Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Leh - Ladakh

The transition from Cairo to Leh was an easy one. Landing at 3.500 m left me breathless – marvelling on breathing the cool clean air. We feasted on Indian curries – to Jos’ horror meat was not easily available however he fell upon each tasty meal. Our room in the guest house out of town had windows facing the monastery and mountains. The owner was the mayor of Leh and we loved his insight to local culture and issues.
First we tackled the Sham track run by the Snow Leopard Conservancy following an old trade route through villages and over mountain passes. We stayed with families in their home, enjoying being part of everyday life; we watched them making butter, tending the animals, gardening as they prepared for the nine month winter ahead.

This trek was good preparation for our big nine day trek. Our entourage of guide, cook and pony man as well as six ponies seemed a bit over the top however we never regretted the help as we crossed nine mountain passes up to an altitude of 5.200m. With thin air the altitude affected us with nausea and headaches – it was a test of endurance. Along the way we saw marmots, golden eagles, lamagiers, and nomadic pashmina goat herders. It was chilly on the tops but dry as it should be at this time of the year. After a month of enjoying Ladakh, its’ warm people and culture, we headed down to Manali. It was a horrendous two day bus trip over narrow, unsealed track over rugged terrain with sheer drops centimetres from the wheels. Numerous truck wrecks reminded us how tenuous the route was.


Wetter and warmer than Leh, Manali at 3.000m was surrounded by apple orchards and pine forests. Everywhere the landscape was green instead of the usual brown. We quickly tee’d up another trek and off we went this time with two Irishmen and unusually a young Indian woman guide, plus the ubiquitous cook and pony man and his mountain ponies. We climbed through deodar forest, then rhododendron scrub, finally alpine herb field to a pass at 4600m. Descending steeply down into a valley scarred by roads and a hydro-electric scheme, we reached a village called Malana, where the people believed they were descendents from Alexander the Great and superior to any-one else. We wandered around - litter strewn everywhere, open drains and an obvious disregard to sanitary conditions. Visitors were not allowed to touch the villagers, their houses or livestock, on pain of a 1000R fine, perhaps it was just as well. However it was fine to take photos of them and their homes and healthy green crops, and they were keen to sell us their craft and produce.

Moving on we had another scary bus ride to Delhi, a mad driver with one hand on the wheel and the other on the horn, slithering through an active mudslide in one place that had closed the road the previous day. Dehli was hot, smelly, dirty and filled with scammers as well as being a major construction site; we couldn’t wait to get away to the cool, clean airport.


Flying to Borneo filled us with a sense of anticipation as we looked forward to being beside the sea after the month so far away in the mountains. Gurang (Mt.) Kinabalu was our first adventure, with the summit at over 4,000 m we hoped to retain our altitude acclimatisation painfully acquired in the Himalaya. After a long climb to the overnight rest house, we commenced our final summit attempt at 3am the following morning. As we climbed we were dismayed to encounter freezing wind and heavy rain, making the experience somewhat nightmarish. The route involved climbing steep sections of wooden stairs and hauling ourselves up fixed ropes on the bare granite faces. Fortunately we had researched the climb and had carried hats and gloves as well as warm clothes and wet weather gear. Many others turned back but trudging on we were rewarded with clearing skies at daybreak. What a vista! Cold but happy faced the long haul down to base, aching legs as the descent was much harder.

Onward to Semporna and the Celebes Sea, and our next adventure diving from a converted oil rig. Our favourite was Sipidan of course, everything it had been cracked up to be. Turtles, reef sharks, swirling schools of barracuda and jackfish as well as long streams of bumphead parrot fish filing past at dawn as if commuters on their way to work. Of the great variety of tropical reef inhabitants our favourites were the mandarin fish, gaudy nudibrancs, scorpion leaf fish and large camo crocodile fish. With so much to see, each dive would reward us with new species and always there were always turtles cruising past to entertain. After five days of sucking bottled air we rested on a water village backpackers, snorkling and swimming.

After the sea we headed inland to the jungle. We weren’t going to but…couldn’t resist a visit to the Danum Valley despite the price tag – there will be big ‘pay later’ thrills for our bank. Beautifully holistic experience – the resort was sensitively designed for the environment with chalets nestled in the rainforest. Staff treated us like the royals – cooled flannels, memorised our names, kept asking us if we were happy; it was a bit overwhelming. Our guide took us off morning, noon and night walks to the thick forest surrounding the lodge. We had to take care of the tiger leeches, trousers tucked into our sox, stopping regularly for leech inspection. They still got through although we didn’t get bitten, several times we found them attached to our sox and boots at the end of the walk. The highlight was seeing Jack the orang-utan. A local adult male, he put on a good show – breaking off huge branches and throwing them down the tree to display his strength. He was watching us as much as we did him before climbing up and away to the canopy and out of sight. Breathtaking – his size, at 20 years not even fully grown he was muscular and the red coat made him a handsome lad. Other animals we saw were the tiny mouse deer, sambar deer, hornbills and huge insects. We woke each morning to the loud whooping of the gibbons and the deafening bird chorus in the misty tree tops. We sat on the deck of the lodge restaurant looking over the river eating our meals - the food was sensational.

Onward again to Sandakan where we were lucky to get a trip to Turtle Island Marine Sanctuary. A day snorkelling on a beautiful island, evening meal, and then the call at 8.32pm to come quickly! The first turtle of the night was ashore laying its eggs in a hole scooped in the sand it had created. We were allowed a quick look then watched the ranger transfer the eggs (87) to an incubation enclosure where the eggs could develop undisturbed. Finally we watched newly hatched turtles being released into the sea, completing the circle. Thirty years before they come back to lay their eggs, we wished them safe travels.

Next was the obligatory visit to Sepilok Orang-utan Rehab centre. Poaching, deforestation and the encroachment of oil palm plantations has fragmented the orang-utan habitat and young orang-utans are orphaned or captured for the “pet trade”. The lucky ones are brought to Sepilok where rangers try to rehabilitate them so they can survive in the wild. Unfortunately some are well accustomed to humans. As they get bigger they can become dangerous as they are extremely strong and intelligent as we can well attest.