Route 395 is the long way to get from Reno down to Death Valley and on to Las Vegas in Nevada, but as always, the long way is the scenic way. It runs along the eastern side of the Sierras and for much of the way, you are surrounded by mountains and desert.
Death Valley in the Mojave Desert in Eastern California is the lowest and driest place in North America. It holds the record for the highest reliably reported temperature in the world: 56.7 °C at Furnace Creek on 10 July 1913. (The 57.8 °C recorded in Aziziya, Libya is not recognised by the World Meteorological Organization).
The greatest number of consecutive days with a maximum temperature of 38 °C or above was 154 in the summer of 2001. The summer of 1996 had 40 days over 49 °C, and 105 days over 43 °C.
At 86m below sea level, Badwater Basin is the point of lowest elevation in North America. Interestingly, this point is only 136km from Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States, with an elevation of 4 421m. Perhaps this is why, every year in July, a few diehards set off on an ultra-marathon from Badwater to the foot of Mt Whitney.
We thought it was a much better idea to keep the car’s air-conditioning running at full blast and hope we made it to the other side before the Cokes ran out!
Review: La Sportiva Vertical K
As its name suggests this ultra lightweight shoe was designed primarily for Vertical Kilometre competitions (read running up ultra-steep mountains!) and skyrunning, where light weight and good grip on changing terrain are fundamental. But they’re without doubt the best hiking/mountain shoes I’ve ever had. I ran the Three Peaks Challenge in them and knocked 1 hour 43 minutes off my previous best time! Some of it was down to the fact that was a bit more running fit than usual, but the main difference was that the Vertical K’s soft rubber sole smears around rocky surfaces so I trusted my shoes and could hurtle down the steep rocky paths. The upper is quick drying and surprisingly robust – mine have survived around 900km of abuse on Table Mountain, in the Drakensberg and Cederberg with little sign of wear and tear. They’re comfortable even without socks and the overlapping tongue keeps out grumbies. What more could you ask for in a mountain shoe?
– Fiona McIntosh
Review: Vaude Sherpa 600 sleeping bag
Another product that I tested on the Drakensberg Grand Traverse, the Sherpa 600 offered good warmth for its weight (1.35kg) and bulk. The selling features for me are the simple mummy design, which aids thermal insulation, big hood with pillow compartment, really thick warmth collar and the fact that you can unzip the bottom of the bag to allow your feet to breathe. This is a particularly good feature if you’re going fast and light – in the evenings you can ‘wear’ the bag and wander around in it!
The bag is 80/20 duck down and has a comfort rating of +2 degrees C and was more than adequate even at 3,000m. (If you’re interested, that comfort rating refers to the lowest temperature at which you can expect to enjoy a restful sleep lying on your back in a stretched out position, which equates to being comfortable down to -3 degrees if you sleep in a foetal position) The zippers are robust, and have anti-stick strips so for once I didn’t get the fabric caught in the zip, there’s a useful inside mess pocket for storing batteries and the circular Velcro patches securing the top of the bag and the toggle systems all worked well. Torrential rain and howling winds meant that water seeped through the tent walls as three of us squashed into a two-person tent but the outer fabric of the bag showed good water repellency and didn’t soak up moisture. Overall a great value three-season bag.
– Fiona McIntosh
Review: First Ascent Traverse II Plus Tent
The key feature of this spacious 3-season tent is the unique ‘One Pole’ system (3 poles interconnected through a swivel system) that gives it the stability you would expect from a 4-season tent. The third pole creates extra headspace and a spacious interior, which can comfortably accommodate two people plus gear, or three people at a snug fit. It’s a synch to put together with clever colour-coded poles and easy clips – we managed to assemble it in under a minute on our first go! Weighing only 3.2kg it’s extremely well ventilated with two entrances, reflective guy ropes and a variety of mesh pockets for storing gear. The inner is mesh so it’s not designed to withstand serious storms, but if you’re looking for a lightweight trekking option it’s perfect.
– Fiona McIntosh
Photographed here in the foothills of the Drakensberg near Sani Pass, Canis mesomelas, an aggressive scavenger, is mainly responsible for the drastic reduction in sheep farms in the area. With pup births conveniently timed to coincide with the lambing season, these jackals kill sheep with a bite to the throat before opening the flank for feasting.
Over the years, attempts have been made to combat this threat with hunting clubs, dogs, poison, and gas, but today, professional hunters lure jackals by using recorded jackal calls. In the Karoo, the past ten years have seen a big explosion in jackal numbers. That very few appear to live longer than seven years in the wild can offer little consolation to sheep farmers.
The “Cottonwood Canyon” is a two-day drift-boat trip with a tented overnight on the banks of the Snake River in Idaho. The season is not particularly long and the whole camp has to be broken up and taken out by boat at the end of each season. It’s a lot of work, but this amount of care makes for a pristine river experience.
Life does not get much better than this. Two days of solid fishing, with one fisher fore and one aft, and an expert guide who knows how to keep a perfect line and point out all the perfect lies.
One often reads about how you have one crack at a fish, because the boat is constantly moving, but it’s not as intimidating as it sounds. There are lots of these perfect lies, and if you miss one, the next is just a cast away!
- The Travelling Fisherman
Under Milkwood Collection
I recently had the opportunity to spend a night at the Under Milkwood Collection in Knysna, and woke up to this beautiful sunrise. The self-catering chalets, wonderfully hidden under milkwood trees for privacy, are on a steep slope with the furthest ones being within a few metres of the lagoon.
The timber chalets are not only close to the lagoon, but they are well located in general. I walked to the Knysna Heads restaurants for breakfast, having decided I was too lazy to actually self cater!
They also have a luxury guesthouse with spectacular views across the lagoon, was well as a B&B option. If you are heading to Knysna, especially in a larger group, Under Milkwood is well worth a look.
If you're looking for the iconic South African windmill and farm dam scene, this one just outside the town of Nieuwoudtville has its own timeless resonance. Striking deep at the heart of the nostalgic spirit that inspired the Windmill Museum further up the road in Loeriesfontain, each timeless, momentary shifting of colours and textures conjures up its own evocative magic here.
This image puts one in mind of a wraparound dust jacket for a novel, with an exquisite font for a perfectly placed title - just a couple of words. What would it be?
This little gem lies off the R62 just before the Nuy Valley turnoff, and it's hard to miss! Inside, you will find a tin can collecting money for local schoolchildren - a voluntary donation in return for photographing the massive pumpkin display outside. You will also find all the usual padstal delicacies, so the stop is highly recommended.
– Erik on Instagram (@nightjartravel)
K-Way Attack 18L Hydration Pack
It may only be an 18l pack, but the expandable mesh that links the main pack to the subsidiary storage area means that Attack punches way above it’s weight. Featuring an air-flow harness system and an external hydration compartment it’s designed for hiking, trail running and mountain biking – but is equally at home dashing between meetings! Heavy and bulky items like waterproofs, guide books and an SLR fit into the main compartment; lunch, GPS, binos and other smaller items are easily accessible in the front pocket, and a helmet and/or jacket slips into the gap in between. And when unloaded you simply tighten the compression straps and it sits nicely on your back.
Made from durable, PU coated 400D Nylon Ripstop fabric and with a rain cover and numerous internal pockets, the Attack is not the lightest pack around, but it’s built to last. I used one as my main day-hiking pack for nearly six months and it showed little sign of strain. A really versatile little number.
– Fiona McIntosh
Osprey Hornet 46 Backpack
I’ve tested a few packs of late and the Osprey Hornet 46 wins hands down as my number one choice in the ultralight range. Mine goes everywhere with me: to the office, the mountain or as my carry-on luggage when I wish Cape Town bon voyage. It weighs only 730g (or 680g for the smaller version that fits most women) and, if you want to go super light you can remove the foam frame sheet and the top pocket to get it down to half a kilogramme.
But the real selling point is that going light doesn’t mean compromising on features. As with all Osprey packs it’s the attention to detail that makes the Hornet special. Plastic rods running down the edge of the foam frame add stiffness and transfer the load to the hip belt and there’s an external hydration reservoir so you can easily add a bladder even when the pack is stuffed full. But it’s the external storage that impressed me most. There are roomy pockets on the hip belt and you can fit a biking or climbing helmet into the front mesh pocket, while the two full length mesh stowage pockets down the side (which can be accessed from a gap in the side mesh, not just the top) are big enough to take a piece of clothing, tent poles and water bottle all at the same time. The cleverest bit of all is the thin compression straps, which can be laced inside the pocket, or used to strap a sleeping mat on the outside and extra loops down the back make it easy to rig up your own shock cord system if you need to strap on additional bulky gear.
The only downside of the pack is that its 46l capacity makes it easy to overfill. The Hornet is designed to take loads of 10-15kg so there’s no padding on the hip belt and little on the shoulders. If you insist on heading out carrying over 20kg of food and camping gear – as I have done – expect to be sore!
– Fiona McIntosh
Women’s NeoAir Xlite
Once you’ve slept on a NeoAir Xlite, you’ll never be happy on another inflatable mattress. I tested the Xlite on a Drakensberg Grand Traverse in November last year and promptly bought myself one as a Christmas present! With a thickness of 6.3cm it’s more comfortable than a ‘traditional’ Therm-a-rest, and offers great thermal insulation thanks to a reflective layer which recycles body heat and creates dual air pockets that conserve warmth. Weighing in at 320g, it’s unbelievably light and but even better it’s low in bulk packing down to roughly the size of a litre waterbottle! The most compact women’s version is only 168cm long, and the regular Xlite comes in 183cm and 196cm lengths. All can be blown up in about 20 breaths – but I’d recommend stopping just before max or you’ll probably roll off!
The trade-off with most ultra-light items is that they’re not as robust as their ‘standard’ counterparts so this was my big reservation with this mattress. However it survived the Traverse (when, somewhat ironically, the inflatable mattresses of both my tent mates let them down!), a 10-day trip camping out on the top of Krakadouw and other spots in the rugged Cederberg Wilderness area and eight days in the thorny Belize jungle so it’s passed the durability test in my books. And its performance is endorsed by accolades and international reviews including The Outdoor Gear Lab Editors’ Choice 2012, with the men’s version the Editors’ Choice from Backpacker magazine. So the only two downsides are the rather hefty price tag and the fact that you waking up on a comfy mat is bound to piss off your tent mates. But hey, sure you can live with that!
– Fiona McIntosh
These mangroves were photographed at low tide at the Nqabara river mouth, just south of Dwesa Wildlife Reserve. Mangroves are unique tropical and subtropical trees and shrubs that have adapted to the varying salt levels in the intertidal zone between sea and land, providing protection against soil erosion and offering many benefits to the creatures they harbour.
Mangroves are among the most threatened plant communities in South Africa. The Wild Coast has the most southerly distribution of mangrove forests, which the locals use for building materials, fish traps, firewood, stock grazing and crab collecting. Harvesting has reportedly removed a seriously large percentage of the mangrove trees in the area.
The Henry’s Fork of the Snake River gets a lot of press. But the Snake River in Idaho has many tributaries and has an enormous amount of fishing to offer. One option to remember when the wind plays up is Box Canyon, just below Island Park reservoir. Island Park lies about an hour’s drive south-west of Yellowstone and can hardly be called a town. It has a population of just over 200 people, but it has four fly shops. Now, that is a town that has its priorities right!
- The Travelling Fisherman
Friend: ‘We’re going surfing at Watu Karung, it’s a dangerous break on a shallow reef, but you should come.’
Me, sceptical: ’Okay, I won’t be able to surf a reef break but I guess there are no waves here anyhow. Maybe I can snorkel.’
An hour’s motorbike ride through hilly farmlands later I can’t seem to find my breath. No one mentioned the beach! Pristine sand, a few painted fishing boats, limestone cliffs and royal blue waters great us. In addition there’s a woman selling Pecel (veggies and rice in a peanut sauce) and Fresh Coconut sweetened with palm sugar under a tree nearby. Most of my jealousy over the surfers melts, the incredible fishes under the royal blue help too.
– Sara Barnes