Adventure Travel Asia Laos The Nomadic Life Travel

Thakhek, Laos: The Bermuda Triangle of Rock Climbers

Month three of a round the world journey

In November of this year, Liz and I landed in Hanoi to embark on our third month of travel, and we were tired. We had hit a wall, and wanted nothing more than to be somewhere warm, forget about bus schedules and border crossings and stay in the same place for a week. Of course, whiling away the hours with beer on the beach isn’t really our style, and in any case, a cyclone was hurriedly rushing toward the coast of Vietnam at that time, so we decided to hop a train and a bus over to Thakhek, Laos.


monks in laos

Why Thakhek?

Because of the rock climbing.

thakhek climber

Of all the places to visit in Laos, Thakhek isn’t as popular as Luang Prabang or Van Vieng — but that’s part of its charm. Thakhek town has a lazy, river-side vibe, and most often draws visitors for the border crossing between Laos and Thailand, “the loop” — a circuit you can travel by motorbike visiting nearby caves — and trekking. Of course, with these caves come mountains, and with these mountains, rock face. Fortunately for us, a German couple had tapped the climbing potential of the area outside of Thakhek several years ago and not only bolted dozens and dozens of routes (and were still bolting more when we showed up at their door) but had built a hostel for visiting climbers: Green Climber’s Home.

Thakhek cave

Green Climbers Home

For us, Green Climber’s Home was like a dream hostel. A bed in their dorm or a rented tent was affordable. The food was also cheap and featured a ton of fresh, healthy options (we were mildly obsessed with the green salads and mango smoothies). Almost all of the routes were within a five minute walk of where we slept, and the hostel had any and all climbing accessories like climbing harnesses available to rent if you didn’t bring it with you. Best of all, our fellow guests were there to climb, talk climbing, and climb some more. Maybe I’m a bit biased, but I’ve always felt that climbers are some of the most down to earth, friendly people around, so to stay in a hostel full of them just meant extra good vibes. Not to mention, the clever bar games that came out after a few beers: who can coil a rope the fastest; bouldering around benches/tables; or attempting to pick a small box off the floor with our mouths as a tipsy test of flexibility.

Green climbers home tent

It’s probably no surprise then that almost everyone we met there was staying or already had stayed longer than they planned. Even we tacked on an extra three days (minimal compared to a few other personalities who had already logged a month at the place). Basically, it was one of those places you could easily forget about time and stay forever at. It was like a Bermuda Triangle of rock climbers who had disappeared from the rest of the world — especially since no wifi meant deconnecting.

In short, Green Climber’s Home was exactly where we wanted to be to wade out our travel fatigue.

A story of resilience

Green climbers home

At the time we visited, Green Climber’s Home was under some construction. About a year back, a fire that started during some Saint Slyvester celebrations destroyed most of the hostel. However, once word got out to the climbing community, donations came pouring back in to make restoring the place possible. Good thing too, because not only is it a great place for climbers, but a business that cares about giving back to the community and being sustainable. Happily, I noticed on their website that they have finally completed all the restoration since we visited.

Why Thakhek rocks for rock climbers

Thakhek rock climber

Besides this little community of vagabond-rock climbers, one of the reasons why Thakhek rocks as a rock climbing destination is the variety of easy to advanced climbs. There’s something for everyone: 5.7 – 5.9 grade climbs to get comfortable leading on; multi-pitch routes; and some seriously challenging I only managed to watch others ascend. Like most rock climbing in Southeast Asia, it’s also warm and humid for most of the day, but there’s enough routes in the shade to keep climbers out of the sun.

Tips on climbing in Thakhek

happy salt shaker

I won’t waste too much time with the how-to aspect of climbing in Thakhek — The Green Climber’s Home website already has thorough details, bus schedules, and maps in both English and German. But some quick tips to know:

    • No gear? No experience? That’s no excuse. Gear rentals and classes are available.
    • Bring tape — the rock is seriously sharp
    • A 60m rope is fine, 70m is better, and 80m is necessary for few climbs. Rentals aren’t too expensive though, so I’d recommend bringing a 60/70m, whatever you have, and renting the 80m if you happen to need it.
    • You can purchase a guidebook with topo maps of all the climbs at Green Climber’s Home. It includes other parts of Laos.
    • Green Climber’s Home and all of the routes are located 16km out of town. A tuk-tuk should cost about 100,000 kip ($12USD). Limited bikes and motorbikes are available for rent at the hostel.
    • There isn’t a whole lot around Green Climber’s Home other than climbing. Even if you’re there just to bag some new routes, pop by Thakhek on a rest day for some fresh fried fish and a Beer Lao Dark by the riverside!


Adventure Travel Africa Ethiopia The Nomadic Life

On the Roof of Africa: Trekking in Simien Mountains, Ethiopia

Four Days of Walking

For the four days Liz and I trekked through the Simien Mountains, the smell of wild thyme followed us. The wind was full of strong gusts of the scent that reminded me of old, unidentifiable memories, as we hiked from one beautiful vista to the next, among wild baboons, birds, and ibex. It seemed like we were forever pausing at a cliff side to stare out on blue-green rolling mountains from the roof of Africa. At one point, I noticed that the horizon was never straight, always slanted, which could explain why it also always felt as though we were trudging uphill. It felt that way because it was that way.

Simien Vista

Because of the season, and the rains that came every day, the park was filled with a dozen shades of green, from the dark army green of lichen hanging from low, umbrella-like trees, to the bright yellow-green of terraced barley fields, and the pale yellow-green of tufts of wild grass in between. Bursts of yellow, purple, and a muted pink from wildflowers filled the gap and I could never seem to take a photo good enough to record just how beautiful this mixture of color looked.

Flower Collage Simiens

With the colors, the rain also brought mud and clouds. We trekked through muck, hopped across streams, and sometimes found the trail had turned in to a river. On our final day of the trek, we hiked 400 meters to the top of a peak through cold rain and hail, only so we could eat cabbage sandwiches in a cloud and stare at more cloud. From the top of a second peak, we waited for half an hour, chatting, eating cookies, with a pair of chain-smoking French tourists, watching the clouds move over the valley, waiting for them to part just well enough for us to see and understand just how high up we were.

Cloud Parting

On our first full day, we took refuge from the rain in a rounded hut, while an elderly woman with a worn, yellow scarf, slowly roasted coffee for a coffee ceremony. Our guide, who we all thought to be shifty and easily offended, sat in the corner and sipped his coffee, while our scout, who we all gathered to be well liked and jovial (even though he only spoke about 10 words of English), sat at the center making jokes in Amharic and making the old woman and her daughter laugh. The rest of us, excluded because of our linguistic shortcomings, fell into conversation amongst ourselves.

Ethiopian Round Hut Simiens

Coming down from the mountains to our campsite on the second day, a group of rag-tag children came sprinting up the mountain with little woven boxes in hand that they wanted to sell us. It wasn’t the first time this had happened, but we were tired, so we paused to play and joke with them. They tried to teach us how to use a whip to herd donkeys, and we tested their English. One of the girls began mocking the Canadian girl’s laugh, which sent all of us, especially our elderly scout, into riotous laughter.

That night, like every night, we descended into our campsite feeling wet, cold, and tired, but eager to eat whatever it was our cook had whipped up. Usually, she made an Ethiopian interpretation of what Western food was, but we didn’t know how to say that we’d rather just have injera and shiro.

Campsite Simiens

On our final day, Liz and the other American raced up a nearby peak, while the Canadian girl and I wrote in our journals on a cliff by our campsite, watching a bird that always sounded like he was burping dive in and out of the sky. Like that we stayed until nearly dusk, waiting for our car to pick us up. When we asked our guide “what will we do if our driver doesn’t show up?” — being North Americans who need a contingency plan — he shrugged and gave us a vague “we’ll do something” response. Serendipitously, our car showed up just as I was trying to process what “something” would mean, and we drove back to Gondar at 5 mph in a thick mask of fog.

How to travel to the Simien Mountains

Road to Simiens and Baboons

Anyone who travels to the Simiens needs to hire a scout at minimum. Some people recommend having a guide, since scouts don’t usually speak English, but I would have been fine without ours! They’re cheap, only a few dollars a day, though it’s polite to tip at the end as well.

Cooks are optional, but affordable and nice to have someone else make your food after a long day of hiking. Also, if you hire donkeys to carry your bags, a cook will make sure they get to the next campsite. Hiring a donkey to carry your bag is also optional, but nice.

All of this can be arranged in Gondar or at the park office in Debark. Starting and ending in Debark is a good way to save a little money, and convenient if you are heading north to Axum after the trek (going back to Gondar is about an hour or two of backtracking).

In the end, we spent about $220 each for everything (food, transportation to/from Gondar, guide, cook, scout, permits, donkeys, and lodging) for 4 days and 3 nights of trekking.


Campsite Child Simiens{1} Vista on the roof of Africa
{2} Flowers along the trail
{3} Waiting for the clouds to part from a summit
{4} Traditional house in the Simiens
{5} Getting ready to go at Campsite #2
{6} Baboons by a waterfall
{7} The road in/out
{8} Scouts and guides talking around a campfire while a local girl visits

Adventure Travel Africa Travel Uganda

What it’s Like Gorilla Trekking in Uganda


In the jungle

Standing in the mess of twisted vines and jungle overgrowth in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, our little group of explorers — myself, my friend, a middle-aged Swedish couple, our guide, scouts, and trackers — stood in silence as we stared at a family of silverback gorillas in front of us. They stared back, equally curious. A loud, humming sound broke the silence, and one of the Swedes turned to our guide and asked, “what was that?” in a voice that suggested wonder and excitement.

Our guide, the only woman working as a guide in the park, smiled and began to giggle like the schoolgirl she must have been years ago. “Hehehe – they are farting,” she said and we all began to smile and laugh softly. Even the scouts and trackers, who never spoke enough for me to know just how much English they knew, began to chuckle. The sound happened again, and we all looked knowingly at each other and continued our immature, muted giggles.


“They ate a really big breakfast,” our guide said, continuing the joke.

And for an hour, they continued to lounge in the jungle, farting, pooping, growling at each other, and sometimes lumbering over into another part of the forest. At one point, one of the females, seemingly annoyed at her audience, charged at us and one of the trackers raised his machete and barked back at her. She backed down.

“You always have to show that you aren’t afraid. They’re just trying to scare you, but if you try to run, they may pick you up. They’re really strong and can break your bones or kill you really easily. They don’t always mean to, they’re just so strong.” Our guide had cautioned us.

After one hour, we had to leave before we over stayed our welcome and really began to piss off the gorillas.

Since trekking in Uganda in September, I’ve gotten a lot of questions from other travelers about the experience and I thought I would include them here in case you were wondering the same thing:

Was it worth the money?

Honestly, I try not to think about it. I was a lot of money for what it was, but the proceeds from the $500 per person permits go back into protecting the gorillas and their environment, and improving the standards of living in nearby communities (related goals, really). Also, even though the trek was brief, it was incredibly well run and you could tell a lot of work and money goes in to protecting the park. Trackers, guides, and scouts are well-trained, and the guides all speak excellent English.


Is there any way to do it cheaper?

All in all, we paid $900 each for the permit, private transportation to/from Kampala, hotels, water, and all our meals, through Cheap Uganda Safaris. While we don’t regret the splurge (our driver/guide, Alex, who runs his own company, Freelyn Adventures when not freelancing for others, was awesome and it was nice to break up our budget backpacking with a bit of uncomplicated luxury) we could have done it cheaper. We could have linked up with other travelers since tour prices drop as the number of people increases, or taken the independent route, buying the permits ourselves, making it to Kabale by bus and hiring a driver from there, getting all of our own food, and camping in our tent. Also, a lot of tour companies buy permits in advance and so towards the end of the tourist season, around November, some will have discounts on their tours and will sell the permits off for about $350. The trade-off here is that it’s rainy season, and the trail is muddy and slippery.

Bwindi Forest

Do you always get to see the gorillas?

It’s pretty much guaranteed. We asked this question to our guide who said yes, she’s always been able to find the gorillas. The park tracks each family’s movements and at the beginning of the day, trackers set out well before the guides and hikers to locate the families based on where they were last seen. Guides and trackers communicate with walkie talkies for updates on their whereabouts. When we asked our guide what was the longest it ever took to locacte them, she said “about 10 hours.”

“We had to call the office on our walkie-talkies and have them bring us dinner and more water,” she said, remembering the experience.

For us, we found them in about 2 hours, stayed for an hour, and were the first group out of the park.

Gorilla Tracker

So, it was pretty amazing then?

I’d be kind of an asshole if I said no, right? Just kidding. It was amazing, but far too short an amount of time. Also, I think seeing the gorillas (sitting around, farting, eating, looking at me with a strangely human face) made it easier to relate to them and grasp the commonalities humans have with other primates. So, in a way it made them less of this incredible, mysterious animal that exists somewhere-out-there in the world and more of a familiar face. Maybe I’m being vague, but it wasn’t like seeing lemurs and thinking about how cute and amusing they are, but being in the presence of an animal that you know is watching and observing you as much as you are it was a totally different nature viewing experience. They’re intelligent and complex, and you feel that.


Adventure Travel Africa The Nomadic Life Uganda

At The Source of the Blue Nile in Jinja, Uganda

Blue nile

I will forever remember Uganda as being a thousand shades of green. We arrived in Jinja, Uganda at the end of a long rainy season, and at the beginning of a tropical downpour, that had been making me nervous as I tried to balance myself and heavy backpack on the back of my motorcycle taxi (called a boda boda).

“Where are you from?” My driver asked

“America,” I said dryly.

“Oh! Amereeca! Will you marry me?”


“Why not?”

“Because I don’t want to marry anyone I have known for only two minutes. Now please watch the road.”

“You’re scared?”

“Just watch the road.”

Obviously, I was more concerned with getting to our hostel, Adrift, before it began to dump buckets of water from the sky, than a boda boda driver’s romantic, or more likely, self-serving, intentions.

We got there, but just barely, and spent the rest of the evening drinking beer and trying to make out a brown, muddy Nile that stood against a backdrop of white haze. The next morning, however, the rain and mist had lifted, and we were greeted with a wide, lolling river, made lazy by a pair of nearby dams.

Why visit Jinja?

Ugandan Fishermen

Jinja, Uganda is a popular stop over for adventurous tourists looking to bungee jump or white water raft down the Nile (mostly out of our hostel, Adrift, which sits a few kilometers outside of town but has a lively bar that overlooks the Nile) and the less adventurous ones who would prefer to bob up and down on a small canoe bird-watching or booze-cruising on a sunset boat ride that putters past papyrus reeds and fishermen — exactly the sort of scene you might expect to see on the Nile if you ignore the anomaly of your boat.

Ugandan fisherman Nile

Off the river, Jinja is a large, bustling town. Downtown’s main street is dotted with several cute cafes (like, Source of the Nile) that serve up freshly brewed coffee — a great break from the instant coffee we kept getting throughout Kenya — and dozens of souvenir shops basically selling the same thing. Being Uganda’s second largest metropolis (after Kampala) I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by this bit of cosmopolitanism. I was rather surprised by how many foreigners and tourists were roaming the streets, many of whom seemed to be unusually pretty girls in their early 20s, sporting flowing long skirts. Volunteers in the name of God, maybe? I’ll never know.

source of the nile cafe

Final thoughts

Ugandan school children

In the end, I found the place overly touristy but beautiful. I was happy to move on, but encountered several foreigners who now call it home. Mostly, I feel like I’ve walked away from Jinja being able to say “no big deal, I’ve been to the Nile.” Not a bad place to spend a few days, right?

Adventure Travel Africa In Photos La Reunion The Nomadic Life

Dining and Hiking on La Reunion’s Active Volcano

La Piton de la Fournaise

Seriously guys, I’ve already gabbed on enough about La Reunion, but want to point out two more highlights of the trip, Le Piton de la Fournaise, an active volcano, and a cozy restaurant called Le QG before returning to posts about Madagascar. Next week, look for some colorful photos I’m eager to share depicting the arrival of autumn in Antsirabe (wait, what? Fall? That’s right. Madagascar is not ‘Africa hot’ – as my mom would say – as we roll from April to May).

Hiking an Active Volcano


But anyways, at the center of La Reunion sits the Piton de la Fournaise, one of the world’s most active volcanoes and perhaps the pinnacle of its attractions. The tourism board’s website is littered with dramatic black-and-orange photos of the volcano’s last eruptions back in 2007, 2008, and most recently 2010 to leverage this unique geographical feature in creating an adventurous allure to the island. “It’s like a moonscape,” one French expat had described it. Because we didn’t have a car, Chip and I weren’t confident that we would get the chance to see it, but lucked out by tagging along with one of our couchsurfing hosts and two of her friends visiting from France. Once we arrived at the trailhead to get to the volcano, having watched a landscape filled with every imaginable shade of green change to an ominous field of dried, black lava and scraggly plants, I could easily see why it gets so much attention as a tourist destination on the island – It is super cool up there.

A Fog Engulfs Us…

La Piton de la Fournaise 2

Unfortunately, a heavy fog engulfed the volcano the day we set out. Off in the distance we could blurrily make out other hikers on the trail – little specks too far off in the distance to shout out at and be heard – and it gave me the impression that I was caught in some sad, forlorn dream. When we ran into hikers closer up on the trail, they only emphasized my impression – many of them looking grumpy and defeated at how unexpectedly less than pleasant the hike was. I guess most of us hadn’t considered it beforehand, but trying to summit a volcano is clumsy business. Instead of an actual trail, visitors follow a route marked out by white spray paint on the rocks to the top. Small rocks and pebbles make the route slippery (I’ve got the scabs on my hand to prove it) and I never quite felt like I was on a solid, steady surface. Fortunately, a clumsy, rocky way up proves the only danger to hiking La Fournaise.

Wait, is This Dangerous?

Formica Leo

“Can they predict eruptions with enough accuracy to keep people from being on it during an eruption?” Chip asked aloud as we neared the top.

Our hiking partners assured us that yes; the eruptions could be predicted in advance enough to get a warning out. A nearby observatory, the Piton de la Fournaise Observatory, keep a constant watch on volcanic activity using geophysical sensors and have a no-nonsense warning system and evacuation plans for nearby villages. It appeared our only concerns should be tripping and falling – like one French woman who was now shuffling back to the parking lot with a chipped tooth.

“Ahrgg! Are we there yet??” I yelled, too cold, wet, hungry, and sleep-deprived to give a shit about being present and enjoying the physical challenge anymore. At the top, our hard work was rewarded with sitting with a half-dozen other tourists eating sandwiches in a cloud. We knew that we were sitting on the mouth of an active volcano, but appearances alone wouldn’t have given that away. We sat long enough to eat a cookie and left – now with the new motivation of knowing that descending meant ultimately reaching “the best creole food in La Reunion,” as told to us by Chef Fred.

“Pig Intestines, Please”: Lunch at Le QG

Creole FoodWhen we finally did reach Le QG, the cozy, dimly lit restaurant was a welcome reprise from the chill and rain outside. Chip, our couchsurfing host, and I clustered around the wall mounted fireplace in the back sipping Dodos (the local beer) and doing our best to warm up. Fred greeted us in a chef’s apron, an introduced us to the head chef, a Senegalese man with a broad smile and a towering, white chef’s hat. I had hardly finished my Dodo before we sat down and Fred asked us what we wanted to eat.

“Pig intestines, please,” Chip told Fred.

A minute later we could see the Senegalese chef and Fred discussing the order – “really? The American wants that? You’re sure? Well okay then…”

The intestines tasted salty yet full of flavor, but my favorite dish on the table was the goat seasoned with bay leaves. In true creole fashion, they brought out large bowls of rice, steamed greens, beans, and the various meats each of us had ordered – family style. In true French fashion, our host ordered a bottle of red wine since drinking beer with a meal was simply “improper” (this is totally a custom I can get down with). As our last real meal in La Reunion, we went all out, even splurging for desert – crème brulee and something called a “pineapple surprise” – and espresso. I couldn’t have imagined a better farewell meal.

Pineapple Surprise

Slightly tipsy from the beer, wine, and complimentary samples of rhum arrange, a rum infused with different flavors such as ginger, baobab flower, or vanilla, I got up to pay and thank the chef.

“Wait, before I leave, I have a question for you… Degena Wolof?” I asked – which means “do you speak Wolof?” in Wolof. He looked at me for a second then gave me a resounding “Yaow!” before running off around the restaurant shouting “did you hear what she just said? Degena wolof! Degena wolof! Oh my god, did you hear that?” It made me miss how vibrant and outgoing West Africa is compared to the passivity of Madagascar.

“Come back Friday and I’ll cook a big meal for us!” he exclaimed after he finished circling the restaurant in excitement. Genuinely sad, I shook my head and said “sorry, I’m going back to Madagascar tomorrow,” and instead said goodbye, thank you for the food, and headed back to our hosts’ home for a much needed nap.

Le QG Server

Photos: (1) Beginning the ascent (2) A plant on the hike to the volcano (3) On the way down from the parking lot (4) ‘Formica Leo’ (5) Pork and rice (6) Pineapple surprise desert (7) One of the owners of Le QG serving up some delicious food

Adventure Travel Africa La Reunion The Nomadic Life

Rappeling Through Waterfalls in Cilaos, La Reunion

Last week I wrote about a few of my first impressions in La Reunion, but I haven’t even mentioned the best part of the trip:

Canyoning in Cilaos!


Before arriving in La Reunion, neither Chip nor I had ever done canyoning before, but while doing research on La Reunion I came across a website boasting “Reunion Island, an Eden for canyoning? That’s what fans of this [sport] say.” It didn’t take much to convince me (or Chip for that matter) and it quickly became one of the things on my ‘To-Do in La Reunion’ list I became the most excited for.
“But, what is canyoning exactly?” one friend asked me before I left.

“Well, it’s… err… something like… rappelling down canyons?” I answered.

A little dumb, I know. I didn’t fully understand what I was getting myself into, yet I was totally psyched. I knew it had something to do with rappelling, and as a rock climber deprived of climbing opportunities in her current home, my mind kind of stopped at “mid-way between rock climbing and…” Ropes? Bolts? Carabeeners? I was positively drooling at the thought of climbing gear alone.

Only, I should have read beyond “rock climbing and…”. If I had, I would have noticed “water sports”, a pair of words that I usually say a giant ‘nooo thanks!’ to. White-water rafting? Nuh-uh. Not doing it. Jumping off 10-foot high rocks into a river? I’m the girl that will stand there for 20 minutes before making the plunge. Swimming with sharks in Cape Town? I’m scared enough of the ocean as it is, do we really need to throw sharks into the mix?

So fast forward to the morning when Chip, me, four French tourists, our guide, Gilbert and I are standing around his car, getting the run-down on what to expect from our day. The area around Cilaos is rich with canyoning spots of all levels, but being total novices to the sport, Gilbert had chosen to take us to Fleurs Jaunes, one of the area’s most popular spots for beginner canyoning. Gilbert is speaking French, and I am ultra-focused trying to understand his explanations.

“If it’s easier for you all, I can explain in Creole,” he jokes when he notices how concentrated I am.

We all laugh, then out of no where (or seemingly so, because I probably just didn’t catch what he was saying), he tosses each of us a full-body wetsuit and instructs us to put them on. Immediately I know what’s coming. I’m going to be swimming, but there’s no backing out. I have no choice but to wriggle in to the wetsuit — and of course as soon as I’m all zipped in, feeling a bit like Ralphie from A Christmas Story (“I can’t move my arms! I can’t move my arms!”) I feel the need to pee.

I’m off to a great start already.

CanyoningOnce everyone is zipped up, Ralphie style, we all waddle (or maybe I was the only one waddling) over next to a tree for a photo then head out. Not five minutes from the road, Gilbert has us jump into a small natural pool and scoot down a rock slide into another pool. We get out, all of our feet and sneakers now squishy and wet. I tell myself it’s OK, I just have to accept that I’ll be drenched for the next two hours… it’s not that big of a deal, right? The shoes will dry, don’t worry about it.


And it was OK. After mentally embracing the water-sport side of canyoning, I had the most fantastic time. Seriously, canyoning is the best way to make a climber like water sports. In the span of two hours, we rappelled down 300 meters and 6 waterfalls, plunging into the small natural pools the water collected in, and sometimes even getting to slide down more rock slides. In between rappels, we tried our best to chat with the others — one of them was particularly fond of yelling “nice!” in English whenever Chip or I finished skidding down a waterfall. Finally, we stopped for a picnic at the bottom of our last cascade (our sandwiches kept dry in a large, buyout dry-sac) then scrambled back up a steep trail to get back to the road.


Absolutely exhausted, Chip and I returned to our gite — a hostel-like accommodation catering to hikers and other sports enthusiasts — and shamelessly indulged in a hot shower and some beers.

DSC_1334 Cilaos Waterfall

Interested in Canyoning in Cilaos?

We spent 60 euros a piece on our tour with Run Evasion, a sports store in central Cilaos but several other companies also do Canyoning tours:

  • Run Evasion – 0262318357
  • Daniel Ducrot – 0692659067
  • (also does rock climbing) – 0692667342
  • Fabrice Bouisset – 0692662273

For accommodations, there were quite a few cheap gites scattered around town. We paid 16 euros a night at Ti Case Lontan at 10 Rue Alsace, and were floored by how kind and welcoming the owner was. If you’re really trying to travel on a budget though, Cilaos has a camp ground called Le plateau des Chênes, a short walk out of town towards Bras-Sec.

Photos: (1) Graffiti in Cilaos (2) Our group photo taken by Gilbert (3) One of my first rappels (4) The view coming back up (5) Cilaos mountains from a hiking trail (6) View of a waterfall from town

*Photos 2, 3, and 4 were taken by our guide, Gilbert*

Adventure Travel Africa Madagascar The Nomadic Life

Old Friends and Epic Rock Climbing in Andringitra, Madagascar

Like my last post, this too comes to you a bit late.


Back in July/August I spent a month just outside of Andringitra National Park, helping another PCV , Liz, teach English to the park guides during the off-season for farming, but when the chance came to revisit the park after Thanksgiving in Fianaratsoa, I leapt on it. Even though I had accomplished the difficult, three-day trek to the top of Pic Boby, the tallest accessible peak in Madagascar, I still had yet to scale the rock faces that dominate the valley’s landscape.

Even before we entered the park, I felt as though I was following a trail of memories. In Ambalavao, the town where travelers stock up on food and supplies before catching the final bus to the edge of the valley, one of the guides, his wife, and two year old son waved me down while I was walking to market. The two-year-old didn’t remember me but talking to the guide and his wife, both of whom had been enthusiastic and cheerful students, I suddenly got an impression of what this trip would be: warm, welcoming, and an unexpected return to familiar faces and surroundings. At the bus station, the trail of familiar faces continued. The driver recognized me, asked me how school was going, how my friend Liz was doing. When we passed through a toll that tourists have to pay at the edge of the village where the bus stops, Vohitsoaka, he defended me and insisted that I was not a tourist and shouldn’t pay the toll.

From Vohitsoaka to the three camp sites in the valley, it’s about a two and a half hour walk on a wide, dirt road through rice fields, mountains, and the occasional compound of huts almost too small to be called a village. On that day, we had arrived on the cusp of a thunderstorm, giving the valley an almost sinister feel. One of my friends joked that we were headed towards Mordor. As we hiked over hills, we watched the clouds roll in, anxiously pondered a wall of rain in the distance, blocking mountains I knew we would have been able to see had it been clear. Whenever we have a large storm, I am constantly worried about the seamless guttering on the back side of our house. Some storms are powerful enough to tear it out of the side of the house, and it would be expensive to repair it. The shift in weather suddenly made it difficult to believe it was just four in the afternoon when we finally put down our heavy packs in the dining room at Tsara Camp, the cheapest of the three-camp site cluster at the foot of the rocks we had set out to climb.

That night, we headed to Camp Catta, the nicest of the three camps and also a popular hang out spot for ring-tailed lemurs known as maki, to drink beers from their terrace while watching the maki jump from roof to boulder to tree. I entered awkwardly, but was happy to be recognized by the staff who almost immediately asked me how my fictional tour-guide-in-India husband was doing, then offered my friends and I some non-menu rice and beans for dinner instead of the pricey vahazah wood-fired pizzas (delicious as they are).

When we finally got our shit together and set out to climb the next morning, it was another one of the many people I had met and talked with in my previous stay who ended up guiding us to the base of a vertical multi-pitch route and helping us through our first ever multi-pitch attempt. With someone I had known from months before, the stiff client-guide relationship easily dissolved into an amicable friendship. “It’s so great being able to climb and speak Malagasy with you guys,” he said at one point, making me believe it wasn’t just a one-sided sentiment.

At the end of the day, tired and more than happy to pay too much for a cold Coke, I slipped away from my two friends to where our climbing guide and several of the bartenders were chatting. Our climbing guide asked me if I was dating the boy in our trio. “Nope, I’ve got that husband in India, remember?” Of course, he said, and then asked about the girl. “Sorry, she’s got a fiancé. But, that boy out there… he’s single,” I retorted, sending the staff into uproarious laughter and satisfyingly embarrassing the (married) climbing guide. By the way, am climbing barefoot, but strongly suggest this guide on the best shoes for rock climbing



Indiana Jones StyleThe First Pitch

Camp Catta Lemurs

Photos: (1) A cow herder and his livestock (2) A local porter and his slingshot at the top of “the Chameleon” (3) The rock face from afar (4) Barefoot, vine-climbing while waiting for a belay (5) The first pitch (6) Camp Catta lemurs

Adventure Travel Africa Madagascar The Nomadic Life

The Trail to Pic Boby is Lined With Moonshine

Entering Andringitra

The blisters on my feet made me loathe closed-toe shoes as I inched my way down the rocky moonscape to our second and final campsite, Tsaranomby. How long had it been since I’d worn anything other than flip-flops?

Suddenly, from behind me, I heard a voice. “Mora mora e! (Slowly slowly)” an old guide, technically leading someone else’s group, said as everyone but him had passed me. “We have to go slowly! Oh! Be careful! Slow now, slow now,” he squawked repetitively until I snapped and said “Hey, I GET IT, I’ve been walking slow this whole time!” Without a word, he passed me and descended into the campsite.

“Ah, I’m sorry, was that rude?” I asked when I caught up with Liz, the Peace Corps Volunteer who lives and works with local guides to Andringitra National Park.

“No, whatever, that guy is always annoying,” she said, and we joined the other four parties of tourists, whose tents had long ago been set up by their porters, in the valley below. We threw down our bags and got about to setting up our nights’ shelter ourselves.

It was our second night camping, and we only had a little further to go before returning to Liz’s town at the beginning of the trail, Morarano on our next and third days’ hike. After the previous two days of hiking, we were happy to look forward to an easy walk home. The previous day we had hiked roughly 13km over the tall ridge surrounding Morarano and its’ valley, then through rocky trails and rice fields to Andringitra National Park’s entrance. From there it was another 5km up a steep, staircased trail, and a savanna-esque valley to our first campsite. Early the next morning, we climbed another endless staircase to the peak of the “highest accessible peak in Madagascar” — Peak Boby — to catch the sunrise.

The peak was originally discovered by a French scientist who hiked to the top with his dog and as the dog arrived first he decided to name the peak after him. However, locals found it offensive to have a mountain named after a dog so they gave it a Malagasy name, Imarivolanitra (literally: the peak that touches the sky). Unfortunately for them, “Boby” (boh-be) is easier for tourists to pronounce so I fear they’ll never be able to rid themselves of the dogs’ namesake completely.

Now in Tsaranomby withour tent set up, the sun was making a fast retreat behind the mountains, turning the rocks a brilliant pink-orange. Around us, the guides and porters fanned camp fires and stirred up giant pots of (plain) rice and leafy greens. A couple of the guides served their tourists tea in tin pots, while Liz and I loitered about, trading cigarettes for a coveted piece of bread with jam and bouncing back and forth between talking to the guides and the tourists. We were neither; as often happens with PCVs, we were caught in that spot between being a local and a visitor. We spoke the language, but it wasn’t our mother tounge. We ate rice three times a day with the guides and porters, but leapt at the chance to have bread and jam. But most importantly, we acted as a bridge.

“I feel like the guides and tourists interact more when I go into the park with them,” Liz said.

The same could be said about buying them moonshine.

Around sunset, a toaka-gasy seller returning from a party stumbled past the campsite with his gasoline-barrel full of the home-brewed sugarcane moonshine slung over his shoulder on a stick. As a thank you, Liz bought a coke-bottles worth (about 60 cents) for the guides. By dinnertime, the guide who had been walking with us was making drunken speeches in English — “yeees, yeees, yeees, we drink….. together! yeees?” — and the French college students were giggling at another guide’s attempt to flirt with a girl, while claiming not to be flirting.

But eventually the moonshine ran out, the fires died, and a full moon peaked out from behind a cloudy sky, as one by one the campers slipped away to sleep and leave the party behind in preparation for one final push to the end of the trail.

Buying GreensFinal DescentHiking up to Peak BobyFinal Descent 2Top of Peak BobyFog on Peak BobySunrise near Peak Boby

Photos: (1) The end of the first day’s hike (2) Buying leafy greens before heading into the park (3) The final descent to Morarano (4) The trail to Peak Boby (5) The final descent again (6) With friends at the top of Peak Boby (7) Fog on Peak Boby (8) Sunrise over the valley

Adventure Travel Africa Madagascar The Nomadic Life

Biking the RN7 to Antsirabe

“This’ll be adventurous and totally not dangerous at all,” I sarcastically texted my friend as we made plans to bike the 60 kilometers from my town to the pleasant highland city of Antsirabe one afternoon.

“Yes, so adventurous that I’ll hum the Indiana Jones theme song the whole way down,” he responded.

I may have to bring headphones, I thought.

Yet, jokes aside, I was jumping with anticipation. Biking the hilly highway between Antanifotsy and Antsirabe has been on my Madagascar bucket list ever since Peace Corps handed me the prophetic piece of paper describing my future town, but once I witnessed the road in person, the speeding cattle cars and propensity for chicken busses to be lying upside down by the side of the road made me realize it would be a fairly harrowing experience.

What changed my mind? Sitting on the side of the road waiting for a bus, and realizing how infrequently cars actually do pass and seeing over and over again bus drivers expertly dodging the ever-present bike traffic on the side of the road. Unlike American highways, drivers are used to sharing the narrow, winding expanse of highway between Antananarivo and Fianaratsoa with wooden cattle carts (known as saretys), bikes, rickshaws, and cattle herds.

When we finally set out, in the autumn-esque sun of a cool June afternoon, the sun was beginning to dip behind the rolling highland hills, illuminating the landscape and all its shadows. Small figures still dotted the fields of carrots, rice, and potatoes. As it was the height of carrot season, the produce Antsirabe is most known for ($0.25 USD per kilo!) every few kilometers pairs of people sat roadside washing hundreds of carrots by pushing them back and forth in water-filled tarps, a rhythmic see-saw like motion broken only to shout “bonjour, vahazah!” at us. Children rushed to the side of the road to scream whatever French phrase they had stuck in their head at us. A group of old women decided it was important to inform us what was growing in the fields we stopped to stare at. 30 kilometers in, someone shouted my name, a teacher from my school that I had eaten lunch with earlier that day, reminding me how small the 4th-largest island in the world can sometimes be.

17 kilometers out-of-town, the sky grew darker than we would have liked, and we hitched a bus half the way, until we were in the safety of street lights and urban, pre-Independence Day traffic (the Malagasy Independence day is June 26th). With the promise of the best pizza in Madagascar (Green Park / $5-6 USD) to satiate our hunger, we finally arrived at our “ hoteles en bacalar“, butts aching and stomachs grumbling.

Photos: (1) Rice fields (2) Antsirabe’s mosque at sunset (3) Merina men walking on the highway (4) Roadside carrot stand (5) A row of colorful Malagasy eateries — known as hotelys (6) The flattest part of the journey (7) Hotel de Thermes in downtown Antsirabe

Adventure Travel Africa Madagascar The Nomadic Life

Trekking through Otherworldly Landscapes in Ankarana National Park

Ankarana TsingyI had spent six months in Madagascar before finally arriving in Ankarana National Park and getting the chance to see the dramatic landscapes and protected species that most tourists witness an abundance of on short, well-catered vacations. Although friends and family might think I sit under giant baobab trees counting lemurs and miniature chameleons in my spare time, I’m more likely found watching chickens run around a dirt school yard while absorbing the audial ambiance of small children crying and clanking cattle carts (known as saretys).

So, when the nine other Peace Corps Volunteers I was traveling with and I set off into the humid, buggy, rainforest of Ankarana for a pair of caves dubbed “The Bat Caves” by our guides, I felt almost hyper-sensitive to the near total lack of human presence, the enveloping hum of cicadas and the raw smell of earth and wet trees. We set off in the late afternoon, as several groups of morning trekkers were packing into their private vehicles and speeding off to Diego for the night, so that we only encountered two other hikers along the way. As if planted by the guides themselves, a family of Crowned lemurs loitered about the trailhead, jumping from tree limbs and casually posing for photos. Meanwhile the two guides, who were probably as accustomed as the lemurs to photo-obsessed tourists, took a seat on a bench behind us, looking terribly bored but patiently waiting for the end of our camera frenzy.

Lemur in Ankarana by Sally Bull

Finally, we tore ourselves away from the lemur-filled patch of forest and continued onwards to witness one of the less iconic animals indigenous to Madagascar, the Commerson’s leaf-nosed bat. A narrow path took us through tangled vines and alongside towering boulders, before arriving at a pair of caves the size of a five-story tall building, drifting thankfully cool air from their dark and mysterious depths. I felt pathetic and ashamed to admit that after this intermediate, hour-long trail, my legs were trembling from my re-awakened muscles. After months of mentally intensive work and minimal exercise, a trail that I would have raced down just last spring took the breath out of me. That, plus the buckets of sweat that poured from our bodies from the hot, humid forest air meant we were all relieved when the guides told us to take out our headlamps and take off our hats (to honor the dead ancestors whose spirits live in the caves) and follow them through the cool, hollow passages.

The CaveOnce far from the entrance and collected in the belly of the cave, the high-pitched murmur of bat squeaks became slightly louder and a light shone upwards to reveal thousands of sleeping bats blanketing the entire roof of the cave. A couple fluttered around and I held my breath in the hope that none of the (20-something-year-old) boys would childishly throw a rock or shout loud enough to wake them up. Fortunately, we left the cave without a mass of bats frantically following our exit, and continued on the other half of the trail, which runs as a loop back to the trailhead.

On the second half of the trail, the lofty trees and greenery thinned out to lead us to an expansive, grey tsingy forest. Yet another one of the otherworldly geological features unique to Madagascar, the tsingy forest is composed of sharp, porous towers of deciduous forest. Many of the rock pillars are connected so that the trail took us over and above, rather than through, the rock forest. Carefully, we wobbled over the uneven path until reaching a lofty peak overlooking a field of spiky tsingy towers and lush, deep-green rainforest, before heading back down to finish the hike.

We arrived back at our bamboo-thatched hut hotel rooms, sweaty, exhausted, and all too happy to dig into the piles of freshly steamed crab and coconut rice the family-run hotel had cooked up for dinner.

On Getting to Ankarana

We entered at the Eastern entrance to the park, located on the road from Ambanja/Antananarivo to Diego just a couple of hours south of the cosmopolitan coastal town of Diego (Antsiranana in Malagasy). From this entrance, they offer two short hikes like the one described above, and a longer, full-day hike to a scenic lake. If travelling by taxi-brousse, take one going to/from Diego/Ambanja and ask to be dropped off. A lodge with electricity, comfortable beds, showers, and full restaurant for about 50,000AR per night sits several feet from the park’s information center. Meals are not included and for travelers on a budget, I suggest venturing a couple of minutes down the road to a local hotely where you can get similar food for a third of the price.

More Picture Love


 Tree Frog

 Tsingy Bridge

Bug on a Tree

Tsingy LandscapePhotos: (1) View of the Tsingys (2) Lemur posing for Sally Bull (3) Entrance to the bat cave (4) Pink moths (5) Tree frog and a twisty tree (6) Crossing the Tsingys one by one on a makeshift bridge (7) Cicada shell (8) Tsingy Landscape

Adventure Travel In Photos North America Oregon The Nomadic Life

Brookings, Oregon: The End of the Oregon Coast Trail [photos]

For roughly two weeks I followed the Oregon Coast Trail by means of foot and wheel, finally finishing the trip outside Brookings, Oregon and camping there for two nights with the boyfriend.

Sunset at Harris Beach

Boyfriend + My Birthday(s) Dinner

Sunset at Harris Beach

Full Moon at Harris Beach

It's cherry season in Oregon!

Although hikers can feasibly attempt the trail as a thru-trail, most opt to do it in a series of short day hikes. After vaguely trying to hike the OCT from south to north, I can see why. Keep posted for more details on my opinions/reactions from Oregon’s seaside trail!

Adventure Travel North America Oregon The Nomadic Life

Hiking in Cascade Head, Oregon

Neskowin to Lincoln City

Photo Credit: Marian Mclaughlin

The trail unofficially known as Phil was closed for good reason. But since our new friends in Neskowin who had dragged a plastic dining set to the beach to share a sunset pasta dinner with us had assured us it was OK to hike, we trekked on. A mudslide perhaps had strewn tree trunks and branches across the path and stream-fed weeds grew tall enough to render it invisible in parts.

On the other hand, boot and dog prints made us think we weren’t alone. Someone with a hatched (who we frankly referred to as hatchet man) had cut slits in the logs to make them passable, encouraging us to continue. However, when the dog prints clearly enlarged to bear prints my body tensed with anxiety and I wanted nothing more than to get the hell out and hitch a ride to Devil’s Lake.

Sure, I’ve been on sub-par trails and traipsed through the habitats of animals who sometimes maul humans, but I’d always had someone more experienced to defer to. My anxiety welled as I realized I was the experienced one.

I had forgotten to tell someone other than the Neskowin pair we’d known for less than a day about our whereabouts and the list of things that could go morbidly wrong raced through my mind. I suddenly felt foolish. So when the trail opened to a gravel road that cut through it, we abandoned our nature trek for the highway — too nervous from following bear tracks and tired of clapping our way up a mountain to say the hike was still enjoyable.

Adventure Travel North America The Nomadic Life The United States

Why I Want to Visit the Oregon Coast Trail Right Now

With novice-hiker friendly Camino de Santiago financially out of reach, inspiration for my latest travel daydream is a bit closer to home.

1. Potential for Long-Distance Trekking

While most sources seem to point towards day-treks on the Oregon Coast Trail (OCT), over the years the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department have developed the OCT as a route for hikers to be able to thru-trek the state’s coast. Most impressively, this project includes a set of comprehensive maps and directions for those attempting it. The remoteness of the trail varies from fairly secluded, to not at all — at times criss-crossing with highway 101 and several coastal towns. In fact, 41% of the trail is on paved roads, and not really much of a trail at all. However, there’s definitely an appeal to this as it makes  it easy to hop on and off the trail to refuel or quell that inevitable sense of loneliness on a long journey alone.

2. Diverse Landscapes

One of the highlights of the OCT is it’s unique geography.

“It’s incredibly varied. Tidepools, secluded beaches, old-growth forests, shifting sand dunes: All are part of the Oregon coast hiking experience” (from Day Hiking: Oregon Coast by Bonnie Henderson)

Not to mention an array of noteworthy sights and parks along the way, such as Cannon Beach, Rockaway Beach, and Ecola State Park, where the classic 1985 film The Goonies was shot. 1980s-style treasure hunt anyone?

3. Never too Far From Beer

Oregon and the Pacific Northwest have rapidly gained a solid reputation for their microbreweries, some of which are conveniently located alongside the OCT (a list can be found here). Happily, one of my favorite breweries, Rogue Ales (brewers of the oh-so-tasty Dead Guy Ale), is among them. It’s coastal location in Newport boasts 35 taps and a gastropub menu that will surely serve motivational purposes for the first half of the hike.

4. Watching the Whale Migrations

I’m not entirely sure why the possibility of spotting a one of the gray whales that make their Alaska – Mexico migration along the coast is so appealing — but it is. Each year in the winter and spring, whales can be seen making their migration along the coast. However, the parks estimate that about 200-400 whales stay put along the coast in the summer time, meaning that no matter what time of year it is there’s always a chance one will make an appearance.