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The world's oldest desert just got served
Vemödalen – “The frustration of photographing something amazing when thousands of identical photos already exist.”
National Geographic, Frans Lanting, 2011:
The Monsoon Diaries, Calvin Sun, 2016:
Vermödalen, and yet I persist.
2 days in the world’s oldest desert will compel you to put a few things into perspective, namely that of one’s own occhiolism when arriving at such a place, but also what little you can do to appropriately let it all in.
And yet we persist.
At 8am in Windhoek the 7 of us set off in our 4WD tank led by our guide Sydney (of Travel Bug Safaris and The Cardboard Box Hostel), south across the Namibian desert towards Sesriem.
We stopped numerous times along the 6 hour drive to buy supplies, answer our bladders’ call to nature, stretch our legs, take photos, and have lunch at a remote outpost appropriately named Solitaire.
A beautiful ride that felt shorter than expected thanks to numerous engaging conversations, music, and occasional cat naps, by 3pm we had reached Sossusvlei.
Our first sight by Sossuvlei was a 45 minute stroll through Seseriem Canyon.
Much like Antelope Canyonin the USA, it was formerly a large, million-year-old river that largely dried out in present times, although it bears witness to countless prehistoric episodes of flash-fooding and subsequent rock formation.
If you want to see what a bottom of a river looks like, this is the closest you’re going to get to scuba diving without getting wet.
Afterwards we drove to Elim Dune, a series of probably 13-15 steep dunes that are truly awful to climb up and down, namely due to the fine desert sand that gives in too easily to human weight. FYI, some considered this hike more difficult than our 104-story climb up Lion’s Head.
Where some of us wisely gave up after climbing a single dune, JC, Kel, and myself foolishly hiked through nearly 10-12 progressively steeper and steeper dunes looking for the very end; every time we thought we conquered the last one, there was yet another dune waiting for us.
Eventually we gave up after 45 minutes of climbing and watched the sunset from where we rested our weary calves (and glutes!).
Elim Dune just got served
At around 6pm after sunset, we began to head back. Once darkness hits, you’re kinda screwed in navigating back to the parking lot; it’s very easy to get lost here.
After getting back, we drove to the local Sesriem Restcamp where Sydney set up our tents, fire, and dinner for us to enjoy.
At around 8pm, the stars began to appear.
After dinner, we headed to bed at around 9pm and slept in sleeping bags placed on top of simple but sturdy mattresses that ended up being more comfortable than we expected. We just wish we had known to pack more clothes as as the night progressed and temperatures dropped to near-freezing conditions.
By 4:45am we were all woken up by the frigid cold. But as we left our tents to pack up quickly and run inside our 4WD for better warmth, we paused for a moment to collect our breaths before a star-filled night sky:
And by 5:25am we were all packed up and back in our vehicle, ready to leave the park gates that would open at 5:30am. Then we formed a beeline of tourist 4WD jeeps on the way to Dune 45 (named for being located 45km away from Sesriem) for the famous Sossuvlei sunrise.
At 5:35am we scurried out of our vehicles and made a single line file to hike to the top of Dune 45, which is about 80m high and has sands measured to be over 5 million years old.
The views can be dizzying high, and we walked by one woman who had a panic attack on the way up; this hike is not for those with a fear of heights!
It’ll take an average fit person about 10 minutes to reach the top, where you’ll be rewarded by saying you saw the sun rise over the oldest desert in the world:
Try walking past the crowds and perhaps even farther along the ridge of Dune 45 can so you can spend a few quiet moments here alone. You deserve it.
And nobody dare tread further than I
After about 45 minutes here, we headed back down and enjoyed a brief simple breakfast at the base of the dune.
At 8:30am, we wrapped up and drove about 15 minutes (the ride gets very bouncy here!) more inland. We then hiked about 10 minutes over relatively flat and sandy terrain towards Dead Vlei.
Under the shadow of a dune called Big Daddy (the highest of them all at 325m high), Dead Vlei is a prehistoric clay pan that once was an oasis filled with acacia trees.
After the river that supplied the oasis changed its direction, killing both the oasis and its trees, the lack of moisture in this region caused the trees to petrify (aka “mummify”) instead of rotting away.
And they still stand today; when placed against the shiny white floor of the oasis pan and the “orange skies” that are the dunes, they create a surreal landscape that has been featured in countless movies and shows (namely “The Fall”, “The Cell” as my favorites) and probably is unmatched by anywhere else on this planet.
The whole journey took us about 2-3 days, and that was us feeling like we were pushing it rather quickly to see as much as we could.
After an overnight bus ride from Caracas to Ciudad Bolivar, arriving at around 6:30am in the morning, we quickly hopped on a 5-person Cessna plane for an hour flight to Canaima National Park.
To be honest, a lot of us nodded off on the flight, and within 20 min we woke up to a completely different scenery outside our windows:
Canaima National Park
We landed in Canaima at around 9am.
The airport passport procedure takes place entirely outdoors, and within 20 minutes, we hopped on a truck.
And we soon arrived to the local village in Canaima.
Without much delay, we were asked by our guides to repack all our bags and take with us just a day bag that would be enough to last us for the next 24 hours.
This may sound easy but it ended up being rather difficult since a few of us were deciding how much camera gear to take with us and whether passports/money/valuables would be better off in a locked storage unit here or in dinky daybags that may get lost in the river.
We then headed over to our speedboats for the grueling 6 hour ride up the river towards Auyantepui, the tepui (aka “tabletop mountain”, or sometimes nicknamed as “house of the gods”) where Angel Falls is located.
Because we were visiting during the dry season, the river levels weren’t high enough for a straight, smooth, direct shot up; at many points we had to disembark and hike overland so the boats could cross certain points of the river without being weighed down.
Of course, these overland hikes presented many opportunities for photos.
Mount Roraima just got served
And while we hiked, our guides worked brutally hard to make sure our boats got upstream:
As the hours passed by we were coming up closer to what seemed like a land before time.
And then as we got closer to where we needed to be, the water levels seemed to be decreasing further, forcing everyone in our boats to get out and help push them upriver, barefoot.
Quickly getting back in the boats after getting some momentum was also pretty tricky:
When 6pm came around, we started to worry as the sun was setting quickly and we were still on the river. We also noticed exasperated looked on the faces of our guides, worried at how slowly we were moving and the concern that we would have to navigate up the river and push our boats in complete darkness.
But just as the last remnant of daylight glanced the river at 7pm, we finally reached base camp. It was a very close call.
We quickly donned off our wet clothes and hung them on the clothesline to dry. Somewhere along the boat ride, our guides and killed an animal related to the tapir and asked if we would be offended if they cooked it for us (Not at all!).
We then had dinner over candlelight, as electricity seemed like an afterthought at this point, and then passed out in our hammocks.
Classic arepas greeted us for breakfast the next morning:
And then we set off on our 2 hour hike towards Angel Falls.
At a few points we would get impatient and sneak out a few views of the falls.
But it was after a 2 story hike up where we got a true clearing to appreciate the falls head on:
After a few photos we hiked 20 minutes further towards the base of the falls, where we stripped and went for a swim.
We spent 30 minutes at the base of the falls, before retracing our steps back to base camp.
We celebrated with a grilled tapir:
After lunch, we got back into our boats and headed back to the Canaima village, which was much easier than the day before. We got back right at sunset.
After dinner, we passed out in our assigned posadas.
The next morning our guides took us to a much more nearby Canaima Lakes to check out Sapo waterfalls.
These waterfalls are unique in that you can walk up close and behind them.
Right next to these falls is a lagoon where you can enjoy a little swim and cliff diving.
After Sapo Falls, we headed back to our posadas to dry off and begin our Cessna flights back to Ciudad Bolivar. While the 2 other Cessnas headed back directly, my particular Cessna decided to take a $50/person detour to view, up-close, the rarely-visited top of Auyantepui (so isolated from civilization it has its own unique ecosystem)and Angel Falls itself.
More than satisfied, we headed back to Ciudad Bolivar and to modern civilization itself.
- At time of posting in Angel Falls, Venezuela, it was 22 °C -
Humidity: 100% | Wind Speed: 3km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy
We’re not in the clear yet, so keep your fingers crossed until we reach Bali. And even then, I’m not sure if typhoons affecting even a single country may spread to the entire Southeast Asia region. For more drama, read on…
On our third and final day of island hopping, we started off our morning with a 1.4km zipline excursion (500-1100 pesos per person depending if you want to do round trip or one way, sitting or gliding like “Superman”) over The Palawan:
After that, walked back and took a tricycle back to town, except Dave who rented a motorbike (cough, showoff…ok I’m a little jealous):
At 2pm we hopped on our private boat for overnight camping on our own private beach.
Some of us took a speedboat back into town for an hour when we wanted to get more marshmallows, mosquito coils, liquor, and drinks. I guess you could call this our best “liquor run” ever:
Also enjoyed the sunset and ate freshly cooked food made by our ship captains.
And then the emergency news came: While in the middle of our “full moon party” we got word via a satellite phone call that our AirAsia flights out of Manila and into Bali on December 8th had been cancelled. This was bad. Supertyphoon Hagupit had finally reared its ugly head.
Sure, we had been dodging bullets left and right with such good weather in The Palawan, despite the threat of a supertyphoon hovering nearby…but now our luck had finally run out. Without our flights out of Manila and into Bali, we were threatened with the scenario of being stranded in The Philippines for the next week during the storm, as well as standing up all the folks who flew all the way out here to Southeast Asia to join us for the East Timor part of the trip. While these are first world problems, I didn’t want to let down my group with a horrible end to the trip, nor did I want to abandon anyone in East Timor.
Kicking our shit into high gear, we managed to leech off cell phone signal from one of my friends on the trip, Dave, and find alternative earlier flights direct from Manila to Bali. Instead of the original plan of flying into Manila, spending the night and catching the next morning 7:30am AirAsia flight to Kuala Lumpur to Bali (which flights were now cancelled), we would fly into Manila, hail a cab to another airport terminal, and barely make a direct Philippine Airlines flight out to Bali flying out that same evening. Although we would lose a night in Manila, we would gain an extra one in Bali and still be able to make it in time so that our monsooners joining us for East Timor wouldn’t arrive to an empty welcoming party.
Suffice to say, there was a lot of back and forth setting this up. It was hard enough to get cell signal on a remote abandoned beach in The Palawan Islands, let alone look up affordable alternative international flights on airlines that would be willing to book 12 people the day before. On the bright side, we were able to reach AirAsia and confirm their cancellations, and reach Philippine Airlines and confirm that their flights were still on. But we found out the hard way that some airlines and booking sites wouldn’t allow booking for flights less than 24 hour prior to departure. We found out the hard way that booking directly with Philippine Airlines would’ve been 50% more expensive. And we found out the hard way some booking sites only allow booking 5 people at a time. But after a few hours of laser-focus teamwork, we got the flights booked and plan B secured.
Resuming the full moon party on our own private beach in The Palawan would be a proper way to celebrate.
Loyal Repeat Monsooners: The Cuba delegation!
Loyal Repeat Monsooner: The Iberia Delegation!
The next morning we woke up drowsily to the sounds of waves and a serene sunrise:
Took the speedboat back to town
On our way back to town, we were able to re-confirm that our flight out of The Palawan was still on schedule and that whatever I booked last night via satellite phone was still on the books. After almost forgetting to reserve accommodations in Bali for my group of monsooners, I once again harnessed borrowed WiFi to make sure we had a place to sleep in Bali at 2am. We then hopped on our 6 hour bus to catch our flight from Puerto Princesa back to Manila.
As of right now I’m blogging at the airport in Puerto Princesa, crossing my fingers that the flights are still on. It ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings in Bali. Wish us luck.
- At time of posting in Puerto Princesa, The Philippines, it was 35 °C -
Humidity: 85% | Wind Speed: 7km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy
The following is a guest post by Brandon Green of Brandon is Still Alive, who graciously asked if he could contribute to the Monsoon Diaries adventures.
Brandon Green and I had taken the same Calculus III Honors class 9 years ago during my freshman year at Columbia University. Since then we haven’t really caught up with each other until only recently, when he approached me a few weeks ago about publishing his experience about getting lost on Snake Island on The Monsoon Diaries. Here is his story.
After a great deal of increasingly desperate searching and a long drive on a perilous cliffside road, we found a fisherman who agreed to take us to Snake Island, a tiny, uninhabited island in the middle of a lake at the border between Macedonia (FYROM), Albania, and Greece.
In the little motorboat watching Snake Island grow closer, we realized it was larger than we had thought. As we got within a few hundred yards, we saw that the trees surrounding the island were absolutely covered in birds. Birds stood on every rocky outcropping and viable perch.
When within shouting distance of the island, our guide made loud whooping noises to scare the birds from rest, and they filled the sky, almost intimidating in their numbers.
We circled the island, getting a nice view of the ruins of a church that had once jutted out of the cliff face. Since we had no way to communicate with our boatman without the aid, via cell phone, of his English-speaking 8-year-old daughter, I was worried for a minute that we were only getting a tour around the island, but finally, after the circuit was complete, he pulled up to a small beach and helped us off the boat.
We set foot on the beach and instantly saw a trail blaze. I remember thinking this was kind of funny – why would you bother marking the trail on such a tiny island? Where could you get lost?
Some ten yards up the trail we came to a full map of the island marking the many structures that had been built there, from 4th century Roman ruins to a 14th century chapel we later saw was still in use. Cheerfully taking photos, we hiked along the path and admired the ruins. It was amazing to see how many people had built on this tiny island in the middle of a lake, especially since the vast majority of the structures were religious.
After passing two or three of the ruins, taking in the forest scenery, we pretended we were “Lord of the Rings” characters as a nod to the Island’s name “Golem Grad”, then took a few shots of a particularly malicious looking tree.
I went to Argentina with my sister and our friend Eva in March. This is a list of my favorite experiences.
(and why you should go!)
Its everywhere. Its delicious. Bring your dairy pills because you’ll want globs of it every day.
10. Graffiti/Street art
Especially near La Boca, colorful graffiti covers Buenos Aires. Sometimes its on cars. Sometimes its a giant mural that even incorporates nearby telephone poles.
9. Recoleta Cemetery
Evita was buried here. The avenues of small neat mausoleums is a bit creepy, but the sculptures are great. Cats wander around.
8. Steak. Asado. Meat.
If you’re not eating steak every day, you’re doing something wrong. The food is amazing in Argentina and steak is what they’re best known for- usually cooked more well done that we like, but so good it melts in your mouth. Vegetarians, the empanadas and pizzas are equally awesome.
7. Yerba Mate
This tastes nothing like the Guayaki brand of mate you’ll find in the supermarket. Bitter, dark and drunk through a metal straw in a pile of leaves in a hollowed out melon, its caffeine will keep you up. People often will refill your cup with warm water for free. And its usually shared in a circle.
My sister who has declared herself “not a wine fan” admitted to liking malbec wines. They’re flavorful, not too sweet and dry enough to pair really well with that asado.
5. Perito Moreno Glacier
The perito moreno glacier is incredibly photogenic. Its not the biggest, but it’s one of the most consistent in calving. Stick around for at least two hours to watch the glacier drop building size pieces of ice into the water.
4. The town of El Calafate
There is something really familiar but grand about the landscape around El Calafate. There were hills sort of like Owen’s Valley, plants were sort of like the ones in the Central valley, the sky sort of looked like Colorado’s, but it was somehow perfected. Whether riding bikes along the lake or driving along Rt 15, the open air, rising hills and small ranches around this city felt right.
3. Hiking in El Chalten
Though its billed as the trekking capital of Argentina, you’ll run into a surprisingly few number of people in this sleepy small town. Rent any hiking equipment you need and head out on some of the most beautiful hikes in Patagonia. Get close to Fitz Roy, get a view of the valley floor, and definitely check out Laguna Torre. Not the easiest hikes around (most are about 15-17 miles round trip), but there are nice backpacking options if you want to break it up into several days.
2. I Keu Ken Hostel in El Calafate.
This is the best hostel I have ever stayed at. The staff was friendly, the place was cozy, the people were just the best. Friday night asado dinner had all beer/wine you can drink and all meat you can eat, which resulted in a rousing game of switch hand drinking game with people from around the world.
1. Ice climbing on the Viedma Glacier
When the boat dropped us off next to the Viedma glacier, there were maybe 40 people standing around. Then the guides took the ice trekkers away and then there was just 4 of us. Apparently no one else wanted to try ice climbing! It took a few minutes for us to get the gear and put it all on, but as soon as I took my first steps on the ice and sunk my ice axe into the glacier, I was completely in love. From slushy white snow to hard blue glassy ice, I felt like I was flying as I climbed up these walls. By the end of the day as I came over the edge of my last climb, I couldn’t stop smiling. Our guides handed us some Baileys with glacier ice and we sipped them while watching the shadows grow longer along the crevasses. Then we climbed back over the ice and rock to the boat that would take us back to town. Easily one of the best days of my life.
With my American passport, I’m no stranger to visa red tape and bureaucratic hell. I had to go through it for North Korea, for Iran, for Myanmar, and lately, for Pakistan. But what was supposed to be a routine and well paved out path to acquire a visa for my American passport ended up being 4 separate back-and-forth trips to the consulate. Luckily I live only 10 blocks away, so it wasn’t too bad of a repeat journey, but the amount of harassment my friend (who’s half Pakistani) had to endure was beyond expectations.
For starters they only open at specific times for visa processing: 9am-1pm from Mondays to Thursdays and 9am-12:30pm on Friday. They’re quite strict with this, which prevented me from dropping off my visa application in person since I had work in the early mornings. Luckily since Mar had a day off on Monday and can get into work a little later than I can, tried to submit my visa application on my behalf.
Since I was heading to Pakistan for a specific reason (a wedding), I was going for the “visit visa” instead of the generic “tourist visa.” So I had filled out everything to a tee, and included the standard required invitation letter from a Pakistani national who was going to sponsor my trip (in my case, it would be Bushra whose wedding I was attending).
1) Because my friend’s application came with a birth certificate that proved her natural birth in Lahore, Pakistan, they approved her visa without a problem within 24 hours; she didn’t even need to show a sponsor letter.
2) But then they looked at my application and pretty much rejected it on the spot: Reason #1 – The sponsor letter needed to be signed.
3) So the next day my friend came back to drop off my visa application with a signed letter. They rejected it again: Reason #2 – The sponsor letter needed to indicate the name of the sponsor’s father.
4) We added that info in. They rejected it again: Reason #3 – The sponsor letter needed to include the sponsor’s Passport number, Pakistan address, and NIC number.
5) We then added even more info on there. Rejected once more: Reason #4 – The sponsor letter needed to include my Passport number, Home address, and Birthday.
6) That ended up in there. Another rejection: Reason #5 – The sponsor letter needed to state that the sponsor will be “responsible for anything that will happen to Calvin Datze Sun during the entirety of his stay in Pakistan.”
7) Okay, that went in too. Finally, another (guess what?)…rejection: Reason #6 – The sponsor letter needed to state where I would be living during the entirety of my stay in Pakistan.
8) One more time, one more rejection: Reason #7 – What was my relation to my friend? If I’m not a husband, uncle, father, or fairy godmother, I have to come in myself to submit my application.
9) And to top it off with one more rejection to end all rejections: Reason #8 – The sponsor letter needed to be in “your language.” As in, it needed to be written in Urdu.
Then fed up, I finally went in myself with the following:
2) A letter that stated the sponsor’s Pakistani address, name, passport number, NIC number, phone number, father’s name, and the fact he/she will be “responsible for anything that happens to the applicant during the entirety of his/her stay in the country.”
3) Same sponsor letter that stated the applicant’s (me) Home address, name, passport number, phone number, birthdate, and where he/she will be staying while in Pakistan
4) $120 USD in a bank check, money order, cashier’s check, or debit card payment on the spot.
5) The applicant’s passport itself (that would be valid for at least 6 months…check the expiration date!)
6) My NY State ID showing proof of residence in the following States under the Consulate General’s jurisdiction (New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Kentucky, Vermont, Connecticut, Delaware, Wyoming.)
6) 2 recent passport size photographs with white background (front view) no older then 3 months.
7) And if you’re not going for a specific reason like a wedding (remember, I was going for a “visit” visa instead of a tourist visa), you’ll also need to provide:
And by speaking a little Urdu and with a smile on my face, they finally took it in!
But instead of my friend’s one day turnaround, they took 7 days with mine:
If you thought I had it bad, however, my friend’s mother (who’s originally Filipino and then married her father, who’s Pakistani) probably had it even worse:
Thank you for writing this up! I should do a version of a Pakistani wife asking for a visa.They gave me so much grief too I was almost giving up. Here are a couple of their requirements on top of those you already enumerated:
Personal (not joint) bank statements for no less than 3 months (why?!)
Certification of employment (again, why?!)
Thank God for my husband who persevered on my behalf otherwise I wouldn’t have gone to attend the wedding. By the way I was just there last year so these visa requirements are new to me. They only give foreign wives a one year visa. Go figure.
I want to thank the following amazing team of loved ones and good friends who helped me along this entire process:
Mariam Dar: For inviting me on this trip with Bushra, the back-and-forth trips on my behalf, and enduring all the harassment.
Meher "The Gator" Farooq: For writing out the translation of the letter into Urdu by hand, and then finding your friend Hassan to type it out for me.
Shaifa Farooqui: For getting your mother to help translate the sponsor letter into Urdu.
Bushra "The Bride" Butt: For getting married, inviting me to attend, putting up with the constant revisions of the sponsor letter, and getting your fiancée to call the consulate to ask what's up.
Mohsen Ali: For helping Hassan with translating the sponsor letter into Urdu.
Saira Hafeez: For trying to help, and showing me how you still need to work on your Urdu.
Hassan "The Translator" Baber: For both translating and typing out the sponsor letter onto Microsoft Word for the final visa application.
Sadaf Malik: For helping Hassan with translating the sponsor letter into Urdu.
Tahir Ahmad: For stories of past visa attempts so I could compare them with mine, for sharing in my indignation at the whole process, and for showing me how you still need to work on your Urdu.
- At time of posting in New York City, Central Park, it was 6 °C -
Humidity: 25% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: n/a