We didn’t get eaten by bears

 

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Still alive!

Canada is bear country – let’s face facts. Once in a while in the local news you hear about bear sightings nearby, as in 20 minutes up the road, and you are reminded that Canada is one big-assed country with a lot of wildlife (unless you live in Toronto).

Nonetheless, we embarked upon our first, and definitely not our last, camping experience. Summer is short in Canada, and camp sites tend to get booked up fast, which is why we went just before the summer break. As a result we ended up having the entire campsite almost to ourselves, which certainly makes it easier to pee in the bush when you wake up in the morning with a bursting bladder.

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Zero neighbours

The Warsaw Caves are a natural wonder, with a forest surrounded by 350-million-year-old limestone which was carved away by moving glaciers and erosion. There are dozens of caves within the conservation area, though only seven are ‘open’ to the public. It seemed like a really unique place to go camping, because how many camp sites have their own spelunking adventure?

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Warsaw Caves is not a big tourist attraction like the Scenic Caves in Collingwood – there are few signs to lead the way other than a big number on a board nailed to a tree, there are no lights in the caves, and it’s easy to get the feeling that if you wandered away for ten minutes you might not find your way back to the campground!

While there are only seven caves, they do take some time to explore, because you can go into all of them. Some are large enough to stand up in, maneuver through, and then come out the other side back to the surface. Some you go down into, take a peek, and them come out again.

You must take your own flashlights, or even better, headlights, because you need your hands for climbing around. Some caves you would need to take off your backpack in order to squeeze through so if you get claustrophobic… well, you won’t like this. We left our bags in the car so that our hands would be free.

After the caves, there is another trail from the car park that takes you to see the lookout point and the ‘kettles’ – a pothole formed when granite stones trapped in the river current were spun around in place, grinding their way into the underlying limestone. Some are tiny, like the size of your palm, and dot the trail, but one in particular is HUGE and very deep. To get into it, you don’t go from the top; instead you go down into the valley, and then put yourself into the kettle.

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What I liked best about this experience was the natural beauty of the forest. Because the limestone had been eroded over hundreds of millions of years, it created so many caverns, cliffs and valleys, and from inside some very determined trees were making their way sunward. It made for very interesting terrain and scenery. We also came across loads of fossils embedded in the limestone which, if you’re a big nerd like me, was super cool.

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So, while we didn’t get eaten by bears, we were surrounded by wildlife, even if we could not see them, particularly in the wee hours of the morning.

The first night gave us wild, horrible shrieking of some animal in distress, perhaps a small mammal whose mother has just been taken away by coyotes, because the screaming echoed through the forest and lasted a good 15 minutes. The next morning we awoke to the sound of a bellowing moose somewhere nearby. It was surprisingly loud!

And of course there are other little critters like racoons, squirrels and chipmunks who want to climb all over the coolers looking for something to eat, or perhaps drink, as one morning we found two of our beer cans in the forest.

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Where’s the beer??

Despite the mozzies, the things that go bump in the night, and the lack of sleep, this was an awesome camping trip and I can’t wait to go camping again! Canada rocks!

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Scenic Caves – Collingwood

Having guests is a great motivator to get out there and try somewhere or something new. So when some friends from Hong Kong came through Toronto, we headed a short drive north to Collingwood to visit the Scenic Caves.

Set in a beautiful forest, with an easy to follow though hilly trail, there are 17 caves in total to explore, as well as the longest suspension footbridge in Ontario (see above). It took well over two hours to do the entire cave trail as it winds through the woods and down into a fantastic steep canyon. Some of the caves are big enough that you can stand in, and some you just take a peep into the deepest part.

One cave in particular was a VERY tight squeeze – aptly named the Fat Man’s Misery. You could potentially go through the narrowest spot to come out the other side, but only if you are a small year old child with no body fat!

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Despite the heat, a number of the caves still had ice in them, such as the ‘Natural Refrigerator’ which apparently was used for food storage by early native tribes. There are also spots where the Petun tribe, which used to live in this area, held council and fought battles.

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The cave trail is a loop, meaning you start with #1 and finish at #17 which returns you to the car park and office. You definitely need proper shoes as the rocks can be damp and very slippery, but you don’t need anything like flashlights or headlamps as there are lights in the caves already. If you’re with kids, after doing this cave trail there is also a fantastic playground, and a large pond with ravenous seagulls.

Mono Cliffs – Instagram lies!

You can’t always believe everything you see and read about online, especially when it comes to travel.

A lot of times we see an incredible image and think, ‘Wow, I want to go there just to see THAT, to stand there and take the same picture of this exact spot’. 

Well, sometimes Instagram and Facebook can paint a picture of something that is not quite a true reflection of reality. Kind of like that article from Bored Panda about Travel Expectations Vs. Reality which lists famous sights that tourists dream about and then shatters the fantasy by showing the reality – overrun with tourists, dirty, crowded.

It seems people have been flocking to Mono Cliffs Provincial Park in recent weeks to find this one specific spot called Jacob’s Ladder, after popular Canadian website Narcity published an article with beautiful photography of the area. We were not the only ones drawn in by promises of limestone crevasses and ‘caves’, because another family we met on trail said quite bluntly ‘We read about these caves on Facebook and came to find them. Do you know where they are?’  At least for us it was just a 15 minute drive from home – but those people had driven all the way from Toronto!

We did indeed find it, and yes it IS scenic, but what the Narcity article doesn’t mention is that is actually just a tiny little area, really just a small set of steps through the rocks.

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It was nice to see, don’t get me wrong, but the article fails to mention that the bottom of the steps is COMPLETELY FENCED OFF and not even part of a trail! We were quite disappointed. It literally took 30 seconds to see and then that was it.

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At least one person isn’t disappointed!

Ah well, it was still a beautiful day for a hike. After going back up the steps, we did the loop called the McCarston’s Lake Side Trail which took us around a beautiful lake and back to the parking area. It was around 4km and took roughly an hour and a bit. The signs in the park do not give any indication of trail length. There were LOTS of mosquitoes out so if you go be sure to wear long pants and carry repellant.

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If you still want to see Jacob’s Ladder, don’t let me deter you. Mono Cliffs IS indeed a very beautiful provincial park with many different trails. So as my gift to you – other than the gift of knowledge that the ladder area is teeny tiny and fenced off and not some magical gateway to a hobbit’s village –  is the map which shows where the damn thing is.

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The red STAR is my recommendation on where to park. This is not the main parking lot, which is on the east side of the park. But this is the closest parking area to get to Jacob’s Ladder.

Park at the red star, walk straight on the path into the park, go to the Viewing Platform, and then after the Viewing Platform on your right is Jacob’s Ladder, the metal steps going down into the ‘caves’ (not real caves, sorry).  Jacob’s Ladder is marked with a red circle, above the word ‘stairs’.

You’re welcome! Happy trails. And, please, realistic photography.

 

Biking Island Lake

Since Island Lake is literally right around the corner, we’ve been there a lot for hiking and sightseeing. But this was the first time to do the entire lake, which is 8.2km long, on bike. What a great workout! And what a beautiful day.

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Island Lake is a 400 acre reservoir with a number of small islands in the middle which are connected by wooden bridges and walkways. Many people go for hiking, fishing and kayaking in the spring and summer, and ice fishing and cross country skiing in the winter. Unfortunately you cannot rent bikes there, which is a shame because except for a few uphill areas the paths are mostly very easy!

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We have walked the entire 8.2km before, which took more than 2 hours.

You can either pay to park inside the conservation area, or there is free parking at the Home Hardware on Highway 10. Then just cross the roads at the traffic light and join the Vicki Barron Lakeside Trail.

 

Belfountain Conservation Area

So the goal this summer is to go somewhere, every single weekend, rain or shine, and enjoy the great outdoors before the deep freeze returns, forcing people to hide indoors for roughly five months. There’s nothing like the threat of winter to make you carpe that god damn diem!

Last weekend we hit up Belfountain Conservation Area, which has lovely hiking trails, a big pond with picnic tables, and an iconic suspension bridge which draws in lots of visitors from the city, being quite close to Brampton and Toronto.  The trails are quite easy and the walk is fine even for small kids, and you pass over some very scenic parts of the West Credit River.

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What I do have to say, though, is that the websites all make it seem like the suspension bridge is really big – but it’s small! Not that it was disappointing, it was indeed beautiful, just a wee bit shorter than we expected.

If going, I’d really suggest you get there early in the morning, like before 10am, because by the time we left in the later afternoon, the place was swarming with people and the parking lot was completely full.

Here’s some info about the hike itself:

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From the parking lot, turn right and walk on the Pond Loop until you reach the suspension bridge on your left (Gorge Loop, purple). Cross the bridge, then turn right and do the rest of the Gorge Loops. It takes you back to the suspension bridge and the pond again.

Elora Gorge

It was a sunny Easter weekend, and rather than torture myself with dreaded kids activities such as an Easter Egg Hunt, instead we packed up the car and headed to the Elora Gorge, about a 30 minute drive from home.

Elora and Fergus are two quaint little towns with large Scottish populations, and classic old buildings built from limestone as there was once large scale quarrying in this area. The Elora Gorge is the most famous landmark.

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The Gorge was pretty easy to find – we parked by the main road in town outside the visitor centre (for free) and from there it was an easy 10 minute walk through town to Victoria Park  which has a walking trail to the look out point, with really impressive views!

 

Elora is full of little pubs and restaurants, and the old downtown area is quite pretty. You can see the area is getting more trendy as there is a large hotel and spa being built along the waterfront.

 

Yup, definitely better than an Easter Egg hunt!

Mono Cliffs Provincial Park

It is supposedly spring right now – despite the temperature hovering a wee bit above 0’C – so it’s time to do some hardcore exploring during the few short months when Canada is not covered by snow.

Orangeville is a great place to live if you like the great outdoors. There are dozens of provincial parks nearby, so we went to explore the Mono Cliffs.

 

The sign on the bottom right says ‘Mono Cliffs – A Hub of Activity’ but I can’t imagine how quiet it must have been when the settlers arrived here! Mono was the teeniest little town I’ve ever seen with probably 12 houses and lots of horses… if that’s what they consider a ‘hub’ then I wonder what they’d think of Tokyo?

Anyway, the train was quite muddy as the snow was melting, but the views were still incredible. From the top of the Carriage Trail you can get a panoramic view from a look out point. There are lots of wooden steps and the trail to the look out point was a bit slippery, but it was worth the climb.

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View from the top

In the actual valley there are other trails which take you past beautiful ponds and rivers. It would have been really lovely if it had not been so muddy!

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Come on spring – hurry up and get here!!

Life in a small town

Everyone knows of course Toronto, or maybe Mississauga and Brampton where there is a high concentration of West Indians. But tell someone you’re living in Orangeville and they look at you blankly. Either that or they say, ‘why the ass are you living out there in the countryside?’

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Indeed, it is countryside – Orangeville is a small town about an hour from Toronto, with a population of around 30,000.  Once you drive past the congestion of Brampton, you suddenly find yourself surrounded on both sides by endless miles of farmland, which comes as a bit of a shock. The hills roll up and down what is known as ‘The Greenbelt’, passing a few other small towns, and then at the very top you reach Orangeville.

The town is best described as ‘cute’ or ‘quaint’, but it has everything you need, and nothing is more than 10 minutes away. Every neighborhood has a nice school which the kids walk or ride to and from. People are friendly and kind and eager to strike up a chat.

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The core ‘downtown’ strip that runs through the town is called Broadway, and it’s got a lot of charm with old, red brick buildings dating to the 1830s. Many are now galleries, little cafes, pubs, and unique shops that the locals frequent.

 

 

It has been quite an adjustment getting used to life in a small town, after living in mega cities like Tokyo and Hong Kong, with the endless hustle and bustle, people everywhere, crowded trains and sidewalks and restaurants. But strangely enough, I don’t find myself dying to drive down into Toronto. Rather, on weekends, we find ourselves driving even further out to hike in provincial parks, and explore other quaint little towns. I’ve always loved the energy of big cities, but small town life has its own charms too.

In Orangeville, the main outdoor attraction is scenic Island Lake, with beautiful hiking and biking trails. I can’t wait for the summer to try out canoeing on the lake.

 

The Canadian geese have arrived in Orangeville which can only mean one thing – the big thaw is coming! Thank god we survived this first winter. Time to bring on summer!

 

Feels Like Home

For the past decade, getting to Trinidad required a painful, mind and ass-numbing, exhausting 24-hour trip from Asia back to the Western Hemisphere. But now that I’m living in O Canada, in one easy 5-hour flight, boom! There I am in Piarco, looking at a sign that says HOSEINS ROTI SHOP. I definitely need a roti, and a Carib.

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There are some things that are just quintessentially Trini.

It’s the total and complete GREENNESS of the mountains, the trees, the plants everywhere, a sea of lush green that was like a balm for my eyes after four months of hard, cold, dull winter.

It’s the cool morning air at 6am, before the heat rises, when the sun is coming up and the kiskidees start making plenty noise like they vex – ki-ki-KEE-KA-KEE! It’s the rooster crowing somewhere down the road in the village. It’s the sound of rain on a galvanized roof, with the inevitable midday shower.

It’s the flash of a green iguana running across the road, and sight of the old veggie stand down the road which looks exactly the same as it always has for donkey’s years. It’s the man covered in white soap, bathing in the stand pipe, because WASA probably hasn’t pumped to his house.

It’s the smell of fresh Caribbean herbs while cooking – it’s picking chadon beni from the garden and chopping it with pimentos, chive and thyme. It’s the flavors of amazing food, from simple saltfish and Crix to corn soup and doubles, the rich flavor of herbs which are used to season up EVERYTHING and infuse it with deliciousness.

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From CaribbeanPot.com – click picture for recipe

It’s the man who parked his car outside the tuck shop, blocking up traffic, and coming out drinking a Guinness at 8.30 am for the morning commute. (Guinness is Good For You, right?)

It’s the TRAFFIC, good lord the traffic, the millions of cars driving the same tiny roads that were originally built for donkey carts.

It’s the way people say ‘pleasant good mornin’ when they open the door and enter an office.

It’s jiggling your legs when you sit at the table or stand washing the wares in the sink, because mosquitoes are always hiding.

It’s how the radio stations still faithfully and enthusiastically play 80’s music like it’s the hottest thing.

Some things never change! Josie’s on a vacation far away!

For me it was a short trip, but it still gave me a chance to see family and friends and soak up those uniquely Caribbean sights, sounds, and flavours.

Till next time, T&T.

Coming in from the cold

So recently I was contacted by a journalist at the Trinidad Express about writing a piece about little old me, because of my addiction to travel. It was a brief exchange, with a few questions sent back and forth, and a handful of pictures.

I did not expect to be on the front page of the Women’s Section! *feeling shy*

 

 

I just realised that both pictures have me holding a glass of sake. Oops! Ah well, I cannot hide my true colours.

THEN I realised… oh crap, I haven’t even updated the blog in a while! Better get writing.

So, what has been going on here in the True North, as I have fondly started to call Canada? Well for a few weeks in February it was brutal, with endless snow shovelling, which let me tell you is backbreaking work, especially when the bloody snow plough comes around the corner and DUMPS two feet of it on your driveway, and you have to dig your way out in order to go drop your kid to school, which takes an extra 20 minutes in the morning because you have to warm up the engine, heat up the car, scrape off the ice on the windshield and windows, get the kid in a snowsuit and boots…. phew! Winter is hard work!
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But, winter is nonetheless a beautiful and fun time. When a fresh snow has just fallen, the world is really covered in white glitter that shines and sparkles. But I’ve had to learn a lot very quickly, about socks, waterproof winter boots, layers of pants, good gloves, and good jackets. Because when it’s -15’C during the day, you better be prepared.

 

 

That said, the winter weather has so far not kept us indoors that much, and the area where we live has lots of walking and hiking trails to enjoy, even in the snow! And Canadians are tough people – even in the dead of winter they still go jogging outside, and walk their dogs, and get on with life. Because the alternative, which is staying inside for four months, is pretty depressing. Best to embrace it and GO!

 

Back with a new adventure

Dear readers, long time no speak. It’s been a long hiatus from the blog. A long, LONG break. The longest I’ve gone without updating, ever. Don’t worry, I am not dead.

But, I had good reason for not writing. At the end of 2017, all of a sudden a job opportunity in a new country came up, and we had to move fast. As in, pack up your stuff, sell everything within four weeks, right down to the very last day where we had no more furniture, where we were sitting on the floor and eating off of a cardboard box, and sleeping on a friend’s inflatable mattress. God, how many times have I done that?! Too many times to tell.

So, the day came when we actually said a proper goodbye to Hong Kong, and closed that chapter of our lives. We had tried leaving Hong Kong before, and had been pulled back twice. But this time, we weren’t moving somewhere close by, with Hong Kong as a backup plan or a base camp. This time we were moving really far, opposite time zone far, and I think this time, there really is no going back.

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Goodbye Hong Kong…. it’s been a fun seven years!

Now, where could this new adventure be happening? Somewhere exotic? Perhaps a coastal town in Greece, or a mountain village in Bulgaria? Maybe even in Kazakhstan, which was our last big trip? Riding camels in the heat of the desert in Oman? Some far off land where I don’t speak the language or can’t read the script? A place with interesting food and different cultures, bustling street markets, wild festivals?

Not this time!

It doesn’t get any more un-exotic than our new home….. drum roll please…. CANADA!

That’s right – we have finally moved back to the western hemisphere, in the ‘True North’ as the national anthem goes. We now live in a lovely little town north of Toronto, where everyone speaks English, where life is really, REALLY normal, where everything in the supermarket is recognizable, where I never have to use Google Translate to speak to a doctor or read instructions. Just nice, normal North America. Who would have thought?

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By the way, it is bloody freezing! How unlucky that this winter was the WORST WINTER ON RECORD FOR 60 YEARS. The news said that on certain days, it was the same temperature as it is on MARS. Welcome to Canada, here’s a POLAR VORTEX in yuh MC!

Anyway, stay tuned for a new chapter… I am afraid it will not be as exotic or exciting as blogging from Thailand or Japan or some other far flung land. But, I will do my best to keep exploring, and keep writing.

Tamgaly Rock Carvings

We are lost.

We must be lost – we have been driving for almost 3 hours and haven’t seen a sign for Tamgaly for about 45 minutes. I forgot to mention, our driver has never been there, and has no GPS.

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Thank you, Google maps

But how can we be lost? There is only one road to Tamgaly, and we are on it. It’s a road that stretches forever, beyond the horizon, slicing through mile after mile of pale yellow fields, where once in a while wild horses kick up storms of dust, and other than that, there is almost nothingness.

Up ahead, a large tree drapes some shade across the road, and as we approach, a figure that was laying down there, waiting for who knows how many hours, stands up, dusts himself off, and sticks out his thumb. This is a common way to get around in Kazakhstan, and almost everyone is willing to take you somewhere, for a small fee.

We pull over and the young man perks up. Finally! he must be thinking. But he will be disappointed. We are not stopping to give him a ride – our car is full, and we just want directions.

Our driver asks how to get to Tamgaly. The man peeks in the backseat at us, the tourists, probably wondering why in hell foreigners would want to drive out into the middle of nowhere on a hot summer day to look at some old rocks. After a brief exchange, we take off. Apparently it will only take another 30 minutes. The young man lays back down in the road to wait.

And finally, there! We see it, up ahead. A small fenced compound, with two large white yurts, one car, a horse with a saddle, two port-a-potties, and a sign – TAMGALY.

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There is only one person at this UNESCO World Heritage Site, an old copper coloured Kazakh man who is missing his two front teeth. We pay the meagre entrance fee, and just then a big 4×4 pulls up. An old English gentleman, a young Chinese photographer and a translator join our tour group, and we set off for a walk in the Tamgaly Gorge. Our driver and his friend, who came along for the journey, decide instead to wait in the shade and drink vodka. To each his own.

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The Tamgaly Petroglyphs are a stunning collection of more than 5,000 rock carvings dating from the Bronze Age, around 2000 B.C. To make them accessible to the public, they are separated into seven main groups, spread out around the valley, and each one is different. A rough footpath has been created to allow people to get close to the rocks, but some are so high up you can’t reach them. Thousands more are said to be in this area, but have not yet been excavated.

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The first group of carvings we see are quite simple, but beautiful, depicting almost child-like shapes of animals, such as horses, elk or deer, even camels, and people. As we walk and climb, they become more intricate, showing hunters, dancers, tools and weapons.

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We climb from one to the next, looking closely at what people chiseled into the stone thousands of years ago, and are delighted over and over again by how they are at the same time simple and amazingly expressive. My daughter surprises me by wanting to go higher and higher to see more, and she was excited every time she found one.

The ones that I like the best are the group of bizarre, far out ‘sun head’ gods, which, according to the booklet, have also been found elsewhere in Kazakhstan, and are referred to in the local language as ‘the images of the disguised‘. To me, they look like aliens, come down to earth.

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I just love the ones of people dancing!

Some of the petroglyphs are a bit damaged, with bits and pieces missing, and it can be hard to make out what you are looking at. But stand there and look closely, and you’ll get it.

All in all the tour took about an hour and a half, perhaps closer to two hours. The guide didn’t speak any English but was friendly and helpful, showing you which way to go, and pointing out the most interesting petroglyphs. The route is rough and climbing is involved so wear good shoes. There are no facilities other than a few benches, and little to no shade, so stock up on hats and sun block.

 

It is hard to believe that this incredible historical site is just sitting there, unprotected, and completely vulnerable to anyone who may want to come along and do some serious damage. Some of the groups of carvings actually did have grafitti, and some smart ass drew a horse on one of the rocks! The translator with our group said that during past excavations, many carvings were removed and stolen. There is literally nothing protecting this UNESCO World Heritage site, other than the old man with no front teeth.

It was a long day, but truly unforgettable. In my opinion this was also more interesting than the Charyn Canyon, which is a pretty view, but not much else. This makes you feel like you are walking in the footsteps of ancient civilisations. Or maybe I’ve just seen too many Indiana Jones movies when I was growing up. Either way, I loved it, and it stands out as the highlight of the entire trip. The remoteness of the location just adds to the feeling that you have stepped back in time. There is nothing around, as far as the eye can see. That is something that you can never, ever get in a crowded place of Hong Kong, so I really enjoyed the sensation of finally being far away from civilisation.

When we returned to Almaty, we were exhausted and starving, so went immediately to a restaurant nearby. And much to our shock and delight, what did we find painted on the walls of the bathroom??

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Life imitates art, isn’t that what they say?

 

Charyn Canyon – the Valley of Castles

I hate long drives, unless I’m the one doing the driving. There is just something so tedious about sitting in the back seat for hours on end. Especially with a 4-year-old in tow for 200 kilometres! ARE WE THERE YET?

Unfortunately, as a first time tourist in Kazakhstan, I was not willing or brave enough to rent a car and test my wits against the insane local drivers or have to bribe the ever present car chasing cops.

So, we hired a driver for the day, a very responsible driver (thank goodness) who had a very powerful 4×4, because to get to the Charyn Canyon, you simply cannot rock up in your little Hyundai Accent rental. The highway leading out of the city is fine, and the ride is very scenic. But after passing through a deep, winding valley, you then turn off the main road and drive on a really, really rough and bumpy dirt path for a good half hour or so.

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But finally, FINALLY, you arrive, and are rewarded with the most incredible scenery. I’ve never seen a canyon before, so it really blew me away. And we only saw a small section of it!

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If you are planning to do this trip on your own, don’t worry, it is easy enough. Our driver was just that – a driver. He was not a guide, he couldn’t give us ANY information about where to descend or come back up, or how long it would take, or which paths were steep or dangerous. Oh and he didn’t speak a word of English. So here’s my advice for a self guided tour:

After you enter the park and pay the entrance fee, you can park your car pretty much anywhere. There are lots of foot paths along the top, leading to look out points with a bird’s eye view of the canyon. There are also official descent paths, on your right, which are marked with signs in English. The recommended route is to descend down the first down-path sign that you see, walk through the canyon (about 3km), and then ascend again before you reach the Eco Park, where you can camp or rent a cabin for the night.

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Be aware that to climb down and climb back up again, it can be REALLY steep and the rocky path is loose and slippery! You need proper running shoes at a minimum, but hiking boots would be better. Carrying 18 kg children is also something best avoided.

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Many tour companies recommend doing the canyon in a 2-day or even 3-day trip, partly because of the 3-hour drive to get there, and partly because there are a lot of different parts of the canyon to see. The Valley of the Castles is the closest one and most frequently visited. I’m sure camping under the stars in the canyon is incredible, and if it wasn’t 32’C we might have considered overnighting. But personally, I was happy enough to do this as a day trip. After 2 hours of walking around, climbing back up, and almost hyperventilating, we were ready to get back. Seriously, the canyon was incredibly hot and there is NO SHADE except for a few rudimentary stone huts they have built. No wonder they do not recommend going in the summer. Be prepared!

Anyway, we had 400 km of driving, 6 hours in the car, and some mild sunstroke…. but the really fantastic scenery definitely made it worth the drive.

 

 

 

 

In the Land of the Wanderers – Trip to Kazakhstan

I had only been in Almaty for about 20 minutes, and already I had managed to embarrass myself.

We were all sitting in the backseat of a smoke-scented taxi with a busted windscreen, heading to our hotel, and chatting with the driver Andre, who could speak some pretty decent English, having spent a few years living in Belgium as a young man.

After chatting for a while, I asked him something that I had not been able to find out about online: “Do you know where we can sleep in a yurt?”

Andre frowns, and takes his eyes off the road for entirely too long to look at me very strangely.

“A yurta?” He makes the shape of the round house ubiquitous with the nomadic tribes of Kazakhstan. “You want to sleep inside this?” He starts to laugh and shakes his head. “No no, this is crazy. Smell inside is very bad. Nobody will do this. Why you want to do this?”

Maybe it would be the equivalent of a tourist arriving in America and asking if there was some dodgy trailer park they could spend the night, rather than a nice clean hotel? I have no idea. Maybe once upon a time a yurt was still commonly used as a dwelling, but is disappearing in the country’s march to modernity. I had thought that it might be a nice experience to sleep in a yurt once in my life, if only for a night. Oh well!

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Jokes on him! I did manage to sneak into a yurt to snap some pictures. 

Never in a million years did I ever expect to have the chance to visit the ‘glorious nation’ of Kazakhstan. But when my husband’s job had to send him there for two weeks, I knew this could be once in a lifetime opportunity not to be missed.

Not being familiar with Central Asia, I had to do some serious research to understand a bit about where I was going, and what there was to see. And the more I read, the more excited I became.

But first, you may be wondering, where the heck is Kazakhstan? (Don’t worry, I had to brush up on my geography too.)

It’s the largest land-locked nation in the world, bordering Russia, China, Kyrgystan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. And, like its neighbours, it is an ex-Soviet Union country, with a very strong Russian influence. Russian is the number one language, followed by Kazakh. The people there are a really fascinating mix of ethnicities, some with blond hair and blue eyes, some with Korean and Mongolian and Chinese backgrounds, and the ethnic Kazakhs, a traditionally nomadic people who had tamed wild horses around 8000 B.C.. And that description just barely scrapes the surface of the incredible history and culture of this place.

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At a beautiful local restaurant, Rumi

A surprisingly easy six hour flight from Hong Kong took us to the old capital city, Almaty. It turned out to be quite a scenic place, with large tree-lined boulevards, large parks with fountains and monuments, and, of course, the ever present mountains that tower over you at all times.

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Fantastic view from the hotel

Some parts of the city seem modern, with trendy cafes, shopping malls, Starbucks cafes and Toni and Guy hair salons. But the old USSR influence is still very tangible. You can see it in the architecture, and feel it in the imposing walls, gates and fences that surround presidential palaces, with a seemingly never ending supply of policemen who take great joy in stopping people for bad driving, and trust me, everyone drives badly. I mean, I thought Trinis were bad, but Kazakhs really took it to a new level!

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While in the city, we did the typical sightseeing of popular spots, such as the Green Bazaar, a massive marketplace selling fresh produce, meat, spices, dried fruits, and lots and lots of honey. You can also stock up on some great counterfeit goods like fake Lego from China. Nearby was the Panfilov Park, and the famous Zenkov Cathedral, which unfortunately was getting a facelift and was covered in scaffolding. We did, however, get to see an orthodox baptism ceremony for a Russian family.

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All in all Almaty is an interesting place, and thanks to Uber incredibly easy and cheap to get around, with most things within a 15 minute car ride. But the real interesting stuff was what came next, when we drove 200 km out of the city, and into the middle of nowhere, to see the wild side of Kazakhstan.

Stay tuned for the next post!

Thailand Temptations

Thailand is the kind of place where after a day or two your brain switches gear and starts thinking crazy things, like whether you are too young to get a retirement visa (you have to be 50, for the record), or if there is some other way you can get a visa to stay there long term, some way some how, because you simply just don’t need or want to go back to where you’ve come from.

Stay, Thailand beckons. Just stay.

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Wouldn’t you rather be here?

Thailand is a seducer. After three days in Koh Samui, I had already adapted to Thai Time, as if my previous life did not exist. I could easily have not come back to Hong Kong. Possessions? Who needs them, when every day you awake to a perfect blue sky, to squirrels climbing in the bamboo outside your window, to the lush green mountains and sandy beaches.

And the food. THE FOOD. What an orgy for your tongue, a rich cornucopia of green curries, noodles, mango and coconut rice, spicy papaya salad, and a whole bunch of other things I can’t even begin to pronounce.

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YES MORE PLEASE

Strolling through the weekly Walking Street night market, the colors are so vibrant, the sounds of the tinkling ranat echo through your ears, the smells of cooking all around you…. you just want to inhale everything, taste everything, touch everything. And when it’s so cheap, buy everything.

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Local entertainment at Walking Street, every Sunday in Lamai

 

Just stay! your brain says. Come on, you know you want to. It would be so easy….

My father moved to Koh Samui ten years ago, and no matter how many times I go to visit, somehow it still grabs me. I’m still amazed at the cool, fun vibe, it’s still fun going to the same bars, I’m still excited to be there. And I think maybe something that appeals to me is that in some ways it reminds me of Trinidad. It’s decadent. It’s sexy. It’s slightly lawless. Anything goes, once everyone is having a good time.

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Duffing around at Royal Samui Golf Club

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View from Lamai Lookout Point

After 10 blissful days, I reluctantly accepted that all good things must come to an end (do they HAVE to? Really? Who made up that bullshit? Surely there is some way….) and boarded the plane back to Hong Kong, and to reality. Sigh.

Ah well Thailand, until we meet again.

 

 

Bangkok Family Fun

Thailand’s crowded, traffic clogged capital, Bangkok, is not exactly the first place that comes to mind when you think of family friendly activities. Shopping, yes. Food, yes. Night time ‘entertainment’, ladyboy cabarets, street markets, definitely. But family fun?

Yes!

You would be surprised to learn that in the past ten years, this mega city has built so many attractions aimed at kids, including safaris, aquariums, ice skating rinks, science museums, and more. Most of them are right outside the train stations too, so getting around is easy and cheap.

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Bangkok has a well organised and easy to use transport system

On this short trip, we only managed to scratch the surface by visiting two places.

The first was Snow Town – a place that perhaps got a bit of inspiration from the infamous ski slopes in the Mall of Dubai. It might be 30’C and 100% humidity outside, but inside Snow Town the ice machines are creating a nice slope for sledding, as well as ‘snow’ for making snow men and snow balls. And of course living in Asia she’s never seen ‘snow’ before so it was a good novelty.

You can rent sleds of all sizes, but I recommend getting a bigger one or else your kids will get very wet butts. It was my daughter’s first time and I couldn’t get her off the sled!

The other place that was a LOT better than I expected it to be was Dinosaur Planet. Unfortunately when we went, it was pouring with rain, and the ticket staff were reluctant to let us in because more than half of the attractions would not be operating. But we decided to go anyway and it was worth it. If your kid likes dinosaurs, then this place is fantastic. They have dinosaur skeletons, fossils, and eggs. In one section, a ‘scientist’ pretends to examine some eggs, until a T-Rex comes down from the ceiling and tries to eat him.

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Another part is a ‘4D’ movie complete with shaking seats and super sound effects as fierce beasts chase you. My kid also loved the sand pit where you can excavate bones and fossils. Too bad we could not do all of the other attractions.

 

And of course, a good part of a vacation is just chilling by the pool, eating good food, and taking it easy. Bangkok is an INTENSE place with lots of noise, lots of crowds, and lots of traffic. So sometimes it is nice to just stay in the hotel and get a bit of peace and quiet. And room service, of course. Because some cold Singha and a green curry is absolutely fantastic after a long day of sightseeing.

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Sesoko Island

On a hot and sunny Saturday, there’s nothing better to do than fill up the tank of gas, grab your snorkel, and hit the beach.

Sesoko Jima (island) is connected to the main Okinawa island by a tiny bridge, and about a 90 minute drive from Naha city up the east coast. After exiting the expressway you drive along the western side of the Motobu peninsula and it is very easy to follow the signs to Sesoko.

The tall bridge takes you over some really pristine blue water – even blue enough to rival the famed Kerama islands.

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Just after crossing the bridge you turn left, and take the first left down to Anchi Beach. ¥500 for parking was fine with us. There are also showers and life vest rentals on the beach.

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It’s always funny to see how in the west, when people go to the beach they lay down for hours in the sun. But in the east, people avoid the sun as much as they can. Me included! I was happy to have a huge piece of shade to set up our stuff.

The swimming right under the bridge is really beautiful, and over to your right where the boats are parked is a small reef. As you enter the water it seems as though the reef is dead from people walking on it. But if you swim out a bit more, the reef is pretty healthy.

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There isn’t much else to see or do on Sesoko Jima, although Sesoko Beach is on the other side of the island. I was happy enough to stay at Anchi Beach to soak up the salt water and drink a cold Orion under the bridge! This might be a good place to go for a swim if you happen to be up in Motobu at the Aquarium or visiting something else in Nago.

 

Lake Shikotsu

As mentioned in the previous post, after liming in Sapporo for a night, we were ready for the real adventure – two nights at the Marukoma Onsen hotel at Lake Shikotsu, and a kayaking trip on the lake.

The area that comprises the Shikotsu-Toya National Park is very volcanic, and the two lakes are calderas, meaning they were formed by the collapse of a volcano following an eruption. Indeed all along the lake front you can see the sand is black.

What is special about Marukoma Onsen is that it is one of the few places in Japan that has a genuine open-air onsen spring flowing directly into the lake. Over the decades the residents of the area moved the stones to trap the mineral water and turn part of the river bed into a pool deep enough to sit down in and have a good soak. The water level rises and falls with the lake. And with no neighbours around – the hotel is literally at the end of the road – you don’t ever have to worry about anyone seeing you in your naked glory.

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The lakeside onsen

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View from the bedroom

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So damn happy to be there! And, ready to eat.

After an amazing dinner of local specialties served in our tatami room, we then went to onsen, and when we came back everything had been cleared away and our futons put out for the night. Gotta love Japanese service, it’s amazing.

Next day we headed out to explore the nearby village and the Shikotsuko Visitor Center, a tiny area with some restaurants and cafes, and activities such as bike and boat rentals. We took The Kid on the glass bottom boat which was all right, but in a volcanic lake there isn’t exactly a lot to see under the water other than some fish. But, it was definitely a child-friendly activity.

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Following this, we drove to the other side of the lake to meet up with the kayaking guides of the Otaki Outdoor Adventures, and this was definitely the highlight of the trip. The lake has incredible clarity – number one in all of Japan and at times it looks as though the kayaks are not even touching the water. The weather was perfect and the wind was low so it was smooth sailing. The guides also took us over the dropoff, where suddenly the water gets so deep and the most incredible blue colour that I’ve never seen before.

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Good use of the paddle

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The floating kayak

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And the happy guides. Wouldn’t you be happy if this was your job?

We also stopped twice on the shore to stretch our legs along the lakefront and admire the view. On the ground next to the river we could see deer prints and rabbit prints in the sand. Very cool! We also saw four deer during the drive home. But thankfully no bears which, no doubt, are plentiful in this area.

We were all incredibly sad to leave the warm, soul soothing waters of the onsen, and the stunning blue sky on Hokkaido, and return to Hong Kong. But, that is life I suppose. For sure Hokkaido is a place I am dying to explore more of, as soon as possible.

Eat me!

One of the things that I made sure to bring with me from Japan was all of my super cute amazing tools for making bento – lunch boxes – because I knew it would not be available in Hong Kong. Thankfully in Japan they are a dime a dozen, and every dollar store sells them.

So how to make kawaii bento? It doesn’t take much fancy ingredients; the trick is in turning something ordinary, like a carrot, into something cute, like a heart. A lot of times I think kids also want something small and bite sized for their tiny fingers instead of something big and messy, so cute little bites seem to do the trick.

Here are some of the easy and fast things I like to put in The Kid’s obento:

  1. Carrot hearts – slice the carrots and use a heart-shaped cookie cutter to punch out the shape
  2. Big eyed shrimp – I bought frozen shrimp, pan fried it, and stuck the eye picks in the top

  3. Three little bears – Slice a pice of Spam and use a bear-shaped cookie cutter to punch the shape (you can use any shape, really). Place the bears on a bed of rice (let the rice cool though)

  4. Edamame – Out of the pod though in the pod is OK too
  5. Rabbit/Bear Eggs – Put a hard boiled egg (peeled) into a plastic egg mold to get a cute shape/face, in this case a rabbit

  6. Silicone cups of salad – Tiny tomatoes, cucumbers, broccoli, whatever kid likes
  7. Pan fried dumplings – If your kids does like them, that is
  8. Sandwiches – But using a Hello Kitty bread stamp. You can put anything inside – ham and cheese, or honey and PB

     

    I know exactly what you are going to say……

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But really, it does not take long! The ingredients are simple enough – rice or pasta, some kind of meat, kid’s favorite veggies or fruits, eggs, cheese, easy right? And no lie, every single day my kid comes home with a 100% empty lunch box. So why not put in a little bit more creativity to encourage kids to eat? A plain old sandwich and an apple every day is pretty dreadful. Really, this cute shit is pretty easy once you get the hang of it and I think worth the effort, because what is the use of your child coming home every day with a half eaten lunch box?

However…. making this stuff may not be so easy if you don’t have the required tools.

So, if anyone out there is interested in embracing the concept of cute obento, I have a specific limited time offer.

I will gladly send you a package of stuff through the mail in exchange for a few packages of Chief Brand Curry Powder, because my stocks are running low and I cannot make curry out of anything else.

Whose interested?

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Springtime in Sapporo

It is May in the city of Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido, Japan’s second largest island. Often referred to as ‘Japan’s Wild North’, the name is well deserved, because although it has a lot of space, Hokkaido remains largely underdeveloped. Just outside the city centre, bears and deer roam free, and within an hour’s drive or train ride you can be in a totally rural setting, with lakes, active volcanoes, and snow capped mountains.

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A wild north it is indeed, and most people come here in the winter to enjoy the popular Snow Festival, and skiing on what is considered some of the best snow and powder in the world. (Being a Trini girl, I’m not sure exactly what that means, because I’d hate to think what would happen if I ever strapped skis to my feet, but it has made Hokkaido world famous.)

Being the tail end of spring, our plan was to rent a car and go explore Lake Shikotsu, about an hour’s drive from Sapporo, and stay in an onsen hotel right by one of Japan’s most active volcanoes.

But first we spent some time in the city, which turned out to be a surprisingly beautiful place, with tree-lined avenues, parks, and an almost Vancouver-like view of mountains every time you look down a road. It was easy to get around, people were helpful and friendly, and many places had English menus – all things that are hard to find in Japan. Unfortunately, the first day was quite rainy and cloudy.

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We stayed in the popular Susukino area, which is an ‘entertainment district’  (i.e. red light district), with loads of izakaya, bars and restaurants. We also went through the long Tanukikoji Shopping Arcade, which was mostly full of overpriced souvenirs, but fun to see anyway.

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Another thing that was good to do on a rainy day was to stroll through the Nijo Market where they serve seafood so fresh that you can literally point at, say, some oysters or scallops, and then the auntie will pluck them out, put them on a dish for you, and you can sit on the tiny chairs on the sidewalk to eat them with chopsticks. The Chinese tourists were really going full on about this.

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The next day in Sapporo I also did some obligatory touristy things, such as the Mt Moiwa ropeway – a cable car just on the western edge of downtown that takes you up a beautiful mountain to give you a view of the city. From the top you can see the Sea of Japan, nearby volcanoes, and all of Sapporo. My goal was to take the cable car to the top and then walk down on the foot path, but it was closed that day. FOR BEARS. No lie!

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Last on the list of touristy things to do was the Maruyama Zoo, which proved to be like all other zoos: mostly sad and depressing. We didn’t spend so much time at the zoo but the Maruyama Park was stunning. Everything was in full bloom, schools were on field trips, little groups of old ladies and gents were foraging in the forest for wild mushrooms and edible greens. The cherry blossoms were still blooming and though the peak was over it was still beautiful.

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How lucky I think the people of Sapporo are to have a vibrant city centre, but also so much incredible nature all around. In Tokyo you can sit on a train for two hours and literally STILL be inside the city – it’s that big. But Sapporo seems like a wonderful place to live.

Up next – the trip to Lake Shikotsu

Dai Seki Rin Zan

Do you see it, hiding the rocks? What does it look like? Is it an alien face, peering out?  *cue spooky music*

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How about this one? A shaggy camel perhaps?

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And this lovely is most definitely a big crocodile!  Can you see its mouth?

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Look closely up to the top of the hill – can you spot the sleeping cat?

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And what a cute lizard! Perfectly formed.

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These are just some of the amazing rock formations that happen to look like animals at the Daisekirinzan National Park. The name, 大石林山、literally means Big Stone Woods Mountain, and is a fantastic natural wonder of limestones carved away by what scientists believe was 200 million years – yes you read that right, creationists! – of rain.

Considered a sacred spot by the original settlers of Okinawa, I can only imagine how it must have been thousands of years ago, walking through the dense jungles, and seeing the strange formations all around you. Today it is part of a national park and has well laid out trails and walk ways. However, it still remains a spiritual place where people come to pray at the ‘power spots’. I myself made sure to walk through Reincarnation Rock which, if you walk through three times, you receive ‘another life’.

Daisekirinzan is also home to a forest of giant gajumaru, which is the Okinawa word for banyan trees. This one is the biggest in Japan.  The locals believe that a forest spirit called a Kijimuna lives in the gajumaru trees.

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These were the views from the Ocean View Trail. You could see some islands that belong to Kagoshima prefecture, some 25 kilometres away.

 

 

There are three walking trails, and each one takes about 30 minutes. We first did the Wonder of Rocks Trail, and then the Ocean View Trail. After that you can take the shuttle bus back down to the parking lot, or walk through the Subtropical Forest Trail. I highly recommend you do all three because it is an easy walk downhill on the forest trail, and that is where all the big gajumaru are. It is incredibly beautiful and the views are very rewarding. Be sure to wear good shoes because those limestone rocks can be very hard on the feet!