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Hike Destinations: Landmannalaugar Versus Tongariro

hike destinations
Unearthly and unbelievable – a few miles away from Landmannalaugar in Iceland.

Bacon or chocolate? A pint of craft beer or a wedge of aged gouda? The family dog or cat?

Picking my favorite hike destination is just as hard. I can narrow it down to two:

The stretch of the Laugavegur trail (which the Best Muffin Blog calls the “oh wow” hike) that goes from Landmannalaugar to Hrafntinnusker in the remote highlands of Iceland. I once described the hike as a rip in the space-time continuum, especially in the perpetual gray of summer. The Technicolor mountains, volcanic fumaroles, lava plus and ash-dusted snow just adds to it.

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing. If I overhear any so-called “traveler” blather about how everything worth seeing in New Zealand is in the South Island, I stop listening. Tongariro is why. From a barren, blasted volcanic hellscape to verdant rain forests, you’ll see some incredible stuff. Oh, and my ratings are for those who take the side trip up Mount Ngauruhoe. It’s just an incredible hike destination.

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Norway – Hike in the Land of the Giants

Jotunheimen isn’t a place I’d ever thought about until seeing the movie Thor.

There. I admitted it. Sometimes I need a little mindless entertainment. And Thor’s reference to Jotunheim, the home of the Frost Giants, made me wonder about its place in Norse mythology.

And that’s what led me to Norway and to Jotunheimen (or Land of the Giants) – to clinging to a steep ridge between two icy-cold lakes fed by snowmelt. Earlier today, sleet and rain pelted me. Powerful winds buffeted me. I sawed through all my Rise energy bars.

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Sarah leads the way through the beginning of the snow.

Jotunheimen is not the dark, bleak land of Thor’s foes. It is, though, as spectacular a landscape as I’ve ever seen and every bit worthy of a mention in Norse mythology. Our hike started just around 1 p.m. on the far east side of Gjende, the largest of the glacial lakes in sight. We parked our rented hybrid Toyota at Gjendesheim Turisthytte and loaded up. In our packs – rain gear, energy bars, water, sleeping bags, tent (just in case).

Our plan is to hike the Bessegen route. This will take us to a maximum elevation of about 5,725 feet. We’ll pass by Bessvatnet, a smaller lake 1,200 feet higher than Gjende. Our goal is to reach Memurubu, a tourist hut about 9 miles away. In this case, “tourist hut” is a misnomer. It’s a rather nice back-country hotel. The next day, we’ll take a boat down Gjende back to Gjendesheim.

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This GPS track will give you an idea of what to expect if you hike the Besseggen.

We have the route virtually to ourselves for the first 2 hours or so. Then we start running into people who started their day at Memurubu; many take the boat in the evening and hike back the next day.

The views of Jotenheimen are spectacular. And it spoils the rest of Norway for us. A few days later in Flam, we’ll be at a magnificent fjord. And we’ll shrug and say “Meh. It’s no Jotunheimen.” That’s how cool it is.

The hike itself starts with a rigorous climb. And there’s one ridge that tests my fear of heights. The exposure is sharp on either side – and we descend about 1,000 feet in about a half-mile. I’m hyper-aware of my backpack’s effect on my balance, and the way my gloves compromise my handholds. And shoving my huge Lowa boots into the available space? Also a chore. But I get down after using every part of me – buttcheeks included – to clutch the rocks.

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This is me getting my third wind.

It takes a third and fourth wind to get me to the descent into Memurubu. As we drop lower, a rainbow appears – ending right at the hut. And probably right to the table where I’ll find a plate of ham, mashed turnips, carrots, baked potatoes and gravy waiting to refuel me from the hike. The Middle America-ness of the meal reminds me that many northern Midwest settlers came from places like Norway. It’s an interesting thought that sticks with me through dessert – and into an uninterrupted slumber in a roomful of backpackers.

Watch my Facebook page for more photos of Jotunheimen and other places from my trip to Norway and Finland. And here’s a short video clip!

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Memurubu, the end of the rainbow and a big plate of ham.
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Iceland Diaries – Day 6 (Skaftafell, Vik)

Kristínartindar
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!
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.

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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.
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Hiking Destination: Iceland’s Landmannalaugar

Windy, steep, bleak. Things are starting to get rough.

Landmannalaugar isn’t so much a place. It’s more of a rip in the space-time continuum.

Consider its summer: It’s hard to tell 3 a.m. from 3 p.m. It can wrap you in the warmth of geothermal vents, chill you with wind, hose you down with rain – all in the span of 30 minutes. You can hike for hours without seeing a solitary living creature. It can even dispatch a lethal blizzard – yes, even in June.

Night doesn’t fall. The often-overcast skies will keep you in a permanent state of twilight. The terrain and scenery changes drastically from mile to mile. The colors of the rhyolite mountains will make you want to get your eyes checked.

In June of 2010, I arrived at Landmannalaugar with my wife. We read about it in guidebooks and blogs. Nothing even remotely prepared us for this place. Oh, we had the equipment we needed. But the scenery! You can look at these photos all you want, and you will still not believe your eyes when you get off the bus from Reykjavik.

There just is no other place like this.

Here’s what to expect on this amazing, one-of-a-kind, 12-kilometer trip from Landmannalauger to the Hrafntinnusker camp site.
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Primal Strips Vegan Jerky is Eco-Friendly, Healthy – and Tasty

Primal Strips - worthy of a place in my pack.

Soon, I’m going to get on a 6-hour flight. A day later, I’ll put on a backpack and head into Iceland’s remote Landmannalaugar region. Right now, the road to Landmannalaugar isn’t even open yet. There will be no Starbucks, no fast food, no convenience stores. It’s all gotta go in with me.

That means I’ll need some snacks. They have to be compact, of course. But they also have to be tasty, relatively healthy and a bit on the salty side. Tasty and healthy are obvious. But why the salt? I’m planning to sweat out some eletrolytes.

Before I really got far into planning the contents of my pack, the folks from Primal Strips contacted me to ask for a review of their vegan “jerky” snacks. They sent two of each of their flavors.

I’d planned to take the whole lot to Iceland for testing. But I got a little impatient and opened my first a few weeks out. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s talk about jerky first – the kind made from meat. I have a love/hate relationship with it. Cheap jerky is leathery and briny. Good jerky is expensive, and a bit less salty. Exotic jerkies like shark, ostrich and bison are fun, but they’re often a bit on the chewy side.

This all means the idea of a vegan jerky intrigued me. I’m an ominover. I think meat is delicious, but I have absolutely no knee-jerk ideological hangups about eating something that didn’t “have a face,” as so many people do.

Primal Spirit Foods makes the Primal Strips from soy, seitan (a type of wheat gluten) and shiitake mushrooms. Different flavors use one of the three as their main base. The first one I tried was the Thai Peanut flavor, which is made from seitan.

It had a meaty appearance, right down to some bacon-like marbling. I poked at it to gauge the texture and took a bite. What I found was a surprisingly meaty texture – a tad more spongy than jerky, but far easier to chew. And I liked the spicy peanut flavor. I was pretty impressed – so much so that I knew it would be hard to stay disciplined and not eat them all before boarding my Icelandair flight.

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Australia Post #2

Katoomba is about 90 minutes by train from Sydney.
Katoomba is about 90 minutes by train from Sydney.

Saturday, Aug. 18

I like my coffee a lot, and my coffee likes me. That means I want to taste the coffee, not have it buried under sprinkles, whipped cream and a bunch of fake pumpkin-spice flavor. I didn’t know this when we booked the tickets, but that meant Australia would be just right for me.

First, though, I had to learn to speak the language. Unless you’re at Starbucks, the names won’t be what you’re used to. And most of the good drinks are espresso-based. Now, if you like a plain americano, order a long black. If you like a latte, order a flat white. Mochas are the same, but a lot less sweet than you’re used to. And probably less bitter, so you won’t need the sugar to compensate.

Justin feels a bit like suppository in the hatch of the Onslow.
Justin feels a bit like suppository in the hatch of the Onslow.

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Ah, 1970s granny chic decor aboard the Vampire!

We also filled up on some pastries to get ready for the Maritime Museum, which is a complete blast. We both like sailing stuff, so we have a great time touring the destroyer Vampire, submarine Onslow and a full-sized replica of Capt. Cook’s Endeavour. There are all sorts of fun displays inside, too. Frankly, there was more there than we had time for. Tickets to get on all the big boats are $18 each.

The ceiling is kind of low on the Endeavour. And this is the fancy part of the ship!
The ceiling is kind of low on the Endeavour. And this is the fancy part of the ship!

The Vampire was pretty fun because it felt like we’d stepped straight into the Disco Era. All the recreational areas were brown and “gold.” The Onslow was typical submarine fun for a guy my size … lots of hunching over to squeeze through hatches, and nearly banging my head on pipes.

The Endeavour, though … whew! Europe must’ve really sucked back in the day. I can’t imagine how bad it was – so bad that people were willing to live on bad food under brutal conditions for months at a time to get away from it. Floor to ceiling measurements were less than five feet! So you can imagine what must’ve been like crawling around there with a violently pitching deck!
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We cut out to grab lunch at Thaifoon before collecting our bags and grabbing a train to Katoomba. It’s a pretty tasty Thai meal, but not as fiery as we prefer. Nothing really worth noting here.

A Quick Note for City Lovers Who Want to Hang in Sydney Awhile: One of my new inside sources who knows Sydney tells me there’s an area south of Circular Quay called New Town. Word is that’s the place to party and whoop it up. He says it’s just miles of independent cafes, pubs and shops.

Katoomba is about 65 miles away in the Blue Mountains at about 3,000 feet above see level. By the time we go there, it was already chilly. The train drops passengers off at the top of Katoomba Street, the main drag through town and out to its scenic cliffs. Best to find your hotel quickly and grab a bit to eat before everything closes.

The air in Katoomba definitely has some nip to it this time of year, but it smells clean and fresh. We were socked in with clouds, too.

We stayed at the Katoomba Mountain Lodge. It’s not exactly five-star, but it’s cheap ($60-ish a night) and clean. It’s a bit drafty, but electric blankets will keep you cozy. It’s also European style, so you don’t get your own bathroom (rooms that have bathrooms are known as ensuite, in the local lingo). No big deal, really. It also has a kitchen, TV rooms and games. We hung around watching rugby on TV before falling asleep.

Sunday, Aug. 19

It's a chilly, foggy morning. Perfect for fools to go hiking ...
It's a chilly morning ... perfect for fools to go hiking!

Despite the chill, we got a great night of sleep. We were so well-rested that we awoke before anything was open! It was already foggy and drizzly, a perfect winter scene for a town in the mountains. We wandered the streets, waiting for cafes to open. Finally, we found one that’s open. And they serve up some awesome porridge with fruit and ricotta. The Aussies use ricotta with sweeter stuff a lot. As usual, the coffee is pretty awesome. Sorry, but I just can’t remember the name of this place. But just walk up and down Katoomba Street. You won’t go wrong.

After breakfast, we started a seven-mile hike from the lodge, down the Federal Trail and then back into town. We started out with out jackets and ponchos, and the rain got progressively heavier throughout the hike. My poncho finally ripped…I got my three bucks out of it – it survived Costa Rica and Belize, working hard in both places. Sarah’s kept on tickin’, lucky for her. We descended a really slippery thousand-foot chute called the Great Staircase and went down into a nice pine forest. We were totally deprived of the views, and the photos we’ve seen make it look truly awesome.

Sarah's poncho has survived Costa Rica, Belize and Australia. For me, two of three will have to do.
Sarah's poncho has survived Costa Rica, Belize and Australia. Mine can only manage two of the three.

But I still enjoyed it … beats being in a plane next to Jon Lovitz! But holy cow, I got totally soaked. My poncho was leaking, and even my jacket was waterlogged. My mighty Vasque boots stayed dry for a good three hours, but there’s only so much they can take (these also survived complete immersion in a raging river in Belize while exploring a wet cave, but that’s another story). I was pretty relieved when we ascended the thousand feet back upward.

After that slog, we were ready to get dry. But the weather wasn’t cooperating. Sarah went as far as to buy a cheap hair dryer to get our boots dry. Then we hit the showers, and were off to the Carrington Hotel for dinner. We met up with some friendly British women and a somewhat dour Australian guy (one of the few). We all had a good chat, and the Aussie turned us on to Redoak Boutique Beer Cafe back in Sydney. Good thing we have to go back there to catch a flight! We have a great meal at the Carrington…be sure to try the Guinness stew and the sticky date pudding. Very nice!

Not for Sarah are wimpy wheeled Gucci bags! Tomorrow, we return to Sydney.
Not for Sarah are wimpy wheeled Gucci bags! Tomorrow, we return to Sydney.

Something weird about Ozzy spirits: Australians seem to love rum and coke (this would make travel in Australia extremely dangerous for my friend Stan, who insists that overindulging on this beverage makes him yearn for the company of hefty lasses). It’s often available pre-mixed straight from the tap. Bundaberg, the same cats who make the amazing Aussie ginger beer, is the most popular variety. It’s also sold in cans.