To Staffal, Italy

An easy day after enjoying the delights of a leisurely breakfast. A wander into town to supplement my equipment for the next few days, and to indulge in another gelato. There were more paraponters in the blue sky than birds.

Then back to my temporary home to pack and to wait for Christian, who was to be my guide and probable mentor for the next few days. He seems a cheeky bloke who had a varied life in the past before morphing into a professional mountaineering and ski guide.

We stored my bags in the camper bubble installed on the tray of his aging Hilux, and set off to pick up another participant Stephanie from a train station in Italy, then onto Staffal on the edge of the European alps in Italy.

The roads were what you expect in mountainous regions, twisty, turny, with sensational and varied views. A passengers delight. And I assume many drivers white knuckle these roads whilst breaking into a cold sweat.

On the way we drive over the St. Bernhard Pass, but unfortunately were not met by a big fluffy, brown and white dog carrying a revitalising beverage in a small wooden barrel under its neck.

Staffal is a mini version of Chamonix. Probably all mountain resorts are similar. Now to repack, again, in order to trim down what I was to carry up the mountain tomorrow.

Chamonix

The sun rises early here. And as my body is still partially in another time zone it did likewise. I grabbed my camera and went outside into the predawn, and minutes later the sun kissed the top of the mountains opposite my hotel.

The mountains, I could see the mountains. Not a cloud in the sky and the entire Mont Blanc massif was visible to me, including the Aiguille du Midi, today’s goal.

After giving the camera a short workout, whilst cursing myself for not bringing the polariser, breakfast was beckoning. Whilst the coffee was nice and strong, I do prefer Italian espresso to French press. It is just a little more mellow, whilst still having that essential caffeine kick.

But I do digress from the excellent baguettes, French cultured butter and cheese. I went back for seconds. Following this almost joyful breakfast experience, I once again grabbed the camera, this time along with my polarisers, and meandered through the back streets towards the cable car station.

A lot of the houses here retain, and are still built in the old French mountain farmhouse style, if there is such a thing. And a good thing it is compared to the soulless apartment blocks a few streets away. I know which I would be happy to photograph as something that brings a warm character to Chamonix, if not with the timber in their walls, then with the traditional roof lines. Even if they no longer covered in heavy slabs of slate.

The cable car was to take me up from 1035 meters via a change at Plan de l’Aiguille at 2317 meters, to the Aiguille du Midi at 3842 meters at the top. And it does this at an almost eardrum splitting 20 minutes, including the change.

Something about leaving the trees and the valley behind does my heart good, even when sardine canned into a cable car with 40 or so strangers. The air at the top was pleasantly fresh, and the views were eminently viewable. They were probably also very viewable by the people jumping off the mountain, only being stopped from slamming into the ground more than a thousand meters below by some paracord and a few square meters of nylon that they were attached to.

A short and steep ride down to the Plan de l’Aiguille just below the snowline, enabled me to go for a walk to Lac Bleu. This is a small lake filled with runoff from the snow and glacier fields higher up, so had a hint of that magic bluey green colour that glacial melt water has. On a still day it provides a mirror for the surrounding mountains. Now if it only wasn’t for the small horde of bare-chested, Scottish youths playing over loud Kris Kristofferson and other music.

I left, and headed back down to the valley. This time I scored a front position in the gondola and could see and almost feel the mountain fall away from me as we descended steeply. Whilst I enjoy this sort of thing, it is highly not recommended for anyone with any height issues.

Tomorrow it is planned to head towards the Italian Alps and its delights.

To the European Alps

Once again, all the bags are packed, or at least they should be. I have the important bits packed, the camera, lenses, what little I have for my climbing gear. No clothes yet.

Yes, you heard, or rather read correctly. Climbing gear.

Let me explain. Bear with me as I step back in time. Many years ago, in a pre-pandemic world I had a moment, where I believed I could and would tackle climbing the highest mountain in Europe. Yes, I know there is a peak called Mt. Elbrus located in the far east in the Russian Caucasus Mountains, but we’ll just ignore that, being practical and Western Europe centric.

So, Mont Blanc and all its 4809 meters it was to be. 2019 a guide was booked and paid for, flights booked and one pandemic later we start again. 2022 flights booked and the guide breaks his leg. 2023 and third time lucky. Here I sit eating fabulous French cheese looking out the window up at the cloud, snow and ice-covered Mont Blanc massif, hoping I managed to get my fitness and endurance levels up high enough in the last few months.

Getting here was a bit of a marathon itself. The second flight leg Perth to London was almost 17 hours. A long time when you are pretty much confined to a seat. It feels longer if you did not manage to secure a seat in the pointy end of the plane.

Arriving in Chamonix via Geneva was made worthwhile as the mountains came into view. Chamonix is a resort town, full of tourists, as well as fit, trim people with big boots and pointy things like ice axes strapped to their packs.

And there are a number of options to acquire some authentic charcuterie and fromage items, as well as sensational sorbets. Anyway, jetlag beckons.

Singapore

The last stop on the journey, a late arrival in Singapore and my hotel in the Chinatown district. An opportunity to roam the streets without the tourists. Without any of its near 6 million inhabitants.

The lights are on, but nobody at home in the streets. Even the bars and restaurants shut shop around 10pm. Surprising and disappointing. I was hoping for a snack and a refreshing beverage, not necessarily in that order. But the photo opportunities were there. In the morning the rain was doing its best to add to the steamy atmosphere.

I was forced to have 2 breakfasts at the nearby, hustling Hawker market. Many years ago, before World War II, the Singapore government decided to regulate and centralise the many food hawkers in the streets. thereby preserving and creating a diverse food culture. This was recognised with a UNESCO cultural heritage listing in December 2020.

You can find everything there from Halal to Chinese and the cheapest Michelin starred food in the world. How to find the best food with so many options? Look for the queues.

If you like the outdoors and waterfalls, look no further than Changi airport. At 40 meters tall the tallest indoor waterfall in the world.

Dubai again

From one extreme to another. A few flights later and sleep deprived I arrive in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Its 6am and already a balmy 28 degrees. Having dumped another load of CO2 into the air to get here, and yes, I paid for the offset, I will be adding more to that as I hide myself in air-conditioned buildings.

Dubai gets its power from burning gas, 99% of water from desalination plants, and import 80% of its food. Not ideal.

I do like the old part of town, which is mainly the souks, the markets. The vendors there not so much. They would make the Inuit buy ice whether they wanted it or not.

To govern and to feed

In the south east of Iceland there is a place called Thingvellir. It is a site where, for good or for bad, the world’s first parliament was formed in 930 AD. It, and the laws set in place there persisted for hundreds of years, and still impact today’s Iceland.

Today it is a National Park and on the UNESCO World heritage register. It also happens to be the location of the eastern edge of the North American tectonic plate, defined by the small Almannagja Gorge. But it is the parliament that has greater importance to the Icelandic culture.

The volcanicness (if that is a word) of the area, with its geothermal heat is being used to great effect to provide heat to greenhouses. Iceland produces about 47% of the vegetables consumed in them currently.

Again, nearby there is a geyser called geysir, it having giving its name to that feature around the world. And another waterfall, Gullfoss.

This area is on the edge of the most popular tourist area near Reykjavik, so some of the farms are diversifying into catering for them.

A fitting finish to our Iceland journey to see where some of the food comes from that we have been enjoying.

Ice and Water

A short drive back to Vik to become a real tourist and join a tour on a souped up bus with balloon tyres to the terminal face of the Myrdalsjokull. Jokull means glacier for future reference.

Talking about Vik, apparently it rains here about 300 days of the year. And more generally the government owned bank, bottleshop and police station are all in the same building. Convenient.

This glacier is fairly stable at its face, so it’s possible to clamber into and through some of the tunnels left by meltwater. The ice is sculpted into some fantastical shapes and scallops by the action of wind and water.

Then onto another waterfall, Seljalandsfoss. You can actually walk behind this one and get quite wet if the wind blows in the right direction.

On the way back to today’s base we passed a couple of hydro powerstations. This produces about 73%of the nation’s power, with the remaining from geothermal sources and a bit from wind. Iceland has been able to attract industry due to the low cost green power available. Impressive.

The Iceland East Coast

Up and over a barren range gets you to the East coast. Fjord after fjord with small towns, fish farms, rock formations, and, yes you guessed it, tourists. Iceland got over 700,000 tourists in 2021 with numbers increasing rapidly.

Following the fingery coastal outline down, you get logically to the south west of Iceland. The Vatnajokull, which covers 17% of Iceland, sends a few fingers of its own towards the coast here. In a few places pieces of ice wash back up on shore, starkly on contrast to the black sands. Like at Jokullsarlon, justifiably called Diamond Beach.

There are also canyons carved through the rocky terrain such as Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon. Once again spectacular with its moss covered, sculpted, rock walls and the river at its base.

Did I mention the Icelandic alphabet yet? 36 letters and no Z since 1973. This includes a couple of speciality letters and a few with accents and umlauts.

Water on the rocks

Time to progress onto the North Coast. Well, at least as far as the No 1 highway permits, which cuts off a good chunk of the North East.

Some good water features up here. The Dettifoss for instance. The most powerful in Europe taking into account the combined volume and height. I personally preferred the more photogenic Selfoss. Just upstream a bit, same volume, just spread out a bit more.

Moving on a bit to Namafjell with its steam fumaroles bringing sulphur, gypsum and other minerals to the surface from a Kilometer down. And the obligatory tourist trying to get a selfie with some boiling mud.

Further on up the hill was Kefla, which was classed as active volcano until the late 1970s. Now there is a geothermal powerstation and some walks over the lava fields along with some old vents.

Then back on down to Studlagil canyon, where a river has carved its way through solid basalt columns. Now if only the instagrammers got out of the way after taking 50 pout photos so I could get 1 photo.

Heading West

Saying farewell to Reykjavik and hello to a thankfully large hire car to start a whistle-stop tour of Iceland. This includes history, geology and waterfalls.

Starting with a black timber church at Budir, then some waterfalls, and on to Vidimyr with its grass covered church. With layers of turf coming down its sides, it was almost a fully covered turf building.

Further on was Laufas with it turf farm. This is a collection of timber buildings covered by thick layers of turf. The central passage dated back to the mid 16th century, with ongoing changes over the years. And it was inhabited until 1936. Apparently the turf needs replacing every 20 to 70 years. Personally I would be going for 70.

I strongly dislike painting, but digging out my house only to bury it again would not be my choice of fun. But apparently it kept its inhabitants cosy. The windows were interesting prior to glass being easily available. They used semi transparent materials such as peritoneum, fish skin, and so on.

Back to geology. Lava pouring into the sea cooled rapidly, forming basaltic columns. Some were eroded by the restless seas forming majestic arches. Others collapsed into tumbled hexagonal blocks.