I don’t speak any Portuguese, but this video makes it pretty clear that I want to now go and hike in Southwestern Portugal.
A tourism video for the Rota Vicentina, a long distance path that totals 350 kilomters of trails, showcases a look into all the gems that the area has to offer, and a reminder of the importance of slow travel.
A Portuguese friend sent it to me, and I didn’t even realize that I could have watched it in English from the beginning. Granted, you could watch the English version of the video to have a better understanding, but I think it loses its charm. Five minutes of this and you’ve got your hiking trip to Southwest Portugal nailed down: you will get to see beautiful coastline, you will meet locals who will most likely serve you amazing food, you will get to play with cute baby lambs, you will get to go cliff jumping and you will see surfers in a Volkswagen van.
Now you just need to go and pack your hiking gear.
Want to be an explorer? Want to see places nobody has ever seen? You have three options: become an astronaut, become a deep-sea diver or become a caver.
The first isn’t going to happen for a man my age and the second is expensive, so it’s a good thing I live in one of the best regions in the world to do the third. Cantabria in northern Spain has a large amount of karst, a type of stone that often has caves.
One of them is Luna Llena (“Full Moon”), which has yet to be fully mapped. In my fourth caving expedition in Spain I was part of a team that went to look for new passages. I was thrilled. Seeing unexplored parts of the subterranean world was one of the reasons I got into caving. I didn’t think the payoff would come so quickly.
Luna Llena is at the bottom of an abandoned galena mine from the 1920s. The miners were blasting with dynamite one day and opened up a hole into an unknown cave. It’s been regularly explored ever since but there are still many blank spots on its map.
The mineshaft slopes sharply down into the bedrock. Walking along an old narrow-gauge track past ore wagons and rusted equipment, we soon arrived at the cave. There were four of us, two experienced cavers who would be doing the bulk of the mapping, myself, and another relative newbie named Nacho. I quickly discovered that this would be the toughest cave I’d faced in any country.Karst often forms narrow, deep passageways, the product of underground streams cutting away the stone. These passageways can be five, ten, a hundred meters high. There’s no real floor, just a gradual narrowing until you reach water at the bottom. The only way to traverse these is a technique called “chimneying,” in which you straddle the passage with a hand and a foot on each wall. If it gets a bit too wide you press your feet against one wall and your back against the other. You keep tied into a rope running along the wall so you don’t risk falling into the abyss.
This workout led to a payoff – a low chamber filled with soda straws, thin little tubes hanging on the ceiling that eventually form stalactites. We had to crawl on our hands and knees below these beautiful formations for several minutes before getting to a place where we could stand up.
A little more exploring brought us to a long, high passageway. Several small tunnels led away from it, several blanks on the map. We picked one and crawled inside.
This is where it really got interesting. We were off the map in a place nobody had ever seen. Sadly I didn’t have my camera. My Instamatic died the previous week and I wasn’t going to risk my SLR in these conditions. Nacho brought his, but since he was behind me the only shots he got of me were of the bottom of my boots. The tunnel was too small for anything else.
It was almost too small for us to move. Crawling along in a military low crawl, the tops of our helmets scraping against the roof, we came to a spot where the tunnel pinched.
One of the more experienced cavers turned and looked at me.
“You sure you want to do this?” she asked. “Stop and think about it.”
“Of course I want to do it.”
“You’re not claustrophobic?” she asked.
“If I was claustrophobic I would have started freaking out ten meters ago.”
She shrugged and wormed her way into the tunnel. I gave her time to get through and then went in myself. The only way to enter this part was to have both arms stretched out ahead of me. Even then my shoulders barely made it through. I edged my way forward with my forearms and feet, the tunnel pressing in on all sides. Breathing became difficult. There wasn’t enough room to inhale fully, but I was exerting myself and needed the air. Every move was an effort. I wondered if I would make it through. I didn’t panic, though. My only worry was that Nacho was going to have to grab my boots and haul me out.
Any lingering doubt that I have claustrophobia was snuffed out when my headlamp suffered the same fate. An outcropping in the rock hit the power button and the tiny space I was in plunged into darkness.
It didn’t matter. I hadn’t been seeing anything but the rock an inch in front of my nose anyway. Continuing by feel, I made it to a slightly wider part of the tunnel where I could bend my arm and switch on my light. Ahead of me was an even tinier tunnel turning at an acute angle. The caver ahead of me called back.
“Come on through. It’s like a second birth!”
The birth canal I actually had to push off with my legs and force my body through. I exhaled, crushing my chest as flat as it could go. My head and arms emerged in a little cyst in which sat two of our team. Another push and my shoulders made it. A final effort to get the stomach through, swearing all the way to give up beer. I felt the cave walls pressing against my stomach and the small of my back and then I let out a tremendous fart. The cave literally squeezed it out of me.
Poor Nacho. He was right behind me and had nowhere to run. I hoped he didn’t asphyxiate. He was my ride.
We all gathered in the cyst, Nacho looking a bit green around the gills. During all this time our more experienced leaders had been mapping the passageway. Now we got a chance. This was basic mapping, with a compass, tape measure, and clinometer. It was meticulous work in cramped conditions, yet highly rewarding. All my life I’ve studied maps, especially old ones with their tempting blank spots marked Terra Incognita. And now here I was in Subterra Incognita.
I studied every fissure and formation, hoping to find another passage branching away form the one we were in. None were wide enough to push through. The tunnel soon turned back and rejoined one of the main mapped passageways. We’d mapped maybe a couple of hundred meters. In the annals of discovery this is a very minor footnote. I didn’t care. It made all the scrapes and bruises worth it.
So if you want to be an explorer, consider caving. It’s not as hard as you think. I’m 43 years old and only moderately fit. Chances are you can do what I do. If you live in the U.S., the best way to get into it is to join the National Speleological Society. With more than 10,000 members and about 250 local chapters (called “grottoes”), there’s probably a group near you.
Ever set foot on an active volcano? There are about 1500 known active volcanoes around the world, and if you’re up for it, you are able to climb many of them.
Mount Bromo in East Java is one of those active volcanoes, and in this photo by Lauren Irons we get a good feel for what it’s like to be standing atop a volcano and looking into the center. The still puffing volcano shrouds the group in a cloud of smoke. The photo is made even more intense by the use of black and white photography; you really get the feel that the top of this mountain is grim and destitute.
A hundred and twenty years ago, Norwegian scientist Fridtjof Nansen started a journey that made him one of the greatest explorers of all time. He set out to purposely get his ship frozen in the polar ice.
The reason? To study polar currents. His ship, the Fram, was purpose-built for the task. It needed to be; many crews had perished in the far north when their ships got frozen and then crushed by ice. The Fram spent three years stuck in the ice as the crew studied currents, took soundings and gathered a host of other scientific data that researchers are still sifting through. Not content with this adventure, Nansen set off on skis in a failed bid to be the first to the North Pole.
Nansen (1861-1930) was fascinated with the world of the Arctic. He was the first to ski across Greenland in 1888 and wrote about his adventures in The First Crossing of Greenland. This was the first of many exciting travel books he’d write. His most famous is Farthest North, his account of the Fram expedition. Nansen went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his work helping refugees after World War I, including the many victims of the Armenian Genocide. His ship is preserved at The Fram Museum in Oslo.
Now researchers at the Norwegian Polar Institute want to get their own ship frozen in the ice. They’re hoping to take an old Arctic research vessel that’s slated for the scrapyard and get it stuck in the ice during the winter of 2014-15.
They plan on studying the conditions of the ice, conditions that have changed markedly in the past few years. With the warming of the poles, most ice is only a year old, instead of being several years old like the ice that Nansen studied. This young ice is thinner, more saline, and has different reflective properties than older ice. Such a study may yield important data on how the Arctic is changing due to global warming.
You can read more about Nansen and the proposed project in an excellent two-part series on Science Nordic.
Our battered Coleman tent has been through years of service and cost something like $80 at an end-of-season sale at the local Target. It’s a workhorse and held up on gravel and snow and kept the campers inside it dry in pelting rain, letting in nothing more than a little damp on the corners and collecting a little condensation on the liner. But for all its practicality, there is one thing it is not: pretty. It is an olive green and tan little dome that looks like every other olive green and tan or red and tan or blue and tan little dome lined up on the grass in the tent meadow at any campground.
Enter the Field Candy tent. I can’t speak to the efficacy of these gorgeous little temporary shelters, but I also can’t decide which one I want the most. The one with the cow on it? The one that looks like a battered old suitcase? Yeah. That one. No, wait. I like the one that looks like a slice of watermelon because to see that when you pull up in your Subaru full of camping gear would crack you right up.
The Field Candy tent has all the stuff you’d expect from a decent camping tent – shock corded poles, a waterproof fly, and the easy clip up assembly. As a camper in wet climates, I’m suspicious of the cotton inner tent because it seems like something that would take a while to dry should it get wet. It’s got the bucket style ground sheet – you have to have that! – and a bunch of other features that look well thought out. This is no $80 clearance Coleman, some of them are over $700, so I’d expect performance as well as style.
But on the surface, it’s all about appearances. I want one. Maybe the one that looks like a circus tent. Or, no. The sandwich. Yeah, that one. No. Wait…