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.

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