Showing posts with label camping. Show all posts
Showing posts with label camping. Show all posts

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Retrospective (July, 2012): Footloose in the Kyrgyz Mountains

Thunder Bay, May 11th

After my disappointing result on Peak Lenin back in July, 2012, I arrived back in Bishkek on July 18th to meet up with my partner on the upcoming Muztagh Ata climb, Eric.  He had arrived from Europe the day before and we met at the Asia Mountains Guesthouse, where we were installed in a comfortable room.  It was good to see him, and to look forward to new mountains and (we hoped) more success than I had had on Peak Lenin.

Kyrgyz life is all about horses and mountains 
July 18th and 19th passed in delightful sloth in Bishkek, buying supplies, eating and drinking well and planning our next move. We were leaving with the rest of our Muztagh Ata expedition on July 30th, which left us with 10 days or so of freedom to do some exploring.  Eric had just arrived from sea level, so we wanted to get some altitude into his blood, and some hiking into his legs.  We tossed around various ideas, including the Inylchek Glacier, one of the world's largest glaciers outside the polar regions, but logistics and timing were tough for the Inylchek, so we decided to go hiking on our own in the Terskey Ala-Tau mountains south of Lake Issyk Kul.  I had cycled along the north shore of the lake back in 2004, but hadn't gone to the south shore or stopped to do any hiking, and our guidebook made it sound like a great place to explore.  We stored our skis and heavy mountaineering gear in the storage room at Asia Mountains and set our alarm clocks for early in the morning of July 20th.

It was just as well that we got up at 6 am, as it took a while to get to the mashrutka stand and get going.  We inadventently took the long way to our destination, the town of Kyzyl Suu; we went first around the north side of the lake to the large regional centre of Karakol (the old Przhevalsk) and then took another marshrutka to Kyzyl Suu, rather than taking a direct marshrutka to Kyzyl Suu along the south shore of the lake.  This was, perhaps, a foreshadowing of route-finding to come!  It was a long ride in the minibus, although the scenery was pretty in places.  We were retracing my 2004 cycling route in reverse, and I remembered highlights like the ruins of the old Blue Turk capital of Balasagun (now called the Burana Tower near the dismal town of Tokmok).  The views across the lake were stunning, with a backdrop of snow-capped mountains (our ultimate destination) rising over the deep blue water.  We drove past the town of Cholpon Ata, where I had explored the ancient petroglyphs on the outskirts of town back in 2004, and stayed with a friendly Kyrgyz cyclist and his wife.

With a stop for food at a little roadside cafe at the northwest corner of Lake Issyk Kul, it took six and a half hours to get to Karakol. Once there we visited the rather unhelpful tourist office to try to figure out how to get to our hiking trailhead, and stopped to buy necessary supplies like bread, beer and gasoline for my MSR stove.  Eventually we caught another marshrutka for another hour to Kyzyl Suu, and then found a taxi driver to take us to Dzhyluu Suu, where we would start hiking.  We negotiated a price, threw our bags in the trunk of the Lada and set off.  As we drove, I thought "this isn't the road shown on the map!" and talked with the driver, but he insisted that we were headed to Dzhyluu Suu.  I was dubious, and when we got out of the car after a long drive, beside the entrance to a Soviet-era hotspring complex, I questioned some locals as to whether this was Dzhyluu Suu.  Only when we were reassured that it was did we get our packs out and set off up the valley.  It was already 5:30 pm and we only walked 15 minutes up a narrow valley beside a rushing river to the first decent camping spot we could find.  We erected my tent and cooked up some eggs, bread and sausage for dinner and then lazed beside a fire that was tough to light, as dry wood was in short supply.  It felt good to be out on our own, free to walk wherever we wanted, out in beautiful mountains and soul-restoring conifer forests.  

Camping in another idyllic meadow
We slept well, lulled to sleep by the burbling water of the river.  By 8:00 we were up, gobbling down some muesli, yoghurt, tea and delicious fresh peaches.  A group of local Kyrgyz herders wandered by to say hello; although it was only 9:30 am, they were wobbly with vodka, and it was a bizarre, disjointed conversation.  Like so many post-Soviet states, serious drunkenness is a problem in Kyrgyzstan, despite most of the population being nominally Muslim.  By 10:00 we had packed up and were hiking upstream, headed towards a pass marked on our map.  We followed the path as it climbed away from the river up some fairly steep slopes and then petered out in a meadow full of beautiful wildflowers.  We were puzzled; our map showed this as a major hiking route, used also by local herders, and yet there were only vague suggestions of tracks and some trampled grass that looked as though it had been done by grazing herds.  We kept pushing onwards as the grass and bushes got deeper and denser, and within a couple of hours we were utterly flummoxed.  Where the hell was the path?  The slope of the meadows kept getting steeper and steeper, and the footing grew ever more precarious.  We kept hoping that at any moment we might stumble upon the proper trail that we assumed we had lost.

Lovely scenery; pity it was the wrong valley!

Eric in the lovely but trackless Suruu Valley
As we continued to flounder, Eric got more and more annoyed, and his mood was not improved when he slipped on wet grass and twisted his ankle pretty severely.  Moving at a hobbling pace, we eventually decided that we needed local knowledge, so we made our way downhill and across the river on a small footbridge, then up the other side of the valley to where we had seen several women walking around a couple of yurts in the middle of their jailoo (summer high-altitude pasture).  Almost everyone in Kyrgyzstan, and particularly older people, speak Russian, and my Russian is good enough to get by, but I didn't understand what our interlocutor, a middle-aged Kyrgyz matron, was saying.  It didn't seem to make any sense.  We showed our map and asked which of the two possible notches on the skyline was the pass we were looking for.  She frowned at the name of the pass (the Taleti), and said that the valley we were in led to a pass that was really fit only for mountaineers with ropes, and that she had never heard of the pass we named. We kept asking, and after much head-scratching and miscommunication, suddenly the light went on in her eyes.  She asked what village we thought we would reach across the Taleti Pass, and then cackled with merriment.  WE WERE IN THE WRONG VALLEY!  My initial misgivings about the taxi driver's direction had been right.  But how had this happened?  Wasn't this Dzhyluu Suu?  The woman looked at me pityingly.  "Don't you know what Dzhyluu Suu means in Kyrgyz?  Hot Springs.  There are hot springs in almost every valley; there are at least three near Kyzyl Suu,"  The taxi driver had taken us to a different Hot Springs than the one we wanted, and we had been floundering around up a dead end valley, the Suruu, that ended in cliffs.  We hadn't found a path because there wasn't one; the local herders drove their animals up to graze where we had been flailing, and we had been following animal tracks for hours.  "Why didn't you tell us we were heading the wrong way?" I asked, rather lamely; she had been watching us for quite some time, and could easily have signalled across to us.  "I thought you were looking for mushrooms," she replied.  "The only reason anyone other than us ever goes up there is to look for mushrooms."  

Cute Kyrgyz girl on cheese-making duties in the mountains
There was nothing for us to do but to cut our losses and retreat the way we had come, muttering imprecations about our own stupidity and about the taxi driver.  We were two valleys west of where we should have been (the Jety Oguz valley), and the Suruu valley (the one we were in) really didn't lead anywhere.  Eric's ankle was swelling and painful, and we needed to get to a real trail that was on our maps.  It was hardly an auspicious start to our hiking adventure, but at least we knew what had gone wrong.  We bought some fresh bread and some fresh ayran (a salted yoghurt drink) and headed slowly back down the valley until we found a promising meadow to camp in.  We cooked up a nice dinner and sat around a campfire, shaking our heads at how we had managed to delude ourselves for so many hours that our reality corresponded to where we thought we were on our map.  It was funny now, but it hadn't been so amusing when we were completely lost and mystified.


Filling the valley with our campfire smoke
We slept deeply again that night, and woke up to beautiful weather.  We breakfasted on muesli and ayran, and had a visit from the lady from the jailoo.  Having talked that evening with her husband about the crazy foreigners, she was concerned that we would try to climb the treacherous pass at the end of the valley, and was relieved when we assured her that we were headed downhill instead.  She brought us more ayran for free (Kyrgyz hospitality in the mountains is legendary) and we put it into the side pocket of my backpack.  We traipsed down the valley for an hour and a half, including a rather cold river crossing, to the hot springs where we had started our little misadventure.  A local taxi driver agreed to drive us back to Kyzyl Suu for 600 som (a bit over US$ 10), and off we went.  We stopped in town just long enough for Eric to buy 2 kg of amazing raspberries, then caught another 600 som taxi to the Jety Oguz sanatorium, where we thought we had been two days earlier. This was a much bigger, grander hot spring development than where we had just been, and we walked along the road upstream with dozens of Ladas passing us in both directions, stuffed full of families and groups of friends.  Eventually we got tired of the traffic and flagged down a lift with a group of drunk Kyrgyz men (the driver was only slightly less sloshed than the others) in a minivan.  We got dropped off in a huge meadow full of yurts and tents that wasn't even slightly appealing as a place to camp, then hiked upstream along the river to the final bridge before our valley, the Taleti, branched off.  The scenery was grand and sweeping and beautiful all along the valley, much more so than the previous day, and we actually knew where we were!  We passed a series of meadows and pine glades before settling on a quiet, secluded spot in a long, narrow riverside meadow.  We set up camp and relaxed around a roaring but smoky fire.

Eric climbing painfully up the Teleti Pass
The next day, July 23rd, we finally got our planned hike underway.  We slept as soundly as ever and woke up at 7:40 to cloudy skies that presaged a change in the weather.  We finished off our our ayran supply on our muesli, then packed up our tent and headed off.  We passed the tent of Petr and Adam, two Czech backpackers whom we had met briefly the day before.  They were headed the same way we were and we checked in with them to see if we were going the right way; we had lost confidence in our route-finding ability during our debacle of the previous two days.  Having confirmed our route, we hiked uphill for an hour until the Teleti valley branched off.  We turned into our valley and continued uphill, stopping in at a yurt for some fresh cream and cheesy nibblies before continuing uphill.  At 2700 metres' altitude we entered a lovely open, flattish landscape.   Our path led through a marshy area, and despite our best efforts to stay dry, we both broke through the mat of vegetation on the surface to mid-thigh (Eric once, me twice).  We were very soggy when we met Petr and Adam again, leapfrogging each other at snack stops.  We had another river crossing (more cold water soaking the boots, as it was too rocky for either of us to want to take off our boots) and then climbed steeply and sharply uphill towards the crest of the Teleti Pass.

Eric started to lag behind badly, suffering both from altitude (we were up at 3350 metres) and his increasingly painful sprained ankle. I had lots of time to wait for him and to look around at our surroundings.  They were magnificent, with grey stone spires rising into view as we escaped the steep valley walls that had imprisoned our lines of sight.  Big patches of snow still lingered here deep into July, but below the rocky peaks there was a luminescent green of fresh grass and fir trees, speckled by millions of blooming wildflowers.  It was something out of an 19th century romantic painting, and I realized that this, rather than the harsh high altitude deserts of Peak Lenin, was what I liked most in the mountains.  Rather than being just a warm-up for Muztagh Ata, maybe this was the main course?

Campsite with a view below the Teleti Pass
The skies continued to darken, and I decided to move ahead to arrange some shelter in case it started to rain.  I found a flat patch to pitch the tent (no easy task in this very vertical world) and had everything set up when Eric finally wobbled into camp, clearly suffering from the pain in his ankle. We had a huge feast of pasta, tuna and tomato sauce and then lounged around on the grass watching the afternoon light fade on the peaks.





The wildflowers were everywhere, and burrows and droppings indicated that there must be animals as well, but they stayed out of sight.  I imagined that there were probably marmots and foxes, and perhaps wolves too, although I hoped that the wolves would keep their distance from us.  As we lay there in the grass, Eric smoking his daily hand-rolled after-dinner cigarette, it all seemed impossibly idyllic.

Eric reclining on the grass, a touch of Italian elegance around his neck

The next morning, July 24th, we were up at 7:00 am, our earliest morning yet on the trail.  For breakfast we finished the last of the raspberries from Kyzyl Suu (just before they fermented) atop our muesli and yoghurt.  Petr and Adam stopped by, having camped below us the night before but being earlier risers than us, and continued on their way towards to the summit of the pass, some 400 metres above us at 3760 m.  We packed up and got ready to go, but when Eric went to the nearby stream to get water, his ankle failed him and he fell in, soaking himself.  He was not amused, and it was a sign of things to come, as his ankle was in bad shape.  We left at the leisurely hour of 9:20 and took a little over 2 hours of easy climbing to reach the top of the pass, passing through a riot of wildflowers and butterflies before entering a world of rocky scree just below the pass.

Descending from the Teleti Pass
As it turned out, the climb was the easy part.  The descent from the pass down into the Karakol Valley was long, steep in places, treacherous in many spots and absolute hell for a man with a bum ankle.  In addition to the ankle itself, Eric's new, very stiff mountain boots were giving him horrible blisters, and he was hobbling downhill.  The last 400 vertical metres into the main valley were nearly vertical, and our well-defined path disappeared into a tangle of indistinct indentations in the grass.  Footing was tough, as water was seeping out of the ground making everything slick, and we both went down heavily a few times, luckily without further injury to Eric.  Eric was convinced that we must be going the wrong way, down the wrong side of the river, but there were no signs either way, and once we were committed, the river was almost impossible to cross.  We soldiered on, and eventually came out on flattish ground down in the Karakol Valley just as it started to rain.  We were a dispirited pair as we trudged to the nearest possible camping spot and put up our tent.  Supper was an affair of instant noodles, and Eric was in serious doubt about whether he would even be able to walk the next day.  Given that Muztagh Ata was our main objective, it seemed best for us to curtail our walk and head as soon as possible to a roadhead to catch vehicular transport somewhere where he could rest his leg.

Our kind-hearted saviour in the Suruu Valley
Re-reading my diary now, I realize that I'd forgotten what I was reading those long evenings in the tent on Peak Lenin, and now in the Terkey Ala-Tau.  My Kindle was stocked with lengthy, worthy literature that I might not have the patience to wade through in other settings.  That evening I finished off Marcus Aurelius' Meditations (which I had been inspired to read by William Irvine's recent book A Guide To The Good Life) and settled into Michel de Montaigne's Essays (which in turn I had been inspired to read by How to Live, by Sarah Bakewell).  I had been hard at work (and it was hard work!) on Remembrance of Things Past (or, as the new translation I was reading had it, In Search of Lost Time), Marcel Proust's epic doorstopper, the longest novel every published, but I was taking a well-earned break after spending all of my Ladakh evenings with him.  I had always tried to bring at least one tome with me on long summer expeditions; previous trips had found me with the complete works of Shakespeare, Thomas Musil's great pre-WWI Viennese novel The Man Without Qualities, and both War and Peace and Anna Karenina.  It was always good to feel that I had improved my cultural education when I came back from a long hike or bike trip.

July 25th found us slow to wake up, as there was no sunshine to wake us up, and we were both pretty tired after a long day the day before.  We cooked up some oatmeal, finished off our yoghurt supplies and then slowly wandered down to the tourist yurt camp at the mouth of our valley, where we bought some overpriced bread.  We continued downhill in the main valley for a couple of hours on a track that was deteriorating.  It was spitting rain, but we paused under a sheltering tree beside the track for a delicious salad and cheese lunch.  We then hobbled further down the valley to the beginning of the road, past yurts and small houses.  The scenery continued to be beautiful, despite the grey skies, and I wished that we could continue our footloose odyssey for a few more days, but Eric desperately needed to be off his leg as soon as possible.  At the roadhead we tore a taxi driver away from his vodka and cards and had him drive us to Karakol, where he found us a cheapish room (800 som, or US$ 16) in a dismal hotel/brothel.  It didn't matter to us; there was a roof over our heads, and good takeout shashlik to eat just down the street.  We had showers (which felt good after 5 days of hiking), called our respective partners (it was the first phone signal we had seen in days) and went to bed.

July 26th found the skies clearing and us keen to get somewhere on the shore of the lake.  We ended up bargaining a good price with the driver of a Mercedes to get dropped off in Cholpon Ata, and found ourselves on the main strip of the highway.  Issyk Kul is a very popular summer lakeside resort for Kyrgyz and (especially) Kazakhs, and it's a clone of many of the resort towns I had stayed in in Russia and Ukraine on the Black Sea coast the summer before.  We found a cheap room in a small anonymous hotel and settled in for two days of people watching, good food and relaxation.

The water was frigid, but it didn't deter hardy Kyrgyz holidaymakers.  Eric thought it reminded him of Italian beach resorts on the Adriatic in his youth, and there really was a feel of the 1950s or 1960s to it.  The town had once been a massive sanatorium, and the ruins of the old complex still dominate the foreshore, with small bits dolled up as smaller hotels or privatized sanatoria.  We visited a slightly weird museum, the Ruh Ordo, all grandiose national pride and slightly pompous modern architecture, dedicated to Kyrgyzstan's greatest modern writer, Chingiz Aitmatov, to get our cultural fix.  Mostly, though, we sat on the beach or walked, unencumbered by big backpacks, along the sand.  It was fun to spend a couple of days on the beach and a couple of nights reclining in chaikhanas, eating delicious lamb shashlik and sipping green tea and cold beer, but it was a poor substitute for hiking in the transcendent mountains of the Tien Shan.

I really enjoyed cycling through Kyrgyzstan back in 2004, and I really enjoyed our brief hiking journey in 2012.  If I were to recommend one area of the world for some really wonderful off-the-beaten-track adventures, either on foot or on bicycle, Kyrgyzstan would be near the top of the list.  I would love to go back again for more adventures, or even work in Bishkek and explore the country on weekends and holidays.  The fact that an almost unknown minor mountain range like the Terskey Ala Tau contains peaks higher than any in the Alps tells you how much exploring there is to be done in the mountains of this Central Asian Switzerland.

We walked past so many wonderful wildflowers
July 28th found us in a marshrutka, heading back to Bishkek.  Asia Mountains' main hotel was full, but they put us up in their overflow complex, Asia Mountains II.  The Olympics had started in London, and we spent a lot of time watching the early events.  As well, since most of the climbers I had met on Peak Lenin had been employing the services of Asia Mountains, I met a few climbers whom I had last seen moving up the mountain while I was retreating.  Tim, one of the northern English climbers I had met at Camp One, was back and had summitted, one of the very few successful summitteers during that period.  Alex Goldfarb was back as well, and had a harrowing tale to tell.  He and his guide Dasha had pushed towards the summit in horrible winds (go figure!) and had made it to within 100 vertical metres of the summit, but they had been moving slowly and when they finally made the decision to turn around, they ran out of daylight before finding their way back to Camp Three.  They had wandered around lost, with Alex convinced that they would freeze to death out in the open, for hours until Dasha finally found the tent around midnight.  They had made it down, but barely.  I was starting to feel a lot more confident that I had made the right decision in turning back.  Branko and his fellow Slovenians were back as well, having made it to the top of Razdelnaya Peak (the 6148 m bump on the ridge behind Camp Two) but no further.  It certainly seemed as though this summer was a particularly tough one for success on the 7000-metre peaks of Central Asia, the so-called Snow Leopard Peaks, and I had been unfortunate in terms of choosing 2012 as my mountaineering summer.

I also had a run-in with Turkish Airlines while I was in Bishkek.  I wanted to know how much it would cost to change my flight back to Geneva if our expedition were delayed in China (I had no margin of error, being scheduled to depart less than 24 hours after our scheduled return), but Turkish said that if I wanted to change anything, I would have to buy a new ticket.  I was surprised, and not a little annoyed, but there it was.

And then, suddenly, it was July 30th and Eric and I were loading our skis, our mountaineering gear and everything else into a hellaciously overloaded minivan for the 2-day drive to Kashgar.  Eric's ankle and feet had healed, and we were ready for the last leg of my 2012 summer adventure:  Muztagh Ata!

Monday, May 8, 2017

Retrospective (July 2012): Peak Lenin: Pamirs 1, Hazenberg 0

Thunder Bay, May 8th

Asia Mountains base camp and its orange tents
This post may mark an all-time record for me in terms of not writing up my adventures at the time, and letting things slide.  It's been almost 5 years since I spent six weeks trying to live out my Reinhold Messner mountaineering fantasies in the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia, and only now am I finally sitting down to try to capture the experience in cyberspace.  The fact that I have now written something like 49 blog posts since I left Leysin in June of 2015 means that I can no longer be tagged with my friend Kent Foster's once-accurate label of "the world's laziest blogger", but there is still improvement to be made, including writing about adventures that happened during the five-year-long blur of working in Leysin.  I really enjoyed living in the Alps (even if there were only 2 good snow winters out of the 5 I spent there), but between teaching, sports and travel, I hardly had time to put fingers to keyboard in the service of travel writing.  I am trying belatedly to make up for lost time.

In the summer of 2012, after a wonderful month spent hiking in the high-altitude trekker's paradise of Ladakh with Terri, we went our separate ways; she to return to work at her school in Leysin, me to further adventures in Kyrgyzstan and China; having two and a half months off every summer was one of the biggest perks of teaching at LAS!  I had first planned to climb Peak Lenin, reputedly the easiest 7000-metre peak in the world, back in 2002 during my Silk Road bike ride.  I was going to meet up with my sisters Audie and Saakje in Kyrgyzstan for another XTreme Dorks adventure, but an attack of rheumatic fever that laid me low for 6 months put the kibosh on further riding or any thoughts of mountaineering.  A decade further on, after a couple of seasons of ski touring in the Alps, I thought I would be in as good shape as I would ever be in for mountaineering, especially after a month of acclimatization in Ladakh.  Once I had decided to try my luck on Peak Lenin, it was easy to tack on another mountain that had been on my mental radar for 14 years, since my bike ride (the original XTreme Dorks expedition) along the Karakoram Highway way back in 1998.  Muztagh Ata is a huge peak (at 7546 m it's 400 m higher than Peak Lenin), but it's a deceptively simple-looking snow ramp that looks relatively simple to climb.  My friend Eric, with whom I used to play tennis back in Yangon days, had also been thinking of Muztagh Ata and we decided to do an expedition together.  I had about seven weeks before I had to get back to Leysin for the start of the school year, and it seemed like exactly the right amount of time for two big peaks.

The various climbing routes; I was on route 2, the Normal Route
In the end, I decided to pay Asia Mountains, a well-regarded company based in Bishkek, to provide base camp services on Peak Lenin, and to do the same for both of us at Muztagh Ata.  It's not strictly speaking necessary to hire a company for Peak Lenin, but almost everyone ends up doing so, since security of your possessions can be an issue there, and it's also nice to have some good food and comfort at base camp before and after being up on the slopes of the mountain.  On Muztagh Ata, given the Chinese government's bureaucracy, paranoia and obsession with border security, it's obligatory (and much more expensive!).

The flight from Delhi to Bishkek took forever, as I was flying on Turkish Airlines and flew all the way back to Istanbul only to backtrack the same distance east again.  I got to Bishkek, dropped off my skis with Alyona from Asia Mountains (they were storing them until I needed them for Muztagh Ata), hopped on a domestic flight to Osh and was picked up at the airport by a car and driver from Asia Mountains.  We stopped off in town for me to buy food at the supermarket and pick up a stove and gas canisters at the Asia Mountains office, then headed into the mountains.  It took four hours to drive to the base camp for Peak Lenin, a bit faster than the three days it took me on a bicycle back in 2004.  In the intervening eight years, the Chinese had paved the road, so that what was once a rutted dirt track was now almost entirely smooth asphalt.  It's a spectacular drive, up a long valley from Osh, then up and over the hairpins of the 3615-metre Taldyk Pass where my cycling partner Antoine and I once had to hole up in a yurt overnight during a howling blizzard. It was beautiful sunny weather this time and we swept steeply downhill to the crossroads town of Sary Tash, where roads lead east to China over the Irkeshtam Pass, west to Dushanbe (Tajikistan) and south to the Pamir Highway through eastern Tajikistan.  Antoine and I had headed south back in 2004, but we had stopped and looked southwest longingly towards the huge white shape of Peak Lenin. This year the vehicle turned west for thirty kilometres before leaving the main road and bumping along a jeep track for an hour up a green and pleasant valley to Asia Mountains' base camp, which was to be my home away from home for the next two weeks.


I had last been atop a really high mountain peak back in 2001 with my sisters Audie and Saakje and their respective partners Serge and Lucas, on one of our XTreme Dorks adventures.  That year, after hiking the Inca Trail in Peru and spending time on the shores of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, followed by more hiking in the altiplano in Chile, we had climbed Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America.  At 6961 metres, it was less than 200 metres shorter than Peak Lenin, so I assumed that with similar acclimatization, I would be able to use a similar approach to climbing Peak Lenin.  Back then we had hiked in for two days from the road at Puente del Inca to the base camp at Plaza de Mulas, then ascended slowly to Camps One and Two (Canada and Nido de Condores), pausing to acclimatize at each camp for a couple of days while ferrying supplies further up the mountain.  Finally we did a big day to summit from Nido, doing about 1000 vertical metres, before returning to camp.  I envisioned a similar slow ascent on Peak Lenin, starting with ferrying gear to Camp One (Advanced Base Camp), staying there, then ferrying gear up to Camp Two and Camp Three before a summit dash from Camp Three.  I had my mountaineering tent, sleeping bag and mattress, plenty of food (including freeze-dried rations and some bacon, cheese, soup and noodles I had bought in Osh), fuel (small camping cylinders), cooking gear and a Kindle.  I felt ready!

Marmot near Peak Lenin Base Camp
There are a series of widely spaced base camps spread along the Achik Tash meadows at about 3650 metres above sea level, each run by a different mountaineering company.  You don’t absolutely need to stay in one of them, but they’re relatively inexpensive and provide a measure of security against pilfering.  Asia Mountains had a neat encampment of yurts at the foot of an old glacial moraine with a splendid view of the mountain and the rest of the Trans-Alai range, and plenty of marmots running around.  I was put in my own big orange half-cylinder tent and soon afterwards repaired to the dining tent to eat sumptuously.  This is the other advantage of using a base camp outfit like Asia Mountains:  at Base Camp and Camp One there are full-time professional cooks preparing meals that aren’t dehydrated noodles and soups.  I settled in for a great feed, and then packed my gear for an early departure the next morning. 

There were a number of groups at base camp that night.  There were 3 Muscovites (Nastya, Irina and Volodya) who were climbing together, and a group of 8 Slovenians, including a professional mountain guide named Branko.  As well there was a young Spanish snowboarder, Marcos, who was keen to make a snowboard descent of the mountain, but who was suffering from persistent dysentery and off to Osh to see a doctor.  I would see a lot of these folks over the next two weeks, and it was good to meet such a fun group of travellers and mountaineers.

How other expeditions move gear to Camp One
The next day, Thursday July 5th, was a long, tough day.  My idea was to shuttle a load to Camp 1 to get my body used to carrying a heavy load, and to use the old acclimatization adage of “climb high, sleep low”.  I was up by 7 am, breakfasting at 8 (on a delicious spread of eggs, bread, yoghurt, jam and other goodies in the mess tent) and underway by 9.  My pack was really, really heavy, maybe as much as 30 kg, and it was hard going.  I had been told that it was a 4-hour hike to Camp 1, but it ended up taking almost 6 hours.  The heavy pack was definitely a factor in slowing me down (I could have hired a horse to take my gear there, but I thought it was a better idea to get some carrying into my legs, after a month of having horses carry my gear in Ladakh), but I seemed to be ridiculously unacclimatized to altitude.  This was quite strange, as I had spent most of the previous month above 4000 metres in Ladakh and had been completely acclimatized to that altitude.  I found myself really panting for breath on uphills.  I also, because I underestimated the time, didn’t have enough snack food and water with me. 

Between Base Camp and Camp One; Camp One is up the glacier to the right
The path led up the valley that the base camp was located in, through carpets of beautiful wildflowers, and then through gorgeous Onion Meadow (full, unsurprisingly, of wild onions with their pretty purple flowers).  I then left the valley and the greenery and made my way up a ridge of red rock to the top of Traveller’s Pass, topping out at 11:15.  There was a sweeping view out into the next valley (in which Camp One is located), and at the top I met a garrulous, enthusiastic retired Englishman with whom I chatted about trekking and mountains for an enjoyable (but windy) half hour.  I thought that I was close to Camp One, but it was another three hours of tough walking, often up and down across steep moraine scree slopes.  I was getting hungrier and thirstier (there was no water after I left Onion Meadow) and puzzled as to where Camp One might be.  I was almost on top of it before it appeared, a series of widely-scattered tents clusters at 4400 metres above sea level, one for each mountaineering company.  At 2:40 pm, leg-weary, surprisingly tired and very hungry, I got to the Asia Mountains camp (the closest one, luckily), dropped my load and tucked into a magnificent lunch in the mess tent.  While eating, I met three more skiers, companions of the ill snowboarder Marcos.  I was starting to wonder whether I should have brought my skis to Peak Lenin too, but it seemed to be a long trudge before skis could become useful.  I was shown to my small tent, where I stashed my gear before setting off back to base camp at a much more rapid rate, passing dozens of fat orange marmots in Onion Meadow.  By 7 pm I was back at base camp, just in time for another huge feast.  My calves felt empty and sore, and my left ankle wasn’t at all happy.  I went to bed tired but also worried about my lack of acclimatization and the excessive weight of food and supplies that I was lugging around.

Scenery between base camp and Camp One
That night I slept fitfully, as though unacclimatized to 3700 metres.  In the morning, I packed up the remainder of my gear (substantially lighter this time) and set off at 9:00 again.  The weather was cloudier, colder and windier than the day before, with a few fitful snowflakes, and I walked slowly but steadily, taking a snack break below the Traveller’s Pass.  I felt a bit fitter than the day before, but it still took me until 2:40 pm to get to Camp One, exactly the same time as the day before.  I tucked into another sizeable feed before sorting out my gear, trying to reduce weight for the following day.  The rest of the afternoon passed agreeably reading and napping in my tent.  The weather was ominous, with heavy thunder and fairly heavy snowfall, the tiny sharp ice pellets known as graupel.  Over supper I talked a lot with Nastya, Irina and Volodya, milking them for information.  They, as well as a couple of Asia Mountains guides who were at dinner, were dubious of me walking to Camp Two the next day alone, as there are some serious crevasses in the underlying glacier.  I arranged to set off with them the next day so that I could rope up with them in case of a fall into a crevasse.  However that evening, as we sat around the dining table reading and chatting, the graupel continued to fall steadily.  The Russian trio eventually decided to postpone moving uphill for a day, and I was happy to take a day off as well after two days that had been substantially longer and harder than I had anticipated.

Fresh snow at Camp One, with the summit behind
Saturday, July 7th was a deliciously lazy day.  When we woke up there was a good 20 cm of fresh snow and my Asia Mountains tent nearly collapsed under the weight of it, and nobody opted to head further up until the snow had a chance to settle or melt.  I had slept poorly again, getting up several times in the night to pee, and tossing restlessly with a racing pulse.  I had to admit that I wasn’t at all acclimatized to this relatively low altitude of 4400 m, despite the previous month’s hiking.  I found it mysterious and not at all reassuring; part of my planning for the mountain had been predicated on being acclimatized and fit and moving uphill relatively rapidly.  Between the bad weather and the lack of acclimatization, this relatively rapid pace seemed unlikely to work.  I packed a bag to take to Camp Two the next morning; again I was planning to do two carries to Camp Two, sleeping at Camp One inbetween.

Beautiful view of the summit from Camp One
Those of us heading uphill the next morning were up in the dark at 4:30 am (I slept through a couple of alarms and was only woken by the noise made by other climbers getting ready).  By 5 am we were at breakfast, and by 6:15 am we were underway.  This early start was said to be necessary to get firm ice on the glacier as well as to beat the heat in the much-feared Skovorodka (the Frying Pan) just below Camp Two.  Once again I felt poorly acclimatized, panting and moving slowly.  I stuck with the three Russians until we had gotten over a pretty scary crevasse that we crossed with a running leap, aided by a rope pull from ahead (Volodya had leapt it cleanly without the rope, but Nastya and Irina and I were grateful for some assistance).  We stayed roped up on the flat section of the glacier, reputedly the most crevasse-ridden part, and then up the first steep pitch, but then I let them move ahead as I was moving like a slug.  The distance between us widened rapidly as I laboriously trudged up the slope, easily the slowest climber on the mountain.  

Climbers retreating downhill from Camp Two across the Frying Pan
By noon I had only made it to an altitude of 5000 m, and it was 2:00 pm before I entered the Frying Pan.  It lived up to its name, with no wind to cool me and the UV radiation off the flat snow and ice roasting me.  It seemed unbearably hot, and it seemed to take forever for me to cross this open space, past an avalanche-prone slope.  In 1990 avalanches, triggered by earthquakes, wiped out Camp Two in its previous location underneath this slope; 43 climbers died in what is still the largest single death toll in mountaineering history.  The snow had softened enough in the afternoon heat that I was constantly sinking in to mid-thigh, further reducing my snail’s pace.  It was 5:00 pm when I staggered, completely spent, into Camp Two, a compact village of perhaps 25 tents on a fairly steep slope at 5350 metres above sea level.  It had taken me almost 11 hours to cover what fit, acclimatized climbers usually do in 5 hours.  My lack of fitness and lack of altitude acclimatization was clearly evident. 

Since it was so late in the day, there was no question of retreating back to Camp One that evening.  I put up my Crux mountaineering tent, first digging a new tent platform into the snow slope with my avalanche shovel.  I was on my own now; Asia Mountains’ tents and food stopped at Camp One.  I used my shovel handle and blade (separately), my ice axe and two ice screws to fasten down the guy ropes of the tent.  I set up the tent, melted some snow (always a slow process) and cooked up bouillon with croutons, eggs and cheese, chatting with a couple of ultralight mountaineers from Kamchatka squeezed into one tiny tent.   I made some instant ramen noodles as well, but I just couldn’t stomach them, so I put them aside for breakfast instead.  One item that I hadn’t brought up from Camp One was my ThermaRest air mattress, so I made do with my foamie undermattress, not ideal on the snow.  I was very cold and bone tired when I crawled into bed at 7:30 pm.

I was in my sleeping bag for over 12 hours that night, although the second half of the night my slumber was disturbed by the sound of howling winds.  I had heard from other climbers who had been further up the mountain that it was unrelentingly windy once they got above Camp Two, and now the winds were scouring our camp as well.

The peak reflected in Irina's sunglasses
I felt really tired and sore when I got up, and it took two groggy hours to melt snow and cook up some breakfast.  By 10:30 I was headed back down the mountain with an empty backpack, leaving my tent erected and my gear and food inside.  It took only 3 easy hours to descend what it had taken 11 hours to ascend, and much of that time was spent on the flat part of the glacier on the final approach back to Camp One.  I had been dreading the killer crevasse all day, wondering whether I would have the nerve to leap it on my own, and yet I never even saw it on the descent; in only one day the glacier had moved far enough for it to fill in the crevasse by itself.  It was more than a little unnerving to find the ground beneath my feet so rapidly changeable.  When I got back to Camp One, I was glad to tuck into a hearty stew and some freshly baked bread.  In my absence Marcos, the snowboarder, had returned healthy from Osh and had been moved into my tent as my tentmate.  I had a sociable afternoon and evening chatting with him, and with Asia Mountains’ most glamorous guide, the young powerhouse climber Dasha Yashina, as well as her client Alex Goldfarb, a Russian-born Harvard Medical School researcher on kidney function.  I fell asleep to the disconcerting booming echoes of seracs falling somewhere up on the glacier.

Showing off my crampons, with the summit ridge behind

The next morning was Tuesday, July 10th, and I was up at 4 am (I heard my alarm this time!), breakfasting at 5 and off by 5:30.  The skies were clear and cold, and Jupiter, Venus and Mercury were all glittering in the pre-dawn sky.  The snow and ice were much harder than two days previously, and I finally felt as though I might be getting a bit better acclimatized; perhaps retreating back from 5350 m to 4400 m had improved things.  I had another load of food, fuel and gear in my bag, although it was definitely lighter than two days before.  I was still slower than most climbers on the mountain (particularly the professional guides and porters, who scampered past me), but I was at Camp Two by 12:30, seven hours after setting off.  On the way I was passed by Dasha and Alex, and met Volodya, Nastya and Irina retreating back to Camp One for a rest, along with my Kamchatka neighbours.  Six of the eight Slovenians I had met in base camp were on their way up as well.  It was good weather and everyone was on the move. 

Camp Two that afternoon was oppressively hot and still, with UV radiation pouring off the snow.  I tried to nap in my tent, but it was too hot.  I repacked a load of food that I planned to carry up to Camp Three the next day, cooked up some eggs and scarfed down as much nuts, cheese and bouillon as I could stomach.  I had been talked into buying no fewer than 10 gas canisters from the Asia Mountains office in Osh, but only now did I finish the first of them; I was clearly carrying an excessive supply.  After lunch the first clouds of the day rolled in and soon enough it was snowing again, blowing through a small gap in the fly where I had melted the zipper in a fit of inattention earlier in the day.  More eggs and more hideously indigestible ramen noodles, along with my first package of dehydrated rations (a potato stew), with lots of butter melted into it for extra calories, did for supper. 

That evening I lay in my tent listening to the wind howl.  I had been gathering intelligence from other groups of climbers, and what I heard didn’t sound very good.  Although the next stage, up to Camp Three, was shorter than either of the previous two legs in terms of horizontal distance, it was still another 800 vertical metres, and via a somewhat convoluted route up a ridge, over a bump (Razdelnaya Peak) and then down to a slightly sheltered spot where Camp Three is usually pitched.  The accepted figure for time held that it would be three hours to Razdelnaya, and then another hour to reach the camp.  The 4 Canadian med students I had met at Osh airport had been up towards Camp Three that day and had been turned back by howling winds halfway.  I heard that it was in fact the first day of the season that anyone had made it as far up as Camp Three, although that didn’t seem entirely plausible.  The winds were said to be strong enough to pick you up off your feet, and to have been this strong for a week.  I wrote up a plan in my diary that evening that saw me on top of the mountain five days later, then went to sleep.

Wednesday, July 11th marked a week since my arrival at base camp, and I was up early to crisp, cold, clear weather.  I felt tired and groggy, so I had a leisurely breakfast omelette, then sat lazing and talking, trying to overcome lassitude.  My plan was to carry a load of supplies up the mountain to Camp Three, stash them there, and then come back to Camp Two.  At 9:45 I set off up the steep slope right behind camp.  I made good time, reaching the top of the pitch within an hour.  As began walking along the relatively level ground from there, somebody flipped the weather switch and suddenly clouds started to roll in, driven by a pounding wind.  I struggled onwards, trying to follow previous tracks (not an easy task, given the blowing snow that was filling them in), and talking to groups retreating from above; several groups had turned back before Camp Three, and nobody recommended going onwards, as the wind just got worse with altitude.  I kept trudging, but at noon, atop a knoll at about 5700 metres, I decided to turn back in the face of some of the worst winds I had ever felt on a mountain.  I buried my food and gas canisters in the snow, marked it with a distinctive arrangement of rocks and turned back at 12:30.  It took only half an hour to race back to camp, blown downhill by a wind that seemed to have a malevolent personality of its own.  Camp Two was also raked by the same gale-force winds and I spent the afternoon sheltering from the wind, eating a ton and chatting with Dasha while dramatic clouds formed over the ridge before being ripped away by gusts.  It was awe-inspiring, but hardly confidence-inspiring. 

Dasha Yashina
I passed out in my tent for two hours of oblivious sleep and woke up to continuing gales.  For the first time I found myself wondering if I was really going to be able to summit, between the terrible weather, unseasonably deep snow, continuing lack of acclimatization and physical weakness.  I had been shocked that afternoon to feel how much leg muscle I had lost during my week on the mountain; the only other time I had ever experienced that was during my bout of rheumatic fever in Urumqi back in 2002, and that hadn’t ended at all well.  I continued to be puzzled at how poorly my body was reacting to altitudes that I had had no problem with a month earlier.  I also found myself tearing up with emotion as I lay reading classic poems on my Kindle in the tent, and remembered that this had been an early sign of physical breakdown on my bike in the weeks before Urumqi.  The fact that far more experienced climbers than myself were also talking about the low odds of success also gave me pause for thought.  I had read beforehand that about 29% of climbers on Peak Lenin are successful, and I was beginning to see why that might be.

That night I lay in my tent, unable to fall asleep because of the deafening roar of the wind and the crackling and shaking of my tent.  I was glad that I had such a well-constructed tent, but it didn’t make sleeping any easier.  I finally passed out from pure exhaustion at 2 am.  When I awoke at 8 am, the winds had dropped slightly, but were still fearsome.  Most of the climbers in Camp Two were on their way downhill, and I saw several tents that had completely shredded during the night.  I decided to sit tight and see how the weather developed, and spent the day lying in my tent reading, napping and eating.  By evening there were only a handful of us left in camp, and my diary records that the two things that concerned me the most were the continuing evaporation of muscle from my legs and my butt, and the fact that snow was being driven up under the flap of the fly and onto the mesh of the inner tent, from where it fell in a fine dust onto me and my sleeping bag to melt and increase the misery factor.

My view from the tent in Camp Two
Friday, July 13th was a decisive day.  I barely slept again as the wind continued its sonic assault, and I awoke tired, sore and weak.  I had breakfast, then trudged uphill with an empty backpack to fetch the fuel and food I had cached two days earlier.  Even without carrying a load, I was slower and weaker than I had been before, and was barely able to stagger up to the cache.  This made my mind up.  It was going to take far longer than the time I had allotted for Peak Lenin to get acclimatized and fit, and given the weather, success was going to be doubtful for anybody in this weather window.  I returned to Camp Two, packed up everything and set off on the long, heavy trudge back downhill to the sybaritic comforts of Camp One.  Just as I approached Camp One, I met a group of several British climbers with whom I had a good chat; one of them, a hard-looking nurse named Tim, would end up being the only climber (other than mountain guides) that I met on the mountain who would end up summiting.  I settled into my Asia Mountains tent and had an enormous meal, trying to regain some of the weight I had lost over the past week.  I felt very disappointed not to have summited, but I figured that I might as well rebuild my strength and focus on making my Muztagh Ata ascent a more successful enterprise.  Ironically the weather had improved, and everyone else in Camp One was planning to move up to Camp Two the next day, even as I was descending.  I was assailed by self-doubt; was I just being a wimp, or was it the right move?

Lovely sunset colours seen from Camp One
The next day I lazed around Camp One, eating, reading, taking pictures and waiting for a horse to carry my luggage back to base camp; I had decided that carrying heavy loads hadn’t helped me acclimatize; it had just made me tired, and wasted my leg muscles.  After lunch a horse and owner appeared from Base Camp and I negotiated a price to carry my gear.  It was amazing how easy it was to walk downhill, breathing progressively thicker and thicker air, unencumbered by weight.  We set off at 3, and by 6 o’clock I was back in a big orange tent, overjoyed to be surrounded by green grass, wildflowers, marmots and relative warmth.  After being in the lifeless white desert of the high mountains, this profusion of plants and animals was balm to a bruised and battered soul.  I spent the evening chatting with Dasha’s client Alex, and playing chess in the mess tent against a couple of my fellow climbers.  Alex and Dasha's presence in base camp wasn't surprising; the standard Russian/post-Soviet plan of attack on a big mountain like this was always to establish camps up the mountain, then retreat to base camp for a couple of days to rest up and recover before moving briskly up the mountain to the summit.  Dasha and Alex were planning on heading up to Camp One the next day to start their final push to the summit.

At Peak Lenin base camp, with the peak just out of view to the left
I spent Sunday, July 15th in Base Camp, in beautiful weather, as there was no jeep available to take me back to Osh until the next day.  I walked, talked with climbers, took photos and sunned myself in the afternoon warmth.  I felt a bit of envy looking uphill at what looked like good climbing conditions on the slopes of Peak Lenin, but it still looked windy higher up, with flags of spindrift hanging from the ridges and the summit.  That evening, after more chess (I love the fact that the post-Soviet world is so full of keen chess players!), I drew up a list of mistakes I had made, and reasons why I was leaving Peak Lenin empty-handed. It read:
  • Insufficient time budgeted (the ultimate root of the failure)
  • Insufficient sense of how big a mountain Peak Lenin is, and how much distance is involved
  • Too few rest days budgeted in
  • Not appreciating the importance of descending to recharge physically and mentally
  • Carrying too heavy a load
  • Assuming that my Ladakh acclimatization would carry over  
  • Not realizing the extent to which my muscles would waste at high altitude (it had never been an issue before) 
  • Overestimating my own physical strength and stamina
  • Underestimating the effects of heat and glare, particularly on the climb across the Frying Pan
  • Letting myself get physically run down
  • Wearing myself out on the first two days unneccesarily
  • Relying too much on analogy with my experience on Aconcagua
  •  The fact that I was now 43, instead of 32 as I had been on Aconcagua
  • Overconfidence
  • Extraordinary wind 
  • Deeper snow than usual for this time of year
  • A probable mild case of sunstroke on the first trip across the Frying Pan
I started reading up on Muztagh Ata, and trying to sketch out a plan of attack; it may have been Pamirs 1, Hazenberg 0 but I was going to try to equalize the score on the next mountain!

Alex Goldfarb saying prayers in base camp
On Monday, July 16th, barely 12 days after arriving in base camp, I found myself being driven back to Osh by the same driver as before, Marat.  Four hours later I was deposited in the Sunrise II guesthouse and went out to try to get a flight back to Bishkek.  There was nothing until Wednesday, so I had an enforced day of eating, reading and catching up on e-mail.  I also finally got a Kyrgyz SIM card for my phone, and used it to call Terri in Switzerland.  When I got through, she was in tears, and told me that Roger Payne, her neighbour in Leysin and a close personal friend, a man whom I knew well, had been killed a few days earlier in a massiveavalanche while guiding two clients up Mont Blanc.  A huge slab of ice and snow had hurtled down hundreds of metres off Mont Maudit and killed Roger, his two clients and six other climbers in one of the worst climbing accidents in recent years in the Alps.  Terri was devastated at his sudden death, and it put my own “failure” on Peak Lenin into sobering perspective; I hadn’t summited, but at least I was safely down in the lowlands afterwards.  Roger’s death would hang over my thoughts and my decision-making over the weeks to come.   Roger had left behind his climbing partner and wife to grieve for him; I really didn't want to impose the same burden of grief on Terri, so I was determined to err on the side of caution.


Finally, on Wednesday, July 18th, exactly two weeks after flying from Bishkek to Osh, I flew in the opposite direction, headed to the Asia Mountains hotel/headquarters and met up with my friend Eric, ready for the next phase of this summer of Central Asian mountain adventures.







Sunday, April 23, 2017

Stanley's Travels in Review: Top 13 Camping Spots

Thunder Bay, April 20

When you're on a long overland trip, camping out of your vehicle, at first you don't pay as much attention to where you're camping as you do to what you see during the day, but over time you start to appreciate the finer points of a campsite that make it just right.  After all, you end up spending a lot of time in and around your campsite, so it's always a bonus if it's a memorably beautiful spot with a great sunset, splendid views, a roaring campfire, a feeling of isolation and no noisy neighbours.  Looking back on Stanley's Travels, I realize that it wasn't until about halfway through the trip that we really started to appreciate some of the incredible places that we got to park Stanley.  I think that on our next loop through Africa, we will try to arrange the trip to spend as much time as possible in beautiful places in the middle of nowhere, enjoying the surroundings, eating well and having sundowners and crackling fires.

I was going to make this a top 10 list, but as I went through the preliminary list, I got to the point where I didn't want to cut out any of these great places to camp, so I made it a baker's dozen of great places to camp instead.


1.  Nsobe Camp, Bangweulu Wetlands--Zambia


In the shade of our own termite mound on the edge of the plains


Cycling through the lechwe herds


Pancakes cooking on an open fire
This inexpensive, isolated campsite was absolutely perfect for us.  After a long, tough slog along a rough track to get there, Nsobe was a wonderful refuge.  On the edge of a huge grassland plain, a number of isolated campsites are each tucked into the shade of a couple of trees growing out of the top of a giant termite mound, the only shelter for miles.  It's pitch-black at night, making for great stargazing, and the staff bring firewood and heat water for showers.  The sites are far enough apart that you're barely aware of other people, while in July, when we were there, distant grass fires make for dramatic sunsets and flickering firelight at night.  You feel as though you're alone in the middle of nowhere, with thousands of black lechwe antelope and thousands of smaller grassland birds all around.  Just 8 km away is the ranger station at Chikuni, where you set off on foot to look for rare shoebills in the papyrus swamps, while wattled and crowned cranes dot the grasslands nearby. It a wonderful place to stay, and it's hard to tear yourself away once you've arrived.


A perfect place to camp!

Smoke-enhanced sunset


2.  Wild Campsite #2, Damaraland--Namibia

Location, location, location

Hardy desert trees
We camped wild a few times in Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, but we really should have done it more often. Damaraland, the strip of semi-desert (karoo) inland from the Skeleton Coast, was perfect for just pulling off the track and finding a spot to set up for the night.  When we return for more adventures in Stanley, Damaraland will likely be the first place we head.  This particular campsite, just off a very rough 4WD track that we followed from Brandberg West to Twyfelfontein, was wonderful.  We stopped atop a small rise that gave sweeping views over the surrounding desert plains.  We were surrounded by rare prehistoric-looking welwitschia plants, and when we walked along the nearby dry riverbed we saw lots of droppings and footprints of desert-dwelling black rhinos, although we didn't spot the animals themselves.  There was a sense of complete middle-of-nowhere-ness that was exactly what we wanted.  Although we weren't that far off the track, there is only about one vehicle a day using that track, and we saw no other humans for a day and a half.  Sitting around a flickering campfire watching satellites and meteors moving across the Milky Way was an unforgettable experience.

Late afternoon light on the nearby hills

3.  Ngepi Camp, Campsite #22--Namibia


Another perfect view over the Kavango River

Great road sign
This was a place that we loved so much the first time that we came back again a second time.  The Kavango River in the Caprivi Strip of northeastern Namibia is an idyllic place to sit back and watch the river flow, maybe with a fishing line in the river or with a birdwatching guidebook in your lap. There are a lot of campsites along the river, both on the Namibian and the Botswanan side of the border, and I'm sure a lot of them are fairly similar in terms of views, isolation and beauty, but Ngepi really won a special place in our hearts.  The people that run the place are exceptionally friendly, funny and efficient, and the hilarious signs all around the camp are worth searching out.  The particular campsite that we took the second time we stayed there, #22, is the furthest from the main lodge and as a result is the quietest and most isolated.  You hear hippos grunting and splashing in the river nearby (and out on the grass at night, once you're in bed), and elephants and leopards calling from across the river in the national park.  The firepits are well-made, and the views out over the Kavango are fabulous.  The entire property is a birdwatcher's dream, with dozens of species skulking in the bush or splashing around in the river.  The campsites are pretty widely separated, particularly as you get towards #22, and the overland trucks which are the mainstay of Ngepi's business model are all housed at the other end of the camp, so that you barely notice their presence.  It was such a peaceful, beautiful, restful place that we chose it for our last destination of the trip in March, 2017. I'm sure we'll be back again in the future!

Note:  Since my camera gear had been stolen by this point, the photos here come from other sources: one from Alli's Excellent Adventures, and the other from Angel and Quail on Trail.

4.  Kapishya Hot Springs--Zambia


Hot spring perfection!
This is another oasis in the wilds of northern Zambia that was hard to tear ourselves away from.  We stayed there for three nights and could easily have stayed longer.  The big attraction is, of course, the hot springs, a big rustic pool with hot water bubbling up through the sandy bottom.  We spent hours relaxing there under the forest canopy, watching kingfishers darting along the river.  The grounds make for great birdwatching, and there is lovely walking to be done in the bush that surrounds the lodge.  The campsite is quite removed from the lodge and wasn't at all busy when we were there, so we felt more or less on our own.  Great views out over the river, lots of firewood to stoke up a campfire, and a feeling of peace and tranquility that is very seductive.

It was impossible to drag Terri out of the water!


5.  Kori Campsite #3, CKGR--Botswana


A rather comical slender mongoose

Birds lured in by our portable bird watertrough
The southern parks in Botswana (the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park) are amazing places and not much visited compared to the parks in the north of the country.  The Botswana DWNP have done a great job of providing a relatively small number of very isolated rustic campsites (the only facilities are a firepit and a long-drop toilet) out in the middle of nowhere, with no fences separating you from the animals.  Kori Campsite, in the Deception Valley, was absolutely perfect; with the nearest campsite at least half a kilometre away, you're not really aware of other people.  There's plenty of game around, just over the track in the grasslands of a nearby pan:  big kori bustards and secretarybirds, playful bat-eared foxes and jackals, lots of springbok and gemsbok.  Right in the campsite there are slender mongooses and plenty of birdlife, including playful yellow-billed hornbills.  It really feels like being a San hunter-gatherer as you sit around your flickering campfire under the stars, listening to the yips of jackals and hyenas in the night.  Most of the campsites in the CKGR and the Botswanan side of the KTP are similar, and it's worth putting in the effort ahead of time to try to book these sites for some unforgettable nights out in these arid Edens.

Terri loving our pre-dinner stroll across the grasslands

6.  Pomene Lodge Campground--Mozambique

Setting up camp

Flamingoes in the lagoon
Perfect view out towards the beach
We had heard of Pomene for years before our trip, as it was the subject of a nature documentary that we saw on TV when we were living in Switzerland.  We were almost talked out of going there by travellers who said that it wasn't worth the long sandy drive, but we decided in the end to go.  We were very glad that we went, as it was a superb place.  Out at the end of a 60-kilometre sand track that needed our tires deflated almost to zero, Pomene Lodge is located at the end of a sandy spit lying between the Indian Ocean on one side and a beautiful lagoon on the other.  Our campsite looked out towards the ocean, out of which we watched a full moon rise, and a brief stroll brought us out to a perfect sunset-viewing spot looking west over the lagoon.  There were hardly any other campers around, and it was quiet, peaceful and very beautiful.  Every morning women from the local village would walk by with fresh fruit (including amazing passion fruit), bread and fish for us to buy.  We rented sea kayaks from the lodge and had a wonderful paddle across the lagoon and up a forest-lined river.  There was great birdwatching, with flamingoes in the lagoon, and we spotted dolphins frolicking in the lagoon mouth a couple of times.  A long but beautiful hike down the beach gets you to the old ruined Portuguese-era hotel at the point, and (more to the point) the amazing blowholes.  Well worth the trudge.  All in all, it was a very elemental, naturally stunning setting, and we would gladly have spent more time camped at Pomene if we hadn't run out of money (they only take cash at the lodge).  
Ho hum; another perfect sunset

7.  Leeupan Bush Camp--South Africa


Nice setting for Stanley 

Sociable weaver nest complex
This place occupies a special place in our hearts.  We first heard of it in October from a fellow camper in Upington, Northern Cape, South Africa.  We had passed it by as we left Botswana and entered South Africa, and we were too lazy to drive back north to visit it.  It remained on our mental radar, though, and when we beat a retreat from persistent rainy weather in January, we took a detour into the middle of nowhere specifically to camp at Leeupan, and ended up staying three wonderful nights.

Leeupan is located close to the Botswana border, not far from the village of Van Zylsrus, right in the heart of the South African section of the Kalahari.  The landscape consists of a series of red sand dunes running parallel to each other, covered with typical African bush vegetation.  The campsite is on the other side of the main gravel road from the Leeupan farm, and so it's very, very quiet.  There are some basic facilities (flush toilets, showers), but the main appeal is the isolation, the wildlife and the stars at night.  When we were there it was pretty hot during the day, and Terri escaped from the heat by soaking in the "swimming pool", which was really the water reservoir but which served the purpose of cooling us off.  The sunsets were spectacular, and there was plenty of firewood around to stoke up a decent-sized blaze every night.  The evening temperatures dropped to a very pleasant cool, and we sat out every night beside the fire watching for satellites passing overhead and for eyes glinting in the night on the ground, as nocturnal grazers (mostly springbok, but also a springhaas) came in for water at the little drinking trough that the owners have set up.  It was a perfect temperature to sleep at night with our roof hatch open, letting the stars and the moon bathe our faces with a faint glow.

Ooh La La cooling her belly
There were lots of leopard tortoises and birds to be seen, including a very impressive sociable weaver nest complex, but the unique feature of Leeupan that had us driving a couple of hundred kilometres out of our way is that it's next to the Kalahari Meerkat Project property.  These are the meerkats featured in the nature documentary series Meerkat Manor, and Leeupan was the only place that we saw these ridiculously cute social mongooses in the wild. We talked to Lorraine, the very friendly owner, and told her that we were eager to see meerkats.  She talked to her farm workers, and they indicated the vague area that they had last seen the meerkats.  We went for a stroll in the late afternoon and suddenly there were a dozen meerkats under the leadership of the indomitable Ooh La Laa scuttling around energetically, frantically digging into the sand in search of scorpions and crickets to eat.  We stood and watched them for a good long while until one of the Kalahari Meerkat Project volunteers came around to do her evening behavioural observations and we had to leave.  It was a special encounter and was the icing on the cake of a beautiful camping spot.

We love meerkats!

8.  Bruintjieskraal Campsite #12, Baviaanskloof--South Africa



Not a bad place to park
We stayed here for only one night, as we were in a hurry to escape rain and get up towards the Kalahari and Namibia.  It was, however, an incredibly beautiful isolated campsite with a swimming hole and fishing spot right next to the vehicle.  There is a covered private kitchen area that would be useful when the weather is poor, and an excellent private ablution block.  There are a number of campsites spread along the length of the river, but #12 is by far the largest and most isolated; we couldn't hear or see any of the other guests in this popular weekend retreat from Port Elizabeth.  The scenery is very pretty, as the campsite is set in a narrow gorge (a kloof, in Afrikaans; hence the name). It's also a good base for hiking and mountain biking.  It's certainly a place that we would go back to if we found ourselves in that corner of South Africa again.

Morning view from our campsite

9.  Pontoon Camp, Kasanka National Park--Zambia

The campsite attendants stoking up our fires

We were out of cooking gas, so we used the open fire
Pontoon Camp is a beautiful spot in lovely Kasanka National Park.  It's right on the edge of a marsh lined with dense papyrus reeds, into and out of which slip the normally shy sitatunga which are the most aquatic of the antelope family.  Every morning and evening they would make an appearance, coming out onto the grass to graze.  There were lots of waterbirds as well, particularly the coppery-tailed coucal and the African jacana.  The campsite is in the middle of absolutely nowhere, and there are only 3 spots, each with its own showers and toilets and fire pits, widely enough spaced that you don't really notice your neighbours.  It's very quiet and the night is full of owls, bats and spiders whose eyes sparkle in your flashlight beam.  The campground has a couple of attendants who kindle fires, heat the water for showers and generally take care of you hand and foot.  Highly recommended.

Sitatunga buck

10.  Otjiwa Lodge, (Campsite #10)--Namibia


Well-constructed campsite, well stocked with firewood
This was another place we liked so much that we came back a second time.  It's only about 2 hours north of Windhoek, and we stayed here a couple of times when returning to the city.  Otjiwa is a private game reserve with a fancy lodge but also 10 well-maintained campsites.  We stayed both times in campsite 10, the one furthest from the lodge and other campers, and it was magical.  There's great bush for walking, lots of birds and a feeling that you're much further away from civilization than you really are.  Both nights we stayed here we had great braais (barbecues) over the campfire and sat out under the stars in perfect contentment.  We don't have any photos that I took here, so I lifted a couple of photos from the excellent Tracks For Africa website.


11.  Khami Ruins Campsite--Zimbabwe

Lovely location under the trees

We stayed here almost by accident.  We had planned to visit Khami, some of the most atmospheric historical ruins in Africa, but when we got there, we saw what looked like a perfect place to camp at a little picnic site.  We asked at the site office and it turned out it was set up for camping, despite the lack of a sign.  It turned out to be a wonderful spot, very atmospheric, under the canopy of some towering trees.  I love camping at historic spots, and we were right between two sets of stone ruins.  We climbed up the hill to one set of ruins to watch a full moon rise, and it was absolutely breathtaking.  


Sunset serenade atop the ruins

12.  Elephant Sands--Botswana

The cottages have a great view over the waterhole


Up close and personal
We ended up spending only one night here, blundering in after dark, guided by our GPS to the nearest campground.  It turned out to be a serendipitous jackpot of a choice.  The campground is very atmospheric, popular with overland groups.  It's built around a big waterhole popular with elephants who wander in at all hours, day and night, to have a drink.  The elephants wander right between the vehicles and tents and buildings and seem completely unconcerned about humans being present.  The bar/restaurant area is a perfect place to sit and watch the elephants drinking, wallowing in mud and doing pachyderm stuff.  It would be great to go back there and spend a couple of days just hanging out with the elephants.





13.  Chelinda Campsite, Nyika Plateau--Malawi


Sitting around our campfire

Terri trying to charm the passing elands into posing for a photo
This remote campsite, high up (almost 2000 metres above sea level) is in a very pretty area.  The campsites each have a roofed structure to spread out in on rainy days, and have fabulous views out over the plateau.  Eland, bushbuck, reedbuck, zebra and roan antelope all wander by the campsite, and the bushbuck were right beside Stanley when we woke up.  The campsite staff light campfires before dawn and before sunset, and they're necessary to take the edge off the mountain chill.  Lovely hiking and cycling around the campsite, with lots of animals to see, particularly herds of roan, the loveliest of antelope.


Bushbuck in our campsite

I think the remoteness and wilderness in a country like Malawi where overpopulation presses against you more visibly than in the rest of southern Africa is a welcome relief.  As well the mix of cold and wildlife is unusual for most of Africa and is something special.  I am a big fan of the Nyika Plateau.


Elands passing by the campsite