Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Hanging out with Hammerheads


THREE hundred kilometres north of Sabah and surrounded by unfathomably clear waters, the island of Layang Layang is hammerhead heaven. Fishing is banned here and the island’s 13 coral reefs create breathtaking underwater scenery that teems with marine life. Expect everything from giant clams, barrel sponges and immense gorgonian fans to peaceful turtles, arrowcrabs and anemones. Spectacular nudibranchs offer endless fascination for macro photographers and huge schools of redtooth triggerfish, pyramid butterflyfish and unicornfish make for superb snorkelling.
Layang Layang’s unfathomably clear waters, by U.U.Nudi, Flickr.
Layang Layang’s unfathomably clear waters, by U.U.Nudi, Flickr.

With the ocean floor dropping away to around 2000 metres at the edge of the reef, the real draw cards are in the deep. Tuna, leopard shark, manta rays and barracuda can be seen in the abyss, and even whale sharks put in an appearance. But it’s the hammerhead sharks that top many divers’ wish lists, as this is one of the few places in the world you can expect to see hundreds of hammerheads.
April and May are the best months to see them. Sightings aren’t guaranteed every dive but, at depths of 30-40 metres, if you’re patient enough you can find yourself amongst schools of over 100 sharks, each around three metres in length. Stay for a full week and dive every day to maximise your chances.
There are around 20 different dive sites to choose from at Layang Layang, all accessible via a short boat ride from the island. Each site is spectacular in its own right, but some offer more chance of hammerhead sightings than others.
Most hammerhead dives start at ‘The Point’. Here, divers swim away from the reef and descend into the blue to about 30-35 metres, before ascending slowly back up the reef wall. ‘D’Wall’ is another top spot. Here, the sheer wall is adorned with crustaceans, sea fans and soft corals. Schools of surgeons and jacks teem around the reef, with white and grey tipped sharks and manta rays common visitors, alongside schools of hammerheads which can be seen cruising in the abyss.
Hanging out with hammerheads, by bocagrandelasvegas, Flickr.
Hanging out with hammerheads, by bocagrandelasvegas, Flickr.

‘Dogtooth Lair’ is famous for its barracuda, jacks, butterflyfish and, of course, dogtooth tuna. But these can quickly become overshadowed when the hammerheads come into view. ‘Gorgonian Forest’ is a particularly beautiful dive site, where hammerheads can be seen soaring above the barrel sponges, gorgonian fans and giant clams.
‘Wrasse Strip’ is renowned for its intricate and techicolour corals. Hammer-heads have been known to arrive in their hundreds and the small caverns here are home to batfish, sweet lips, soldier fish and trigger fish.
But Laying Layang isn’t all about hammerheads, and if you’re not lucky enough to bump into a school whilst you’re out there, your log book will still be bursting with spectacular sightings and dramatic dive sites, which have earned the island its nickname, “Jewel of the Borneo Banks”.
‘Sharks’ Cave’ is a tranquil cavern where leopard sharks rest amongst the sea fans; ‘The Valley’ is a magnet for groupers, sweet-lips, surgeon fish and fusiliers, as well as flat-worms, nudibranchs and crustations. With its abundance of small tropical reef fish, ‘Wreck Point’ is a good option for snorkelers, and divers can descend over the edge to find manta rays, dogtooth tuna and reef sharks. This is also a good spot for night diving, where huge bumphead parrot fish can be found sleeping in the shallow drop-off.
To get to Layang Layang take the hour-long chartered flight from Kota Kinabalu in Sabah. There’s only one resort on the island, which stays open for just four months of the year, with the monsoon season putting it off limits for the remainder.
Layang Layang is also known as ‘Jewel of the Borneo Banks’, by U.U. Nudi, Flickr.
Layang Layang is also known as ‘Jewel of the Borneo Banks’, by U.U. Nudi, Flickr.

As an isolated island, with no decompression chamber, safety is paramount and so dive rules are tight. Don’t expect to go boozing at lunchtime and then head back into the water – it’s not allowed. There’s a no gloves policy, maximum depths are set at 40 metres and no decompression time is allowed. There’s no Nitrox gas available and so technical dives are off the menu.
A breeding ground for thousands of sea swallows, avid bird-watchers could also enjoy a few days here, with black-napped terns, Pacific golden plovers and Plumed egrets amongst the highlights.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to find out more about travelling to Malaysia, please visit the Tourism Malaysia website

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Hiking in Malaysia's National Parks

The oldest tropical rainforest in the world - Taman Negara Nationa Park. Pic: HooLengSiong, Flickr.
Taman Negara Nationa Park. Pic: HooLengSiong, Flickr.


From high-altitude mountain tops to underground caves, virgin rainforests to alpine ecosystems, and freshwater swamps to salty shorelines; Malaysia’s National Parks make up an area comparable in size to the United Kingdom and stretch from Sabah and Sarawak, on Borneo, to Peninsula Malaysia. Most reserves offer a range of trails suitable for anyone from the occasional walker through to pioneering explorers.
The 4343 sq km Taman Negara, on Peninsula Malaysia, is the world’s oldest tropical rainforest. It has been protected since 1938 and forms the country’s largest conservation area. The flora and fauna here has evolved over millions of years and can be experienced via day-long treks, extended expeditions, night safaris or canopy-level walkways. Ambitious trekkers can tackle the 4-7 day ascent of Gunung Tahan (2,187 m) the highest mountain in Peninsular Malaysia.
Renowned for: Ancient flora and fauna
For the best experience: Book a multi-day trek
 Endau-Rompin National Park is the second largest in Peninsular Malaysia. The 900 sq km park nurtures a host of rare species such as Peninsula Malaysia’s largest population of Sumatran rhinoceros and native Malay tribes like theOrang Asli people. It also features outstanding natural landscapes. A trekking highlight is the route to the three waterfalls, Pandan, Beringin and Tinggi – a cascade over volcanic rock formations dating back 200 million years.
Renowned for: Waterfalls and Sumatran rhinoceros
For the best experience: Spend at least three days here and visit the waterfalls
Sumatran Rhino - Peninsula Malaysia’s biggest population is found in Endau-Rompin National Park. Pic: Just chaos, Flickr.
Sumatran Rhino -  Endau-Rompin National Park. Pic: Just chaos, Flickr.
 At just 10 sq miles, Penang National Park is Malaysia’s smallest – you could explore it in one day. Highlights include nesting beaches for endangered turtles, shorelines patrolled by macaque monkeys and one of the few mixed saltwater and freshwater lakes in the world. Take your pick from three different marked trails, or explore the park via the canopy walkway.
Renowned for: Its compact size
For the best experience: Stay a couple of days
Batang Ai National Park, in Sarawak, links with Lanjak-Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary (Malaysia) and the Bentuang-Karimun National Park (Indonesia) to form 10,000 sq km of protected rainforest. The park boasts Borneon gibbons, hornbills, giant squirrels, the clouded leopard, Malaysian honeyguide and the densest concentration of orang-utans in central Borneo. Experience the diversity via the five marked trails; visitors must be accompanied by a registered guide.
Renowned for: Orang-utan sightings
For the best experience: Book a multi-day orang-utan spotting expedition
10,000 sq km of protected rainforest - Batang Ai National Park. Pic: tajai, Flickr
Batang Ai National Park. Pic: tajai, Flickr
Niah National Park, in Sarawak, harbours 31 sq km of dense forest and is considered one of the world’s most important archaeological reserves. Thought to be one of the birthplaces of civilisation, the oldest human remains in Southeast Asia were found here in 1958 at the Niah caves. Watched over by the summit of Gunung Subis (394m) this small reserve draws archaeologists, ecologists and tourists from across the globe, and is marked with a network of trails.
Renowned for: Archaeology
For the best experience: Explore the caves and then walk through the forest at sunset to see millions of swarming swiflets and bats
Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak has also been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2000. Best known for its spectacular limestone karsts, Mulu is characterised by its network of underground caves and its razor-sharp rock formations, known as ‘The Pinnacles’. Home to some of the largest caves in the world, it’s thought that around 70 per cent of these still lie undiscovered.
Renowned for: Caving and limestone karsts
For the best experience: Hike to the Pinnacles or explore the underground caves
Bako National Park, is Sarawak’s oldest park. Located near Kuching, Bako stretches along the coastline for around 27 sq km featuring plunging cliffs, white sandy beaches and craggy headlands. Seventeen colour-coded trails offer a range of challenges. A guide is invaluable for pointing out the mouse dear, bearded pigs, proboscis monkeys and other wildlife.
Renowned for: High concentration of wildlife and plant diversity
For the best experience: Look for proboscis monkeys along the Telok Delima trail
Kinabalu National Park in Sabah was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000, and over its 754 sq km boasts every type of plant-life, from eucalyptus to oak. It is also crowned by Mount Kinabalu (4,095m) – Malaysia’s tallest mountain. The astounding diversity of flora and fauna, spectacular scenery and irresistible summits here draw in excess of 400,000 visitors each year.
Renowned for: Mountain climbing and biodiversity
For the best experience: Attempt the Mount Kinabalu ascent
tallest mountain in Malaysia – Mount Kinabalu. Pic: Chang'r, Flickr.
tallest mountain in Malaysia – Mount Kinabalu. Pic: Chang'r, Flickr.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to find out more about travelling to Malaysia, please visit the Tourism Malaysia website

Muck Diving in Malaysia


WHERE to dive with hairy frogfish and pygmy seahorses.
It’s got to be the most unappealing sounding sport but, for many divers, muck diving is the holy grail of scuba. And if the name isn’t enough to put you off, the sell that follows might do: with limited visibility, shallow dive sites, no stunning corals and zero chance of seeing deep-sea wrecks or big pelagic fish, it’s a wonder that so many divers have been inspired to try out this painstaking discipline. But those who do, however, rarely look back…
The appeal of muck diving is in the bizarre, extraordinary and disgustingly beautiful. Paradise for photographers, muck diving allows them to capture some of the ocean’s rarest inhabitants, snapping intricate and sophisticated species right up-close, in calm and controlled waters.
Paradise for macro photographers – Nudibranch. Pic: Nicolas Voisin, Flickr.
Paradise for macro photographers – Nudibranch. Pic: Nicolas Voisin, Flickr.
Instead of competing with your dive buddies to spot sharks and manta-rays, muck divers slowly and meticulously scan the seabed, searching for minute creatures, some less than a centimetre or so long, known as critters. In comparison to most other types of diving, poor visibility, suspended particles and silty sea-beds are of less concern, as the creatures you’re looking for are never more than a few centimetres from your face.
Typical critters to look out for include multi-coloured nudibranchs, pipefish, frogfish and seahorses, but there are millions more species lurking in the muck, many still unidentified, which simply adds to the appeal.
Muck diving in Mabul – Transparent Nudibranch. Pic: Nicolas Voisin, Flickr.
Muck diving in Mabul – Transparent Nudibranch. Pic: Nicolas Voisin, Flickr.
A big attraction of muck diving is that anyone can do it. No special equipment is required and, typically diving at shallower depths, the risk of decompression sickness is reduced. Excellent buoyancy, however, is important – your fellow divers won’t thank you if you spend your muck dive bobbing up and down on the seabed, finning up clouds of silt.
Some of the best muck diving spots in the world are found in South East Asia. Places like the Lembeh Straits and Secret Bay, in Indonesia, enjoy international fame. But one of the most illustrious muck diving sites of all is found in the waters just off Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo.
Mabul Island is a location synonymous with muck diving. Located off the north-east coast of Sabah, a 25 minute boat ride north of Sipadan Island, Mabul is a magnet for muck divers and one of the best places on the planet for macro photography. This tiny island has a coral reef that slips down to form a sandy bottom, freckled with coral growth and teeming with macro life and molluscs. Nudibranchs, shrimp and exotic urchins; purple and red fire gobies; seahorses and multicoloured frogfish can all be found here in clear, 30 degree waters, alongside loads of lobster and crabs, as well as every species of pipefish known to man.
Ghost Pipefish – one of many in Mabul. Pic: Nicolas Voisin, Flickr.
Ghost Pipefish – one of many in Mabul. Pic: Nicolas Voisin, Flickr.
There are stacks of muck diving sites to choose from at Mabul, but the grassy seabed at Crocodile Avenue is a favourite with many. This is the place to see crocodile-fish and garden eels, as well as seamoths, seahorses and the occasional eagle ray. Night dives are also popular here, where you can shine your torch over the colourful cuttlefish, nudibranchs and crabs.
Or, for the best frog-fish encounters, head to the aptly named Froggy Lair, where you can also expect to see cuttlefish and cowries, alongside ornate pipefish and numerous nudibranchs.
Another exciting dive site at Mabul is Eel garden, where colourful gobies and garden eels inhabit a network of tunnels in the sandy seabed. Blue ribbon eels, cleaning shrimp, rose-red frogfish and lemon-coloured moray eels are also commonly sighted here.
Crazy critters - Nudibranh nembrotha chamberlaini. Pic: Nicolas Voisin, Flickr.
Nudibranh nembrotha chamberlaini. Pic: Nicolas Voisin, Flickr.
Muck diving in Malaysia doesn’t have to be all about Mabul though. If you fancy giving it a go but don’t want to make the trek down to Borneo, then Peninsula Malaysia still has some surprisingly good offerings, from the mimic octopus at Pulau Rumbia, on the west coast, to seahorse-filled sites in the north: coral fringed and best known for sea turtles, sharks and spectacular wrecks, muck diving in the Perhentian Islands is often overlooked but, from rarely seen nudibranchs and stacks of seahorses, to frogfish and blue ringed octopus’, it’s all here.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to find out more about travelling to Malaysia, please visit the Tourism Malaysia website

Monday, 3 September 2012

Malaysia's Biggest Annual Sports Events

Post three of my work for Tourism Malaysia this week details the country's best annual sports events. From the Grand Prix to Monsoon Cup, read Malaysia's Biggest Annual Sports Events to find out what's on over the next 12 months.

World's best dive sites?


Malaysia is packed with world-class scuba-diving sites. Three of the very best are:
Layang Layang - an isolated dive spot off  the north coast of Sabah where some of the richest marine biodiversity and clearest waters in Malaysia are found - a magnet for manta rays and hammer head sharks; Sipadan - found in the Celebes Sea and famed for its drop-offs, wall dives and breeding turtles; and Tioman - a jungle-clad island, surrounded  reefs, wrecks and underwater caves.
Find out more about these dive sites in my recent blog for Travelwire Asia, Malaysia: Three of the best dive spots - part of a publication for Tourism Malaysia
Swarming shoals at Layand Layang. Pic: UU. Nudi, Flickr.

Getting up-close with turtles at Sipadan. Pic: Fudj, Flickr.

Borneo basics


If you've never been to Borneo, better get your skates on. With the rainy season kicking in at the end of October, you've got about eight weeks left of 2012 to discover one of the most magical places on the planet.

For most people, Borneo means orang-utans, and this was the impetus for my first-ever trip to the island, back in 2002. Still at uni, I couldn't have been more excited as I packed my long shirts (to hold back the bugs), rubber boots (to resist the leather-eating peat bogs) and read up on howler monkeys, orang-utan nests and floating villages.
To most people, Borneo means 'orang-utans'

But when I told my friends and family I was off to 'Kalimantan', they hadn't a clue where I was going. Despite being the third largest island on the planet and home to one of the oldest rainforests in the world, only a fraction of UK tourists seem to know that Borneo is actually divided between three separate countries: Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. 

Borneo's virgin rainforests have suffered from deforestation

Kalimantan, the Indonesian section, covers around 73% of Borneo's land mass. Found in the southern area of the island, it's home to unique peat swamp forests, which harbour rare species, including orang-utans. One of the most heavily forested areas of Borneo, Kalimantan has seen vast sections of its rainforest cleared for the farming and logging industries during the '70s and '80s. With the environmental impacts of these clearances brought to the limelight - most notably through the reduction in orang-utan populations - reforestation programs and environmental campaigns have seen positive steps taken towards the regeneration of Kalimantan's precious habitats in recent years. 

Kalimantan is best known for its orphaned orang-utans

Brunei: Borneo's only sovereign state is found on the north coast and is vastly different to the Indonesian and Malaysian sections of the island. Extensive petroleum and natural gas fields have fuelled significant economic growth, which has made Brunei one of the most developed and wealthiest countries in SE Asia. Nonetheless, Brunei still has its fair share of rainforests, with lowland forests covering much of the country and mountainous forests found further inland. 

Brunei is one of the richest countries in SE Asia

Sabah and Sarawak: Malaysia claims two states in Borneo, together covering around 26% of the island and, for most tourists, this is the place to come. Travel and tourist infrastructure is better than in Kalimantan and, although significant logging for palm oil plantations has occurred here, several wildlife reserves and protected areas make it easier for tourists to interact. Sabah and Sarawak also offer some of the best opportunities for hiking in Borneo, and with well-marked trails in the national parks, exploring without a guide is manageable.  

Sabah and Sarawak have some of the most accessible hiking trails in  Borneo

Read more about my adventures in Kalimantan in my article 'Up the creek in an orange carton', which was long-listed for the Bradt Travel Writing Awards 2011, or discover the Best places to hike in Sabah and Sarawak in my recent blog-post for Travelwire Asia - an article that was part of a publication for Tourism Malaysia

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

The Isle of Wight: How to holiday in Yarmouth


Less than half an hour's hop across the Solent, The Isle of Wight remains one of England's most accessible island retreats. Earlier this month, I spent a spectacular weekend here, just outside the town of Yarmouth, where we walked, ran, fished, surfed, dined, drank and soaked up the sights.
Yarmouth - Isle of Wight

Here's how to repeat the experience...

Getting there

On foot – A  high-speed catamaran service runs between Portsmouth train station and Ryde harbour (Iow), with a journey time of 20 minutes. Foot passengers can also take the slower, but cheaper, car ferry from Portsmouth harbour (a 10 minute walk from Portsmouth train station). To arrive in Yarmouth itself, from Lymington Pier (New Forest)  take the Wight Link ferry directly to Yarmouth. Details of all services can be found at the Wight Link website. Alternatively, Red Funnel operate the service from Southampton to East Cowes.When on the island, The Isle of Wight also runs a very effective public transport service – see Island Buses.

By car –
Car ferries leave hourly, every day of the week between Portsmouth and Ryde; Southampton and East Cowes; and Lyminton and Yarmouth. See the Wight Link or Red Funnel website.


Staying there

With a family of 6, a baby and a dog - Fulfilling the needs of our ever-growing family, we stayed at Treetops holiday cottage, just outside Yarmouth. We choose this three bedroom bungalow for its spacious lounge and huge landscaped garden - ideal for bbqs, lawn games and Twiglet the dog.

Up to 8 people: There's plenty of options for larger lodgings. For something even bigger, this fresh, light and spacious cottage is well-equipped and offers an additional cot room, if needed: Cottage for 8.

A family of 4: Yarmouth has lots to choose from in the way of 2-beds too: This snug cottage maybe overly cosy but it's superbly central, if getting to the shops, restaurants and drinking holes is more important than personal space.

As a couple: From B&Bs to luxury hotels, couples can take their pick...
Medlars - think quaint country cottage with crisp linen  
The George hotel - expect panelled walls, four poster beds and views across the solent (luxury)
The Boat House - an open-plan studio apartment in a converted boathouse which sites right on the beach.
The Bugle Inn - basic rooms in a central location


Where to...

Have coffee in the sun: Norton Grange has a spectacular waterfront coffee lounge, set on manicured lawns that overlook the Solent. It's a five minute walk from  Treetops holiday cottage, or Yarmouth town.

Norton Grange coffee spot

Have coffee when it’s wet: The Gossips Café in Yarmouth town is a fantastic little find, with great views across the Solent.  We went for yummy cream-teas and  delicious ice-creams when a storm was brewing and watched the boats struggling in the winds.

Gossips Cafe
Drink wine by the water: By far the best place in Yarmouth for outside drinking is the George Hotel. Don't be put off by the quieter than quiet lobby or the subdued bar area - walk right through to the back and you'll find a beer garden that beats all others, at just the right angle to catch the evening rays.

The 'beer garden' at the George Hotel

Have a few pints:  The Bugle Inn  was our favourite drinking hole in Yarmouth. With a decked beer garden and plenty of cubby-holes and booth areas to sit in, there's a good vibe here and always plenty of seating. The menu looked good too.


Eat somewhere a bit different: Salty’s fish restaurant, in Yarmouth, is reputed to be one of the best, as well as most interesting, places to eat on the island. However, it was closed (without explanation) when we were there. Plan B was to try On the Rocks, where you can cook your own steaks and seafood on black volcanic rocks. Sadly, another dead end for us, so we ended up at the Red Lion in Freshwater, where the food was fine and the landlord fantastically friendly.

Salty's - when open

Buy the best bread: The Deli in the centre of Yarmouth bakes lovely loaves – not to be missed! Also a good place to pick up cheeses and luxury versions of most groceries, from gourmet granola to posh pasta - although Cost Cutter across the road is far cheaper.

How to…

Walk to The Needles: The Isle of Wight Coastal Path run right through Yarmouth Town and starts just a few paces from Treetops holiday cottage. The seven mile stroll to the Isle of Wight's most iconic feature takes you along sandy beaches, walking through woods and clambering along cliff-tops. Follow the footpath as far as the Needles and catch a bus back to Yarmouth, or carry on as far as Brighstone (14 miles).   Be sure to stop off at Barefoot on the Beach cafe and restaurant in Colwell Bay for teas, local ice-creams or lunch. They also do evening meals, which range from moules frites, to beef and oyster pie with wasabi mash. See this map of the walking route for details.

The Needles - a landmark not to be missed
Go surfing: The Isle of Wight’s best surf beach is just a few miles drive away at Freshwater Bay. Compton Bay is also an option. Hire boards and book lessons with the island's mobile surf school.

Surf lessons in the Isle of Wight
Go mackerel fishing: Black Rock Charters offer mackerel spinning trips between May and September on their 31ft boat, complete with a loo and a galley. Other trips on offer include private charters and full day fishing trips.

Ready for the barbeque
Swim safely in the sea: Yarmouth’s bathing area is clearly marked with a ring of yellow buoys, and can be found just to the west of the river. We took a dip and found the water to be spectacularly clear and funny-stuff-free. The beach itself is also pleasant and the sunken wooden groynes make an ideal perch for drying wet feet.

Go for an easy pub walk: There are plenty of pubs in Yarmouth itself, but if you want to amble for your ale, follow the F1 Freshwater footpath to the Red Lion. The footpath takes in stunning views down towards the harbour, as you stroll through fields of clover, bluebells, buttercups and black sheep.  It’s a beautiful 1.5 mile walk to the pub, where the food is good and the landlord is fantastically welcoming – just don’t forget to switch off your phone as the Red Lion is a mobile-free zone and any offenders will be required to pay a £1 fine to the RNLI.

If teas and cakes are more your thing, stop just before the pub at the Kings Manor Farm and enjoy clotted cream and scones in the sun. You can also stock up on meat and cheese at the farm shops.

Have a hearty morning run: You can’t beat a morning run along the beach, through a field, wood or along a river bank – at Yarmouth you get all four. Set off along the F1 walking route towards the Red Lion. At the Red Lion, turn left towards Freshwater Bay and then break off left again to run back to Yarmouth along the marked bridleway. This wide path takes you through the woods and back into Yarmouth harbour along the river. Cross the road at Yarmouth to jog home along the seafront (stopping off for a dip in the bathing area if it takes your fancy) and then back to Treetops along the road. A fantastic four mile start to the day!


Tuesday, 15 May 2012

A round-up of my trips this year


So far, 2012 has seen me swimming in Antarctica, riding waves in Morocco and walking on Wight. 

Here's a quick round-up of my 2012 trips so far:


January
Antarctica: I spent three weeks at the end of the world, travelling onboard the M/S Expedition with G-Adventures - see January and February's FalklandsSouth Georgia and Antarctica, blog posts for the highlights. The trip was a prize for winning The Guardian's Adventure Travel Writing competition 2012. An article about my experiences 'down south' will be featured in the Guardian's travel pages later this year.

February
Dorset and The New Forest: Having thawed out from Antarctica, I took a group of A-level Geography students to two of my favourite UK travel destinations: Studland Bay and The New Forest. White-sanded beaches, unseasonally warm weather, New Forest Ponies and the smell of pine needles... there really is no need to travel to the ends of the earth to feel completely contented. Highlights included afternoon teas at Acres Down Farm and cream buns in Lyndhurst - both cake-related activities, I know.

March
Northern Ireland: On commission with The Mail on Sunday I visited Belfast to celebrate the official opening of Titanic Belfast - now the biggest Titanic experience in the world. Read my full article at The Mail Online: Putting Northern Ireland's Capital back on the Map.

April
Morocco: Writing for TNT Magazine, I spent a week at Surf Maroc, in Taghazout, as a member of a 'girls only' surf camp. Alongside surfing down the face of double-overhead waves and soaring through barrels (yeah, right), the complete package included souk shopping, Moroccan hammams and massages, traditional teas and film evenings - pretty much my ideal holiday! To find out more, read my article at TNT online: Babes on Boards; or flick to p70 of the TNT emag.

French Alps: Travelling with the superb YSE Chalets and catching a lift back to the airport with the super-efficient Snowdrop Transfers, I spent a long weekend in Val d'Isere, chasing 'fluro-onesies', straight-skiers and mono-boards around the mountain. To find out more, you'll have to wait to read my article in Ski and Board Magazine in one of next season's magazines.

May
Isle of Wight: Popping over for the Isle of Wight Walking Festival, I'm in the process of testing-out a stack of shiny new gear from Berghaus. So far, my Exterra Trek walking boots have stomped from Yarmouth to The Needles, and tried to catch up with the end of 'Walk the Wight' - a 26 mile yomp from Bembridge to the Needles.  

Upcoming trips...

May: Next weekend I'll be journeying down to Devon for a weekend of surfing in Bigbury Bay and rowing up the River Yealm, at Newton Ferrers.

June: Fingers crossed for the weather, as I'll be exploring my home city of Brighton, as well as Canadian canoeing down the River Wye, stepping out on the brand new All Wales Coastpath and, if time permits, popping over to Northern Spain to check out the early summer swells.

July: It's off to the Scilly Isles for me this summer. I'll be discovering how to do the 'Scillies on a shoestring', experiencing the more extreme side of the isles, as well as exploring the uninhabited islands of one of England's largest archipelagos. I'll be writing for The Online Travel Journal and am looking to take on more commissions - feel free to contact me for content.

August: On my annual pilgrimage to Menorca, I'll be looking forward to seeing the Cami de Cavalls footpath restoration one year on, as well as exploring as many of the island's hidden beaches and coves as  I can via kayak.



Friday, 17 February 2012

Sport Diver Awards 2012

The dive gloves are off! Sport Diver Magazine has announced the launch of its 2012 scuba-diving awards and the votes are already coming in. This is your chance to support your favourite people, places, manufacturers and businesses in the dive market. Voting is open throughout February and March, with the winners announced at the London International Dive Show in late-March.

In addition to promoting excellence in the dive industry, voters will also be in with a chance of winning one of two prize packages, each worth around £5,500. Both prize packages include a week-long Red Sea liveaboard holiday, as well as a stack of scuba equipment.

Prize one is a Red Sea liveaboard adventure, courtesy of blueotwo.com and includes a 5mm O’Neill wetsuit, Otter Watersports drysuit, dive computer, BCD, hoses and regs, Epoque camera and housing, underwater photography course and loads more.

Prize two’s Red Sea liveaboard holiday is courtesy of Scuba Travel and includes a 3mm Proteus wetsuit and Robin Hood Watersports drysuit, with hoses, regs and stacks more scuba stuff from other top brands.

THE CATEGORIES:

Best Manufacturer (Code: MANS)
The brand that you think can be relied on every-time, to deliver top-notch gear.

Best Tour Operator (Code: TOUR)
The company that has given you your best-ever dive experiences, helping you to plan your perfect trip and offering expert advice along the way.

Best Liveaboard (Code: LIVE)
If you’ve stayed on a fantastic liveaboard that was well-run with attentive staff and an astounding
itinerary, this is your chance to vote for them.

Best UK Dive Centre (Code: UK)
Which local dive centre truly embraces the spirit of UK diving? Perhaps they organise outstanding trips, host excellent parties, or are true experts in your local area.

Best Overseas Dive Centre (Code: OS)
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Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Vanishing Ice 27/1/2012

As infinite and diverse as clouds 

Our final day on the peninsula carried a subdued undertone, as we boarded the Zodiacs for the last time. After visiting the Chilean research base at Paradise Bay, we cruised the waters one last time, still transfixed by the world of ice sculptures and glaciers that rose and crumbled, bobbed and swayed around us.

Final kayak cruise through the Antarctic waters

The luminous underbelly of Antarctic ice
Overwhelming glaciers near the Chilean base

We beached the Zodiac on snowy pancakes and starred at seals whose gashed sides and bloody mouths reminded us again of the everyday survival game played out here. We pulled up besides penguin colonies to smell the familiar pong of guano and regurgitated krill for the last time; we watched the popping chests and peach coloured-beaks of the gentoos as they heralded our departure with resounding calls; we starred through the clear water beneath our boat as penguins darted beneath us, flashing their white chests and pink feet as the propelled themselves across the surface; we pulled up beside the crumbling snout of an exposed glacier and sat in silence, gazing at its fissured surface, tracing our eyes over the intracity of the ruptured ice and glowing crevasses  we drew breath as detonated blocks collapsed into the water and sent waves across the surface that rocked our Zodiac; we followed nuggets of ice as they drifted on currents; listened as freshly calved ice fizzed and crackled in the water; deciphered the contorted shapes of elaborate iceberg sculptures and starred at their luminous-blue bellies that glowed beneath the surface.


Final Zodiac cruise in Antarctica


Endless ice sculptures in Antarctica
The waves created by recently carved ice
 "As diverse and infinite as clouds" John - our Zodiac driver and ship's naturalist - remarked, sensing our ceaseless fascination with Antarctica's frozen vistas.

The soft skin of a crabeater seal

So-long seals -sating goodbye to Antarctica's inhabtants
Reflections and depths of Antarctica's ice



Gentoos at the Chilean base


Departure
We stayed out on deck to watch Antarctica melt away, each of us willing the ice to close back in. But as the ship gained speed, the landscape of white gorges and unnamed Antarctic peaks dissolved to give clear horizons and towering bergs became occasional ice-cubes in the open sea. It's with heavy hearts that we leave Antarctica behind and begin our passage back to Ushuaia, across the whale-playground of the Gerlache Strait and brave it through the notorious Drake Passage, past the infamous Cape Horn and back to Argentina via the Beagle Channel.


Gentoo chicks at the Chilean base 

At the Chilean base on the Antarctic Peninsular
Time to head home 
This blog-post forms part of a series of adventures experienced on-board the M/S Expedition in January 2012, whilst on an Antarctic Cruise - The Spirit of Shackleton - courtesy of Gadventures

Port Lockroy 26/1/2012

We visited the the British base of Port Lockroy after supper. In January, this far south - at 64º49’S63º30’W - the sun never quite makes it below the horizon and so we made the most of the long evening, exploring the base and nearby gentoo colony until almost 11pm.


Port Lockroy - the original base of the British Antarctic Survey



Gentoos wave to the M/S Expedition at Port Lockroy

Designated a Historic Site in 1994, Port Lockroy - which sits on Goudier Island - was renovated by The British Antarctic Survey in 1996 and has since welcomed visitors. With the original base, living quarters and scientific equipment preserved, this site gives a fascinating glimpse into the early years of Antarctic research and survival. Despite the humble conditions and lack of hot water, the quaint kitchen and living quarters breathed an element of home and comfort into the icy Antarctic world, particularly when viewed through the panes of the kitchen window or modest bedroom, whose view of the resident glaciers and gentoo penguin colony was framed with gingham curtains.




The kitchen at Port Lockroy, Antarctica

An original bedroom - complete with gingham curtains
Today, Port Lockroy is home to a handful of volunteers and scientists, who maintain the gift-shop and museum, and carry out daily surveys of the gentoo penguins that occupy Goudier Island. With strict environmental controls still in place, despite occupying newer living quarters built alongside  the original, even today's BAS representatives survive here without hot water and make do by boiling up pans of ice. Brrrrrrrrrrrr.

The original comms room at Port Lockroy, Antarctica


2012's accommodation has no hot water

This blog-post forms part of a series of adventures experienced on-board the M/S Expedition in January 2012, whilst on an Antarctic Cruise - The Spirit of Shackleton - courtesy of Gadventures