Escape to the jungle


The trekking group

After the excesses of Carnaval, we spent a week of respite in the sleepy and peaceful town of Lencois, west of Salvador in the Chapada Diamantina National Park. I remember it fondly from my previous visit to Brazil, and it was great to find it unchanged, a jumble of quiet cobbled streets and brightly coloured houses, with locals hanging out in the shade of the squares and a smattering of tourists ambling around. We stayed at the great Pousada Dos Duendes (which I’m sure Roland will remember too for its hammocks and friendly atmosphere from last time), and soaked up the relaxed vibe of the place.

Our journey from Salvador took us across the Serrato, the desert-like dry belt that divides Brazil’s luscious coastline from its rainforest/jungle interior. As the sun set before us, we were given the beautiful image of desert cacti silhouetted against the emerging night sky, with a stunning crescent moon to complete the picture. Unfortunately the photo I took didn’t quite come out. As the wilderness took over from the bright lights of cities, we also got our first true view of the southern night sky, with the sky so clear we could make out the dusty shape of the Milky Way – and our first chance to try to identify the stars of the southern hemisphere. Southern Cross anyone?

The town has a few short walks that make great day trips along the river, upstream to a set of small waterfalls with pools perfect for lazing around in, and downstream to a natural water slide 20m long, and very very slippery! We both gave it a try (Laura’s even got a video), although not quite to the standard of the locals, who do the whole thing in surfing pose, standing after a run-up!


From the top of the Fumaça. That's a 380m drop!

I decided to continue my walk down memory lane and went on a three day trek to the Fumaça that again featured in our trip of a decade ago. Laura declared herself ‘lazy’ and went for the option of some day trips instead – although it sounds like she still did a lot. The Fumaça is Brazil’s highest waterfall, (currently only a trickle) falling some 380m to a pool in the rainforest below. Once you’ve climbed all the way up to the plateau in the burning midday heat, the view over the national park is fantastic, complete with permanent rainbows from the water being blown back upwards. ‘Fumaça’ means ‘smoke’, and as the water falls and turns to mist, it’s easy to see why. A large boulder overhangs the drop, and as you can see below, it makes for some great photos!

Looking down the falls, you can just about see the rainbow. We trekked through the jungle to that pool below.

Due to some transport issues, we were doing the trek in reverse, starting at the top of the waterfall and working our way back to Lencois. It’s a pretty gruelling 3 days of walking, and very slow going at times due to some of the group we were with not really being fit enough for a difficult combination of walking, scrambling and bouldering in the heat – and with a few vertigo-inducing spots too. Still, we had a great set of lively people, with a group from Austria marking a birthday along the way (complete with cakes, candles and cocktails), and some interesting conversations about censorship in China courtesy of some Googlers now living in Singapore.

Every few hours we stopped to take a dip in a natural pool along the way, the water in the area a strange blood-red colour, giving everyone the appearance of having a tan – and as we had to drink it too, us the sense of being vampires. On the second day we scrambled our way along the moss-covered riverbed to the base of the falls, where a beautifully cold pool welcomed us, and we had the fantastic view of the rainbows of the falls from below. There’s something very refreshing seeing something so dramatic from both the top and the bottom (without the use of a lift!), and we all enjoyed the moment sitting on the rocks under the falling cascade.


Swimming in the pool at the bottom

It was a wonderful escape, a perfect break and some time to experience the raw beauty of unadulterated nature. We had with us a geologist who was able to provide a commentary on the strata of the rock formations before us (they’re very old, and brittle as they’ve sheared rather than tilted over time), as well as a diverse range of travellers to keep the conversation entertaining. The rock-lined valleys were also great for echoes, with the various (intentional) animal noises made by the group as we went along rebounding repeatedly. The first night we finished walking after dark and with the moon already below the horizon, went swimming by torchlight. It was magical, gazing up at the stars above us, and then looking around to discover the forest was alive with the blinking yellow of fireflies surrounding us. Reflections on water are often stunning; even more so at night after a long day’s walking!

The sky on the first night. Spot the shooting star!

At night we slept out in the open on rocks by the river, retreating into a cave on the only time it rained heavily. Our home for the second night brought back a strong memory for me; it’s a strange thing sitting down a couple of days walk from the nearest town in the middle of nowhere and finding the exact rock you slept on ten years before! Next to the outcrop forming our beds was a small waterfall falling into a pool perfect for a shower – although not one you wanted to float too far out of as there was a much bigger plunge and lake just a little further downstream!

View from my (rock) bed


A natural shower


... and the second waterfall just further downstream!

On our final afternoon, we stopped for lunch on a rocky mound with a stunning view over the National Park with its waterfalls below us and the plains and fields of the Serrata beyond. It was one of those moments when you have to stop and just gaze in silence: the waving trees of green on the ground, the bright blue of the sky, and the hundreds of white puffs of cloud drifting through it, their clearly identifiable dark shadows uniting above and below. Now this is why I came travelling!



A rest with a view

Some photos of the wildlife along the way




Sadness and Sa Pa


Laura and I on the trail

Just before we were about to head to Sa Pa, I got the news that my Grandad, Reginald Phillips, had passed away. He was an active man for a ninety year old, having swum daily until recently, and his antics sometimes made us wonder if he was actually fifty years younger! He’s been following our travels from home, having travelled extensively in his life – during the war in the Merchant Navy, and then later on a couple of round-the-world cruises.

Hearing the sad news has made me think of the many stories he told us grandchildren of his visits to far-flung places: of changing ships in New Zealand to find his prior vessel sunk a week later; of sitting on the same bus his brother had done a week before on the other side of the world and being recognised and taken in by friends; and of the delights of walking in the Catskill Mountains in New York State on shore leave during the war. As we continue our own adventure, I’ll be thinking of him on his and the message of friendship he spread through his involvement with the YMCA and throughout the world.

Sa Pa is a hill station set in the mountains in Vietnam’s far north-west, near the border with China. It’s famed as the cultural crossing point of many of the indigenous minority peoples of the northern highlands, and the best way to get a taste of what life is like for those still living a very traditional existence.

For us, Sa Pa was also the cause of some trepidation, as our train was due into the nearby town of Lao Cai at six in the morning, and we’d been told to expect scammers on the one hour minibus journey up the mountain. It’s the same trick of overcharging we’ve heard elsewhere – either charging a ridiculous rate to the unsuspecting foreigner, or quoting a reasonable price and then on arrival revealing it to be US dollars and not Vietnamese Dong – hence inflating it by a factor of twenty. Armed with the right price for the journey (50,000 vnd), we were relieved to immediately find an honest driver and soon be on our way. I think it says something for expectations that after this apprehensive start, we fell in love with Sa Pa, and left sad not to have been here longer.


The rice paddies across the valley

The cool mountain air, calm streets and bright tribal costumes for me quickly brought back memories of time my friend Roland and I spent in Huaraz in Peru, trekking in the Andes. As a quick respite from the night’s journey, we settled in to breakfast at a brilliant place Laura honed in on – appropriately called Baguettes and Chocolate, and then struck out for the day.

Women from the local minority villages supplement their income by being guides for tourists, and we found our guide Mai through her friend Ying ( The different tribes are recognised by their colourful dress, with the Black Hmong wearing dark blue tunics embroidered in greens and red, black headbands and velvety socks around their ankles. The headgear differs greatly between the different minorities, with some
wearing stark bright red headpieces and others in shades of green. Although her family still lives in the valley, Mai’s life has recently taken a more westernised turn, as she fell in love with a trekker from Belgium and has just spent a couple of months in Brussels with her fiancé – it sounded like it was quite a contrast to the life she’d led here! She’s hoping to get married next year and move away permanently, but for the time being is in Sa Pa and was being continually welcomed back by various friends we bumped into along the way.


Our hosts, Ying and Mai in their Black Hmong clothes

As we walked down into the valley beneath Sa Pa, we were treated with a vista immediately reminiscent of Nepal. Stretching into the far distance were the familiar etched contours of thousands of rice paddies, each a tiny glimmering reflection of the bright blue sky, surrounded by an edge of greeny-brown. Up close, the mirrored sky in the paddies is punctuated by barren rice stems, harvested a few months ago and now left to wither in the water, creating an eerie silhouette.

Between the paddies are a web of streams and small waterfalls feeding them. Shade is provided by towering thickets of giant bamboo, which in places have been felled and cut in half to redirect the water along makeshift aqueducts. These drinking water streams end up outside houses, providing a continually running water supply that we’ve also seen while trekking elsewhere. The houses themselves are simple constructions of woven bamboo with either a bamboo or corrigated iron roof, and an indoor cooking area over an open fire.


De-husking rice using water power

Mai showed us how the villages go about living off the land, pointing out the corn husks drying for seed next season, and the indigo plants they use to dye their clothes. Laura had a go at dyeing and for half a day her hands turned green making her look like the incredible hulk! They use hemp for their clothes – something which has never really taken off in the west due to the stigma from marijuana in spite of its relative strength over cotton. I was also intrigued to see how they’d made use of water power to de-husk their rice, with the flowing water periodically tipping a bamboo pole, lifting a stone which then dropped into a bowl to separate out the rice.


The view from our homestay window

At night we slept in a ‘homestay’, essentially a mattress on the floor of a building adjoining the family home. Best of all, this meant that as the darkness closed in outside, we were able to curl up around the communal fire and watch as food was prepared. It seemed our hosts were trying to compete with the scenery outside, as mountains of flavoursome goodness were crafted before us – which we then gleefully got to eat along with the family and the handful other westerners staying there. There was about three times too much food, which they then ate for breakfast the next day.


Dinner laid out for all to eat!

Our route out of the valley was a little speedier than our arrival; we each hopped on the back of a motorbike for an exhilarating journey back up to the town, a thrilling ride and certainly more fun than taking the bus!


Laura about to bike back to Sa Pa

As we’d been walking into one of the villages this morning, Mai had introduced us to some of her friends who were returning with empty baskets having delivered an offering to a house up the hillside. We could hear the chatter of a celebration as we approached, and she told us it was a wake to mark the anniversary of the death of a woman three years ago. The celebration made me think of my Grandad, and how he really fully lived his life, and how much he loved us grandchildren. As we later sped through the valley on our motorbikes, I thought of the many journeys he’s been on, and how he’d smile to hear of what we were up to now, sailing through beautiful hills in the sunshine – and living out our dreams. I hope he’s able to do the same where he is now.


I feel the earth move under my feet


Today we started our descent, journeying from the rolling mountain pastures cut by glaciers into the jungle-like forest further down the river’s course. As I write this, I can hear the roar of the nearby torrent making its way over huge house-sized boulders as it cuts its way through then valley.

The top of the valley is very close to Tibet – only a couple of miles over the mountains to the border, and it has a very Tibetan feel about it, even more so because of the large number of refugees who fled here after the Chinese invasion in the fifties. A guide we were talking to the other day said there was a mass exodus at that time, with people taking the mountain pass to set up a new life this side of the peaks. At that point there was extreme poverty here – the higher slopes are not fertile enough for crop growth, and so it’s pretty much just yak farming (and cheese). He explained what a huge impact tourism had made for those living here, with an income for six months a year for lodge owners, who also sell wool products and jewellery to passing trekkers.

The Tibetan feel manifests itself in a number of ways. It goes without saying that there are prayer flags astride every hilltop on the way -as well as those most definitely out of the way, sometimes defying explanation of how someone could climb up so high and stretch a 100m run of flag-laden cord across such a precarious gulley. There are also prayer wheels, releasing the prayer within to the world as they spin – but fantastically, these are water prayer wheels – turning continually as the meltwater flow passes beneath, with some stone constructions holding six spinning wheels alongside each other. The fields are enclosed with Tibetan stone walls, not dissimilar to the dry stone walls of home. And the paths we’ve been taking have a periodic dual carriageway design, with a central reservation formed by mounds of rock surrounded by mani slabs inscribed with what we think are prayers in sanskrit. As with temples, the Buddhist way is to walk clockwise around them – or taking the left hand carriageway as will be familiar to any driver back home. The carriageway effect is all the more heightened by apparent gaps for those making right turns – occasional holes in the central reservation to let you through. No speed cameras or street lights here though!

As we were about to have dinner the night before last, the small lodge bungalow we were in began to shake. After initially putting it down to a strong wind, we soon realised we were experiencing our first earthquake and fled to the grass outside. Fortunately it was pretty gentle where we were – no more than a light wobble for 20 seconds or so. We gather from some people we met yesterday that the epicentre was on the border with India and that it has caused some houses to collapse closer to there – we hope nothing too terrible. We’re entirely cut off here in the mountains so it’ll be a couple of days before we can find out any more – or let people back home know we’re ok. It really makes you reflect on the destructive power of such a thing when you realise it was centred on the other side of the country and we could still clearly feel it where we were. That’s a lot of earth that moved.

We were woken early yesterday morning by the sound of pre-dawn singing from near our lodge. Accompanied by the occasional beating of a drum, the mournful undulating chant was the start of a funeral procession for a woman who had lived in a nearby house. We were told she’d travelled all the way to Kathmandu in the hope of a cure (we’re unsure of what), but had passed away recently back in the valley. We assume locals wouldn’t be able to afford a helicopter to take the sick to hospital, so the three day trek out must have been a huge struggle – we’ve found it challenging enough and we’re both fairly fit and well. As we rose for breakfast at first light, we could see the slow procession snaking its way up the hillside shrouded in the all-too-appropriate gloomy morning mist.

As we followed the river downhill, wide open mountainside made way for close damp jungle, its creepers and soaring trees consuming the bright mountain light and enveloping us in a dank, dripping world of green hues.

The humidity at this level provides for all manner of interesting vegetation – spindly tree branches that have literally tied themselves in a knot (half hitch, I think) because of the rate of growth – and presumably a lucky gust wind; creepers hanging down from the canopy waving in the breeze; and moss and ferns everywhere – not just a carpet of green, but walls of it too. The damp is pervasive enough that ferns have taken root in the bark of all the trees, so each trunk and branch is also decorated with a lighter, softer pattern of green alongside the soaring strength of the tree.

Then there’s the wildlife that moves. We came across a rustling in the undergrowth ahead of us and a couple of small, light brown monkeys quickly made their way up some nearby trees, exchanging glances with us until we moved on down the trail. The backing soundtrack of running water is accompanied by the high
pitched whine of crickets and a melody of bird calls, often little more than occasional chirps, but sometimes a beautifully textured song of call and response – and once or twice in full view, with tiny yellow canary-like birds whistling away above us.

A picture of the jungle would of course not be complete without the bugs. We were warned about leeches, and have been slathering protective oil over our arms and legs each day. Fortunately we’ve made it without finding any unwanted stowaways; a number of others have been less fortunate – and the wiggling worm-like tentacle that I found on my rucksack shoulder strap after lunch the other day certainly made me squirm. Ah, and the spiders! A few of the simple wooden tea-lodges we’ve been staying in have also had room for non-paying guests: spiders the size of a hand, with a good meaty body that appears particularly threatening when silhouetted against the bedside curtains in the morning. Arachnoid avoidance has certainly made for some speedy toilet trips and packing! Just don’t forget to shake out your shoes…


Off trekking

It’s been too long since we last sat on a bus for 9 hours, so we’re off on another bumpy journey tomorrow in order to go trekking.

Apparently it takes 9 hours to go 120km to the start of the Langtang trek, some of which is blocked by landslides. Sounds like fun!

We’ll be trekking for the next week or so (not quite sure how many days it’ll take – that depends on how long it takes before Laura gives me a piggyback to the top!). That means (and this will be a shock to the system) no Internet, no blogging and probably no phones. Blissful mountains and lots of Yaks, we hope.

Anyway – we’ll let you know how it went when we come back, yeti permitting!