Cold Mountain

“I learn something every time I climb a mountain,” said Michael Kennedy before he skied into a tree and died. Today we are climbing a mountain and we too are learning something: about preparation and planning, about lackadaisical approaches, about extreme weather. We are learning that mountains are cold places. “I learn something every time I forget my jacket…”

Our travel philosophy is simple: we seek out new things, we throw ourselves after adventure, we plan as little as possible, we let luck and impulse guide us. It doesn’t always work of course. We arrived in Brazil in the middle of the world’s worst Covid spike. We got lost in the desert with no water. We found ourselves surfing with sharks. I nearly bled out in an isolated jungle lodge. Now we are trekking through snow on the slopes of the Pichincha Volcano with no boots, no gloves and only thin anoraks. At least we have covid masks to keep our cheeks warm.

And somehow now we’re in Ecuador. A blurred night and day journey. Natal to Sao Paolo (Gol Airlines, check-in chaos, arguments about surfboards, no food) Sao Paolo to Panama City (Copa Airlines, 2am takeoff, heads lolling, sunrise over the sea, congealed egg breakfast), Panama City to Quito (Chatty pilot, bumpy flight, The Andes! Hair-raising landing).

It’s our first day here and full of naïve optimism we have taken the teleferico up from Quito. Just on a whim. A simple cable car ride that will take us to the mountain top where we might go for a stroll and drink in the view. It is pleasant and sunny when we climb in the bubble car, but weather moves fast in the mountains and as we clank our way upwards, clouds come rolling in all around us. They look heavy and menacing.

Quito sits 2800m above sea level, the second highest capital in the world (the highest is La Paz, a little further south in the same mountain chain). Now after climbing another kilometre in the cable car we find ourselves at some four thousand meters of altitude, up in thin air. There doesn’t seem to be enough oxygen to fill our lungs.

Our arrival coincides with some kind of cosmic tantrum. The clouds close ranks, the visibility deteriorates, a flurry of snow veils the landscape. Then a heavier spray of hailstones and then a full electrical storm erupts. Lightening bounces off the cloud ceiling above us; percussive booms of thunder make us jump. We splash through slush in our trainers, icy waters drips down our bare necks. We stuff our hands into our wet jeans’ pockets, tuck in our elbows and hunch forwards against the wind.

Matilda is scared of the lightning and after ten minutes on the trail, she is whining hard and so the girls turn back for the lodge. Arthur and I goad each other reluctantly onwards, putting great emphasis on completing our quest. Maybe we have some kind of summit fever. There is a swing somewhere ahead that a taxi driver has told us about. It is positioned on a cliff top, so you can take photos suspended in mid air, high above the plateau where Quito lies spread out, a faraway Lego town on a creased rug, the white bricks smudged and dirty from overuse.

It is only a twenty minute tramp up to the swing but they are the coldest and wettest twenty minutes in recent memory. Our ability to deal with the cold has been diminished. We’ve been softened up on tropical beaches. We make it to the swing at last, panting like dogs, soaking wet, toes numb, Arthur is shivering violently and thinks he might have altitude sickness.

Neither of us fancies actually sitting on the swing – the wooden seat is dripping with slush and the chain is icy. The weather has cleared enough to make out a ghost town below, so I take a quick snap of Arthur standing beside the swing and we agree that this is enough of a summit trophy for us.

We run back down the mountain to safety, squinting into the snow, slipping and sliding in the slush. We find the girls sipping hot chocolate in the cable car lodge, and breathlessly we tell them our heroic stories. Arthur saw something that might have been a mountain hare! Daddy slipped over on the flat path! How wild is it that two days ago we were in the desert and now we’re in the mountains!

Ecuador is going to be a different type of travel experience we all agree, and we head down the mountain to find a camping shop where we can buy some warm clothes.

“There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad equipment…”

Richard Cross and countless other gear-boffins.

Brazilian Road Trip. Day Three

We spend the morning trying to solve the key conundrum. The sullen guy at our car rental company is approximately nine hours away and it is a Saturday. We agree that he is unlikely to be our knight in shining armour. We go and talk to a smiling lady who seems to be part of our hostel and ask her to find us a local locksmith instead. Maybe something got lost in translation because the guys who show up a couple of hours later are carrying a hammer and chisel.

We watch with some consternation as the lads set about levering open the top of the driver’s door with a screwdriver and then force in a wooden stake. Lots of slips, lots of grunts, a fair amount of sweat, this is not the refined lock pick I was expecting. A long wire (coat hanger?) goes in and then an hour of fumbling around, poking it down into the car, trying to hit the unlock button on the driver armrest. The alarm goes off long time before they hit jackpot and this is the soundtrack to the morning. It brings various onlookers and advisors from the road, so there is soon quite a crowd.

The lads force their way in eventually, but leave some wicked dents and scratches on the roof. It is a brand new rental car and these seem very conspicuous. I pay them $20 and they lounge around the hotel drinking coffee for many hours, hooting with laughter, telling stories of hapless tourists.

We are long past checkout at this point so we agree to stay on another night in Icari.

Menna has heard of some huge sand dunes nearby which hide exotic water holes. These will be deep and clear, she tells us, like an oasis in the Sahara. They will be surrounded by shady vegetation where we may string up hammocks and relax after swimming with the frogs in the agua dulce.

So off we head, in search of this desert mirage. The rural hinterlands of Brazil’s Nordeste region is not where Google Maps excels but we don’t have any alternative. Iguanas and ibis meet red herrings and wild geese as we blunder our way down back roads that are really no more than muddy tractor tracks. We drive through wind farms and cattle farms, down white grit paths, into little shanty towns. We inch past wobbling bicycles loaded with family members, we stop for goats on the road and we end up totally lost.

Eventually after squeezing several kilometers down a narrow flint track we find ourselves at a little house made entirely from flotsam, sitting among a mess of fishing nets. Various astonished dark-eyed children peer at us from hiding places in the shadows but no adult appears to offer help or directions. I am faced with a long winding reverse back up the track. Ahead through a plastic-strewn yard is an open gateway then a blue ribbon of sea.

I make a silent decision and gun the car through the gate before Menna can tell me not to. Down a small step we bump and then we are on the beach, dodging rocks, slaloming our way down the wide hard-packed sand, wheels spinning a little. Menna is freaking, thinking we’ll get the car stuck, the kids are screaming: Go faster! Hit the dunes! Drive into the waves! I turn up the Brazilian House Grooves album which I am seriously digging at the moment. And along we fly.

Eventually the sand gets softer and deeper and I feel there is a real danger we’ll sink our wheels so I bring the car to a stop. We spill out and run around, eat a late lunch up on a dune, vaguely worried the tide will come in and cut off our escape route. We find a giant bleached turtle shell and some skeletal flipper remains. In front of us the sea stretches away to Africa and behind is a never-ending landscape of undulating sand dunes and towering white windmills. We are ants lost between endless horizons.

We finish lunch and turn the car around then drive three kilometers at full speed along the flat sand, over rivulets, waving at fishermen and kids in the dunes. Some wave back, most ignore us.

As we rejoin the tracery of cross-country trails that lead homewards (we hope), we can’t help trying a few other blind alleys in search of these mystical pools. We take service roads that lead us to rows of silent monolithic windmills. We go and lie at the base of one, looking upwards, watching huge blades whirling silently against the hard blue. With no peripheral reference points this creates an optical effect, it feels like we are rotating too, lying on shifting ground, moving through immense orbits. Gravity ripples and slips. Stretched out in the dust we gently swing like Focault’s pendulum, proving the earth’s motion.

“The lakes in the dunes?” asks the smiling lady when we get back to the hotel, “Oh, but they are only there in the wet months. Perhaps in December you will see them – if you come back!”

Over a takeaway dinner that evening we teach the kids the meaning of the word quixotic: Committing yourself whole-heartedly to wild escapades, we say. Being idealistic but naïve. Chasing impossible dreams. Tilting at windmills.

Winds of Fortune

After a couple of nights in Cancun we’ve had enough. We move on to Holbox, a small Caribbean island off the Yucatan peninsula. A ferry leaves from a scorching port and twenty minutes later we are a little wooden shanty town where the roads are just sand and clay and the only mode of transport is golf buggy. It seems a little desolate at first, in the way that poor Caribbean communities can do – corrugated iron shacks, stagnant pools of ground water, rusted car skeletons – but then we emerge into a charming little town square, tree lined streets of restaurants and bars, a white sand beach thronging with travellers, kitesurfers and fishermen. We see dreadlocks and beards, fire spinners, a guy doing a roaring trade selling organic empanadas on the beach. The tattoos are soulful, feet are bare. It is the antithesis of Cancun.

There is no conventional surf on the island, the coastal shelf is too gentle, but the winds are strong, so Arthur and I are going kitesurfing. Arthur is a total beginner and while I used to kitesurf a fair amount, it is about a decade since my accident on Lancing Beach and I haven’t been back out since.

It is a burning day when we walk round the island to get to kite school. On that long hot walk, I can’t help dwelling on the accident, obsessing over it perhaps, so it starts to feel like I am trudging towards some kind of reckoning.

We are back in our Brighton flat. It is Father’s Day and there is a new, loud baby boy in our lives. Menna is telling me something, laughing and crying. She is pregnant again! We drink champagne. And to celebrate my heroic contribution she will take me kitesurfing. I haven’t been out on the water since before Arthur was born.

The conditions are not so different on the day when we rock up to Kite Beach in Holbox though the sea is warmer here. The wind is blowing about fifteen knots or so, the waves are rolling in, there are white horses on the lagoon. Arthur gets led away by chatty Cathy to learn the rudiments of wind theory. I end up with a laid-back Czech guy called Henrik for my refresher session. I tell him I am nervous. He eyes me up and down and tosses his dreadlocks.
“Ach, you will probably be ok,” he says.

I have two kites – A 9m Cabrinha and a 13m Slingshot. The wind is strong and the smaller one is certainly right for the conditions. Somehow while inflating it I pull out a strut, or a valve blows or something. It deflates rapidly and is useless. I can either to go home now, or take the bigger kite and be over-powered for the session.

Henrik and I set up the kite on the narrow spit of beach between the lagoon and the thorny bank of brushwood. He’s putting me onto a 17m, even larger than that time before. Kite technology has come on some way in the last decade, he tells me. There is more power in the new shapes but you also get much more control. I nod and smile insincerely.

I’m not a great kiter but I have just sired a new offspring and I am feeling invincible. And as soon as I set off I know it is the right decision. The water is cold bottle green, whipped by crisp winds, the sky pale blue. I am screaming along, clearly out of control, hitting waves, crashing, relaunching, wiping-out spectacularly in the deeps. I shout a lot. Life is great right now.

Arthur is out on the water already before we have even set up our kite. He suddenly looks tiny underneath the huge clouded sky, bobbing in the waves, attached to a green kite that is straining on the lines. He is too young for this, I think to myself, how can he possibly take on the elements? How will they catch him when he gets blown away over the sea’s face like an abandoned crisp wrapper?

After an hour on the water it is time to wrap up. Quit while ahead. Menna is feeding our baby up on the headland, her face is turned to the horizon in that way that wives look out to sea, waiting for their absent seafaring husbands. I will ride in and perform a stylish stop in the shallows for her. Perhaps a little jump to finish off. 

Henrik surfs the rig out to our launch spot on the sandbank, leaving me to walk across the lagoon to meet him. It is a slow wade through chest-deep water in my harness, helmet and the annoying lifejacket he insists I wear. I make the far sandbank and am transfixed by a group (school? platoon?) of five or six stingrays that are hunting there, gliding along in perfect formation in the turquoise waters. They skim beside me as I walk over to where Henrik is waiting.

Of course I wipe out on Lancing Beach. That is how the universe works. My board catches an edge in the shallow water. I flip face-down into the shore break. Undignified, but no immediate harm done. Except that as I fall, I unleash a combination of factors that dramatically change my situation: Firstly I pull hard the kite bar, putting my too-large kite in the maximum power position. Secondly the kite drops in the sky, finding a 45˚ angle downwind of me, an area known as the Power Zone. Thirdly a major wind gust happens to occur at precisely this moment.    

“It is a big kite,” says Henrik in the present, “so you will let it do the work. Keep it high, do not drop it too low. If you go too much downwind past the buoy there, then you must come back in and we will walk back upwind on the sandbank. If you go past the end of the spit we are in trouble, for you will get blown out to sea. Ok you know what do do. Off you go and I watch”

It is the closest I have known to true flight. A sudden whiplash acceleration upwards, legs pedalling, mouth gasping, eyes wide. In a second I have achieved a crazy stomach-lurching height, Lancing Beach is stretched out far below. Then the upward force dies and there is a weightless moment at the apex before gravity reclaims me and the rocks rush up. Blackness.

I look mutely at Henrik but his face is bland, expectant, it reflects none of my fear. Alone I must go into the wind and waves, still reverberating with that long-ago bone-shattering impact. The kite strains at its apex pulling greedily at me.

Then we are moving and the breeze blows the past out of my mind, salt spray washes the worries away. I am pulled into the present, floating on turquoise waters, smooth and slippery as a sting ray. The kite hangs above me silently, capturing the power of the wind. We find a balance between the force of the kite, the position of the board, the pull of gravity, the angle of the waves. It all works perfectly for a minute or two, then I hit a trough and the equilibrium disappears. I wipe out.

I recover, set off again and next time I crash harder. I smash the kite down into the water and struggle to relaunch it. I drift fast downwind for many minutes with my kite twisted and shuddering on the sea’s surface, swamped by waves. The lines are taut and tangled, attached to my harness, pulling at me. People can see I am struggling and shout things at me from far off, but I can’t hear them.

Somewhere far away back towards the coast I see a small boy suddenly plucked out of the water by his kite, then there is a big splash. I nearly smile.

I feel the fingers of panic gripping my gullet and the bitter taste of self-recrimination – of dreadful inevitability. That sense that I have put myself in jeopardy once again. Why do I seek pursuits where the highs are overshadowed by fear and disaster? I am treading water, swallowing water, the lifejacket is bunched around my neck. How do I find these situations? I drift towards the end of the spit, the point of no return, alone, the vast open ocean waiting beyond. I shout impotent insults at the kite and at myself.

Finally the wind picks up a little and ponderously my kite turns over, then lifts. I finally get it up into the power zone and perform a desperate and humiliating body-drag back into shore. I trudge a long way back up to Henrik who smiles and shrugs, takes the kite from me and zips off in search of my board, floating somewhere far out to sea.

Then minutes later we start over. Again the fears of the past fade, replaced by the rush of the present. Lessons float away unlearned, for while it is true that disaster seems ever waiting, there is a corollary that I also know to be true: it always works out alright in the end.

Soon I am up and riding again, hollering, crashing, skimming, laughing, flying, drowning, wading back time and again to receive Henrik’s quiet advice.

But this time I do not snap my humerus in two like a twig, I don’t damage my shoulder socket, there is no morphine, no surgery, no titanium implants, no year of rehab.

Just wind, waves and the spectre of imminent disaster, riding beside me like a shadow. Like an old friend.

I sign myself and Arthur up for another session tomorrow.

The higher the hill, the stronger the wind: so the loftier the life, the stronger the enemy’s temptations.

John Wycliffe

Shadow of the Volcano

We are on the island of Ometepe to climb a volcano. Though the kids are still small and the volcano is big, we have decided that it is one of those elemental experiences that we should go through at some point in our travels. Unknown to Matilda we have been training her up for just this moment. Those long cliff top walks, that 15,000 daily step target, the steep forest trails. We have chosen Volcán Maderas, the smaller and more dormant of the two volcanos on the island. It is going to be a ten hour round hike with an elevation of around 1400 meters.

When we awake on the big day we find ourselves enveloped in a blanket of cloud. It isn’t quite raining but it certainly isn’t dry either. Our guide Abel waits for us in reception. He is clearly a man of the mountain, slight, weatherbeaten, his eyes dark portals to another dimension.

Breakfast in the lodge comes slowly and perhaps we are not as organised as we should be, so we leave an hour later than planned. I sense Abel’s disapproval at the delays and the many rounds of pancakes we have eaten, but we laugh it off. By eight o clock we have shouldered our packs and we set off into the gloom.

The trails are overgrown and we are barely out of the gates when Abel already has to pull out his machete and hack a path through vines and shrubbery, much to Arthur’s delight. We march through a densely wooded valley and then up through coffee fields and abandoned cocoa plantations on the shoulder of the mountain. Then the climb starts to steepen.

There are various microclimates stacked at different altitudes up the mountain. All of them involve varying levels of moisture and low visibility. I imagine we are working our way up inside different cloud banks: first the nebulous mists of the low stratus layer, then into the dim white glow of cumulus. Higher up it is humid and dense as I imagine cumulonimbus to be. Then we hit a new kind of rain with a sharp wind that chills our sweat, and I figure we must have found cirrus, as this is the last kind of cloud I can remember.

The terrain underfoot changes from grass to dirt tracks and fallen leaves, to ferny vegetation, then mud, then rolling rocks and scree. For an hour Abel leads us up a stream in full flow, hopping stone to stone, splashing through muddy pools, crawling through rock tunnels, ducking under snatching branches. Matilda is the only member of the team who has proper hiking boots, the rest of us push on in wet trainers.

Abel turns out to be a guide in the minimalist sense: someone who is simply there to indicate the path to a destination. He is not a tour guide, we do not learn about the history of the island, the eco-system, local traditions. If anything he is like a silent spirit guide, floating in and out of the mist ahead of us, leading us along some metaphorical inward journey. He shows no signs of tiredness, he never stumbles. He slips away to scout the path ahead and some minutes later we round a corner to find him squatting immobile on a rock, face raised, communing silently with the ancestors. He pushes a fast pace.

I am using behavioural psychology tricks picked up over some years in sales management to motivate my poor daughter. We have anchored past successes (remember that time you climbed the cliff in Madeira with hardly a moan). We have engaged a sense of competition (and you got there before Arthur…). We’ve visualised the route ahead, we’ve established intrinsic motivators, we’ve set goals and we’ve quantified rewards (gummy bear every half hour, bar of chocolate at lunch, two puddings tonight). Now she is powering up the mountain, bouncing along chattering away to Abel who doesn’t say much back. She has found a ski pole in the lodge and she fiercely stabs it into the mud with every step. In fact it’s uber-fit Menna, who runs twenty five kilometres without fail every week, who is the first to start struggling. She is sliding around and lagging behind the group, sweating and frowning fiercely.

Arthur’s style of movement is not slow or steady. He jumps and bounces, slips and crashes, tries to make difficult jumps, falls a lot, wastes energy. He is always in danger of turning an ankle. He cycles through emotions from elation to dejection and offers a constant running commentary on his progress. He is the next to crash.

When it is my turn to hit the wall, it is intense. We’ve been climbing solidly for about three hours, I am wet through and I have a dull percussive ache in my quads which flares every time I have to lunge up another thigh-high rock. My backpack contains eight litres of water, it digs into my shoulders and catches on tree branches as we squeeze through gaps. My breath is short, my heart is hammering, my feet squelch. I am very glad when Abel calls a halt and I wolf down half a pack of peanuts and a secret handful of gummy bears.

We make summit just after one pm. There are no life-changing views or blinding moments of self-revelation, my spirit animal fails to materialise. Instead Abel indicates a point of cloud-covered rock like many others and tells us that this is the highest point. We nod and puff, then wind our way between various smokey outcroppings before sliding over the other side, through a series of steep and slippery faces, down into the crater.

An hour later we have reached our destination. We stand around uncertainly at the edge of the crater lake which stretches away into the mist like a grey shroud. A few stakes reach up ominously out of the water. Abel won’t confirm that they were used for ritualistic sacrifices, but one has an old skull on it, an oxen I think. We half-heartedly throw a in few stones, which land with muffled plunks and stir up some sullen ripples. We have literally no idea how large the crater is, how high the walls that surround us. How deep are the netherworlds that lie beneath that lifeless surface? We stand in a cold wet marshland with the silhouettes of mossy trees and bromeliads above us.

I was expecting Abel to light a fire at this point, start chanting and brew up the ayahuasca, but he just stands around wordlessly. It is too wet to sit so Menna and I crouch down and make sandwiches on a tree stump, then we all stand around in a circle stuffing in ham and cream cheese, chorizo, mango, oranges, chocolate. Abel doesn’t seem to have any food with him. No doubt he was intending to lunch on dew and wild berries, or perhaps just to chew on hallucinogenic tree bark. We feed him a sandwich or two, then he transmogrifies into a bat and flies away to the spirit world for ten minutes while we digest.

We haven’t managed to sit down at all, so our trembly tired legs are hardly rested when we have to shoulder our packs and turn back for home. Abel clearly thinks we have energy to spare so he takes us on a longer, more perilous route out of the crater that involves a long stretch of hand to hand climbing up a mudslide. We complain but he no longer hears us, he is tuned into the low rumblings of the volcano, drawing energy from magnetic fields deep beneath us. He floats across the slippery mud face, each touch gentle and tender. We lumber after him, stumbling, sliding, occasionally screaming, making a chain with our hands so none of us slip into the abyss.

Then we are over the summit and back into the cirrocumulus landscape. The return journey is not the gentle downhill ramble we had hoped for, but a slippery losing fight against gravity where each downward step places stiff demands upon tired knees, the falls multiply, the chatter dries up.

I have nothing much to say about those three nightmarish hours. Arthur spots an armadillo, Matilda doesn’t once moan and Abel himself slips over a couple of kilometres from home, which cheers us all up immensely and gives us the psychological boost we need to complete the trip.

The next morning we are greeted by the manager of our lodge in a state of high excitement. He tells us that as far as he is aware, Matilda is the youngest person ever to make it up to the crater lake and return alive.

He asks for a picture for the hotel notice board.

Lakes Apart

To get to the island of Ometepe we have to take a ferry from Rivas, a dangerous and ugly port town all sprawled out and gently cooking on the lakeside. After a long and bumpy ride along country roads, our taxi drops us right in the danger zone – that is bang in the middle of the docks – and we are instantly swarmed while at our most vulnerable: sweaty, disoriented in the midday sun, a huge pile of bags and surfboards anchoring us down, unable to move, unsure where to go.

Tour sellers and porters pluck at my arm, men compete to sell us cheap ferry tickets, people edge forward and pick up our bags – presumably they are porters, though who knows? Money-changers wave rolls of bank notes at us. Somehow, unasked, we acquire a fixer. He hauls away our baggage into a kiosk, shoos off the beggars, marches me up to a window to buy tickets, procures us a table for lunch and paints a picture of various breathtaking excursions that he alone can organise on the island. I manage to escape without booking any expensive tours, but he extracts a $5 tip and a promise that when we return from the island he will arrange our taxi transportation onwards.

The café on the dockside looks rough and not particularly hygienic but the chicken, beans and rice they serve taste great and the tough old proprietress dusts off a cracked smile for Matilda. We pile our luggage around our table so it feels we are bunkered down in a foxhole. Occasionally an arm appears over our barricade, hand outstretched. The children judge how needy the supplicant looks, and hand over an appropriate amount of coins from a small pile that we have accumulated.

And then action! We all load up with as much luggage as each can carry and jostle our way onto the Che Guevara ferry, winding our way between hooting pickups and revving motorbikes, floating amid a sea of brown faces, jostled by old ladies with live chickens, making space for toothless men with enormous sacks of grain on their backs. We stash our surfboards and skateboards on the car deck and heave everything else up to the top floor, and there we sit triumphantly in high winds and fierce sunlight.

The passage is rough. Wind-swell rocks the ferry, white horses race us as we plough across the lake. I am seated by a huge open barrel of water that is being transported to the island and I get periodically sprayed as the boat lurches.

Lago de Nicaragua is huge – it has about the same surface area as Cyprus. It is inhabited by one of the only fresh water colonies of bull sharks in the world. These were once prolific and such savage predators that for years the lakeside inhabitants refused to learn how to swim. Now of course the sharks have been overfished to near extinction. Chinese demand for shark fins led to a booming trade back in the sixties when a hundred or so boats competed on the waters here and delivered their catch to a dedicated shark processing plant in nearby Granada. The fins went to China, the skin was used for leather, shark liver got made into supplements and the meat became dog food.

As the stock depleted this became a game of diminishing returns and the whole operation was eventually shut down after the revolution. Sharks were finally protected by law but by then over 20,000 had been killed. Nowadays there are whispers of illicit nighttime shark fishing trips, big game hunters on high speed launches – Chinese and others; corrupt officials bribed to turn a blind eye. And so it goes.

We don’t see any sharks on our journey, but there are some elegant storks that fly across our bow. We have dosed Matilda with sea sickness tablets and she flops around drowsily in the sun. The crossing lasts for forty minutes and then we are on the volcanic island of Ometepe. A pickup truck sits waiting for us at the dockside and once we have loaded the baggage, and our son, into the rear, we roll slowly across the island, down roads lined with lush shiny-green foliage, into little rural villages, through coffee plantations and up steep hills. Then at last the day’s journey is complete and we are at Tenorio Lodge.

We rest. Tomorrow we climb the volcano.

Island Madness

When I was younger I spent a year on Réunion, a volcanic island out in the middle of the Indian Ocean. I remember it as a place of mighty green mountain-faces and cloud columns, battered by ferocious waves and patrolled by Great White sharks; full of creole superstition. I was young back then and impetuous. I got myself in some trouble and left the island with a broken arm and a hostile crowd at my back, my name bandied around on local radio.

I am a respectable man now but there is something about the cliffs and mountains of Madeira that is very similar. It brings back memories of that wild year and makes my heart run faster. Last time I was here, in the grip of island madness and suffering from blood loss, I accidentally proposed to my girlfriend on a mountain pass. Now I am back with her once again and our two children.

Madeira gives us a typical island greeting. We land into a thick sea mist and drive blindly across the island in fog and darkness, late-night reggaeton playing on the car radio, kids sleeping in the back. Overnight the mist becomes a squall and we wake to drumming rain and the banshee howl of the wind. When we venture out for breakfast our car is nearly blown off the cliff road. ‘Come to me!’ the Atlantic shouts at us far below, pounding the rocks in anticipation, throwing up spray as our wheels skid on the roadside. We have other plans though and we drive on; we eat breakfast in a warm bakery on the mountain top, then return to our house to do some half-hearted schoolwork and pace out the day. 

By nighttime the storm has passed and the next day is absolutely stunning. We are high on a cliff, with ocean below us and mountains behind. A series of vertical escarpments curve around the headland like folds of green corduroy, each ridge slightly more faded than the one before until they melt away into haze and shadow. Kestrels hover over the gorge.

Some way down below us the village of Paul do Mar is a series of pastel bricks tossed down at hazard behind the sea wall. It is only about three kilometres away as the crow flies, and so we decide to stroll down after lunch, using the rambler’s trails that zig-zag down through the vegetation. For the crow a 25% gradient is just wind and freefall, but we however are chained by gravity. We set off on the hike full of excited chatter, but soon we are blowing hard and conversing in grunts. The views are amazing, but our legs are properly shaking once we get to the bottom – and that was just the walk down. It requires a cool-off period, some beers, passionfruit mocktails and a serious pep talk before we are ready to attempt the return leg. We make it home though and Matilda doesn’t even moan once. Encouraged by this we drive off to a waterfall, then on to a lighthouse for sunset.

This sets the tone for our week in Madeira. There are too many beautiful things to see and it feels like we are racing against time, trying to capture the island in a week. We march to the rhythm of invisible drums. It is a novel way to travel after months of lazy meandering down the Portuguese coast. The frantic pace becomes a game. How much can we do in a day? How many sights can we see? Schoolwork becomes shouted quizzes that take place in the car as we traverse the island.

We spend a day in the capital, Funchal, bombing down vertiginous streets in strange sledges pulled by goat-like men in straw boaters. We go swimming off the quay and dress up for a colonial tea in Reid’s Hotel for a special Matilda treat. We do a 10km hike to a famous waterfall in the interior and try to swim under it, but it is too glacial to stay in that dark mountain pool for more than a few minutes. We spot the mighty Madeiran Buzzard. We take a cable car down to a deserted ghost town in the northern tip of the island and we eat a picnic on the rocks, then get drenched by huge waves as we try to paddle. We climb up the kind of cliff path that would give Indiana Jones second thoughts, scrambling over rockslides and slithering along wet ledges where all that lies between you and the abyss is wind and fear.

Arthur and I go rock-climbing in the cliffs in the south and Arthur astonishes our guides with his monkey abilities. I don’t astonish anyone, except perhaps by not injuring myself, but the challenge of man against rock speaks to something deep in my soul, and I resolve to do daily strength exercises in future and climb El Capitán with Arthur before he is eighteen. Straight afterwards, still soaked with sweat, we hike up the highest peak on the island and Matilda treats us to a glorious meltdown at the summit.

Amid all this motion I find some hours one morning to hide myself away and have a long chat with a lovely lady from BA. Then at lunch I am able to casually mention to the family that I have bought us one-way tickets to Costa Rica next week. It is a complete bombshell and it sends everyone into disbelief then squealing and dancing. I am puffed with triumph at my own largess, the modern day hunter-gatherer of airmiles and companion vouchers.
‘We are going to Costa-Coffee Rica-pica!’ the kids sing as we rattle over mountain passes and along cliff roads in our pathetically under-powered rental car.

They are distracted now, their heads far away, but as we drive along every curve brings a new wonder and I start to wish I had held back the news until later. I can’t help thinking that even the majestic Costa Rican cloud forests may not top this wild and beautiful island.

You Don’t Need a Weatherman

Another month passed somehow as we meandered our way down the southern coastline of Portugal. Without the anchor points of the school dropoff or work, we were subject to some pretty surreal distortions of time. Some days were featureless and stretched out like old chewing gum, but then everything flicked into double-time and we couldn’t cram enough stuff into the hours we are awake. ‘What did we do that week after Aterra?’ I asked the kids, but whole sections of our recent past have compacted into a series of fragments and we can’t tease them apart, only watch the showreel and listen to that crackling soundtrack. And it’s bloody Bob Dylan of course.

Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial / Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while / But Mona Lisa must’ve had the highway blues / You can tell by the way she smiles.

A week in Vila Nova de Milfontes was disappointing. After many frothy recommendations from fellow travellers we were excited when we arrived, but our AirBnB was small, dark and expensive; we were in a boring suburb and we had to drive twenty minutes to find indifferent surf. The streets were too rough to skate on. On one beach trip we lost our beloved old Nikon camera, an inexplicable disappearance that puzzled us for days. We went standup paddling on the river mouth and got caught up in a gale so Arthur nearly got swept out to sea and was very shaken. We saw a man dying in the aftermath of a motorcycle accident. 

I ain’t a-saying you treated me unkind / You could have done better but I don’t mind / You just kinda wasted my precious time / But don’t think twice, it’s all right.

Near Aljezur we found a crumbling old sun-baked mansion, perched on a hill that overlooked the sea on one side and estuary plains on the other. It was full of eccentric African ornaments and Swedish books and it flooded whenever it rained. We loved it. We extended our stay for over two weeks there. Menna and I dusted off old memories from a weekend break we took near here a decade ago and bored the kids with them (“Look children! That’s where we sat and drank vinho verde – or was it port honey? – and watched the fishermen come in!”). We threw a lavish Halloween party for all the family, that is to say, the four of us, project-managed ferociously by Matilda. The organisation took her nearly a week, what with all the baking (severed-hand pies!), inventing complicated spooky games (spider web dash!), choosing the perfect film (Adams Family!) and it culminated with everyone ‘sleeping over’ in our bedroom. We were all tucked up by nine, which is how our parties generally end these days.

Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet / We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it.

We hit the bottom of Portugal and turned the corner onto the south coast. Salema was a pretty little town that seemed to have been packaged up for winter hibernation. We walked the empty streets and spent some time observing a colony of stray cats living a enviable life on a abandoned mattress behind the recycling bins. Our nearest proper surf break was Zavial, a fast hollow wave that jacked up suddenly on a shallow sand bank to create perfect turquoise barrels. It was fantastic to watch and dangerous to surf. We went on a boat trip and standup paddle boarding with our friends Josh and Meg and explored the coastline from the sea. A section of porous sandstone cliffs, full of caves with shell-fossil walls and twisted stone columns rising up out of the waves. The boat trip turned into lunch, into dinner, into a birthday party that went on until nearly midnight. (Midnight! I know right?) I had my first proper hangover of the year next day. A night or two later the whole family awoke to intense strobe light in the early hours. We thought must be some malfunctioning streetlight, but it turned out to be the most epic electrical storm going off right above us. It felt like the world was ending.

Well, I’m livin’ in a foreign country but I’m bound to cross the line /
Beauty walks a razor’s edge, someday I’ll make it mine

As we drifted along, it felt like our time in Portugal was winding to an end somehow, but our future beyond was still misty and worrisome. Lockdowns were looming, but not just here, everywhere we looked. Menna and I had long muttered arguments on beach walks about where we could go if things got bad. Africa was dangerous, Australia was shut, South America was sick. We expended ever more energy into loving Portugal and some days we thought that maybe we could winter here and it would be ok. We would find a remote house on the clifftop and stock up with winter provisions, surf huge cold Atlantic waves, watch lightning strikes out at sea, go for wind-blown walks in the early light. These stone houses are built for summer but we could find one with a wood burner and we would huddle around it and read the Greek myths aloud to the children while the viral armageddon raged outside.

A worried man with a worried mind / No one in front of me and nothing behind / There’s a woman on my lap and she’s drinking champagne …I’m well dressed, waiting on the last train.

The Cliffs

We went for a coastal hike yesterday on the northern face of the headlands. This completes a linking series of cliff walks that we have done over some weeks, taking us right around the North Devon peninsula from Saunton Sands to Ilfracombe, some 100km or so.

The cliffs in these parts have something about them that I’ve not felt before. All cliffs are huge and inspiring of course, that is their nature. These ones though have a jagged angular violence has been imprinted deep into the shape of the rock. There are dragons teeth that emerge dark and wet from the foam of the sea. Broken slate shards pile up under the crags as though they had come raining down in sheets. Dark fissures split open the cliff face. We saw a cove where rock ridges ran in lines across the shingle, like the black spines of some reptile that slept beneath.

Within the sedimentary rock there is colour and texture. A corduroy layering emerges in bold lines from the sea. The stripes rise up in diagonals that echo in successive and opposing cliff faces. Slate, granite and quartz are compressed into lines of pink and black and glittering crystal. But then the symmetry ripples and buckles, and you know that this stone mass was once spun and twisted in some huge pressure furnace like hot glass. There is suppressed energy throughout this landscape. Immense elemental pressures have played out here, and antagonistic forces remain locked in counterpoint, frozen within those misshapen bubbles of stone. There is a feeling of interrupted motion. At some point the rocks will surge upwards again. They will grind and thunder as they erupt: ripping out tree roots; showering boulders like rain; throwing nesting sea birds screaming into the air.

We leave the National Trust pathways wherever possible and slip onto the sheep paths that undulate through the gorse and ferns. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The tracks take you back and forth, criss-crossing through wind-stunted greenery, lulling you with smooth lines that rise and fall with the topography of the headlands. False trails peter out deep in the gorse, or lead you suddenly out onto limestone overhangs that could erode at any point. You wander how many sheep ambled along this path at night to suddenly find themselves on the edge of the precipice. Does some instinct pull them back? Or do those woolly coats sometimes catch a gust of wind, and then they are tumbling through black space, bleating wildly? You shiver and pull back from the edge.

I find that my thinking slows on these walks. I listen to my breath. I catch myself trudging up the escarpment muttering out simple rhyming word associations to myself, senseless poems to punctuate my footfall. Jurassic, bombastic, we lack it, eclectic (disrespecting), drastic, classic, smash it! Be enthusiastic!

We climb down to an empty beach where the surf beats onto the boulders. The low thunder sends us all gradually into a frenzy and we shout and run. We throw stones and jump off boulders and splash our way blindly through rock pools. We hold crab claw tokens and cowrie shells in our sweaty hands as we climb back up the rocky path again.

Sometimes you emerge over a hill top to find yourself unexpectedly on a vantage point where you can see the full line of cliffs undulating away into the distance like a folded ribbon of dirty grey. Perhaps there is a lighthouse in the distance, certainly there are birds wheeling in the sky. The sea is bottle green, flecked with sunlight and white horses. The wind whistles around, buffeting you back away from the edge.

Boulder, golder? (more gold?), hold her, quiet smoulder, cold shoulder, eye of the beholder.

Up on these massive granite slabs you can get hit by a sudden sense of your own smallness. A squall of futility blows up around you, borne on the sea wind. What are your puny ambitions and dreams lined up against the permanence, the gravitational mass, the sheer indifference of the rock? What flicker of time can you offer up against his eons? We pilot these towers of bone and muscle forwards over the headlands, spindle legs scissoring, furiously pumping blood down through branching tubes, breaking down matter deep in our guts. This pulsating mess of us all wrapped up in downy veined skin. We totter our towers onwards as though we will topple when we stop. We cover them around with bright materials and we shout out from the top: about our plans and schemes, and what we feel, and what we will do with life. As though it mattered.

Granite, tannic, magnetic, peripatetic! We say. Dead gannet, red planet, dormant, titanic.

As is the way of all small beasts, we disdain even smaller creatures, we care nothing for their worries. The world belongs to us alone. We are unaware that we are just mites creeping unnoticed along the shoulder of a sleeping giant.

But then I suppose he is unaware that in his way he too is small; that he lies on a larger rock which swings silently through space, circling an insignificant star that is hidden somewhere out on the far-flung spiral arm of a galaxy. One single galaxy among many.

Gorse Babies

We were walking up on the headlands and it was late. The wind had picked up, and out to sea there was an ominous black cloud line running right along the darkening sky. We were far from home.

Then I heard it, as the wind dropped for a moment, a little high pitched snicker, then a skittering sound of tiny feet scrabbling on dry earth. Arthur picked it up too. He has magnificent ears.
“What was that Dad?”
“It’s nothing” I say, “probably just a weasel in the undergrowth”. He moved in closer to me and we pressed forward in silence. I picked up the pace and hurried the family along.

We both knew that sound though.

The kids are familiar with gorse babies ever since that run-in we had with them in Dorset some years back. And now as we walk hurriedly back home, the rising panic of that sultry evening comes flooding back to me. I curse myself for not learning the lesson then. That too was a summer’s walk, only it turned into a nightmare as we gradually grew aware of their presence. First a sly rustling and snickering deep in the sea of gorse. Then a building storm, the foliage sighing and trembling all around us, as if the rooted foundations beneath stirred and seethed. Tiny hands pulling at the fronds, brown limbs entwined like snakes around the branches, yellow eyes glinting out at us from between the yellow furze flowers. There must have been hundreds of them. It was only through a commotion of shouting, stamping and hammering the path with a heavy stick that I was able to force us a route out of there. We shuffled homewards along the pathway for an age, clustered close together, the kids tightly guarded, Menna snarling and bringing up the rear.

I had never heard of the little creatures being so brazen before. It was simply not known for them to approach while adults were present. Usually it would be just an unattended child who might quietly disappear on the cliff top. Clearly we had run into a tribe that day, one that was powerful enough, or desperate enough, to attack a full family.

I would like to know more about gorse babies, those vile little creatures that fascinate and disturb me in equal measure. I’ve heard the stories, of course, vague and speculative as they are. That the first colony was started in Victorian times, somewhere in the south country, seems realistic. It was most likely a pair of very small children that were either deliberately abandoned on the moors, or became lost somehow. I always imagine a couple of smudged little tots, wide-eyed, tearful, holding hands as the dark closes in; their voices undetectable over the howling wind. They would have sheltered under those wide robust banks of gorse I guess, burrowing in deep to avoid the needles, cushioning themselves in the dry scree underneath. Perhaps they found rabbit or badger holes there. Perhaps they scraped away the earth with their own little fingers. Did the yellow beams of gas lamps flicker distantly in the night? Did the wind carry far off voices shouting their names with increasing desperation? Or were those first nights uninterrupted but for the slithering and scratching of wild creatures making their winding tracks under the fern and gorse?

Whether they were looked for or not, they weren’t ever found. Neither alive, nor as frozen bodies curled tight around the gorse roots. Instead somehow, against all odds, they survived. Some say the founders of the first great colony are still down there somewhere, enthroned in galleries of clay; an ancient and twisted little king and queen of the gorse world, surrounded by the wild civilisation they have created. I don’t believe this myself. That would make them well over a hundred years old. And to survive so long, in a life so harsh…

Our children didn’t sleep well for ages after that first Dorset encounter. They knew that they had had a very close escape. They were still small and malleable and could have so easily been snatched away and pressed down through dark holes into a new life under the earth. A life of slithering through tunnels, eyes straining and swelling in the darkness, bodies never to grow again, skin hardening, fat melting away, tendons, ligaments and bone gaining prominence. How long would it take them to forget their parents and their old soft lives in that subterranean world? Their backs would curve and knot under new muscle growth, their limbs contort to facilitate a life of scrabbling on all fours. Small naked bodies taking the colour of clay, covered in scar tissue and course matted hair. Teeth filed into little points; hardened claw fingers; flesh pierced with thorns and gorsewood. A life driven by instinct and tribal duty, squirming around the gorse roots, sleeping piled up with other small bodies in musky, airless underground chambers, nourished by the blood of rodents and who knows what else? They would have spoken that reedy, chirruping language, full of the anger and violence of wild moorland creatures. Many children have been lost this way.

Now though it’s different, Arthur is nearly ten and Matilda a plump eight year old. They would never flit through the tunnels that honeycomb the headland. Their bones have set, their haunches are soft and they have no value as conscripts to the tribe. Now they are simply prey.

The mist was rising as we hurried on into that yellow dusk. Around us the rustling and chittering slowly intensified like a locust storm approaching. I looked for a stout stick.

Signs of Freedom

Since we escaped London some weeks ago now, we have been going through a mental shift.

It is something to do with moving into a very rural area, having lots of free time and being outside for most of the day. There is a different set of signals we pick up now. New priorities steal our attention. People talk a lot these days about re-wilding gardens and outdoor spaces; allowing nature to reclaim manicured lawns and geometric lines. In a way it feels like we are rewilding too.

We came here from the city. That means we came from a place where energy and determination are revered and prioritised above all else. We measured efficiency and productivity at work. We obsessed about ways to improve metrics and smash our targets. At home we charted our step count, heart rate and sleep time, sharing them with communities who would then push us to improve. We tacitly competed with our friends on the quality of our dinner parties. We tried to improve our running speed and build our pushup count. Life moved fast and all moments were accounted for.

Once you step out of all that and dial down the speed of life, it takes a while to reprogram the system. The first week or two down here you could see Menna or I suddenly stiffen up like prairie dogs at a given moment, as our minds threw up random worries to try and get the panic systems rebooted. (NO! I forgot to put light fittings on the inventory! Coffee cup slips out of numb fingers to smash on the floor.) We would ping awake in the night, grasping for something to get all twisted up about. (What if we need to vote in a snap general election? We have no current residency! Heart thumps madly in the darkness). We’d check social media surreptitiously on family walks. We would obsess about the news.

Then slowly it slips away. The interruptions become less frequent, then disappear. The nights become longer and fuller. We wake slowly with strange tastes in our mouths and the lingering aftermath of heavy dreams. Focus builds and small tasks absorb us. Sometimes we find ourselves just sitting and thinking for a while, doing nothing really.

Busy minds, deprived of action plans and to-do lists, start to open up other enquires. They turn outwards towards the world. The wind is strong today and it’s shifted to behind the dunes. I’ve never seen clouds twisted up into a vertical column like that. Who is that small bird who trills between the sea gulls’ screams? It feels somehow like it’s going to rain later.

Once you recognise this shift, and you open yourself to it, then the world suddenly seems full of signals and patterns that were hidden to you before. It feels big. You can turn it into a huge spiritual revelation and believe that the universe is whispering in your ear. Three cormorants heading east before summer’s dusk? Winds are coming I tell you! Or maybe it just makes you feel content and a little more connected to this new landscape around you. You might feel that yes, you did make the right move coming down here.

A kestrel hovers on the headland almost every evening now hunting his prey. Little pulses of his wings keep him motionless above the gorse even as the wind blows everything else around.

The fields near us hide a subterranean population of rabbits who emerge out for a cautious sniff early mornings and at dusk. A slight noise and they will all skitter away, a tumble of white feathery tails disappearing into the hedgerow.

A pungent weed permeates the hedgerows and dune flowers. It is called Houndstongue but known locally as Rats and Mice because of its musky damp rodent smell. We all found it disgusting the first time we smelt it. Now it’s like a soggy friend that comes to greet you as you walk down the sandy lane to the beach.

Foxgloves are everywhere this month, priapic purple stalagmites rising out of the gorse. There is a similar-looking but more reserved blue flower in the dunes which I prefer. It’s got the awesome name of Viper’s Bugloss.

The tides reshape the beach and headlands every hour. We’re getting to know the timings more intuitively now, and more importantly to recognise the confluence of wind, tide and swell that makes the best waves.

A flock of goldfinches (no sorry, a charm of goldfinches) surprise us with sudden flashes of red and yellow as they flitter past like leaves in a gale.

You come to see how the prevailing westerly wind has comprehensively sculpted the landscape around us. You realise how relentlessly it bends and pushes everything away eastwards, and then then you start to see its mark everywhere; triangles and wedges sculpted into dunes, gorse, trees, hills and even the limestone cliff faces. The hypotenuse always points down to the most westerly point.

I saw a single dolphin far out at sea one evening, a leaping shape midway to the horizon. I was alone in the surf as the sun was setting and to be honest it was something of an epiphany.

Arthur and I went out to do some starwatching in the dunes. We found The Pointer stars at the end of the plough and they directed us to Polaris, then on to Deneb which, together with Vega and Altair, make up the Navigator’s Triangle. This always points you southwards I lectured Arthur (well ok, an iPhone is easier but that’s not the point).

On a Sunday cliff walk we saw a family of seals far below in the rockpools. Their whiskery heads bobbed up for a quick a chat before they slipped down again below the dark green swelling waters.

There is a good but infrequent wind that comes from the east and makes the waves clean and glassy.

I want to develop a subconscious sense of where the cardinal points are, even in cloud cover or deep in a forest (Arthur can already do this but I can’t. I’ve always had a rubbish sense of direction).

We arrived into two straight weeks of atmospheric high pressure, so hard blue skies and sun. Now the system has moved on and we feel smaller beneath a huge expansive cloud world whose architectures show various distinct textures and densities in different strata above us.

For many days last week there was an ominous storm cloud which stretched squat and black right down to the horizon. It seemed to trap light beneath it, so that the hills and cliffs seemed strangely illuminated and you could see for miles. We spent our days outside slightly on edge, feeling that the storm might vent down upon us at any point. The air was so thick and charged with electricity. All that tension and power just hung there in stasis though, hovering above us for days. It barely even rained. I don’t know why.

A dead gannet waited on the beach the other day. It was on its back, half submerged, neck thrust up as if its last moments were spent trying to force its way up from its sandy tomb for one final flight. We gathered in a semi circle around it, the kids silent and solemn. It was a sober moment, like finding a whale’s carcass in the desert, or a frozen hand reaching up out of the glacier. I was going to give some homily about the circle of life and how death comes to all things, but in the end I just kept quiet.

There are books that help decipher these messages. On my bedside table right now I have Wild Signs and Star Paths by Tristan Gooley. It’s a lucid exploration of hidden keys and signals in nature and how to determine their significance. Can we recapture such a sense of awareness of our environment that we read signs and link patterns instinctively, generating subconscious insights on weather, direction, animal behaviour that feel something like sixth sense? (Pretty cool right?). Then, as a counterpoint, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos lifts your gaze away, up to the most distant horizons, for a universal context. Great travellers lead the way – Redmond O’Hanlan, Bruce Chatwin, Ryszard Kapuściński. They talk about leaving behind the impediments of your former life and going through a kind of rebirth on the road. We have guides to animals, flowers, geology, trees, stars. On my phone I have downloaded the Collins Birds app.

It feels like there is a lot to learn.

I had long felt in my gut that the world was extravagantly rich with signs… Many thousands of hours outdoors had led to my spotting patterns, asymmetries and trends; they were beautiful but often hard to explain.

Tristan Gooley. Wild Signs and Star Paths

Finally, at the end of our wandering, we return to our tiny, fragile, blue and white world, lost in a cosmic ocean vast beyond our most courageous imaginings. It is a world among an immensity of others. It may be significant only for us… It is on this world that we developed our passion for exploring the Cosmos, and it is here that we are, in some pain and with no guarantees, working out our destiny.

Carl Sagan. Cosmos