Category Archives: Adventure Sports

Birthdays, a bike trip and a 6 1/2 month old baby

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When we lived in California, M and I would go on bike rides when we had some free time. Both of us would also frequently bike into work. So, it’s no surprise that after having BabyM we were interested in continuing the biking trips. As I looked into biking with a baby, I came across numerous requirements before BabyM would be fit to biking. One notable requirement was that BabyM be at least a year old.

Now, one of the things we have come to realize in the last year, is that what is considered safe and normal in one country is not in another. Car seats approved for use in Europe and the US are different. Biking is another area of disagreement with Americans thinking the baby needs to be at least a year old, whereas Germans are happy to start biking much earlier. For the trip we borrowed a bike trailer from M’s cousin. It came with a styrofoam insert for babies younger than a year. He giggled the first time he took a ride in it and fell asleep in it easily, unlike when he’s in his car seat.

BabyM napping in the trailer during a lunch break.

We chose a route along the Rhine river between Bingen and Bad Breisig which is just north of Koblenz. The route was flat and famous for the sheer number of castles. We biked for three days for about two hours a day, leaving us plenty of time to explore the small towns along the way. I borrowed M’s mom’s electric bike and pulled the trailer, while M carried a backpack and the bike saddle bags. Each time we went up a small incline I was able to whiz right by him with the aid of the battery pack!

BabyM, J and a castle

Stopping to lather on the sunscreen.

Ooooh! Pretty castle!

Bike path is right along the river bank.

 

Every night we would look at the weather, and it would inform us of an impending thunderstorm the next day. After much worrying, it only ever rained on us as we rode the one mile to the train station the day we went back to M’s home town.

Koblenz, Germany

Bike break on a playground!


In the end, our verdict is that bike trips with babies are entirely possible.

Picture of the Day: Days 179 – 185

Day 179: Kite surfer off the coast of Essaouira, Morocco.

Day 179: Kite surfer off the coast of Essaouira, Morocco.

Day 180: Donkey and new buildings between Essaouira and Marrakech, Morocco.

Day 180: Donkey and new buildings between Essaouira and Marrakech, Morocco.

Day 181: Storks on the roof of the royal palace in Marrakech, Morocco.

Day 181: Storks on the roof of the royal palace in Marrakech, Morocco.

Day 182: Sheep! (In Germany....)

Day 182: Sheep! (In Germany….)

Day 183: Snowy first night in Berlin.

Day 183: Snowy first night in Berlin.

Day 184: Holocaust memorial in Berlin.

Day 184: Holocaust memorial in Berlin.

Day 185: On the way to watch the Superbowl in an American sports bar in Berlin.

Day 185: On the way to watch the Superbowl in an American sports bar in Berlin.

Using scooters to get off the beaten paths

I guess most people have a phase during their teenage years that they aren’t too proud of. For me that is a phase when I was too much into motorbikes. How much you ask? Well, enough to sport a mullet and one of those jeans vests with patches on it. My view of what qualifies as a motorbike was also rather narrow minded. A bike had to be either a full blooded street racing or moto-cross machine. I also thought that the worst thing on two wheels were scooters. These little plastic covered machines with the tiny wheels that don’t handle or accelerate well. I hope that I have become a lot more tolerant since these days. However, I was still having a hard time convincing myself to rent a scooter in Southeast Asia. But it happened. Not once, but twice and I have to admit that I had fun both times.

It started when we were in Bagan, Myanmar. You can’t rent scooters in Bagan because the taxi lobby has managed to get them banned. But the locals found a way around this by renting out electrical bicycles. These aren’t electrical bicycles as they are used in many European and some American cities nowadays. They do have pedals but they are just electrical scooters in disguise. They are fast enough and have sufficient reach to get you around the whole Bagan area. They were also cheap to rent and gave us the freedom to explore the temples at our own pace. Best of all, they were called bicycles and not scooters. Therefore I didn’t have to admit to myself that I was renting a scooter quite yet.

Cows, cars, bicycles and e-bikes in front of a temple in Bagan.

Cows, cars, bicycles and e-bikes in front of a temple in Bagan.

I had a great time riding the little toy bike around and noticed a few days later that I had been in serious motorbike withdrawal. I had sold my last one about four years ago after having owned bikes for almost 20 years. As a consequence I was all for it when J suggested a couple of weeks later that we should rent a scooter and drive to the temple ruins of My Son about an hour away from Hoi An, Vietnam.

The ruins of My Son.

The ruins of My Son.

Some scooters were in pretty good condition.

Some scooters were in pretty good condition.

We got a relatively new Yamaha scooter with enough power to carry the two of us comfortably. The deal is always the same in Vietnam. You get the scooter almost empty and hope that you’ll make it to the first gas station. I had heard that it is more reliable for tourist to buy the gas from the little stands next to the road where they sell it by the bottle. However, my experience was that the gas at the normal stations was significantly cheaper and nobody tried to charge me more than the meter showed. The traffic in Hoi An and the surrounding streets is not as busy and chaotic as in the big cities like Ho Chi Minh City. Nevertheless the driving style of the locals is creative to say the least. The only consistent traffic law is that whoever has more momentum has the right of way. If this question can’t be answered without a doubt it is discussed by honking at each other. But traffic is slow and people usually find a way around each other. The further away from the city I got the fewer trucks, buses, cars and scooters I had to deal with. Instead the number of bicycles, cows, buffalos, dogs, chickens and pigs on the road increased. But the same traffic rules seem also to apply here, i.e. watch out for cows and buffalos, everything else will move out of the way. I had a blast maneuvering the little scooter through this obstacle course. It reminded me a lot of my youth when I was riding 50cc bikes on the dirt roads around the town I grew up in.

Three little pigs on the back of a scooter in Vietnam

Three little pigs on the back of a scooter in Vietnam

Paradise cave in Phong Na Ke Bang National Park.

Paradise cave in Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park.

On a second occasion we rented a scooter in Dong Hoi and drove to some of the caves in the Phong Nha-Ke Bang Natinoal Park. The roads were in a better shape in this area of the country. This was very helpful because the scooter we had rented through the hostel was in a poor condition and needed more attention than the one we were on before. After a short drive I figured out that the order of the gears was backwards, similarly to a racing gear box. Needless to say this was the only racing gene that the little scooter had. I’m also still unsure where neutral was supposed to be. The breaks required a bit of foresighted driving and the speedometer was constantly bouncing over a wide range of velocities. But it was nice to have some kind of motion inside the instrument panel since all the other parts were broken too. Nevertheless, it was a lot of fun to be on the road and steer the scooter out of the town and towards the hills in which the caves are hidden.

Other scooters were in poor shape. But I'm still getting drive-by high fives.

Other scooters were in poor shape. But I’m still getting drive-by high fives.

But even more important than the fun and independence of driving around ourselves was, that we got to go off the beaten tourist path and got to see a glimpse of what life is like in the Vietnamese country side. Water buffalos were pulling carts along the road and plows through the muddy fields. Kids were playing next to the road and running up to us for ‘high-fives’. At one point we got into what seemed to be the going home rush hour. The little two lane street was filled with bicycles. They were all going in the same direction. It seemed like one big stream of bicycles with people riding in clusters of two to five bikes. They were riding next to each other, talking and joking along the way. Scooters were negotiating their way through the bicycles but every now and then a loud honking car or truck would come by and most of the bicycles would end up riding into the ditch next to the road. It seems chaotic and dangerous from the outside but people are aware of each other and somehow make it work.

I’ve never owned a motorbike that was suited for travelling on. For the few short trips I did on my bikes I usually crammed my toothbrush and a set of underwear underneath the seat and called it good. However, these two excursions have sparked my interest and I can imagine doing a longer motorbike trip in the future, e.g. in South America.

Climbing in Southern Thailand

I couldn’t feel my fingers. They were just too cold. I looked at how they were fitting into the pocket of the rock face that I was slowly moving up, trusted the grip and pulled myself up. I had started climbing a few months earlier and this was my first lead climb. This was in southern California and I wasn’t supposed to have to deal with cold! Except that it was early December and we were climbing at 7000 feet elevation close to Big Bear Lakes (Holcomb Valley Pinnacles -HVP). This was my favorite climbing area and one of my favorite climbs. It seems that for many climbers, including myself, the spot where they climb outside for the first time stays their favorite one. With all the great climbing places in California and Utah I was able to add many more to my list of best crags. None ever threatened to push HVP from the throne. However, that was before we went climbing on Raileh.

Some of our friends had raved to us about the climbing in southern Thailand, especially on Raileh and Tonsai Beach. This resulted in us going back and forth about what kind of climbing gear we should take along on our trip. If we wanted to do some serious climbing we should bring our own gear. You can’t climb near your limit when the tiny voice in your head is wondering how many falls the rental rope might have already taken. But even just taking the basic equipment would add another bag that we would have to haul around with us. We had a long debate that included the options of sending things by mail or leaving them with friends in Bangkok. In the end we decided to only take our climbing shoes along and to just see what the rental places would be like.

The islands in southern Thailand are made out of rock formations like the one in this picture.

The islands in Southern Thailand are made out of rock formations like the one in this picture.

Already on Kho Phi Phi I was fascinated with the large rock faces that seemed to come straight out of the water. But these cliffs had nothing on the walls we found on Raileh. Giant stalactites were growing out of the roofs on these walls and little stalagmites were forming on the ground in some places. I expected the rock to be wet and slippery and was pleasantly surprised when it felt rough and had lots of grip. There was no question that these rock formations needed to be climbed. After checking out a few climbing shops and talking to the people working there, we decided to hire a guide for an afternoon. I felt lame hiring a guide but in retrospect I’m very happy that we did. He tested at which level we were climbing and took us straight to the best routes for us. This way we got to do many more climbs than had we gone by ourselves. We also didn’t have to worry about routes with non-titanium bolts that corrode quickly in this climate and of which there are still a few around.

Climbers at Raileh Beach.

Climbers at Raileh’s West Beach.

Anchors dangling at the end of a long roof off the beach at Tonsai.

Anchors dangling at the end of a long roof off the beach at Tonsai.

One of the most amazing climbs was going up a stalactite. To start you had to jump to the first hold and climb over a little ledge at the base of the giant structure. From there, numerous positive holds on the face and cracks between the small stalactites that sit on top of the big structure made for very entertaining climbing. On a second long route the guide and J convinced me to take the camera along. Again it was nice to have somebody along who knew the climbs and could judge if it was reasonable for me to take a camera up with me or if the likelihood of falling was too high. I was still reluctant to take the camera along but (of course) the other two were right and it was an easy enough climb.

J at the base of the large stalactite.

J at the base of the large stalactite.

Look down on to Raileh Beach at low tide.

Look down on to Raileh Beach at low tide.

Half a day of climbing was all it took to completely exhaust us since we are both not in the best shape at the moment. We had a great time and it felt good to be worn out. Raileh is definitely one of the best places I have climbed. It is definitely a better climbing spot than HVP when judged objectively. However, I have too many good memories attached to HVP and it is still my favorite crag. So it seems like my theory holds up so far. But I’ll keep trying new spots in order to test it more!

Rafting the Mae Taeng River, Thailand

I love rivers. Real rivers. Not the small streams that slowly and peacefully gurgle, but the wild rivers with water crashing down drops of rock. Water that roars with intensity as gravity propels huge masses of liquid downhill. Rivers that splash and currents that pull you into them. That wild, deafening roar of water as it collects still more water and tumbles downstream. Those are the rivers that I love.

As a kid I spent many days watching in wonder as kayakers spun and flipped and played and surfed in the wild white water just below sunset falls on the Skykomish River in Washington State. Their boats would fly through both air and water as they maneuvered through the waves and rocks. Once clear of the rapids, they would swiftly paddle into an eddy and move back upstream. Once ready, they would again enter the white water, playing with the water as it tossed the boat around, often times only stopping when the water won and flipped the boat upside down. The kayaker would roll upright, paddle over to the eddy and rest up to do it all again.

I was excited to see that there were a number of kayaking and rafting options in the Chiang Mai region. I had done both in whitewater before so I took the lead looking through different river options. Eventually I settled on siamriver.com on the Mae Taeng River, primarily because it was one of the few companies that actually shared the grade of the rapids. Of course, I also knew a class 4 would be wild enough to get M hooked on rivers as much as I already am!

The next day we found ourselves bumping along a road for roughly two hours on the way out of Chiang Mai towards the river. As we got further from the city, the road kept getting narrower and narrower. Finally we caught a glimpse of the Mae Taeng River!

First view of the river!

First view of the Mae Taeng River!

A short time later, we passed a group of tourists riding elephants.

Elephants

Elephants

As the road crept deeper into the jungle it turned into a dirt road. However, it didn’t remain a dirt road. There seemed to be a stretch of pavement every few minutes for a brief, gloriously smooth stint, until we were back to bumping along the dirt road.

Random stretch of pavement ending in another section of dirt road.

Random stretch of pavement ending in another section of dirt road.

Narrow road.

Narrow road.

As soon as we arrived at the rafting “camp” there was a buffet lunch of delicious curry waiting for us! As it turns out, eating curry has been my favorite mealtime activity ever since we arrived in Southeast Asia and I just cannot seem to get enough of it!

After lunch we walked over to the river and the guides proceeded to go over everything we needed to know about rafting safety. (Look parents! We’re safe!) And then we were finally ready to leave the shore and head out into the river! As usual, the first couple rapids were rather gentle and gave us some time to adjust to the boat. Then things finally started to get exciting as the rafts clumped in a pile above what appeared to us as just a big drop of massive roaring white water. The guides carefully allowed only one boat through the rapids by blowing whistles as each boat safely passed through. Finally it was our turn (last of course!) to start down the rapids. As soon as we went over the first drop while paddling frantically to our guides commands I heard M giggling with glee. Just as expected he was enjoying the journey as much as I had hoped! The rest of the river passed too quickly, with the occasional swim during a quiet stretch of river. We slowly paddled the boat to shore and made our way to a set of picnic tables by the river bank.

River

Jumping out of the raft for a swim in a calm section of the river.

Elephants!

Elephants!

Gentle rapids with M's paddle.

Gentle rapids with M’s paddle permanently blocking the view from my camera!

Rapids

Rapids

We were the only members of the group that had opted for the two days of rafting with a jungle stay, so everyone else loaded up into the vans and headed back to the city. In contrast, we piled into the front of a pickup with several of the guides and headed up river to the camp where we would spend the night.

Post-river-rafting hike. You can see both "forest" and "jungle" in this picture. Our guide explained the difference but... your guess is as good as ours.

Post-river-rafting hike. You can see both “forest” and “jungle” in this picture. Our guide explained the difference but… your guess is as good as ours.

While the guides busied themselves putting away all of the gear, M and I ventured out on a little hike around the town. After our hike we returned to our gorgeous little jungle bungalow, complete with outdoor shower and a deck!

Junglestay!

Junglestay!

Later in the evening we ate dinner with one of the guides who had stayed up at the camp with us. During dinner we decided to have a campfire and continue chatting. As we got to know each other more I mentioned that I had done a bit of kayaking but that this was M’s first time on white water. A few minutes later we had made a plan to try a bit of kayaking in the morning before the next set of rafters made their way up the valley from Chiang Mai!

Campfire!

Campfire!

The next morning I woke to both roosters and a boyfriend too excited to contain his energy any longer. We were supposed to be kayaking not sleeping! And so it was… we got up, ate a quick breakfast while our guide already played in the water in his kayak below the deck. We then headed over to the boats and our guide made us paddle across the river before allowing us to use the skirts that help keep water out of the boat while kayaking.

We finally were all geared up and ready to go and we quickly paddled across the river with the guide. He next asked us to perform a roll – as in, purposely flip your boat upside down and then attempt to maneuver your body and paddle in such a way that the boat rolls back over and your head is released from the water so that you can breathe again. There are, of course, a few other techniques for regaining your ability to breathe. These include pulling the strap of the skirt, effectively releasing yourself from the boat and allowing you to swim back to the surface as well as the T-rescue. I’ve personally taught 8 year olds how to perform both, so there was no danger of drowning, just the uncomfortable danger of ending up in a cold river well before any sane person would have been out of bed. By some miraculous stroke of luck and determination not to end up colder and crankier than I already was, I managed to pull off a roll, both to my surprise as well as our guide’s! M, on the other hand, having been in a kayak only once before (in a swimming pool in order to learn how to roll…) and still much too excited about being in a kayak to concentrate properly on the procedure, did not. However, he managed a quick gulp of air as his head tried to exit the water before its time, effectively pulling him back under the water. He then successfully used a T-rescue to flip upright thus avoiding an early morning swim.

At last our guide was satisfied and we started paddling upriver to play in a few rapids. Well, both the guide and M were successful in their paddling endeavors and quickly made progress upriver and out of my view. I, on the other hand, paddled as hard as I could and moved maybe 2 feet upstream as the current was just too strong for me to force myself through. In my frustration I moved closer to the river’s edge in hope of catching an eddy to ease my passage. Instead, I got my paddle tangled up in what the guide refers to as “the bush of death”. I don’t disagree with his assessment. In the quickest of seconds as I attempted to untangle myself from its thorny grasp this horrendous bush had successfully shredded my arm and my hand, leaving thorns dug into my flesh along the way. Of course, I never learn my lesson the first time, so as soon as my paddle was removed from the bush I started paddling again, only to become entangled a second time. Finally, I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to meet up with the boys and drifted my boat back to the riverbank. Only then did I realize the extent of the damage caused by the flesh-eating-bush. I had five different sized thorns stuck in the palm of my hand and blood dripping down my arm. By the time I got out of my boat, both M and the guide had floated downstream to see where I was. The guide took one horrified look at me, beached his boat and jumped out. He then proceeded to douse me with cold drinking water and to clean my wounds with disinfectant and to patch me up. This ended M’s first time on a river in a kayak.

Shortly after my wounds were nursed, the new rafters showed up and it was once again lunchtime. After lunch we made our way down the river for a second time. As it had rained heavily overnight, the river had changed significantly and it felt like a completely different beast from the day before. Just as the day before, the hours on the river passed much too quickly and we soon found ourselves in the van back to Chiang Mai.