Last week Conrad and I shattered a personal record. Having made it across the border to Wales for the first time ever – yes we only live in London – we somehow managed to take a ridiculous 7 hours to complete a 6-mile walk. I use the word ‘walk’ loosely here. What followed involved some seriously sketchy scrabbling as our hiking poles got stowed away to grip onto wet rocks for dear life. Please don’t make me another tragic face on the news following a failed mountain rescue attempt I prayed. On the plus side, the views were exceptional. Continue reading Becoming an unwitting Mountaineer in Snowdonia National Park
Where: Kauai, Hawaii
When: Sep 2016
The first time we tried hiking the famous Kalalau Trail it didn’t happen. It was 2012, and having woken before sunrise to get a parking spot at the trailhead, a string of yellow police ‘warning’ tape – the kind you see in CSI – completely sealed off the trail. How can a trail in sunny Hawaii be closed? While loitering around trying to figure this out a ranger arrived. His explanation seemed even more bizarre. Apparently a ‘fugitive’ was on the run, having pushed a tourist from the cliffs the day before. I shuddered at the horror of it, but still couldn’t help feeling utterly disappointed. The trail would remain closed for the foreseeable future. Hike aborted, we left to cheer ourselves up with a cooked breakfast.
We had travelled a long way to hike the trail. Stretching 11-miles along the breath-taking Na Pail coastline of Northern Kauai, the Kalalau Trail regularly features in lists of the worlds ‘greatest’ hikes. The reason for it’s fame is simple – the scenery is sublime. A certain degree of ‘exclusivity’ also adds to its allure, with land access to the fluted coastline only possible by foot. The trail promises to transport hikers into landscape preserving the very essence of Aloha. Carving a path along towering Pali – sea cliffs – high above the turquoise ocean, it traverses 5 lush valleys, crossing streams and passing waterfalls, to reach a secluded beach.
Using the excuse of needing R&R after our PCT hike, we returned to Kauai 4 years later. With our camping gear in tow, and considering ourselves now super fit, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to attempt the hike once more. On setting out we even half-wondered whether we might complete the entire out-and-back hike in a single day…
It’s 6:30am and we’re ready. Parking space secured at the now familiar Ke’e Beach trailhead, I’m feeling eager to clock off some miles before the sun heats up. We join the trail passing multiple signs warning of potential dangers, such as flash flooding. The initial climb along a cobbled path is significantly slowed due to thick, slippery mud following overnight rain.
The first couple of miles form a popular day hike. As such we are regularly overtaken by people not heaving huge backpacks, and some remarkably wearing flip-flops. I try not to let that bother me, instead stealing glimpses of distant coastal views whenever the thick foliage allows. At Hanakapai’ai, most people either turn around after visiting the small cove beach, or take a 2-mile trail inland to view the falls. We continue, crossing the stream by hopping over rocks, fortunate that the water is low. Apparently some people haven’t been so lucky, with danger signs warning of deaths caused by flash flooding and strong currents. There is a key message: don’t go near the water if levels are high.
Once past Hanakapai’ai the trail instantly feels remote. Our miles slow down even further, travelling along narrow switchbacks that climb 800 feet through dense tropical vegetation. We find ourselves sweating buckets in the humid conditions. The views are not as expansive, but bright colours of vivid green flora and fauna, contrast against the red clay soil. I also notice the strong smell of sweet fruit. We see wild guavas and passionfruit, many of which lay rotting on the ground. The trail doesn’t level out. We climb up and down into deep, narrow valleys, until 4 miles later we reach the forth valley: Hanakoa.
Hanokoa is the first of just 2 permitted campsites. It’s rustic. Spread over old agricultural terraces, the site contains two sheltered picnic tables, a compositing toilet cubical, and an emergency helicopter landing pad. Seeing the grassy helipad I can’t help but hope we keep it together. Sadly the camp has no beach access as it’s located on top of a hanging valley on the edge of a stream. We long for a break at this point, but a small group of hunters – complete with scary-looking crossbows – seem to have taken over the camp. Most likely out hunting wild boar (at least I hope that’s what they’re doing), we smile but they don’t reciprocate. In fact I get pretty negative vibes from them, so feeling a bit vulnerable in such isolation we swiftly move on.
The next 5 miles are more exposed, offering little shade from the midday sun. On exiting the valley onto drier terrain, panoramic views of cliffs rippling along the sparkling ocean appear. The views are everything. I keep stopping to take it all in, fearing I’ll slip on the vertigo-inducing trail if I lose my focus. This is not a hike for the faint-hearted. Erosion between miles 7 and 8 are perhaps the sketchiest, with crumbling drop-offs such as those at Crawler’s Ledge definitely requiring concentration, nerve and single-file traffic.
The trail begins to ease up on us for the final 2 miles as we lose elevation heading towards sea-level. Reaching the Kalalau Valley, we ford the fast-running stream, and spot ruins of early Hawaiian settlements hidden amongst the trees.
The sight of tents dotted underneath a shaded grove, provides sign that we’ve made it. Just a few minutes further and a long, deep beach of fine white sand appears. We watch as the cool sea invitingly laps against the shore. But first things first – we need to establish camp. Somehow – and I have no idea how – the last 11 miles have taken us 9 hours, with minimal breaks. We feel exhilarated to have finally made our destination, but ridiculously tired. It’s been hard work! On closer inspection, the premium camping spots – those located just behind the beach with a degree of shelter from the wind – are already taken. We haven’t seen many fellow hikers during the day, so it’s surprising to see around 30 people. Perhaps they’re on a multi-night break, or it’s possible they arrived by [prohibited] boats. We check out the waterfall nestled in the steep valley walls, but are too lazy to walk all the way to the end of the beach to investigate a series of caves. We finish the day with a dip in the sea, where we’re rewarded by a beautiful rainbow right before a dramatic Hawaiian sunset.
We pack up camp and make the return hike early the next morning. We make slightly better time because it keeps raining on us. The warm, tropical showers mean the camera comes out far less frequently, and the air is thick with humidity. By the time we reach Hanakapai’ai, many people are enjoying the beach and in the sea, despite warning signs of hazardous rip currents. Once again, we share the trail from that point. Just after lunchtime we emerge at the trailhead, exhausted and covered in mud. We hose off the worst of it at Ke’e beach showers, attracting strange looks from the beachgoers. I am so happy to finally fall into the car seat. I’m not going to lie – the hike was TOUGH! Much tougher than we had anticipated, but WOW.
I’d love to return to the trial. But if I were to do it again, I would plan on spending at least an extra night to enjoy a rest day on Kalalau beach. That would offer the opportunity to explore further the Kalalau Valley, and maybe even hike the spur trail to Hanakapai’ai falls. I would not recommend attempting to do the 22-mile round trip in a single day – who would even dream of such a crazy thing 🙂 As always, the pictures don’t go anywhere near capturing the stunning views. Hawaii, and Kauai in particular continues to capture my heart.
Some Trail Information
Permits are required to hike past Hanakapai’ai. They are limited in numbers, and cost us 20 USD per person. Apparently they sellout months in advance, so book here.
Water: There is no tapped water along the trail, but plenty of opportunities to fill up from fresh streams. It’s recommended that you treat it though, so pack a filter or purification tablets. We used the Sawyer Squeeze.
When to go: The trail is most advisable during summer (May-October), due to less predictable winter weather. It doesn’t rule out a winter hike, but check weather forecasts before you set out – spontaneous, heavy rainfall can be dangerous, with its ability to turn streams into raging rivers within minutes.
What to bring: I recommend using hiking poles for stability on the uneven terrain. Also pack: bug spray; waterproofs (at least to keep your gear dry); shelter (tent or hammock); hat (for sun protection); water filter; head torch (if you want to see at night).
Where: Iguazu Falls, border of Argentina and Brazil
When: November 2012
The largest waterfall system in the world is nestled within a diverse, lush ecosystem straddling Brazil and Argentina. Where the Iguazu River spills over the edge of the Paraná Plateau, roughly 275 discrete falls create a magnificent spectacle nearly twice as tall as Niagara, and more than three times as wide. Add to that the jungle setting, and Iguazu beats Niagara hands-down. No casinos line the dramatic gorge, instead they feel fittingly secluded, surrounded by a landscape home to colorful toucans, butterflies, and curious monkeys.
No pictures can capture the majesty and splendour of these cascades. Visiting them is an immersive experience, where you’ll feel their cooling spray on your face whilst hearing the waters powerful roar. It’s an almighty display of nature. And utterly worthy of a once-in-a-lifetime trip to behold. Conversely, you can expect all subsequent cascades to be ‘ruined’ after the trip, as they pale in comparison!
The falls are shared between the two distinct National Parks, both of which were designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the 1980s. You might recognise some of these images, as many films have leveraged the other-worldliness of the cataracts powerful mystique, including the 2008 Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
We based ourselves on the Brazilian side, flying into Foz do Iguaçu, a 20-minute taxi ride to our hotel within the park. Most other hotels are located in the town of Foz do Iguaçu, just on the other side of the airport.
Brazilian Side – Parque Nacional do Iguaçu
Cost pp: 64 R$ (approx $20 US)
The Brazilian park is a small, simple set up, with one main access road to the visitor centre, where visitors board the internal eco-friendly bus service. The buses ferry people a few miles along the serene jungle road, to reach a handful of short trails and walk-ways, each providing views of the falls. The main walkway extends into the lower canyon floor, arguably providing the best view of the highest, deepest, and most iconic of the falls – the Devil’s Throat. This giant horseshoe-shaped curtain of gushing water is simply incredible.
A precarious walk down a long spiral staircase (hopefully now decommissioned), took us to the boat loading dock for Macuco water safaris. The small inflatable rafts seemed popular with the tourists. Yes they are a tad gimmicky, but great fun. Transporting you a short way along the river to experience the falls from another angle – underneath! Suffice to say we got soaked.
During our stay, we returned to these viewpoints numerous times to witness the changing environment at different parts of the day. We were able to do this on the recommendation of a friend who had honeymooned in Brazil. He convinced us that it was worth the expense to stay at the sole hotel INSIDE the park, which is now called Belmond Hotel Das Cataratas. It wasn’t really in-line with our budget travel plans, but I’m so glad we took the hit, as outside the limited park opening hours the falls felt like they belonged entirely to us. This made the trip all that more special.
Argentinian Side – Parque Nacional Iguazú
Cost pp: 500 ARS $ (approx $28 US)
An hour’s drive from our hotel – but a ‘stones-throw’ across the ravine – it felt a bit more like Disney. Having shown our passports at the border, we entered the Argentinian park which is much larger than it’s neighbour, with more facilities. From the commercial area at the entrance, complete with gift shops and over-priced food outlets, we joined the long queue for the ‘ecological’ train that travels through the forest to the top of Devil’s Throat. [I should note that it is possible to hike and avoid the train ride, but given the searing heat, and distance involved we made the decision to reluctantly queue instead!]
We headed straight for the Paseo Garganta del Diablo – a 0.6 mile-long trail that brings visitors directly over the falls of Devil’s Throat. We got soaked by the spray, but the feeling of being so close to the water as it surges over the edge was exhilarating!
We spent the rest of the day wandering along the array of established trail circuits, many of which follow elevated metal walkways to get different perspectives of the many falls. It really was incredible, and I can easily see how people can spend multiple days in this side of the park, but to be honest our enjoyment was hindered by the frustratingly humid, buggy climate! Maybe it was the time of the year, but the mosquitos were rampant – perhaps it was our accidentally matching yellow t-shirts – and the heat made all the walking very taxing.
The Argentinian park also offers boat services, and contains a hotel – I think it is a Sheraton.
- Although the Brazilian park only comprises less than a third of the entire falls, you’ll find the view from this side to be much more panoramic than the view from the Argentinean side. However, if you have come all that way to see Iguazu, you will ideally want to see both aspects. For that plan to spend at least 2 full days.
- Remember your passport when travelling between the two parks!
- Pack inspect repellent with high DEET, and drink lots of water because it is very humid.
- Both parks are generally less busy by the mid-to-late afternoon, once all the tour groups have passed through.