Kayaking One Of The World’s Busiest Shipping Lanes

A short journal of the day we kayaked from Hong Kong Island to Lamma Island.

It’s only taken me two months but it’s finally time to put out my first blog since moving to Hong Kong for a seasonal Outdoor Education role. I’ve yet to finish all of my Kenya and Kyrgyzstan content from the summer but HK life is fast, work is busy and – to tell the truth – I’ve been too focused on making the most of the adventure out here to feel particularly compelled or motivated to sit down and write anything.

One of my recent programs involved being ‘tech support’ for five days on the sea kayaking element of an expedition program up in HK’s New Territories; essentially acting as an extra pair of hands on the water for ratios and rescues, plus any coaching or environmental education I felt I could contribute. At the end of the trip, rather than moving the boats back to their base on the glorious Lamma Island by Sampan, our Program Manager Rob decided it would be an awesome idea to paddle them back over, crossing one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes in the process. This was an extremely rare opportunity and something that people had been looking to do for some time.

On receiving the invite to join the Saturday morning outing I was ecstatic and, despite having just paddled for five days straight with the stiff muscles and hamstrings to match, it was an offer I jumped at.

We started the day early at Deep Water Bay where we’d left the boats overnight, making our way out towards the channel with Ocean Park on the hilltop to our right. Ahead, huge cargo ships and tankers criss-crossed. There was some swell and we allowed the boats to ride over it gracefully rather than trying to fight it.

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Author in Deep Water Bay. (Rich Holt, 2018).

As we neared the channel, a few colleagues shared some knowledge, teaching me a kayak stroke I’d not yet come across. We surfed a few waves and played around, hugging the Hong Kong Island coast whilst waiting for a sufficient window to cross towards Lamma.

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Hugging the HK Island Coast Line. (Rich Holt, 2018).

After a few kilometres with Cyberport to our right, our window opened and we went for it. We set our sights on a navigation beacon over on Lamma’s hilly coastline and made a hasty break.

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The sky clouds over looking towards Cyberport and Aberdeen. (Rich Holt, 2018).

Fifteen minutes later and we were on the Lamma side of the channel, just a few hundred metres from shore. At this point we felt almost underwhelmed; no ships had passed for fifteen to twenty minutes, despite usually being at nearly-minutely intervals. To that end we decided to hang about and wait for one to approach so we could experience its magnitude up close.

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Group selfie looking across the channel towards HK Island from the Lamma coastline. (Rich Holt, 2018).

We didn’t have to wait long. A gargantuan Bulker  approached. For a moment it appeared to be on a direct heading for us, though we knew it would have to turn as we were so close to the rocky shore. As it got to a large buoy about 250m away it changed course, a magnificent site and quite the heart-pumper!

Despite its speed we were amazed at the lack of wake the ship gave off. I can only assume this is a result of its Bulbous Bow dispersing the water. Its wake was so small that one colleague got close enough to try and surf it but couldn’t even catch the wave, slumping down into its trough with a look of defeat.

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The bulker passes about 200m away. It looks considerably further through a GoPro lens than in real life! (Rich Holt, 2018)

Once the thrill of the ship had passed it was time to make our way around Lamma to the main town of Yung Shue Wan. We kept close to shore, passing the ferry pier many of us utilise for our daily work commute, until the unmistakable chimneys of Lamma Power Station came into view. Our heart rates were briefly accelerated once more when a large swell nearly dunked us into submerged rocks but we soon reached Yung Shue Wan harbour where we became the subject of a few hundred people’s photographs whilst they disembarked the ferry that had just arrived.

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Lamma Power Station comes into view. (Rich Holt, 2018).

Once ashore we carried the boats to their storage location and made our way to the family festival ‘Lamma Fun Day’ for a celebratory beer or two. 15km in just under three hours, across a major global shipping lane. Fun times!

 

Five Reasons You Need To Visit Kyrgyzstan NOW

Five reasons, in no particular order, why you need to beat the inevitable crowds and visit Kyrgyzstan before it’s too late!

I’ve recently returned from a ten-day trip to northern Kyrgyzstan after a friend invited me over to check out the World Nomad Games – a celebration of central-Asian culture, history and sport. It was an awesome short trip and, despite only just scratching the surface, has given me a taste of what ‘the stans’ have to offer. I definitely plan to return there and explore more in-depth in the future. 

The past few years have seen an increase in the number of travellers preaching about how great Kyrgyzstan is but – searching for blogs or articles – there’s still not much traveller info out there. So, in no particular order, here’s my five reasons you need to visit!

It’s Super Cheap. Like, Really Cheap!

The Kyrgyz currency is the ‘Som’ and you get real ‘bang for your buck’ out there. 100 som is roughly equivalent to about £1 GBP ($1.30 USD). 

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Visa: If you’re one of 45 listed countries you don’t need a visa at all; simply turn up and get an entry stamp for free. There’s a further 20 countries that can obtain a visa on arrival and, even if you don’t fall into either list it’s not impossible to get in, it just might cost a little more.
Food: A substantial meal with a soft drink in one of capital Bishkek’s soviet-style cafeterias will set you back about 150-180 som, or a more western-style pizza and soft drink in a shopping mall costs about 500 som. Ramen is pretty popular in the malls and, with a soft drink as a standard gauge, the cheque comes in at about 250 som. Sometimes service in the malls can be slow or convoluted – often your freshly-cooked pizza might arrive before your bottled drink or, if you order an appetizer, everything comes out at once. However, at that price it didn’t particularly bother me. One night I went to a pretty nice restaurant down the road from Ala Too Square where a large pizza, meat solyanka soup, bread and an iced coffee came to just 800 som… pretty good! If you’re really on a budget you can swing by a roadside bakery and get a large meat pie and iced tea for just under 100 som.

10Transport: The most common mode of public transport is the Mushutkra – a minibus service not dissimilar to a Turkish Dolmus. Pretty much any journey within a town or city costs just 10 som! You simply hop on, jostle for position somewhere, and send your money forwards to the driver. There’s a really good app – 2GIS – that tells you exactly which mushutkra to catch for anywhere you want to go. You can also get almost anywhere nationally on mushutkras for a little more money. I only completed one ‘national’ journey from Cholpon-Ata (home of the Games) back to Bishkek and the five-hour journey cost me just 300 som. Taxis are pretty cheap too; you can expect to pay about 150-300 som for a journey anywhere within Bishkek or about $20 USD to get out towards Cholpon-Ata or the Kazakh border etc. (They prefer dollars for bigger payments).

Alcohol: Booze is ridiculously cheap as long as you drink the regional stuff. A pint of national beer – Arpa was my favourite – costs around 100 som and a 500ml bottle of regional vodka in a store is as cheap as 100 som. The cheapest stuff will turn you blind, but it only costs between 300-500 som for a bottle of a famous brand like Smirnoff, Belvedere or Ciroc. Just don’t buy any exotic imports: in one bar I ordered a Malibu Coke and they stung me with a 700 som cheque, making it almost equivalent to Dubai prices.

15Accommodation: When conducting personal travel I only ever stay in either a hostel, homestay or some variation of camping (hammock, tent, floormat etc.), and I’d say Kyrgyzstan hostel prices tend to fall on par with many of the cheaper backpacker destinations. You usually pay $6-10 USD per night for a dorm bed in most hostels. All the hostels I stayed at were clean and relatively friendly. Don’t expect them to be alcohol-or-cannabis-fuelled party hostels like those of SE Asia. Despite the extremely cheap alcohol and Kyrgyzstan being the genetic home of wild-growing cannabis, hostels are usually family-owned and adhere to pretty stringent curfews and rules. There was a real party atmosphere out in Cholpon-Ata and people stayed up drinking until whenever they wanted but loud noise or generally disrespectful behaviour weren’t considered acceptable like they can be in some parts of the world, and I mention this under the ‘cost’ category because the hostels advertise hefty fines for breaking the rules! Some friends went for a night in a traditional Yurt which only cost them about $30 USD each including a taxi transfer. I opted to stay and watch some more of the Games, under the argument that when I return to Kyrgyzstan I can trek between Yurts whereas the Games may never be there again.

Tourist Fees Don’t Exist: The best thing about the cost right now is that the Kyrgyz haven’t started adding ‘tourist charges’ onto everything. Tourism is still a pretty new concept out there so you pay what the locals pay. Even at the height of the World Nomad Games prices barely fluctuated on anything except transport, where travellers and expats familiar with the area told me prices were about 1.5x higher than usual. Just be wary in any restaurant or bar; the one area they will sting you is the 15% Service Charge that gets added to any sit-down drink or meal. A bonus whilst we were there was that the Games were almost-completely FREE. However, Turkey is hosting the next tournament and I don’t think it’ll be long before they start ticketing everything.

The People Are Really Friendly 

Despite reading about aggressive Russians, corrupt police or cold and uncaring locals, I didn’t find any of that in my short stay in the country. Perhaps the police were under orders to behave because of the Games; I witnessed one taxi driver paying off a traffic cop for some fake charge but I was never stopped and I didn’t hear of any other traveller being charged either. 

19It’s no secret in the backpacking world that, sometimes, Russians can be quite loud or pushy. However, this trip completely changed my perspectives. I found every ‘ethnic’ Russian (Kyrgyz citizen of Russian descent) I met to be very friendly, welcoming, and excited to see western tourists finally visiting their secret central-Asian haven. The same can be said for the ethnic Kyrgyz, who were really keen to talk and extremely welcoming. English really isn’t prevalent in Kyrgyzstan, except for maybe the younger generations in Bishkek, but lots of loud shouting and big smiles from both parties meant the friendly message usually got through. I strongly recommend adding the Cyrillic keyboard to your phone and using google translate; if you’re trying to speak locals will usually want to write something into a translator and vice versa.

DSC_1285On visiting the World Nomad Games Ethnovillage in Kyrchyn Valley I made friends with a great group of locals who invited me to join them for lunch. Despite my protests they kept putting food on my plate, then simply would not accept any money in return. They were extremely welcoming and had an incredible sense of humour.

I was told that hitchhiking is acceptable and a common, safe practice. I didn’t try it out on this trip (though I’ve previously enjoyed hitchhiking in the Middle East) but plenty of people seemed to have got around that way and enjoyed long conversations in broken English/Russian with the drivers.

 

25Osh Bazaar in Bishkek is one of the oldest bazaars on the ancient Silk Road and is well worth a visit. Unlike the soukhs of the Arab world, traders in Osh Bazaar aren’t pushy at all. In fact, you pretty much have to call them over to make a purchase! You can spend hours exploring the winding passages and alleys, each divided into sections such as spices, fake-brands, meats, electronics etc. and traders seem keen to pose for photographs and/or talk about their wares and products.

It’s Absolutely Stunning

18With more than 85% of the national landmass being classified as mountainous and boasting the second highest and second largest alpine lake on Earth, Kyrgyzstan is pretty damn aesthetically pleasing. There is literally hundreds upon hundreds of kilometres of fascinating scenery and, despite pretty good soviet infrastructure, most of the country is still pretty-much untouched. Fans of mountaineering will be keen to know that more than half of the country’s mountains are still unclimbed on record! So if bagging first ascents is your thing it’s an absolute playground. In the near future I’m planning to return for some first recorded summits.

11Fans of soviet architecture or cool cities will love Bishkek. Built in block-format and flanked by snow-capped mountains it looks like a city straight from a John Le Carré novel and many people are still getting around in old Lada cars and 1970s buses. There’s plenty of statues too, with statues and monuments of national heroes seeming to be a pretty big feature of Kyrgyz parks and roundabouts. The national warrior-hero Manas takes centre-stage in Ala Too Square.

 
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It’s Easier To Reach Than People Think 

When people think of ‘the stans’ they usually think of thousands of miles of trekking or overlanding to reach some distant, icy nowhere-land. However, we live in the 21st century and times have changed. I caught a Pegasus Airlines flight from London Stansted, transferring in Istanbul. Turkish Airlines and Aeroflot are the two other main providers to Bishkek, or you can fly into Almaty (Kazakhstan) and either transfer onto dozens of smaller regional carriers, or take the short journey over the border by taxi. Due to the excellent transport system mentioned earlier, extensive travel in the region seems pretty easy and I met many people that had visited Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and even Turkmenistan using exclusively public transport.

It Won’t Stay Secret For Long

This year saw a huge surge in travellers heading to the World Nomad Games compared to previous years, and even with the Games going to Turkey in 2020, the increase in tourism is bound to continue. Kyrgyzstan already seems to be the most-famous secret on the backpacker trail, with more and more people adding it to their bucket lists. Lonely Planet cites The British Backpacker Society in rating it Number Five on the list of top backpacking destinations (no, Thailand didn’t make the list), and everybody I spoke to out there shared the mentality that we were riding the early stages of a wave that is gonna pick up a lot of energy in coming years.

DSC_1720Whilst Bishkek probably won’t replace Prague or Warsaw in the list of former-soviet Bachelor Party destinations, and Lake Issyk-Kul isn’t going to suddenly replace Italy’s Great Lakes for a landlocked beach holiday, Kyrgyzstan is certainly going to become a known name in the edgy travel sector. The backpacking community is starting to talk about how great the sightseeing and partying is, mountaineers are starting to talk about how many potential first-ascents there are, and global business is starting to realise there’s a big market potential for expansion there. With every blog or article – just like this – that hits the internet, there’s somebody else already booking their ticket. I’d strongly recommend beating the crowds now and seeing what the place has to offer before the Kyrgyz realise they can add big tourist prices to everything and everywhere gets too busy. Admit it or not, we can all be guilty of travellers’ snobbery at times, and in Kyrgyzstan it’s pretty nice to know you’re not just another tourist drone visiting the same old hotspots (ironically the area is historically the definition of an ‘old hotspot’, being the centre of the notorious Silk Road!).

 

Thank you for reading Five Reasons You Need To Visit Kyrgyzstan NOWStay up to date with more Adventure Travel content by subscribing by email or following me on Instagram, where I post regular travel and adventure photography!

Introducing Lions To The Rave Scene: A Revolutionary Idea To Reduce Human/Wildlife Conflict In Kenya

It’s 6am on a cool morning in Kenya’s luscious and green Nairobi National Park. I’ve just rolled out of bed and got ready for the day, sacrificing the morning shower in favour of an extra ten minutes’ sleep, still easing off the jet lag from my arrival in-country a day or so prior. My expedition team – a school group from the UK – are just starting to stretch themselves awake too, presumably still a little overwhelmed by their new environment. We’d transited straight from the airport to our small outpost camp in the heart of the national park and, for many of them, this will be their first taste of expedition travel.

Nairobi National Park is truly stunning. Sitting at about 1500m above sea level, it is considerably cooler and wetter than much of Kenya year-round and its landscape is somewhat peculiar; vast plains of savannah with the prominent city skyline on the horizon. On the periphery of the park, and not separated by fences or artificial barriers, is ‘cultural land’ – in other words, small settlements and lone houses, surviving through subsistence farming and little else.

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Nairobi’s modern skyline sits on the horizon with Nairobi National Park in the foreground. (Rich Holt, 2018).

Think of Kenya and you almost-certainly think of the country’s world-famous wildlife. The mind naturally gravitates to images of elephant, lion, zebra or giraffe roaming free under the hot African sun. A beautiful thought. However, ask a Maasai villager or local farmer what they think of these animals and you may be shocked by their opinion.

“They’re a huge pest,” our camp manager Tony explains, “if you plant a field of potatoes, wait months for them to grow and rest all of your faith in them, you may wake up one day to find an elephant has dug its tusks into the land and uprooted an entire row like a plough in a single sweep.”

The same can be said for lions. As fascinating as they are, they are a predator. Predators need a good, meaty feast. And why bother hunting if just outside the park you can find a herd of fifty goats or thirty cows enclosed in a flimsy chicken-wire and wood ‘boma’ (livestock pen)? It is an easy meal for the taking. Often the lions don’t even need to enter the boma – they simply vocalise their presence from a distance, wait for the livestock to panic and break free, then strike from the shadows.

Following a raid by lions, hyenas or leopards, locals take up arms. They don’t take pleasure in killing the wildlife but retaliation seems to be a necessity. In a country where many people survive on under $1 USD a day a strong cow can be worth $400 USD or a goat about $200 USD. As far as a farmer is concerned, killing the predators is the only solution.

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Children living on one of the small sustenance farms on the park periphery, curiously watching the peculiar group of ‘wuzungu’ (Europeans) undertaking project work on the family boma. (Rich Holt. 2018).
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A snapshot of life in the settlements on the cultural land neighbouring Nairobi National Park. (Rich Holt, 2018).

To try and protect livestock, which stops retaliations too, a cheap and simple system has been devised that has already seen a 99% reduction in lion raids on the farms that it has been implemented. LED Strobe Lights, charged throughout the day by a small solar panel, are fitted to the wooden fence posts of the bomas. As soon as day turns to night the lights begin flashing, turning the entire skyline into a scene not dissimilar to a busy Ibiza nightclub! The purpose of the strobes? To convince lions that a Maasai hunting party has been despatched.

“We found that lions don’t fear static light,” David Mascal, a renowned lion expert and joint-manager of the Lion Lights project, briefs us over breakfast. “They will scope out a static light like soldiers conducting reconnaissance on a target then nail the herd, either by raiding or by creating chaos and waiting for the food to run into them. But when the local boys go out on a retaliation patrol they carry torches and bright lights, waving them around, so the lions bugger off as soon as they see flashing or strobing.”

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Lion conservationist David Mascal briefs us on the assembly of the Lion Lights, a box of electrical parts in his hand. (Rich Holt, 2018).

For Mascal the project is mainly about protecting the lions. They are his calling in life and he has dedicated his entire career to their conservation. But what could be a better conservation project than one that benefits the local community too?

“The idea was first devised by a young Maasai boy called Richard Turere. When he brought it to me I couldn’t say no. Now I work in a partnership with another conservationist and a small team, mostly crowdfunded through a facebook page we run, installing the Lion Lights at as many farms as possible. Farmers can come to me to request my assistance and I record any raids they’ve suffered so I can feed back the evidence of the project’s importance to our donors. So far we’ve installed around a thousand sets and displayed a success rate higher than 99%. It truly is a win-win-win situation. The locals are happy their livestock survive, I am happy the lions survive, and the lions can still hunt freely in the park. I even give a twelve month guarantee to the farmers on the condition they don’t tamper with the system – some of them have diverted the solar power into their house to charge their phones then wondered why they’ve suddenly suffered another lion raid.”

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Mascal assembling one of the lighting units. (Rich Holt, 2018).

On seeing the lights in action right across the horizon at night one could argue that perhaps it is tampering with the natural environment to an extent that animal movement would be harmed or hindered but Mascal assures me there has been no evidence of this being the case in the years that he has been working on the project.

As part of our expedition project work we joined Mascal for a day assembling the system at a farm just a few kilometres walk from our camp. After his briefing we set out on foot whilst he drove the necessary materials over in his truck.

The first stage of the process was to dig a trench around the boma in order to bury the cable. The earth was solid like rock and tough to dig but we had to ensure the trench was at least 30cm deep – as soon as the rains come the fine soil turns into a muddy quagmire and cattle churn it up.

Next, we assembled the lights themselves, fitting them to each wooden post around the boma. Digging had taken most of the morning so Mascal continued to fit the lights whilst I walked my group back to camp for their lunch.

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One of our Camp Kenya in-country team and our guide from The Wildlife Foundation Kenya assist Mascal in demonstrating the installation process. (Rich Holt, 2018).

After lunch we returned to refill the trench and trample it down before Mascal demonstrated the finished product. Covering the solar panel with the cardboard box it had come in, the lights kicked into action, strobing about 1.5 times per second. Mascal explained that the system would probably last five years if not tampered with, though possibly much longer if termites don’t get into the wiring (he coats the cables in termite powder to reduce this risk).

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Camp Manager Tony poses with our guard from the Kenyan Wildlife Service. Armed escorts are provided to expedition teams and ecotourists to mitigate the risk of lion attack. They are issued automatic weapons and tactical equipment because the reality of modern Kenya is that the KWS is waging a counter-guerrilla war against ruthless poachers too. (Rich Holt, 2018).

Since inventing and patenting the Lion Lights concept Richard Turere has gone onto international fame as Africa’s youngest patented inventor, speaking at TED Talks and featuring in documentaries. David Mascal and partners continue to assemble Lion Lights on an almost-daily basis. Throughout summer 2018 approximately fifteen sets have been installed by volunteers traveling on school expeditions with Camps International, an organisation for whom I have the immense pleasure of working as an Expedition Leader.

If you’re interested in the Lion Lights project you can find more information HERE or HERE. When I find the donation link for the project I’ll attach it here too. Thank you to David Mascal and the entire team at The Wildlife Foundation (alongside Camps International’s Camp Kenya team) for their hospitality.

To see more of my Kenya 2018 expedition photos follow my Instagram right HERE.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mistakes In The Outdoors Can Be Our Most Valuable Learning Experiences

DISCLAIMER: Some of the hyperlinks in this article discuss various climbing and abseiling/rappelling techniques. They are linked so non-climbing readers can follow the context of the story without drowning in technical jargon. Readers must be aware that climbing and mountaineering are sports with a danger of personal injury or death. Do not attempt these techniques without appropriate coaching or training. Participants in these sports must be aware of, and accept, these risks and remain responsible for their own actions. Disclaimer paraphrased from the recognised BMC Statement.

Mistakes. We all make them. Nobody is immune and, if you think you are, you clearly need to address some narcissism issues.

Now I’ll precurse this article by saying I don’t think mistakes are good. By their very definition they are acts or judgements that are wrong. But they are valuable. They’re valuable if you take the time to reflect back on them, see where you went wrong (sometimes our natural embedded self worth, or unconscious or conscious incompetence, means we need somebody else to tell us that bit), and learn from them so we don’t make the same mistake in the future.

Nowhere could this be more relevant than in the outdoors. I’ve had (and continue to have) the privilege of learning from some of the UK’s, perhaps even the world’s, most-experienced adventurers and all of them reflect back on poor judgements they’ve made in the past as valuable learning experiences that got them where they are today. Often we have to get out there and cock something up or run into conflict to see what we could do better in the future. Because we’re in the outdoors making those mistakes can sometimes mean dicing death or injury. We have a little more to lose than just making a bad sale or cooking a tasteless meal for a fancy dinner party.

A sequence of errors on a climbing trip…

One mistake I remember as a valuable learning experience happened several years ago when two friends and I decided to go climbing in the UK. Because they’re now established and respected professionals in this fairly small and close-knit industry I’m going to call them ‘Jack and Jill’ so as not to undermine them.

Jack and Jill were committed members of the climbing community. Jack had climbed for about eight years already and was leading Trad E-Grades, Jill about two years and leading at HVS. I was the least-experienced climber having only started a year or so earlier and not quite caught the bug yet. I could lead a grippy Severe on a good day or a VDiff/HVDiff most of the time. At the time I really only climbed the minimum amount to pass the relevant modules on my Outdoor Education BSc. I’ve since done considerably more climbing both personally and professionally but trekking, SCUBA diving, paddlesports, bushcraft and the many facets of geography/geology/ecology remain my ‘preferred’ disciplines.

So, in an effort to drag me out and teach me about how great climbing could be, Jack and Jill declared we’d go for a day on Idwal Slabs.

“Rich, I think the main reason you don’t see its appeal is because single-pitch climbing doesn’t give you the same sense of adventure that summiting a mountain or diving a shipwreck do, so we’re gonna introduce you to multi-pitch climbing. It’ll feel more like proper mountaineering”, was the jist of what they said to me.

It was a chilly February but a fairly bland winter for the mountaineering community. There was no decent snow or ice so we’d be doing ‘summer’ rock climbing. We decided to do a route graded at VDiff. Due to the big holds and grippiness of the rock we chose to ascend in solid winter-mountaineering boots rather than tight climbing shoes. This was within all of our climbing competence.

We set off from Liverpool just before 9am and made a short stop on the way. We got to the Ogwen Valley and hiked up to the base of the slabs by about 11:30am.

Now, any climbers reading this may already see the red flags. It was nearly lunch in a month where the daylight hours are shorter, and we were about to multi-pitch. Due to my relative inexperience (we’d trained to multi-pitch in uni but I hadn’t done it ‘in anger’) we’d decided not to simul-climb. Instead Jack and Jill would take it in turns to lead pitches, bringing me up between them. This adds a little time to the process but we estimated we’d still be fairly fast because they were both exceptionally quick and I was pretty confident at that climbing grade too.

Jack set off first and we made fairly good progress initially. We got a few pitches done just as efficiently as planned. But then my climbing endurance started to waiver and we got considerably slower. Every time Jack or Jill had to belay me their hands started to stiffen up, meaning their progress became slower too.

We decided to anchor up and have a quick lunch at about 2pm. That was when we realised, if we continued at this speed on the current plan, we’d be descending in the dark. Not the end of the world; we’d all done plenty of night navigation and it was somewhat of a specialisation of mine after doing it regularly for the preceding few months whilst attempting to join a fairly tough military reserve unit. A quicker option was preferable though.

We changed our plan. Originally we were going to ascend the full route then descend down the mountain on foot but Jack mentioned there was an abseil ‘escape’ we could take about 3/4 the way up.

“There’s usually a line up there to drop off on”, he said.

So we pushed on. It was hitting dusk as we topped-out on the grassy ledge leading to the abseil a bit further around the mountain. The wind was starting to pick up and we were getting chilly.

At this stage I felt pretty done-in. I wanted nothing more than to be down off the hillside, walking back to the car ready for a hot meal and celebratory energy drink. Despite usually brandishing a stoic mindset, I found myself vocalising how I felt.

We made our way around the ledge to the abseil point. It was dark now and we’d got our headlights out. To our annoyance we found the lines we’d been expecting weren’t there. Looking over the precipice was vast blackness. We couldn’t see the bottom.

“Right, we’ll have to ab off and see if we’ve got enough rope. We’ll be cutting it quite fine I think. If not, prusik back up and we’ll look at our options” Jack declared.

We decided I’d go first. Jack set the system up and I knotted the end of the rope so I couldn’t accidentally plummet to my death if the rope was too short, then tied my prusik. I didn’t particularly want to have to ascend back up; not only was I feeling pretty done but prusiking up a rope can be bloody hard work!

I started to lower myself over the edge, the black void wide open beneath me. I shifted my prusik farther down the rope and fed it through my bug. I gained some confidence and descended pretty quickly. To my joy, the ground appeared beneath me and I felt my feet settle on terra firma.

“SAFE!“, I shouted as I removed myself from the rope.

Jack and Jill followed me down and we retrieved the rope. It was time for the fairly simple task of hiking to the footpath that would lead us out of here.

We got one of our maps out and consulted it. We decided our route and set off. About fifteen minutes into the walk the terrain around us no longer matched what it should have done on the map. Despite all being fairly competent at Night Nav, a combination of fatigue, urgency to get off the mountain and complacency meant we’d gone wrong.

We got together for a chat.

“Well, we’re not trying to navigate to any precise spot. We know we’re heading in the right direction to hit the tourist track, there’s no more particularly dangerous terrain other than a few short rocky steps we might have to lower down, and it’s already dark so time isn’t of particular concern as long as we grizz it out for a bit longer”, one of us said, I can’t recall who.

It was a fair argument. We estimated we were probably 50-60m from where we wanted to be. It was too dark to accurately relocate quickly so we decided to press on and see what we came across.

As expected, we hit a few rocky sections and did some quick ropework to lower off them. After some time (I forget specifically, perhaps about forty minutes) the track came into view. It stood out fairly prominently – a white scar across the black landscape, softly reflecting the ambient light of what had turned out to be a gloriously clear and starry night.

We were ecstatic! The slope in front of us opened out to a shallow, grassy descent and we accelerated towards the prominent footpath. Finally, we reached it. It was all plain sailing from here. The Llyn Idwal path is one of the most touristic in the UK and an easy, rapid descent back to the car park for anybody that knows it. We reached the car soon after and looked back at what an ‘epic’ it had been. Over all, a climb and descent we estimated would take four or five hours had taken us about ten.

As you can see, a considerable sequence of errors was made that day. It will be very easy for more intrepid readers to criticise a lot. I don’t oppose them in doing so. We learnt a lot and have never made the same mistakes. For example:

  • The decision to go when we did. In hindsight, doing that route in February requires a very early start to make the most of the daylight. Starting a multi-pitch when most people would be getting ready for lunch, in the tail end of winter, meant finishing in the dark was almost inevitable.
  • The way we chose to climb. Climbing with three people on one rope is inefficient the way we did it. Simul-climbing is a rapid way of ascending with more than two climbers linked together but is known for being quite dangerous and isn’t for beginners. The climbing method we were using works best in pairs. Ideally we should have invited a fourth climber so we could climb in two pairs or I could have declined the invitation so Jack and Jill could go and zoom up there in their own time. Or I could have gone with just one of them. There was a range of arguably better options.
  • Physical preparation for the climb. It was a mistake on my part to not prepare more thoroughly to go multi-pitching. Due to the aforementioned military training I possessed considerable strength and endurance at the time but, in an ideal world, I would have been able to climb much quicker and longer with a few weeks hammering the indoor walls or single-pitch crags first.
  • Some good calls we made. Choosing to cut our losses and escape the route when we topped-out on the main slab was a good call. Imagine how long it could have taken to continue climbing the next (more difficult) section before navigating our way down the mountain. Beyond that – the inconvenience of setting up our own abseil wasn’t an error, though we would have endured less stress knowing we had a longer rope. One should never rely on the thought of a line being fixed and we hadn’t – we had the right equipment. Knowing the rough size of the abseil and the length of our rope meant we knew we’d be close; we physically had to test it out to see if we could get all the way down. It was well ingrained in all of us to ALWAYS tie a knot in the end of the rope so we could never accidentally abseil off it.
  • Getting complacent in our navigation. Whilst it worked out for us this time, it was a reminder to never get complacent or lazy with navigation. Always check exactly where you are. Never set off without truly knowing. The ‘educated guess’ method has its place to an extent on a glorious summers’ day in easy terrain where features are easy to find and relocation is quick and simple, but certainly not at night when under moderate stress and fatigue. Many good, competent mountaineers and hikers have died because they made simple navigational errors when they were tired or became complacent.
  • Don’t celebrate until it’s over. We were all extremely well versed in the Llyn Idwal footpath, knowing it like the back of our hand. It was like a second home at the time and I’d be confident in saying going wrong once we were on it was pretty much impossible. To that end, we dashed down in a great mood. We wouldn’t have done so elsewhere. Reaching a footpath does not mean you’re in the clear. Take a wrong turn on many routes and you can end up on the other side of the mountain from where you want to be, or on some routes you could still walk yourself to your death (the ever-popular Snowdon is particularly renowned for some hidden killers next to major tourist tracks). Reaching a path should change nothing in your commitment to navigation unless you really know it inside-out.

Over all, I can say I learnt a lot during and after that long day on the hill. Whilst I cringe and cower at the thought of some of our decisions that day, as I imagine Jack and Jill do too, I’m glad for the experience.

Since then I’ve engaged in climbing considerably more and would not repeat the same errors. I no longer let the young bravado or cockiness of ‘winging it’ carry me through in my navigation (or anything else I do in the outdoors). I’m known these days to be a fairly calm character under duress but that is only because I plan and prepare everything to a much higher standard beforehand and have learnt to adjust or adapt my plans accordingly when a situation changes.

Reflecting on every experience in the outdoors – good or bad – is arguably the most critical stage of the learning process. We can assess what went well or where we went wrong. For some that could mean taking notes and reviewing them intensely. For others, a chat or moment’s headspace whilst nursing the post-summit pint will do the trick.

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Thanks for reading!

Rich

 

 

Exploring A Notorious Arms Dealer’s Abandoned Cargo Plane

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If you’ve seen the 2005 Nicholas Cage film Lord of War, you’ll be loosely familiar with the tale of Russian gun-runner Viktor Bout.  Whilst Hollywood chose to rename the movie’s protagonist and fictionalise various events it cannot be denied that Bout was the main influence for the story. Bout now sits in an American jail cell after a long hare-and-hounds chase around the world that culminated in his arrest by US and Thai Authorities in Bangkok in 2008. Weapons and ammunition were not Bout’s only cargo – he flew everything from flowers to electronics too – but it was his willingness to make dodgy gun deals that ultimately led to his demise.

Shortly after arriving in the United Arab Emirates to work for an Outdoor Education company in September 2017 I learnt that the UAE has its own little slice of Viktor Bout’s legacy. Bout based many of his (fully legal on paper) air freight operations out of the emirate of Sharjah, and is said to have lived for a brief period in the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, the emirate I called home for seven months and may again sometime in the future.

During induction for my role as an Outdoor Instructor and Field Studies Tutor our head of Senior Field Studies, Hugh, told us he had something cool to show us as part of our geography familiarisation. Whilst driving along a desolate desert road in the emirate of Umm al-Quwain, passing a couple of water parks and not much else, the silhouette of a great aircraft appeared before us, behind it a vast runway and a couple of dusty old hangars.

The jet was a Russian Ilyushin IL-76 – the centrepiece of Soviet aircraft engineering – and the aircraft Viktor Bout was known to have operated when he was in business. There’s mixed reports on how the Ilyushin came to rest at the now-abandoned UAQ Airport; some say it was grounded by local forces as the American DEA started to close in on Bout and the British intelligence services requested the UAE to evict Bout (a request the UAE complied with, catalysing the collapse of Bout’s empire). Another opinion is that a private investor purchased the body to use as a ‘gate guard’ for the airport, a more likely theory considering its location at the front of the facility, standing proud over the road. All that can be confirmed on a search of its serial number is that it was once part of Bout’s fleet.

Hugh stopped the truck and we disembarked for a quick snoop around. This initial visit was fairly uneventful, learning a little bit about the socioeconomic impacts of an area expanding beyond its means and poking our heads into a few hangars, then we headed off to conduct another tiresome beach survey. But I knew I had to get back there and explore a little more.

A week after my lust to explore had been teased, I asked around the outdoor centre for a lift to the abandoned airfield. Not long later and I and three workmates were setting off for the 90 minute drive south.

It was approaching sunset as we pulled up in a gravel layby in front of the facility. The perimeter was marked by patches of broken chainlink fence and a lazily-established line of barbed wire. It was evident that this was a popular site for the edgier or more-curious passer-by because there were many footprints in the sand and no real barrier to prohibit entry. Sun-faded “NO PHOTOGRAPHY” signs were sporadically placed along the fence, many hanging limp after years of disregard. We crossed into the facility over a trodden-down section of barbed wire and made a beeline for the huge silhouette of the cargo jet about 300m to our left.

 

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The view from the gravel layby at the front of the facility. (Rich Holt)
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The IL-76 in the distance. (Rich Holt)

 

As we approached the IL-76 we were ecstatic to find its ladder had been left down from its port-side door, meaning entry would be a walk in the park. To our surprise other people were here checking it out too and we nodded a ‘hello’ to them as they made their way back to their car.

Once we reached the plane we took a few moments to enjoy its beauty. At some point in history a hotel had come along and painted their logo along its sides but the sun and sand had blasted the logo out of relevance long ago.

 

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The IL-76 from the front, note my colleague near the belly for scale. (Rich Holt)

 

After two or three minutes we set about penetrating the vast carcass. One by one we scrambled up the ladder and into the door sitting about 2.5m off the ground. It was surprisingly tricky to get in; we each had to ‘mantle’ on the plane floor and scratch at the sides of the door to shift our bodyweight inside or, once somebody was in there, help the next person up.

 

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A friend approaching the top of the ladder. (Rich Holt)

 

The main hold of the aircraft had been torn to shreds; every last bit of its interior stripped. I don’t think it was a move to hide anything nefarious – just the level of degradation to be expected with any accessible abandoned site after long enough.

 

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Inside the main hold. (Rich Holt)

 

Once inside, we decided to check out the front spotter’s area (possibly the navigator’s booth?) and the cockpit, both now coated in several layers of dust with very few of the controls remaining intact.

 

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The lower viewing port, possibly a navigator’s booth. Small metal staircase up to the cockpit in foreground. (Rich Holt)

 

 

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The remnants of the cockpit. (Rich Holt)

 

Once we reached the cockpit we were gifted with an opportunity too good to ignore! Located just behind the pilots’ seats were a series of footholds in the bulkhead/wall leading up to an open roof hatch. It was time to enjoy sunset in style. One by one we each clambered up the holds and heaved ourselves on top of the aircraft. This was a fairly simple task for myself at 6’4 (193cm), the main issue being angling my shoulders and backpack through the narrow hatch, but the big reaches of the 2m climb were a bit of an epic for my shorter pals (who found getting through the hatch itself much easier).

 

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Squeezing my way through the roof hatch. (Jaime Chong)

 

The view once we were on top of the plane was glorious. 360 degrees of endless desert expanse. To the west, or facing aft, the sun was setting over Umm al-Quwain’s mangrove marshes. Treading carefully so as not to slide over the aircraft’s rounded convex edges we made our way to the midpoint of the wings and sat to enjoy the scenery, occasionally standing to grab a few more shots.

 

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Selfie on top of the IL-76. (Rich Holt)

 

 

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Author watching sunset from the midpoint of the IL-76’s huge wings. (Jaime Chong)

 

Once the sun had set we made our way back down through the Ilyushin and decided to get going. A coffee at the nearby Al Hamra Mall was starting to sound rather appealing! Over all, this short hour-long adventure remains one of my best memories from my season in the UAE; it truly did feel like ‘getting off the grid’…

If you find yourself in the UAE this cool feature is located about an hour’s drive north of Dubai, right next to the turn-off for Barracuda Bottle Shop and a short hop from Dreamland water park. I’d advise extreme caution in visiting; it is still technically off-limits and things didn’t go so smoothly when I decided to return in February. I’ll write about that in the future but hint: I got held at gunpoint!

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The (Blogging) Journey Begins!

So, after years of family and friends hassling me with “Rich, you really should write about your adventures”, I’ve finally caved.

As an outdoor instructor, field-studies tutor, expedition leader and general ‘wilderness educator’, I get to see a lot of the world for a living. Then I spend most of the earnings on my own personal adventures or snazzy camera gear to photograph them with.

Those familiar with my Instagram  will already be aware I’m fond of descriptive captions so I suppose it was only a matter of time before I expanded into storytelling too.

Thanks for joining me on the journey!