Text & photographs by Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
The winding glacier road leaves the peaceful village of Jondal, bordering one of Western Norway’s most picturesque fjords, the Hardanger Fjord. Passing bucolic hamlets and farms, in only 19 kilometres, this narrow route elevates us from the waters of the fjord at sea level to an ice world at an altitude of 1,199 meters. A magic place where adventures await the ones who are ready to beat the cold and are curious to explore what lies beyond the end of the road…
Text: Claire Lessiau Photographs: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau
Jotunheimen, the land of the giants. It does feel like seating amongst millennium-old towering giants looking at all these 2,000-meter-high peaks surrounding our small tent pitched in the soft tundra on our way up Galdhøpiggen, Northern Europe’s highest mountain in the heart of Jotunheimen National Park. No less than 250 of these mountains are located in Norway’s most popular national park where the country’s greatest concentration of high peaks is found. From a distance, the summits look like a world in monochrome with the rugged dark stones partially covered in snow, cut by majestic white waterfalls. In this surprisingly arid polar climate, it is the melting of the glacier that provides water to the surrounding communities. Farmers have even dug 250 kilometres of open channels to irrigate their lands. Only the bells of a few sheep roaming these slopes during the summer break the humming of the water cascading in the distance.
The vast Colorado River winds its way through the metamorphic red stones of the Colorado Plateau where it has sculpted the land for millions of years carving one of world’s most spectacular gorges. If the Grand Canyon had made explorers of the Great Unknown shiver, the shorter Cataract Canyon just a couple of hundred miles upstream had remained one of the most difficult sections of the Colorado River to conquer. In the springtime, the melting snow feeds both rivers, the Colorado and the Green that merge at Confluence in the heart of Canyonlands NP, the starting point of the Cataract Canyon. Both un-dammed for hundreds of miles upstream, these mighty rivers merge to lead to the greatest white waters of the USA this time of the year with Class II to V rapids ranking along with those of the Grand Canyon in power and difficulty. Today they make the bravest white water enthusiasts shrill while riding these exhilarating rapids!
Reunion Island is a true hiker’s paradise. With hundreds of kilometers of well-maintained and well-marked trails crisscrossing the island’s mountains (listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site), indigenous forests full of endemic species, rivers, striking viewpoints and isolated settlements, it might be hard to choose which hiking paths to take. To hit the most beautiful natural wonders of Reunion Island while experiencing the three very different amphitheaters (called “Cirques”) and meeting its inhabitants walking the most scenic trails, we have created an exclusive 7-day circular hike for you! Keep traveling!
Even though our alarm clock is set at a shockingly early 3:30 a.m., I am so excited that I wake up five minutes before it goes off. Today is a big day! After dressing fast in my technical outdoor gear and warm jacket, I grab my headlight and toss my backpack over my shoulder. I gulp down a coffee before heading out: after last night’s gargantuan dinner in a traditional Réunion fashion with home-grown lentils of Cilaos, a chicken cari and a few delicious rhums arrangés (infused rums) this is the most I can ingest for the moment! Keep traveling!
Most tourists visiting the Reunion Island drive up the Maïdo road to take in the stunning vistas on the Mafate Cirque from its viewpoint. However, there are more fun and adventurous ways to take in the scale of the ramparts and explore the various ecosystems along the volcanic slopes of the mountain, like rock climbing the Maïdo Peak or mountain biking back down to the coast.
The indigo sky slightly turns greyish-blue over the Bedouin tents in the sleepy camp while in the east the sun announces itself with a pinkish hue. Venus is still bright in the clear sky. Colours appear slowly tainting the dunes in their warm orange before shadows give them more relief. The wind is still a bit cold over my bare arms and I am looking forward to the sun warming up the humid sand I am seating on on top of the dune overlooking the Omani desert. The sound of silence resonates loudly only to be broken randomly by the chirping of a few birds and the bleat of a goat in the distance. Keep travelling!
“It is not as stable as it looks” Justin shouts, after which he instructs us to stay a good 3 metres away from the gaping black hole into which two white rock climbing ropes disappear. What seems to be solid ground that we are standing on is just a thin layer of limestone covering a vast cavity of air which is more than a hundred metres deep. Basically, we are on the ridge of a collapsed cave, a massive Keep caving!
“Stand up, lean backwards, rope between your legs, and put both of your hands on the rope. Good. Smile for the camera! And off you go!” I force a little smile towards Olivier’s GoPro before I look down upon one of the many magnificent natural pools of the Reunion Island 35 meters below. Around me bright green and lush vegetation covering the 80-meter high volcanic cliffs contrasts greatly with the deep blue sky. Swallows are flying low below me as they hunt for mosquitos in their acrobatic flights just above the water basin. The only sound I hear is the roaring waterfall to my left of which I feel the splashes on my wetsuit. It is just loud enough to cover up for the sounds of my heartbeat in this adrenalin-packed adventure on which Olivier is taking us in order to uncover the rugged beauty of this lost island in the Indian Ocean. Keep exploring!
Most tourists visiting the Reunion Island drive up the Maïdo road to take in the stunning vistas on the Mafate Cirque from its viewpoint. However, there are more fun and adventurous ways to take in the scale of the ramparts of this massive natural amphitheater and explore the various ecosystems along the volcanic slopes of the mountain, like rock climbing the Maïdo Peak or mountain biking back down to the coast.
The early morning sun slowly colours the steep rocky slopes of Oman’s wildest peaks as our Toyota Land Cruiser makes its way along one of the country’s most stunning 4×4 tracks via the village of Hatt. Patches of lush vegetation break the dry mineral landscape here and there. Large birds of prey hover in the sky. Chris puts the car to a halt. He switches the gear over to 4×4 as things are getting serious. The Toyota peeps and cracks on the bumpy and steep downhill track along the deep and scenic canyon. While being rocked in the car, slowly a massive dark crack in the rock-strewn slopes, far below us, becomes visible: a crevice so deep that we cannot see the bottom. Or not yet as it is the goal of our canyoning expedition! Keep exploring
After the long stage of yesterday our muscles seem to be protesting as we start walking and leave beautiful Paliri behind. There is something special about Paliri that makes us realise the ambivalence of our feelings. On one hand, Keep hiking!
After freezing our butts off for more than a week (packing light does come at a price!), we have had our first warm night on the GR 20! Between the elevation of Col de Verde about 400 metres lower than the refuge of Prati and the weather that is improving as we are getting closer to July, night temperatures have become two digits. Keep hiking!
It is early morning when we break the tent and leave to enjoy sunrise on the Corsican Mountains. Shortly after the peaks are tainted pink while the mountains are still in the shade, we descend to the river to cook another hearty oatmeal breakfast with tea and coffee to warm us up after a cold night. Studying our Rite Keep hiking!
That’s it, we have just started the last stage of the Northern part of the GR 20! A short 10-kilometre stretch. Just one last uphill before a smooth 1,230-metre downhill into the small settlement of Vizzavona, or so we thought. Keep hiking!
We slowly wake up in the warmth of the dry stone house after our best night by far on the GR 20. The storm seems to be a distant memory as blue skies contrast greatly with the surrounding greenery. The best of the bergerie (sheepfold) de Vaccaghja has yet to come with our first warm shower Keep hiking!
After crossing the road and leaving the asphalt behind, we make progress fast on an easy and relatively flat trail through a pine and later a beech forest. As we ascend towards the col of Saint Peter Keep hiking!
One of the perks of favouring bergeries (sheepfolds) over refuges is the warm welcome and delicious food. After an excellent local cured ham sandwich for breakfast that is a nice change from our usual oatmeal, we are ready to tackle this next stage. Much easier than the previous one (13.5 kilometres of distance with only 660 metres of elevation gain and 680 metres of elevation loss), the first few hundred metres feel like it is our very first bit of flat trail on the GR 20. The mineral world of Stage 4 has turned into Keep hiking!
Early wake up today as there may be more rain early in the afternoon. With most of our gear still wet after the heavy thunderstorm we hiked through on the downhill of Stage 3, we are ready to run the 9.4 kilometres we need to cover today to avoid another unwanted shower! Keep hiking!
After breaking up the tent fast we meet with the man in charge of hiking for the Regional Natural Park of Corsica on the now quiet terrace of the refuge of Carrozzu. It is the beginning of the season and one of the busiest moments and he looks worried. The park and the GR face some serious challenges. Last year Keep hiking!
Most hikers are already gone when we open the rainfly of our tent to admire the view: the mountains are slowly bathed by the pink light of the rising sun. After a cold night, we are both impatient to feel the sun rays. Tomorrow is the start of the summer and the weather forecast has already greatly improved from snow in mid-May to rain and thunderstorms last week. The days are very hot in the sun with a traitorous cold wind on the summits. Keep hiking!
Elevation for Stage 1 of the GR 20 (Calenzana to Ortu di u Piobbu): +1360m, -60m over 10.6km
A familiar noise wakes me up: the zipping and unzipping of tents, sleeping bags, backpacks, down jackets or soft shells of other hikers already getting ready to start the GR 20 at 4:30 in the morning. I turn around in our 2-person lightweight Jamet-designed tent, and doze off a bit longer: after all we have all day to make it to Ortu di u Piobbu, only 11 kilometres away from here in Calenzana, but the strenuous first stage will elevate us by about 1,360 metres in the Corsican mountains…
The toughest hike of Europe will take you through the rugged heart of the island of Beauty. In the Mediterranean Sea, off the coasts of France and Italy, Corsica is a hikers’ paradise and its famous 200-kilometre long GR 20 offers an endless variety of landscapes to the adventurers who will dare braving its often daily 4-digit elevation gains. Keep hiking!
89 days and 9,722 kilometres across South Africa, including a good amount on dirt roads, through 4×4-only mountain passes, along wild coast trails, across the last bit of sand forest left on the planet, side by side with elephants and lions to bring you the best adventures of South Africa!
Beyond the Big 5, South Africa is a fantastic playground for the outdoor enthusiasts, and here are the Top Keep exploring!
We are sitting on a flat rock by the roaring Indian Ocean observing the powerful waves crashing violently into the rugged rocky shore and spraying 15-metre high into the air. Inland the green hills, warmly bathed by the sunset light, seem to never end. Far on the horizon, only a few white rondavels with their thatched roofs remind us that we are not alone in this world. We are discovering the remote land of the Pondo people stretching along the last unspoilt shore of South Africa during a five-day trek. But the Wild Coast is jeopardised by an international titanium mining project that would disfigure it and rob the Pondo people of their most precious asset: their land. Keep travelling!
In South Africa Aliwal Shoal is famous for its shark dives amongst tiger, bull, ragged-tooth or oceanic blacktip sharks, often described as the experience of a lifetime. Sadly, cage diving is a bad practice that is heavily advertised for in all but a very few dive centres…
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park is home to a vast array of unspoiled coral reefs. The best way to explore them is to hop on a boat and SCUBA dive to discover this iSimangaliso (amazing in Zulu) underwater world.
“Hold on tight! It is going to be a little bit bumpy”, our guide Christeen Grant, experienced mountain guide passionate by the Drakensberg, calmly announces. She confidently steers the wheel of the extended Land Rover Defender which roaring engine is operating at its maximum capacity. The 4×4 steadily crawls forward on the steep rocky road winding up towards the Kingdom in the Sky. We are about to enter Lesotho for a multiple day horseback riding adventure although the real adventure has already started at the foot of the legendary Sani Pass in the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa. Keep travelling!
The sun has been up for no more than an hour and its strong rays are already warming me up as I contemplate the village of Malubelube. From the rock on which I am seating on the top of the mountain dominating the settlement at 2,675 metres, I have a 360° panoramic view on the endless surrounding mountains. The morning light bathes the traditional rondavels with Keep travelling!
I pick up some speed going downhill towards a small stream of crystal clear waters. The all-terrain tires of my mountain bike on the wooden bridge break the silence followed up by the swift change of gears as I pedal hard to get up the steep single track ahead of me. I slalom my way up amongst blooming protea trees that add some bright orange and red colours to the green slopes of the Northern Drakensberg that we are exploring by mountain bike. Keep travelling!
Thousand-year old kites have taken a new turn with extreme sports such as kite surfing or speed riding that have become increasingly popular. Their big brothers have helped us getting airborne like in paragliding or paramotoring using a propeller-powered glider. Come on board with us to experience this thrilling adventure of flying a paramotor over Dubai and over the desert!
“Ready for take-off?” I hold onto my seatbelt that straps both of my shoulders this early morning at dawn. In the seat in front of me, my pilot starts the engine that makes the blades of the one-metre diameter propeller behind me rotate. As the blades pick up speed, the wheels of the buggy we are seated in start rolling, pulling on a kite the size of a paraglider that rises up in the sky. In only a few seconds, we are airborne! Keep flying!
Preah Khan may very well be Cambodia’s most atmospheric temple, hidden in the thick jungle of the Preah Vihear province. Royal palace and worship place dating back to the 9th century, it recalls the Bayon and Ta Prohm temples in Angkor. If one makes the effort to reach it, one will be rewarded by majestic ruins with hardly any other visitors, far from the crowds of Siem Reap.
With its karst formations rising off the rice fields, Vang Vieng is set in a beautiful natural setting and has become the number one outdoor destination of Laos with hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, rock climbing and caving opportunities.
Next to travelling by river to explore the lesser trodden backdrops of the more remote regions of Laos, venturing out on a motorbike is an excellent way to discover the rural countryside. Besides the scenic multi-day motorbike loop through surreal landscapes leading to the Kong Lor cave in Central Laos, the cooler Bolaven Plateau in the south of the country can be explored similarly. Hop on!
“Hmm, Claire did you read the incoming email from Eric, regarding our kayak trip to the Statue of Liberty next week?” I fearfully ask her. We both sit down and read Eric Stiller’s questions concerning our seaworthiness and fitness level, and a slight panic starts to take control over both of us. The proud owner of the Manhattan Kayak Company wants to know in what specific types of kayaks we have practised, for how many hours a day, and what our average speed is. We are about to board the A380, the super jumbo jet Air France flies from Paris to New York City for a new adventure on the Hudson River, Keep traveling!
The majestic temples of Angkor are victim of their own success: with 4 million visitors a year mostly during the dry season focusing mainly on three temples, the atmosphere can be lost. Still, it is possible to experience the Angkor temple complex off the beaten path for a fantastic and authentic discovery, unravelling the splendour of the great Khmer civilisation.
The five towers of Angkor Wat symbolizing Mount Meru, Cambodia
Sunrise on Angkor Wat, Cambodia
I skilfully steer my mountain bike along a few pointy rocks on a narrow single track through the jungle of Cambodia. In front of me appears a desolated ruin, half swallowed by tree roots of strangler fig trees. Birds sing, butterflies flutter around reflecting the strong sun rays peeping through the dense vegetation on their brightly-coloured wings, and a cat yawns while stretching its front paws on the step of the almost-millennium old Khmer temple of Preah Khan in the temple complex of Angkor.
A young woman with a peculiar headdress enters the smoky dark room. She brings in a big tray covered with breakfast dishes: fried morning glory, fried noodles, a bamboo woven basket filled with steamy sticky rice, some chicken, and the homebrewed whiskey! A fire burns next to me in a small clay pot on the dirt floor, and despite the smoke that stings my eyes, I stay close to the welcomed heat source. Reluctantly, I move my little stool closer to the very low table on which the tray is set, joining our guide Sivangxai, the Ban Peryenxangkao village chief and his nephews. Here, in the ethnically diverse Northern Laos, Akha tribes live according to their ancient traditions far from modern civilisation. Keep reading
I decide to stop my motorbike in front of the narrow improvised bridge. I feel relieved and worried at the same time. Relieved, as the previous river crossing did not offer the luxury of a bridge. I had to launch my semi-automatic 125 cc Honda Dream motorbike into the murky stream and use all of my skills to extract it from the water in which it was immerged wheel-deep. Worried, as this wooden bridge is no more than 50-centimetre wide, with no rails to prevent a potential fall into the water, and for good measure a missing plank in the centre leaving a gap just the right size to sink the front wheel in.
I am looking at my partner with envy as she has already crossed. When she turns her head, I capture her smile and instantly come up with a genius plan Keep reading
The engine of our wooden canoe with long tail echoes in the large room while a cool wind makes me shiver. In total darkness, I vaguely distinguish rocks shaped as faces or animals briefly lit up by the beam of the headlamp of our captain. He is constantly scanning the limestone walls, as the slightest miscalculation on these shallow waters would be fatal to our boat. With great skills, our boatman manoeuvres up the winding subterranean Hinboun River which flows through the geological wonder of South-East Asia, the Kong Lor cave in Laos. Keep traveling!
Lime stone karst formations are gradually revealing themselves as the morning mist on the Cheow Lan Lake slowly rises. The sun bathes the rocks in warm colours and highlights the jungle growing on their steep flanks. I slowly crawl out of my bed to take a morning swim in the surprisingly warm lake. While climbing back up to the pontoon of my floating bungalow, I notice a familiar rising and falling of shrills that gives me goose bumps: a family of gibbons starts to sing, Keep reading
My eyes catch something massive crossing the river in a slow but steady pace. It is an Asian elephant carrying a man on its neck, seated in a lotus position. Fresh water from the river splashes my face and startles me. “Paddle forward! Keep reading
The start of the engine overpowers the shrilling cicadas. Nicolas Ponzone steers his Zodiac boat out of the picturesque harbour of Niel, with its traditional colourful fishing pointus. Nicolas is a treasure hunter! Keep traveling!
I am loosening my helmet to wipe the sweat from my face while putting my sunglasses back in place. I take a few sips from my water bottle while enjoying the view on world’s third largest bay, after Hong Kong and San Francisco: the bay of Toulon along the French Riviera. From the top of the 584-meter high Mont Faron, the view on France’s hidden gem and massive military harbour is Keep traveling!
Often, I thoroughly enjoy reading a book preferably by a local author to put me in the mood before traveling to a country. André Brink and Coetzee gave me my first impressions before traveling through South Africa, teaching me about the contemporary struggles of the rainbow nation. Paul Auster was my dark guide to New York City, Maupin took me through San Francisco and the entertaining mystery novels of Donna Leon had me discover the hidden canals of Venice. I didn’t really have that luxury traveling through Central America, with a hectic schedule prior to our 3-month trip. It is only arriving in Boquete, Panama, that I find myself reading a mystery novel taking me to the landmarks of this country. Keep traveling!
“Are you sure you are ok?” I can hear through my oversized helmet. Sort of, I think. We have just left from the Finca Magdalena on a dirt motorbike to explore the still mostly undeveloped east side of the Ometepe island, and Keep traveling!
One of Central America’s most picturesque hikes runs between the mountain town of Boquete and the lesser known Cerro Punta in Pamana. Both lay in different valleys putting them a good three-hour bus ride away from each other. They are also linked by the famous 9-kilometre Quetzal trail, squeezed between two dead end roads, for a total of about 23 kilometres. Given the elevation gain, Keep traveling!
The Sarapiqui River is powerful and brownish, as it has been raining non-stop for the past 24 hours. Seated in a kayak, resting on the river bank, I observe how David flips himself over with his kayak in the current. The short red embarkation is now floating downstream, upside down. Within a few seconds though, David appears from underneath the water, with a huge smile. “So this is how we do the underwater exit”, he says. “Your turn now!” Keep traveling!