The hike of Mount Marapi in West Sumatra

During the whole eight-and-a-half-hour night flight from Sydney to Kuala Lumpur I didn’t sleep for even an hour. With tired eyes I was sitting in the transfer lounge in Kuala Lumpur International Airport thinking “It must be worth coming here”. It was only two weeks earlier that, tired from a long day at work, my mind was trying to find a place to fly for three days for a hike. The place had to be 1. somewhere I had not been before 2. with easy access to a mountain with a 4/5 hours hike 3. in a location where it was possible to find other travelers to join me. My final choice fell on West Sumatra. 

view of Bukittinggi

The second flight landed early morning in Padang, West Sumatra. As I had read in a forum, I looked for the public bus on the left of the exit, that transferred to me the city in about 45 minutes and for only 23 000 IDR (1.75 USD). I told the driver I wanted to take a minivan to my destination, so he signaled me to get off and cross the road to board one. All very easy. Another bumpy two hours north through small villages and narrow roads, and I arrived at the mountain town of Bukittinggi. 

The first days were spent exploring the town and trying to arrange the trip to Gunung Marapi, one of the many volcanoes of the island. On the second night, I was ready with two other travelers to do the night hike and see the sunrise, but it started to rain strongly so we had to postpone. As I was fearing I would miss the chance to hike, the sky decided to clear in the morning, so I started off the hike with an Indonesian traveler I had just met at breakfast.

Registration for Gn. Marapi hike

We had to drive 25 minutes south to the registration point, and made it there by 10 am. We started to climb up with a cloudy sky above our heads. The path soon became steep. We met a group of young locals camping, who told us there were two other main rest points on the way of what, according to them, was a six-hour hike to the top. We soon encountered the second rest point, and it was only 11 o’clock.

Information on the hike was very unclear, having read on the internet of travelers who claimed to have reached the top in 3.5 hours, while everyone in the village was saying anything between 4 to 6 hours. Having made it in one hour to the second rest stop, we thought we were on a good rhythm. As the path went on, it became steeper and it started to lightly rain, which made some parts a bit slippery. Time went by and we barely stopped. Two hours. Two and a half hours.

steep path on Gn. Marapi

The rain started to fall more intensely. As our energies were getting lower, we met two guys walking down with their tent. A brief talk with my friend and we found out we were still about an hour to the top! At this point, rain had been falling for over an hour, and we were getting wet even though we both had rain jackets. 

A small yellow wooden house meant we had reached the last rest point, just before the last hard part of the hike: the one to the top of the crater. The clock said 1:20. We had a 5 minutes rest then started again to the top. No trees surrounded us anymore, only rocks, as the path, now only barely signed, headed upward. My friend announced he would wait for me at the last rest stop, and told me to be careful on the way up. I was now on my own. 

Within five minutes, a dense cloud engulfed me and everything around me, reducing visibility. I could barely see the crater, and every step became harder to take. In a few minutes I was completely wet, but still did not want to give up, feeling like I was close to the top. Fifteen minutes later, a rock with the Indonesian flag signaled that the hike was over. I let out a sigh and a smile: I was on the top. Just a few steps further and I could also walk inside the crater itself. It was a unique feeling to walk in the crater of the volcano, and it made the tiredness and cold disappear for a few minutes. In all of this, I found time to close my eyes and enjoy the complete silence around me. The clouds were rushing around me, but I could not hear the wind. It was a silent passage from one side to the other of the mountain. How many people had passed there before me? There were traces on the ground of previous camping, and some food waste. Someone had arranged stones to make a heart shape. We shared the same happiness and enjoyment of being in such an amazing place. I could see people gathering to see the sunrise, others singing in groups until the darkness fell and they had to retreat to their tents. I wish them all to have better weather than I had. I reopened my eyes, stocked my camera back into my bag, and turned around.

in the crater of Gn. Marapi

My hike-mate was waiting for me to start the descent. He informed me I had been gone for an hour. By now the rain was pouring down intensely. The path had turned into a small river, water quickly flowing down into the valley. My hiking shoes got soaked (as did the rest of my clothes): some parts were very slippery, but we managed not to fall. The level of alertness was very high, as high as the soreness we both felt in our knees for the quick pace we were keeping. We silently came down for two hours, our eyes and minds focused only on the next step to take. When the steepness reduced and the clouds decided to take a rest, we could relax and cheer together for having made it successfully in such difficult conditions. It had taken me only two and a half hours from the crater to the beginning. On the drive back to Bukittinggi we were both silent, my mind still dancing with the clouds and the silence I had met in the crater.


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The Illawarra region: between mountains and ocean

It’s been a month since I came to Australia, and since then I’ve spent my time looking for a job and then working as much as possible. It took me a few weeks to get used to life in a Western country, after over a year in Asia. Having family in Sydney, it’s what I chose as a destination. 

As usual, I started to look for a job immediately and after less than a week I was already working. Weeks went by without much happening, most of my time was spent working or with family and friends in the city. Five years after my first trip, I noticed how it reminded me of Vancouver, the city that had been my home for 6 months between 2015 and 2016. The architecture, the public parks and the mix of people from all nationalities brought my memory back to those days.

Last week, for the first time, I took a trip outside Sydney to visit a friend in the south. The region she lived in was only just over an hour train ride. After working on a sunny winter day, I walked to Central station and took the 18:29 train south. My friend picked me up with her car and drove me to her place, where she, her boyfriend and I had dinner and planned the next day exploring the region. 

The Illawarra region, where she lives, is mostly a strip of land and towns in between the mountains and the ocean. Being so close to the city, people can live there and commute with one of the many express trains that run through a beautiful landscape for the 80 to 100 km ride. In summer weekends, many escape the city to enjoy daily trips to some of the many beaches and maybe surf the dark blue waters of the ocean.

The view from Mount Keira

We started our trip on a sunny morning. We drove to the Sea Cliff bridge, a spectacular ride on one of the only seven of the world’s offshore parallel-to-coast bridges. We also parked and walked a part of it, enjoying the view of the ocean and the fresh morning breeze. 

From there we drove south and up for 30 km to get to the lookout of Mount Keira. It’s a quick way up from Wollongong on the mountain that offers opportunities for hikes and a great view of the entire Illawarra region. On the lookout it was unexpectedly windy. Just the time to grasp the view of the valley below and of the dark blue of the Ocean, take a few pictures, and the engine of the car was already on, to continue our leisurely drive down the coast.

As lunch time was approaching, we reached Wollongong and parked close to the Head Lighthouse. This 25-metre white concrete tower, built in 1936, is a symbol of the town and is a notorious spot for picnics for locals, visitors and students from the nearby university. 

Minnamurra rainforest

After lunch we drove south-west and decided to take a short walk in the Minnamurra rainforest. The road from the coast to the forest cut across green fields and a few isolated houses, a reminder of just how vast Australia is. We arrived around 3 o’clock and parked the car outside the Visitors Centre. There was only one other car close to ours, owned by a group of friendly tourists we would meet later in our walk. The path brought us to the middle of the rainforest, and the only sounds we could hear were the birds chirping from the high trees and the water running in the streams. I enjoyed this quietness and let it embrace me during the walk. I kept looking around on both sides, through the trees, hoping to spot something moving. A wild animal, better, a snake. Halfway through, we heard something moving just ahead of us, but once we made the curve in front of our path we could not spot any animal. It was probably a raccoon. We froze for a few minutes, hoping the animal would appear again. Leaves moving, wind blowing, the branches of the trees covering the sky above our heads. And silence. What a difference, I thought, just half an hour away from the sounds of the city. The animal did not come back. We took a deep breath of nature, and started off again on the path.


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Exploring Đà Lạt

While traveling from south to north of this beautiful country, I finally had the chance to stop for a few days in what had been my favourite spot during my first visit, back in 2012: Đà Lạt.

Located a few hours north of Sai Gon, this town up in the mountains (1500 m of altitude) became one of the favourite spots of the French colonialists. Hotels and villas were built from the early 20th century, so the rich colonial families could escape the heat during the hottest months of the year.

Nowadays, there are still many villas sparkled around town, surrounded by gardens and parks. Some of them are accessible, like the Bao Dai Summer Palace (built 1933-1937), that hosted the last kings of Vietnam feudal court. 

As I was visiting the town with my family, we rented motorbikes and drove around for a full day. 

Đà Lạt Railway station

We started by visiting the Art Deco-influenced Da Lat Railway station. Originally opened in 1932, it is now in use only for small distance connections, but it has retained its style and it is definitely something unusual to be found in Vietnam. We walked in until the platform, where a carriage from the old days has been made into a cafe. We ordered a cà phê sữa Sài Gòn (milk coffee with ice) and enjoy the view for a few minutes, before heading back to our motorbikes to continue our tour.

We drove 7 km west to visit Linh Phước Pagoda. The large, modern pagoda is famous for being covered in mosaics made from glass, all taken from remote residential areas around Đà Lạt. There was a dragon that had been entirely covered with glass taken from beer bottles. What a good idea for recycling! 

Dragon covered in beer bottles glass, Chùa Linh Phước

After the pagoda, we kept driving east on the QL 20 road for about 5 km more, until the road makes a turn on the right. There was a small side road (ask locals to point it for you if you can’t find it) that led to an unpaved steep path, two kilometres long, to the Thác Hang Cọp (Tiger Waterfall). Be careful when driving this road and take your time, it’s steep and irregular. After several sharp curves we arrived at the waterfall. We had to pay a small fee to an old lady who seemed to be in charge of the place, then walked to the waterfall.

Thác hang cọp (tiger waterfall), Đà Lạt

It was not the most amazing I have seen, but it was relaxing to be watching it surrounded by nothing (and no one) else but the sound of the water crashing against the rocks.

The following day, in the morning, we drove 9 km south to visit Chùa Thúc Lâm (Thúc Lâm temple). The atmosphere of this temple was very peaceful, and it reminded me of the times I spent in the meditation retreat in the monastery in the north of Thailand. We followed up the visit by briefly driving around the lake close by. The sun was still very high up in the sky when we drove back to Dà Lạt in the early hours of the afternoon.

Crazy House in Đà Lạt

The next attraction we visited was the famous Crazy House. Built by Vietnamese architect Đặng Việt Nga, daughter of famous politician Trường Chinh, the house was designed to resemble a banyan tree. There are four main buildings, all connected to each other. The main one is the house of the architect, while the other 3 have rooms that can be rented. Each room is different in style and furniture, so they all have different names, inspired by nature and animals. It takes about an hour to explore the house, that has not been finished yet to be built: a fifth building is under construction, and it will host a restaurant. The house has been listed as one of the most bizarre buildings of the world, and it’s even possible to get lost while walking through the narrow corridors.

Đà Lạt, as I remembered, it’s one of the best places to visit in Việt Nam. Come for a 2 to 3 day stay to really enjoy the surroundings and the many attractions that has region has to offer. Or just escape the heat from Sài Gòn for a few days, if you live in the city!


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