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Walking up the Valley (or should I say, being blown up the Valley!) towards Torres del Paine

I can’t believe it’s been two years since I have written on my blog – how disgraceful! I don’t want you to think I haven’t been walking in all that time, as in between life-as-usual, I have actually done some really wonderful walks – I celebrated my 50th on the Larapinta Trail – unbelievable!; did a multi-day walk on the Ridgeway in the UK; have done some lovely walks around Victoria, including some of the Goldfields Track (my next aim!); walked the Portuguese coastal camino with my daughter, and have just been lucky enough to return from Patagonia – a decades-long dream to walk the Torres del Paine.  And importantly, finally, at the end of last year, my 4th guidebook, Best Walks of the Great Ocean Road, hit the bookshelves. So I clearly owe you a bit of catch-up – let’s see how I do! – and hopefully hear about some of your walks, too.

Patagonia – the southernmost areas of Chile and Argentina – was my first venture to South America, and it won’t be my last. What an incredible 4 weeks, and so easy – bus transportation is fast and comfortable, food is good and plentiful though it helps to like copious quantities of red meat,  people helpful and the walking is spectacular!

First stop: Torres del Paine’s ‘The W Walk’

IMG_3568The 106km ‘W Walk’ around the Torres del Paine massif in Chile has been on my bucket list since I first saw a photo of those incredible spires 20 years ago. And it did not disappoint at all.  A long flight from Melbourne to Santiago, then to Punta Arenas and then a bus to quaint Puerto Natales and yet another bus into the NP was rewarded with a magnificent refugio-to-refugio walk in pretty amazing weather (we were very lucky!). We did the walk independently (very easily) using a local Chilean travel agent to book the refugios and connecting transport, which was very easy and saved us huge wadges of cash. W mapThe refugios are clean – have rooms with multiple bunk beds (If you prebook you can get the lower ones – some are pretty vertiginous!), hot communal showers and can be pre-booked with linen so you don’t have to carry heavy packs, and full board – evening meals are hearty 2 courses and will line your stomachs – and lunchpacks consist of (huge) slabs of bread with meat and cheese and a muesli bar and fruit. For those with more stamina and who are seriously pack-fit, there are excellent camping grounds beside all the refugios.

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Leaning into the wind (already!) as we leave the first refugio

The walk itself is not technical, only reaches altitudes of around 1200m, and the trails are relatively clear except for a bit of rock scrambling up on the final stage to the Towers, but fitness definitely helps – we scaled 1100 flights of stairs in the 6 days, according to our pedometers.  Daily distances are not too long, unless you do some of the optional climbs to some of the bigger lookouts at Los Cuernos (worth it!) – usually around the 16km mark. But one factor you have to take into consideration is the wind. I haven’t experienced anything like it – you hear the gusts coming before they hit you – it sounds a bit like a dozen diesel locomotives at full pace – and you know to ‘brace’ (seriously, as they reach up to 120km an hour.  The lighter weights of us (not me!) were bowled over a couple of times, and one of our 9kg backpacks was tumbled along by the wind like it was a cotton ball. It’s impressive and very wild!

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View back to Los Cuernos (‘the horns’) on the Torres del Paine W walk

We took the option of the boat out from Refugio Grey, rather than retrace our steps, and that was a good call. It takes you up to the face of teh wave-like Grey Glacier and past its various icebergs, and rewards you with a legendary Pisco Sour made with glacial ice as a nice end0-of-walk celebration. We also opted to stay a couple of nights in Refugio Grey at the end so we could do a day walk further up the pass, across some mighty suspension bridges (leave your fear of heights at home!) and clamber down to the iceberg-filled Grey Lake. This walk is seriously very, very beautiful.  Seriously one of the best walks, and most varied, that I have ever done. It did not disappoint one iota. If you ever get the opportunity, grab it with everything you’ve got and go for it.

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Grey Lake icebergs

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Magellanic Orchids – just wow!

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'Double Sunset' over St Kilda Beach, 8 Feb 2015 (c) JP Mundy

‘Double Sunset’ over St Kilda Beach, 8 Feb 2015 (c) JP Mundy

Sometimes the best walks are in your own back yard. Took my trusty co-author Indie down to St Kilda beach on sunset last night to cool off after a stinking hot day, and before long, that fantastic Melbourne phenomenon, “the cool change”, came blasting through with a vengeance: the temperature dropped 10 degree celsius in 10 minutes, and my legs were soon getting a good sand-blasting as the wind gusted from the west. Out of nowhere, rain started falling in curtains on the horizon and fierce storm clouds blew up, creating this bizarre and pretty wonderful ‘double’ sunset. Ain’t life grand?

IMG_5631PS: The ‘real’ sun is on the left!

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It’s amazing what I find in the “drafts” section of my blog – I think I owe you this second day of my walk in the Italian Alps from about a year ago!  Here’s the link to Day 1 if you want to do something daft and read it chronologically!

So, I think to myself, Day 2 of the Dorsale walk has to be about going down, since so much of yesterday was about going up.  Right? Perhaps I had forgotten that I had descended to 1100m to stay at the wonderful Alpetto di Torno last night.  So a descent would be wishful thinking. First off, I had to head up through all those dairy cows, which were clanking away through the meadows with their bells (who would have thought they would be so noisy?!) and follow some old goat tracks up the valley sides to regain the main Dorsale track.  Despite a few wrong turns, I got there eventually, and reached the high point of the walk, at 1560m, right beside the top of some old ski lifts and a wintering barn, at Alpe di Terra Biotta.  From here, there’s a one hour easy detour you can do to summit on Mont St Primo  for 360 degree views across the entire Dorsale (triangle wedge) region, as well as a good look at the descent ahead.

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After sucking up the view, finally, finally, you are rewarded by the down: flex those knees everyone! It’s a gorgeous, and in places, steep descent, past astonishing wildflowers, more of those clanking dairy cows, and even clinking (think cow bells, but higher pitched!) goat herds.  You even have to dodge a competitive mountain bike trail at one stage. As you drop from the mountains, and down into pasturelands, you start to wander past ruined stone farmhouses and cottage gardens, and to be honest, I just couldn’t resist the Solo Walkers Indulgence: lying on my back in the grass of a wildflower meadow, in the sun, reading my book for an hour.  Talk about a guilty pleasure! And OK, so it does mean I strolled down the old Mules Path and into gorgeous Bellagio rather late in the day, and a gelato never tasted so good, but the final insult was the flights of stone stairs UP through the village to reach my apartment. That was just someone’s joke, I am sure.

 

Ruined farmhouses along the Dorsale

Ruined farmhouses along the Dorsale

 

I couldn’t recommend this walk more as a way to get from A to B – while the lakeside villages were just teeming with people, as you might expect in June/July, I passed probably 8 or so people and about 5 mountain bikers for the full 2 days. It’s a great, and relaxed walk for families and small groups too – just make sure you book ahead for the Refugio, as they only open to bookings.

The final stroll beside Lake Como as you reach Bellagio

The final stroll beside Lake Como as you reach Bellagio

I spent another 5 days lake-hopping around the various tiny lake towns, and spent another 2 days walking along the ancient and overgrown Roman Road which hangs on the rockface above the west side of Lake Como, winding in and out of villages, and saw no-one other than an equally ancient old photographer. I just love how even in the most popular tourist destinations, a pair of walking boots can find you peace in just a few long strides.  Alternatively, if you get sick of all those hills, you can just grab one of these and cut direct across the lake on your bike!

Clearly this guy doesn't like taking the indirect route around the Lake via the roads!

Clearly this guy doesn’t like taking the indirect route around the Lake via the roads!

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Stonehenge in mid-winter (c) JP Mundy 2015

Stonehenge in mid-winter (c) JP Mundy 2015

There is something incredibly – er – timeless and ancient about wandering around Stonehenge in mid-winter, frost on the ground, icy mist clinging to your skin and a weak wintery sun teasing from just beyond the clouds.  The kids and I dropped in late in the day on the way back from Devon to London in the new year, and if a band of druids had emerged from the mist instead of Chinese tourists, we would not have been surprised at all.

Stonehenge in the winter's sun (Well, the sun is trying at least, the clouds and mist just seem to get in the way!)

Stonehenge in the winter’s sun (Well, the sun is trying at least, the clouds and mist just seem to get in the way!)

The last time I visited, about a million and two years ago, you just parked in a layby beside the road and headed in for a look-see.  There are now plans to take the entire road underground so that the landscape is returned to what it would have been thousands of years ago when Stonehenge was first built. Now there is a most impressively and sensitively done visitors centre, 2km away, so it does not impose on the landscape.  You can choose to walk the grassed pathways across the fields, much as the locals might have done 3000 years ago, and approach Stonehenge across the plains. Alternatively, you can cop out and jump in a very efficient (and very warm!) little bus which drops you about 200 metres from the stone circle. Along with your admission price comes a free audio guide which will help answer all those questions you have: “Where are the stones from?” (Some of them are from Wales); “How did they get here?” (rolling wood carts and possibly boat); “What was it for?” (They still can’t say for sure, but possibilites are as a sun dial, place of worship and a proto-type MacDonalds drive-in – or not).  Still partly unsolved, and all the more awe-inspiring for it.

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Autumn leaves in Bright - living up to its name!

Autumn leaves in Bright – living up to its name!

Had a totally glorious family weekend up in the High Country last weekend – in perfect Autumn weather. The autumn leaves were just starting to turn in the beautiful mountain village of Bright, the night air was crisp and cool, and the daytime skies were blue, blue, blue! There is so much to do and see around there, even outside of the ski season, so it’s really worth the 4 hour drive from Melbourne.  Local produce stalls are very distracting, with walnut and chestnut farms, olive groves, and berry and hop farms on either side of The Great Alpine Road to delay your journey, not to mention the VERY tempting vineyards – we had a very indulgent Autumn degustation lunch at Gapstead Winery: think quail and slow roasted autumn fruits – yummmmmm!  Our favourite roadside stall was selling roasted chocolate and chilli pumpkin seeds! Needless to say, our pantry is bulging!

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Bins of freshly harvested walnuts at Gapstead

The kids and I did some off-road ‘adventure’ segway-ing in the morning with Peter of Bright Segways, up and over rocky bush trails, through forestry trails and even over a swing bridge across the Ovens River. Who knew you could 4WD on a segway?! This is hands-down pretty fabulous family entertainment and a real crowd pleaser. What a hoot!

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Segway-ing beside the Ovens River near Bright

 

On our second day, we took in a very easy and picturesque 30km stretch of the ‘Murray to the Mountains’ Rail Trail which runs 106km from Wangaratta to Beechworth. The section we did was virtually flat, and the entire trail is sealed all the way, with short distances between towns, and a number of trail-side cafes catering to cyclists – so it’s very family-friendly, and a more achievable option than riding your bike from the valley up to the top of Mount Buffalo, which seems to be a pretty popular – if masochistic – activity (it takes bout 2 hours of straight up – great training if you’re planning on entering the Tour de France!). The section which we did (a far more leisurely 2 hours) takes you past beautiful pastures and farmland, much of which was originally sown to tobacco, and you frequently pass the old tin tobacco drying sheds.  Today there are  instead hanging hop gardens and all those lovely orchards and vineyards I mentioned. It helped us greatly that we had a willing aunt and uncle who assisted with the car shuttle, but you can also time your ride to coincide with a Victoria Rail Coach (yes, that’s a bus masquerading as a train!), which purportedly will put your bikes in the luggage compartments below and get you back to your starting point – probably best to ring ahead and check.

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Autumn colour on the Murray to Mountain Rail Trail

On our way back to Melbourne, we detoured for the stunning, windy drive up Mt Buffalo – one of Victoria’s first national parks and original skiing centres over 100 years ago.  It’s stunning granite outcrops and alpine plateau meadows are so dramatic and quite unusual in Victoria.

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View from the base of ‘The Horn’ at Mt Buffalo

Mt Buffalo is the home of the Australian Alp’s endangered Bogong moth, as well as the equally endangered historic Mt Buffalo Chalet, which is thankfully about to get a $7m refurbishment. There are also endless bushwalking options, including the aptly named ‘Big Walk’ up the mountain. But it’s the short (1.6km) but very sweet clamber up Mt Buffalo’s ‘Horn’ which tops everything off – literally – at 1,723 metres (5,653 feet). While the only-way-is-up, the walk is not hard and there are plenty of rocks and the occasional seat to lean against and catch your breath as your mountain-goat children leap blithely from boulder to boulder!

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Walking up The Horn at Mt Buffalo

 

The view from the top was pretty special to be honest – 360 degree views across the Australian Alps, with Australia’s highest peak, Mt Kosciousko in NSW, a very remote but visible presence. Despite the clear, calm weather, it was a chilly 10C at the top, even in the middle of the day, so I can imagine it is pretty hostile at times – road access to the Horn car park is closed in the winter months, when the whole plateau is often covered in snow.

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View from the start of the climb up The Horn, Mt Buffalo

 

The walk/climb to the top has recently been upgraded to make it safer and more accessible – steps are cut directly into the rock, or have been installed in some places, grip has been laid in particularly slippery areas and railings are provided where needed – especially on the top of the enormous summit boulder where there is a directional plinth and signage indicating surrounding peaks. All this makes the short walk a great and really interesting option for families with children, with the reward of stunning panoramas at the top while your heart stops tap-dancing in your chest. There now – I think I have described my perfect weekend.

 

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View north-east from the summit of The Horn, Mt Buffalo

 

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Melbourne for Dogs - who could resist that brown-eyed retriever?  Not me!

Melbourne for Dogs – who could resist that brown-eyed retriever? Not me!

I can’t believe it’s been almost 3 months since I managed to update my blog!  Well, actually I can, as I have been pretty busy, with work trips to Mongolia, Canberra, Hanoi and Cambodia since then (plenty of stories and sights to share). But my big news is that the first copy of my new book, Melbourne for Dogs, has just arrived in my hot little hands today, as an advance copy from the printers.  Honestly – the anticipation has been almost too much to bear – it’s been somewhat like an elephant’s gestation, 2 years in the making and finally it has popped out fully formed in glossy, glorious colour!

RSPCA Victoria have come on board and endorsed it, which is wonderful, and we’ll be launching it at the Melbourne Dog Lovers Show, which will be at the Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton from 2nd – 4th May 2014.  You can pre-order it from Woodslane online, or after the show, it will be available in all good bookstores and online, as well as through RSPCA shops, and some vets and pet stores as well. It will retail for $24.95, but if you buy one at the show, it will be on special for $19.95. There are over 700 off-lead dog parks and 50+ off-lead beaches in there, as well as a series of longer dog and people-friendly walks to keep you entertained, in the style of the Melbourne’s Best Walks book.  I do hope you and your pooch enjoy using it to explore (off-lead) pastures new – Indie and I certainly enjoyed researching it!

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IMG_2247Beautiful Waiheke Island is just a short and picturesque ferry ride from downtown Auckland, making it a justly popular weekend and holiday destination for many North Islanders in the summer.  It’s even an easy visit from east coast Australia – an easy 4 hour flight to Auckland, jump on the 30 minute airport bus to the wharf, onto the ferry and then you are there – ready to get vertical and relax! Take note of the welcoming sign at Point Kennedy!  There are hundreds of small bays and hidden beaches tucked in around 20+ wineries, restaurants and artists studios, so even on the occasional cloudy day, there is plenty to do. There are artists studio trails and gourmet food and wine trails to follow, as well as regular sculpture festivals. Absolutely don’t miss the Connell’s Bay sculpture property in the west of the island, which you must pre-book. Reflecting this, in summer, the island population swells to 30,000 from its permanent resident population of 8,000 though to be honest, the beaches still feel blissfully empty.

IMG_2282We’ve just spent a great week there over new year, staying with friends close to the main village of Oneora, and just minutes walk from lovely Oneroa Beach.  If you can bear to drag yourself away from the water, there are plenty of short walks all over the island, many of them passing across headlands to reach secluded bays.  This one from Little Oneroa Beach (popular with the locals) heads up over the headland to Fishermans Rock and Divers Rock, where local teenagers test their mettle clambering up and leaping off 4m and 8m high rock shelves into the ocean below (at high tide only please!). Most of the island is hilly, so it’s a great place to build up your calf muscles.! The local tourist information centre has a range of free brochures with short walks you can do all over the island.

Overlooking Calypso Bay on Motuihe Island, nr Waiheke Island, NZ

Overlooking Calypso Bay on Motuihe Island, nr Waiheke Island, NZ

If you have a friends with a boat, sail across to one of the many small islands around Waiheke – we headed to uninhabited Motuihe Island for the day, moored at picture-perfect Calypso Bay and just hung out. There’s a one and a half hour circuit walk mown into the island’s grasslands, which takes you from Calypso Bay, around to the wharf and back again – there’s no shade or facilities so take a hat and plenty of water, but the views are incredible the whole way, and if you get too hot, you can always detour for a quick swim! Stealing from a well known Queensland marketing campaign ….. beautiful one day, perfect the next!

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