Thursday, September 12, 2019

Camel Surfing in Jordan


     After more than a year my PTSD has decreased enough that it is time to tell the tale of our trip to Jordan.  Ever since Kathleen and I met we have talked about doing a long distance desert crossing by camel.  The original dream was to cross the Sahara but currently there is not a safe way to cross North to South that does not involve crossing Al Qaeda territory at some point.  Our Plan B was to do a crossing of the Taklamakan (Sea of Death) Desert in western China but that is currently where all the Uighur “reeducation camps” are located so the Chinese government will not allow Westerners in that area.  Our dream hasn’t died however so we decided that we would go to Jordan to learn everything we could about long distance camel trekking – how to ride, feed, saddle, handle, and take care of them in general.  We did some research on the internet and contacted a guy named Mohammed in the Wadi Rum Desert of Jordan who had bred racing camels in the past and was willing to create a “Camel School” to teach us the skills we needed.  We would dub this “Camel Camp”.   

     Once we started planning dates for the trip it turned out that our friend Rich White wanted to join us including coming to Camel Camp.  He had never had an urge to ride camels before this but it sounded fun to him and he had the time off.  It also worked out that we would overlap for part of the time with our Canadian friends Kristin and Ryan.  The first half of the trip would be more typical tourist with us visiting the most important cultural sights of Jordan and then the second half of the trip would be Camel Camp.

     Kristin and Ryan had arrived the day before the rest of us so they met us at the airport with a rented SUV.  Jordanian driving was typical Middle East or Italian style driving.  Lanes don’t mean anything and the first car there wins.  We drove to the Dead Sea first and stayed at the Crown Plaza.  This hotel was much more high end than Kathleen and I normally do and it was obvious that it was a fancy enough hotel to be a terrorist target.  Concrete barriers rose up and down out of the ground at the gate, guards searched under the cars with mirrors for bombs, and there were metal detectors and X-ray machines to get into the lobby.  The nice thing about this hotel was that it has direct access to the Dead Sea.  The mud there is purported to have healing properties and the water is so saline that you float with no effort.  From this hotel there was also easy access to Mt. Nebo which is where Moses first caught sight of the Promised Land.  There are also a lot of old mosaics in the area worth seeing.  The following days were spent exploring old Crusader castles, hiking in the mountainous Dana Biosphere Reserve, and spending 2 days exploring most of the ancient city of Petra.  On our hike at the Dana Biosphere a shepherd and our guide stopped, built a fire, and made tea for everyone.  That was followed by milking one of the goats and giving us a sample (after boiling it) with sugar added.  It was like a hot chocolate without the chocolate.  A very sweet and tasty desert drink.  In Petra we met a man named Faris who has a home in the town but prefers to live in the cave houses within Petra like his ancestors did.  We were invited to and had dinner one of the nights in his cave. These caves were small square rooms with cushions, pillows, and rugs, a small kitchen with a hot plate and small sink, and a solar powered TV with a satellite dish on the top of the rock.  It was one of the best meals of the trip and one of the cooler cultural experiences we had.  Afterwards we were able to sneak around the Petra site after dark though the guards we ran into were not happy about it.  


     Eventually we made our way to Wadi Rum (also known as the Valley of the Moon).  Kristin and Ryan joined us for the first day and then the rest of us spent another 6 days riding through the desert exploring most of the Wadi Rum Protected Area and beyond in a big circle along the Saudi Arabian border.  The landscape there looks like Mars and this is where many of the exterior shots for the movie, The Martian were filmed.  Wide open expanses of red sand with sheer faced sandstone mountains jutting up all around.  With the erosion the mountains had the appearance of melting and if a person were on hallucinogens they might freak out with all the faces and skulls that appeared even when you were sober.  Brilliant blue sky, yellow mountains, slot canyons, and red sand made for a visual feast for the eyes.  
Starting off out of Wadi Rum Village          
The only trees seen at Lawrence's Spring     
Patiently waiting                                           
Enjoying the sunrise                                     
Eroded rocks                                                
Views everywhere                                       
Kathleen riding the tracks Day 3            
Big Rock Bridge                                   
                              
Right from the beginning our 18 year old guide Mutlek showed us how to saddle the camels up.  Lots of blankets and padding is the key.  The girth strap needs to be pulled pretty tight but the belly band behind it not so much.  The camels tend to grumple and flutter their soft palettes (dulaa) which appears like a fleshy balloon out of the side of the males mouths, especially when they are not happy.
Mutlek checking saddles                 
Watering the camels                        

Mutlek also taught us the basic verbal commands – clicking your tongue to get them to go faster (like a horse), “Ichhhhh” to get them to kneel down, and “Haj” if you really wanted them to go faster.  
"Ichhhhhhhhhh"                              

It turned out that we were Mutlek’s first guiding experience but Mohammed had picked him because he had a better rapport and understanding with the camels then most other people.  We also had a support truck driven by Salem who was our cook and was a well known local musician who would play his Oud (a lute type instrument) each night.  
Salem and Mutlek playing music   
Lunchtime jam session                   

Mutlek struggled with our names so soon gave us Arabic names:  I was Nasar, Kathleen was Hederra, and Rich became Saleh.  We struggled with the Arabic names for the camels so we named them:  Seth Rasta Rum, Francis Wadi Walla, and Louis Maudeline Jordan.  Mutlek’s camel was dubbed Krissy because it was the fastest and liked to run away. Despite their names all the camels were boys.  
Seth Rasta Rum                               
Maudie and Krissy                          

The first night we glamped in fancy tents with a Syrian refuge family cooking for us.  The rest of the nights we slept under the stars except for one night about a mile from the Saudi border where we slept with a Bedouin shepherd and his son in their tent.  
Desert camp on Day 4                     
Day 4 Camp                                    
Sunset on Day 4                              
Day 5 Desert Camp                         
Sunrise from camp 5                       
Morning at Desert Camp #6           

The Bedouin are allowed to cross the border but we were told that despite being wilderness that it is closely monitored by cameras and that if we tried to cross we would be rapidly apprehended.  Our path went past the high point of Jordan, Um Ad Dami so we scrambled up that one of the mornings with distant views of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt, and the Red Sea.  
View on the way up Um Ad Dami 
Summit of  Um Ad Dami               

Camels can be ornery and stubborn when they don’t want to do things.  One morning I woke up to watch the sunrise just in time to see Mutlek’s camel Krissy walking off and disappearing over the ridge about a mile away.  Luckily I was not the one that had hobbled them the night before.  The camel wanted to go home and was headed back in the direction of the village.  Mutlek and Salem jumped in the truck and took off after it.  I was holding onto Maudie’s rope when he decided with Mutlek gone that he could start acting up.  All of a sudden he tried to run off.  I held onto the rope but he wanted no part of me.  I tried to get him to Kush (kneel down) but he bared his teeth and continued to dance around.  After a minute or two of watching this Rich says, “Let me give it a try”.  The next thing we know Maudie put her head down, bared her teeth, and charged Rich.  Kathleen and I still have an image of Rich’s legs being a blur in his flip flops as he ran away tripping over bushes with Maudie going after his ass.  No one got hurt so it ended up being pretty funny.  We gave up trying to control him and just held onto the rope until Mutlek got back and he instantly calmed down again.  We rode every day for a week and fell into a routine that felt like it could go on forever.  Ride in the morning until lunch, take a siesta during the hottest part of the day, and then ride in the late afternoon/early evening until shortly before dusk.  
We would ride until dusk                  
Entering one of the many canyons    
Our view each day                             
It wasn't all sand                                
Erosion does crazy things                  
Our camel crew                                  
Could be Mars except for the camels 
Sunrise with beginning of sand storm
Start of sandstorm                              

By the end of the week Mutlek was comfortable enough with our skills that he let us do all the feeding, saddling, and hobbling.  I would have him check the saddles after putting them on since if they slipped they could cause pressure sores and injure the animals but otherwise he trusted us and I think he liked that he was getting paid and that we were doing all the work. 

     It was a grand adventure until the last 15 minutes of the trip as we were riding back into Wadi Rum.  Before we started Mohammed had told us that as a Bedouin it is very shameful to fall off of your camel, but if you do fall off of your camel, “Fall onto soft sand, not hard sand.”  The sand around Wadi Rum village has been driven over by multiple trucks so it was compacted down and might as well have been concrete.  Mutlek has been riding camels since he was in diapers.  All week he would periodically stand up on the back of his moving camel and salute us as it walked along.  
The inspiration 

In those last minutes of the trip I decided that if I was ever going to try this it was now or never.  No thoughts of the consequences or what I would do if the attempt failed.  (Dumb!)  As I got to my knees in the saddle the voice in the back of my head was screaming “Maybe that’s far enough!  Maybe that’s far enough!”  while the voice in the front of my head just said “Shut up back there, I’ve got this!”.  I didn’t even come close.  As soon as I stood up I basically pitched over backwards from the top of the camel, probably 8+ feet off of the ground.  If I had rotated another 15 degrees or so I would have landed on my neck or head.  I don’t really remember falling.  One second I was standing up, the next I was on my back in the dirt with a lot of pain.  At first I thought I had just taken a heavy blow.  I jumped up, put both arms over my head (the last time I would do that for months) and said “I’m OK!”.  However, after a few steps I had to kneel down to gather my wits.  I reached over to my right shoulder and felt a bony deformity underneath my skin.  Basically my collar bone had dislocated from the shoulder and was sticking up at the base of my neck.  As soon as I felt this I knew I was really hurt.  I collapsed to the ground and said “I feel faint.”  By that time Rich (who is a paramedic) had launched off of his camel and was by my side as I passed out.  When I woke up I was laying in the dirt with Rich blocking the sun from me and putting a wet bandana on my forehead.  We were close enough to the village that they had a truck out there within 15 minutes which then took me to the local clinic.  This was out of their league so they called an ambulance to take me to the city of Aqaba about 45 minutes away.  A shot of hydromorphone took the pain away and 3 radiographs showed it to be a Grade 5 clavicular location (the highest grade).  The doctors tried to reduce my shoulder in a vain attempt to put it back in place.  It didn’t hurt because of the pain killers but my body didn’t like what they were doing and I almost passed out again.  At that point they started talking surgery and since a delay of a few days would not matter I elected to wait until I got home to Seattle.  When you are admitted to the hospital there your passport is taken.  You get it back when you pay the bill.  They also informed me that they only take cash and that there was an ATM in the lobby.  I was worried about being able to pay until I got the bill.  All of the medical care and ambulance ride came up to a grand total of the Jordanian equivalent of $40 US.  I was able to pay that out of the cash in my wallet.  We then spent the next 2 days sitting by a pool in Aqaba and a day wandering around the capital of Amman waiting for our flight to leave.  The shoulder ached but with pain killers and muscle relaxants it was bearable for those days and the flight home.  2 surgeries and 4 months of rehab later I was back at work. 

Friday, May 27, 2016

San Juan Island solo circumnavigation

      Last week after I finally saw a specialist and had my surgery scheduled (on the day of my birthday) the reality of it all sank in. Two months of being injured stir craziness combined with the knowledge that my injury had screwed up an incredible 3 months we had planned to have in South America. The end of World Tour for the foreseeable future mixed in a little anxiety about having surgery and general anesthesia (again – wisdom teeth, right ankle, surgical biopsy, left knee, and now left ankle) and I was depressed. What is the best thing for John when he is an Unhappy Camper? To go camping of course! Watching the weather/wind forecast I saw that there was at least a lack of wind window opening. It was supposed to still be cool and cloudy but wind is the most important factor when kayaking in the San Juan Islands. I had 10 days until my surgery which was going to make me physically worse before getting better since I will be on crutches and not weight bearing for a couple of weeks. Days with nothing planned and good weather coincided. I woke up Sunday morning and decided spur of the moment that I was going to leave the next day.

      I strapped on my foot brace, ran around for a day collecting gear, and headed up to Anacortes to catch the San Juan ferry. For a while I have wanted to paddle a circumnavigation around San Juan Island. I was able to leave my car on the mainland and rolled my boat onto the Friday Harbor ferry.
Ferry from Anacortes to Friday Harbor
 
The initial plan had been to take a leisurely pace and do it over 5 days but the best (ie: non-existent) wind forecast was for the first few days which pushed me to paddle faster and further each day. After the first 2 days of calm the wind was supposed to become progressively stronger each day afterward. The west and especially south side of San Juan Island is very exposed. Strong currents, strong afternoon winds, and being exposed to swells from the Pacific coming up the Strait of Juan de Fuca combine to make this a potentially very hazardous area to paddle.

Bald eagle that was fighting a vulture over a dead fish.

Posey Island camp with Spieden Island and Channel in background. 
Looking out on Haro Strait from Posey Island
Posey Island Camp                                          
 

      For the record: Do not paddle alone. Especially when in hazardous areas or if you are going more than ¼ mile off shore. That said, if I waited for people to do things with than I would never have done most of the paddling or summits that I have. And to be honest, there is part of me that likes the solo part of it. The added level of danger and knowing that I only have myself to get into/out of situations is part of the allure. I am also fully equipped and practiced at self-rescue situations though that will only get you so far when it really hits the fan.

Olympic Mountains visible down Mosquito Pass
I had never seen Haro Strait this calm         
Lunch break at San Juan County Park         
Lots of seals. :-)   No whales.  :-(                
 
      The San Juan’s are incredible. One of my favorite places to paddle in the world, both for the scenic beauty and the technical nature of the paddling. Not on this trip but there have been 3 times in the San Juan’s where I have almost been overcome by the strength of the tidal currents. Timing is everything. Timing is also why my favorite time to visit is the month before Memorial Day or the month after Labor Day. The amount of people around are a fraction of what is the case during the summer. I spent three nights on the islands (Posey Island, Griffin Bay, and Turn Island) and had all of these places to myself. I only saw two other (guided) groups during the 4 days.  There was tons of wildlife.  Seals, all sorts of birds, and deer.  No whales however.  If Knucklehead Adventure Tours ever offers to take you on a Whale Watch don't do it!  It is a scam.  If you are with me than you are pretty much guaranteed to not see a whale or bear.  

Lime Kiln Lighthouse - one of the (not scary) scary spots on the paddle
Turn Island campsite                                       
There are some incredible boats in these waters   
Deer on Turn Island                                
 
      All in all, the paddling therapy worked. I am still not looking forward to surgery but at least I was able to get out of the house and have a little adventure. There is only so much reading, writing, picking banjo, and writing I can do before I start to go crazy. For some reason for me to feel alive I need to put myself in situations where I have to work at staying alive. Mission successful. Next project will be looping Lopez Island whose south side looks even more challenging but that will have to wait until later this summer or fall. 6 days until surgery.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Torres del Paine - more Pain(e) than we had hoped for


Torres del Paine National Park. The crown jewel of the park system in Chile and a World Biosphere Reserve visited by people from all over the world. National Geographic listed it as #5 of The World's Most Beautiful Places. It has been on the bucket list for a long time to come down to southern Patagonia and trek there. It is a long way from anywhere but once in the area it is not that far from El Chalten and Tierra del Fuego so there are other excellent outdoor places within a days bus ride. January and February are the busiest times at the park with December and March being the shoulder season.  Summer is short this far south.

The Cordillera Paine
Cuernos del Paine    

There are a number of hiking options at the park. By far the most popular option is hiking the “W”. A W shaped walk that basically consists of 3 out-and-backs that visit the most scenic spots on the front side of the park. This takes typically 4 to 5 days which fits most tourist’s schedule. This is not a wilderness experience as you will pass hundreds of people on the trail during peak season. For those with more time there is the “O” which does the “W” and then circles around the entire park. This takes 8 to 9 days and is therefore much less traveled. The other nice thing is that the park service restricts the backside of the park to 80 people a day. We did the “Q” which is basically the “O” with a day and a half approach hike across the windblown steppes south of the park. The “Q” covers almost every trail you are allowed to hike in the park without a guide. We also met people who were doing “Y”'s and “U”'s. For accommodations there is the option of staying and eating in the Refugio huts which means you do not have to carry very much on your back. This will run you between $115 and $150 a day depending on the Refugio. The cheap way to do it is to carry your own tent and food. Camping fees are around $9 a person at the pay sites and there are 4 free campsites run by the park. This is where it gets confusing. There are two private companies and the park service CONAF that run the various campsites. Reservations are possible but are not needed at any of the campsites except for the 2 most popular free campsites. These reservations are a scramble to get. You can try to reserve at the CONAF building in Puerto Natales (the closest big town), at the park entrance, or within the park at specific locations that day. We ended up getting our reservations for those 2 sites (Campamento Italiano and Campamento Torres) at the park entrance. The days we wanted were full so we had to push everything back a day making the first 3 days of our trek very short mileage.

The Q: We started on the tail of the Q which meant that we started about 11 miles away from the mountain range we were going to circumnavigate. We took the bus from town to the last stop and got off at the park headquarters.
Start of Q at Administracion
 
At the park entrance everyone had to stop, pay their 18,000 peso (~$25) entrance fee, and watch a video of the park rules. They are VERY serious about fire. If you get caught making a fire in the park or even cooking outside the designated zones you can be arrested and fined. People that have been caught making fires having even been thrown out of the country for life. In 2011-2012 an Israeli burning toilet paper started a fire that burned 40% of the park. At this latitude the trees take 200 years to mature. We passed through a burned area from 1985 that has made no recovery in the 30 years since. The tail of the Q passed through a combination of open grassy steppes and burnt forest. The wind was ferocious across the plains and knocked us around as we tried to walk against it. Trekking poles were a big help.
Initial grassy wind blown plains            
Areas of burnt forest                              
Transition between burnt and old forest
 
The park is located right next to the Southern Patagonian Icecap which is the 2nd largest piece of ice outside of Antarctica (Greenland is #1) so this has a huge effect on the weather and wind in the area. The burnt forest was sad but starkly beautiful in a way. We walked a few hours to the first free campsite that was in a small hollow tucked out of the wind along the Rio Grey where ducks splashed in the water. This was the only water in the park we filtered because of all the geese in it. Otherwise the water is completely pure and able to be drunk straight from the stream. There are not many places in the world where this can happen. The next day was another short day to get to the Refugio and campsite at Paine Grande where we joined up with the “W” route.   
Lakes abound in the park                             
This rabbit ate a small hole in the bottom of our tent trying to get at our food bag.  They are European hares (an introduced species) and are a big problem in the park.                                                                                                                                
60mph gusts whipping spray off lake surface

Do not plan on coming to Torres del Paine to have a wilderness experience and this is even truer on the “W”. It is more like a human zoo with a lot of younger tourists that like to party and not respect the other people around them. There were a lot of nights where there would be loud voices, yelling, singing, and general obnoxiousness at wee hours of the morning. We did quickly discover that these same people did not like to get up in the morning. If we got up and were on the trail by 0730 (not an unreasonable time) then we typically would be the first people on the trail. That meant we didn't have to see anyone for at least a couple hours before people would start coming down the trail the other direction. We did not have to do the first out-and-back to Refugio Grey since that was where we would be closing out the “O” route. The first out and back we did was up the French Valley to a lookout called Mirador Britanica. This is a viewpoint that is surrounded by stunning mountains and cliff faces.
Ice avalanche down Glaciar Frances    
Upper French Valley and Rio Frances
 
With our (not so) early start we were the first people up there and had 20 minutes to ourselves before the first other people started to arrive. Then in the hour it took us to get back to our camp we passed around 150 people and those were the early risers. It would get even busier later in the day. In fact we thought that the “W” should be renamed the “O-la” since everyone says Hola (Hello) to each other as they pass.
Sunrise view along the W                
Views from part of the W          
Foxes were often seen at campsites
 
The other out-and-back was up the Rio Ascencio valley to Mirador Torres. It is popular to get to this lookout while it is still dark in the morning and then watch the sun rise on the famous Torres del Paine – the namesakes of the park. These are three monolithic towers of rock and the morning sun shines directly on to them. There was a long line of headlamps heading up to the viewpoint that morning. We took a Nalgene full of coffee and our sleeping bags so we were very comfortable as we laid on large rocks and watched the show. There were no clouds and just a small amount of wind so it was a great morning. It would have made a great time lapse movie.
Sunrise on the Torres del Paine
 
This valley was even more crowded then the French valley and by the end of it we were hating people and ready to head to the backside of the park. The final straw was watching an American trail runner elbowing people out of the way on the trail because for whatever reason he couldn't stop running for a minute to get around people politely. It has been one of the few instances on World Tour where we have seen embarrassing American behavior. Plus he was giving trail runners a bad name so it was a double whammy.

The “O” was the part we had really been waiting for. The trail is limited to 80 people a day and everyone has to go counter-clockwise so we would be seeing far fewer people on the trail. In fact when we went through the checkpoint where we had to show our backside permit only 39 people went through that day. The hiking is more scenic though the mountains are not as dramatic as they had been on the “W”.
Hiking into the backside                     
Lago Paine looking toward Argentina
 
Our first night on the “O” there was a very hard frost that night so most everyone was cold that night. By this time we had met a group of friends that we would hang out with every night. It was quite the international group – 2 Americans, a dual Irish-American, a dual Iranian-Canadian, an Aussie, a Scot, and 2 Brits.  One of the British girls (Abi) had been on the boat to Antarctica with us.
Left to right: American, Scot, Brit, American/Irish, American, Iranian/Canadian, Aussie, Brit.
 
We were all excited about the campsite at Refugio Dickson. It had been built up as the best campsite of the trip but we found it to be very mosquito infested and the guy walking around in a Tyvek suit with a respirator spraying the buildings with pesticide did not inspire confidence. It was prettier down near the lake and the wind there kept the bugs away.
Lago Dickson and campsite         
 
John drank a fair amount of wine that night so did not feel that chipper the next day. John Gardner Pass was the next obstacle in front of us. The wind forecast was worse for the next day so we elected to do a double hike past the Los Perros camp to get to a free campsite on the other side of the pass called Capamento Paso. John was feeling low energy but wanted to get to the free campsite. It rained off and on all day and was even snowing on the top of the pass. It was a damp, cold day and not that much fun. The woods, mountains, grey, and rain actually reminded us a lot of being back in Washington. From the Los Perros camp it was about a 3 hour hike to the top of the pass. About an hour into this was when John's mountain luck ran out. We have been pushing our luck in the mountains for the last several years so it seemed like a matter of time before someone got hurt. It would be nice if there was more adventure and excitement in the story but there isn't. We were traveling through an area that had deep areas of mud. So deep that our trekking poles would not reach the bottom of it. John was trying to cross one of these areas using tree roots to keep from sinking into it when he slipped on the wet muddy wood. In the process of stumbling forward several steps his left ankle rolled and he felt a pop. From then on every time the ankle had any lateral motion there would be a painful pop as the peroneal tendon would flip over the bony protuberance of his ankle (fibular malleolus). There is no search and rescue in the park and horses are not able to get to this part of the trail. Luckily as long as the foot was placed flat and the motion was only forward/backwards then he was able to walk. The closest way out of the park was to continue over the pass so we did. We were slower as John had to be very careful, especially when the terrain was uneven.
Paso John Gardner about an hour after injury
 
On the top of John Gardner Pass the wind was so strong that it was almost impossible to take steps forward without getting knocked down. We would have to wait for brief periods of the wind speed dropping to move forward a few steps. The scenery on the west side of the pass is the best of the entire park. From the pass until Refugio Grey is reached is stunning as you look down on the Glaciar Grey and Southern tip of the Patagonian Icecap. We have only seen ice like that in Alaska and Antarctica before. Row after row of crevasses for as far as the eye could see. 
Pictures couldn't capture the scale
Lago and Glaciar Grey                  
 
The last two days to hike out were about 10km each day with much smoother trail so John was able to continue hiking out though once we reached Refugio Grey we were back on the “W” highway.

The end of the trail took us to Lago Pehoe where we were able to catch a boat across the lake to where the busses would pick us up and take us back to town. Despite getting hurt we were glad to have been able to do this trail. We have discussed coming back some day and running the “O” loop over 2 days. Now John has his ankle immobilized in a splint and we will see if this lets it heal or not. In the meantime we are going to go to Santiago to recuperate. Depending on how the ankle is we will either continue on to northern Chile or worst case have to come home for further treatment.