Literature Review: The Cruelest Journey by Kira Salak

The Cruelest Journey Kira SalakToday’s post is travel writer Nichole L. Reber’s review of the Kira Salak memoir, The Cruelest Journey. Nichole is full-on obsessed with the fraternal twin crafts of writing and reading, so I’m sure you’ll enjoy her insights. Get to know Nichole and her work by visiting her website or her Facebook page.

“No place is safe. Safety, itself, is an illusion.” Kira Salak

The women’s memoirs I’ve read since repatriating to the US have repeatedly disappointed me. Rather than travelogues about other cultures and a writer’s (small) place in it, today’s publishers churn out self-obsessive memoirs aimed at women as if we were interested solely in finding boyfriends and making babies with men of foreign accents. Women writing about living in Japan, Yemen, mainland China, and Hong Kong, for instance, focus on infertility or stealing husbands, treading nowhere near anthropological observations of the other cultures. Then there’s Kira Salak. She raises travel writing to the level of explorer writing.

The Cruelest Journey Kira SalakHer book, The Cruelest Journey, published by Brooklyn-based Restless Books, is a riveting read. It, like her other books and National Geographic stories, reveals a women who eschews the easy route, the cliché destination. Salak has crossed Papua New Guinea and made a 700-mile cycling trip across Alaska to the Arctic Ocean. She has ventured into Iranian vistas where local travel guides don’t take their clients, and explored Madagascar, Mozambique, Bangladesh, Libya, Bhutan, and Borneo. At the age of 20, backpacking through Africa at the height of a brutal civil war in Mozambique, she was kidnapped by marauding soldiers.

“Since then I’ve sought out countries that are dangerous in order to reveal situations no one else is covering, like slavery in Timbuktu and genocide in eastern Congo. These tragedies are very emotionally difficult to witness, but if by shedding light on them I can improve even one person’s life, I feel it’s worth the risk,” she wrote in National Geographic.

The Cruelest Journey Kira SalakThe Cruelest Journey tells her journey kayaking solo six hundred miles down West Africa’s Niger River in an inflatable kayak toward the Saharan city of Timbuktu.

She begins her trip with a single backpack in a torrential downpour from the Malian town of Old Ségou. She reveals how Timbuktu fell from its zenith during the Songhai Empire’s reign from 1463-1591, when its academic and artistic riches were tantamount Florence’s during Europe’s age of Enlightenment until it was sacked by the Moors in the late 16th century, and how it’s come to be the rubble heap and tourist trap it is today.

Salak equips herself for the journey with the writings of 18th-century Scottish explorer Mungo Park, who twice labored over this course but perished along the way. Determined to follow in (most of) his footsteps, she shows us a place that time has all but abandoned. She witnesses polio and leprosy, voodoo priests and shamans, and abundant slavery, despite its being outlawed there. She kayaks through a pod of hippos like tiptoeing through a field of landmines.

She learns to discern the differences between tribes such as the Tuareg, the Fulani and the Bambarra, the Bozo and Somono. Most nights she stops at villages, learning to deduce which tribe lives there by characteristics visible from the river, if she can’t already discern that by how the village inhabitants react to her from the shore. Do they wave and exchange greetings, yell and threaten her, or watch her like a zoo animal? All the while she searches for commonalities, for ways of communicating and better understanding by speaking to them in Bambarra.

Thoughts on Male Travelers

One particularly enjoyable part of Salak’s book is her ability to alternately make fun of and admire male travelers. (Though admittedly her adoration of Park sometimes reads like Oriana Fallaci’s hero worship of Alekos Panagulis in A Man.)

“He doesn’t hide his distress, and his trademark equanimity fails him, revealing glimpses of a traumatizing ordeal. Many male adventurers of his time chose to hide such candor, opting instead for bravado or tedious ethnographical digressions,” he says of Park’s narrative of his capture by Moors. When the women among his captors repeatedly inspected his physique, they became particularly hands-on to find out if circumcision also applies to Christians. Park supposedly had some say in the matter, allowing only beautiful women the chance to inspect his white skin and naughty bits.

The Cruelest Journey Kira SalakAs a female traveler, though, Salak isn’t as lucky. On one occasion she is nearly raped – or at least molested – by a male villager.

Gender Differences in Travel

“My gender will always make me appear more vulnerable. But to not travel anywhere out of fear, or to remain immobilized in a state of hypervigilance when I do, feels akin to psychological bondage. I do not want to give away that kind of power.”

She doesn’t decry this reality. She does in a way that can be described as literary anthropology. “The Somono fishermen, casting out their nets, puzzle over me as I float by. ‘a va, madame?’ they yell.”

Each fisherman carries a young son perched in the back of his pointed canoe to do the paddling. The boys stare at me, transfixed; they have never seen such a thing. A white woman. Alone. In a red, inflatable boat. Using a two-sided paddle.

“I’m an even greater novelty because Malian women don’t paddle here, not ever. It is a man’s job. So there is no good explanation for me, and the people want to understand.”

Considering the death-defying adventure she’s chosen the reader wants to understand too. What would compel a person to take such a trip? She addresses this and the very fundamental things that, as I learned when living abroad, mark the difference between tourism and travel.

Why Embark on These Trips?

Concerning “what we look for when we embark on these kinds of trips,” she writes: “There is the pat answer that you tell the people you don’t know: that you’re interested in seeing a place, learning about its people. But then the trip begins and the hardship comes, and hardship is more honest: It tells us that we don’t have enough patience yet, nor humility, nor gratitude. And we thought that we did. Hardship brings us closer to truth, and thus is more difficult to bear, but from it alone comes compassion.”

Salak’s poetic prose, like the parallel narratives of her journey and Park’s, meanders throughout the book like the bends and curves of the Niger itself. “The late afternoon sun settles complacently over the hills to the west. Paddling becomes a sort of meditation now, a gentle trespassing over a river that slumbers. The Niger gives me its beauty almost in apology for the violence of the earlier storms, treating me to smooth silver waters that ripple in the sunlight. The current – if there is one – barely moves. Park described the same grandeur of the Niger during his second journey, in an uncharacteristically sentimental passage that provided a welcome respite from accounts of dying soldiers and baggage stolen by natives.”

Heading Into Deeper Water

Her deft handling of dynamics, coupled with the occasional sweetener of levity make The Cruelest Journey an energetic read. This Restless Books publication and Salak’s other books such as Four Corners: A Journey into the Heart of Papua New Guinea, traverse the depths of the human condition, weaves between fear and bliss, and blurs borders of time and place.

As Jessa Crispin points out in an essay in the Boston Review: “That the market has not sustained the work of other, more rugged, less self-obsessive women travel writers may have more to do with our expectations as readers than with any faults of their writing. We still look to men to tell us about what they do and to women to tell us how they feel.”

Meanwhile, for readers who like their water deeper, there’s the work of Kira Salak.


Coolest Things to do in 2015

Coolest Things to do in 2015
GORUCK events are an up-and-comer that will be very cool in 2015. (Photo courtesy of GORUCK)

I won’t drink until I soil myself. I’ll cut back on snorting rat poison. I’ll quit inhaling high-fructose corn syrup by the troughful.

These are the spirit of New Year’s resolutions: things we won’t do anymore. Me? I don’t do New Year’s resolutions. I certainly don’t do "bucket lists." But I identify opportunities to do things that will make my life better. I scour the world looking for activities and destinations I’d like to do, get to as many as possible and then annoy everyone around me by not shutting up about them, ever.

So what would make my list for 2015? I’ve got a few for you that I’d do. I wish I could get to them all, but you know how that goes. Maybe a few of you can help out by standing in for me! And I’d also like to hear what would make your list.

One of These Crazy GoRuck Events

You’ve heard of all the mud runs, the color runs and all that hoopla. Now GORUCK, whose ads I’ve noticed on Facebook, is getting the word out about its series of events all over the country. They have something for everybody this calendar year, from 48-plus hours of mayhem that require you to move 80 miles all the way to scavenger hunts that are more about beer drinkin’ than bravery. The events started Jan. 9, with many more throughout the calendar year. GORUCK says these events offer a "slice of Special Operations training." I have a feeling these events will draw a lot of CrossFit sort of folks and more than a few ex-military types. So yeah, my long hair will likely stand out!

I have my eye on starting with a GORUCK Light event in Flagstaff, Ariz. this May (registration is now $50) and following up with a Challenge event near Tucson in September. Check the events list for descriptions, and to find one near you. If you’ve ever done one of these events, drop me a line – I’d like to hear about it and share the info with readers.

coolest things to do in 2015
Weightlessness inside a Reduced gravity aircraft (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lose Nearly All Your Weight With Zero G

We all know I’m a sucker for anything that flies. So the Zero G Corporation flights that simulate weightlessness would OF COURSE make my list. The flights start Feb. 14 in San Francisco for $4,950 plus tax. Eep. That’s a pretty hefty hit to the bank account.

Still, we’re just talking about floating around in the air like a freakin’ astronaut. No big deal. It was one of the coolest things to do in 1959 aboard the original Vomit Comet, and it is still one of the coolest things to do in 2015.

LaplandX Extreme Lapland Tour Still one of the Coolest Things to do in 2015

Northern Lights tour
Meet sled dogs and the occasional wall of ice during the LaplandX Northern Lights tour.

I’ve already yapped about this 7-day Northern Lights tour at length. But it bears repeating that you still have time to sign up before the fun starts on Feb. 16 in Finland. If you have about $4,000, I don’t think you’ll find a much better way to spend it.

I’m not going to be able to get to this one, so I’ll have to miss out on the icebreaker cruise, the sled dogs and the snow machine hijinks -- and the aurora borealis light show up there near the Arctic Circle. If you are LaplandX-bound, please get a hold of me afterward for a guest blog post. I want to hear all about this.

coolest things to do in 2015
This is not the Flanders you’ll see on the beer bicycle tour!

D’oh, Flanders!

I’ve been reading an awful lot about beer lately: Someone at work got me a book called "The Brewer’s Tale: A History of the World According to Beer" as a Secret Santa gift. The chapter about Belgian beers makes me want to get over to Belgium. And as you probably know, I’m a bicycle guy.

So that makes me think these 10-day Flanders Adventure Tours have to be one of the coolest things to do in 2015. Riders will cover 40-80 days on flat terrain every day, and they’ll hit eight towns and 10 breweries. You’ll see some of the big breweries, and some of those below-the-radar locals. The first tour starts April 10; check out the itinerary for dates and more details. Tour cost is $2,600 at the moment, which includes: nine nights hotel; breakfast and lunch each day; bike and bag rental; two tour guides (one Dutch-speaking); all brewery tours plus beer; sampling at breweries; and luggage storage before and after the tour. Not bad at all!

Drop Into the Mouth of a Volcano

OK, I’ve also mentioned this one before. But how can descending into the magma chamber of an extinct volcano – the only one known to exist intact! – not be one of the coolest things to do in 2015?

The fun starts on May 15 when Inside the Volcano starts running tours to the Thrihnukagigur volcano. It’ll cost you about $300, and will remain one of the most stupid-awesome things you ever do. Ever. Just get yourself to Reykjavik and be ready to do a short hike before you plunge into the volcano!


2014 Holiday Gifts for Adventurers

Holiday gifts for adventurers
Not the MiG-21 for sale, but still incredible. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have a rule – I won’t even start talking about holiday gifts until after Thanksgiving. Well, we’ve passed that milestones, and now I present one of my very few gift lists. This one is my Holiday Gifts for Adventurers list. I’m going to break it out by price, from the high-budget items to the stocking stuffers. And I’m avoiding the obvious, like helmet cams. Come on, we all know about that stuff already!

Let’s start by going big -- no, actually huge!

Strictly for Supersonic Bank Accounts

A decently equipped Chevrolet Corvette runs about $70,000. Color me unimpressed. With the same amount, you can get your loved one a surplus MiG-21 supersonic fighter with only about 2,000 hours of flight time on it -- like this one I found on Global Air. That’s far more impressive than any Corvette in history – and so are the skills needed to fly it, and the bank account to fuel that bad boy. But still, if you have the means and the person you’re shopping for has the skills, you will not do any better than this. Ever. And imagine the Corvette driver’s face when he’s going on about his 0 to 60 acceleration and the lucky recipient of your MiG gift is like "aw, that’s sooooo cute." And I’ll straight-up admit that Chevy has never produced a less-than-stellar looking ‘Vette (unlike some of the awful Mustangs that litter Ford’s history) … but none possess the Cold War, shiver-down-the-spine menace of a MiG-21.

Holiday gifts for adventurers
What you’ll see on the LaplandX Extreme Lapland Northern Lights tour.

A Cool Big Budget Holiday Gift for Adventurers

On Feb. 16, the LaplandX Extreme Lapland tour heads out in search of the best views of the Northern Lights. The 7-day journey starts gets underway aboard an icebreaker. From there, you’ll ride sleighs and snowmobiles on a Northern Lights tour that takes you to the ultimate storybook landscape. When you’re not zipping through the awesome Lapland scenery, you’ll be digging into gourmet Nordic dishes and lounging in saunas (let me tell you, sauna is a great thing any season of the year). You can get this for your favorite adventurer for $3,990. Space is limited, so sign ‘em up now!

Awesome Adventure Stuff for Less-Awesome Budgets

If you know someone who loves camping and hiking, look into a course at the Aboriginal Living Skills School in Arizona. From overnight survival classes to 12-day aboriginal living skills courses, you’ll find something to suit your favorite adventurer. My wife signed me up for The Provident Primitive course, and it was by far the best birthday gift ever. With Cody Lundin and Mark Dorsten as your instructors, you are sure to learn a ton. If you pick up what they’re putting down, your future hiking and camping will never be the same. Prices vary, but the lower end of the spectrum is around $700 for a course.

Holiday Gifts for Adventurers
A misty day at the Gaia Riverlodge.

There’s a lot of adventure to be had in Belize – especially if you like SCUBA diving and caving. If there are cavers in your life who are headed to Belize, chances are their plans will include the Cayo District and its epic limestone caverns. Your perfect gift to them – a few nights at the GAÏA Riverlodge, a hydroelectric-powered eco resort. It was just named one of the Top 10 eco resorts by the Smith Hotel Awards.

holiday gifts for adventurers
Make a log flight better with wireless Tracks Air headphones. (Photo courtesy of Sol Republic)

We stayed there in 2007 and used it as a base to visit the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave and the Caracol ruins. If you’re lucky, you’ll get some nighttime drizzle that bounces off your cabana’s thatched roof and lulls you to sleep … and you’ll wake up to a misty morning like the one in the photo. Current rates are around $165 a night, but that will vary by season. A few nights there will be a memorable holiday gift.

And chances are, your adventures start with a long flight. For me, that means it’s time to listen to some tunes. The Sol Republic Tracks Air headphones deliver high-quality sound … and they’re wireless, so that puts an end to getting tangled up with every escape to the lavatory. They also have a 100-day money-back guarantee. If you have $199.99 to spend on your favorite adventure seeker, the Tracks Air is worth a close look.

Holiday gifts for adventurers
Good knives make great holiday gifts for adventurers in your life.

Stuffing the Stocking with Holiday Gifts for Adventurers

Anyone who loves some adventure needs a good knife. And not a Swiss Army knife or any other folding knife – a fixed-blade, full-tang knife that can hold up to all the abuse of a routine camping trip or a life-or-death survival situation. There are a ton of great knives out there, but my favorites right now are ESEE knives; I have an Izula and an ESEE-4 that hold their edge and fit my hand very well. Both are super-useful, but a bit more tactically-oriented than I’d prefer (the blades on both are on the thick side, which is makes them less effective at tasks like batoning). But once ESEE releases its CAMP-LORE series, look out! My Izula with a sheath was about $70 online. ESEE knives go up from there – not bad at all for U.S. made knife.

Holiday gifts for adventurers
Just like mine – a bunch of Metolius locking carabiners make great gifts.

OK, this won’t fit in a Christmas stocking. But it’s definitely a lower-budget holiday gift for adventurers – a food dehydrator. I picked up a low-end NESCO four-tray model for about $65; I’ve been working overtime for last few months. I’ve been making my own jerky, trail snacks and pemmican. It’s weaned me from store-bought food bars, and I’m lovin’ it.

I know this will make me sound like Ron Swanson, but everyone – adventurous or not – should have on their person at all times at least one locking carabiner. You won’t believe how often they’ll be handy. At $10 each for this excellent Metolius carabiner, you can grab a bunch of these to drop into the stockings of everyone you know who doesn’t think "If the outdoors are so great, why did we invent the indoors?".

A good daypack is also a helpful but affordable gift. And it’s hard to beat the REI Flash 18. It has room for a hydration bladder, plus all the gear you need for a medium-length hike or a day strolling around Seoul or Reykjavik. Easy to find for about $30.

I know there are all sorts of other great holiday gifts for adventurers out there. What would you like to receive as a gift for your next big trip?


Do You “Explore”? Not Likely.

The guy in the white suit definitely earned the right to call himself an explorer. What about you?

I have this little eccentricity about travel writing: I gag whenever someone casually uses "explore" in any form. For example, "I explored Sweden this summer." Or Twitter bios that say stuff like "I’m an explorer who is determined to visit every country in the world."

OK, I’ll admit that these are legitimate uses of the word, according to the dictionary. But to my ear, casual use of "explore" is self-aggrandizing travel writing ego inflation. I reserve "explore" for those who are the for-real first-timers, those who assume big risks and go places where no signs point the way. Neil Armstrong stepping off the LEM – that’s an explorer. Not a kid backpacking in France after graduating high school. The badasses who made it to the North and South Poles first? Explorers. Some dude eating "street food" in Chiang Mai? Not.

This is what real explorers look like, (Roald Amundsen og Helmer Hanssen gjør observasjoner pÃ¥ Sydpolen, 1911 – Photo credit: National Library of Norway)

It’s like being a professional musician. People have paid me to haul my gear to venues, set it up and play. But I never tell anyone that I’m a professional musician. I don’t make my living that way, and just about every studio musician on the planet could hand me my ass on a platter, musically. I’m a decent local musician. I can do stuff on a guitar that most people on the planet will never be able to master – I know this from the small number of people I’ve tried to instruct, and the mind-boggling frustration of watching them flail at riffs I can nail at will. For all that, I’m a hack compared to working pro musicians. I know it, and I respect their abilities and knowledge too much to equate my meager abilities to theirs.

Someone died at the marker to the left during a freak summer snowstorm. But that doesn’t make us explorers.

For the exact same reasons, I never call myself an explorer. I go to remote places, sure. I’ve been to many places where other people died through bad decisions or rotten luck. But signs generally point the way. Someone got there first and did the heavy lifting for us all.

Likewise, I never say that I "discovered" anything during my travels.

Feel free to explore possibilities in your travels. Write all you want about what you discover about yourself. But think twice before calling yourself an explorer, or saying you are discovering Southeast Asia or wherever your next trip takes you. Challenge yourself to find a better word, to accurately represent what you do.

You’ll be a better writer for it.

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Remember Peru – A Hint for the Adventure Traveler

A llama (Lama Glama) in front of the Machu Pic...
A llama (Lama Glama) in front of the Machu Picchu archeological site, Peru. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What does travel feel like?

Alright, it varies for most people. For some, it’s hot sand and being lazy on a beach. For others, it’s a round-the-clock buffet aboard a cruise ship.

And then there’s the active outdoor traveler: A video starring Peru captures the essence of travel for those who prefer adventure. The Remember Peru video taps into the mindset of a traveler who isn’t about luxury pampering – but it presents the message with a novel twist that I won’t spoil for you.

With Machu Picchu, high altitudes, epic volcanic landforms and wildlife (one word: monkeys!), Peru earns a place on my "must visit" list. As I write this, I have a friend trying her hand at mountain biking during a trip to Peru. Between her and two other friends who lived in Peru, I have enough information to plan a trip that fulfills everything I look for in a vacation. They can all expect some questions from me in the near future. Guidebooks are great, but there’s nothing like first-hand opinions from those who have been there -- especially when we share interests and preferences.

With the Remember Peru video, the country plays to strengths familiar to many outdoor travelers: It says yes, this is a destination for those who always travel with a pair of well-worn hiking boots, who take their cameras off the “Auto” setting and who think a few nights sleeping under the stars make a trip perfect.

And there’s another kind of adventure I could find in Peru: a chance to eat cuy and alpaca. The first one? That’s guinea pig. According to National Geographic, alpaca has a taste in the gamey family of buffalo – not as exotic as guinea pig, but still good for a few tales for the squeamish eaters back home.

What do you think of the video? How does it affect your opinion about a visit to Peru?

This post is sponsored by Marca Peru.

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The Mountain Bike That Changed Everything

santa cruza superlight, pima & dynamite, mountain biking, arizona, adventure bicycle company, wandering justin
I couldn’t find a photo of my most-important bike ever. So you just get a photo of the best bike I’ve ever owned. Both are black, though my Balance had all sorts of 90s-required blue anodized bits.

There’s one mountain bike that made my life better.

It didn’t have any carbon fiber or hydraulic disc brakes. Its only suspension was my arms and legs. No clipless pedals. Just 21 speeds.

So what’s so great about it? It was my first real mountain bike. I learned to love mountain biking a year earlier … I’d ride my psuedo-mountain bike to classes at ASU during my freshman year. My roommate was a mountain biker, as were a girl on the fifth floor of my dorm and one of my classmates in a low-level engineering class. Between them all, I got my intro to real mountain biking.

I returned for my sophomore year on a shiny black Balance. Chromoly steel frame, a full Shimano DX group, real off-road geometry for efficient pedaling and agile handling. It was made to be a police bike, but somehow wound up at Bicycle Ranch near my house. Bit by bit, I upgraded it.

More importantly, it upgraded me. It was sturdier than my first bike. It let me ride better. Sure, it still got me to class (I protected it with two U-locks when I had to put it in the bike rack). But it also responded to my commands off-road. It could do anything I asked of it.

It made me a mountain biker.

That was a time in my life when I didn’t have to worry about being fast. I didn’t wear colorful jerseys. I wasn’t part of a team. The people I rode with didn’t “ride for” anyone but themselves. We just had fun.

Later bikes would make me a racer (half-assed and inconsistent, of course) or bike nerd or whatever you want to call me. This one … I learned to fix it. I crashed it. I made it my own. Everything I learned from it got me a job at a bike shop. It put me on the trail of friends, relationships, adventures. I’d be shocked if any other bike impacts my life as that old Balance did.

What’s the most important bike in your history?


Darwin, Australia: My Guide to the Top End’s Top City

Morning on Sandy Billabong – just hours from the Northern Territory city of Darwin.

I’ve never talked to people about travel to Australia and had them say “you know, I’ve always wanted to visit Darwin.”

But ever since my visit to the city on the Indian Ocean, I’ve touted it to everyone who asks me about Australia. I don’t know how many people I’ve swayed with my pro-Darwin raving – but I’ve at least put it on the map of those who previously hadn’t thought much past the opera house and the monolith in the desert. Here’s everything that’s cool about Darwin, and everything you need to get the most out of your visit to the Northern Territory (aka the Top End) – outdoor adventures, dining and snagging a hotel room after a few days of camping.

Launchpad for Adventure

The promise of three nights of camping in the Outback brought me to Darwin. Tour companies vie for the chance to cart visitors into the Never Never. Trips can last mere hours or stretch into weeks. You’ll wind up fording rivers in off-road trucks, sometimes in water reaching the top of your wheel wells. You’ll hike to Jim Jim or Twin Falls. And animals? You’ll never stop scanning the water for salt-water crocs. The tours generally head to Litchfield Park or the monstrous slab of Outback known as Kakadu National Park. Wherever you go, have your camera batteries charged and plenty of room on your memory card.

Enjoying a sunny day in Darwin, NT.

Small City, Big Nightlife

Darwin is no Sydney. Heck, it’s not even Cairns. But its residents know how to have fun. Clubs and restaurants line the main streets. There’s no kind of food you can’t find. I was sad to hear that Lewinsky’s, my favorite wine bar in the world, closed a few years ago. But don’t fret too much. There’s plenty else to eat and drink. My favorite find was the Darwin Wharf Precinct; you can pick from a number of different selections at its food court. Being the culinary Indiana Jones I am, I picked the camel schnitzel. And I was pretty stoked to see a box jellyfish swimming near the pier.

Don’t Go Homeless

Darwin fills up pretty quickly. It’s remote, but is the place to be to see the Northern Territory. That kind of demand can make hotel rooms pretty scarce. So book a hotel well in advance. You’ll find everything from hostels to fancy four-star sorts of accommodations in Darwin. Even the low-budget choices can sting the wallet next to other Australian cities. Early planning can help your cash go further.

Want to see really Australian wildlife? Then get to Darwin and book a tour.

Shopping and Stuff

The Aboriginal culture takes front and center in Darwin. Numerous galleries sell art and Aborigine-made goods. Obviously, it can descend into kitsch – but you’ll see some genuine talent. And a few miles outside the city, you’ll find the Didgeridoo Hut – that’s where I snagged a beautiful eucalyptus didge -- and for a far lower price than I found in other cities. You can shop for the usual trinkets at the Parap Village Market, too. But the real reason to go there is for the food. Darwin is home to a diverse group of people, many from Southeast Asia. Parap Village Market is where you can get some great tastes of their cuisine. My favorite: Thai papaya salad with a hit of fiery flavor balanced with sweetness.

This post is sponsored by Accor Hotels. With over 4,000 hotels in more than 90 countries stretching across all continents, Accorhotels offers you a huge choice of destinations.

There are over 400 hotels and resorts in 18 countries across Asia Pacific. Choose from a range of hotels, from Sofitel to Ibis, Pullman to Novotel. Accorhotels offers accommodation to suit all budgets.


Iceland Diaries – Day 6 (Skaftafell, Vik)

This is one of the coolest mountains I've ever seen.

There’s a magnificent mountain in the distance. I can see spires and steep slopes. It looks like the ruined castle of an evil wizard.

It’s mezmerizing. I want to go to it. It’s called Kristínartindar. It’s spectacular. But it’s too far away – soon, a bus will pull up in Skaftafell to haul us off to Vik. We’re a bit low on food and water. If we were fully loaded, I’d head straight there.

When we return to Iceland, this will be a major point of the trip. We’ll come back with our camp stove and enough food for a few more days hanging out in Skaftafell. And we’ll go to Kristínartindar. Oh, yes. But as it was, we just finished a loop of about six miles.

Skaftafell Campground
The cheery Skaftafell campground.

Before Kristinartindar came into view, we stopped at the famous Svartifoss waterfall (foss = waterfall). Its basalt columns inspired the architecture of the Hallgrimskirkja (kirkja = church, and klaustur = convent) that’s such a landmark in Reykjavik. It’s pretty and picturesque, and relatively empty for a place that’s in every guidebook.

We folded the tent, repacked and boarded the bus to Vik (which means bay).

Us at Svartifoss.

It’s a fairly quick shot to Vik, which is home to about 300 people. We have a room at the Hotel Lundi (lundi = puffin). It’s here that I accomplished another major goal of my trip: eating hákarl! This word means "shark," and it’s pronounced "howker." I have an entire post dedicated just to the next five minutes of my trip, and you should read about it and watch it.

The cliffs and church near Vik.

We walk the town a bit, and have a fairly greasy roadside meal. Vik is a small town, after all! The black sand beach is a site to see, along with rocky spires in the ocean a few miles away. The sun often pokes out of the clouds, but it’s very windy. And the mountains are ridiculously beautiful.

We return to the hotel. I fall asleep while reading, and Sarah slips out to poke around a bit.

She rousts me at about 9 p.m. with the sun shining brightly, promising puffins and some sort of hobbit house.

We gamely trudge up the side of a mountain. It’s steep, and it’s about to get windy. But first, the hobbit house. You could easily miss it. It looks like a mound of grass-covered dirt with a door lying on it. And a smokestack popping out. Unfortunately, it’s locked and nobody’s home. I’d love to see inside!

Hobbit House
It's a hobbit house!

We get to the top of the mountain, which is completely flat. There are trails everywhere, including one to the other side. The wind was absolutely howling up there, effortlessly blowing us around and making it hard to even walk like a normal human.

The daylight would last, but our energy was on the wane. So we headed back down for a good stretch of sleep (my watch said it was night, but I wasn’t buying a word of it).

Tomorrow -- back to Reykjavik.

Cliffs near Vik
10 p.m. in Vik. No, that's not a typo.
Three Sisters
Three sisters in Vik.