Monday, 20 February 2017

Pantai Kerachut (Turtle Beach)

I woke early enough to go downstairs and have a decent breakfast in my hotel and as I’d packed the night before there was no real rush when I made my way across Penang Island to get to the entrance of the National park. I made sure I was starting well hydrated and also liberally applied sunscreen and mosquito repellent while on the bus. Good advice for anyone hiking here but absolutely essential for a Scotsman that’s more at home on a cold and damp mountainside.

I signed in at the visitor centre/ranger station, changed my footwear to something more appropriate for jungle trekking and set off. Initially the going was very easy with a paved path following the coast. Shortly I crossed over a small bridge and following the sign to Pantai Kerachut, headed off to the left. Immediately the walking took on a different feel as I was plunged into the rainforest and enveloped by the greenery.

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The claustrophobic, hemmed in feeling with the lush green canopy all around in every direction coupled with extreme heat and humidity took a little getting used to...and then there’s the noise of the insects! You hear the noise of the jungle depicted in countless films but this was an aural assault like no other. I mean, I’m married to an Aussie and have spent quite a lot of time over the years in various parts of the Australian bush and my most memorable noisy insect experience, camping in the rainforest on Fraser Island doesn’t even come close. The best way I can think to describe it is like this. Imagine a dentist’s drill with its high pitched whistling and screaming. Now imagine a thousand of them all going off at the same time except all those evil dentists are hidden out of sight in the trees. But you know when you get close to them as the volume and pitch suddenly gets louder and more angrily intense as you stumble your way through the undergrowth.

Speaking of undergrowth, the trail is well signed and maintained (even has the occasional rope to assist in the steeper sections) but a sensible head and attention to foot placement is required as you could easily take a tumble over the tree roots and uneven ground. Despite it being the world’s smallest national park I wouldn’t recommend leaving the trail as I imagine it would be next to impossible to navigate through the dense forest and I wouldn’t fancy your chances of being found quickly.

I hit the first steep incline and within a few seconds I almost collapsed in a sweaty heap on the ground. My furious sucking at the hot, wet air gave little to no relief and I had to take a few seconds to gather myself. By this point I was a slimy and slippery mess as my sunscreen and mosquito spray was literally all sliding off me. All my clothes were wringing wet and with no cooling breeze, I was wilting fast. I’ve often spoken about how one of the secrets (well it is for me anyway) to making decent progress in the mountains is to deliberately slow your pace so that you can control your breathing and just chip away at the gradient step by step. The steady pace is what wins the day here. I gulped down some water and set off again, this time at a more sensible pace and with the saying “How do you eat an elephant again? That’s right, one bite at a time.” springing to mind. As always, using this mental approach, my feet were soon settling into a steady rhythm and I was starting to enjoy myself as I threaded my way along the trail.

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When I’m walking at home I like to almost treat the experience like an exercise in mindfulness so that I can best enjoy everything nature is doing around me whether it’s the wind blowing clouds or mist around, the earthy smell you get as the first rains come down, the gentle warmth of the sun on your back, birdsong or any other number of experiences pleasant or otherwise. That’s what makes an adventure outdoors memorable. At first this felt different, like I was cut off from everything underneath the canopy in the debilitating heat and distracting noise but then gradually as I slowed everything down I started becoming aware of the little things around me. The pop of a red coloured tree bark (Gelam tree possibly?) in amongst the lush vegetation, the subtle differences in the insect noises now accompanied by the gurgle of a nearby spring I hadn’t noticed before and the tiny but determined stream of ants flowing across the trail under my feet. All would have been missed if I hadn’t been paying attention and by now the camera (or mobile phone as it was on Saturday) was being deployed often.

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The kilometres went by quicker than I would’ve liked and soon I was hearing the excited whoops of folks drifting through the trees. I was nearing Pantai Kerachut beach and I’d been walking for just less than 2 hours. Subtract all the time spent footering with my phone camera and I’d arrived in pretty much the time quoted on the boards. Seems like all the hours I’ve spent taking advantage of the cross trainer in the hotel gym here over the past couple of weeks were paying off. (For me these days, guide book times are a target to be achieved)

After one final very steep descent I arrived at the suspension bridge that takes you over the meromictic lake to the beach beyond. The lake was dry and just a mud bed which I’ve read happens often. Apparently the best time to see it is during the change of the monsoon (April/May & October/November). Once over the bridge I had a quick look at the beach and then found myself a picnic bench in the shade where I enjoyed the view out to sea and scoffed down my lunch which consisted of some more water and a 6 inch chicken tandoori sandwich purchased from Subway the night before. Not my usual fare but I wasn’t exactly feeling the need for a hot cuppa out here.

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Feeling refreshed after my short sit down I went off to explore the beach and found the turtle sanctuary where they help protect the turtle eggs (from predators including, sadly, us humans) and keep the hatched babies in ponds until they are old enough to stand a better chance of survival on their own before being released back into the wild. To be honest there wasn’t much to see but it was interesting and best of all free. They had a few exhibits and a couple of babies swimming around a small paddling pool and I had an interesting conversation with the attendant about the work they do protecting Green Sea, Hawksbill and Olive Ridley turtles. Afterwards I went for a wander about and to poke about the jetty too. I ended up deploying my umbrella to fend the sun off as it was even more fierce now that I was out from under the tree canopy.

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After a while I was starting to think about getting back to civilisation for beers and dinner. I briefly flirted with the idea of catching a lift in one of the boats back to the park entrance but it somehow felt like I’d be cheating if I did that and besides, I’d used the boats on a previous trip out to Penang National Park to come back from Monkey Beach so I wouldn’t be missing anything. Back into the jungle I went, puffing and panting my way back up the hill. I was stopped a few times by friendly locals also out for the day who wanted to say hello and were determined that they take a “Selfie” with me. After ruining everybody’s holiday photos I again made quite good time back through the forest despite a couple of brief encounters with some other “locals”, i.e. noisy Macaque’s and a 3 to 4 foot long Monitor Lizard. Sadly there’s no photo’s of the lizard as I’ll freely admit that I was far too busy sh*tting myself and trying to stay out of it’s way to get the camera out.

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After reaching the park entrance I signed back out and headed back to the bus stop, stopping of course for the obligatory ice cream. A thoroughly recommended day out if you are ever in this part of the world.

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Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Another new adventure

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Another new adventure is peeking its head over the horizon in the not too distant future, and no I’m not talking about NTWHW again. I am in fact talking about one of those job interviews that I mentioned in the previous post.  One of them has come back and made me an offer and as it genuinely was the one that I was the most excited about, I’ve happily accepted!

To say I’m chuffed to bits and slightly relieved would be an understatement indeed.

In fact I reckon it might even put a wee extra spring in my step on NTWHW :-)

Thursday, 9 February 2017


Some goodies arrived recently and I’d meant to stick a post up in the middle of last week but seeing as my redundancy is now less than a month away, and despite the fact that I’m taking some time to myself to get my head straight and attempt NTWHW, I started to register with some recruitment agencies a couple of weeks ago. I wasn’t really prepared for how fast these recruiters get things moving which meant that last week suddenly became a whirlwind of activity where I had to fit in normal working, going to 3 different job interviews and trying to pack a suitcase all before catching a plane on Friday. Anyway, now that I’ve finally arrived in Penang (again for work) and gotten over (most of) my jetlag I’m now sitting in my hotel room typing this up as we approach yet another weekend.

My sleep kit is getting on a bit and I reckon I’ve owned my trusty old Alpkit Pipedreams for what must be approaching a decade now. I had a few trips recently (over the last few years!!) where I was waking up cold in conditions I would normally never do. Some of that may be down to the down in the bags losing some of their loft and effectiveness and some of it may be down to some physiological changes in my body courtesy of the Sarcoidosis that makes me sleep colder...and some of it I suspect, has to lot to do with the inevitable creep towards old age that we all suffer from. I also decided a while back that I wasn’t prepared to sleep on ¾ length mats anymore and I flirted briefly with CCF mats again (that was a mistake!) but eventually invested in a couple of Exped blow up mats as light as was possible to get at the time. Their insulation properties blow pretty much everything else out of the water and they are almost as comfortable as my bed at home.

So with that in mind I’m going to stick with one of my trusty old Exped inflating mats and I’ll go with the synmat as it is a bit lighter than the downmat and it should be adequate I think on the insulation front. There’s not much more interesting I can think to say about my mat options so I’ll stop boring you with that and show you what Mr Peter Hutchinson delivered to me a couple of weeks ago!

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What’s exciting (or just plain foolhardy) is the fact that I’ve never actually used a half bag or Pied D’Elephant system before! To be honest though I really can’t see how it wouldn’t work and I really have lost count of the amount of times that I’ve fallen asleep in my tent after being sat with my lower half cocooned in my sleeping bag while wearing my down jacket and been perfectly comfortable all night. Weight wise it’s a no brainer as well. Check out the back of the envelope calculations below to see the significant weight savings on a pair of insulated clothing and sleep systems that I think should give comparable performance...

Old system:lighter down top(242g),insulated gloves(66g),beanie hat(62g), clothing drybag(38g), synmat& schnozzle bag(515g), PD400 sleeping bag(775g) = 1.698Kg

New system: Heavier down top(370g), insulated gloves(66g), beanie hat(62g), synmat& schnozzle bag(515g), half bag(250g) = 1.263Kg

Savings = 435g

That’s an enormous weight saving in one hit so I’m going to throw caution to the wind on this one and give myself a baptism by fire of sorts. I’m sure that after the NTWHW I’ll also be able to give a thorough and detailed review of the new system.

Assuming I survive NTWHW, I also have plans for taking my sleep system(s) a bit further when the mercury plummets even lower by ditching my old PD600 bag and using my down trousers to supplement the half bag and swap out the down top for my full on winter down jacket. The lightest down top I have won’t go to waste either as it will be used in summer matched with the lightest half bag PHD sell which has sadly lain unused since I got it early last year...but I’ll write about these systems in more detail as and when I get to use them.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

More than I can chew?

As mentioned in my last post a few weeks ago I've had something brewing behind the scenes. A thing I've wanted to do for a while now but hadn't wanted to reveal too much about as I'm really not sure whether or not I'll be able to manage it.

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I realise that for most folks that I've met and know who are active in the British outdoors the "Not The West Highland Way" probably isn't that big of a deal, but for me I suspect it'll be quite a bit of a challenge.

I came across Ronald Turnbull's guide book a long time ago after reading his fantastic "The Book Of The Bivvy" (which I also thoroughly enjoyed BTW). I've already got some previous personal experience doing the standard WHW and if I recall correctly I finished it in not much more than 3.5 days. I was however much younger and fitter back then but more importantly, it was the last major outdoorsy thing I can remember doing before the symptoms of my Sarcoidosis ruined lungs started to present themselves. Despite still struggling with the effects that the lung condition has had on my fitness levels I've sort of (mostly) come to terms with it and now just accept that I'm much slower these days. That being said, if I'm truly honest it still frustrates me to the point of tears on occasion and learning to deal with that frustration is still a work in progress. When I reflect on it (and I do frequently) I realise that the frustration comes from losing confidence in myself which stops me from getting out more which ultimately make me less hill fit meaning that I struggle more the next time etc etc. You can see how this quickly becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. I needed to do something about that and had been thinking about attempting one of the long distance routes and just doing it at my own, unhurried pace. Then it occurred to me that having already done the WHW then this route, if I could somehow manage it, with all it's high level alternatives and detours would surely prove (if only to myself at least) that I'm not a complete physical write off and also be quite poetic/cathartic into the bargain.

So, with my finish date at work now set in stone I'm going to seize the opportunity of being "between jobs" and go for a nice big long walk.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

An early Christmas!

After a year (almost to the day!) of silence in this place I've decided that it's time to revive it.

The reason for the silence is that I've not really done anything worth writing about over the last year in terms of the outdoors which is what this place is really for. I could give many excuse for that but I'm not going to. All I'll say is that I felt I needed a break away from blogging and my constant working abroad meant that when I was back in the UK I didn't really want to spend the precious time I had here with Louise away by myself on a summit.

There had been some movement recently behind the scenes here at Bigbananatowers with the end of what could probably be described as the worlds longest redundancy finally in sight...and with that end were some ideas and plans finally becoming that little bit more concrete.

I hadn't intended to start posting until next year, and I still don't really want to reveal my plans too early but on Friday, Santa came a little early and moved things a little closer into focus. First of all my redundancy has been shortened a little and I finally got my letter with an official finish date! (You have no idea how much joy that piece of paper brought me!) and secondly there was a little unexpected surprise in the post from the lovely Rosie at Buffwear.

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All I want to reveal at the moment on here is that there are some activities planned that should provide plenty of blog content. The main event should be taking place in March but there will be some lead up to it. It's a personal challenge that'll let me exorcise some demons as well as a sort of triumphant return to the Scottish outdoors...and I've already purchased some shiny new gear in anticipation of it so you could say that I'm already committed! Oh and I will definitely be taking and wearing my nice new Christmas present from Buff. Many thanks Rosie!

More details coming soon, but until then Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year (When it comes) to you all!

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