an epic 8 hours sleep (I have been averaging five), we dragged ourselves out of bed for a classic English buffet breakfast.  Excellent sausages and they even had carrot cake on the buffet (no comment as to whether I ate it).  After an epic 8 hours sleep (I have been averaging five), we dragged ourselves out of bed for a classic English buffet breakfast.  Excellent sausages and they even had carrot cake on the buffet (no comment as to whether I ate it).  

Monkeying around
We took a dodgy taxi to the top of the rock and then had a delightful three hours strolling around the sites.   The Macaques are completely impervious to the human observers apart from the one who cheekily made a grab for the camera.  We sat and watched them amuse themselves eating bugs off each other. 

Ridges and views
Climbing back up the hill, the views from  Douglas lookout and O’Hara’s battery were stunning, and the geological formation of the rock with its narrow ridgeline looks amazing from the top.  

Batteries and Spurs
We strolled back, stopping off to see the Spur Battery, the Windsor suspension bridge and the Moorish castle.  The views from the siege tunnels were lovely, and it is hilarious to look out at the airport runway with a road going through the middle.

Views across the runway
Time for a quick cup of tea and some scones enjoying the view from our hotel and then back to the airport.   An entertaining date weekend.  We had epic views of the rock across the runway for the three hours our flight was delayed (photo below)

Additional information

  • Easy flights to Gibraltar from London
  • Stayed at the rock hotel, walls were thin, views were nice, food was edible, and it was £100 a night for a sea view
  • The buses were pretty frequent and an easy way to get around (£1.80 for a single), and we had no choice as the two times we tried to take a cab at the rank, there were taxis but no drivers.
  • Taxi to the airport and back cost c. £10

Gibraltar, 15 December 2019

Date night in Tirana

The joys of Wizz and Luton

I have recently changed jobs which means my best weekend egress airport is now Luton, and given I am the chief holiday booker in my house, Luton airport it was, on Wizz air to head to Tirana. I arrived after a seamless 25 minute taxi ride from the office, cruised through security in ten minutes and then got some work done at Benugo. Hubby was less impressed with the airport choice, after a train, a shuttle (which they now charge for) and a rather less seamless transition through security. He was less than amused on arrival, with his mood somewhat restored by a hot salami sandwich. Mood was swiftly deflated again in the Wizz boarding queue, which was an example of budget airlines demonstrating their finest customer service, with a lot of shouting and tears as customers were ‘invited’ to contribute to airline revenues by paying an additional €25 for oversized baggage. Oh well, we got on the plane in the end

We were off to Albania as part of our commitment to a monthly date night somewhere interesting. We arrived in Tirana around 9pm and got a taxi to town (mercifully they are all fixed fares these days, as the Albanian cabbies are legendary), to the remarkable plaza hotel, a modernist tower in downtown Tirana. It’s been a long time since I have seen a black toilet and bidet! After a late supper and some tea we retired for the evening

The old town and old men

Woken by the clock tower chiming 7am, even though it was 6am, and eventually managed to surface around 10am to a glorious sunny day. We went for an extended stroll around downtown hitting off the major ‘sites’, Skanderberg square, the National Gallery, the Opera house, the Orthodox Church, the Friendship monument and Et hem Bej mosque (being renovated).

Crossing the river to see Hoxha’s pyramid – originally a museum about the legacy of the long-time leader of Communist Albania (41 years), who had died three years before it was built. The structure was co-designed by Hoxha’s daughter Pranvera Hoxha, an architect and when built, the Pyramid was said to be the most expensive individual structure ever constructed in Albania

Recrossing the river to see the Cathedral and the enormous Namazgjah mosque (under construction, and it will be the biggest mosque in the Balkans when built), before grabbing a coffee in a cafe populated by ancient Albanian men in excellent hats, right next to parliament. Hubby was sure they were mafioso. 

Bunk’art – totally bunkers

Taxied to Bunkart – an extraordinary museum complex housed in a bunker that was built to protect Hoxha from the Russians and Americans. Apparently during his rein he built over 110,000 bunkers, one for every 11 Albanians. It is now a wonderfully restored museum to the era, and we had it almost to ourselves. It is pretty eerie wandering through Hoxha’s bunker apartment, the filtering mechanisms for tear gas and long concrete hallways.

Dajtit express to the hills

Next stop the hills, which surround Tirana majestically. The Dajtit express is located right next door to Bunk’art, so we took the cable car 15 minutes up the mountain for a late lunch at the Ballkoni Dajtit – excellent bean stew, burek and lamb chops. The view was amazing and the evidence of autumn becomes more apparent with altitude, the leaves were lovely, like the side of the range was on fire. 

We meandered around the hilltops and then took the cable car back to town, for another stroll around town.

Traditional Albanian fare

We then went to the famous Oda for dinner – for lambs intestines (hubby only), Fergese (cheese and peppers), Stuffed eggplant, yogurt, pickled vegetables, Lakror (spinach pie), and excellent scone like bread. We probably had enough food for four people for the princely sum of €20

More bunkers

Next morning, a slow Sunday start and a reprise with Bunk’art 2, the second installation of bunkart but in the central city. It was ok, but the first one was better. It was a useful insight into the secret police and how they ruled with absolute fear during Hoxha’s reign.