Sunday, 25 July 2010

The Rock

I decided not to cycle to Ayers Rock, but to take a backpacker tour there. Wise decision!
First of all it is a round trip of more than 1,000 km and there is not much to see on the way...
Second, it was incredibly windy and very, very cold....
Third, I got a glimpse into the international "flashpacker" (= luxury backpacker) world and know now, what I don't want to do....
There is a plethora of tours to the Rock and I decided to take the second cheapest one hoping that I would not be the oldest person on the tour bus. I was lucky! There were 21 people and I was only the fourth oldest! Still there were a lot of 20 somethings out for an adventure, but "with some luxury". They got cranky when they did not get a shower everyday. They were travelling with a hair dryer. One girl admitted that she carried 6 kg of cosmetics. Holy Christ! On top of that half of them were German....
Still, it was a nice tour. I saw the Olgas, the famous Rock (Uluru or Ayers Rock) and King's Canyon. All was very impressive, but I must say that I have seen equally impressive things on the Larapinta Trail.... Hikers are spoiled!  But as my camera has died, there won't be any photos!!!!
Tomorrow I will start cycling from Alice Springs to Darwin. Guess what the weather forecast is! Of course, rain for 3 days.....

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Larapinta Trail: Conclusion

Aboriginal ochre pits
The Larapinta was definitely a highlight of my trip. It was very rugged and much harder than expected, but well worth it. I can definitely highly recommend that trail. It is extremely spectacular and scenic - I just loved it! If you are in Australia for only a short time - this is the trail to hike. (If you have more time, add the Bibbulmun Track!)

Here is some advice for future hikers:

Waymarking: The waymarking is great (especially once you got used to the fact that no trail marker means continue that rocky creek bed for another hour) and I never got lost once. You don't need a guide, a GPS are very detailed maps. There is a guidebook by John Chapman (29 AUD) and a trail set by the Park Service (44 AUD). I used the guidebook and was more than happy with it.

Hiking time: Most hikers need 15 - 20 days and that is also recommended in the guide book. Of course all these hikers carry monster backpacks and don't have much experience. Buck 30 did it in 8 days and I did it in 9 days despite all the flooding. 9 days should be ok for an experienced ultralight long-distance hiker. This way you don't have to bother with food drops and just carry all your food.

Equipment: You will definitely need trekking poles. I wore long pants all the time because a very sharp grass like plant called Spinifex grows everywhere and will cut your legs. High gaitors might be another solution for that. My tarptent Contrail was less than ideal - again!!! I would prefer a freestanding tent for that trail, because the ground is very rocky. You will need good shoes and expect them to be trashed at the end of the hike. The rocks are very sharp!!! Bring a very warm sleeping bag - it can get below freezing. And it can rain in the Australian desert!!!!

Direction: I hitched to the Western Terminus first and then hiked back into Alice Springs. Although this turned out to be a bad decision due to the flooding I would still recommend it. (Hey, it can't rain there all the time...) Although hitching is easy, everyone out there is a tourist doing sightseeing and will take you forever to get anywhere. And you don't want to do that at the end of a hike when you are out of food. The trail roughly parallels a road (which you will not hear or see most of the time) and there are various points where you can out to the road and hitch back if you do not want to hike the whole trail.

Water and campsites: There are lots of official campsites with toilets and water tanks on the way plus lots of other suggested campsites with no facilities. And generally you can camp almost anywhere - although that is not always possible in rocky creek beds or vertical rock faces....But bottom line: Water is not much of an issue because of the water tanks. I never carried more than 4 liters.

Larapinta Trail or how to save money on trail construction

One of the few dry creeks
On the Larapinta Trail they have discovered a great way how to save money on trail construction: Instead of building trail they just tell you to follow the ROCKY creek bed for 2 km. And in my case the rocky creek bed was full of water, too.

I had to discover that the Larapinta is much harder than I had expected. I had calculated to do it in 8 days, but with all the flooding this was not going to happen. But I had only food for 8 days!!! Luckily I ran into some very nice hikers who told me the solution. Most hikers take between 15-20 days to hike the trail and they have food drops on the way. One of these food drop places was not locked and had a leftover or hiker box. I checked it out and really: There was free (and good) food there. I got some noodle soup, some snacks, a whole jar of peanut butter and a packe to dried mangoes. Altogether food for another day - and now I could finish my thruhike.

My daily mileage had gotten pretty low due to the rugged terrain. The guidebook has 4 levels of difficulty for each trail stage. Tongue in cheek they can be described as follows:

Very hard: There are not too many trail markers. But that does not matter.... You are EITHER following a rocky creek bed with meter high boulders that make Mahoosok Notch on the AT look like a piece of cake. Of course the creek bed is filled with water and in order to get around the water holes you have to climb vertical rock faces - or swim. And every once in a while there is a (usually dry) water fall in the way. The rocky creek bed then usually becomes a rocky, very steep gully....
OR you have to climb a mountain. Just climb straight up and follow the rock slides left by previous hikers. Don't look down because it is almost vertical... Trail? What does that word mean?... You have about 3 days of hiking like that.

Hard: All of the above, but you might have an occasional glimpse of trail, which is usually over loose rocks on a steep climb. Oh, and the usually dry river crossing might only be waist deep...Another 3 days of trail is like that.

Medium: There is actually trail - real single file trail!!!!! The rest of 3 days is like that.

Easy: Only 12 km of the Larapinta is rated easy so it is not worth describing that....

But I finished the trail in 9 days (with wet feet on every single day!) and only a handful of nuts left..

Larapinta Trail or All the streams are usually dry

The Larapinta Trail is a 230 km walk in Outback Australia and was one of the reasons for me to fly to Alice Springs. You can check it out at
Buck 30 had just finished it a month before and was full of praise for it - and so I was really looking forward to it.

Me before the rain
The problem already started when I flew into Alice Springs. I got out of the plane and - it rained. I cycled to my warm showers host and - it rained. It was just drizzling, but still: This is not what you expect in Outback Australia. I left the next day to hitch to the Western end of the trail and big surprise - no rain!

I had hoped to hitch the 150 km in half a day and started at 9 am in the morning. A lady quickly stopped to pick me up and she went to exactly to where I wanted to go, but she warned me that she would stop at all the sights on the way. That could not take too long (I thought) and happily I got in. She really stopped at every single sight and took her time. A guided tour at one sight, a cup of coffee at the other and then we had to wait for the right angle of sunshine at another. And then we had to take a lunch break. And then we had to drop another hiker off who had asked her for a ride as well. The clock was ticking and I got more and more nervous. I was just itching to hike!!! After 7 hours we had eventually made the 150 km and I arrived at the trail terminus at 5 pm. Way too late for hiking and so I just pitched my tent.
Flooded road on the way to terminus

And now you have to picture the terminus: The car park, picnic/campsite area and water tank are on one side of a river, but to start the trail you have to cross that river. Like my guidebook said: All the streams are usually dry and that one was only ankle deep. Easy crossing! I pitched my tent at the official hiker campsite which was pretty shitty and looked like it would easily flood. But there was hardly a cloud in the sky and so I pitched my tent and went to sleep.

I woke up at 11 pm with howling winds. 2 minutes later it started to rain. 3 minutes later it started to pour down. 4 minutes later the campsite was completely flooded and my thermarest was swimming in a pool of water inside my tent. Luckily I had learnt in the rainy season in Japan how quickly things can go bad and had already stowed away  my sleeping bag. And I remembered the picnic shelter 300 meters away! I packed all my stuff and run up to it. Rain had stopped, but luckily I pitched my tent now inside the shelter... To cut a long story short, I poured down the whole night. Really the whole night. Under the shelter's metal roof it felt like the world would go under. But at least I did not get flooded again. I don't know how I could have survived that night in my tarptent alone.

Water level at the time of my crossing
When the rain stopped eventually at 6 am it dawned on me that I might have a problem at the river crossing. I packed my stuff and went to down to assess the situation. The ankle deep stream had become a raging current. When I stuck my trekking pole in to assess the water depths I could not even reach the ground. I realised that I had a serious problem. The current was so strong that even swimming was out of question! I had to wait.

I came back every hour and every hour the water level had dropped by 10 cm. By 1 pm I realised that another hiker was trying to come over from the other side. He did everything wrong: He waded barefoot, just had a wooden stick instead of trekking poles and did not open the hip belt of his backpack. It took him 1,5 hours to make it to the other side and I was thoroughly surprised that he did not drown in the process. Of course, he wanted me to take several pictures of him after the deed! I tried to cross the same way he did, but it seemed way too dangerous. The current was just too strong. I tried several passages and after 1 hour I was on the other side - totally drenched and shaking, but alive! This had been one of the most dangerous river crossings I had ever done. But things could only get better now! As my guide book said: All the streams are usually dry!!!

One of the flooded gorges
The next day should be an easy 30 km walk. In the end I did only 20 km and was totally exhausted. Every little stream (that is usually dry!) was either a raging current or very deep. It took my forever to find safe passages. The most interesting was Davenport Creek. Hardly any current, but when I walked in I realised that it was getting deeper and deeper and deeper. In the end I was swimming! It would have been easy just to swim over, but what should I do with my backpack? I was considering to build a little raft or float it on my thermarest, when eventually I found a passage where the water was only chin-deep. Yes, you are reading correctly. The water was so deep that just my head was sticking out of the water! I stripped down completely and carried my backpack on my head over. I wish I had a picture of that!

The days continued like that: Water everywhere! I had wet feet every day and felt like back in Florida (and not like in the outback). At least I did not have any drinking water problem either.

But unfortunately my plight was not over yet. On day 5 I had so gotten used to all that river crossings that I forgot that I had my cell phone/camera in my pant pocket when crossing another one of the usually dry sand filled creek beds. I only realised that when I heard some desperate beeps - the last sounds of life of my cell phone when I waded through thigh-deep water. I tried to dry the phone - but it is dead! And I am without phone, camera and MP3-player. I have not figured out how to solve that problem yet....

Sydney in Australia

Sydney Opera House
I was really worried about my flight out of the US: My US visa ran out on July 5th and my flight was scheduled to leave July 5th at 23.55... When I checked in they asked me already whether I would accept an upgrade and fly a day later. Obviously the flight was overbooked - and I had a very cheap ticket and was probably the first to be denied boarding.... Anyways, it was exciting till the very last minute but I left the US at midnight! I had booked Virgin Australia and expected a barebone flight with no meals, no entertainment and cramped seats - but I got 2 very good free meals, one of the best free entertainment programmes I have ever seen and a brand new plane. I was even able to sleep a bit!

Australian immigration was nice - no problem and I even got praise for cleaning my bike so thoroughly! I arrived on schedule in Sydney and to my big surprise: IT RAINED! I had not seen any rain for the last 2 months! I assembled my bike in less than an hour (I am getting pretty good at that) and took public transport to my couchsurfing host's home. It was still raining and nobody was at home. Luckily there was a big shopping centre nearby with a wonderful food court. I slept very well that night!

Castro as art - he even breathed!
To cut it short: I stayed 3 days in Sydney and it rained every single day. It not only rained, it just poured down!!! But luckily I discovered a wonderful event in Sydney: the Sydney Biennale!! I had visited the Biennale in Venice before and just loved it, but the Sydney one really rivals it! It took place at various locations throughout Sydney, one of them an island in Sydney Bay that used to be a prison camp and a shipyard. The art was scattered around old industrial buildings - and it rained so hard that rain leaked throught the roof....

Bienale Art
After 3 days I had to disassemble the bike again for my flight to Alice Springs. I left at 6 am in the morning and there was no public transport to the airport at that time. But I was lucky and found a warm showers host that lived close and worked at the airport. To my big surprise he even volunteered to drive me to the airport at 4 am!!!! I could not believe my luck - I just love couchsurfing and warm showers. And I would stay with a warm showers host in Alice Springs as well.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Sightseeing in California

After endless days in the sagebrush desert of Nevada I was culturally deprived and really looking forward to do some serious sightseeing now. And there was a lot to see in California.

Sacramento is the capitol of California and therefore I took a nice free tour of the capitol building and visited the California Museum including the California Hall of Fame. This hall of fame really surprised me: Many countries have halls of fame (comparable to Germany's rather old-fashioned Walhalla), but whereas in Germany we would honor writers like Goethe and Schiller the California Hall of Fame only honored Danielle Steele! No other writers or philosophers, but loads of actors like Jane Fonda and Clint Eastwood and a whole bunch of athletes nobody has ever heard of outside the US. At least they honored Harvey Milk.... Poor California!

Message board in Berkeley
When I did my first trip into downtown San Francisco I was pleasantly surprised to stumble across the annual San Francisco Gay Pride! After several years of Christopher Street Day in Berlin it was nice to compare. To my even bigger surprise I saw quite a few totally naked men at the parade (generally on roller blades) and the police did not try to arrest them for public indecency! Try that in Nevada.... Lots of colorful costumes, but much more commercialised than its Berlin counter part. Every California business seemed to participate in the parade from BMW San Francisco to Google! I spent a whole afternoon people watching and I guess lots of the participants ended up with a horrible sun burn the other day due to exposing white flesh to the sun....

Staying with a couchsurfing host in Berkeley made me tour the college there. There is not really that much to see, but the tour guide's explanations where quite enlightening. I learnt that it costs 30,000 $ per year to study at Berkeley, plus 19,000 $ on top of that if you are a foreigner. And Berkeley is even considered a cheap college! Who can afford that? No wonder that American educational level is so bad.

I also saw a whole bunch of art museums. And I thoroughly hated the hills - some of them are so steep that I hardly dared to ride my bike downhill...

LACMA museum in LA
In LA I did not have much nerve left for sightseeing. I was getting antsy to leave the US. Nevertheless I saw 2 art museums again and was shocked to realise that it took me longer to get to these places than to actually see them. LA is so huge that even with taking public transport and living relatively central it took me up to 2 hours to get anywhere. Not much fun! Interestingly, LA was in some sort of Richard Wagner fever. The LA Opera had just staged the whole "Ring der Nibelungen" and therefore there were Wagner exhibitions all over the place.

I have to admit that I was sort of happy to leave the US. My cycling experience in the US has not been the greatest and the news of Dave's death really shook me. I have spent 24 months in the US in the last 6 years and I have probably had an American overdose. The decline of the EUR/$ exchange rate did the rest. So now: Australia, here I come!

Couchsurfing in California

Warmshowers hosts in Nevada

One of the biggest positive surprises of the trip are my experiences with couchsurfing ( and warmshowers ( which is sort of couchsurfing for cyclists only. When I had first heard about couchsurfing I had been very skeptical - I did not want to stay with some random 20 somethings in a shared flat having parties all night long. John had done a lot of couchsurfing and was really enthusiastic about it, so once I arrived in California I started to couchsurf in earnest.

white rabbit doggie doo doo can
My first host in California was Monte in Sacramento. On his profile he called himself "a bureaucrat - but a good one". I just loved that description. (I learned later that he is actually more of a social worker, but anyway...)  I became a bit worried when he sent me directions talking about a "white rabbit doggie doo doo can" in front of his house... What the heck is that? Turned out to be totally innocent, but all you Germans can take a guess now what that could be. Monte mentioned that there is a very convenient train from Sacramento to San Francisco and it did not take him much convincing to stay another day with him to attend a friend's party and take the train instead of cycling there.

Next was a professor for English Literature and Women's Studies in Berkeley. Hey, as an old feminist I just had to see her. She had warned me on the phone that there are some steep hills to manage, but I did not take that very seriously. Big mistake! I had to do an elevation gain of about 1,000 feet in 2 miles to get to her house and arrived totally soaked in sweat. I looked so miserable that a woman in the neighbourhood even offered me a ride up that hill... I ended up in long conversations about the most famous American writer and 5 paperbacks to read on my upcoming flights.

Mountain-wise I had better luck with my next host in Oakland - almost flat riding there. He had done extensive couchsurfing himself on a trip to Europe and knew exactly what couchsurfers need. He even offered my his own bed room and slept on the couch himself. And he took me to a vegetarian Mexican restaurant and a great cake place for the desert where my piece of chocolate cake was so big that even I could not finish it.

From his place it was only a 5 minute bike ride to my next host in Oakland - there were so many interesting hosts in the San Francisco area that I ended up staying with 3 different hosts. Kevin is working as an organiser for the American labour movement. I openly admitted what I had worked as before in my request and he still took me in! I learnt a lot about working conditions and the legal situation in the US there. I had a very interesting, but not the quietest stay there: Kevin is living with his 3 year old very lively daughter and his wife right next to a bus route and freeway and on top of that his mother was visiting as well. We all got along well and even the little daughter talked to me after I had bribed her with some Ben&Jerry's ice cream.

I finished my stay in the US with Dale in Los Angeles. He has retired from Hollywood film industry and is a photographer now. But best of all he is a wonderful cook. He made me barbecued chicken in an original Japanese grill and treated me with the best ice cream I had ever had: Thai ice cream made with basil and lemon grass. Sounds weird, but tastes incredibly good. If I could only make that on a camping stove.... His brother helped me fix my bike and on July 5th Dale drove a very nervous Christine to LAX airport for her flight out of the US.

By the way: I am in Sydney now staying again with a couchsurfing host....

Friday, 2 July 2010

In Memoriam Dave Blumenthal

I have first met Dave and his wife Lexi on the PCT in 04. Like everyone else I was amazed by their home-made gear (although Dave admitted that their tent was leaking...) - and so Dave's trail name became Pacman. I could use his exceptional skills when my glasses' frame broke and Dave fixed it with Super Glue and a paper clip. The glasses held up for the rest of my thruhike. Dave taught my a whole lot of new words. And he beat me in arm wrestling (well, that was to be expected). When we approached Portland, we decided to all share a room there. On a very memorable night we watched Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 in the cinema and decided to get "shit-faced" (one of my new words) afterwards. Long political discussions followed that night.... Dave and Lexi finished the PCT just a couple of days after me.

Next thing I heard from Dave was that he and Lexi had a daughter and were asking me for advice on where to hike in Europe with her. I was thrilled about that challenge (I don't know anything about hiking with kids) and recommended the Salzburger Almenweg. I sent them my maps and was very pleased to find out that they actually hiked that trail and really liked it.

So when I hiked the AT in 2008 it was only natural for me to visit Dave and Lexi in Montpellier. When Dave picked me up from the trail I looked like a drenched water rat and was thoroughly fed up with the whole AT. Leaving their home 2 days later I was up to the AT challenge again and finished my thruhike. Dave not only sewed me a new stuffsack for my tent and treated me with home-made apple cider, he also volunteered to be my "trail manager". I left all my back up gear with him. When I called him a couple of weeks later because my tent was leaking like a sieve, he sent me my back up tent the same day (including some incredibly good Vermont chocolate). I remember leaving Dave and Lexi's home in Montpellier. I wanted to take a picture of both of them, but Dave had gone for a bike ride... This was the last time I have seen Dave.

I continued my round the word trip on foot and bike. When I was back in Germany for a short holiday Dave contacted me again with some bike questions. He told me about the Tour Divide and long emails about the advantages of a Rohloff speedhub followed - although Dave never got one. I was very interested in the Tour Divide and when I found out about his website I asked him whether I could put a link to it on my blog. "Link away!", he wrote in his last email to me. I just recently discovered that he has a link to my blog on his website as well.

While cycling myself through the US I thought quite a few times about Dave and the Tour Divide. Two days ago I was in San Francisco checking the warmshowers website (sort of couchsurfing for cyclists) when something subconsciencely caught my eye. It was the name Dave Blumenthal on the warmshowers homepage. First in disbelief, then in shock and tears I read a short notice and the newspaper link ( Dave had died in an accident with a car while MTB racing the Tour Divide.

I will never forget him.

My thoughts are with Dave's wife Lexi and his daughter Linnea.