Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Christmas Island: Where the Crabs Rule

Admit it... this is a pretty cool license plate
Still in catch-up mode...

After Nepal, I got to travel back home to Colorado for two weeks over Thanksgiving, then returned to KL in early December. Later that month, I was invited to Christmas Island at the end of 2012. I actually spent New Year's Eve/Day on this small island in the middle of nowhere. It was a unique experience, to be certain, but I'd honestly never recommend Christmas Island as a place to go for New Year's!

The island itself, an Australian territory, lies in the Indian Ocean, about 500km directly south of Jakarta, really not even close to the Australian continent. It's merely the tip of an iceless iceberg, the above-water portion of a massive submarine volcanic mountain. The volcano is long since extinct, but what remains is a parcel of land that, owing to its geographic isolation and a long existence free from human disturbance, possesses a substantial number of unique species of plants and animals and offers an equally unique travel experience.

First view of Christmas Island from the air

Christmas Island was discovered (and thus named) on Christmas Day in 1643, but it wasn't until some 45 years later that seafarers were able to successfully land on the island and start exploring it. Fast-forward two centuries or so to the time when vast reserves of phosphate were discovered on the island. With this finding, the settlement and development of the island became financially feasible, and thus it was made so, and it is this mining activity that not only gave a foundation to the island’s economy, it directly contributed to the quality of the infrastructure that is still in place today. Quality roads and pathways, hot and cold running water, reliable electrical service, proper sewerage… not always what you expect to find on a remote island, but very much the case here.  Following the defeat of the Japanese, who occupied this island during WWII, the island was under Singaporean auspices as part of the UK Straits Settlement. In 1957, Australia petitioned the UK for transfer of sovereignty and paid £2.9 million to Singapore as part of the agreement, and in 1958, the first official representative of the Australian government arrived on the island, and with that, Christmas Island officially became an Australian territory – and for me, that meant another new stamp in my passport. (In fact, Australia was the final stamp in my passport, which was set to expire shortly after the Christmas Island trip.)

One of the island's most famed residents
Christmas Island is, of course, famous for its annual migration of Red Crabs, an endemic crab species on the island. Every year, millions of the bright red crabs make their way from the jungles to the sea as part of their mating ritual. If you time your visit right, you’ll see these crabs by the thousands, in one of nature’s most impressive mass migration spectacles. The date of the migration varies from year to year, sometimes substantially, depending on rain and weather patterns. Our trip did not coincide with the height of the migration; that occurred a few weeks later. We still saw plenty of crabs, though! Some 50 million of the red crabs are estimated to live on Christmas Island and you never had to really even look hard for them, especially after any amount of rain, when they'd emerge in droves. Perhaps even more impressive is the world’s largest population of the coconut crab, more commonly called the robber crab. This crab is the largest terrestrial arthropod in the world, and about a million are thought to live on the island. They live mostly in the forested areas of the island and can be nearly the size of a soccer ball. They are prodigious climbers and can be incredibly determined and resourceful when trying to get to something they fancy, hence their “robber” reputation.

One of my favorite experiences on this island was something called The Blowholes. After a 1-km trek through the forest, we emerged on the rocky coast. Here, the series of caverns and channels in the limestone outcroppings act as a giant echo chamber network for the crashing surf. Frequently, bursts of water and spray will erupt from fissures in the rocks. Really an otherworldly place. Here are some photos from the trip:

View of the Indian Ocean from my hotel

Out of business. I guess the ho wasn't so lucky, after all.

The red crab migration is a really big deal here

This is a juvenile robber crab, picked up to show its size
relative to a person's hand.

The limestone formations at The Blowholes

Hiking the 1km or so to The Blowholes,
we saw this amazing tree

Two robber crabs showing off their climbing ability

Crystal-clear waters off the coast

Great Frigatebird, captured in "mid-flap" flight

The beautiful Golden Bosun in flight

This island was a dire place to spend New Year's Eve, I must say again, but it was worth suffering through that night for what was unquestionably a great opportunity to do something and go somewhere I almost certainly never would have were it not job-related. Because Christmas Island is not on any regular flight schedule (except perhaps from Perth, Australia) and due to its relative isolation and commensurate high prices, a trip to this island can be quite costly. As the fledgling tourism industry strives to take hold there, it may be that one day, it's an easier destination that will see more people exploring and experiencing it. For my part, the people there were exceptionally friendly (and they all love their island) and for those interested in nature or wildlife, it's an easy place to recommend. To wrap up, here's a short, fairly rubbishy video shot at The Blowholes to give you an idea of what it was like...

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Nepal, part two

So where were we...? (click here for part 1) Ah yes, Nepal...

Sweeping view of the countryside on the road to Nagarkot Hill

Let's start back at Bhaktapur. If I were advising a person who could only spend one day in or around Kathmandu, I think this is probably where I'd suggest they go. Boudhanath was really enjoyable, but the Bhaktapur area was just enchanting in every way. The history, the splendid architecture, the local culture on display, the artisans and potters, the small cafés and roadside eateries... it was great. The one truly unsavory aspect was a section outside the main enclave that has sprung up solely to cater to the tourist trade. Much like any such place that exists only to serve tourists, it attracts all manner of beggars and hangers-on, and it became tiresome very quickly being besieged at every turn with exhortations to buy this or that. I only managed to keep it in perspective by reminding myself that, for these people, there simply is no other choice. This is what they must do to put food on their tables. So though that didn't make it less aggravating on the surface, it helped keep me from total despair. And to be fair, there were a lot of really interesting shops with all sorts of goodies for people who like such things... pashmina shawls, mountaineering apparel and equipment, crafts, lots of the singing bowls, and of course, an avalanche of typical tourist dreck – t-shirts, mugs, postcards, etc.

A typical scene of near-bedlam ensued everywhere
our group walked

An inviting array of soft pashmina scarves

For me, possibly the best part of Bhaktapur was Durbar Square, as I mentioned in the first post. I can imagine how it was in its prime, hundreds of years ago, crowded with people, bustling with activity and trade. Today, one of the standout buildings is the Nyatapola Temple, dedicated to the Hindu goddess of prosperity, Siddha Laxmi. Nyatapola, which actually means “five-storey temple” in the Newari language, was completed in 1702 and, at 30m in height, is a towering five-tiered pagoda-style temple that ranks among Nepal’s tallest. As you ascend the stairs leading to the platform, little carved statues adorn every step on each side. The examples of craftsmanship and architecture on display here are truly remarkable and it was a most enjoyable place to visit. We met some interesting Nepalese kids, had some truly delicious food (including the ubiquitous momo, a meat-and-veggie dumpling), and I felt it was really a treat to be there for the day.

Our café, at left, just beside Nyatapola Temple, Durbar Square

The famous – and delicious – momo

Nyatapola Temple, built in 1702

Detail of the figurines on one of the temples, Durbar Square

Another delicious example of what can only be
called Nepalese fusion cuisine

After our explorations in and around the city, we headed for the cool highlands of the Himalayan foothills. We were in a small tour bus and as we wound our way up the curving road to Nagarkot Hill, it was both amusing and appalling to see local buses – not only fully loaded with passengers inside, but carrying a couple of dozen extra on the roof, as well – careening around curves. Once we got to the top (2,200m / 7,260 ft.), clouds prevented any grand views of the Himalayas, but the scene was still pretty amazing. I really felt I wanted to stay longer, not just in the Nagarkot area, but in Nepal. However, on these sponsored trips, the price one pays for having everything provided at no charge is that there's a pretty fixed itinerary and a typically full schedule. Indeed, these was the case on my trip to Kathmandu, as we kept pretty busy for the four days we were there. It was really memorable though, and it's only because I've got so many other things to write about to get this blog even close to being caught up that I don't write more about the Nepal trip.

Near Bhaktapur

A typical residence in the countryside; as a family grows
in size, more levels are added

Near Nagarkot Hill

The stunning valley view from the road to Nakargot

I'll throw in some photos here (do be sure to click on them to see them larger), call it an entry, then move on. It's ridiculous that I've let the blog languish for so long. I'll try to be better! :)

To close, here's an excerpt from the magazine article I wrote about my trip to Nepal:

Nepal’s considerable strengths, however, are also among its liabilities. Landlocked, with exceptionally rugged terrain and few natural resources, the country has been plagued by poor infrastructure and even beset by political strife. That seems to be changing for the better, and though Nepal is a poor country, the country is making real strides, with the percentage of those living in extreme poverty decreasing from 53% to 25% in the last few years. As more channels open for tourism and trade, it is hoped that the warm, affable people of Nepal will reap the benefits and share in the bounty that visitors bring to this remarkable South Asian country.

As a visitor, it’s difficult to see such stoic, hardworking people consigned to a life of unending labor and poverty. It’s almost impossible to look past it, however, particularly on the streets of Kathmandu where the woebegone state of the country’s infrastructure is on stark display. At night, much of the nation is plunged into darkness. Only 40% of Nepal has access to electricity, there are almost no street lights – even in the city, and electricity isn't terribly reliable – rolling blackouts are not uncommon, though many hotels have backup generators.

Regrettably, too many in our world live like this. Travel is a very real way to not only bring our own tourist dollars to struggling people, but to help us appreciate the good things in our own lives that are often taken for granted. Nepal is a worthwhile holiday destination that will not only leave you with treasured cultural and scenic memories, but also one that will fill you with gratitude for the treasures you already possess.

Aerial shot of part of Kathmandu – note the conspicuous absence of roads