Wild Junket » Adventure Travel http://www.wildjunket.com An adventure travel blog that brings you on a rollercoaster ride around the world Wed, 29 Oct 2014 14:30:34 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.2 7 Off-Track Countries that Are Worth Checking Out http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/10/27/off-the-beaten-track-countries/ http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/10/27/off-the-beaten-track-countries/#comments Mon, 27 Oct 2014 14:00:38 +0000 http://www.wildjunket.com/?p=17506 Tbilisi, GeorgiaThere are many well-known tourist destinations in the world, and they’re popular for good reason. But, imagine having incredible local experiences, lazing on world-class beaches, and exploring untouched terrain…with hardly a tourist in sight! Getting off the beaten path once in a while is something that every traveler should aim to do, the experiences you’ll [...]

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This is a guest post from our friends Dariece and Nick from Goats On The Road. Their blog is an extremely useful resource for those who are planning to travel Central Asia. They’ve visited many remote and interesting parts of the world and today they’re going to share with us a list of under-the-radar countries that are worth visiting:

There are many well-known tourist destinations in the world, and they’re popular for good reason. But, imagine having incredible local experiences, lazing on world-class beaches, and exploring untouched terrain…with hardly a tourist in sight!

Getting off the beaten path once in a while is something that every traveler should aim to do, the experiences you’ll have, the people you’ll meet and the sights you’ll see will remain in your memories for years to come.

1. Georgia

Little war-torn, post-Soviet Georgia is set in the perfect part of the world. It’s close enough to Europe to make it easy to travel to and it’s set at a crossroads between Russia, Europe and Central Asia, which provides it with some stunning landscapes.

Georgia retains an identity all its own. Georgian people are not Turks, Persians or Russians, nor do they have an ethnic connection with any other people, but there are various Georgian ethnic groups living here: the Kartveli, Mingreli, Laz, and Svan to name a few.

The Capital of Tbilisi is aesthetically pleasing, with rocky mountains as a backdrop and a windy river cutting through the main part of the city. You’ll be greeted with funky, cobblestone alleyways, numerous cathedrals, interesting architecture and a very liberal vibe compared to neighbouring Turkey.

Georgia is said to be one of the oldest producers of wine in the world and sniffing, swirling and sipping some of the delicious reds and whites should be high on your list! Much of Georgian food isn’t exactly healthy, but it is delicious. Think lots of bread, cheese and doughy foods. Definitely try the Khachapuri and Khinkali.

Outside of Tbilisi you’ll find stunning countryside perfect for hiking, walking and wandering. You can visit monestaries, mountains, wineries and UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The villages beyond Tbilisi are very off the beaten path and you’ll always be welcomed by the locals.

As an added bonus, Georgia is a very affordable travel destination.

Tbilisi, Georgia

2. Grenada

Grenada is an island in the Lesser-Antilles in the southern Caribbean. Located just 140 kms north of Venezuela and very close to Trinidad & Tobago, this gorgeous atoll bobs silently in the sea, with hardly a tourist in sight. When people think of the Caribbean, they typically think of the northern countries of Cuba, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, or even St. Lucia and Barbados further south, but no one ever talks about the Spice Island of Grenada!

Because Grenada isn’t as popular as some of its neighbours, this mountainous island retains its authentic Caribbean feel. It is rugged, unpretentious and has just the right amount of amenities to make a traveller feel comfortable.

This is a country with loads of activities on offer – try sailing, scuba diving, snorkelling, kayaking, cycling or deep sea fishing! When you’re bored of that, you can laze on pristine beaches, hike to towering waterfalls or just go for a leisurely stroll through the jungle. St. George is a colourful capital city that is often regarded as the most beautiful town in the Caribbean.

Grenada has it all.

Grand Anse Beach, Grenada

3. Iran

Many people consider this Islamic Republic to be a dangerous place to visit, with government travel advisories listing it as a country to “avoid all travel”. However, if you actually do some research and go to Iran, you’ll see the country for what it truly is. You’ll be completely dumbfounded as to why these warning messages are displayed around the web.

The diversity of Iran is amazing. One day you can be visiting the Persian Gulf, gazing out at the beach and enjoying the fishermen coming in with their daily catch, while the next day you could be visiting the desert with rolling sand dunes and sauntering camels. Head north and you’ll find towering snow-capped mountains with captivating Troglodyte Villages.

This is a country with incredible Islamic architecture. The mosques, mausoleums and minarets are adorned with intricate mosaics and designs, some of which are true feats of construction. The covered bazaars are exciting, with wafts of exotic spices filling the air. The modes of transportation are safe, clean, cheap, comfortable and run like clockwork.

But the most amazing thing about Iran is the people. Iranians are very concerned about how the Western world portrays them. You’ll be bombarded with questions about what you think of Iran (in a friendly way of course).

The locals are extremely hospitable with travellers often enjoying week-long stays in complete stranger’s homes. People will speak with you on buses, invite you over for tea and help with directions whenever you look lost. Iranians are very friendly.

On top of all of this, Iran is extremely safe, affordable and easy to get around.

New Iranian Friends, Iran

4. Tajikistan

Taj-iki-what?! Hardly anyone knows about Tajikistan, which has to be the most oddly shaped country in the world. This nation is one of the jagged, jigsaw puzzle countries that makes up Central Asia. Another former-Soviet republic, this country is not without its economic faults and unstable history. However, backpacking through Tajikistan as a tourist is an incredible experience.

93% of this country is mountainous! The unbelievable Pamir Mountain Range runs though Tajikistan along with the Alay Mountains and the Tian Shan range. Some of the highest mountains in the world are found here, which means you’ll be in for some very scenic drives and some outstanding trekking!

Sleeping in yurts and homestays, spotting the rare Marco-Polo Sheep, road tripping on the 2nd highest highway in the world (the Pamir Highway), eating unique foods and meeting friendly faces with Persian, Arabic, Caucasian and Asian features are all highlights of this tiny country.

Travel here isn’t easy, but it’s doable. Tajikistan is a definite off-the-beaten-track destination, and it’s also very affordable.

Hiking on the Pamir Highway, Tajikistan

5. China

Ok, so cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Xian may not be considered off the beaten path, but China is a huge country! Even if you did travel to the popular cities, you would still sometimes feel like you were the only tourist. Most cities in China have Old Towns for you to get lost in, back alleyways waiting to be explored and invitations for meals waiting to be had.

Even though there are many foreigners in this populated country who are teaching English, most of the people in China don’t speak English, but they will try to communicate with you the best they know how. Chinese people love foreigners and are very curious people. Lots of charades and hand motions will play a part in your chat with them, but one thing is for sure, it will be a very friendly conversation.

The ancient sites here are amazing and if you escape the cities, the countryside is stunning. Rolling rice paddies, jagged limestone karsts and towering mountain peaks are just some of the beautiful landscapes you can expect along your journey.

The people in China are wonderful and the history is fascinating, but the food is what really stands out! The majority of the world considers Chinese food to be what’s found in the white takeaway boxes of North America & Europe – sweet n’ sour pork, chicken chow mein and ginger beef! In China you’ll find some amazing, authentic dishes, many of which don’t even include noodles. This is one of the most diverse and delicious cuisines in the world.

And yes, China is a very affordable country to travel.

Chinese Food, China

6. Mozambique

Africa is a diverse continent filled with wild and raw experiences. Mozambique is a country located on the east coast, just above South Africa. This culture-filled country still has many remnants from its Portuguese past. In some cities you’ll find colourful, Portuguese-style buildings and much of the cuisine is made up of flavours from its past conquerors as well.
Mozambique is a country that feels safe, which can be rare on this continent. The people here are smiley, welcoming and love to dance!

The beaches are powder-white and the seas are turquoise blue. If you make your way to the very northern Quirimbas Archipelago, there are some fantastic islands to discover and it’s a great place to do some sailing and sleeping under the stars. You can snorkel with Whale Sharks and if you’re lucky, scuba dive with Humpback Whales!

Transportation isn’t exactly comfortable and the cost of travelling here isn’t cheap (although it’s not expensive either), but it is definitely an exotic country that should be on your travel itinerary.

Matemo Island, Mozambique

7. Mongolia

Mongolia is a nomadic wonderland! This country is one big campground with endless opportunities for trekking, camping, fishing, horseback riding, road tripping and more. The people here are mostly nomadic, sleeping in gers (yurts) and moving from place to place, depending on the season.

The rolling, vibrant steppe is beautiful to not only look at, but its a blast to explore on foot as well! From crystal clear lakes to dry deserts, there’s a lot to see and do in Mongolia.

The people here are very mild-mannered and kind. Although most of them can’t read maps, they’ll try to point you in the right direction if they can. Many of the roads in Mongolia are just dirt paths, which makes this such an adventurous place to travel around. The food in Mongolia isn’t exactly a highlight, although there are some good dishes. What stands out the most in this country are the vast expanses of nature and the friendly, warm people.

Veering off of the well-trodden tourist trail may seem intimidating and impossible to some, but once you arrive at these foreign destinations, you’ll soon realize that there’s actually quite a bit of tourism infrastructure in place. There are just enough fellow travellers around to make visiting these countries one incredible experience. You’re never alone in the backpacking world and even if you were, the people of these 7 countries would welcome you in and treat you just like family.

Trekking and Camping in Mongolia


Author’s Bio:

Nick and Dariece are the couple behind goats on the road Goats On The Road, a website designed to inspire others to live a financially    sustainable, location independent lifestyle. Masters at making money abroad and turning their travels  into a way of  life, they’ve been on the road since 2008 and have explored some of the least visited places on earth,  finding adventure  wherever they go. They’re also full time contributors at Travel Pulse and Credit Walk where they  share their stories  and expertise of long-term travel.

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Traveling Iran — What it’s Like http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/10/24/traveling-iran-like/ http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/10/24/traveling-iran-like/#comments Fri, 24 Oct 2014 14:47:23 +0000 http://www.wildjunket.com/?p=17528 Old world PersiaAs a curious traveler, I believe visiting a place for myself is the best way to learn on-the-ground knowledge and to see a place beyond the headlines. My recent visit to Iran – just like my previous trips to troubled lands like North Korea and Palestine – further reaffirmed that what we see in the media isn’t always the real truth. As [...]

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 I’ve just completed my Silk Road journey through Central Asia with Oasis OverlandOur trip started in Kyrgyzstan and we traveled through KazakhstanUzbekistanTurkmenistanIran and ended in Turkey. During this overland trip, we spent just under three weeks traversing through Iran, from the eastern corner to the western edge.

As a curious traveler, I believe visiting a place for myself is the best way to learn on-the-ground knowledge and to see a place beyond the headlines. My recent visit to Iran – just like my previous trips to troubled lands like North Korea and Palestine – further reaffirmed that what we see in the media isn’t always the real truth.

As I discovered, Iran is a country extremely rich in Islamic culture and old Persian history. It’s a land of poets, artists, and traders who carry on centuries-old traditions. Thousand-year-old ancient sites sprawl across the deserts, surrounding outstanding Persian architecture and fabled towns. Modern Iran is a sharp contrast, with chaotic traffic flooding up the bustling metropolis and busy urban dwellers rushing from one place to another in fashionable apparel.

Iran is so many things rolled into one, but there’s one thing it’s not. It’s not a country of gun-toting or American-hating extremists. It’s not a land of war-loving, flag-burning terrorists. And it’s definitely not how the world perceives it to be.

As soon as you’re here, you’ll find that the reality is far removed from the stereotypes — it’s a country desperate to be seen for what it is, rather than what it is depicted to be. The Iranians are undoubtedly the friendliest people I’ve ever met in the world and travelers will often find themselves getting invited to stranger’s homes, being treated to endless flow of tea from a shop vendor and getting a free ride from helpful drivers along the way.

Old world Persia

As a word of advice, don’t make judgment based on what you see and read on the news; go see Iran and find out for yourself. If you’re opened to getting your mind altered, then here are some of my tips and info that can help you plan a trip to Iran:

Entry and Visas

Getting entry into Iran can be a tricky, frustrating and expensive process for certain nationalities, thanks to the limitations set by the current regime.

Every nationality needs a visa to enter Iran except for nationals of Turkey, Malaysia, Syria, Georgia, Azerbaijan (15 days), Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador. Entry will be refused to citizens of Israel and travelers with any evidence of visiting Israel. If you’ve got an Israeli entry stamp, get a new passport. British, American and Canadian travelers are only allowed to travel to Iran with a guided tour only.

To apply for an Iranian visa you need a visa authorization number. You can get it through any local Iranian operator or The Visa Machine for £55 or US$91 (and a £15 or US$25 admin fee). It takes at least two weeks to get it, but once you’ve got it  you just need to show up at the embassy, fill up a form and present a passport photo (women must wear a headscarf in the photo).

I was lucky enough to get my  express visa in just one day at the Iranian embassy in Biskek, Kyrgyzstan, and the visa cost €50 or US$65 (and an additional €25 or US$33 to expedite it). That said, I heard cases of visas taking almost a month to process for certain nationalities (and even embassies requesting for medical check-ups) and visas costing three times as much for British, American and Canadian travelers.

Iranian visa

Traveling Solo or with a Tour

I traveled to Iran as part of a two-month Silk Road journey with UK tour operator Oasis Overland. It was my first time traveling with this company and I only have praises for them. The overlanding/camping trip was very well-organized, allowing us ample of free time to explore each city on our own, and at the same time giving us the chance to camp in the backcountry of Iran. Our 18-day itinerary in Iran was well-planned and had a comfortable pace, giving us around three days in each city. I did not feel restricted in any way and I was free to interact with locals as much as I wanted.

On the overlanding trip, we also had an Iranian guide who joined us throughout our entire time in Iran. Our guide Nosratollah Afshari was a kind and well-spoken gentleman in his early fifties who works part-time as a tour guide amidst his busy schedule as a geography teacher. Although Nosrat lacked experience and knowledge in history, he was helpful and quick to answer all our general questions on Iran – whether it be on religion or politics. We learned a lot about local life and culture through Nosrat and he even invited us to his home for dinner where we got to meet his family and learn about his way of life. It was definitely the biggest advantage of traveling on a guided tour in Iran.

Being invited to Nosrat's home

One of the highlights of our trip: being invited by our guide Nosrat (second on the right) to his home

While independent travel in Iran can be challenging, it is possible. There is a lack of tourism infrastructure in the country with limited public transportation, few budget hotels and locals who can speak English or other languages. There are definitely a number of accommodation options available in Iran, but they are quite expensive and limited to either very basic budget hotels (with squat toilets) or high-end hotels. There are sadly no comfortable mid-range guesthouses or hostels that cater to backpackers.

I also met several travelers who hitchhiked and couchsurfed their way through Iran. Even though couchsurfing is officially banned in Iran, there is quite a large community. The couchsurfers I met in Iran talked about how helpful and hospitable their hosts were, showing them around the cities and even connecting them to their friends in other cities.

Take note that traveling as a solo female is definitely harder, considering that you’re in a society where women play a smaller role than their men counterparts. I spent quite a lot of time wandering through the cities on my own, and I have to admit that it can be daunting as a solo female traveler in Iran — Iranian men can be very forward and even aggressive to some extent, expect some stares and wolf whistles especially in the bigger cities; but as long as you are dressed modestly and practice common sense, you should be safe.

In a bazaar

Safety in Iran

As mentioned above, Iran is generally safe to visit as long as you follow the rules of the Islamic regime. Besides the few stares from men, I didn’t feel unsafe at all in Iran. While there were murals depicting Anti-American sentiments and paintings of war martyrs everywhere, there weren’t any soldiers toting guns or military tanks roaming the streets. Everything felt very peaceful and normal everywhere we went in Iran.

For Americans or British, the Iranians welcome you just as equally. While most Iranians do not like the American government, they understand that the people do not represent the government. They know that people are people and we are all generally the same.

If you are worried, it might be wise to pre-register with your foreign office before departure for a peace of mind. Many foreign offices (including in the UK and US) advise against all but essential travel to Iran, and most travel insurance companies will not cover you during your time in Iran.

Anti-America sentiments

Surprises in Modern Iran: What to Expect

If you’re looking for a country that surprises, then Iran is the place for you. Visiting Iran can be an eye-opening experience, considering how closed and misunderstood this Islamic Republic is. It is a rewarding place to visit especially for curious travelers who want to learn the basis of the country, who its people are, and what their culture stand for — beyond political issues and news headlines.

In all honesty, I went to Iran with no idea what to expect; but Iran still surprised me on so many levels. Unknown to many, it’s a very urban and populated country, with over 75 million people occupying a country that ranks 17th biggest in the world.  It’s the biggest country in Central Asia and also the most populated. Almost two-thirds of Iranians live in cities and many of its cities bursting at their seams with over five million people. Heavy traffic is a severe problem in the country,with the government increasing oil prices and building underground metro systems to help control the problems.

Tehran the capital of Iran

Cities like Tehran, Tabriz and Shiraz exude the modern and prosperous 21st-century vibes you’ll find in developed Middle Eastern cities, constantly buzzing with endless traffic, weaving through rows of markets, shops and tall buildings. There are people everywhere, literally in every street corner and square. Urban dwellers rush from one place to another, spotting heavy make-up and funky haircut. You’ll be surprised to find women pushing the limits by wearing hijab (headscarf) halfway back on their head and tight, colorful leggings or skinny jeans. Oh and even more over-the-top is how popular nose jobs are in Iran. It’s common to see women spotting bandages on their noses, the result of plastic surgery that is getting more and more popular by the day.

And of course, the warmth and hospitality of the people was the biggest surprise of all. “Welcome!” was the word I heard most in Iran, I lost count of the number of times when Iranians warmly welcomed me into their country. Perhaps because of the hospitable nature of the Central Asians or the fact that Iranians don’t receive many visitors in the country, they are undoubtedly the friendliest people I’ve ever met on my travels. Locals came up to me ever so often, wanting to know where I’m from, what I was doing in Iran, and how I liked their country. A few invited me to sit down with them for tea, while others ditched their plans and helped me get to where I was going. The people of Iran moved me with their genuine generosity and kindness — and it’s people like that who made my trip to Iran truly memorable.

Swamped by a group of friendly students

The Challenges for Travelers — Following the Rules of an Islamic Republic

Every country has its own rules, and as travelers it is our responsibility to follow and respect them. Iran, as a conservative Islamic Republic, has stricter rules than most countries, but as long as you follow them, you won’t encounter any problem. I wouldn’t advise visiting if you’ve never been to any Muslim or Middle Eastern country — you  need to have an open mind and be respectful of their culture.

According to the Islamic regime in Iran, every woman has to practise hijab or cover up by wearing a headscarf — foreigners included. This doesn’t mean you need to cover up your entire body with a burkha or chador, you simply need to cover your head and hair with a loose scarf. To blend in and show your respect for their culture, female travelers should also wear long, flowing tops that cover your bottom, baggy pants and covered shoes.

I was a little worried about dressing in Iran, but surprisingly after an hour or so, I got used to the headscarf and wearing baggy clothes as everyone else was dressed the same. In big cities like Tehran and Shiraz, it was more common to find ladies wearing skinny jeans and open toe sandals. That said, once I wore a long-sleeved shirt that went down my waist but not my bum, and shockingly, everyone – male and female – was staring at my crotch. I learned to stick to my long, flowing blouse from then on.

Friendly Iranian men

An issue that I found harder to adapt to was the double standards in Muslim culture that favor the male gender. Men and women have separate entrances into mosques, palaces and many monuments; women can only sit at the back seats on buses and they are not allowed to sit next to men they are not related to; and men only shake hands with other men (while women shake other women’s hands). This I found a hard pill to swallow, but just like how I’d handled such cultural practices in Egypt and Morocco, I keep quiet and followed their rules.

But other than that, it’s generally easy to adapt to things in Iran. In fact, I had heard from some people about how women may be excluded from conversations with Iranian men and some men won’t even look at women in the eyes — but that wasn’t true at all. Iranian men were more happy to speak to us women (and sometimes they can be too friendly) and many Iranian women we met were educated and well-spoken, having been given equal chances at education as men.

Women of Iran

Discussing Religion and Politics with Iranians

While traveling in Iran, the two topics that you’d find impossible to escape were religion and politics. I was particularly interested to understand more about them, especially the point of view of Iranians. And as I discovered, Iranians are more than happy to discuss them with you if you’re respectful of their opinions.

From the people I spoke to, I found that there was a mix of opinions: there are some young Iranians who aren’t happy with their government and the strict Islamic regime, but there are also the older generation contented to live within the constraints set by the ayotollah (religious leader). One young Iranian man in particular was quite vocal about his dislike for the regime, but sadly he had to stop talking when a military soldier came to join the conversation. He was scared of getting into trouble and get to keep his mouth shut to save himself. It became pretty clear that the Iranians were living in a controlled regime where there was no freedom of speech.

That said, change is evidently coming to Iran and you can see it from the modern Iranian society. Despite the controlled media (TV, news and internet are heavily censored in Iran), there is still a lot of international influence. It’s obvious from the way young Iranians are dressed, from the range of local fast food chains and the mentality of young Iranians. I’m quite confident that things will change for Iran in the future and the new era is going to arrive pretty soon.

Have you been to Iran? Share your experiences below us below in the comment field! Planning to head there? Feel free to ask me any questions you may have!


Disclaimer: I traveled to Iran as part of  an overlanding trip with Oasis Overland. Over a period of two months, our group of travelers journeyed through Central Asia on an overland truck that brought us through six countries from Kyrgyzstan to Turkey, camping in deserts and mountains, and digging up the mystery behind the Silk Road. Although the company gave me a discount for my trip, all opinions expressed above are my own.

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Life on the Edge: The Most Extreme Places I’ve Been http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/09/24/extreme-places/ http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/09/24/extreme-places/#comments Wed, 24 Sep 2014 14:00:34 +0000 http://www.wildjunket.com/?p=17251 Pyongyang subwayTravel to me is about getting out of my comfort zone and exploring places that make me hold on to the edge of my seat. But these days, with travel getting more affordable and easily accessible, it’s getting harder and harder to find untouched destinations – places that remain relatively raw and untainted. That’s why [...]

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Travel to me is about getting out of my comfort zone and exploring places that make me hold on to the edge of my seat. But these days, with travel getting more affordable and easily accessible, it’s getting harder and harder to find untouched destinations – places that remain relatively raw and untainted. That’s why I like traveling to less conventional destinations. Most often than not, the places that I enjoy the most are the ones with slightly negative connotations.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not silly enough to put my life at risk for bragging rights. But even Tony Wheeler, the founder of Lonely Planet who recently wrote a book on his tour of the axis of evil, poised it eloquently, “In almost every bad land I am moved by the outgoing friendliness of ordinary men and women. I  have come to see that bad is a relative term, and that there are always two sides to every story.”

Forget about holiday brochures – get your atlas, find somewhere you’ve never heard about before, and go there. I promise you nothing will make you feel more alive.

North Korea

It comes as a surprise to many that anyone can visit North Korea as a tourist. Notorious as one of the “axis of evil”, North Korea (better known as Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is often sullied by negative perceptions. Since the end of World War II, DPRK has closed its doors to the outside world. Only local channels are shown on TV, there is no internet anywhere and only 2,500 foreign tourists (not including the Chinese) visit the country each year.

North Koreans are taught to think that anything foreign is a threat – yet, I was surprised to find how curious locals were of us. On the subway, we interacted with people, showing them our photos and laughing along with them. We even had the chance to play with Korean children at a park, through charades and guessing games. Read about my time there.

Pyongyang subway

Palestine

Technically, it’s not even considered a country. The Palestinian Territories has had  a long and tumultuous history, largely due to its location on the crossroads for religion, culture, commerce, and politics. The treacherous Israel-Palestinian conflict has been ongoing since the mid-20th century, and until today, the two parties have failed to reach a final peace agreement. Hundreds of thousands people have been killed and many more displaced and injured. 

In recent years, there continue to be bombings in Gaza and the West Bank, so be sure to keep yourself updated before visiting. During our visit in February 2013, it was safe to visit Palestine’s West Bank and we had an insightful time traveling around Jericho, Bethlehem and Ramallah. As the birthplace of both Judaism and Christianity, Palestine definitely has plenty of historical and cultural sights to see, but most importantly, visiting Palestine allows you to get a chance to talk to its locals and find out more about the conflict on a first-hand basis.

Our Palestinian guide and the Wall

Iran

I’m currently in Iran as we speak and it’s definitely exciting to be a in place that has earned quite a reputation for itself in the public eyes. For over a decade, the U.S. has charged Iran with sponsoring terrorism and producing nuclear weapons. In his 2002 State of the Union Address,George Bush stated Iran “aggressively pursues these weapons and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people’s hope for freedom.”

As one of the “axis of evil”, Iran has been looked upon as a public enemy for the past decade or so. However, friends who have visited all say quite the opposite about Iran. They’ve only got positive things to say about the country, with its outstanding architecture, good food and some of the most hospitable people in the world. Most parts of Iran are safe to visit and I can’t wait to experience it for myself. I’ll be writing more about it here, please stay tuned.

The Jāmeh Mosque of Yazd _IranFlickr image by Ali Reza

Albania

Albania is often linked to the Soviet War even until today. With more than 40 years of communist rule under the dictator Enver Hoxha, followed by a period of extreme capitalism in the mid ‘90s, the country is still struggling to get back on its feet. During my visit in May 2010, Albania surprised me with the hospitality of welcoming locals (I lost my wallet and a local brought me to the police station and even lent me some money), local cuisine that easily tops anywhere else I’ve been, and clusters of beautiful towns tucked high in the mountains. Plus with prices well below the European standard, Albania is definitely a rare find.

Kruje, Albania

Myanmar

Due to decades of political conflict, travel to Myanmar presents an ethical decision – are we encouraging the regime by visiting? While Myanmar remains a troubled country, things are definitely looking up. Following the election in 2010, a civilian government took over, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, and the tourism boycott has since been lifted.

Traditional and surreal, this country offers time travel back to the days when roads were non-existent and creaking buses throttled along with hundreds of passengers onboard. It is a country that stirs my soul with its thousands of sacred stupas, poetic Buddhist towns, and mystical lakes. It remains one of my favorite countries to date.

Perhaps it’s because of years of isolation, perhaps it’s the deep-rooted Burmese culture, Myanmar remains pure and untainted – for now.

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

Zimbabwe

Like the others on the list, Zimbabwe has been making headlines for the wrong reasons. Since Robert Mugabe took ruling power in 1980, the country has spiralled into a series of racial conflicts, human rights abuse and violence. Although the country’s economy is slowly recuperating, millions of people are still living on food aid and struggling with disease outbreaks.

Behind this dark history lies a gorgeous country waiting to be explored. From the wilderness of Mana Pools to the chaos of Harare, Zimbabwe shows Africa at its best. Besides spotting the Big Five in the wild and witnessing the power of Victoria Falls, I got a chance to know its people – who all warmly welcomed me into a country clearly misunderstood by the world.

Gorge at Victoria Falls

Guatemala

Stories of violence, kidnapping, and drug trafficking incidents are all too common in Central America. Based on a CNN report, 6,500 people met violent deaths in 2009 and nearly 6,000 were slain in 2010 in Guatemala. 41% of these deaths were associated with drug trafficking. Worst of all, more than 96% of all crimes go unpunished. When I was in Guatemala several years back, I was stumped by all the tales of mugging and rape from fellow travelers.

Danger may be lurking in certain corners, but that doesn’t stop Guatemala from being a popular backpacking spot. It didn’t take me long to fall for the charms of this diverse, rustic nation. I traversed the country from the charming colonial city of Antigua to the impressive Tikal ruins in the north, and never got mugged once or felt like I was in any sort of danger.

Tikal, Guatemala

 

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Death-Defying Extreme Adventures: Are You Brave Enough? http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/08/27/death-defying-extreme-adventures/ http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/08/27/death-defying-extreme-adventures/#comments Wed, 27 Aug 2014 14:00:19 +0000 http://www.wildjunket.com/?p=17254 ImageSkydiving, bungee jumping, canyon swings. Been there, done that. But what about rock-climbing or sleeping in a tent a few thousand meters above ground? Or white-water kayaking off a ferocious waterfall? Or abseiling into a deep crater? We’ve found some death-defying adventures that will test even the most hardened traveler out there. These extreme adventures [...]

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Skydiving, bungee jumping, canyon swings.

Been there, done that.

But what about rock-climbing or sleeping in a tent a few thousand meters above ground? Or white-water kayaking off a ferocious waterfall? Or abseiling into a deep crater?

We’ve found some death-defying adventures that will test even the most hardened traveler out there. These extreme adventures aren’t for everyone but if you’ve got the guts to do them, we salute you. As compared to these brave souls, we’re no where near adventurous.

Warning:  if you’ve got a fear for heights, these photos below will probably make you queasy.

 

Image
Image source (photographer unknown)

Ice caving

Image by Jonathan Griffith

Russian skywalker levitates

Image by Vitaly Raskalov 

Climbing Verdon Gorge

Image by Keith Ladzinski

Bodyboarding Oahu

Image by Ray Collins

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Image by Martin Lugger

cliff-tent

Image by Gordon Wiltsie

Image by Desre Tate

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Finding a Life of Adventure: How to Overcome Your Fears http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/08/25/finding-a-life-of-adventure-overcoming-your-fear/ http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/08/25/finding-a-life-of-adventure-overcoming-your-fear/#comments Mon, 25 Aug 2014 14:00:54 +0000 http://www.wildjunket.com/?p=15758 Fear quoteFor many people, fear is the biggest obstacle to achieving personal goals. We give fear so much power that we sacrifice our dreams to avoid anxiety or the possibility of rejection or failure. The first step towards dealing with fear is to recognize that it is inevitable. We all experience fear, whether first-time travelers or [...]

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This is  chapter extracted from my new book The Adventure Traveler’s Handbook. To read more on it, head over to my book page or to Amazon.

Fear quote

For many people, fear is the biggest obstacle to achieving personal goals. We give fear so much power that we sacrifice our dreams to avoid anxiety or the possibility of rejection or failure.

The first step towards dealing with fear is to recognize that it is inevitable. We all experience fear, whether first-time travelers or a seasoned athletes. It is important to know that while it cannot be completely eliminated, fear can be managed. By facing fear with a clear and objective mind, you will realize that it is possible to fight it, focus on what you’re doing, and achieve what you want in life.

Next, we need to realize that fear builds character, and teaches us how to act with courage. In a study on fear associated with extreme sports, conducted by Eric Brymer and Robert Schweitzer, a mountain climber described dealing with fear as ‘empowering’ and ‘feeling very at peace’, while a BASE jumper termed the pursuit as ‘the ultimate metaphor for jumping into life rather than standing on the edge quivering.’ Confronting fear can be transformative, and equip us to deal with the tribulations of everyday life.

Start seeing fear as an opportunity — it can act as a guidepost to help us identify problems and solve them efficiently. When you feel afraid of something unfamiliar, take it as a sign that you need to get to know the place or situation better. If you are afraid of heights, think about the opportunities that will open up to you once you overcome it. Be motivated by the prospect of expanding your horizons to a different dimension.

By preparing in advance with proper information on risks and safety procedures, by training physically and mentally, and by assessing our skills and experience levels in relation to the adventure, it is possible to gain confidence and keep fear under control. It may take a huge leap of faith and a dollop of courage, but the results, and the journey along the way, are always well worth it.

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Managing Your Fear in 5 Easy Steps

1. Visualize the results and the journey to get there. Make mental snapshots of the outcome and how you’ll achieve it, and then set out to make it a reality. Each time fear creeps in, replace it with an image of success.

2. Break the cycle of negative thoughts. Think about something totally unrelated to the mission at hand and then come back to see the situation more objectively. Remember: you have the power to control your thoughts.

3. Don’t let the momentum subside. It takes a certain amount of momentum to deal with fear. When you’re faced with setbacks it can be tempting to give up. Stay determined and persevere, even when it seems impossible to reach your goal.

4. Make short-term goals. To make the task feel less intimidating, set smaller goals at intervals. Let’s say you’re doing a long trek; aim to walk to the next tree each day and then expand upon it as you get closer to your final goal.

5. Celebrate your victories. Give yourself a pat on the back for each milestone. When you see how good it feels to gain an edge on your fear, you’ll be ready to face the next one head-on.

 

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A Quick Guide to Walking the Camino de Santiago http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/07/23/camino-de-santiago-guide/ http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/07/23/camino-de-santiago-guide/#comments Wed, 23 Jul 2014 14:04:51 +0000 http://www.wildjunket.com/?p=17175 Trail markers on the CaminoAs a well-known long-distance trek, the Camino de Santiago is a network of pilgrimage routes running across Europe, all leading to the city of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. Retracing its origins to the 9th century, Camino de Santiago, also known as “The Way of Saint James”, was an important pilgrimage route for the Christians. The Christian apostle Saint James [...]

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As a well-known long-distance trek, the Camino de Santiago is a network of pilgrimage routes running across Europe, all leading to the city of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. Retracing its origins to the 9th century, Camino de Santiago, also known as “The Way of Saint James”, was an important pilgrimage route for the Christians. The Christian apostle Saint James was beheaded in Jerusalem in 42 AD and his remains were buried in Santiago de Compostela. When his tomb was discovered, Christians across Europe began to travel to see it. This journey  became one of the most important pilgrimages in the world.

These days, the Camino de Santiago is more of a personal journey than a religious pilgrimage. Millions walk it each year in search of direction and deeper meaning in life. For many of us, the Camino has the power to change your life and give you new perspectives.

It doesn’t take a great amount of planning or research to prepare for the Camino, but it’s always wise to read ahead and know what you’re in for. I’ve compiled a guide to give an overview of how it is like to walk the Camino, covering every aspect from budgeting to lodging. If I missed out something, please leave your question in a comment below.

Buen Camino!

Trail markers on the Camino

Route

Various Camino routes begin in major European cities such as Paris, Lisbon, Geneva and Seville — the most popular is the Camino Francés, which covers almost 800km from Saint Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees to Santiago. This route weaves through the Pyrenees mountains, across the width of northern Spain, into the mesetas and meadows of Galicia.

Other routes include:

  • Camino Portugués: 230km from Porto in Portugal
  • Camino Norte: 825km along the coast from Irun in northern Spain
  • Via de la Plata: 1000km from Seville in southern Spain
  • Camino Inglés: 110km from Ferrol in northern Spain

All routes on the Camino are well-signposted with yellow arrows, so all you need to do is just follow the arrows and they’ll lead you the right way. Sometimes things can a little confusing in cities, but just make sure you don’t walk too far without seeing an arrow.

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Length of Time

The entire Camino Francés takes around 30 days to complete, but the total length of time you’ll take depends on how fast you walk. You can also choose to start from any point on the Camino — it’s all up to you. To get the compostela (official certificate) at the end of the Camino, you just need to walk a minimum of 100km (many Spaniards start in Sarria for that reason). My friends and I only had two weeks to walk the Camino, so we decided to start from León, covering a total of 310km.

In the Middle Ages, many pilgrims — and even some today — began their spiritual voyage by just walking out their doors and heading for Santiago de Compostela. We met several Dutch travelers who started walking from their doorstep in Holland, taking a little more than three months to reach Santiago.

Most people walk around 20-25km ( 10-15miles ) a day, waking up early at 6am and walking all the way to late afternoon (you’ll be used to these hours by the second day). Again you should decide your own pace and not try to follow the crowd. It’s also important to include rest days in your plan and give yourself ample time to get to Santiago. I wished we had kept that in mind and scheduled in rest days so I could have let my knees recover before continuing on the trail. Regardless, keeping your schedule flexible is key.

For those who would like to see which route best suits you based on time:

  • 1 week: Camino Francés starting from Sarria
  • 2 weeks: Camino Portugués
  • 3 weeks: Camino Francés starting from Burgos
  • 4 weeks: Camino Francés
  • 5 weeks: Camino Francés and Camino Fisterra (continue on to Finisterre)

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When to Go

Most people advise against walking in summer due to the crowd and the intense heat. Before going on the Camino, I’d read about how busy it can get in summer and that albergues (dorms) run out of beds quickly. People would walk fast just to get to the albergue early and grab a bed. There were even cases of pilgrims getting into fights with the albergue volunteers just because they denied them entry. Click to read more about albergues.

We walked at the beginning of summer and we didn’t encounter any of these problems. It did get quite crowded on the trail especially after we passed Sarria, the 100km mark where many Spanish students and holidaymakers start their walk. But there was never any problem getting a bed in the municipal albergues. There was only once that the municipal albergue was full by the time I got there (and I’m a slow walker), but there are always plenty of private albergues in each town and these private ones only cost €2 to €4 more per bed.

As for the heat, I didn’t think it was unbearable. As compared to southern Spain, summer in the northern part of the country is actually quite pleasant, with average temperatures around 23 degrees Celsius and bright sunshine most of the time. Mornings can get quite chilly though, there was one day when we were in the mountains and it was probably close to 5 or 8 degrees Celsius. Even in that scenario, a light rain jacket is enough as you’ll have some body heat from walking.

From doing some research, most say that the best time to do the Camino is in April-May and September-October.

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Physical Challenges

Whoever said the Camino is easy has got to be joking. I’ve seen even the fittest and most seasoned trekker/traveler crumble and suffer.

Walking around 25 km (15 miles) a day for 2-4 weeks is definitely a physical challenge because of the long walking distances and added load on your back. Regardless of your age, it’s common to suffer blisters, tendinitis and muscle pain. During the walk, I was suffered tendinitis (inflammation of the tendons) on both my knees and I also pulled the tendons on both my Achilles. It hurt to just move my limbs, so you can imagine how much pain I was in while walking. There was also a contagious stomach bug spreading around the Camino and I unfortunately caught it towards the end of the journey.

The Camino turned out to be the most physically challenging thing I’ve done to date and I’m really glad I pulled through it. If you’ve never hiked before, then it’s wise to start training at least six months before the Camino and to test out hiking long distances with a backpack. If you suffer from tendinitis on the Camino, the best thing to do is get some anti-inflammatory cream from the pharmacy, take some Ibuprofen and get a knee guard or in-soles. Icing the infected part can also help. If you catch the stomach bug, I recommend you take a day to rest, not only to recuperate but also to prevent spreading it to other pilgrims.

To stay healthy on the Camino, I recommend reading this useful article on how to prevent these health problems on the Camino.

Physical challenges

Mental Challenges

Before I went on the Camino, I kept wondering if I could do it — if I would have the determination to keep walking until the finishing line. I knew mental challenges were harder to overcome than the physical pain. But to my surprise, walking just became a daily routine that I eased into. Everyday, I woke up at 6am, packed and started walking. There was nothing on the agenda except to put one foot in front of another. Perhaps it’s because everyone was doing it, it didn’t feel like a chore or a challenge to just keep walking.

But for some pilgrims, there is another type of mental challenge to overcome — their own mind. Most of the pilgrims I met on the Camino came on their own and even those in a group chose to walk solo. In fact, many came on the Camino to do just that: spend some time with themselves, be alone with their own thoughts and do some serious thinking. That’s why the Camino can be an emotional journey — it forces you to confront yourself, your fears and insecurities. Many people I talked to said the Camino helped them to learn more about themselves and what they really want in life. I came out of it feeling blessed and very content with the life I have.

Mental challenges Language

It seems to surprise many pilgrims that English is not commonly spoken in Spain and along the Camino. I was constantly asked why waiters or volunteers at the albergue didn’t speak English and I was always acting as translator for everyone. As travelers, we can’t visit a country expecting everyone to speak our own language. I get annoyed whenever I hear people saying things like “English is a universal language”. It may be true that English is one of the most popular languages in the world, but that doesn’t mean everyone speaks it.

Have some respect for the locals and pick up a few Spanish phrases before coming to Spain. Words like ‘gracias’ (thank you), ‘por favor’ (please) and ‘comida’ (food) can go a long way. Even if you don’t know any Spanish words at all, be patient and use body language — that always does the trick!

Friends on the camino

Social Life

One of my favorite things about the Camino experience is the friends you make along the way. It’s like a community on the Camino — you’re on the same trail for weeks, it’s inevitable to meet and walk with the same people, and therefore build friendships along the way. On the Camino, it’s easy to develop strong bonds and camaraderie with one another. We all look out for each other, and nobody leaves anyone behind. When I was injured and limping the whole way, so many people stopped to ask if I was ok and offered medication or advice. It warmed my heart and made me feel that no one is ever alone on the Camino.

Along the way, I met so many people from all over the world, each of them with a different story to tell. There were so many interesting characters along the way whom I’ll always remember: the humorous and wealthy Italian who was looking for some hardship on the trail, the lost Korean engineer seeking a new direction in life, the chirpy English doctor who loves challenges and the heart-broken Austrian hoping to get past her grief and move on in life. I don’t know if I’ve made any lifelong friends on the Camino, but what I do know is that I’ve learned something from each and every one of them.

photo (7)

Lodging

There is a variety of lodging along the Camino — but the albergues (dorms) are the cheapest and most popular option. There is usually a municipal albergue in each town and a cluster of private albergues as well. These usually involve sleeping with a big group of people in one room, but by the second night, we already got used to it.

The municipal albergues are managed by the government and they are the biggest and cheapest, with €5 for a dorm bed. These are usually clean but basic and can range from 10 to 80 beds in a room. I was quite surprised by how well-maintained most of the municipal albergues were. Private albergues are usually smaller scale so you can expect to have less beds in each room. Prices range from €8 to €10 per bed. Everyone shares a common bathroom/toilet; most albergues have kitchens that you can use as well as washing and drying machines. Some albergues (especially the private ones) even have free WiFi.

Booking in advance is not necessary, most albergues don’t even allow you to reserve a bed in advance. Some say that it gets crowded in summer and albergues may run out of beds by the time you get there, but there are always private albergues around so there’s nothing to worry about. Like I mentioned above, I only encountered that once and even then the private albergue proved to be a great alternative.

In most towns, you can also find pensiones (guesthouses) and hotels with private rooms. The only time I stayed at a pension was in Pedrouzo when I caught the stomach bug and had diarrhoea and stomach cramps. In Santiago we also chose to stay in a hotel just to treat ourselves. Prices can vary largely, from €40 to €80 for a double room.

photo (6)

Food

I was surprised by how easy it is to find pharmacies, supermarkets, albergues and cafeterias along the Camino — pilgrims definitely are spoiled in that sense. Even if you do walk long stretches in the countryside without seeing anyone, you’re almost guaranteed to find a bar in every village or town you come across. There is no shortage of food on the trail, but you’ll notice that most bars serve the same things. Many people I met complained about food in these bars (especially the vegetarians who definitely have limited options!) but it’s important to know that these are basic pilgrim meals and they don’t set the standards for normal Spanish food (which is SO good!).

Here’s a look at what’s usually on offer at most bars along the Camino:

Breakfast: Our days began at 6.30am most of the time, so bars wouldn’t be opened then. To start off the day, we usually had muesli bars or fruit cake and banana to give me some energy. Then around 9am, we would stop for cola-cao hot chocolate and my favorite tomato toast tostada con tomate.

Lunch: At the beginning, we bought things from the supermarket and ate lunch along the way, but we soon got sick of having bread with canned tuna or salami and cheese. The snacks also added weight to our backpacks. Eventually, we got into the habit of stopping for bocadillo (large baguette sandwiches that cost around €4-5) or Spanish omelette, tortilla española, at cafeterias. There was one time when we found the best paella I’ve ever had (it was at Las Herrerias) and had a hefty lunch, which kept me going longer than I usually do.

Dinner: Most restaurants offer a menu de peregrino, three-course set lunch/dinner for pilgrims which costs around €7 to €10 and comes with wine/beer and dessert. The first course is  usually a salad, pasta or soup (caldo gallego) and the second course ranges from meat stews to grilled pork chop or fish. It’s great value for money and is sure to fill you up.

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Budget

This is one of the best parts of the Camino — it is easy to do it on a tight budget as food and lodging are very cheap for pilgrims.

Some students budget around €15 a day with food and lodging included, but this is only if you cook your own meals or picnic along the way and stay at albergues only. We cooked our own meals twice and it was more for the fun of it than anything else. We also opted to stay at municipal albergues most of the time, mainly because they were big so we had higher chances of seeing our friends.

For most people, I would recommend having a budget of €30 a day. That’s how much I spent on a daily basis and it includes breakfast at a bar, snacks and drinks, a simple lunch, dinner and lodging. I also spent quite a bit at the pharmacy for my knee guards and in soles. Here’s a brief break down of the average prices of each item:

  • Breakfast €3
  • Lunch €8
  • Dinner €12
  • Albergue €5

TOTAL €28 20140723-160816-58096245.jpg

Packing

As you’ll be carrying your pack with you for more than six hours/day, it’s important to pack as light as possible. Excessive weight will add pressure to your knees and heels and increase the chances of having injuries. All the guides I’ve found say that the optimal weight is 10% of your body weight. Anything between 5 and 8 kg would be ideal.

I started out with a pack that weighed 7kg but the added snacks and medical supplies made it slightly heavier along the way. I had to throw away a fleece and my sunscreen but other than that, I was carrying just the bare essentials. I will be sharing my Camino packing list (and what gear to carry) later on, but meanwhile here are some important tips.

The two most important gear to consider is your backpack. Your backpack should have a well-fitted hip belt that transfers all the weight to your hips rather than your shoulders. It’s wise to choose one with a Camelbak hydration bag compartment for easy access to your water. I always opt for front-loading backpacks (with a zip across the entire length of the pack) rather than top-loading as it’s much easier to find your belongings.

For those who do not want to carry your pack the entire way, there are also transport services available that are will help send your backpack to your next destination. Prices range from €3 to €7 per day. All you need to do is call them up, add a luggage tag from the company (which you can get from private albergues or restaurants) and leave it at your agreed drop-off spot. Note that they are not allowed to pick up or drop off bags at municipal albergues (perhaps because it goes against the principles of the Camino), but the company will let you know the nearest place to do so. I used Xacotrans (only €3 per day) twice to transport my backpack when my tendinitis got serious and I was very happy with their service.

 photo (5)

Guidebooks

 

Most people on the trail used the book, “A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago” by John Brierley. The book didn’t have an electronic version, so I downloaded “Camino de Santiago: A Guide to Walking the Camino Francés” by Robert Hamilton instead. While it provided quite a bit of background info on the Camino, it didn’t offer enough practical details on each stage of the walk (there wasn’t even info on the distance from one village to the next). I would recommend it for some pre-trip reading but not to use it on the road.

I depended on my Camino apps most of the time. The most useful one I found was the Eroski’s Camino de Santiago app, which is only in Spanish. It provided details on each stage of the walk and information on albergues in each town. The only useful and free app available in English was the Way of St James tourist guide by SEGITTUR. It’s quite brief and general though.

Good luck with the planning! Buen Camino!

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The Camino Diaries: Why I’m Walking 300km http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/06/30/camino-diaries-planning/ http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/06/30/camino-diaries-planning/#comments Mon, 30 Jun 2014 14:30:19 +0000 http://www.wildjunket.com/?p=17066 The CaminoThis week, I’m off on a new adventure: I’m walking 310 km (192 miles) across northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago. I had learned about the Camino on my first trip to Spain almost eight years ago, and ever since then, I’ve dreamt of walking it. We’ve lived in southern Spain on and off for about four years [...]

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This week, I’m off on a new adventure: I’m walking 310 km (192 miles) across northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago.

I had learned about the Camino on my first trip to Spain almost eight years ago, and ever since then, I’ve dreamt of walking it. We’ve lived in southern Spain on and off for about four years now and I can’t believe I still haven’t done it. This year is my year of fulfilling my bucket list and I’m not letting anything get in the way this time.

Right now I’m writing to you from Madrid, where I’m meeting up with friends I’m walking the Camino with. After showing them around my old ‘hood, we plan to catch the bus up to Leon, a city in northern Spain, to start our trek the day after tomorrow. Now that we’re so close to the starting point, I’m starting to get nervous. I know I want to do this, but the real question is: can I do this?

The CaminoFlickr photo by Jesus Perez Pacheco

What is the Camino?

The Camino de Santiago is a network of pilgrimage routes running across Europe, all leading to the city of Santiago de Compostela, a town near the Atlantic in the northwestern tip of Spain in the province of Galicia. . To retrace its roots, Camino de Santiago translates to mean “The Way of Saint James”. When the Christian apostle Saint James was beheaded in Jerusalem in 42 AD, his remains were buried in Santiago de Compostela. When his tomb was discovered  in the 9th century, Christians across Europe began to travel to see it. This journey  became the most important pilgrimage, especially after the construction of the present cathedral in the 12th century.

These days, the Camino de Santiago is more of a long-distance hiking route than a religious pilgrimage. Routes begin in major European cities such as Paris, Lisbon, Geneva and Seville — but the most popular is the Camino Francés, which covers almost 800km) from Saint Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees. In the Middle Ages, many pilgrims — and even some today — began their spiritual voyage by just walking out their doors and heading for Santiago de Compostela.

The entire Camino Francés takes five weeks or more, but my friends and I are tight on time so we’ve only got two weeks to walk part of the route. We will be starting from Leon and covering 310km in two weeks. Even though it’s just a section of the Camino, it’s still the longest walk I’ll be doing to date and it’s definitely going to be a challenge.

St James Way

Why I’m Walking the Camino

Thousands of travelers walk the Camino every year, for a variety of reasons — very few of them do it for religious these days, rather many go on this long walk to experience a culture from the ground up, for fitness reason or for a prolonged meditation on one’s life. My reasons for doing the Camino are three fold:

I choose to see the Camino as a way to unplug, not just from the internet, but work, life, and everything else. It’s time for my mind to take a break. I know I’ve talked about slowing down since two years ago, but my itchy feet just doesn’t seem to let me catch a breather. This Camino hardly counts as staying still, but I think two weeks of walking and reflection should do some good for my soul.

Walking at last 25 km (15 miles) a day for two weeks is surely going to be a challenge both physically and mentally. I think of myself as an adventurous person — having skydived twice, jumped off a 109m-high canyon, swam with sharks and kayaked through icebergs  — but in retrospect, I actually haven’t done anything really physically challenging to date. The longest trek I’ve done is no more than 50km (30miles), but now I’m ready to push myself further and harder. This is not going to be easy and I’m sure there’ll be tears and hardship along the way but I can’t wait to see where it takes me.

On this trip, I’m also looking forward to reconnect with good friends I’d met on a trip to southern Africa in 2011. That trip was so special because of the friends I made. We got along so well and had the time of our lives. I’ve visited a few of them on my travels, but it’ll be the first time that we’re traveling together once again. It’s going to be plenty of fun!

The symbol of the Camino
Flickr photo by Alex Bikfalvi

Following My Journey

During my walk, I will be sharing live updates on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (click on the respective links to follow me) thanks to reliable Spanish 3G network. These will of course be short snippets and photos from the trail. I’ll be using the hashtag #CaminoDiaries on all my social media updates, so follow along and leave me some comments!

I won’t be bringing my laptop but I will hopefully be blogging from my iPhone. These will be in a series of blog posts titled “The Camino Diaries” with updates on the interesting sights, challenges and friends I meet along the way. (A special shoutout to my friend Liz Carlson from Young Adventuress for giving me the inspiration to start this series!)

I’m off tomorrow and am really looking forward to the adventures that come my way. Wish me luck!

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Skydiving Gold Coast — Plunging Off at 12,000 Feet Above Ground http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/06/17/skydiving-gold-coast-plunging-12000-feet-ground/ http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/06/17/skydiving-gold-coast-plunging-12000-feet-ground/#comments Tue, 17 Jun 2014 15:34:06 +0000 http://www.wildjunket.com/?p=17033 Preparing to take off“Are you ready?” David, my skydive master from Gold Coast Skydive, shouts from behind me amidst the strong winds and the roaring engine. I’m sitting at the ledge of the plane’s opened door, about to jump from 12,000 feet above the ground. Looking down at the earth far beneath my feet, my head spins deliriously and my heart races faster than [...]

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“Are you ready?” David, my skydive master from Gold Coast Skydive, shouts from behind me amidst the strong winds and the roaring engine.

I’m sitting at the ledge of the plane’s opened door, about to jump from 12,000 feet above the ground. Looking down at the earth far beneath my feet, my head spins deliriously and my heart races faster than before. Seconds later, the strong wind slaps me back into reality. David signals to me a thumbs-up — it’s time to jump. Oh shit.

I’ve done this before. I remember how much I loved my first skydive, why the hell am I still freaking out?

Within seconds, we are air-borne, surfing on a powerful upward force of wind. For 60 seconds, we plummet through the sky at almost 100 miles per hour, heading straight for Earth at a speed so fast it’s hard to fathom. The rush from the free-fall sweeps through me like an electric current and my mind is on overdrive. I feel an adrenaline high, a sensation that I’m addicted to.

Suddenly, I feel a jolt that pulls me up into the air. David has pulled the cord, releasing a parachute that sends us gliding smoothly through the air. We break through the clouds and the beautiful Gold Coast now sprawls beneath our feet. My eyes are now wide open; I try to soak in the view and remember just how stunning the Gold Coast looks from above: huge lapping waves, wide sandy beaches and the different shades of blue in the Pacific Ocean.

Skydiving is a different experience each time you do it, but one thing never changes: it definitely makes you feel alive.

Preparing to take off

Taking off on our small airplane at Gold Coast Airport

Sitting in the plane

I look surprisingly calm in the plane

Sitting at the ledge of the plane

Sitting on the ledge of the plane

Skydiving!

Air-borne!

Yehhaaaa!

Yehaaaaa I’m flying!

AWESSOMMEEE!

Awesome sauce

Breaking through the clouds

Breaking through the clouds

Steering the parachute

I get to steer the parachute?! YES!!

Preparing to land

Gliding above Coolangatta

Beach landing

Preparing to land

TOuchdown!

A perfect beach landing

This kicked ass!

 Special thanks to the best skydiving master ever!


Additional Information:

A tandem skydive with Gold Coast Skydive costs AU$345 per person. If you’d like DVD and photos included, the total price is AU$510. Skydiving tandem means that you will jump with an instructor who will be attached to you throughout the jump.

The Gold Coast Skydive office is located just two minutes away from the Gold Coast Airport in Coolangatta. You will land on Kirra Beach, right in front of the office.


Disclosure: This experience was made possible by Queensland Tourism and Gold Coast Skydive, but all opinions as always remain my own.

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Shotover Canyon Swing — the World’s Highest Cliff Jump http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/06/10/shotover-canyon-swing-worlds-highest-cliff-jump/ http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/06/10/shotover-canyon-swing-worlds-highest-cliff-jump/#comments Tue, 10 Jun 2014 16:33:53 +0000 http://www.wildjunket.com/?p=16973 Shotover canyon swing“1…2….3….” Counting to three, I mentally brace myself for the jump and slowly push myself backwards with my toes. But just as I’m pivoted on the ledge, the jump master pulls me back up. He laughs at the expression on my face, but I’m too scared to laugh along. It’s not funny when you’re the one sitting [...]

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“1…2….3….”

Counting to three, I mentally brace myself for the jump and slowly push myself backwards with my toes. But just as I’m pivoted on the ledge, the jump master pulls me back up. He laughs at the expression on my face, but I’m too scared to laugh along. It’s not funny when you’re the one sitting on a chair, 109m (357 feet) above the ground, about to jump off into the unknown.

Considered the world’s highest cliff jump, this canyon swing will have me free falling for 60m (109 feet) and then swinging horizontally for 200m (656 feet) at 90 miles per hour across the river. I’m shaking in the cold air, wondering if I can really do this.

He tells me to push off again, so I repeat the same steps, counting from one to three and then pushing myself gently backwards. Again, he holds on to my rope and pulls me back up, but just as he looks away to chat with his mate, I feel his grip loosen and off I go, this time for real.

The world spins 360 degrees as I flip my way down the gorge, with nothing but a harness and a chair strapped to my body. I scream my lungs out during the free fall, but once the tumbling and turning stops, adrenaline kicks in and I’m overwhelmed by a gravity-defying sensation. “Wow. Just wow!” I feel as though I’m flying over the beautiful canyon.

Shotover canyon swing

This isn’t my first attempt; I’ve tried bungee jumping before – when I was 14 years old – but I knew I wanted to do it again in New Zealand, the birthplace of the commercial bungee jump. Here in Queenstown, there are no less than five bungee jumping sites ( within a ten mile radius. I chose to do the Shotover canyon swing mainly because of the great reputation it has.

The company has a track record in safety and has won numerous awards, including the New Zealand Tourism Award 2008 in the adventure category and the Best Activity in NZ award at TNT Golden Backpack Awards. They’re also the only swing in New Zealand with more than 70 different jump styles to choose from (such as the chair, flips, handstand and many more).

Multi-shot of my jump

It’s easy to see what sets this company apart from the rest. The jump masters, who are the core of the business, have an infectious enthusiasm which is complemented by their sense of humor. They are supportive, funny and professional at the same time, chatting with us the entire time to make sure we’re having fun and not stressing too much.

One of the jump masters wore a cheeky grin when he told us there was a problem with the motor right after the first person in our group did his jump — with that look on his face, we seriously thought he was joking! Apparently it was so cold in the morning that the motor had frozen, thankfully they managed to winch up my friend manually but he was shaking like a baby when he came up.

Despite the initial setback, our group had a terrific time doing the canyon swing with these folks thanks to their professionalism and sense of humor. If I ever get back to New Zealand, I know for sure I’m coming back here for another jump. Will you join me?

Chair of Death


Additional Information

Prices:

$215.00 NZD per swinger (this price includes 1x Free spectator seat)
$35.00 NZD extra swings
$20.00 NZD per additional spectator

Prices above include transfers from the Shotover Canyon Swing office in the city center of Queenstown. The entire experience takes around two to three hours. The company operates rain, hail or shine all year round. Photos and videos can be purchased at an additional cost.

Disclaimer: Special thanks to Shotover Canyon Swing and G Adventures for making this experience possible. However, all of the opinions expressed above are my own.

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Video: Flying Over Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/06/02/video-flying-franz-josef-glacier-new-zealand/ http://www.wildjunket.com/2014/06/02/video-flying-franz-josef-glacier-new-zealand/#comments Mon, 02 Jun 2014 14:30:59 +0000 http://www.wildjunket.com/?p=16948 A vast sea of blue ice stands beneath us, with traversal crevasses running through them like cracks on the Earth’s crust. The chunky blocks of ice look almost like lego pieces jutting out from a frozen mountain that extends all the way from the top of the mountains to the valley beneath. I am flying over Franz Josef [...]

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A vast sea of blue ice stands beneath us, with traversal crevasses running through them like cracks on the Earth’s crust. The chunky blocks of ice look almost like lego pieces jutting out from a frozen mountain that extends all the way from the top of the mountains to the valley beneath. I am flying over Franz Josef Glacier on a six-seat helicopter, swerving just a few feet above the imposing mountain of ice, and the views are just outrageously stunning.

I’ve seen several glaciers in my life from those in Alaska to Antarctica, but this – the Franz Josef Glacier - is definitely the most beautiful one I’ve ever set my eyes on. The world famous glacier is located in Westland Tai Poutini National Park on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island. Together with the Fox Glacier, it is unique in descending from the Southern Alps to less than 300 metres (980 ft) above sea level, amidst the greenery and lushness of a temperate rainforest.

I will be writing all about my experience heli-hiking on the glacier, but in the meantime, here’s a short video I took from the helicopter.

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