Saturday, November 26, 2016

the tale of the unknown island* (3 of 3)

the island's dense, lush, green transitionnal primary rainforest.
If you've missed both episode 1 and episode 2, first of all you may not qualify as a regular reader of this blog - which is not a big deal: you can still have a look at them before reading this third and last episode. Consider subscribing, too (scroll down the right column until you find the subscription box), to get every new release by email. Now, in just a few words: we're hiking through this beautiful and remote little island in the South of Japan. It's amazingly beautiful and so far, we've been lucky with the weather. But nothing lasts forever...

Night 2 - sleeping tight (bis):

"We cooked in silence and had a quick dinner, seeing how the party of three was in fact a very young mountain guide taking care of his couple of clients: taking all kind of stuff from his backpack, he was cooking a romantic and gorgeous sukiyaki for them, while showing them some videos of the Unknown Island on his tablet: 5* service! After over 10 hours of a demanding hike, about 2000 meters of cumulated elevation gain hauling heavy backpacks and witnessing the most strikingly beautiful and intense wilderness in our entire lives, we could say we were drained, worn out, exhausted AND deserved to rest a little bit.
That was Day 2 and at about 9pm, we were sleeping!"

Day 3 - getting soaked:

We woke up at 6, only to find the weather was finally back to local average: it was raining nekos and inus**. Worse than that, a thick fog had invaded the forest around the hut and erased everything else. We spent some more time in the sleeping bags, seeing how the other people (the locals) were progressively waking-up and packing. At 7:30, we had broken the fast and were ready to start, all covered in rainproof tarps, rainproof plastic bags and rainproof so on... Everything outside was soaked: every little plant, every bush, every stone. The relative humidity was sure enough over 100% and the feeling was that of being inside a COLD turkish bath! We started to walk, chanting the "Be water, my friend" mantra and enjoying the merry joyfulness of the nice and colourful landscape surrounding us. Look at that:

"enjoying the merry joyfulness of the nice and colourful landscape surrounding us" - fancy shooting a haunted wood terror movie?

The plan for this second day of hiking was to climb the Unknown Island's main summit, Mount M--- (just below 2000 meters asl), at about 2 and a half to 3 hours from the old T--- Hut, the one we'd reach in about 40 minutes (we had slept at the new one) and where we planned to re-break the fast with a warm drink and cookies! The first reason to summitting Mt. M--- was because we like main summits. The second was because we wanted to see the views (ha ha ha!) and embrace the whole island from there. After all, ain't that what any decent shipwrecked does on their desert island? And finally, it was because most of the main trails going to and coming from most points around the coast met there. Getting to Mt. M--- was therefore the best way to keep all options at hand so as to decide at the very last moment (depending on, say, the weather) which part of the island we'd go down to. We had, however, a favourite option: the West coast or N--- trail, taking us to Mt. N---, the second highest peak, then to a second free mountain hut in about only 3 more hours.
chasing a ghost through the scariest and most intriguing haunted woods ever...
This trail also allowed us to walk all the way down to N---, the village whose beautiful beach we discovered a bit late on our tour by car on the first day. That meant we wouldn't rely on any shuttle nor taxi in order to get back to civilization, which was good for us, too. The map nonetheless contained warnings about the N--- trail being in poor conditions, un(t)raveled and "for skilled, experienced hikers only". Yeah! We shivered in anticipation: Adventure! Danger! Thrill!

Desperately trying not to lose Wallis, who might have caused a heart attack to any unadverted hiker, I/Futuna walked at the tail of the party: it was like chasing a ghost in a haunted wood. What a cool and uncommon scenario for a terror movie, right? The usual chaser, chased! The average haunter, hunted! There was not much to be seen around, but the dark orange bark of this endemic tree whose name we forgot. Very very bizarre tree, with sensual body-like shapes and a warm touch! It's even famous for this: for having a warm bark like it has fever - in the morning, fever all through the night... Any tree enthusiast who would like to illustrate us is more than welcome: you can see one, although not particularly representative, on the right side of the picture above. We stopped at the old T--- Hut and prepared some hot beverage there, on the covered terrace. From there, we spotted a beautiful (although limpy - poor little thing) white-tailed shika deer at a distance. We also spotted 'our friend', who didn't care to hide she was bothered to see us and pissed to learn we wanted to go up Mt. M---, just like she did. So she didn't stop and we took all our time before starting again, wondering why she apparently felt so annoyed by our presence. Human beings...

forgive our camera's digital zoom: focus on the (limpy) white-tailed shika deer!
We walked a long while until we got out of the forest and on a long rounded edge going steadily up to some sort of saddle and crossroads at the foot of the summit. The rain was falling cold and thin now, and the colonies of Rhododendrons we had to hike through were so heavily loaded with water that it flew and fell from our overalls to our trousers and straight inside our hiking boots. With the "Be water, my friend" mantra on our lips, we thought we'd stop and rest a bit at some big boulders we saw from a distance. But upon arrival there, we met 'her' again, having some snacks under the biggest boulder. Again, her face caused us to keep walking passed her, passed the boulders, passed our break and all the way up to Mt. M---. We left the backpacks under a tarp at the saddle and crossroads, so as to hike up light and fast, saw the (null) view and came back down. Before she showed up, we checked our map and picked our number one, favourite option: the N--- trail. It was a long but almost flat hour until the foot of the second highest summit, Mt. N---, where we hid the backpacks again for a second light and fast ascent. Same weather, same rain, same fog, same wooden post with kanjis and height a.s.l. At that point, we were so drenched that looking for shelter or stopping to change clothes didn't make any sense. We kept walking through this ocean of Rhododendrons, sometimes higher than ourselves. The trail was difficult, with many roots and high steps, often half a meter high or more. It was so severely eroded by the heavy rains that it regularly was virtually a trench among the bushes, so narrow our backpacks would get stuck. Every now and then, the fog would open a tiny window, allowing us to see, far away down to the West, the mouth of the river, the fishermen village and the white sandy beach we'd eventually (hopefully?) reach the next day... Still a long, wet way to go!

West side story: welcome to the beautiful land of Rhododendron, trench-y trail and moist ; Futuna playing Blue in green...
Early afternoon, a miracle happened: at about the exact same moment, we reached the forest and the rain stopped. As far as we were concerned, that made no difference, since the trees were loaded with water and the slighest touch of a branch triggered a cold shower for the two of us! But reaching the forest meant the Sh--- hut had to be close. We almost missed it at a stupid crossroads with unclear signs, but our intiution worked wonders and shortly after 2pm, we found it. The hut itself was nothing like the fancy designer creation of the previous night, but rather an ugly stone cabin, abandoned and close to falling in ruins. Its greatest quality was a small clearing oriented South, bathed with sunlight at that moment of the day, with two old posts where to tie our rope and hang everything we had. After a minimal but most welcome "shower", we put on dry warm clothes and spent the next 4 hours in a shy sun, sucking calories up, gathering the scattered pieces of the hut's door and fixing it so as to put it back up before it got dark...

the not-so-cool Sh- hut: a humid and rusty stone cabin with no style whatsoever.
By dusk, our stuff was dry-ish (enough so we'd put it back on the next day), the door was kinda fixed, we had cleaned the upper bunk and settled our camp on it. We were sipping an aperitive warm tea when something shook the door with determination. You wouldn't believe who opened it, entered and looked at us with surprise, then hatred: 'our friend'! So let's make this crystal-clear: (i) we swear we had no idea she planned to take this trail, (ii) we promise neither we nor she actually mentioned it, (iii) we guarantee we had no intention to ruin her hike whatsoever and (iv) we claim not to understand why it was such a pain in the a-- for her that we were around. Wallis' theory is that maybe she considered this whole thing to be a locals' treat (like some "locals' only" swell) and she was pissed that two spoiled gaijins got to try it.

Night 3 - getting tense:

Anyway, upon settling at the extreme opposite of the small room, she grated us with another hatred look which meant "you took the cleanest bunk". Well, we just spent one hour cleaning it, sweet heart. And, now you mention it: you're welcome for the fixed door and the trash all picked up! Indeed, maybe she was stressed for some other reason, we didn't know why she was there hiking alone in the first place and there was no room to invite her to "open up and talk about it"! So we all cooked and ate dinner silently, each one their own noodle soup on their respective stove. Then she wrote stuff in her scrapbook with her flashlight until quite late, while we got to bed and fell asleep very very soon.

haunted woods with a dense presence: not exactly friendly wih thick fog ; some nice and pituresque ivy ; back to the scary haunted woods!

Day 4 - getting down and back:

Again, we woke up at about 6am. 'Our friend' was packing and it looked as though she hoped she'd leave before we even opened eyes. We let her do so, had breakfast and got ready sin prisa pero sin pausa. Oh, the pleasure to put cold, dirty, wet clothes from the previous day back on! The goal was to go down to sea level as fast as possible and to enjoy a lazy sunny time on the beach before getting on the last evening bus back to the port, camp somewhere around there and get on the ferry the next day. So, down we went, in the chilly fog and under a thin, penetrating rain.

the gigantic stone tibial plate and tree tendons of a giant monster/spirit. Scary!
The forest was beautiful and plain scary at the same time - so much that stopping, be it to put clothes on or take them off, was not really an option: the woods we walked through were haunted (see the pictures if you have any doubt: can you imagine the size of the giant monster/spirit whose stone joint and tree tendons can be seen here?) and inhabited by two kinds of hostile creatures which made stops unthinkable and dreadful. First of all, with the lower altitude, the red-ass monkeys were back, moving fast around us in the ferns. We coud hear the males screaming each time we paused, even for just a few seconds. "Keep moving! Don't stop! You don't belong here!" and so on... Then, there were the leeches. Hundreds of tiny, hardly visible leeches on the ground. The only way to avoid them was to walk fast. If you stood motionless, even stomping at a steady pace, they managed to get on your boots. And from there on your legs. You knew they were there. They got back down inside the boots and up inside the trousers' legs. They even bit and sucked blood through the socks! But if you stopped to tear one off, by the time you were done, ten had climbed up to feed on your blood. The only way to deal with them was to hike fast and pretend to ignore the ones already attached. Aaaaaugh! Disgusting! Gross! You felt the first bite, then knew they were but couldn't do anything about it. And you kept thinking about them - obsessively!

slippery steps on smooth rocks: does it not look like a skull?
We couldn't say exactly how long the way down back to civilization lasted. Maybe about 5 hours. It was tiring, for sure. And definitely scary. Did we mention this place where we had to cross on a smooth, rounded and steep rock overlooking a small creek and waterfall? The typical five steps you'd take without even thinking about it if the weather were sunny, the rock dry and your backpack weren't that heavy. But actually, with the rain making it all slippery and your backpack heavy like crazy, every step was an agony. Do you know that feeling? Well, look at the clear warning Nature put there and you'll understand how fear became a mindset. Slip we did not, though. We kept moving and as we got lower and closer to the sea, we moticed the weather was getting better-ish. We started to dream of a beach of white sand under the sun, of washing our bodies in the sea, of cleaning those leeches bites with salt and sun, of eating greasy fries with ketchup and a regular Coke... Wow, wow, wow! Easy, there!

And at some point, finally, we got to a dirtroad we walked down during 10 last and endless minutes to the N--- trailhead. That was it: a car park, a picnic area and some toilets with fresh water. Then 3 more kilometers on a narrow concrete road among rice fields to the fishermen village and the beach! We stopped at the trailhead, invaded a picnic table, put some water to heat on the Trangia and, first thing after that, compulsively took all our clothes off to chase the leeches! We sure enough looked like two possessed souls suffering acute ergotism (aka St. Anthony's fire), throwing our clothes away while jumping on one leg, grabbing a foot and screaming "Yiiiiiiiikes!"... I swear I tried to control myself long enough to take a picture of 'em leeches on me leg, but seeing them and not removing them right away was too much. Especially after spending hours thinking of them, seeing them with my eyes: their small, rounded, slimy bodies squirming all inflated with blood as they fed on me was too much to handle! I removed a good dozen, Wallis more or less half that. The worst, after throwing one to the ground a couple of meters away, was to see it crawling its way back towards us like nothing would stop it. Aaaaaugh! Only after killing them all could we calm down and grab the camera, take a picture, then enjoy a miso soup. Sorry for the loss of documentary value of this blog entry: we. just. couldn't. Even repeating: "Come on Futuna, leeches don't carry nor transmit diseases. They are, indeed, super clean and healthy creatures, as well as a very reliable and sensitive bio-indicator of preserved, unpolluted environments" and all sort of likewise objective facts about them. Again: we. just. couldn't. Anything you want but leeches.

the famous transitionnal ferns: big enough, uh? Futuna's foot after removing the leeches ; making cool, tiny friends at N---'s beach.
We got to the fishermen village and straight to the beach, we scattered our belongings on the sand in the sun, hoping they'd get magically clean dry. Meanwhile, we spent a long while washing our bodies in the ocean. We then waited for the evening public bus back to M--- and headed straight to the only 24h coin laundry to throw most of our stuff in a giant washing-machine. We kept only the less dirty to cover ourselves - in an embarrassing fashion. Again, you wouldn't believe who showed up at the laundry at about 9pm, while we were looking at our clothes in the dryer: 'our friend'! Oh, Ford! You should have seen that look on her face. It was worth a million yens! Ha ha ha! What did we do that was sooo wrong and pissed her off sooo much? We, poor ignorant gaijins shall never understand... But we laughed real hard when she left the place without saying goodbye!

courtesy of Google, a physical map of the Unknown Island with our bewanderings.
Night 4 - getting ready to leave:

The rest of our adventure on the Unknown Island went fast and smooth: we walked through a cold and rainy night down to an open campgroung by the port. The place was abandoned or closed or forgotten, but still neat, desert and hidden enough for us to pitch the tent and spend a last night there. After all the laundry and drying, walking to the campground, setting our camp, cooking and having dinner, we got to bed quite late for a short night, with the continuous sound of the rain on the fabric of the tent: we woke up just before the sun did - which allowed us to witness a beautiful dawn on the ocean and to see our ferry boat slowly growing on the horizon, waiting to take us away. So...

Day 5 - getting back to the world:

After 4 whole days on, around and across the Unknown Island, we were sad to leave but felt genuinely fortunate and grateful. The place treated us with its unrivaled beauty, unaltered nature and unspoiled landscapes. We spent those days mostly in silence and by ourselves, except for some rare (and weird) human contacts. We were quite lucky with the weather, especially if you consider our average meteorologic luck over the past 3 years un(t)raveling! Both the sunny, scenic drive around on the first day and the challenging, wet, intense 3 days hiking were amazing and rewarding, while almost unreal at the same time. From the ferry's upper deck, our whole stay on this tiny island started to seem like a dream: long and vivid but a dream anyway. We soon wondered if it had happened at all and felt grateful that the bleedy, itchy leeches' bites lasted a few days, as they were our only tangible piece of evidence.

beautiful sunrise from our abandoned, closed and forgotten campground by the sea ;the old rusty-funky-pinky ferry boat coming back for us!

Standing at the back of the ferry, we watched the port of M--- getting smaller and smaller, then the whole coast and steep mountains all covered by this deep and dense forest, progressively shrinking before us. We soon recognized the main summits emerging in the background from the green, then eventually saw nothing but a dark dot all covered in fog, floating inbetween the ocean and the blue, cloudless sky. Even long after the island had disappeared, you could still guess it was there because of this small, compact crown of clouds above it. The power of trees to attract and retain humidity is indeed spectacular! When there was nothing left on the horizon, we moved to the front of the ship and remained silent for a few hours - with a lot to digest and assimilate. So, that's pretty much the end of our own 'tale of the unknown island', reflecting over and over again on the cruel paradox of tourism, be it respectful and with a leave-no-trace philosophy: going to beautiful natural places when they're spoiled and ruined by tourism sucks (see Olkhon island on the Baikal lake, for instance). How sad and shameful. But going to natural places when they're absolutely untouched and preserved ALSO sucks, because you might be opening the way for tourism to spoil and ruin them! That's true both at the other end of the world and in your own backyard (oh, the sad decay of this amazing natural secret thermal spring and tub in the French Cerdagne, after some smart guy posted its coordinates online).

looking back on the gorgeous Unkown Island ; a group of young, enthusiastic fellows giving it a warm farewell!

With time to think about it, we came to the conclusion that the threat we represented and her - legitimate? - worries for the Unknown Island, could be (at least part of) the reason why 'our friend' got increasingly hostile with us.
In the end, we come back to this same conclusion again and again, year after year and un-travel after un-travel: it looks like you CAN'T possibly have a positive impact. Not even a neutral one. And that may become our main reason to stay at home, to plant trees and to grow vegetables instead of traveling around with consequences we dont' always want nor can control. Anyway, we're still on the road for a few weeks and really want to make the best of them!
So, we'll be back soon, un(t)raveling around with the same ethics and enthusiasm.
Stay tuned, take care, enjoy and see you soon!

The end.


* Any resemblance to a short story written in Potuguese by Jose Saramago was on purpose and is an invitation to (re)discover this lovely little new classic!

** About the nekos and inus: just in case you need some, here's a very graphic - even though strictly musical - explana-translation.

Friday, November 25, 2016

the tale of the unknown island* (2 of 3)

If you've missed episode 1, maybe you'd like to give it a go before you keep reading here. You done? Okay, let's go.

holy morning light on a creek along the Sh--- trail.

Day 2 - getting up early (bis):

"We left, unsure of what had just happened. Unsure of what would likely happen afterwards, too. We walked in silence along the dirt road, breathing deeply the scent of the teatrees, all the way down to the littoral road. We headed North with the first light of dawn on the ocean and after a while we got to the crossroads we were looking for, with a rusty tin sign for "our" trailhead: the Sh--- Valley. It was our second day on the Unknown Island and it was just past 6am"

At that point, we decided to stop for breakfast, took our backpacks down and got the Trangia ready. So while the water heats up, we'll explain a little bit of the history of this magical place and of our plan for the next few days: home of a unique transitionnal primary rainforest, this island is probably the most preserved natural area in Japan and one of the richest forests in the world. During the Edo period (1603-1868), a very wise Shogun decided to protect the beautiful specimens of Japanese red-cedars (Cryptomeria japonica) by strictly forbidding cutting trees. People were only allowed to re-cut and collect the trees already fallen on the ground. Period. This probably limited the development of the island, but made it a unique wildlife sanctuary. It also means most of the trees you'll come across on the Unknown Island are at least 4 centuries old and the whole forest grew to a level of biodiversity, richness and density that is seldom witnessed where human activity exists. So, we wanted to go on a pilgrimage, that is to say: we wanted to go whorship the very very very old and sacred trees this place is famous for. Some of them (1000+ years old!) can be found inside an Interpretation Center & Park, for paying tourists to visit. Close to the big hotels on the East coast, it's expensive, crowded and you need to book in advance. Three reasons for us NOT to go. Then, there is the real-life sanctuary: very deep in the heart of the dense forest who inspired Miyazaki's Mononoke Hime, there is a group of 3000+ years old red-cedars. The shortest hike to get there takes about 5-6 hours, plus the way back. You need a taxi or shuttle to get to the trailhead and it's packed with guided groups of tourists doing the roundtrip. Thanks but... no!

the long way up, but you know: long as I can see the light...
Now, according to the very few quality hiking maps available, the Sh--- Valley trail was a long and steep option to connect to the main trail "only" 3-to-4 hours away from the sanctuary and starting very close to the sea, just about 40 minutes walking from our crappy-scary guesthouse. How is that even possible? You'll see, Wallis is the best planner/project manager you can dream of. All you have to do is say "Wallis, we need to find a way to get to the sanctuary without paying for the shuttles, without hiking among the crowds and without having to do wild backcountry camping in this super-clean super-pure super-fragile paradise" and wait. She'll spot the half-abandoned, half-forgotten trail, she'll find and book an ideally-located 20€ guesthouse nearby for the previous night and a free moutain shelter at the other end for the following night! What's still up to you to do then, is to take the lead of the resulting strenuous 10-hour hike on an un(t)raveled trail hauling a 25kg backpack and making sure you don't lose the way and she doesn't lose the faith... Now that you've got the big picture and that we've had plenty of time for our Genmaicha and cookies, we're ready to go. Tighten your boots and take a deep breath!

After the warm-up start and breakfast, the first hour was steep and got us worried: we found an abandoned trail in really poor conditions: difficult to follow, covered in fern, dead branches and moss, as well as extremely wet and slippery. The backpacks were heavy and our progression very slow, stopping often to check the map and the few topologic references - basically, the creeks around us and crest lines above us. But the weather was fine and the temperature nice. The undergrowth was beautiful and changing fast. The overall sensation was of a something dramatically alive. First, alive as in "layers and layers and layers of life stacked on top of each other". But then, alive as a whole: a dense, soft, bright and warm whole. Finally, alive as in "a presence", the awkward, lasting impression of not-being-alone. Like a presence. Not scary yet a that point, but a presence. When our trail merged with what the main branch of the Sh--- valley trail, the path became slightly broader and clearer, but also much less steep. That's when we met, and walked together with, a Japanese girl possibly in her early-thirties, also carrying a big backpack and also going to the sanctuary. We went in silence at more or less the same pace, but without taking the stops at the same time, as she apparently valued to be hiking on her own and not as part of any group, team or party.

multi-layer, dense, deep, green lush of the transitionnal primary rainforest ; inhabited woods with a unique presence ; giant mammoth-tree.
Through a short and steep section, the trail took us to a pass with a stunning viewpoint from a rock terrace, where she said she would stop for lunch. We left her and went on down for another 40 minutes or so, until the end of 'our' Sh--- valley trail, which merged into the "main trail". We had lunch there, seeing how different it was and counting the hikers who passed along: not exactly seagulls** yet but, you know, it was midday and a bit late already for people who intended to get all the way up to the sanctuary then back down to their hotel. People with sneakers and a 25cl bottle in one hand... Well, actually, yes: seagulls! Many things were different on the main trail, though: an ancient railway through an area of forestal exploitation during the first half of the XXth century, it was flat and extremely comfortable to hike - which was much appreciated because our seagulls were just warming-up but we had a good 6 hours in the legs already. The aligned, "young" replanted trees were thin and tall and the undergrowth much scarser, but it allowed for much light and fresh air in.
exhibiting signs of human activity and some old-fashion 'haunted' flavour...
There were also many red-bottomed macaques (Macaca fuscata), sure enough lured by the perspective of easy food and cheap entertainment: big colonies of 20 or more individuals settled by the side or in the middle of the trail, sleeping and grooming each other lazily. They apparently tolerated the hikers and let them go in total indifference, as long as the poor humans kept passing them along without showing the slightest intention to slow down: any attempt to stop or - say - take a picture, ended with the males raising shoulders, showing teeth, screaming and aggressively chasing you. Not funny at all... After an hour or so along the easy trail, things got tricky again: the trail climbed uphill, narrow and uneven. Many tourists were giving up, sitting around and waiting as their guides continued with only the bravest. We took a serious pace, left many behind despite our backpacks, knowing the way was still long: they were getting tired and we were still 'warm'! Then we met our young fellow hiker from the morning, who was happy to see us and to show us the famous and special place standing in front of us: inside the huge stump of a giant tree dead long ago, was a natural 'cave' with a tiny temple and a very picturesque hole. We waited for our turn while eating some dry fruits, then took some due pictures before starting again. This deadtree was a turning point for many more people, as well as the unofficial entry to the sanctuary: as the ranks of hikers were depleting, the size of the trees was increasing. The trunks around us were becoming impressive, the undergrowth of ferns and moss was growing again in depth and colour intensity... Over the next hour, we'd see our first few 1000+ years old red-cedars!

the cave, the temple and "our friend" inside the giant stump ; our first big big tree ; the loveable hole and ; some strange fruits...
It was close to 4pm when the light changed suddenly. It faded and became warmer. The very few people we still met were coming down and back (and were a bit f---ed, if you want my humble opinion, as they were the last seagulls and their way back to the coast was longer than the hours of light left). Nobody was climbing up but the girl and the two of us. And the magic happened: there was this warm light and all the moist in suspension in the air vibrating like a cocoon around us. The colours were incredibly intense, vivid. The beauty of every single leaf, of every mushroom, was magnified, making everything more real, more alive. Life was pulsating everywhere around and it was impossible not to feel a part of it all: the sounds of the birds and insects, the breeze touching our skins, the perfect patterns of the intertwined lianas and roots - like some Leonard Cohen written in organic matter. Allelujah! It was a mystical experience. It was beautiful and blissful. The closest to tripping on acid, but without the acid. Maybe we humans lost sensitivity long ago, but that was the "normal" esthetic extasis of experiencing a deep connection with Nature? Maybe such a high dosage of Nature is the only way to re-connect and feel this? Or maybe you were just extremely tired and hypoglycemic, you damn' tree-hugging hippie! Now, according to Mr. Huxley, that's pretty much the same.

the Holy Moment, caught in pictures: magical light under the trees ; one of our first massive cedars ; a colony of friendly 'Miyazaki style' shrooms.
We finally got to the first 1000+ years old red-cedar. It was so big there was no way we could take a damn photograph. It was so big we couldn't even look at it properly, because it wouldn't fit in our limited, unperfect visual field. You would never ever hug a tree like that. You wouldn't touch it. Never would need to. What hugging a regular tree would cause you to feel, such a tree could induce from meters away! Back to where you belong - and beyond - in less than a second, human being. And this was not meant to be offensive, just strikingly intense. Looking a that tree, I couldn't help thinking on a 1000 year scale: WW2 ; WW1 ; Napoleonic wars ; slave trade ; great plague ; conquest of the Americas ; Inquisition ; wars of religion ; crusades... only to name the Western European burden. This tree was so remote it was somewhat separate from humanity, but within its lifespan there was so much it had witnessed of human kind, of our miserable and bloody mess.

if it makes any sense at all, a picture of a 3000 y-o tree.
At the same time and to be fair, it was not judgemental at all. It was, indeed, unconditionnally loving and nurturing: its bark was home for communities, there were entire cities under the surface of its skin, whole countries at its feet and systems of continents slowly moving along its branches. Before we realized it, there was the sanctuary: after this first tree, a second one came in a matter of minutes. Even bigger. Then a couple more, which were called 'the husband and wife'. A sign in Japanese and English explained that about 400 years ago, they had merged through a major branch, 8 meters above the ground and were now connected. Why? How? What for? Pointless questions: because they did. The light was getting dim, we didn't have much time left. Nobody was talking. Nobody was thinking of the destination, the camp, dinner. All mental noise was gone. Just sounds. Birds, insects, the breeze. We kept walking like in a dream, so absolutely tired and overwhelmed - in a state of shock. We passed a fifth tree: thicker, older, grey. Huge. Images of over 1000 years ago: the Alhambra, the gothic cathedrals, Angkor Wat...Then - finally? - we got to a large set of wooden stairs, climbing all the way to a big terrace: in front of us stood the  Y--- S---, the patriarch, the silverback. 27 meters of circonference at its base, about 6 meters in diameter. Not even an impressive figure. It was so humbly beyond figures. The scientists gave him about 2600 years, the legend over 3000. Again, same flow of parasite thoughts, only on a bigger scale even: the Romans ; Jesus ; the very concept of BC ; the Greeks ; wait a minute, Buddha? The carvings of its bark would be as old as some Sumerian cuneiform scripts. How was that already? Like some Leonard Cohen written in organic matter. Enough vain thinking, we came back to seeing, feeling, experiencing. Felt ridiculously small and meaningless. Felt insanely priviledged to be there. Felt like crying. Felt cold and exhausted. We suddenly noticed a party of three was there, in a silent conversation with it, too. At some point we all left together, the six of us, with the last beam of light. We hiked the last 10 minutes to the Sh--- Hut, the nearby free-access mountain shelter. Another great priviledge for a handful of insignificant, random human beings. It was past 7pm: it got dark immediately and the air was cold under the trees.

Night 2 - sleeping tight:

After checking there was still some room left (three spots were free on the ground floor inside - the higher, warmer spots were all occupied already!), we spread our mattresses and sleeping bags before going back to the wooden platform in front of the shelter. Outside, we changed our clothes for some clean, dry, warm ones and hung the wet ones to the night breeze. Our "friend" had escaped the company of humans putting up her tent 20 meters away and disappearing inside right away. We respected that she valued being on her own and at the same time, appreciated the silent communion with the other people: this natural proximity of individuals who realize the gift they share.

the Sh--- Hut, aka the coolest, cardboard, sustainable, upcycled mountain shelter ever!

We cooked in silence and had a quick dinner, seeing how the party of three was in fact a very young mountain guide taking care of his couple of clients: taking all kind of stuff from his backack, he was cooking a romantic and gorgeous sukiyaki for them, while showing them some videos about the Unknown Island on his tablet: 5* service! After over 10 hours of a demanding hike, about 2000 meters of cumulated elevation gain, hauling heavy backpacks and witnessing the most strikingly beautiful and intense wilderness in our entire lives, we could say we were drained, worn out, exhausted and deserved to rest a little bit...

That was Day 2 and at about 9pm, we were sleeping!

To be continued...


* Any resemblance to a short story written in Potuguese by Jose Saramago was on purpose and is an invitation to (re)discover this lovely little new classic!

** About the "seagulls": it's a concept of ours (even though many hikers know them too), that we love. Seagulls apparently exist on all continents. Seagulls never fly too far from the coast. So when sailors see some seagulls, they know land is close. Well the same happens on hiking trails in the mountain: there are those people whostart at 11 or 12 or even at 3pm. They wear Converse sneakers or flipflops, carry no backpacks, walk around with just a small water bottle in their hand, with a French Bouledogue or a bowling bag under their shoulder. You usually meet them while you're coming down and they definitely mean you're very close to the trailhead! THey even have their own tag on this blog...

Monday, November 21, 2016

the tale of the unknown island* (1 of 3)

a granite wart in the middle of the ocean, covered by lush green and water.
Day 0 - foreword:

A big part of the magic of the unknown island is how very much remote, wild and preserved it is. So much so, it made us feel slightly uncomfortable and almost guilty to be there. We consider ourselves respectful mountaineers, hikers, climbers and generally "travellers/tourists": we try hard to leave no trace, to take more trash back to the civilization than we produced, not to poop where it's gonna stay for too long, to refrain from picking any flora or feeding any fauna (except maybe some mosquitoes and leeches - not that we want to, though), not to hike out of the trails (unless we accidentally get lost), nor to spill toothpaste and soap around, and so on. But witnessing the incredible, raw beauty of this tiny place on earth was deeply moving: close to a mystical experience. After a whole day hiking towards the heart of the island, everything around was so lush, so intensely green and alive, that we started wishing we weren't there at all, or could at least disappear just so it remained virgin forever. With a resident population of about 13.000, the island receives close to 90.000 visitors every year. Fortunately, most of them are (respectful) Japanese and only go to the museums, hike the main trail and stay at the hotels on the East coast. We reckon very few people read this blog, but we also feel a responsibility not to contribute to this place being spoiled by herds of global consumers: we saw beautiful virgin rock walls that could be climbed, canyons that could be abseiled, white sand beaches that could be packed with umbrellas and we certainly don't want to have anything to do with any of that happening, be it indirectly or by accident. So, the unknown island will remain anonymous and we won't provide any data that would help identify it (you'll find some --- instead). It's still a 'relatively famous' place (most Japanese people know it) and if you're just half curious or into challenges, it won't take you too long to put a name on it. Of course, if you like wilderness, you'd love it there! And if you ever make it there, make the struggle to keep it at least as clean and pure as you found it your top priority! This being said, let's begin.

boarding on the funky rusty pinky cargo ship (there's a new boat on the horizon and she's going to take you away) ; dusk on the upper deck.

Night 1 - getting there:

Of the few options to get there (including a fast boat and several planes daily), we picked the slowest, cheapest, less comfortable and most romantic one: an overnight cargo ship. It was something we really wanted to do at some point along the way and it gave a special taste to the adventure. We boarded early evening, as the sun was coming down and the shade of the famous --- was already engulfing the port of ---. We had left some luggage in a coin locker at Fukuoka's station but still carried two big backpacks with all the hiking and camping equipment, including our tent, sleeping bags and mattresses, Trangia alcohol stove and canteen, warm and cold clothing, hiking boots, food supplies for four days, first aid and pharmacy kit... Our package also included a lot of rain gear: many plastic bags, a tarp, backpack rain covers and overalls, plus a special waterproof sealed bag for the laptop. You might wonder 'why?'

"Tanuki soba and Kitsune udon are on a boat at night, who eats what?"
Well, first of all, you sure remember our "special affinity" with rain, not to say our power of attraction: we're rain magnets. From Belgium to the Dolomites, Siberia and South Korea, it looks like wherever we go, rain starts pouring from the skies. AND... it's not an accident if the island is home of a unique transitionnal primary rainforest with unrivaled biodiversity, including about 2.000 different species of moss: it's raining all the time! The locals even say that "on ---, it rains 35 days a month"! We pretty much knew what to expect and part of our training for the expedition included mental preparation. "We're gonna get wet. We're gonna get soaked. While there, let's surrender to humidity. Let's remember it's our decision and a privilege to be there. Let's not complain, not even once, about the rain and humidity. Let's be water, my friend." That was our mantra a few days before and during our whole stay on the unknown island. And as you'll see, all this mental training was not in vain!

If passengers were admitted on a regular basis, there were about 10 people onboard and we were the only two gaijin. The sleeping area on the ship was a single open room on the upper desk with carpeted floor and a vending machine with cheap cup noodles and (free) boiling water. We already had ours, some classic udon and soba we shared just to check they didn't taste exactly the same.
the sleeping area: a carpeted floor with TVs and a cup noodle vending machine.
Everybody "went to bed" early despite the two TVs playing, that nobody cared to switch off at any point during the night. Between the heat, the moist and the rolling and pitching of the ship, our sleep was light and interrupted, to the point that dawn came as a relief. We rushed to the front deck with an instant coffee and biscuits, and in the dim light, searched through the mist for the unknown island. About an hour after that, we were disembarking on a desert pier, with no other plan than trying to figure out what to do and how to do it… We walked through the little town along the main road, following a tourist map of the island, until we found one of the few car rental companies.

Day 1 - getting started:

It wouldn't open until 9am and it was still 8:15, so we walked back to another one, less fancy and on a backstreet. The owner happened to be there: he'd just come down his house upstairs and didn't expect any customer that early, even less two gaijin with backpacks bigger than themselves. When asked for a car for the day, he showed us something the size of a Smart and dialed 5.000 on his calculator. At the current rate, it was about 45 euros and almost half the price announced by the fancier store on the main street. We agreed, handed the money, let him copy our IDs and driving licences, signed the receipt, threw our bags on the rear seats and got on for a clockwise tour around the unknown island. It promised to be sunny and looked like the beginning of a perfect day...

mouth of a crystal-clear, anonymous river ; waterfall in the sea ; gigantic banyan trees (and spider webs) ; massive waterfall... in under 30 km!
We quickly passed the airport and started to drive down the East coast, until we first stopped after maybe a quarter of an hour, following a sign for a scenic view and a narrow path through a dense forest. In the middle of a desert volcanic beach was the mouth of a small creek of transparent water and the sun that was still low on the ocean. Only the sound of the waves and birds singing under the trees. Absolute beauty. We could have gone on like that for hours, with a breath-taking view every other kilometre just walking minutes away from the car: huge banyan trees with their trunks and branches intertwined and merged, playing with the sunbeams like open cages for the many birds flying everywhere around. Waterfalls jumping from granite rock faces straight into the ocean or in wide tubs covered in moss and ferns. Layers and layers of lush, dense life in all its possible forms, shapes, colors, genus and species.

some very very climbable granite, "sur son lit de verdure de saison".
But, as vain as it might seem in such a paradise of constant amazement, we wanted to get somewhere sometime soon! The tide was still going down and we wanted it low in order to do this one thing we craved for… What? Another onsen? Not only! This one was a little special: right by the seaside, its three tubs among the rocks, steaming of sulfur-rich water, were covered in sea water at high tide and only accessible a few hours a day. We parked aside the only two other cars, took our soap and towels and walked down a set of stairs to a little metal box on a post, with the 100¥ (from now on, let's say 円, okay?) sign. And, well, we must admit once you get there it's difficult not to think: "in which country we know could there be a simple box with a sign for people to pay the fee and not only would people pay but nobody would steal the box?". So, we payed, went down to the place, took our clothes off and washed ourselves thoroughly before getting into the one empty pool: a mother with her two daughters and a middle-aged man were already in the other two pools, while a couple of gaijins were catching tan on a flat rock nearby. The experience of the onsen is generally delicious, but when you can just walk off the hot tub and dip in a transparent sea under the sun, with a fresh morning breeze and this view around Aaaaaargh! After a while and quite suddenly, the mother and the middle-aged man got off the water, gathered their stuff and left. The strange sea bitxos on their rocks started to move ecstatically and we soon understood the tide was rising again, already. Time to leave the place and keep on our exploring tour of the island.

consensus: Futuna enjoying the onsen by the sea ; the strange bitxos enjoying the onsen by the sea ; Wallis enjoying the onsen by the sea.
It was half-morning, we had just driven past the extreme South and were on our way to another (gorgeous) waterfall. The landscape, the density of flora and fauna around us, the sunny weather and our ridiculously tiny beings in this tiny car, on this tiny littoral road of this tiny volcanic island - it all was becoming a bit overwhelming; and to be honest, almost disturbing. You're not used to seeing so much beauty, so intense, so unspoiled, all concentrated in such little space just by the side of the road: when pure nature feels unnatural! Ha ha ha! And then, we got to the mouth of this other river we had spotted on the map, with coral beach and volcanic tide pools! OoooOoOooh, the coral beach and volcanic tide pools! It looked so absolutely virgin we were unsure any human being had been there before we did...

"crazy beautiful beach", a picture of life long before humans walked on earth.
And unsure whether we'd bathe: we were actually concerned about shedding a few skin cells here and there. But we did (both bathing and, sure enough, shedding some skin cells). We dried in the sun and had lunch there, without dropping a single crumb. Then went back to the car and kept on: from that point, either you drove back to the South and East coast in about an hour, or entered the Western side of the island and committed to its ragged coast and tiny, narrow, damaged road. Since it was allegedly must longer AND dangerous, we chose the latter without a second of hesitation! In a matter of minutes after that, the density of life everywhere around had become insane! The road climbed away from sea level, even though clearings between the trees let us see it very often. It took us hours to drive those 30 km through the mountainous part of the West coast: sharp curves, steep ups and downs, dense coverage and loads of bumps, holes, branches and wildlife in the middle of the unique traffic lane. Believe it or not (why wouldn't you?), the following pictures were ALL taken from INSIDE the car. Yeah, we know: it's the biggest wildlife-photographer's shame, but if you're willing not to interfere too much, why would you get off the car in the first place? It was like being on a Sunday morning photo safari at the Réserve africaine de Sigean, only it was NOT a fake conservation center in French Catalunya and we knew it. See by yourselves:

"mono-thematic" would be a great title in Spanish ("mono" means "monkey"): they were everywhere, busy grooming and really focused!
same with the white-tailed shika deers (although not grooming)! Halfway through the untraveled section, the lighthouse and its panoramic view.

When we finally got to the small fishermen village on the North-West, it was past tea-time already. We only had enough time left for a short stop by another (again!) gorgeous beach of white sand and pink granite. Before it got dark, we drove the final 15 kilometers back to ---, filled the tank and returned the car back to the friendly hirer. He thanked us a lot, we thanked him a lot. He bowed, we bowed. He smiled, we smiled. He started to feel uncomfortable, we didn't. But we felt it was time to go. As we left his small house, we noticed the family cats were still as busy as they looked when we arrived that same morning: making sure the ground was warm and their a--es, clean. Bloody cats!

the average bunch of local cats: lying around, licking their (own) a--es.

Night 2 - getting scared:

Maybe because we were quite far South already, the night was falling fast. Fortunately, we knew where to go next: Wallis had found and booked (thanks to hatinosu for such an adventure!) a suspiciously cheap homestay for this first night on the island, which was 'only' 4 or 5 kilometres out of town, close to a small onsen in the middle of nowhere. It was also 'quite close' to one of the trailheads we had considered for the next few days, but we'll talk about it in the next episode... We walked along the main road for a while, then took a small dirtroad that climbed uphill across rows and rows of teatrees until we reached a group of cabins scattered around a small picnic area and zen-ish garden. With all due respect, the whole thing looked like some off-the-grid Hillbillies' trailer park near Middle-of-Nowhere, NC. We said hello to the owners: a middle-aged grumpy guy and shy, much younger girl (either his daughter or partner or who knows, we couldn't tell). They showed us around, introduced us to the (only) other guests staying next door (two Japanese students) and invited us to drop our backpacks already and rush to the nearby onsen before it got too late. Since it promised to be our only opportunity for hot water in days, we accepted the flashlight they handed us and followed their signs to go get lost 'that way' in the woods. After 15 minutes following a hardly visible trail between the trees, we got to the onsen: small, simple and by far the less neat we'd seen in the whole country, but the water was steaming hot and that was all we asked for! An hour and a half later, we were back at the Hillbillies' trailer park, ready to cook our dinner on the Trangia under the stars. But the owners invited us to join them and cook inside - which we accepted...
the grumpy owner of the Hillbillies' trailer park, in front of his cabin.
...and regretted almost immediately after entering their cabin: the grumpy middle-aged guy happened to be pretty drunk on a couch, having the young couple of students to drink whisuky and to watch TV with him, while the daughter/partner was sleeping behind a curtain in the very same room. Ah, he also happened to be smoking and the whole place was a smelly mess. We smiled, drank the whisuky he served for us as slow as possible to make sure there would be no refill, and fed his curiosity for gaijins while having our instant noodles and dried mushrooms boiled. We then ate in silence and wished them goodnight as soon as we decently could. But not fast enough to avoid that the two students asked for our FB and friended us, though. By 10pm we were in our sleeping bags with the alarm-clock set on 5am. Nighty night!

Day 2 - getting up early:

We'd been up for just a few minutes and were silently packing our stuff with the plan to start walking and cook our breakfast somewhere along the trail, when we heard a terror scream, movie-grade but for real (without a doubt) in the silence of the night. The young girl (aka the daughter/partner) came running to our cabins and, crying and sobbing, worked on the Japanese students' door until they let her in. From across the thin bamboo wall, we could hear how she kept screaming and sobbing as they tried to calm her down. We got dressed super fast, finished packing everything and stepped outside. Dawn wasn't even close yet: it was pitch dark under the trees, only the dim light from the stars and moon drawing the limits of the clearing and the pale halo of the dirt road. We walked a few meters and I can't remember why I decided to turn back, only to see the grumpy middle-aged guy in the light of his open door, slowly crossing the garden. Don't think he could see me as I was still under the cover of the trees. He went straight to the couple's door and knocked: at least he wore no axe and looked calm. We left, unsure of what had just happened.

when the contact with human beings makes the quiet company of plants so much more enjoyable and manageable...

Unsure of what would likely happen afterwards, too**. We walked in silence along the dirt road, breathing deeply the smell of the teatrees, all the way down to the littoral road. We headed North with the first light of dawn on the ocean and after a while we got to the crossroads we were looking for, with a rusty tin sign for "our" trailhead: the Sh--- Valley.

It was Day 2 on the Unknown Island and it was just past 6am.

To be continued...


* Any resemblance to a short story written in Potuguese by Jose Saramago was on purpose and is an invitation to (re)discover this lovely little new classic!

** About the scream in the night and what happened to the young girl, the grumpy old guy and the two students: thanks to their briliant idea to friend us on FB, we could send them a message a few days later, when we got back to civilization after our hike. Everybody was fine, these two being apparently used to having arguments and screaming any time of the day and night... We're relieved to announce that no guesthouse owner was harmed in the making of this blog post and that they've even seen the potential for business development: they've built a webpage and made the place much neater since then!