“Wow look at that enormous lenticular cloud” I shouted. It appeared to be sitting atop the range of mountains that seem never ending as we sailed up the Norwegian coastline, into the Article Circle. We both starred in awe and simultaneously, each raising an eyebrow and tilting our heads, said, “that’s not a cloud, that’s ICE!”
I can’t say what time of day it was as we said goodbye to the night a week previously. Sunlight was now 24hrs a day and opened new doors to adventure.
What we were looking at was the Svartisen Ice Cap, large enough to be seen from space easily. It didn’t take long to check the charts and figure that we could sail right up the edge of it, where a glacier ran almost to the sea.
We found a good mooring for the boat and made a plan. The aim was to hike up the edge of the Ice Cap, traverse it and summit MtSnotinden, Svartisen’s highest point. After a long climb we reached the refuge at the edge of the Ice Cap.
We’ve stayed in may mountain huts, some little more than a pile of logs in Patagonia and others, more akin to a hotel. This however was something else.
In true Norwegian style they had build a superb little refuge with a kitchen, solar, wood burner and beds. We need not have lugged up our sleeping bags and camping stoves. However, for all its glory there was no other souls in sight.
We prepared our kit of set off early the next morning. We wanted to cross, summit and return in a day. We started well and fast but taking care to ‘rope up’ initially for fear of crevasses. We could clearly see the summit at the far side of the ice cap and through the clear air it seemed perfectly achievable in a only a few hours.
5 hours later and we were still a way off! Distances are deceiving when there are no other objects to gauge against!
Cloud swept across the cap like sand storms, disappearing as fast as they came. The last section appeared short and gentle from a but it turned out to be a steep incline to the summit which we did in zero visibility. Reaching the top it cleared to give us glorious views across the entire cap and an appreciation that, in fact, we had come up quite a lot when most of the day felt we were on the flat. This would work in our favour on the return so we settled in to enjoy the view a little longer.
Afterall it was never going to get dark so what was the rush?
Once again distances deceived us. What looked like a short steep descent where we might get 3-4 turns, turned out to be a huge snow face. Emmie hurtled down, becoming a tiny spec. I followed suite and we were soon gliding our way across the ice cap back towards the refuge!
Following the original Dodo’s Delight recorded by The Wild Bunch and Bob Shepton whilst on expedition to Greenland, we now present Dodo’s Delight 2. Of course with the same song which is enshrined in our hearts but in a new location and with a new crew including, of course, the might Bob himself!
This article was written by the intrepid reverend Bob Shepton on our passage to Norway in search of remote and pristine snow capped peaks falling straight into the sea. It was first published in Sailing Today, October 2017.
Click on spread below to read the full article:
My trip from Inverness to Norway came about almost by accident. Initially, I was hoping to fl y out to Gåssten, a converted Swedish minesweeper, for some ski touring in Norway with Fjord Adventures. At the same time I received an email:
‘We are on the way north to the west coast of Scotland, do you know where there are any moorings we could pick up?’
Obviously a man after my own heart not wanting to pay marina or mooring fees. We duly met up in Oban where Tim had moored Shadowfax, of Lord of the Rings fame but this was a boat, by the Oban Sailing Club, which I had not recommended as you are duty bound to give a donation for picking up one of their moorings. During a pleasant chat over coffee, Tim suggested
“you want to get to Norway and we do not have offshore experience, why not hitch a lift across with us via Shetland.”
So I did. Having given them a hand the next day up Neptune’s Staircase, the locks at the start of the Caledonian Canal, I joined them a few days later in Inverness. Next morning at 0900hrs we locked out of the Caledonian Canal. Chris, described by Tim as being as strong as an ox, and he certainly kindly did more than his required share of the watches, arrived by plane at this point as we were waiting to take the final sea lock out into the Moray Firth.
We then soon came up to the long Kessock road bridge across from Inverness to the Black Isle before getting out properly to sea. As I approach bridges like this there is nearly always an optical illusion and I wonder whether it’s high enough and whether we will pass safely underneath. It brought back memories of passing under various bridges in years past – the road bridge across to Manhattan after the Statue of Liberty coming up the Hudson River to New York, by contrast the much lower bridge in the Faroes, with us fortunately stemming the tide slightly for a controlled approach, to get up the long channel splitting the islands, and of course in Holland, though one in particular stands out here as we did bend our VHF aerial under it owing to a slight error of judgement.
Once through I embarrassingly suggested that “technically perhaps we should be passing the other side of that buoy?”, conscious that the buoyage runs clockwise around the British Isles, but of course the channel turns southwards here, counter-clockwise, to go up channel to Inverness so I was firmly put in my place. Now as a lowly crew member who prefers to sleep half sitting up I was assigned the only possible bunk to fit such criteria, in the forepeak which is usually not the most comfortable berth on a boat, especially as it turned out when passing the eastern entrance to the Pentland Firth with its fearfully strong tides. The boat rolled strongly from side to side, presumably affected by the strong pull of the tide, and it was necessary to jam my arms hard down either side of my body within the slot made by the cockpit seat cushions already jammed in place to make a good sea berth, to prevent rolling violently, myself, from side to side when trying to sleep. But we had a pleasant sail up to the Shetlands though with variable wind, and to the owner’s chagrin requiring quite a bit of motoring as well.
First Fair Isle loomed out of the mist to port and then on a pleasant evening we came up to Sumburgh Head. On the chart were the words ‘Area To Be Avoided’ just to the east of the headland, but when we phoned the Coastguard to check about this we got the impression they did not really know why it said that either but advised ‘Exercise care at that point’! So we proceeded on to Lerwick and into the south harbour to moor up against the quayside, being careful to lay a spring so that we would not be pushed into a large catamaran immediately forward of our bows. It was interesting that after the catamaran had left the next day all the other boats there were Norwegian. There was a suspicion in the air that the fact that the booze is much cheaper in the Shetland Islands than in Norway could be part of the motive for their visit, especially as the first thing the big catamaran had said to us the night before as we tied up after a two day passage was,
“Hurry, the booze store closes any minute now!”
Lerwick, originally known as Leirvik meaning Muddy Bay – I imagine some Viking Chief had jumped down from his boat and got his feet dirty – also had all that we needed by way of supermarkets to renew stores. We also took the opportunity to hire a car and have a look around the main island of Shetland doing the tourist thing of visiting the Sumburgh lighthouse and noticing how the trees were bent over double because of the strong winds. Now Emmie, the lady of the boat, was no mean artist, specialising in painting old buildings in acrylics with her paintings exhibited in galleries in UK and America. It was a pity therefore that we did not have more time to spend in the Shetlands as there were numerous old buildings and ruins of characteristic dry stone wall construction and she could have had a field day there.
One evening there was the intriguingly unique experience of eating in the Gurkha Kitchen, a restaurant run by a Gurkha family who had settled in Lerwick. By contrast the forecabin had now become the Chinese Torture Chamber, as with the north wind blowing us away from the dockside the bow mooring line kept squeaking and squealing as it see-sawed through the fairlead at irregular intervals depending on the gusts. You waited, tensed up, for the next squeal just above your head, reputedly reminiscent of the water drip on your head in the Chinese Torture of olden days. In the end I abandoned the forepeak and moved my bedding to the saloon amidships to get some sleep, being careful to cover the new material on the seat cushions first of course on this smart boat!
After three days of waiting for a weather window, a favourable forecast arrived on the owner’s smartphone and it was time to go. As we motored out in the evening light it appeared they had got the buoyage wrong again, as we were going north up the channel coming south into Lerwick and the buoyage was red to port and green to starboard. But in fact this was not so much a channel into Lerwick but a way through from south to north with Lerwick a possible stopping off point on the way and so the clockwise rule still applied. All very confusing; ocean sailing is much easier! A ship with a huge bridge-like construction and small deck site aft made its way out to sea before us to port, presumably something to do with the oil industry.
At this stage we were in some 30 knots of wind but this was due to moderate, and as it was from the northwest, we were shielded by the Shetlands from big seas and swells, and anyhow this Seastream 43 with its 17 tonne displacement was much bigger and more stable than my 33 foot Westerly. The wind duly moderated overnight and we again enjoyed a variable but pleasant sail across towards Norway. There was a slight anomaly in the forecast with a southerly wind promised which never arrived but one night watch approaching the coast of Norway was especially memorable.
We were slipping along at 5-6 knots in a fair breeze with the oil rigs like strings of Christmas lights to port and starboard, sea state slight, not a cloud in the night sky and a nearly full moon shining benignly down to give us light. I was reminded of trying years ago on my very first Atlantic crossing when ocean navigation was all by astro to shoot the moon off the coast of Newfoundland, to cross it with a position line from a previous sun shot to obtain our present position. But the moon moves very fast and my maths was always weak and it was hopeless. Luckily we came up to Cape Race at the southern tip of Newfoundland next day in daylight, and certainly the sea and spray were racing past it at the time. So we made it, Portland UK to Portland USA (Maine) without mishap, and all the way back as well in spite of my having to hang onto a shroud with one hand and shoot the sun with the other in stormy winds on the nose all the way from half way across the Atlantic to the chops of the Channel.
More motoring in the morning against the north wind which was meant to be southerly to close the lovely Norwegian coast and to make our way northwards towards Ålesund.
That evening we put into a small enclosed harbour by a cluster of houses on one of the first islands we came to as we moved inland. We were greeted and welcomed to Norway by a couple on their motor boats who took our lines and helped us tie up alongside. The whole scene and situation was so typical of this brilliant country, people and coastline.
The next morning we made our way in sunshine to Ålesund, where I jumped ship onto Gåssten by previous arrangement. And what a way to go ski touring in Norway, being transported up and down the fjords in a well appointed, comfortable ship, looked after by Sven the skipper, Tash and Annie, I felt like royalty, and with a group of marvelously mad Italian girls as fellow ski tourers, and one or two slightly older British gentlemen to leaven the lump.
On the other hand I did discover that I was older than I thought I was and might have to revise my plans for ski touring in South Georgia in the Antarctic spring. But that’s another story…
Myanmar or Burma, whichever you please, such a pure country and society. Financial poor yes, but incredibly rich in culture and happiness. There is little wealth divide and families, children and village communities live a quiet and happy life, away from the pressures of the western world.
The trip took us from Mandalay, going West over the dry and sandy plains towards Chin State, Myanmar’s mountain region and predominately Christian.
Myanmar has been on the radar for a while and I’ve always wanted to do a decent motorcycle trip. My friend had been to check out Myanmar in 2013 and really wanted to return with a couple of like minded adventurers, willing to get well off the main roads and into the real lives of the people and cultures living there.
We headed west aiming for a rumored train tunnel that short cuts through the mountain and into the foot hills of Chin State. The roads varied from perfect winding tarmac, to dusty trails to steep rugged single-track! [click images below to enlarge]
Eventually, we found the tunnel preceded by abandoned station buildings and sidings. We ventured inside around 5pm hoping to reach the other side and camp before sundown. It was slow going over the wooded sleepers whilst bats flew overhead. Approaching the end of the tunnel it was flooded by hundreds of them as they appeared trapped between the light of dusk and our engines creeping closer.
The following day we worked our way to Kale (pronounced “carl-ay”) encountering many different bridges and river crossings some of which we braved and others sending us with our tails between our legs!
Approaching Kale on good roads, we were maybe 2 hours out and should have arrived before dusk. We decided to avoid riding at night as there are a number of trucks that continue to drive into the evening without lights. We passed over a large bridge lined with unused tram lines. Kachina caught her tyre inside one and was immediately catapulted to the floor, directly onto her knee cap. In hindsight and for future trips, I for one, will be wearing knee protection!
In true Myanmar fashion, locals stopped to help immediately and escorted us to a local doctor who cleaned things up. A more worrying injury however was Kachina’s thumb which looked broken and could have spelt the end of the trip. Being a stunt women, starring in many an action film, she is one seriously tough lady and was straight back on the bike making our way, in the dark, towards Kale! The following day a quick X-ray suggested it was either not broken, or if it was, not badly. The trip goes on!
Kale sits at the foothills of the Chin Mountains and is the gateway to Chin state. We quickly ascended up steep hairpin roads, the temperature nicely dropping with every hour. The riding was world class! Empty roads with challenging sandy corners mixed with sections of fast tarmac. Our aim was to get up Mount Kennedy and still make it to Tedim, a major town of Chin State, by dusk. We did make it to Tedim and we did make it to the summit of Kennedy, but not by dusk! For all our efforts not to ride at night, we were failing badly on that one!
Interestingly, Mt Kennedy has a huge Pagoda on the summit, even though Chin State is almost entirely Christian. Just a few hundred yards from the Pagoda, although not on the summit, is a Christian chapel, clearly showing mutual respect between the beliefs. Summits and mountain tops are important to the Buddhist religion so it is possible that the Christians conceded the summit out of respect.
From Tedim we moved South through the mountains on variable roads and paths with no real itinerary, tents at hand, should we find a suitable spot. Towards the end of the day we passed over a large river and looking upstream could see it curving its way up into the mountains and wilderness. We found our way down to the riverbed and picked our way through boulders to find a glorious little river beach to spend the night by firelight on fine sand.
We were now well on the way to reaching our goal of Mount Victoria. The highest mountain in Chin State at 3053 but a long way short of the highest in Myanmar since the country boarders with the Himalayas in the far North.
This was partly due to some warnings we had about some potential fighting in some regions. The roads again varied enormously and many of the corners were covered in deep sand which made progress slowly and dangerous. A few slips and slides were had!
We were now well on the way to reaching our goal of Mount Victoria. The highest mountain in Chin State at 3053 but a long way short of the highest in Myanmar since the country boarders with the Himalayas in the far North. To reach Mt Victoria we had to drop down to the plains again before working our way back into the mountains.
This was, in most part, due to some warnings we had about some potential fighting in some regions. The roads again varied enormously and many of the corners were covered in deep sand which made progress slowly and dangerous. A few slips and slides were had! Moving through the mountain villages we did notice an interesting, but much more skillful, form of volleyball.
One of the most notable things of Chin State is the simple yet delicious food. In fact, food across Myanmar is excellent but especially so in the Chin Mountains. We found repeatedly that we could not get the same type or quality of food in towns. The only way was to eat in small shacks, often an extension of someones home, along with whatever other locals were feeling hungry at the time.
These are reliably dotted along the road side throughout the region but clearly not aimed at travelers. We gestured the international symbol for we’re hungry by bowing your neck, pinching your fingers and putting them to your mouth. You’d pay around 50p – £1 for a meal made up of various soups, vegetables, rice, and if you’re lucky, a little bit of meat. Chillis were often used were used to give it all flavour but in a really simple and healthy way. It is nothing like the food I have tried in other parts of Asia. I have since tried to recreate a Myanmar feast at home in England but failed miserably. Today we are so obsessed with complex cuisine that we fail to use a few core spices and simple ingredients in an effective way.
Moving down onto the lowlands again, we weaved our way through amazingly lush farmland with a variety of crops and remarkably good roads, not even marked on our maps or Google. In some areas we would wind our way through enormous fields of sunflowers, tended by hand and most likely sold to go to the major cities like Yangon or Mandalay perhaps?
Another thing worth mentioning is the use of a type of face paint called Thanaka throughout all 5 regions we visited, regardless of temperature or religion. Thanaka is paste formed from rubbing the bark of the Murraya tree on a rock with some water. The paste is then most commonly applied to the face of women and girls where it then drys and looks vaguely golden. Some apply it in stylish streaks and others just apply it to the whole face. It prevents sunburn and also acts as a moisturiser. Maybe the key to beauty of the Myanmar girls and youthful looks? Whilst taking a short cut we came across a lovely little village, well away from any roads, where a family invited us to have tea with them and also showed us how to use the Thanaka bark!
The following day we began our ascent again into the Southern Chin Mountains towards Mt Victoria. We made good progress climbing steeply to the town of Midat and pushing on up the mountain through dusty trails and river crossings.
The Southern Chin mountains are famed for the women with tattooed faces. It is said that Chin girls were the most beautiful in all Asia and the parents of young girls would have their faces tattooed as a way of becoming ‘ugly’ to the neighboring Burmese king and Princes to avoid being kidnapped. Others say they were tattooed to identify their tribes in the event they were kidnapped by rivals. For additional reading there is a good article here and Google Images has plenty of photos!
You would be hard pushed meet one of these women in real life and not part of a tourist show. However, our route by bike took us to villages that were inaccessible to cars and many 4×4 vehicles. One single track took us down to a small community where two families were working hard stripping corn and packing bark. You can clearly see the tattoos on the ladies face. I can’t guess at her age now but you can tell she was a beauty in earlier life. We spent a few hours there helping two families with some of their jobs and shared some laughs and mutual curiosity. The bark in the video below is dried on roof tops and then selected by tapping it and feeling for moisture. If it appears hard enough then it is good to be packed up. I think I understood that it would be made into powder, sent to Yangon, and then sold into the western cosmetics industry.
Continuing up the mountain the trees changed into thick rainforest. We swept along good tracks until a single track extended up towards the summit and the trees gave way to large flowering shrubs with brilliant red flowers. Maybe the same flowers whose petals line the floor of the Pagoda on the summit of My Kennedy the week before!?
We didn’t think it would be possible to reach the summit with our bikes but it turned out to be relatively easy. A camping spot was found and a sheltered place for a fire. We learned it could drop below freezing at this altitude, compared to the 35 degree heat on the plains the day before. The sunset was fantastic but the sunrise was even more spectacular. As the sun rose, it lit it up a Golden Pagoda perfectly, through a gap in the ridge. You could mistake this for coincidence but later in the trip we figured this might be intentional.
We had now achieved what we came to do and ride through Chin State from North to South but we still had about a week left. Going further south was not advised due to conflict in Rakhine State between the Buddhists and Islamic majority.
We descended back to the lowlands and worked our way across to Began through the Magway and Mandalay Division, the two hot dust bowl regions in the center of the country. The low lands are littered with Pagaodas and temples. The majority of travelers head to Bagan but all over these regions are thousands more to see and explore away from tourists.
Interestingly, the local people gain merit for the afterlife by building a temple but no merit is gained from renovating an old one. As such, there are ancient and crumbling temples everywhere you look. Many are accessible only by bike or a long hike so we were in for a real treat to visit many, unlikely to have even been seen or visited by a westerner.
After 2 weeks of not seeing another white person, we were now swamped by the hordes of tourists that come only to see Began and Inle Lake. We quickly passed through the sweltering region to gain altitude and the slightly cooler temperatures of Western Shan State.
We stuck to our trusted strategy of route finding by using Google Satellite images and roughly pick out single track paths through the trees.
Navigating this way has risks. Mechanical help for a broken bike or medical help in Myanmar is not exactly easy to come by, and going well off road, deep into forests or mountains, exaggerates theses risks significantly. However, the rewards in the people we met and amazing things we came across, made it entirely worth while.
Looking at the Google sat image above, we saw a community, hidden away in a valley set among the foothills and rain forests, which seemed to be entirely cut off. We figured there must be some interested people living there and some sights to see, so off we went! Below the video shows our varied route and a family we met there who showed us how they light a bulb with a small water generator.
After this nice encounter we continued on our, enjoying some of the sweeping tree line roads of Shane State, in a much cooler climate at around 700m above sea level. The forests now gave way to farmland of olives and vines with the occasional village. It was slightly reminiscent of Southern France or Italy.
It was getting time to head back to Mandalay and we once again decided to ‘bee-line’ it, via a satellite image, back across the Shane State foothills through the rain forest; this time slightly further North, roughly parallel with Mandalay. These proved to be the toughest and most technical terrain we’d encountered, with steep dirt tracks that required a committed entry whilst engine braking was the only way to negotiate the rocks and deep sandy patches.
Among the difficulties and route finding we stumbled, by pure chance, across a cave system which, if not for the relief from the 35 degree heat that day, looked particularly intriguing. Entering through a small tunnel, we discovered an enormous network of caverns and passageways, each chamber with a shrine. It was here that we figured that sunlight had a significant part to play in where some Pagodas and shrines we places. In both of the main chambers, light shone through a collapsed roof, perfect clipping the tops of the shrines, just as it did on My Victoria at dawn.
Working our way down out of the foothills we’re now not far from Mandalay. The roads become busy with trucks so we turned off and picked our way through the farmland between irrigation channels. It was lovely countryside, with people tending their land and animals. It was all going well until we had to cross the Myitnge River and the boat working its way back to our side, against a strong current, was being bailed out with an old pan en route. “That’s ok” we thought, “We’ll go one at a time”. The boat owner had a different idea which was that he’d shuttle all three bikes, all our gear and ourselves in one go. In grunts, nods and various international gestures, we settled on two bikes max.
Having survived the river crossing, it was a relatively short ride back into Mandalay. We made it back in one piece. What a trip. Only 3 weeks but a years worth of experiences and much learned. It wasn’t long before plans of a trip into the Northern state of Kachin were being discussed!
Will this country remain as pure and untainted as what we witnessed? Any sign of military oppression is either far exaggerated by the western media or it has dissipated rapidly since the election of the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi. We encountered no military presence in all four regions we traveled and noone had any issues talking about politics.
Anyhow, regardless of politics, I cannot help feel that now international investment is coming, the way of life will disappear and the wealth divide will grow. As one hotel manger explained, he and many like him are getting into business, but loosing the time to meditate. Meditation is a significant part of the Buddhist faith, building mindfulness, modesty and happiness. He went on to explain that he now can’t achieve even a basic meditative state as his mind is full of distractions, anxieties and deadlines.
A different kind of chasing contours this time but contours nonetheless! Tour D’ai is a mountain in Switzerland reached by climbing up a Via Ferrata and then a tricky launch followed by a great flight back down to the village of Aigle!