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!

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