Unusually popular images

An unusually popular gallery:

The following photos by Tom Dempsey are unusually popular in internet searches or print sales. Go figure! Unique, quirky images attract more searches, whereas beautiful landscapes sell more, here at PhotoSeek.com:

PAUSE || or START SLIDESHOW as desired with buttons at lower right. But mobile devices just display a fixed image, so click center to enlarge as a set of images with full captions in GALLERIES mode (where Add to Cart button lets you buy photos). 

Above are unusually popular images (from PhotoSeek.com) automatically played in a show. For related images, read the caption then look in GALLERIES by country/state or SEARCH.

Sony A6000 & NEX top Nikon for travel, 11x lens

Please read my separate Sony A6300 review before delving into the earlier Sony A6000, NEX-6 and NEX-7 below.


For photography on-the-go in 2012-15, I ditched my DSLR and carried a Sony Alpha NEX-7 camera with optimally sharp, versatile E-mount Sony 18-200mm f3.5-6.3 OSS lens, together just 33 ounces. In 2014, the new Sony A6000 replaced NEX cameras:

2014-15: Sony A6000 with 16-50mm Lens (2014, 12 oz body + 4 oz lens) introduced blazingly Fast Hybrid Autofocus built into a 24mp sensor and antiquated the earlier NEX-7 and NEX-6 discussed below. Sony A6000 is the world’s best travel camera of 2014-15, capturing the sharpest images with the fastest autofocus in the smallest box. Using Continuous autofocus at an amazing 11 frames per second, A6000 will track moving subjects right up to the edges of the frame, even recognizing and tracking faces. Compared to earlier Sony NEX-6 or NEX-7: the A6000 is superior except lacks a horizontal level indicator and has poorer resolution in the viewfinder (1.44 million dots vs 2.36 million; with slightly smaller magnification 0.70x versus 0.73x in terms of 35mm-equivalent) (or 1.07x versus 1.09x in terms of APS-C). For on-the-go photography and international travel, carry one or both of the following portable cameras:

  1. Sony Alpha A6000 camera mounted with 16-50mm E-mount lens (16 oz total) or sharper Sony 18-200mm OSS E-mount SEL18200 silver lens (33 oz total).
  2. Sony DSC-RX100 camera version III (10 oz, 2014) − read my RX100 article.

The “best” travel camera is the one you want to bring everywhere. Before the Sony A6000 was introduced, for the sharpest images from the smallest box, a top choice was Sony Alpha NEX-7 camera with 24 megapixels (mp) or Sony NEX-6 with 16-50mm Retractable Zoom lens — much smaller than a DSLR camera! Mirrorless interchangeable lens compact (ILC) cameras have revolutionized travel photography beyond the legacy of DSLR designs.

The archive article below reviews Sony NEX-7 and NEX-6 advantages, disadvantages, workarounds, lenses, autofocus/Manual/macro tips, firmware updates, and compares to a Nikon D5000 DSLR and Sony RX100 pocket camera.

Horse wrangler on dusty Park Butte Trail, Mount Baker Wilderness, Washington, USA.

A cowboy guides horses along dusty Park Butte Trail in Mount Baker Wilderness, Washington. Capture great spontaneous shots with Sony E-mount 18-200mm f3.5-6.3 OSS lens. Good travel photography demands an 11x zoom like this for rapidly framing from wide angle to telephoto within seconds. (Photo zoomed to 140mm telephoto, 1/125th sec, at f/8, on Sony Alpha NEX-7 camera.)

Mount the 18-200mm lens on Sony Alpha A6000  which has very fast Hybrid Autofocus (beating NEX-6 and -7). Sony says A6000 autofocus (as fast as 0.06 seconds) is the world’s fastest on a mirrorless camera with an APS-C image sensor as of 2014.

Sony NEX-7 and NEX-6 versus Nikon D5000

The Sony Alpha NEX-7 shaves 12 ounces and improves large-print quality by up to 40% compared to my former DSLR, a Nikon D5000 with Nikon 18-200mm VR II lens (a top 2009 camera weighing 45 oz including lens, cap, hood, battery and strap). Sony Alpha NEX-6 shaves 14 ounces and improves image quality by 25% compared to a Nikon D5000 with 18-200mm lens.

Drop the bulky DSLR mirror box and upgrade to the instant feedback of an exquisite OLED electronic viewfinder (EVF) in a Sony Alpha NEX-6 or NEX-7 camera, to double the area visible through the viewfinder compared to most DSLR cameras! (1.09x linear magnification for NEX versus 0.78x for Nikon D5000 and others, measured in terms of APS-C.)

NEX-7 autofocus speed is fine for landscapes and moderate action (see horse rider photo). But the newer NEX-6 (now beat by A6000’s AF) accelerates autofocus with Hybrid AF (modifying a 16mp sensor with pixels devoted to phase detection), reducing shutter lag near DSLR speed.

For framing distant subjects or wildlife, digitally cropping the amazing 24 mp resolution of a Sony NEX-7 now saves me from carrying an extra telephoto lens when trekking. (When shot on a Nikon D5000, image resolution from 70 to 250mm on my former 26-ounce Nikon 70-300mm zoom lens is effectively beaten by the all-in-one Sony 18-200mm lens on a higher-resolution NEX-7, when cropped to match the angle of view of up to 250mm.)

A pricey NEX-7 has a huge 24mp sensor (highest for APS-C Type cameras in 2012) for larger prints and sharper cropping to enlarge wildlife or birds. More economical was the 16-mp NEX-6, which thankfully added Hybrid AF (improved autofocus speed), a physical mode dial, Wi-Fi connectivity, and Quick Navi menu (all of which are sadly not found in NEX-7, which annoyingly requires 3 menu button presses to change modes P, A, S, M, SCN, etc). For travel, the LE version Sony 18-200mm OSS black SEL18200LE lens  (16-oz) is a good match for NEX-6, whereas NEX-7 demands a Sony 18-200mm f3.5-6.3 OSS silver SEL18200 lens (18.5 oz) or prime lenses further below.

On the go, protect your camera and 18-200mm lens in a Lowepro Toploader Zoom 50 AW Bag (which I carry on a custom chest harness for hiking and traveling).

Read my review/BUY page to compare with other camera brands such as Canon and Nikon — see how I decided that NEX was best!

More details

In 2013, sharp photographers could pack the most-portable punch with the amazing Sony Alpha NEX-6 with 16-50mm Retractable Zoom lens (12 oz body + 4 oz lens, 24-75mm equiv), which saved $350 and 2 oz of body weight compared to a Sony NEX-7 camera.

Both NEX-6 and NEX-7 cameras squeeze more impressive features than ever into a small box:

  • A high-res OLED Electronic Viewfinder (2,359,000 pixels, superb 1.09x magnification) gives more accurate feedback on a final digital image than a non-digital optical viewfinder. The sharp EVF appears larger than the camera’s external screen and is easier to see in bright daylight.
  • A tilting 921,600-dot LCD jump-starts your creative macro, movie, and candid shooting comfortably at arm’s length.
  • NEX-7 beats rival APS-C sensor cameras for resolution, with 3400 resolvable lines per picture height (LPH) from raw files (versus 2800 LPH for NEX-6 and 2400 LPH for Nikon D5000, each measured on prime lenses).
    • NEX-7 raw files (name extension .ARW) resolve more detail than a costlier full-frame-sensor Canon EOS 6D or 5D Mark III (2800 LPH) from ISO 100-1600. For capturing lower noise, full-frame cameras of 2012 require ISO settings above 1600 to clearly beat NEX-7 or -6.
    • Upgrading to a resolution higher than NEX-7’s costs much more:
  • NEX-6/NEX-7 capture excellent dynamic range (bright to dark) and the lowest noise at high ISO compared to APS-C rivals.
    • Using ISO 6400 capturing dim action indoors, my NEX-7 shot publishable images for a spotlit theater production.
  • TIP: When shooting at ISO ≥800, capture 1 stop less noise by using Anti Motion Blur (my favorite) or Hand-held Twilight mode. Both modes can automatically set ISO up to 6400, thereby working around Auto ISO being sadly restricted to ≤1600.
    • Hand-held Twilight (a Scene mode under SCN) helps get sharper low-noise, low-light shots of static subjects without a tripod for ISO ≥800. Six frames are auto-shot continuously then stacked into a single JPEG image to lower noise levels (requiring 8 seconds processing time, delaying the next possible shot). Hand-held Twilight mode cannot create a raw file, but the resulting improvement in hand-held JPEG image quality couldn’t otherwise be captured.
    • Anti Motion Blur (set directly on virtual mode dial) likewise makes a JPEG file but favors faster shutter speeds to freeze action or steady hand-held telephoto, at the cost of setting ISO higher (noisier) than Hand-held Twilight mode.
  • Sweep Panorama mode instantly stitches exciting JPEG panorama images horizontally or vertically (although manually stitching panoramas from multiple raw files is reliably superior in  Adobe Lightroom software version 6 or in Adobe Photoshop software).
  • Sony NEX ingeniously pops-up a small flash, which can be tilted up for bounce. For brighter reach and to avoid shadows from 18-200mm lens, mount Sony HVL-F20AM flash on NEX-7 (but NEX-6 requires Sony ADP-MAA Multi-Interface Shoe Adapter).

Travel zoom lenses for Sony Alpha A6300, A6000, A5100, and NEX cameras

  • For remarkable portability, instead of the Sony E-mount 18-55mm lens Standard Zoom bundled with some NEX-7 kits, consider the world’s most compact 3x zoom lens for APS-C:
  • Sony E-mount 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS silver (SEL-18200) lens (18.5 oz) on a NEX-7 captures the highest quality images for the smallest weight of any 11x zoom system for APS-C sensors of 2013.
    • This 18-200mm “all-in-one” lens captures sufficiently-high quality for my professional print publications, such that no other lens on this page need be carried.
    • See “Advantages/Disadvantages of Sony 18-200mm OSS lens” sections further below.
    • The Sony 18-200mm silver (SEL-18200) lens with 67mm filter size is clearly sharper than the newer, slightly smaller 16-oz Sony 18-200mm OSS black SEL18200LE lens  with 62mm filter size (new 2012, colored black). I recommend SEL-18200 for NEX-7 or NEX-6, but the black LE version (SEL-18200LE) only for a NEX-6 due to its lower resolution.
    • Tip: Blur Index Test A (2011) shows SEL-18200 is sharpest around f/5.6 to f/8 through its 11x range.
    • Other lens choices below depend upon your budget and willingness to swap lenses:
  • Sony 10-18mm f/4 OSS Alpha E-mount wide-angle zoom lens (8 oz, 2.75×2.5 inches, SEL1018, 2012) is significantly sharper than SEL-18200. Sharpest at f/5.6 to f/8 as you zoom, with least distortion from 14-18mm, good for shooting architecture indoors and out, plus landscapes and slot canyons.
  • Sony FE 24-240mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS E-mount lens (27.5 oz, 36-360mm equiv, 2015) favors telephoto reach in a good 10x travel zoom (about equal in sharpness to similar SEL-18200).
  • Sony E-mount PZ 18-105mm F4 G OSS (15 oz, SELP18105G, 2014) 6x zoom, APS-C-only lens: suffers from large (correctable) pincushion distortion. SELP18105G is as sharp as SEL-18200, and is a bit sharper than SEL-18200LE in the image center from 50-105mm.
  • Sony Vario-Tessar T* E-mount 16-70mm F4 ZA OSS lens (11 oz, SEL1670Z, 2013) 4x zoom, beats kit lens sharpness. Slightly beats SELP18105G and SEL-18200 from 18-70mm.
  • Sony E-mount 55-210mm (SEL55210) lens is sharper than SEL-18200. Reviewer Kurt Munger says “If you have a travel zoom, like Tamron NEX 18-200mm or Sony NEX 18-200mm, and find yourself using it mostly at the long end, the Sony 55-210mm would be a much better choice if sharpness is your major concern.”
  • Sony E-mount 70-200mm F4 G OSS lens (30 ounces, SEL70200G, 2014) premium glass supports new Sony A7/A7R full-frame-sensor (FE Series) cameras, as well as Sony A6000, NEX-7, and NEX-6.

In 2016, Sigma’s lens line-up is now available for Sony E-Mount bodies by using a Sigma Mount Converter MC-11 (2016, ~3 oz, $250, compatible with Sony A7 FE-mount series, A6300, A6000, and NEX) giving full stabilization and autofocus for Sigma’s Canon-mount and Sigma-mount lenses. Here’s a super telephoto option:

Note that Sony A-mount 70-400mm F4-5.6 G SSM II lens (53 oz, 3.7 x 7.7 inches, SAL-70400G2, 2013) or previous Sony SAL-70400G lens can be adapted onto a NEX camera using Sony LA-EA2 Adaptor (7 oz, with translucent mirror for fast phase detection autofocus) but lacks OSS, thereby limiting hand-held photography and increasing tripod usage.

SEL vs SAL Sony lenses

For NEX, I recommend Sony “SEL” E-mount lenses, but not necessarily lenses coded SAL. Sony SAL lenses are designed for full-frame (and APS-C) Alpha DSLR cameras, requiring a hefty 7-ounce A-mount adapter (Sony LA-EA2 Adaptor) for lens autofocus to work on an E-mount NEX. The few choices for E-mount (SEL) lenses may motivate adapting certain SAL lenses onto a NEX. But using an adapter may decrease quality and doesn’t support image stabilization on a NEX. Also, SAL lenses are heavier, requiring larger diameter glass than would an E-mount lens of the same focal length designed for APS-C-only.

NEX-6/NEX-7 cameras don’t need an adapter to support full-frame E-mount “FE Series” SEL lenses (announced October 2013 along with Sony A7 and A7R full frame E-mount cameras). The pricier FE Series glass diameter transmits an image circle large enough to cover a full frame sensor, meaning that the (smaller) APS-C sensor in NEX cameras can take advantage of the sharp center sweet-spot with little vignetting.

Prime (non-zoom) E-mount lenses for Sony A6000 and NEX-7

If you don’t mind swapping lenses or spending more for the sharpest possible images, a bright prime lens takes full advantage of a 24mp A6000 or NEX-7 (but not so much for a 16mp NEX-6 or NEX-5). Prime lenses (having fixed-focal-length and bright maximum aperture) are a bit sharper than kit zooms sold with a camera. Below are four good prime lenses for a NEX-7:

  1. Sony 50mm f/1.8 OSS E-mount prime lens (SEL-50F18, 7.1 oz)
    • has Optical SteadyShot (OSS) for sharper hand-held photos without a tripod
    • offers good value for the money (about $300)
    • has pleasing bokeh for portraits at f/1.8 to f/2.8 (but its angle-of-view is too narrow to be an all-purpose “standard” lens)
    • is sharpest from about f/4 to f/8 (on Blur Index Test B for SEL50F18 on a NEX-5).
    • is up to 3 stops brighter than Sony’s 18-200mm lens (SEL-18200), from f/4.5 to f/1.8
      • Caveat: If sharpness is your only goal, the Sony 50mm lens only beats SEL-18200 at f/5.6 to f/8 when tested on a NEX-5 (which may also be true for NEX-6). However, SEL-50F18 may beat SEL-18200 at a brighter range of F stops on a NEX-7 (see dxomark.com). Test results on a NEX-5: compared to SEL-18200 Blur Index Test A (2011) zoomed to 50mm (where brightest aperture is f/5), a prime Sony 50mm lens (Blur Index Test B for SEL50F18) has slightly sharper corners at f/5.6 to f/8. But the Blur Index for SEL-50F18 from f/1.8 to f/2 resembles SEL-18200 at f/16, its f/2.8 is as sharp as SEL-18200 at f/11, and its f/4 is as sharp as SEL-18200 at f/8.
  2. Sony 35mm f/1.8 OSS E-mount prime lens (SEL35F18, 5.5 oz)
    • has Optical SteadyShot (OSS) for sharper hand-held photos (without a tripod), as slow as a quarter of a second, an improvement of over 3 stops slower shutter speed!
    • serves well as a high-quality standard lens (about $450).
    • is sharpest at f/5 at infinity and f/4 at two feet.
  3. Sony 24mm f/1.8 E-mount prime Carl Zeiss Sonnar lens (SEL-24F18Z, 7.9 oz, sadly lacking OSS)
    • may be sharpest of the four, but costs several times the others’ price (about $1100).
    • Blur Index Test C shows that SEL-24F18Z is sharpest around f/2.8 to f/5.6.
    • **When tested on a NEX-5, compared to SEL-18200 Blur Index Test A (2011) zoomed to about 24mm (where its brightest aperture is f/4), a Sony 24mm lens (SEL-24F18Z) is slightly sharper at the corners at f/4, blurrier from f/8 to f/22, and impressively sharp at f/2.8 (like SEL-18200 at f/5.6), but its f/1.8, f/2, and f/11 are blurrier than SEL-18200 at f/11. (You must average results at 18 and 35mm zoom settings on SEL-18200 Test A to interpolate 24mm for comparison to Sony Zeiss 24mm lens.)
  4. Sigma 30mm f/2.8 DN prime lens for E-mount (4.8 oz, sadly lacking OSS)
    • is a great value standard lens (about $200), excellent for landscapes, but not as sharp or bright as Sony SEL-24F18Z.

**Note: Real world lens use often makes lab testing moot. In Blur Index Tests A, B, and C (above) done on a 16mp NEX-5 in 2011, the 50mm and 24mm Sony prime lenses don’t have a striking advantage over using the SEL-18200 lens; but later tests at dxomark.com (2013) indicate clear advantages of using these prime lenses on a 24mp NEX-7. The above Blur Index Tests A, B, C measure sharpness at the optimal focus plane, found by focus bracketing on a NEX-5.

Today’s constantly improving quality and diversity of cameras give us many great tools for the job. Portrait photographers often want lenses designed for attractive bokeh (the artistic character of out-of-focus areas) at bright apertures such as f/2.8 and f/1.8. But optimal sharpness for a lens on APS-C and full frame cameras is usually a few stops down from brightest aperture, as shown in the above Tests A, B, C. Landscape photographers like me often say “f/8 is great” as we care about both highest resolution of detail and depth of field. Depth of field/focus increases at higher F numbers such as f/11 to f/16, but diffraction through progressively smaller openings limits sharpness (blurs the resolution of image detail).

Prime lenses tend to be sharper than zooms. But I find that a Sony 11x zoom (silver SEL-18200) easily captures publication quality on NEX-7 and instantly frames rapidly-changing travel subjects without the extra bulk and annoyance of swapping lenses.

Secret MENU one-time settings improve Manual Focus for NEX-7

  1. CAMERA > AF/MF Select > DMF  (helpfully allows Direct Manual Focus with turn of focus ring after autofocus lock during half-press of the shutter release button)
  2. SETUP > AF/MF Control > Toggle  (is better than “Hold” option to better grasp the camera steadily)
  3. SETUP > MF Assist > ON  (enlarges MF view, optimally for 2 seconds)
  4. SETUP > MF Assist Time > 2 seconds
  5. SETUP > CUSTOM KEY SETTINGS > AF/MF Button > AF/MF Control   (lets AF/MF Button enable MF mode / lens focus ring)

In dim or low-contrast lighting, if autofocus fails to lock (thereby preventing DMF), try MF mode, arranged as above. Point the AEL swivel-switch to AF/MF, then press AF/MF Button to invoke MF, then turn manual focus ring on lens. When set as Toggle, MF mode stays in effect even after pressing the shutter button, unless cancelled by pressing AF/MF Button again or any other button. (Note: Sony’s 18-200mm lens has no built-in MF switch and relies on the above body settings.)

To set up MF default and create an AF button (to disconnect half-press focusing by shutter release button), you can change two settings above:

  • CAMERA > AF/MF Select > MF
  • SETUP > AF/MF Control > Hold 
  • Now holding down the AF/MF Button locks autofocus (instead of half pressing the shutter button).

Sony A6000 beats Olympus OM-D E-M5 and E-M10 systems

The best splash-proof, dust-proof, hardy midsize camera of 2014-2015 for travel (with Micro Four Thirds sensor) was the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Micro Four Thirds Digital Camera (Mark I) (2012, 15 oz weather sealed body) with splash-proof M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 EZ lens (24-100mm equiv, 7.5 oz, with splendid video, macro down to 36×27 mm).

  •  Compare cameras:
    • Sony A6000 with 16-50mm lens (2014, 12 oz body + 4 oz lens with Fast Hybrid Autofocus, 24mp) beats Olympus OM-D E-M5 in price, AF speed, and more (except E-M5 has a weather sealed body).
    • Olympus OM-D E-M10 Camera (Mark I, 2014, WITHOUT a weather-sealed body) is $300 cheaper than an E-M5, for equal image quality. But Sony A6000 easily beats Olympus E-M10 (due to larger sensor APS-C versus Micro 4/3, faster autofocus, smaller body, longer CIPA battery life of 420 shots per charge versus 320, faster 11 fps continuous shutter, and more movie modes; with equal viewfinder & LCD).
  • Olympus OM-D E-M5 features: high res Electronic Viewfinder (EVF), tilting 610,000-dot OLED LCD, 5-axis sensor-shift image stabilization, best 16mp sensor. The external, clip-on weather-sealed flash unit fits easily in a pocket.
  • Note that its more versatile travel lens with extended telephoto doesn’t have weather sealing:

Sony A6000 beats Sony RX10 and Panasonic FZ1000

  • Panasonic FZ1000 camera (2014, 29 oz with lens) f/2.8-4 lens 25-400mm equiv, 16x zoom. 1-inch-Type, 20mp sensor. Fast autofocus. Fully articulated LCD. Notes:
    • For the same weight but twice the price as FZ1000, you can upgrade to Sony A6000 with 18-200mm lens and APS-C sensor (having 3x bigger light-gathering area, but maybe not as sharp at long end of telephoto).
    • The Panasonic FZ1000’s brightest “equivalent F-stop” (f/7.7 to f/11 equiv from 25-400mm equiv) is not as bright as Sony’s E-mount 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 lens (f/5.25 to f/9.45 equiv from 27-300mm equiv). [Definition: “equivalent F-stop” is the F-number on a full-frame-sensor camera which has the same hole diameter as the brightest F-stop of the camera lens being compared, and lets you compare control over shallowest depth of focus/field.]
  • Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 camera (2013, 29 oz) is more compact, with 8x zoom lens, f/2.8 maximum aperture (which is f/7.6 equivalent in terms of 35mm-size-sensor-systems throughout its 24-200mm equivalent).

Note that other midsize cameras with smaller sensors generally capture fuzzier images:

  • Olympus Stylus 1s (2015, 14 oz with 28-300mm equiv f/2.8 lens) is the world’s smallest camera having an 11x zoom on a 1/1.7″ type sensor. Its great electronic viewfinder is same as Olympus OM-D E-M5. Good 410-shot CIPA battery life.
  • The following cameras have a tiny 1/2.3-inch Type sensor which should beat cell phone quality, requires bright outdoor light, and is suitable for sharing images online or making small prints:
    • Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ300 (2015, 24.4 oz, 12 mp, bright f/2.8 lens throughout 25-600mm equivalent, 24x zoom range, with OIS/Optical Image Stabilization, HD Video with sound, and raw file support) introduces weather sealing to keep out dust and moisture. Save money on earlier, non-sealed FZ200 or FZ70.
    • Nikon Coolpix P900 (2015, 32 oz, 16mp, 24–2000mm equivalent 83X zoom lens)
    • Olympus SP-100 camera (2014, 21 oz, 16mp, 50x zoom, 24-1200 equivalent, 1 cm close focus, nice 920k dot EVF): innovative On-Camera Dot Sight helps track distant birds or moving subjects.

Mirrorless Sony A6000 versus bulkier DSLR/mirror cameras

DSLR cameras are best for interchanging more lens choices and for shooting action (sports, birds) reliably with little shutter lag when using their optical viewfinder. “DSLR” means Digital Single Lens Reflex, where a mirror lets the viewfinder see through the lens. During a shot, the mirror briefly flips up to expose a digital sensor. However, almost all DSLR cameras of 2014 and earlier have excruciatingly slow autofocus (2-4 seconds) in Live View on the LCD − except for Canon 70D (2013, 27 oz, with Dual Pixel CMOS AF built into its 20mp sensor), and for Sony’s super fast Translucent Mirror Technology (a fixed mirror). Sony’s Translucent Mirror Technology speeds past the excruciatingly slow Live View autofocus of most rival DSLR designs:

However, the newer Sony A6000 with 16-50mm lens (2014, 12 oz body + 4 oz lens, 24mp) with Fast Hybrid Autofocus mirrorless camera puts similar 24mp sensor quality into half the body size, while focusing unusually fast with hybrid AF built into the sensor.

Why not NEX? Negatives with workarounds:

  1. Autofocus and Manual Focus:
    • NEX-6 introduces Hybrid AF, with autofocus nearly twice as quick as NEX-7.
    • Although its autofocus is generally fast, usually without much lag, a NEX isn’t as good for shooting fast action (like birds in flight) with tracking-autofocus (which I rarely use), where traditional DSLR cameras can focus faster than mirrorless ones.
    • For better autofocus in dim light using a NEX-7, turn OFF the AF Illuminator in MENU>SETUP, or else focus will likely be taken from the background within a big green indicator box filling most of the frame. (The AF Illuminator lamp is blocked by the fat 18-200mm lens and reportedly works poorly with other lenses.)
    • In low light conditions or at longer focal lengths, autofocus can stick (freeze), out-of-focus (also disabling DMF because focus fails to lock), requiring several seconds or minutes to recover. Fix by turning camera OFF then ON. The MF button (above) might help, but usually not. (Will NEX-6 hybrid autofocus fix this occasional problem?)
  2. Lens choices are few for Sony NEX E-mount, such as for telephoto:
    • Workaround:
      • For telephoto photography of small wildlife or birds at a distance, easily digitally crop a 24mp NEX-7, shot with the sharp, stabilized Sony 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS e-mount SEL18200 silver lens (18.5 oz, 27-300mm equiv)
        (Optical SteadyShot) zoom lens, optimally shot from f/5.6 to f/8. See lens recommendations above.
    • Nikon VR II and latest Canon IS lenses may beat Sony’s OSS for stabilizing hand-held shots by up to one stop of slower shutter speed (but NEX low-noise at high ISO can make up the difference).
    • Because they’re targeted for camera bodies with sensor-shift image stabilization, Sony A-mount (SAL) telephoto lenses lack optical stabilization (no OSS) and require a hefty A-mount adapter to work on a NEX camera.
      • A sharp Sony A-mount 70-400mm F4-5.6 G SSM II lens (2013, 53 oz, SAL-70400G2) or previous SAL-70400G can be adapted onto a NEX camera but lacks OSS, thereby limiting hand-held photography.
      • Sony A-mount to NEX E-Mount lens adapters include:
        • Sony LA-EA2 (7 oz, with translucent mirror for fast phase detection autofocus)
        • LA-EA1 (with Manual focus only, NO AUTOFOCUS).
    • For lightweight travel: Kenko 400mm fixed-f/8.0 Mirror Lens with T-mount Adapter for NEX (12+2.4 oz, Manual focus only).
  3. Important Playback tips: 
    • Auto Review responsiveness is now instant (fixed by NEX-7 firmware update v1.01). During Playback, the Center button nicely zooms to 100% pixel level to check sharpness and toggles back to the full image. When deleting a single image, don’t be alarmed by “Deleting Files” plural message — just the one image is deleted.
    • Each time you record (a Still image, MP4 video, or AVCHD video), the Playback screen shows only that file type, hiding other image types, but yikes, where? Toggling between file types requires obscure key sequences:
      • Press Down on the control wheel to display thumbnails of a given file type, press Left, press Center button, choose the type of file that you want to view, then finally press Center button again. Very annoying!
      • Or, press MENU > Playback > ViewMode > Folder View (Still) / Folder View (MP4) / AVCHD View.
      • Or, to Playback the thumbnails of the file type which were not last recorded, record a quick test file of the type you want then press Playback then Down (then delete the test shot).
    • As with Nikon cameras, Sony NEX-7 / NEX-6 have poorer menu/button structure than user-friendlier Canon and Panasonic cameras, thereby requiring extra time to learn the oddly-buried menus.
  4. Battery life:
  5. Huge files:
    • 24-megapixel files from a Sony NEX-7 are so huge (full of luscious detail) that you’ll need to spend more money upgrading to the latest, most powerful computer with lots of RAM and 64-bit Operating System (not 32-bit), in order to optimize memory-handling in important programs such as Adobe Lightroom software (and Adobe Photoshop). Each Fine JPEG file typically consumes 6 to 7 megabytes of card/disk space and requires downsizing before sending two or more per email.

CAMERA COMPARISON TABLE: NEX-6, NEX-7, Nikon D5000

For travel portability with top image quality, Sony NEX-6 and NEX-7 cameras easily beat my former Nikon D5000 DSLR dating from just 3 years previous (green box is best):

CAMERA FEATURES Sony Alpha NEX-6 (2012) mirrorless camera + Sony 16-50mm E-mount Retractable Zoom Lens (SELP1650) Sony Alpha NEX-7 camera (2011) mirrorless camera + Sony 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS e-mount SEL18200 silver lens (18.5 oz, 27-300mm equiv) Nikon D5000 (2009) DSLR camera + Nikkor 18-200mm VR II lens
Weight with battery + lens: 16 oz =
287 g / 12 oz body + 4 oz lens
33 oz =
14 oz body +19 oz lens
43 oz =
23 oz body + 20 oz lens
Camera body size: 120 x 67 x 43 mm (4.72 x 2.64 x 1.69″) 120 x 67 x 43 mm (4.72 x 2.64 x 1.69″) 127 x 104 x 80 mm (5 x 4.09 x 3.15″)
Megapixel (mp): 16 mp, 4912 x 3264 24 mp, 6000 x 4000 12 mp, 4288 x 2848
Sensor type: APS-C, CMOS. Focal length multiplier 1.5x. APS-C, CMOS. Focal length multiplier 1.5x. APS-C, CMOS. Focal length multiplier 1.5x.
Autofocus (AF) type: New, quicker Hybrid AF combines fast phase detection with contrast detection. Good AF in movies/video. Fairly fast contrast-detection AF. Good AF in movies/video. Fast phase-detection AF using viewfinder, but very slow 2-3 second AF in Live View on LCD. No AF in movies/video.
Drive speed frames per second (fps): Up to 10 fps “Speed Priority Continuous” with focus fixed at first shot, or 3.7 fps “Continuous Shooting” with autofocus on each shot. Up to 10 fps “Speed Priority Continuous” with focus fixed at first shot, or 3.7 fps “Continuous Shooting” with autofocus on each shot. Up to 4 fps Continuous with autofocus on each shot.
Close focus distance: 10 inches, 1:4.7 reproduction with 16-50mm lens. 10 inches, 1:3.7 reproduction with 18-200mm lens, albeit rather fuzzy. Read Macro topic at bottom of article. 20 inches, 1:4.5 reproduction with Nikon 18-200mm lens.
Battery life (CIPA): 360 shots on one charge 430 shots 510 shots
Viewfinder: 2,359,000 pixels electronic/EVF covers 100% with 1.09x magnification (0.73x equivalent in terms of full frame)! 2,359,000 pixels electronic/EVF covers 100% with 1.09x magnification (0.73x equiv)! optical pentamirror covers 95%; with 0.78x magnification (0.52x equivalent in terms of full frame), sadly just half the viewing area of NEX-7 or NEX-6!
LCD: 3 inches. 921,000 pixels. Xtra Fine LCD with Tilt Up 90° and Down 45° 3 inches. 921,000 pixels. Xtra Fine LCD with Tilt Up 90° and Down 45° 2.7 inches. 230,000 pixels, fully articulated, but hard to use in Live View due to painfully slow autofocus speed, 2-3 seconds.
Movies/video: MPEG-4, AVCHD, stereo microphone (mono speaker), good AF. 1920 x 1080 (60, 24 fps), 1440 x 1080 (30 fps), 640 x 480 (30 fps) MPEG-4, AVCHD, stereo microphone (mono speaker), good AF. 1920 x 1080 (60, 24 fps), 1440 x 1080 (30 fps), 640 x 480 (30 fps) Motion JPEG, mono sound recording, no autofocus in movies/video. 1280 x 720 (24 fps), 640 x 424 (24 fps), 320 x 216 (24 fps)
Built-in flash: 6 m range with 16-50mm Retractable Zoom. (New NEX-6 hot shoe requires Sony ADP-MAA Multi-Interface Shoe Adapter to mount Sony HVL-F20AM flash which fixes built-in flash’s shadow of 18-200mm lens from 18 to 50.) 6 m range (plus hot shoe for external flash: Sony HVL-F20AM flash fixes built-in flash’s shadow from 18 to 50mm on 18-200mm lens) 17 m (at ISO 100) (plus hot shoe for external flash)

More details about the great Sony 18-200 travel lens

Sony 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS e-mount SEL18200 silver lens (18.5 oz, 27-300mm equiv) lens is the most versatile travel lens for A6000 and NEX.

Sony Alpha NEX-7: 13 ounce mirrorless ILC body, 2012, 18-200mm OSS lens.

Sony Alpha NEX-7 camera with versatile Sony E-mount 18-200mm f3.5-6.3 OSS lens (33 ounces total) is the world’s best all-in-one travel system.

Add two essential scratch-resistant, multi-coated filters to this SEL-18200 lens:

  1. Tiffen 67mm Digital HT Ultra Clear filter to protect the lens. (Get clear, not UV, because all lenses already filter ultraviolet light.)
  2. Tiffen 67mm Digital HT Circular Polarizer filter to remove reflections from water, plants, and shiny surfaces, or to increase contrast between darkened, polarized blue sky and non-polarized clouds. Only mount a polarizer when it makes a desirable change to the scene somewhere within a rotation of 90 degrees when held up to your eye. Don’t leave the polarizer on the lens, as light passing through the extra glass is reduced by a stop or two. Also, a polarized view of the world is artificial.
Advantages of Sony 18-200mm OSS lens:
  • Sony SEL-18200 lens weighs only 18.5 oz for an 11x zoom (27-300mm equivalent focal length, in terms of 1.5x crop factor for APS-C).
  • Sony SEL-18200 lens includes Optical SteadyShot (OSS) – image stabilization to steady handheld shots by 2-4 stops slower shutter speed, important for on-the-go travel photography.
    • At 200mm, OSS stabilizes hand-held shots more sharply as slow as 1/60th of a second shutter speed (maybe not as good as latest Nikon VR II or Canon IS by up to one stop of shutter speed).
    • At 18mm, OSS stabilizes to about 1/15th second. (1/8th second is usually blurry, needing tripod.)
  • Surprisingly, when mounted on a 16mp NEX-5 or NEX-6, Sony’s 18-200mm OSS lens can be sharper than a prime Sony 24mm f/1.8 E-mount Carl Zeiss Sonnar (8 oz, SEL-24F18Z) lens from apertures f/8 to f/22 (but cannot reach the prime’s sharp f/2.8, has softer corners at f/4, and may soften contrast). But on a 24mp NEX-7, prime lenses have a clearer advantage.
    • For brighter shooting f/1.8-2.8, see “Prime lenses for Sony NEX” further above.
  • SMART TIPS for Sony 18-200mm OSS lens:
    • For sharpest results from 18-200mm, shoot in the sweet spot between f/5.6 to f/8 (easily set in Aperture Priority mode). Wider openings will soften the image and smaller openings such as f/16 cause unwanted diffraction. A Blur Index Test for SEL-18200 shows:
      • 18mm is sharpest at f/3.5-5.6
      • 35mm is sharpest at f/5.6
      • 50mm is sharpest at f/8
      • 70mm is sharpest at f/5.6-f/8
      • 100mm is sharpest at f/8-f/11
      • 200mm is sharpest at f/6.3-f/8.
      • Note: While f/16 can increase depth of field (depth of focus), f/16 resolves detail blurrier than most brighter apertures (wider openings, as above) on this 18-200mm lens (and most SLR lenses in general), due to diffraction through a smaller opening.
    • Easily correct its noticeable chromatic aberration and distortion automatically in Adobe Lightroom 4: Develop > New Preset > Lens Corrections (check box), and apply to every image upon Import. See how this works on a single image by using Develop > Lens Corrections > Profile > Enable Profile Corrections.
  • Simplify travel gear by carrying a single 18-200mm, 11x zoom lens. I prefer carrying a 33-ounce NEX-7 system with one lens instead of my previous 71-ounce Nikon two-lens system:
    • Sony SEL-18200 equals or beats the quality of the popular Nikon DX 18-200mm VR II lens.
    • From 18-200mm on a Sony NEX-7, image quality is up to 40% better than my previous Nikon D5000 camera with a Nikon 18-200mm VR II lens.
    • Delightfully, cropping shots from 24mp Sony NEX-7 using this Sony 18-200mm lens beats the resolution of my 26-oz Nikon 70-300mm F4.5-5.6G ED-IF AF-S VR Zoom lens from 70 to 250mm on a Nikon D5000 (but not from 250 to 300mm).
    • Upgrading to a Nikon D3200 camera (2012, 18 oz body) with 24mp sensor would clearly sharpen images from a Nikon 70-300mm lens beyond Sony’s 18-200mm lens, but swapping/juggling two big lenses hinders the joy of travel.
  • Sony’s “LE” version (black-colored SEL-18200LE) of its 18-200mm lens is okay for a NEX-6 but not for NEX-7.
  • Due to larger sensor (APS-C), mounting SEL-18200 on NEX-6 or NEX-7 beats using a Panasonic HD 14-140mm lens on Micro Four Thirds Sensor cameras (with same 2-pound system weight).
Disadvantages of Sony 18-200mm OSS lens:
  • Flash shadow: Sony 18-200mm lens (SEL18200) casts a shadow from 18 to 50mm using NEX-7 pop-up flash, fixed by mounting taller Sony HVL-F20AM flash on a NEX-7 (for which NEX-6 requires Sony ADP-MAA Multi-Interface Shoe Adapter due to a newly designed hot shoe).
  • Compromised optics: Perfectionists say the amazingly sharp 24mp sensor on a Sony NEX-7 demands lenses with optics better than an 18-200mm (11x) lens. See above: “Best lenses for Sony Alpha NEX cameras.”
    • In its defense, Sony 18-200mm (SEL-18200) lens quality equals or exceeds that of competitors’ 18-200mm or ≥11x lenses.
    • In zoom lenses with ranges smaller than 11x, most camera brands (Nikon, Canon, etc) offer better optical quality in various larger, heavier, or brighter lenses (“faster” f/2.8 maximum aperture). But a lens with zoom range less than 11x lacks flexibility of composition and requires frequent swapping with other lenses, thereby interfering with creative momentum and hindering travel convenience.
  • Poor close focus: SEL-18200 lens can focus as close as 12 inches from the tip of the lens for 1:3.7 reproduction onto the sensor, but I capture sharper macro with deeper depth of field using a high-quality compact camera such as Sony RX100 cameraor earlier Canon PowerShot S95:

Fields of White Avalanche Lilies bloom in late July along the trail in Spray Park, in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, USA. Two overlapping photos were stitched into a composite having greater depth of focus. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Right photo: White Avalanche Lilies bloom along Spray Park Trail, in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington. In light bright enough to shoot at ISO 100 to 400, when zoomed to their widest angle of view, small-sensor cameras can focus closer while capturing much deeper depth of field than normal lenses on larger-sensor cameras. Focus stackingTo further increase depth of focus, two overlapping photos were manually stitched into a composite, using Layers in Adobe Photoshop. In two separate shots, I focused on the flower at 5 cm (Macro mode) and on Mount Rainier at infinity, using a pocket-sized Canon PowerShot S95 camera lens set to 6mm (widest angle). 

Sony NEX firmware updates

Sony NEX-7 downloadable firmware update v1.01:

  1. Firmware 1.01 thankfully makes Auto Review instant and usable. Fixed problem: Auto Review was formerly unusable due to long delay/black screen before automatically displaying the shot image.
  2. Firmware 1.01 now lets a (buried) menu disable/enable the overly-prominent movie record button which is frequently pressed accidentally. A better fix is to glue a rubber washer/gasket over the movie button with hole in the middle to allow access while preventing bumping. (NEX-6 not only solves the problem better by relocating the movie button but also adds a more practical mode dial for changing P, A, S, M, SCN, etc.)

Unfortunately, NEX-7 doesn’t have the new Hybrid AF (for faster autofocus) found on NEX-6.

Your NEX-6 should have Sony E-mount lens firmware update v2 (dowloadable) to enable Hybrid AF when mounting these Sony lenses:

  • Sony 11x zoom 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 (SEL-18200) lens
  • Sony Zeiss 24mm f/1.8 (SEL-24F18Z) prime lens (analyzed further above)
  • Sony standard zoom 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 (SEL-1855) lens
  • Sony telephoto 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3 (SEL-55210) lens

Drop cable: record free HD TV on Channel Master CM7500 DVR

Watching television requires a Digital Video Recorder (DVR) to skip annoying commercials and view desired content on your own schedule. Recording free HD TV via antenna improved in 2014-2015 with the Channel Master CM7500 DVR (which replaced their buggy model CM7400):

  • Channel Master DVR+ (Bundle CM7500BDL2): subscription-free digital video recorder with web features and channel guide (buy at Amazon.com to support Tom’s site)
    • Simplify your life by watching local HD TV channels for FREE, received over-the-air from an antenna.
    • Dropping monthly cable or satellite television DVR service fees will save you more than $50 per month. One-time purchase of a subscription-free CM7500 quickly pays for itself.
    • Pause and record live TV and skip commercials on local digital and HD channels, sharp as a tack within cities.
    • CM7500 now includes a free TV program Guide of up to 2 weeks downloaded daily from the internet, requiring a wired Ethernet connection (highly recommended).
      • Alternatively, you can update the 2-week TV Guide using their CM USB wireless Internet adapter (which was not reliable in my house, despite CM Support tests not showing any problems in their lab) which comes bundled with CM7500BDL2.
      • (The earlier model CM7400 required $48/year fee for the 2-week Guide or else a free Guide of just 1-3 days into the future.)
    • Attach your own portable 2 TB hard drive with USB 3.0 (avoid USB version 2.0 which may cause noise or skips).
    • Fall 2014 firmware fix for CM7500: lets “New Programs Only” record properly (without creating duplicate recordings of Repeat broadcasts of TV shows or series).

With the national transition from analog to digital television forcing our hand in 2012, we dropped our basic cable service and we switched to receivin HDTV the “old-fashioned way” − free over the air via antenna. (Comcast’s new 2012 signal encryption required fees of at least $50+ per month for recording anything using a DVR.)

Update: in Fall 2015, competitor CenturyLink introduced optical fiber to our neighborhood, and we switched back to paid subscription TV using their excellent PRISM service, plus internet and landline telephone, all bundled on the same high-speed optical fiber, much superior to copper cable. As of 2105-2016, we’re enjoying the extra channels and recording capabilities of PRISM for reasonable cost compared to Comcast’s 2014 cable service. (The only negative is that our landline phone no longer works if the power goes out, a rare occurrence.) 

By connecting to a good antenna (such as a roof-mounted RCA ANT751R Outdoor Antenna Optimized for Digital Reception as we did), the CM7500 DVR can capture locally-broadcast channels in stunning High Definition (HD), without the lossy compression used by cable or satellite TV providers. Our roof antenna works great in Seattle. Use any old TV antenna because HD uses similar broadcast frequencies. Installing in your attic is easiest, but outdoor antennas get better reception (and require proper grounding, which I installed myself after a day of labor).

You’ll need an internet connection plus a good router (such as our ASUS RT-N66U Dual-Band Wireless-N900 Gigabit Router) for secure whole-house internet broadcast or for splitting off multiple Ethernet outlets as I do − handy for on-demand movies and for automatic firmware upgrades of all your devices (Channel Master DVR, Blu-Ray player etc). The better routers have protruding broadcast antennas. For me, the CM7500 worked great using a wired Ethernet connection (strung by me over 50 feet under my house from the Router to the CM7500), but failed unreliably using the CM USB wireless Internet adapter.

Compared to the rival machine Simple.tv 2, the Channel Master DVR+ (CM7500) operates more conveniently and captures better quality at lower lifetime price. TiVo Roamio costs nearly twice as much.

Bonus for photographers

When you upgrade your home TV system, a large LCD LED digital television can now display photographs and videos very impressively via simple HDMI connection to a laptop computer:

  • In 2012, we upgraded our living room with a 60-inch 1080P-resolution Samsung digital TV with LED Backlight technology, which displays photographs with excellent tonal impact. Impressive full-array backlight LED LCD television technology with local dimming has noticeably deeper blacks and greater dynamic range than edge-lit LED LCD and is worth the slightly thicker box. LED LCD televisions use half the power of bulky old CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) models.
  • Glowing LED televisions show presentations even brighter and sharper than an expensive professional projector such as the Canon Realis SX60 SXGA (1400 x 1050 pixels) LCD Multimedia Projector (2500 ANSI Lumens, 10 lbs).
  • Add a 6-channel/speaker surround sound system to complete your great home theater.
Buy gear at Amazon.com to support Tom’s site

More information

Find your locally broadcast TV channels at Antennaweb.org

Check www.antennaweb.org to discover which channels your television tuner is likely to receive within your zip code area in the USA.

For example, with the RCA ANT751R Outdoor Antenna pointed at about 160 degrees from magnetic north, we strongly receive the following Seattle area channels from within zip code 98177:

  • 4.1 = KOMO-DT, 720p resolution — ABC network
    • 4.2 = KOMO-2
  • 5.1 =KING-DT, 1080i resolution — NBC network
    • 16.1 =KONG-DT, 480p resolution, sister station to KING-TV, with NBC and additional content.
  • 7.1 =KIRO-DT, 1080i resolution — CBS network
  • 9.1 =KCTS-DT, 720p resolution — PBS, public television
    • 9.2 =VME, KCTS 9, public television
    • 9.3 =Create, KCTS 9, public television
  • 11.1 =KSTW-DT — CW network
  • 13.1 =KCPQ-DT, 720p resolution — FOX network
    • 22.1 =KZJO-DT/MNT — MyNetworkTV is a syndication programming service and is a sister company to Fox.
  • plus more channels in digital Standard Definition (SDTV, 4:3 ratio, 480i, interlaced NTSC) and High Definition (HDTV, 1080i or 720p resolution).
Installation parts needed for RCA ANT751R Outdoor Antenna Optimized for Digital Reception
  • Test the antenna in your attic: if reception works fine, then installation is easier than on the roof. You may need about 50 feet of coaxial cable to reach the TV.
  • If mounting on the roof or outdoors:
    • Buy enough #10 single-strand copper grounding wire (local hardware store or Home Depot), either bare or insulated, to extend in one unbroken length from the roof antenna, through the 75-ohm coaxial grounding block, to your house ground, in as direct a downward line as possible along the way.
    • grounding wire stand-offs from Radio Shack, to hold wire out from house.
    • 75-ohm coaxial cable grounding block from Radio Shack.

Legality of home recording for personal use

In the seminal case of Sony v. Universal City Studios (1984), the US Supreme Court held that when consumers record television programming available to them at a given time for personal viewing at a later time (“time-shifting”), they are engaged in a “fair use” of copyrighted material and do not violate the Copyright Act. The fair use applies to personal (non-group), non-commercial viewing.

What are the definitions for HDTV, SDTV, 1080p, 1080i, 720p,  and 480p video signals?

  • Most HD cable and satellite TV systems provide you with 1080i resolution.
    • Some cable and broadcast systems also provide 480p: enhanced-definition or extended-definition television (EDTV, 480p, roughly 852 × 480 pixels). EDTV could potentially be as sharp as a DVD movie at 480p except data will have been lost if the source video was from interlaced 480i, such as from SDTV.
  • Over-the-air High Definition Television (HDTV) digital broadcasts have a resolution of 1080i or 720p, which are virtually indistinguishable.
    • Expect 1080i (where i means interlaced video signal) television to look identically as sharp as 720p (where p means progressive video signal).
    • Factors of perception make interlaced vertical resolution only 50 to 70% of progressive resolution.
  • Standard Definition Television (SDTV) is only 480i (about 654×480 pixels, except interlacing almost halves its vertical resolution for moving pictures).
  • Blu-Ray Disc movie resolution can be  720p (1280×720 pixels) or 1080p (1920×1080 pixels).
    • The older DVD movie format is limited to 480p (720×480 pixels, Digital Video Disc).
  • 1080p (with progressive video signal)
    • 1080p is not broadcast by any over-the-air channels in the US (as of 2012 and several years to come). If you have a 1080p TV, the commercially broadcast HD signals (currently 1080i or 720p) are converted to 1080p for display.
    • 1080p (progressive) is definitely sharper than 1080i (interlaced), but your eyes must be close enough to the screen to tell the difference.
      • When viewing a 60-inch TV, you would need to sit closer than about 8 feet to fully appreciate the sharper picture of 1080p compared to 1080i or 720p.
      • When viewing a 50-inch TV, you would need to sit closer than about 6.5 feet to fully appreciate the sharper picture of 1080p compared to 1080i or 720p.
      • See how sharp 1080p is by looking closely at a 1080p digital camera movie on a 1080p HDTV or 1050-pixel-high computer screen (or sharper).
    • Some pay-per-view (PPV) movies now come in 1080p.

Compare prices of basic cable TV to DVR services via satellite and cable

  • In our case, as LIMITED BASIC cable subscribers ($15 per month as of October 2012), our old dying VCR (Video Cassette Recorder) wouldn’t be able to handle the digital signals coming in 2013.
  • As you might expect, the Standard Definition version of cable signals (SDTV, 4:3 ratio, 480i, interlaced NTSC) looks very fuzzy on our sharp new 60 inch Samsung 1080P digital HDTV with LED Backlight technology. COMCAST/XFINITY wanted $2.70 per month extra to get High Definition (HD TV, most likely 1080i resolution) versions of local channels on top of LIMITED BASIC $15 per month.
  • In Seattle (and other major cities), receive at least 5 local High Definition channels FREE over the air via cheap antenna. Any good shows on channels not received can usually be viewed a year later, free on DVD from the Seattle Public Library.
  • From COMCAST/XFINITY, the minimum DVR option added $16.99/month on top of a $67.49/month STARTER package for a total of $84.48/month, which is a big jump over LIMITED BASIC.
  • The Channel Master CM7500 or CM7400 HDTV DVR can record from a TV antenna but not from XFINITY/COMCAST’s cable boxes required after January 2013 (at least in Seattle).
    • Unfortunately, most cable or satellite TV companies scramble channels or use SDV (Switched Digital Video) devices which require a proprietary DVR with a subscription of more than $50 per month. This includes TiVo (which in effect requires a compatible cable TV subscription).
    • In October 2012, I tested our LIMITED BASIC cable television service (through XFINITY/COMCAST in Seattle/King County): the Channel Master CM7400 DVR could record just unscrambled Clear QAM channels directly from the cable, but could not record from the new digital box required by XFINITY/COMCAST all-digital conversion slated for January 2013.
  • Because we get both internet and television service via the same coaxial cable with COMCAST/XFINITY, dropping LIMITED BASIC television actually did not save any money, due to the lost discount (around $15 per month) of “bundling” internet plus TV. So if you don’t want a DVR, then you might has well keep LIMITED BASIC or EXTENDED BASIC cable TV.
  • If you want a DVR, satellite companies such as Dish TV and DIRECTV can cost less than cable but still charge at least $50 per month (after the first 6 months).
  • Eliminating your monthly cable or satellite television bill can save more than $50 to $85 per month. That’s over $600 to $1020 per year savings.
  • The above facts led us to buy the subscription-free Channel Master DVR recording from an RCA ANT751R Outdoor Antenna. Compared to subscription TV, the new equipment pay for itself in less than a year then starts saving you significant money.

Problems and workarounds for earlier model Channel Master CM7400 1080p HDTV DVR

If you have the earlier version Channel Master CM7400 DVR (Digital Video Recorder), you should upgrade to the next version: Channel Master DVR+ / Bundle CM7500BDL2. By upgrading, you won’t have to deal with the following problems and workarounds:

The Channel Master CM7400 1080p HDTV DVR (2012-2013, no longer sold as of 2014) automatically reads the free over-the-air program GUIDE (schedule) provided for 1-3 days into the future by each station. Once you PROGRAM A SERIES** on a given channel, all future episodes of that TV series automatically record in whatever time slot they appear, searched and recognized literally by name. Alternatively, pressing MENU then the OPTIONS button lets you set up Manual Recording by fixed time slot (like on an old VCR, independent of program name). The optional Premium Guide ($4 per month paid to Channel Master) provides a program GUIDE to identify shows by name two weeks into the future.

** A freezing or “PROGRAM A SERIES” problem (bug) occurs in latest Channel Master software version 1.0.97 and earlier:

  • Randomly about every 1-3 weeks, our Channel Master CM7400 freezes operation (often with frozen clock time displayed), requiring a hard Restart/Reset. Other users on Amazon.com have reported this problem where the device hangs. You can Restart/Reset by holding down the power button for 5 seconds until it starts flashing (automatically rebooting) (or by unplugging/re-plugging the power cord). Restart/Reset won’t affect already-recorded programs or future programmed SERIES. (Avoid SETTINGS > “Reset to Factory Defaults,” which erases all recorded programs and series.)
  • To work around the problems:
    • It may help to #1) subscribe to Premium Guide service and Reset to Factory Defaults or #2) only use Manual Recording (instead of  “PROGRAM A SERIES”).
      • But a few weeks after Technical Support gave us the useful Premium Guide service as a workaround (#1), the CM7400 forgot all of our programmed future shows until restored by rebooting. We lost 3 days of shows that failed to record. The CM7400 is apparently unreliable once every 1-3 weeks and requires checking every day to see if it requires rebooting in order to record anything in the future with “PROGRAM A SERIES…”
    • Final workaround, #3: Put the CM7400 on an electrical timer to automatically power OFF then ON to reboot once per day at 3:00pm (or 5:00am, or when no show is likely to be recorded). This solution leaves it ON all day (except for a timed half hour OFF), requiring more power and wear-and-tear than Standby Mode. This automated reboot fixes the “PROGRAM A SERIES” bug (confirmed after 6 months of testing through June 2013). Although this serious bug casts doubt on Channel Master quality, the dearth of subscription-free DVR companies leaves us with few alternatives. The electrical timer has fixed the problem except for once when the DVR crashed a few hours after the 3:00pm reset, thus failing to record any programmed shows until the next reset.

Because the Channel Master CM7400 DVR creates a lot of heat (even in Standby/Off mode), keep it in an open (not closed) location near your TV. (Fixed in 2014 model CM7500 which runs cooler and more reliably.) After 7 months of use, we enjoy its superior features compared to our old VCR. To avoid various already-solved problems, be sure to immediately download the latest software/firmware during initial Setup, easily via your home router, and save frustration by attaching an electrical timer to CM7400 (workaround #3).

CANADA: Coast Range: Whistler Resort, Garibaldi, Joffre Lakes

Coast Range: Whistler Resort, Garibaldi & Joffre Lakes Provincial Parks

The Resort Municipality of Whistler is not only one of the most scenic ski areas in North America, but also hosts great summer hiking and mountain biking. Whistler has become a thriving center for year-round outdoor sports in the Coast Range of British Columbia, Canada. Hiking at Whistler is well worth the 10 hours round trip drive from Seattle, if you stay for a minimum of 3 nights — but allow extra traffic time for the slow border crossing between Canada and USA. (Read more about expedited entry / US Immigration.) Stay in a condominium or campground and hike the scenic trails featured below. The official visitors’ web site www.whistlerblackcomb.com helpfully books lodging and provides hiking, mountain biking, and skiing maps. Nearby Garibaldi Lake is one of my favorite wilderness trips (day hike or backpack).

Photo gallery of Whistler Resort, Garibaldi Provincial Park, and Joffre Lakes Provincial Park

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The Peak 2 Peak Gondola connects Whistler Village Gondola with Solar Coaster Express on Blackcomb Mountain for sightseeing or skiing variety. Buy a season pass if using lifts more than 2 days. Built in 2008, Peak 2 Peak Gondola holds world records for the longest free span between ropeway towers (3.03 kilometers or 1.88 miles) and highest point above the ground (436 meters or 1430 feet).

I recommend the following hikes near Whistler:

  • On Whistler Mountain, hike the High Note Trail to views of turquoise Cheakamus Lake in Garibaldi Provincial Park and onward to Harmony Lake, back to Whistler Village Gondola at Roundhouse Lodge (6 miles or 10k, with 2200 feet descent and 1000 feet ascent). Start the walk with a ride to the top of Whistler Peak Express Chairlift, which is a short walk downhill from Roundhouse Lodge.
  • Hike the Overlord Trail on Blackcomb Mountain (2440 meters) for flowers and good views in the Spearhead Range across Fitzsimmons Valley. Starting from the top of Solar Coaster Express Chairlift on Blackcomb Mountain, walk round trip for 1 to 6 miles (2k to 10k), with up to 1700 feet of ascent, ending with a chairlift back down to Whistler Village.
  • Driving 25k south of Whistler, backpack 1 or 2 nights to turquoise Garibaldi Lake, hiking to Panorama Ridge and Black Tusk. Garibaldi Provincial Park is east of the Sea to Sky Highway (Route 99) between Squamish and Whistler in the Coast Range. A hiking loop to Garibaldi Lake via Taylor Meadows Campground is 11 miles (18k) round trip, with 3010 ft (850m) gain. Panorama Ridge is 6 miles (10k) RT with 2066 ft (630m) gain from either Taylor Meadows or Garibaldi Lake Campground (or 17 miles RT with 5100 ft gain from Rubble Creek parking lot).
  • Drive an hour on the main highway northeast from Whistler to Joffre Lakes Provincial Park, BC. A rough, rocky, steep hike of 10 kilometers round trip ascends (400 meters up) by a rushing stream to three beautiful turquoise lakes. The Lower, Middle, and Upper Joffre Lakes are colored by glacial silt which reflects green and blue sunlight. The road onwards to Lilloet is very scenic.
Global warming/climate change:

As of 2005, Overlord Glacier had retreated 880 meters from its terminus of year 1929. From the early 1700s to 2005, half (51%) of the glacial ice cover of Garibaldi Provincial Park melted away (Koch et al. 2008, web.unbc.ca). The record of 1900s glacier fluctuations in Garibaldi Park is similar to that in southern Europe, South America, and New Zealand, suggesting a common, global climatic cause. Read more about global warming/climate change.

See related articles

Recommended Canada and Montana guidebooks from Amazon.com:

Search for latest “Canada Rockies travel books” at Amazon.com. Search for latest “Montana travel books” at Amazon.com.

2003: 2011: 2010: 2010:

2012: 2011: 2011: 2010:

TRAVEL sustainability: environmental & social impacts

Seven billion people need sustainability. Learn from ecotourism and nature travel.

Our strong drive for travel has filled every corner of the earth with humans, who now dominate the earth. Our surging population of 7 billion people must now protect other species and sustain the natural world from which we ascended.

The term ecotourism arose in the 1980s to encourage socially responsible travel, personal growth, and environmental sustainability in destinations where we’re attracted by natural flora, fauna, landscapes, and/or cultural heritage. Conventional mass tourism has often trampled or disrespected the places that draw visitors, whereas ecotourism aspires to sustain the quality and character of destinations. Caveat emptor — “let the buyer beware” of green washing marketing which makes claims but fails to substantially nurture nature or support social concerns. The following countries have set admirably high standards for ecotourism and overall sustainability: Costa Rica, Belize, NorwayNew Zealand, and Switzerland. Go and see for yourself. Wherever you travel, insist on resource sustainability in your spending choices. Each consumer decision eventually adds up to affect all life on earth.

Machhapuchhre (or Machhapuchhare), the Fish Tail Mountain is a sacred peak, illegal to climb, in the Annapurna mountains, Himalaya range, Nepal.

Right: On a monument at Annapurna South Base Camp, Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags invoke compassion for all beings. Sunset illuminates Machhapuchhre (Fish Tail Mountain) in Annapurna Sanctuary, the Himalayas, Nepal

Global human impacts: As transformers of the earth, we’re now in charge of sustaining other species.

Surging human population pressures now force the extinction of other species at a disturbingly high rate. Global human impacts are now a force “on par with volcanism or tectonic shifts” (said National Geographic Society in 2002) on land, air, and sea:

Human impacts on land:
  • People have transformed 40% of earth’s land area through planting, grazing livestock, paving, and building. Untouched wilderness has become a rare commodity. Harried urban dwellers are finding green escapes to be ever more crowded.
  • Half of all forests that stood 8000 years ago have been replaced by farms, ranches for grazing, damaged land, or single-species tree farms (for example in New Zealand).
    • Example: In Greece, farmers replaced native cedar forests with vast olive groves on mountainous terrain, causing an environmental disaster over a period of 6000 years: the topsoil washed away, creating the dry, rocky landscape seen throughout much of Greece today. Crete used to be 90% forested, but is now only 17% forest.
Human impacts on the air we breath:
Human impacts on oceans:
  • 75% of the world’s marine fish stocks are either fully exploited, overfished, depleted or recovering from overfishing, according to the United Nations FAO 2004 world fisheries report.
  • Due to humans elevating atmospheric carbon dioxide by 35% since the industrial revolution, ongoing acidification of the oceans poses a serious threat to marine food chains that support shellfish and fishing economies. Between 1751 and 2004, the ocean surface acidified by almost 30% (from pH 8.25 to 8.14 according to Jacobson, 2005).
  • Since the 1990s, sea level rise has increased to 1.3 inches (3.2 centimeters) per decade due to melting glaciers and warming, expanding oceans. See for yourself in Venice (Italy) and other low coastal areas worldwide.
Photo gallery of global warming and climate change

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Take action to help sustain livability on earth.

  • Eat lower on the food chain — consume more vegetables, fruit, nuts, and whole grains. Eat less meat and less processed food.
    • For each calorie eaten, meat demands many times more of earth’s limited water and land resources than a vegetarian or vegan diet.
    • Pound for pound, beef production generates greenhouse gases that contribute more than 13 times as much to global warming as do the gases emitted from producing chicken, and 57 times as much as for potatoes (says Scientific American magazine).
  • Reduce consumption, recycle waste, and conserve energy. Avoid the “Tragedy of the Commons,” where independent actions in self-interest can deplete shared resources, contrary to everyone’s long-term best interests.
  • Share rides, combine errands, and ride public transportation.
  • Support education and family planning worldwide to promote quality of life for humans and all other species.
  • Vote for leaders who are willing to compromise to benefit a civil society in balance with nature. Don’t let extremists sway your better judgement.
  • Think globally, act globally. Our consumer buying decisions reverberate worldwide. Everyone is connected.

To better balance global human impacts, my wife and I support environmental and social organizations such as:

Everyone worldwide is genetically one family.

Today, science confirms that “race”, skin color, eye color and other physical features are genetically superficial, on a genetic continuum, with gene differences of less than 1 out of 1000 between us. Our differences are only skin deep, and everyone on earth belongs to the same closely related family, who spread from Africa less than 2500 generations ago. Accepting these scientific DNA findings helps us feel closer to people from other countries, cultures, and tribes.

According to DNA marker studies, all humans who are alive today are descended from a single woman who lived only 150,000 years ago and later from a single man who lived 60,000 years ago, both from central Africa. All non-Africans living today descended from a small tribe who left Africa only 50,000 to 60,000 years ago (according to Y chromosome marker studies by Dr. Spencer Wells and others) — this one tribe spread aggressively and replaced all earlier types of humans (such as Neanderthals). Read more from books:

2007: 2004:

“Race” is genetically superficial.

Everyone on earth shares 99.9% of the same genetic code. But what about race? DNA evidence says that all non-Africans alive today had ancestors with brown or black skin less than 2500 generations ago. Sometime in the past 2500 generations, one letter out of 3.1 billion in the DNA code mutated in one person, disrupted melanin deposition in the skin, and produced the line of white Europeans. In the first Asians, a small independent genetic change reduced melanin in the skin by a different process.

Evolution can happen much quicker than scientists thought previously. According Hans Eiberg and colleagues at the University of Copenhagen in 2008, the genetic mutation for blue eyes happened only 6,000 to 10,000 years ago, well after agriculture was invented, in one individual somewhere around the Black Sea. Darwin’s blue eyes may have come from a misspelled letter in the DNA of a Neolithic farmer! (See “Modern Darwins” in National Geographic Magazine February 2009.)

Surprisingly, human genes differ very little from those of a mouse, except in how our genes are regulated as we grow from cells. We are closely tied to the web of all life. As the supremely dominant species, humans must take responsibility for earth stewardship.

Machu Picchu, Inca archeological site in the Cordillera Vilcabamba, Andes mountains, Peru, South America.

Right: Spanish conquistadors passed in the river valley below but never discovered Machu Picchu, which is at 7870 feet elevation in a remote location of Peru. In 1983, UNESCO listed the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu as a World Heritage Site, which is now one of the most visited places in South America. (Panorama stitched from 3 overlapping images).

Sheep graze in a pasture beneath Tararua Wind Farm, largest in the Southern Hemisphere. Location: North Island of New Zealand, 10 km northeast of Palmerston North on a ridge in the Tararua Ranges.

Above: Humans have migrated to the ends of the earth to cut farms from virgin forests and compete for new resources, such as on New Zealand. Sheep are dwarfed by the towering turbine blades of Tararua Wind Farm, the largest wind power installation in the Southern Hemisphere, located on ranch land 10 kilometres northeast of the city of Palmerston North, on a 5 kilometre long ridge in the Tararua Ranges, North Island, New Zealand.

Photo gallery of human impacts on world ecosystems

Images below by Tom Dempsey stimulate thoughts on how people have impacted world ecosystems over human history. People have modified vast ecosystems by burning ancestral forests into grasslands, industrializing agriculture, and paving and building to support today’s worldwide population of 7 billion. Human transformation of nature is often irrevocable, as when species are forced into extinction. Plant and animal pioneers can quickly reclaim areas left alone by people, but invasive weed species introduced by humans often overwhelm previously-diverse natural environments.

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The joy of travel.

Love for world travel fills my life with wonder and purpose.

When you visit other countries, most people eagerly welcome you, gladly accept money in exchange for goods and services, or want to practice their English as we attempt to speak their language. Most people worldwide are peace-loving, friendly, and smart enough to treat you as an individual, not as a representative of your country’s current political regime. Most countries proudly host their guests, treating them with the Golden Rule − the ethic of reciprocity.

Fairly-regulated free trade with other countries encourages world peace through mutual interdependence. While we travel with humility and submit to the kindness of strangers, let’s seek mutual understanding, scientific knowledge, environmental sustainability, and human rights with responsibilities.

See also: Truth in journalism: check facts here.

– Tom Dempsey, photographer
Seattle, Washington
August 2012
Formal education: I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Atmospheric Science and a Minor Degree in Statistics from the University of California at Davis, with High Honors (1975-79).
See also my profile on linkedin.com

Thought for the day:  “The people who live in a golden age usually go around complaining how yellow everything looks.”
— poet Randall Jarrell (1914-1965)

Recommended books

Recommended nonfiction books

2012: 2012: 2011: 2009:
2011: 2009:

  • Ideas That Matter: The Concepts That Shape the 21st Century (2012) by Anthony Clifford Grayling, “winnows a universe of ideas, ideologies, and philosophies into a personal dictionary for understanding the new century.”
  • The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012) by Jonathan Haidt, explores the origins of our divisions (culturally dependent moral intuition) and points the way to mutual understanding. Our tribal groupishness leads to our greatest joys, religious divisions, and political affiliations. In a stunning final chapter on ideology and civility, Haidt shows what each side is right about, and why we need the insights of liberals, conservatives, and libertarians to flourish as a nation.
  • The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011) by Steven Pinker, analyzes and describes historical declines of violence since ancient hunter-gatherer societies evolved into civilizations with centralized authority and commerce. Progressive morality has risen to a peak, which suggests grounds for guarded optimism. The most violent societies per person have been pre-state tribes. Violence has declined per person over human history because nation-states (the “Leviathan”) and rule of law have assumed a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Desperately poor countries are the most likely to have civil wars. Most murders are done by people taking the law into their own hands, in moralized self-interest. Religions have been a net negative violent force, often against Enlightenment values, against the flourishing of individuals, and against human rights. Excessively moralistic ideologies (tribal, authoritarian, or puritanical) throughout history have caused the most war, conflict, and death. Pinker warns that historical trends in the decline of violence (especially after World War II) are not necessarily guaranteed to continue. His thesis is descriptive, not predictive. Books, reading, and education have an empathetic value to reduce violence through the understanding of others. Reason allows us to extract ourselves from our parochial vantage points.
  • Lost on Planet China: One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation (2009) by Maarten Troost, takes a pointedly funny look at the complex nation of China.
  • Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks (2011) by Jeopardy! legend Ken Jennings, makes a great gift for anyone who loves maps.
  • Heroes of the Environment: True Stories of People Who Are Helping to Protect Our Planet (2009) by Harriet Rohmer

USA: LOUISIANA: Origins of Zydeco and Cajun Music

Origins of Zydeco and Cajun music

by Tom Dempsey, Seattle, Washington

Introduction.

My love for zydeco dancing inspired researching the history of zydeco music. I learned that over several generations, Acadians became “Cajuns” and the word “Creole” changed meaning several times. In rural isolation, the music of Creole and Cajun people evolved roughly in parallel until about the 1940s. After the end of World War II, rural Creole musicians of Southwest Louisiana adapted urban blues and jazz to their La La house party music and gave birth to what we now call zydeco. The roots of zydeco grow deep in the history of the various groups who have intermixed in Southwest Louisiana . . .

Acadian settlers were expelled.

Back in the early 1600s, French settlers immigrated to Acadia (present-day Nova Scotia, Canada), bringing with them old folk songs of medieval France. In 1755, they were expelled by the British. The Acadian settlers scattered across the world, and many regrouped in Southern Louisiana. Their brutal exile and frontier experience brought themes of death, loneliness, and ill-fated love to their music.

The Spanish governors of early Louisiana offered the Acadians choice land in the prairies of Southwest Louisiana, where most began raising cattle and subsistence crops. As the population of wealthier English-speakers grew, many Acadians retreated into the swamp and marsh areas of the Mississippi River Delta to eke out a living by fishing, logging cypress, and harvesting Spanish Moss (for use in bedding and insulation).

Spanish Moss

  • Spanish Moss is not really a moss, but a member of the pineapple family (bromeliads).
  • The Spanish called it “Frenchman’s wig,” while the French termed it “Spanish beard.”
  • Spanish moss is not a parasite, but lives off of air and water.

“Creole” changes definition.

In the early Louisiana settlements, the term “Creole” referred to people of French or Spanish parentage who were born in Louisiana. As the slave trade grew in the late 1700s, the word “Creole” referred to slaves born in the colonies (esclavos Criollos, in Spanish), versus those brought from Africa (esclavos Africanos). “Creole” also meant “homegrown, not imported.”

Many non-enslaved Creoles, light-skinned blacks, or mulattos formed an aristocratic society in New Orleans during the time of slavery. However, it was the isolated Creoles of the rural prairies of Southwest Louisiana who would later invent zydeco music in the 1940s.

Today, the nouns “Creole” and “Cajun” have the following common interpretations in Louisiana:

  • “Creole” usually refers to “a French-speaking black of Southwest Louisiana.” However, some whites also call themselves Creole. For example, some white Cajuns may call themselves “Creole” when speaking French, and may call themselves “a French person” when speaking English. Furthermore, “Creole” has different meanings outside of Louisiana.
  • “Cajun” commonly refers to “a usually French-speaking white who traces heritage back to Acadia and France.” However, some people having Afro-Caribbean heritage also call themselves Cajun.

Different people may have strong feelings around their chosen usage of the words “Creole” or “Cajun.” Intermixed heritage blurs any attempt at defining labels such as Creole, Cajun, black, or white. When you meet someone from South Louisiana, etiquette suggests that you find out what they call themselves before you call them Creole, Cajun, or any other label. For the sake of consistency, I use the most common meanings in the remainder of this article.

Gumbo, Gombo.

  • In West Africa, gombo refers to okra (the sticky green pod of the okra plant).
  • In Louisiana, gombo can refer to the okra-thickened soup or stew called gumbo, as well as to the name of the regional Creole spoken dialect, Gombo (or Gumbo).
  • French-speaking people of South Louisiana use the word gumbo to refer to okra when speaking French, but the soup called gumbo in English does not necessarily contain okra.

Acadian becomes “Cajun.”

Isolation, close family ties, and strong Catholic faith knit the Acadians into a tight cultural group whose style mixed with their close neighbors: Native Americans, Afro-Caribbean refugees from the West Indies, non-enslaved blacks, and various European immigrant groups. Isolated families had only themselves for entertainment, so most learned how to play musical instruments. Many Acadians made their own fiddles. The mostly-illiterate Acadians didn’t write down their French language, which necessitated passing on stories and legends through songs. The name “Acadian” slowly evolved into “Cajun.”

As the people of rural South Louisiana mixed, the “Cajun” musical style was shaped in important ways by Creoles, Native Americans, and others. In the late 1800s, German settlers introduced affordable accordions which were adopted by both Cajun and Creole musicians. Cajun and Creole musical styles at this time grew in parallel: mostly two-steps and waltzes meant for dancing, played by accordion and fiddle.

Internal and external influences on Creole and Cajun music.

Many black field workers prayed and gave thanks by singing, clapping their hands, and stomping their feet in a syncopated style called juré, which is an important root of zydeco music. By 1900, the juré songs merged with Creole and Cajun influences into a musical tradition called La La. Rural Creoles held musical house parties known as La La’s in prairie towns such as Opelousas, Eunice, and Mamou.

A Contemporary Anecdote

  • In 1995, I met a a Cajun craftsman, Johnny, at Acadian Village in Lafayette, Louisiana, USA.
  • As a child, Johnny was not allowed to speak French in school. He couldn’t even leave class for the bathroom unless he asked in English.
  • Over the course of his lifetime, public attitudes reversed towards speakers of Louisiana French. Ironically, his son could not graduate from high school without completing the four-year French requirement!

 

In 1928, phonograph companies began to record Cajun and Creole music to sell more record players. These early recordings melded French contredanses and Anglo-American jigs and reels with the syncopated rhythms and vocal improvisation of black Louisiana slaves and the wails of local Native Americans. “Ah-yeeeee! … Et toi!”

The inflow of oil workers and their love for country and western music began Americanizing Cajuns and Creoles. From about 1935 to 1950, Cajuns and Creoles replaced the accordion with fiddle and steel guitar, and added bass guitar and drums. After World War II, a yearning for “old time” music brought the accordion back to Southwest Louisiana, about the same time that rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll caught fire nationwide. Creole and Cajun musicians also influenced each other, for example Creole musicians Amade Ardoin and Canray Fontenot made essential contributions to Cajun music.

Cajun revival.

CODOFIL, the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, was founded in 1968 by the Louisiana state legislature. CODOFIL is empowered to “do any and all things necessary to accomplish the development, utilization, and preservation of the French language as found in Louisiana for the cultural, economic and touristic benefit of the state.”

In 1974, Lafayette began a Cajun music festival which expanded into the present-day Festivals Acadiens held every September.

The beginning of Zydeco.

In the late 1940s, Louisiana’s Creole musicians became inspired by the rhythm and blues and jazz played on radio and juke boxes, so they eliminated the fiddle and brought out the rubboard. From then on, the music of Creoles diverged from Cajun music. Rural Creoles combined La La with the blues and jazz of urban blacks to create the rollicking and syncopated sounds of zydeco.

History of the Rubboard 

  • The vest frottoir, or rubboard, helps drive and define the music of traditional rural zydeco bands in Southwest Louisiana.
  • Precursors to the rubboard evolved in Africa and the Caribbean in the form of a scraped animal jaw, a notched stick, and later, a washboard.
  • In the pre-zydeco 1930s, sheet metal was introduced to Louisiana for roofing and barn siding.
  • The first rubboard was created for Clifton Chenier’s brother, Cleveland, in the 1940s.

 

In 1954, Boozoo Chavis recorded the first modern zydeco song, “Paper in My Shoe,” a regional hit. Unfortunately, a royalty dispute provoked Chavis to leave the music industry.

After Chavis left, Clifton Chenier popularized songs such as “Les Haricots Sont Pas Salés” (“The snap beans aren’t salty”). This title was a common expression describing times hard enough to provide no salted meat to spice the beans. The French words for “the snap beans,” les haricots (pronounced “lay zarico”), became “le zydeco,” which named this new musical genre. Clifton Chenier reigned as the “King of Zydeco” with a career lasting 30 years, featuring a Grammy earned in 1984. By the time of his death in 1987, Chenier had brought zydeco to international attention.

Boozoo Chavis returned in the mid-1980s with a series of hits which helped ignite a zydeco revival that continues today. After the mid-1980s, both zydeco and Cajun music and dance burst into worldwide popularity.

Comparing contemporary Zydeco and Cajun music and dance.

The rubboard player often drives the energy of zydeco music by emphasizing strong, syncopated rhythms. Zydeco usually has no fiddle, and the music resonates with sounds from jazz, rhythm and blues, and more recently, hip hop. Cajun music, which usually has no rubboard, sounds closer to country music, often melodic and sweet. Cajun musicians tend to play two-steps and waltzes in alternation, whereas zydeco musicians play mostly two-steps, and few waltzes.

The distinctions between zydeco and Cajun music affect the dancing styles. Cajun jitterbug, with its many turns and unique broken-leg step, is smoother and more precise; but zydeco dancing is more soulful, as expressed through greater hip action. Small, crowded dance halls have kept zydeco dancers in place on the dance floor, rather than circling the room like Cajun dancers. Dancing in a tight space to the pulsing and syncopated zydeco beat promotes a bouncy, vertical style with few turns. In contrast, dancing around the room to melodic Cajun music encourages smooth, horizontal movements with more turns.

Dancing into the future.

When I danced in Richard’s Club near Lawtell, Louisiana in 1995, I noticed that older dancers danced zydeco more subtly. Younger folks danced zydeco more conspicuously, sometimes adding moves such as hip hop in the apart position, sometimes dropping their single held hand. One young couple gyrated with a flamboyant African style in the apart position. The hip hop variations spun off from the “New Zydeco” style, where they stepped on every beat and embellished with small kicks.

From Creole family dance halls in Southwest Louisiana, a two-step and a waltz evolved into the many styles of zydeco dancing found today across America. Traditional zydeco dancing is done subtly, smoothly and upright by couples in a closed position. But the “Boozoo Evolution” of the 1980s (named for Boozoo Chavis), made the dance bouncier, often open, bent-kneed, and lower to the ground. In the 1990s, the “Beau Jocque Revolution” added the flamboyant flavor of hip-hop. Zydeco dancing appears to be evolving from a couples dance towards individual free-style.

Just as the dancing styles change over time, zydeco (and Cajun) music continues to evolve as musicians tour the world and absorb new influences. This vibrant music will assuredly thrive as we dance in the new millennium.

— by Tom Dempsey, May 1996 — with books and link references updated on April 2012, below:

Recommended Cajun and Zydeco books and music:

Search for the latest “Louisiana travel books” on Amazon.com.

2003: 1999: 1999:

Other research used to write this article:
  • Rounder Records (buy on Amazon.com) (info on flyer for the 1995 “Red Hot Louisiana Music Tour”).
  • Tabasco home page: www.TABASCO.com
  • Cajun Music and Zydeco, photographs by Philip Gould with an introduction by Barry Ancelet (Louisiana State University Press, 1992). Dance-hall sights. The sounds can be savored in a Rounder compact disc with the same title.
  • “What Is A Creole: One Creole’s Perspective” by Herman Fuselier, Creole journalist from Opelousas, LA, 1995.
  • What Is Zydeco?” by Herman Fuselier, 1995.
  • “What Is A Cajun: One Cajun’s Perspective” by Shane K. Bernard, a Cajun historian of Cajun culture and regional music, 1995.
  • The Times-Picayune newspaper, September 9, 1995: “Steppin’ Out” by Katheryn Krotzer-Laborde. The author quotes zydeco dance teacher Diana Polizo-Schlesinger comparing zydeco and Cajun music and dance.
  • Prairie Acadian Cultural Center, 250 W. Park Avenue, Eunice, LA 70535. Telephone (318) 457-8499.
  • Charles Cravins, from Zydeco Extravaganza.
  • “Music: Hot Off the Bayou”, by Michael Walsh with reporting by David E. Thigpen, Time Magazine, May 8, 1995.

USA: Idaho

In Idaho, hike the Sawtooth Mountains, explore gold mining history in Custer and “Land of the Yankee Fork” State Park, and admire rainbows glowing in the mist of Mesa Falls.

Idaho favorite photos:

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Sawtooth National Recreation Area

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The Sawtooth Range (part of the Rocky Mountains) are comprised of the pink granite of the 50 million year old Sawtooth batholith. Drive, day hike, and backpack to impressive peaks and pretty wilderness lakes. Park your car/RV at one of the campgrounds, and at sunrise, see peaks of Sawtooth Wilderness reflect in Little Redfish Lake or Pettit Lake.

Sawtooth Wilderness

Sawtooth Wilderness, managed by the US Forest Service within Sawtooth National Recreation Area, has some of the best air quality in the lower 48 states (says the US EPA).

Backpack or day hike to scenic El Capitan, Alice Lake, and Twin Lakes. The pyramidal peak of El Capitan (9846 feet or 3001 elevation) reflects in the outlet stream of Alice Lake (Pettit Lake Creek) in Sawtooth Wilderness.

Backpack or day hike 11.8 miles round trip to Baron Lakes viewpoint: From Redfish Lake Lodge (redfishlake.com) take the earliest boat in the morning to Redfish Lake Inlet Transfer Camp, riding about 10 minutes. Hike 3.2 miles then turn right at the fork and begin climbing. At 4.2 miles see Alpine Lake, then switchback past three smaller lakes. At 5.9 miles, see the breathtaking view of Baron Lakes (Upper, Baron, and Little) and jagged points along the ridge of Warbonnet Peak (10,210 feet elevation). Optionally descend past the Upper Lake to reach the shore of Baron Lake at 7.9 miles one way.

Idaho history, ghost towns, Custer, Yankee Fork

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“Land of the Yankee Fork” State Park and Salmon-Challis National Forest Historic Area

Yankee Fork Gold Dredge operated from 1940-1952 near near Custer Historic Site, Idaho. This floating gold dredge chewed a wide swath of stream gravel leaving rocky dredge tailings along 5.5 miles of the Yankee Fork, a tributary of the Salmon River, near Stanley, Idaho. It recovered an estimated $1,037,322 in gold and silver at a cost of $1,076,100.

Explore the former gold mining town of Custer which dates from 1879-1910. Custer Historic Site now preserves this ghost town near Stanley. The city of Custer was named after General George Armstrong Custer, who was killed in battle in 1876. Custer is now part of the “Land of the Yankee Fork” State Park and Challis National Forest Historic Area. The past comes alive when you see old relics such as an ore stamping mill, old wooden rocking chair, plunge bath tub, gears of a hand cranked clothes washer, a foot cranked Singer sewing machine, lanterns, a wooden wagon (pictured in show).

The Sunbeam Dam, on the Salmon River, Idaho, was built in 1910 to make electricity for the Sunbeam Mine, which was abandoned in 1911 after bankruptcy. The dam and cliff were breached in 1934 to allow salmon and steelhead to migrate to their spawning beds.

Mesa Falls, North Fork of Snake River, in Caribou-Targhee National Forest

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Upper Mesa Falls plunges 114 feet over a 300 foot wide cliff face along Henrys Fork (also known as North Fork, a tributary of the Snake River) in Caribou-Targhee National Forest in southeastern Idaho. Turn off Highway 47 on the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway about 15 miles north of the city of Ashton. On sunny days from about 9 am until 1 pm, the mist from powerful Upper Mesa Falls creates a beautiful rainbow. The falls flow over Mesa Falls Tuff, which formed 1.3 million years ago. A cycle of rhyolitic volcanism from the Henrys Fork caldera depositing a thick layer of rock and ash which compressed and hardened over time. Between 200,000 and 600,000 years ago, the river eroded a wide canyon which was subsequently partly filled with basalt lava flows. The Henrys Fork of the Snake River carved a channel through the basalt to create today’s inner canyon.

See a more distant view of Lower Mesa Falls (65-foot plunge) along Henrys Fork from a roadside viewpoint, separate from the Upper Falls viewing area.

Recommended books for Idaho

Search for latest “Idaho travel books” at Amazon.com.

2011: 2010: 2007: 2008:
2001: 2004: 2005: 2007 map:
2009: 2010:

How to acclimatize to high altitude

Learn how to adjust to high altitude without getting sick:

Ascending too quickly above 10,000 feet elevation can cause nausea, headaches, or sleeplessness due to acute mountain sickness (AMS, altitude sickness, or soroche in Spanish).

For most people, the best way to acclimatize above 10,000 feet elevation is to “climb high and sleep low.” In other words, day hike to higher elevations, but sleep no more than 2000 feet (600 meters) higher each day. Take time to naturally adjust to higher altitudes without relying on a drug with side affects such as Diamox — compare with the safer Ginkgo Biloba herb below. How fast you acclimatize is unpredictable and can vary for the same person on different occasions. Descending quickly towards sea level is the best cure if you become altitude sick.

Ginkgo Biloba versus Diamox

If tight trip schedules restrict time available for safe acclimatization, try the natural herb Ginkgo Biloba (available over the counter without a prescription), which has fewer undesirable side effects than Diamox (Acetazolamide), the drug most commonly prescribed by doctors for preventing altitude sickness. Common side effects of Diamox include frequent urination (risks dehydration), numbness and tingling in fingers and toes, taste alterations, blurred vision, and risk of kidney stones. Ginkgo Biloba has far fewer side effects (though it may not prove as effective as Diamox, and pregnant women and people taking antidepressants should first consult their doctor). Don’t take Ginkgo Biloba and Diamox together, as they nuetralize each other’s effect.

Directions: Take 100 to 120 milligrams of Ginkgo Biloba herb twice a day starting 3-5 days before ascending, and continue for 2-3 days at maximum sleeping altitude. In the year 2000, a Ginkgo Biloba clinical study on Pike’s Peak with 40 college students reduced altitude sickness by 50% compared to the placebo group.

Starting at sea level, my sleep was significantly better in my first 2 nights in Cuzco (at 11,000 feet) when taking Ginkgo Biloba herb in 2003, compared to my trip in year 2000 without the herb. On our high altitude Huayhuash Trek in the Andes of Peru, most of our group of 11 men took 120 milligrams of Ginkgo Biloba herb twice a day starting 5 days before ascending, and no one experienced serious problems from mountain sickness. In Nepal, we extended acclimatization time by first trekking Annapurna Sanctuary before the higher Gokyo Valley (Mount Everest area) and felt no significant altitude problems.

Coca leaf tea (mate de coca) in South America

In South America, your risk of feeling nausea due to altitude may also be reduced by drinking local coca leaf tea (mate de coca), the mild, traditional Andean stimulant. I found it pleasantly helpful. A cup of coca leaf tea is comparable to the affect of tea or coffee (but without the caffeine withdrawal hangover). As of 2012, coca tea is legal in Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, and Ecuador, most commonly served in the Highlands. But don’t bring coca leaves back home, as they are illegal in Brazil, the United States, and most countries outside of South America, despite the low coca alkaloid content. (In the USA, only a few companies are licensed to import and de-cocainize coca leaves such as for pharmaceuticals or soft drinks.)

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Acclimatization Example: Cordillera Huayhuash trek daily elevations

Before trekking in the high altitude Cordillera Huayhuash in Peru 2003, we acclimatized comfortably as follows:

  • A public bus from Lima drove from sea level over a 13,400-foot pass and down to Huaraz at 10,000 feet elevation.
  • We slept for three nights at 10,000 feet in Huaraz and did two higher elevation day trips:
    • We crossed a 14,900-foot pass twice on a bus tour to Chavin at 10,360 feet elevation on the other side of the Andes.
    • We drove to 13,400 feet and hiked downhill 10 miles to Huaraz.

That prepared us well for the following 8-day high altitude trek (the Huayhuash Reverse C Route):

Trek Day: Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5 Day 6 Day 7 Day 8
Highest/Pass 10,660 feet 13,448 15,580 15,370 15,250 15,744 15,700 15,700
Camp Height 10,660 feet 13,448 13,776 14,100 13,940 14,270 14,500 14,400 bus pickup

How high can humans live?

At 18,000 feet you breath only half the oxygen compared to sea level. Research indicates that humans cannot live permanently above an elevation of 18,000 feet without suffering a gradual physiological deterioration that eventually leads to death. Mountaineers who anticipate spending time above 18,000 feet must fatten themselves before the climb to offset their inevitable weight loss.

Workers at the Aucanquilcha sulfur mining camp in Chile lived for years at 17,500 feet above sea level, and ascended each day to work the mine at 18,800 feet. A settlement in Bolivia matched this 17,500-foot record altitude maximum for permanent human habitation. As of May 2003, National Geographic Magazine reports that 16,730-foot La Rinconada, Peru, is the highest permanent human habitation.

Air retains a constant 21 percent of oxygen content (the rest is mostly Nitrogen) throughout all surface altitudes. But as you climb to higher altitudes, the weight of the air column above you decreases, thus lowering air density. As you ascend, the oxygen available per lungfull decreases as follows:

Altitude | Available Oxygen, Compared to Sea Level (average observed at 45 degrees latitude**)

  • 0 feet (sea level) | 100% (base for comparison)
  • 5,000 feet | 80 % of sea level oxygen per lungfull
  • 10,000 feet | 69% of sea level oxygen
  • 15,000 feet | 56% of sea level oxygen
  • 18,000 feet | 50% of sea level oxygen
  • 20,000 feet | 45% of sea level oxygen
  • 29,000 feet | 31% of sea level oxygen per lungfull

**The above figures are averages that apply only to the mid latitudes (45 degrees latitude, North or South). Oxygen available per lungfull also varies slightly by latitude as follows: you will gasp for air about 5 percent harder when climbing at 20,000 feet on Alaska’s Denali (Mount McKinley) than when climbing at the same altitude in the Himalayas. Denali is at 63 degrees north latitude, the Himalaya at 28 degrees north latitude, and the Cordillera Huayhuash at 10 degrees south latitude. Denali rises to 20,320 feet but has the oxygen availability of a 23,000 -foot peak in the Himalayas.

The centripetal force of the earth’s spin shapes the atmosphere (and the earth itself) into an “oblate spheroid”, flattened at the poles and bulging at the equator. At a given altitude, oxygen available per lungfull is highest at the equator (0 degrees latitude) where the atmosphere is deepest (such as at Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa), and lowest at the poles (90 degrees latitude) where the atmosphere is shallowest. 

PERU 2000, 2003 treks, Machu Picchu

Peru delights your heart with spectacular mountains, amazing ancient ruins, and colorful cultures. In 2000 and 2003, I enjoyed trekking in Peru to Machu Picchu, Lares, Santa Cruz Valley (in the Cordillera Blanca), and Cordillera Huayhuash. We booked all trekking trips directly by e-mail and fax using the excellent Peru-based company Aventura Quechua. Peru is one of the best exotic travel bargains from the USA (much closer than Nepal). Visitors from the Americas will have little jet lag to Lima (Peru Time PET=EST Eastern Standard Time).

See also: my newer PERU 2014 article, when my family group trekked Around Alpamayo in the Cordillera Blanca and did the complete Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit.

Favorite Peru photos 2000, 2003, 2014

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May 10-30, 2003 Peru trip:
  • We trekked the awesome Cordillera Huayhuash, Peru’s second highest range, for 55 miles over eight days, with loads carried by donkeys. We averaged 7 miles and 2000 feet up and down per day. Our camps varied from 10,660 feet to 14,500 feet elevation. We crossed five 15,000-foot passes, the highest measuring 15,700 feet elevation.
  • Visit the important ancient ruins of Chavin (1000-300 BC), a long day trip from Huaraz.
  • Visit Machu Picchu 3 days plus the spectacular Inca Salt Pans at Salinas.
May 19 – June 12, 2000 Peru trip:
  • We trekked with friends to the following three areas:
    • Trek 4 days on the famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, with loads carried by porters.
    • Trek 3 days from remote Lares to Patacancha (north of Cuzco), with loads carried by llamas and horses.
    • Trek 5 days on the Santa Cruz Circuit in the Cordillera Blanca mountains, Huascaran National Park, with loads carried by donkeys and bus.
  • We avoided altitude sickness by ascending gradually with each trek, walking a total of 85 miles over 12 days, reaching 15,600 feet elevation in the spectacular Cordillera Blanca mountain range.

Peruvian trekking season and climate

The climate is generally wonderful for trekking in the mountain dry season from May through September. Days are about 65-70 degrees Fahrenheit, and nights about 38 degrees. However, the classic Santa Cruz Trek (near Huaraz) and especially the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu can be crowded in June-July.

Weather forecast for Machu Picchu (or other specific peaks worldwide): www.mountain-forecast.com/peaks/Picchu-Picchu

You will encounter fewer fellow travelers in May or September, which have excellent weather. Many other equally spectacular destinations have few tourists all year, such as the Cordillera Huayhuash trek.

Coastal Peru is one of the driest deserts on earth, watered only by rivers descending from the Andes. Coastal Peru, which includes the capital at Lima, has a climate opposite to that of the mountains: a short summer of sunny, sticky days from January to March, followed by 9 months of gray mist called the garua.

Lima, capital and gateway of Peru

Visit the Museo Nacional de Antropologia y Arqueologia in Lima. The dry coastal air preserved ancient mummies for up to 1000 years. Flying from Lima to mountainous Cuzco gives a good aerial view of the coastal desert.

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Cuzco

The attractive town of Cuzco (or Cusco) nestles in a valley at 11,000 feet, and offers impressive Inca history, Spanish colonial architecture, high-quality handicrafts, comfortable lodging, and a pleasant year-round climate. The Spanish name “Cuzco” comes from qosqo, or “the earth’s navel,” in the Quechua language (Kichwa shimi, Runashimi, or Spanish Quichua)  Runakuna, Kichwas, and Ingas). In 1983, UNESCO listed the city of Cuzco as a World Heritage Site.

Although restaurant touts and craft vendors can be annoyingly assertive around the main tourist areas of Cuzco, you can’t blame them for wanting to make a living. Local products are often of high quality and inexpensive: fresh food, Cusquena beer, woven rugs, decorated ceramic plates, and various handicrafts. As of 2003, the city cleaned up the central square by banning roving vendors and moving them to a covered market building several blocks west.

Petty crime is high, but your your body is safer from harm in Peru than in the United States. Hang on to your valuables — one woman in our group lost a loosely secured small camera to a mother with children who distracted her and pressed closely. Be vigilant in cities, and you’ll find Peru to be safe and enjoyable for touring. Easily escape urban problems by trekking and visiting rural country. The campesinos (country folk) are friendly, conservative, and colorfully dressed.

Cuzco, the longest continuously occupied city in the Americas, is built upon the foundations of the Incas and several previous cultures. Many of the buildings incorporate Inca walls as a footing several feet high. Francisco Pizarro officially founded Spanish Cuzco in 1534. Santo Domingo Church was built on top of Coricancha (“Golden Courtyard” in Quechua language), Cuzco’s major Inca temple, and was twice destroyed by earthquakes, in 1650 and 1950. At Tambomachay, the Incas diverted a spring through impressive stone work. The Incas perfected stonecraft to a degree which amazes us today. Not even a piece of paper can fit between stones in the finer temples.

Lares to Patacancha Trek

This moderately strenuous trek through rugged, little-visited country in the Cordillera Urubamba, crosses passes at 13,800 and 14,200 feet between the towns of Lares and Patacancha. A five hour bus ride from Cuzco took us to Lares, where you can soak in developed hot springs. Llamas and horses carried our loads, and we camped at 12,500 feet for two nights. A woman said she weaves for a month on a rug which she sells for only $35 US. Her village is too remote for the government to extend electric lines and she subsists on raising alpacas, much as did her Inca ancesters. We met children who walked 6 miles each way to school. A flock of 30 wild Ibis birds flew overhead. We enjoyed trekking with Aventura Quechua.

Urubamba Valley

Visit the ancient experimental agricultural terraces of Moray.

Inca Salt Pans at Salinas: Since Inca times, workers have redirected a salt-laden spring onto these extensive terraces for evaporation into salt. At a small mill, workers add iodine to the salt and package it into different grades of purity.

Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

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Trekking is the most rewarding way to reach Machu Picchu. Or take the train to Aguas Calientes, where a bus climbs to Machu Picchu on the ridge above town (or walk for 1 to 1.5 hours one way). In 1983, UNESCO honored the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu as a World Heritage Site.

The Peru National Institute of Natural Resources requires overnight trekkers on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu to hire a guide and pay entrance fees.

Our group of 12 hikers enjoyed great food on a tenting trek with Aventura Quechua who organized 2 guides, 2 cooks, and 22 porters. Trip leader Wilbert attracted us ever higher with his Andean flute. He played several more instruments, spoke eight languages, earned a Ph.D. in Anthropology from a Peruvian university, and had a playful sense of humor. We trekked the standard Inca Trail 32 miles in four days, ascending a total of 8600 feet. A bus took us from Cuzco to the end of the road in the Urubamba Valley at Chilca (railroad kilometer 82), where we met our porters and began walking with day packs on a bridge over Urubamba River. Starting at 7700 feet elevation, we trekked as high as 13,770 feet (Dead Woman’s Pass), before descending on the fourth day to the sacred Inca city of Machu Picchu (8200 feet), where a bus descends to Aguas Calientes. Spaniards passed in the river valley below but never discovered Machu Picchu.

At Machu Picchu, climb a very steep, scary, exposed stairway to a great view atop Huayna Picchu, the main peak. Don’t ascend when steps are wet.

Huaraz, Peru

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Santa Cruz Trek

The Santa Cruz Trek is the most popular trek of the Cordillera Blanca range, which is the highest tropical mountain range in the world, reaching 22,205 feet at the top of Huascaran. We walked for five days in Huascaran National Park, crossing as high as 15,600 feet at Punta Union Pass. Donkeys carried our loads, and we camped at 12,100 feet elevation for one night, 13,800 feet for two nights, and then 13,100 feet on the last night. Read about acclimatization. In 1985, UNESCO listed Huascaran National Park as a World Heritage Area.

On day 2 of the Santa Cruz Trek, we walked beneath the ice wall of Caraz (19,700 feet). One of the most spectacular camp spots in Peru (at 13,800 feet) is surrounded by three major mountain massifs with spiky peaks reaching nearly 20,000 feet above sea level. Alpamayo (19,500 feet) must be one of the prettiest mountains in the world, and reminds me much of Ama Dablam in Nepal. Attractive lupine flowers bloomed on spectacular meter-tall stalks in Tingopampa Valley below Punta Union Pass and Mount Taulliraju (19,100 feet elevation). The next day, rain, hail, and snow extinguished our view of Tingopampa Valley as we crossed Punta Union Pass (15,600 feet). Luckily, rain affected us only 2 days out of 23 in Peru (May 19 – June 12, 2000).  We descended by bus to Llanganuco Valley and lakes (12,000 feet elevation), in view of Huandoy rising to 20,981 feet, the second highest mountain in the Cordillera Blanca. Hike by waterfalls to scenic “Lake 69” (14,600 feet) at the base of Chacraraju (20,052 feet), and see the immense twin-peaked Huascaran (22,205 feet), highest mountain in Peru.

Chavín de Huántar ruins

As a long day trip from Huaraz, Peru, take a bus over a scenic 15,000-foot pass to visit the ancient ruins of Chavín de Huántar, at 10,300 feet elevation at the bottom of Cordillera Blanca’s eastern slopes halfway between the Amazon forest and coastal plains, in the Department of Ancash in Peru. 3000 years ago, the innovative Chavin builders engineered the Castillo with underground ducts for natural air conditioning. The most striking feature is the Peidra del Lanzón (“Stone of Lanzón”) or “Lanzon de Chavin“, a 13-foot-high carved white granite stele monument at the meeting point of four underground tunnels in the Castillo (or castle). The Lanzon, the supreme deity of Chavin de Huantar, intertwines the head of the feline deity of Chavin de Huantar and the human body of the shaman of the pre-Chavin period. In 1985, UNESCO listed Chavín de Huántar as a World Heritage Site.

The advanced Chavin culture of 1000 BC to 300 BC greatly influenced all later civilizations in Peru, including the famous Inca Empire of a millennia later, 1430-1572 AD. The farming city of Chavin became populous by controlling important trade routes which crossed from coast to interior and from north-to-south along the cordillera. Modern artist Pablo Picasso remarked, “Of all the ancient cultures that I admire, Chavín is the one that surprises me most. To tell the turth, it has been the inspiration for much of my work.”

Willkahuain

Willkahuain is an ancient Wari site near Huaraz, Peru. From 600 to 1000 AD, the Wari (or Huari) people conquered their neighbors in the central Andes. They imposed their way of life on local cultures, and also fashioned strong stone buildings with good ventilation and earthquake resistance. Wari influence gradually wained as local groups regained control. The militaristic and urban culture of the Wari may have influenced the remarkable expansion of the Inca from Cuzco Valley in 1430.

Cordillera Huayhuash Valley Circuit

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Trekking the “Valley Circuit” around the stunning Cordillera Huayhuash requires altitude acclimatization and good physical fitness (but you don’t need to be a climber on this non-technical trail). The Cordillera Huayhuash challenged mountaineers in the gripping 2003 British docudrama “Touching the Void.” Within Peru, only the Cordillera Blanca (Huascaran) is higher.

From May 21-28, 2003, I trekked with 10 other men for 55 miles in eight days halfway around the awesome Cordillera Huayhuash. Our route is known as the Backwards C, which is a portion of the complete Valley Circuit of the Cordillera Huayhuash. We hiked across the continental divide of the Andes into the remote upper reaches of the Amazon Basin, then back over the divide to a different road head. Donkeys carried gear and arrieros (donkey drivers) set up camp ahead each day, leaving us to carry light day packs. We averaged walking a moderate 7 miles and 2000 feet up/down each day in beautiful weather. We crossed six passes over 15,000 feet in elevation above sea level (as high as 15,700 feet). The scenery and thin air took my breath away!

See also: my newer PERU 2014 article, when my family group trekked Around Alpamayo in the Cordillera Blanca and did the complete Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit.

Before trekking in the high altitude Cordillera Huayhuash in Peru in 2003, we acclimatized as follows:

  • We took 100 to 120 milligrams of Ginkgo Biloba herb twice a day starting 5 days before ascending, and continued for 2-3 days at maximum sleeping altitude.
  • A public bus from Lima drove from sea level over a 13,400-foot pass and down to Huaraz at 10,000 feet elevation.
  • We slept for three nights at 10,000 feet in Huaraz and did two higher elevation day trips:
    • We crossed a 14,900-foot pass twice on a bus tour to Chavin at 10,360 feet elevation on the other side of the Andes.
    • We drove to 13,400 feet and hiked downhill 10 miles to Huaraz.

That prepared us well for the following 8-day high altitude trek:

Trek Day: Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5 Day 6 Day 7 Day 8
Highest/Pass 10,660 feet 13,448 15,580 15,370 15,250 15,744 15,700 15,700
Camp Height 10,660 feet 13,448 13,776 14,100 13,940 14,270 14,500 14,400 bus pickup

Cordillera Huayhuash is currently a Reserved Zone, which recognizes the rights and traditional land use by the eight communities of the area. Please respect the area by informing yourself before going. The following book helps plan a trek, identify routes, and name peaks during the trip:

Climbs and Treks in the Cordillera Huayhuash of Peru” by Jeremy Frimer 2005  ISBN #0-9733035-5-7

Touching the Void

Siula Grande (20,800 feet / 6344 meters) is the subject of the gripping 2003 British docudrama “Touching the Void.” In 1985, climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates scaled the treacherous Siula Grande, one of the last unconquered mountains in the Andes, but after Joe broke his leg, their descent became one of the most amazing survival stories in mountaineering history. We photographed the east face, but they climbed Siula Grande from a valley on the other side (the west face). The movie is based upon Joe Simpson’s harrowing book, “Touching the Void: The True Story of One Man’s Miraculous Survival” (published 2004, 1993, 1989).

Cordillera Raura

We exited our “Backwards C” Huayhuash trek in the Cordillera Raura mountains. The source of the Amazon River lies on the east side of the Cordillera Raura, as determined by the Royal Geographical Society in 1950: the tiny glacial lake Laguna Niñococha feeds Rio Lauricocha, then Rio Marañon, then the Amazon. To reach the source of the Amazon, trekkers can depart from the regular Huayhuash circuit near Huayhuash village on Day 7, go eastwards to Caquish, wade across Rio Lauricocha, climb to Laguna Niñococha and finish at the mining town of Mina Raura, on the road head to Churin and Lima (8 days total from Chiquian). You can also hike a complete Huayhuash loop (11 days) or other worthwhile variations.

Strikes can delay buses, cars, and flights

Before, during, and after our Peru trip in 2003, teachers, truck drivers, and campesinos held frequent but peaceful strikes. The campesinos (country people) blocked most major highways with rocks and felled trees, threatening to stop our bus returning to Lima from our Huayhuash Trek. But our energetic guide Koki ran for nine hours round trip to the nearest phone to confirm that our bus had already driven to our meeting point two days early to avoid strikers! President Toledo called a national emergency and cleared the roads, fortunately allowing us to keep our original schedule. Many thanks go to Aventura Quechua, the excellent local guide service (with whom I have trekked to Huayhuash, Machu Picchu, Cordillera Blanca, and Lares).

Peruvian History

While Lake Titicaca (on the border with Bolivia) is an earlier and more important cradle of Andean civilizations, Cuzco Valley gave birth to the powerful Inca Empire. Peru’s greatest native legacy to the world is the potato plant, which is now a staple crop spread world wide.
An ancient mummy seems to cringe in sorrow or intense feeling at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia y Arqueologia (National Anthropology and Archeology Museum), Lima, Peru, South America.)

The Inca Empire and Spanish Conquest

Archeology suggests that in a 700-800 AD military expansion, the Wari people may have settled the Cuzco Valley and become the Inca’s ancestors. Quechua oral history says that the first Inca, Manco Capac, the son of the sun god (inti), founded the city of Cuzco in the 1100’s AD. After 1430 AD, the Incas burst out of Cuzco and quickly imposed their culture from southern Colombia to central Chile.

The Incas used their absolute rule and organizational genius to build vast terraces for growing food on the steep Andes mountains in a moderate climate, away from the dry desert coast and above the mosquito-filled Amazon Basin. The Incas developed textiles, pottery, metals, architecture, amazingly fitted rock walls, empire-wide roads, bridges, and irrigation, but never discovered the wheel, arch, or writing. Despite their amazing accomplishments, the Inca Empire lasted barely a century.

Over in Europe, Catholic Pope Alexander divided Africa and Brazil to Portugal, and gave the Americas to Spain. With Church approval, Spanish fortune hunters accompanied by priests sought riches in the Americas. With lucky timing, conquistador Francisco Pizarro arrived in 1532 at a moment that found the Incas vulnerable from a just-ended civil war. With just a few dozen conquistadors bringing superior weaponry, horses, and guile, Pizarro captured the Inca Emperor Atahualpa at Cajamarca. Despite receiving a fabulous a gold-filled room as ransom fulfillment, Pizarro soon killed Atahualpa. After realizing that the Spanish were here to stay, the successor Inca Emperor, Manco, met with fellow Inca chiefs at Lares in spring 1536 to plan a rebellion, raising an army of 100,000 to 200,000 to surround Cuzco against just 190 Spaniards (including 80 on horses). Despite vastly superior numbers, their clubs, spears, slingshots, and arrows were no match against armored and mounted Spanish Conquistadors brandishing steel swords. Manco Inca’s rebellion was ultimately unsuccessful, and he was forced to retreat to Vilcabamba in the Amazon jungle, where he was killed in 1544. In 1572, the Inca Tupac Amaru organized another rebellion, but was also defeated and executed by the Spaniards. The Spanish Conquest lasted 40 years, from the ambush of Inca Atahualpa at Cajamarca, to Tupac Amaru’s beheading.

Sadly, the near-socialistic support system of the Inca was now destroyed by the cruelty of feudal Europe. The “Indians” (now known as Andeans or campesinos) were now triply-exploited by 1) their native chief (curaca), 2) their Spanish governor (encomendero), and 3) their Spanish priest, who all exacted undue tribute payments. The Incas’ mita system of forced labor for the common good was misused by the Spanish for mining gold and silver for the Crown. Eventually the Spanish forced 80% of the former Inca Empire to work for tribute, mines, or textile mills, stopping just short of slavery. After the Spanish Conquest, Peru’s population declined from 7 million to 1.8 million due to disease, war, famine, culture shock, and demoralization.  Read The Conquest of the Incas (2003), first published in 1970 by John Hemming.

Politics and Economy

President Fujimori, Three-Term President

On election eve in May 2000, my wife Carol and I joined the thriving crowds of Cuzco’s night life who bustled without incident around the intimidating police clad in full riot gear who surrounded the main square. Although Peru is officially democratic, the sole opposition candidate, Toledo, protested alleged poll-rigging by dropping out of the presidential race, leaving Fujimori for a third term, making him the most senior leader in the Americas after Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Corruption allegations heightened after Fujimori’s intelligence chief Montesinos was caught red handed on video, and in November 2000 Fujimori resigned from office and fled to Japan. Although he ruled more autocratically than democratically, the United States plus many Peruvians appreciated Fujimori for eliminating the Maoist “Shining Path” terrorist organization, improving Peru’s economy, building schools, and expanding electricity to rural areas. However, Peru’s campesinos (country people) felt more hurt than helped by Fujimori’s austerity programs, and would have voted for Toledo.

President Toledo in 2003

Toledo rose from poverty to become a Stanford-trained economist, and in 2001 proudly became Peru’s first democratically elected President of Andean descent. Unfortunately, his campaign promises to reduce poverty and create jobs failed to bear fruit. When I returned in May 2003, campesinos, teachers, truck drivers, and health workers were striking (peacefully) every week. One day I witnessed the main Avenue del Sol in Cuzco fill with thousands of peacefully striking teachers (maestros) plus another group. On day 7 of our 8-day Huayhuash Trek, we heard on the radio that campesinos had blocked most major highways with rocks and felled trees for the past 2 days, which might block our bus returning us to Lima. Upon learning this, our energetic guide Koki ran for 9 hours round trip to the nearest phone to confirm that our bus had already driven to our meeting point 2 days early to avoid strikers! Toledo declared a national emergency on May 27 and reopened the roads, allowing us to keep our original schedule. This national emergency put about half of the country under the control of the military and weakened many civil rights, allowing the government to detain protesters and enter homes without search warrants. President Toledo desperately reshuffled his cabinet in June 2003, which did nothing to help his minimal control over Congress. Our three different guides in Cuzco, Machu Picchu, and Huaraz all yearned again for the strong, effective hand of Fujimori.

Peru’s Economy in 2003

The upper classes in Peru mainly earn their income from exports of gold, copper, zinc, natural gas, textiles, and agricultural products. Strong exports in 2002 gave Peru a trade surplus for the first time in over ten years. From 2001 to 2003, Peru had low inflation, good economic growth, and a thriving black market, at the expense of heavy regulation, worker dislocation, and social unrest. The disparity between rich and poor is very large. Half of Peru lives on less than $2 a day. The “Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act” gives Peru preferential tariffs to the U.S. market and boosts agricultural and textile exports, but also suppresses the livelihood of poor Coca leaf farmers, whose traditional product dates from pre-Inca times.

Despite turbulent politics, Peru makes a wonderful vacation. Allow two extra flex days in your schedule to handle delays in transportation due to frequent strikes.

Recommended books for Peru

Search for latest “Peru travel books” at Amazon.com.

May 2013: 2010: 2013: 2014:
2011: 2011: 2004: 2004:
2008: 2003/1970:

AUSTRALIA

Australia travel tips and photos:

Carol and I left Seattle’s winter for 7.5 weeks exploring some great forest parks in southern Australia in the southern summer January 26-March 18, 2004. We most enjoyed Australia’s exotic animals and plants. Best weather for a separate trip to northern and interior Australia (the “Red Centre”) would be September or October.

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In hindsight, we could have shortened the trip by flying straight to certain highlights instead driving extra distance. The size of Australia challenges the traveller to prioritize visiting far-flung areas of interest. To make best use of your time, fly to each major city (such as with Virgin Australia Airlines), rent a camper (Apollocamper.com) or car (Bayswatercarrental.com.au), and stay at convenient Caravan/Holiday Parks. Camping vehicles can show up in most parks without a reservation, provide a kitchen, and carry all you need without reshuffling luggage. We enjoyed Melbourne and Perth via separate round trips in campers. A more relaxing way to explore Tasmania would have been renting a camper instead of a car. Without a camper, we had to worry about making lodging reservations several days in advance despite traveling in non-peak (“shoulder”) tourist season.

Within two days we adjusted to the minus 5 hours jet lag (plus one day) to Sydney from Seattle. We adjusted to driving on the left side of the road within a day or two. Traffic flows smoothly around the many roundabouts instead of being impeded by stop signs. Be prepared for narrow bumpy roads with fast traffic.

January-March: Suggested southern forest itinerary for Australia

  • For a great short trip, go to the beautiful Sydney area for a few days, then fly to Tasmania, which offers wonderful variety and lovely wilderness on a compact island.
  • To extend the trip, consider flying to Adelaide and visiting Kangaroo Island for wildlife, coastal scenery, and geology.
  • Fly to Melbourne and visit Wilson’s Promontory National Park for great wildlife, estuary, and coastal scenery. If you like beaches and waves, drive west of Melbourne on the Great Ocean Road.
  • The flight to Perth, Western Australia, is pricey and the driving lengthy before you reach interesting places, but once we arrived in the Walpole area, I really enjoyed the old growth forests of amazingly tall tingle and karri trees, which are found nowhere else on earth.
  • You will be thoroughly fascinated by native Australian birds, marsupials, reptiles, and eucalyptus. Visit Australian parks and wildlands for enrichment beyond zoos and gardens.

Sydney and nearby parks, New South Wales

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  • Visit the Sydney Opera House, Sydney Harbor Bridge, and Taronga Zoo.
  • One of the many pleasures of Sydney is an abundance of weird flying creatures: Sacred Ibis, parrots, Sulphur Crested Cockatoos, and big fruit bats (flying foxes) roosting in the downtown Royal Botanic Garden. The call of the Australian magpie is full of fascinating bells and whistles, and is found throughout most of Australia.
  • Sydney Aquarium is worth visiting for an overview of sea and freshwater life found around Australia.
  • Before heading for parks outside of Sydney, check the latest fire reports. Fire is a necessary and natural part of the lifecycle of eucalyptus forest, but can impact your trip.
  • Royal National Park: Located between the towns of Loftus and Stanwell Park, this reserve was established in 1879, making it Australia’s oldest national park — the world’s second-oldest. Hike a wonderful loop 11 kilometers (7 miles) through native Palm Forest, bluffs, and beach as a convenient day trip by rental car or train, south of Sydney. A 3-foot long goanna (monitor lizard) surprised me with its boldness and size. Forest parrots impressed us with their huge size. Best of all, a rare Lyrebird ran silently across the path before me. Notice the eucalyptus tree bark pealing into colorful patterns.
  • Blue Mountains National Park is a good a day trip west of Sydney, with many nice hiking opportunities. Walk the “Grand Canyon” 3-mile loop through a slot canyon which shelters a spattering stream, tree ferns, tree grass (with blooms), and unique plants. In 2000, UNESCO listed the Greater Blue Mountains (of which one quarter is Blue Mountains National Park) as a World Heritage Site.
  • Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park is worth visiting, 14 miles north of Sydney. Fire had burnt the eucalyptus forest in several areas in 2004, but will regrow as part of the natural forest lifecycle.

Tasmania

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In comparison to the rest of Australia, Tasmania offers a greater variety of sights closer together for easy travel, our favorite place in Australia. A short ferry ride from Tasmania takes you to little Maria Island which offers surprising variety — spectacular sandstone patterns, interesting history, important fossils, hiking, and biking. Tasmanian parks are beautiful, wild, and exotic. Fortunately, 37% of Tasmania lies in reserves and national parks. In 1982, UNESCO listed the parks of Tasmania as a World Heritage Area, including: Southwest National Park, Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park, and Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park.

Tasmania tips

Explore Tasmania for at least a week, or two weeks as we did. Booking a bed for the night can be problematic even in “shoulder season” in Tasmania, partly due to an overnight ferry bringing cars from Sydney. We rented a car and stayed in cabins and lodging booked a few days in advance, which took some extra worry and phone calls. Renting a camper would have let us show up in most parks without a reservation, provides a kitchen, and carries luggage without reshuffling (as we did in Victoria, South Australia, and Western Australia). Note that roads are extra narrow in Tasmania, which might seem harrowing in a camper. We enjoyed the following hikes and sights:

  • We hiked most of the world-class Overland Track from Lake St Clair to Cradle Mountain, which provides backcountry huts and tent pads. Day hike around Dove Lake and up Cradle Mountain.
  • Mole Creek Karst National Park: On a rainy day, see massive columns and straw stalactites in King Solomon Cave.
  • Mount Field National Park: Don’t miss Russell Falls, an icon of Tasmania.
  • Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park: Walk to Nelson River and Falls. Tannins from trees color the Surprise River brown, as in many other Australian forests.
  • Freycinet National Park: Climb a rough trail to Mount Amos for a views of Coles Bay and Wineglass Bay wilderness.
  • Tasman National Park: See the Dog Line Memorial, on Eaglehawk Neck. Tessellated Pavement is a unique natural geologic wonder. An easy hike takes you to a striking view high above Cape Raoul. Tasman’s Arch was carved by the Tasman Sea.
  • Port Arthur Historic Site was an English prison from 1830-1877 on the Tasman Peninsula.
  • South Bruny Island: The Fluted Cape is a pleasant hike. Nearby in the evening, we watched cute Fairy Penguins come ashore to feed their young in sandy burrows, while predatory Shearwater birds swooped overhead.
  • Maria Island National Park:
    • Catch the ferry from Triabunna to Maria Island, Tasmania. Note the piles of chipped old growth Tasmanian forest being shipped to Japan to make high grade paper — surely they could find a farmed tree substitute instead of destroying ancient forests.
    • The Commissariate, built in 1825, is now a museum in Maria Island National Park.
    • Don’t miss the colorful sandstone Painted Cliffs walk along the shore.
    • Cape Barren Geese were introduced to Maria Island National Park in 1968 from Bass Strait Islands to help ensure their survival as a species. Now they thrive and are no longer endangered. They naturally range across the coasts and islands of southern Australia. The Cape Barren Goose, Australia’s only native goose, was first sighted on Cape Barren Island (second largest of the Furneaux Group of 52 islands, located northeast of Tasmania). Cape Barren Island has the distinction of being “the largest island of the largest island (Flinders Island) of the largest island (Tasmania) of the largest island (Australia).”

Tasmania resembles lower elevations of New Zealand and Washington. The sightseeing equivalent to Tasmania in the USA might be the state of Oregon, except for the added pleasure of unique Tasmanian and Australian wildlife and plants, isolated on a remote yet civilized island.

Victoria

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Drive two hours from Melbourne to reach Wilson’s Promontory National Park in the Gippsland region. Wilson’s Promontory, or “the Prom,” offers a beautiful variety of coastal scenery, magnificent and secluded beaches, spectacular rock formations, tidal estuaries, cool fern gullies, and an abundance of easily seen wildlife. Photographers love where tannin-stained Tidal River reflects attractive orange lichen-covered boulders and lush green forest. One night in Tidal River Campground, our camper van rocked us awake in what we though was an earthquake. The rocking soon stopped and the dark shape of a wombat (a marsupial “bear”) wandered off into the night from underneath the van, where he had been licking our tasty sink drain! We were delighted to see wallabies and the Common Brushtail Possum. Visitors also commonly see echidnas, koalas, bats and sugar-gliders.

Conservation Hill Koala Centre on Philip Island gives close views of cute, sleepy koalas. Koalas move and metabolize very slowly, resting or sleeping motionless for about 16 to 18 hours a day, and feeding on eucalyptus leaves usually at night.

Grampians (Gariwerd) National Park has nice hiking trails and an impressively rich variety of native birds and animals. Stay at Halls Gap Lakeside Caravan Park. Look for the colorful Eastern Rosella (Platycercus eximius), a parrot native to southeast Australia and Tasmania (and introduced to New Zealand where feral populations are found in the North Island). The bird can grow 30 cm long, with a red head and upper breast and white cheeks. The rest of the breast is yellow becoming more greenish toward the abdomen. The feathers of the back and shoulders are black with yellowish margins, giving rise to a scalloped appearance. The wings and lateral tail feathers are bluish while the rest of the tail is dark green.

For close contact with captive wildlife, camp at Emu Park Holiday Park, in the Wartook Valley, in the Northern Grampians.

The large Eastern Grey Kangaroo, also known as the Great Grey Kangaroo or Forester, has a soft grey coat, and is usually found in moister, more fertile areas than the Red Kangaroo. Indigenous Australian names include iyirrbir and kucha. The Eastern Grey Kangaroos live in open grassland and bushland near the major cities of the south and east coast of Australia, and are much more commonly seen than the Reds, which live in the outback. Like all kangaroos, it is mainly nocturnal and crepuscular, mostly seen at dawn or dusk.

Melba Gully park is a remnant of the rainforest which formerly covered large portions of Victoria.

Cape Otway National Park: Stay at Bimbi Caravan Park, and hike 5 miles round trip to Rainbow Falls, a stunning orange travertine waterfall on a remote coast with wild white beaches. We observed wild koalas sleeping in trees during daytime.

12 Apostles Marine National Park: Walk the beautiful wild beach at Gibson Steps. The 12 Apostles are a spectacular formation of seastack rocks (or haystacks) on the Victoria coast. The number of Apostles changes with time as old castles of sand collapse and new monuments are cut.

South Australia

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Use one company to book your camper (Apollocamper.com) or car (Bayswatercarrental.com.au) at different flight destinations to get a discount for the total length of time rented within Australia. Make sure that your Adelaide car rental agency allows you to take the car ferry to Kangaroo Island, forbidden by some.

Kangaroo Island

Kangaroo Island is one of the best places in Australia to view wildlife and remarkable geology. Our two nights were insufficient — a week would have been better.

  • When to go: March to May and August to October are probably the best times to visit Kangaroo Island.
  • Getting there: To save time, fly to Adelaide and rent a vehicle to visit Kangaroo Island — or fly to Kingscote Airport on Kangaroo Island if affordable.
    • Compare the cost of bringing a car on the ferry versus flying directly to Kangaroo Island and renting a car there. For one person, flying might be a better value, but for two people, driving may be better, depending on your budget.
    • Book your car ferry to Kangaroo Island several days in advance to assure a spot.
    • Avoid the fatiguing drive from Melbourne to Kangaroo Island and back, unless you driv more than our 11 days. The best scenery on the “Great Ocean Road” in Victoria is between Melbourne and Port Campbell, with the 12 Apostles as the highlight, best seen as a round trip from Melbourne.
Flinders Chase National Park
  • The campgrounds at Flinders Chase National Park are some of the best places to view wildlife in Australia.
  • Flinders Chase Visitor Centre: The adjacent campground includes hot showers. All around the Visitor Centre and adjacent campground, we admired wild Kangaroo Island Kangaroos, cute Tammar Wallabies, brushtail possums, birds, echidnas, goannas, and more. A curious Common Brushtail Possum climbed atop our camper one night as koalas screeched in trees above.
    • Reserve the campground a day or two ahead if you can, or be sure and arrive early to get a spot. Phone (08) 8559 7235 or e-mail: kiparksaccom@saugov.sa.gov.au
  • We saw eight live echidnas (a spiny mammal resembling a porcupine but hatching from eggs) along the roadside as we drove just before sunset to see the Remarkable Rocks!
  • Don’t miss capturing dramatic photographs of the Remarkable Rocks, especially at sunset. Walk the short nature trail and admire every angle of what looks like modern art in ancient stone. Remarkable Rocks originally formed as a single granite monolith and became cracked and eroded by seashore weathering.
  • Walk near sunrise and sunset to best see wildlife: Ravine des Casoars, Platypus Waterholes & Rocky River, and Snake Lagoon.
Kangaroo Island Kangaroos

Upon landing in 1802, famous explorer Captain Matthew Flinders shot the first Kangaroo Island Kangaroo (Macropus fuliginosus fuliginosus). Not until the 1990s did taxonomists clarify that it was a subspecies of the large brown Western Grey Kangaroo (Macropus fuliginosus, a marsupial mammal species in the Macropod family, Macropodidae), which lives across the southern part of Australia, from just south of Shark Bay to coastal South Australia, western Victoria, and the entire Murray-Darling Basin in New South Wales and Queensland. It breeds year round with a peak during summer months. Be cautious of kangaroos when driving roads at night.

Side trips recommended north of Adelaide
  • If you like wine, be sure to visit the Barossa Valley and other vineyard areas near Adelaide.
  • Mount Remarkable Gorges: Walk 2 days in a loop and stay in a tent. Or drive to the middle of the trail and day hike a shorter loop. I haven’t been there, but the gorges and scenery should be fascinating — best August-October.
  • Coober Pedy: opal mines, photography, history, film settings

Western Australia

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We flew to Perth from Melbourne and immediately drove our rental camper southwards towards some unique ecological areas found nowhere else on earth. Swim in the Indian Ocean from smooth sand beaches. Watch for trucks pulling double trailers called “road trains” roaring along highways.

South of Perth, the enthralling Fremantle Museum succinctly portrays a vivid vision of Western Australia history: Early pioneers made their own lives much harder by ignoring the valuable live-off-the-land knowledge of local aborigines. Australians seriously worried about possible Japanese invasion in World War II, then Europeans dispossessed by war were imported en masse to populate the large empty continent.

Further south, swim with wild bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) at the Dolphin Discovery Center in Koombana Bay, off Koombana Beach at the town of Bunbury, Western Australia. On a cloudy day, we waded into chilly water and joined a line of a dozen tourists, as a single dolphin cruised around us. Volunteers in red shirts enforce the rule of not touching or feeding the dolphins, in order to keep them wild. We would have been more impressed with this dolphin experience if the day had been warm enough to snorkel more comfortably. (Much further north of Perth you can wade in warmer waters at Monkey Mia where dolphins approach more closely in greater numbers, but feeding makes the dolphins less wild.)

On Nancy’s Peak Loop in Porongurup National Park, we explored an impressive karri tree forest. On the high point of this short loop over some 1.1-billion-year-old granite domes, we spotted a huge kite, which turned out to be a big Wedgetail Eagle gliding in a strong updraft.

The Diamond Tree is a 51 meter (167 foot) high public Fire Lookout built into a living karri tree, located 10 kilometers south of Manjimup on the South Western Highway, in Western Australia. The impressive karri trees are only found in a few small parks in south-Western Australia, and nowhere else on earth. Ascend a breathtaking a ladder of thick rebar posted into the Diamond Tree. Anyone is free to climb and access is not controlled.

Walpole-Nornalup National Park

The “Valley of the Giants Tree Top Walk” is a wide ramp (suitable for baby strollers) which reaches 125 feet (38 meters) above the ground in the course of its half-mile length, passing through a forest of exceptionally tall eucalyptus trees, worth experiencing near Nornalup.

Hike to the impressive Giant Tingle Tree. The tingle is a type of eucalyptus found only in south-Western Australia and nowhere else on earth. Look for Australian pelicans on Coalmine Beach.

Australia climate and when to visit

Best weather and timing for a tour of southern Australia forests is late January through March, as we did. A separate trip to northern (monsoonal “Top End”) and interior Australia (the “Red Centre”) is best in September or October. See Lonely Planet Walking in Australia (2006) and Australian Bureau of Meteorology.

Australia destinations:

Optimal time to visit:

Climate Comments:

WESTERN AUSTRALIA, Perth

Southern WA: September-February (spring-summer)


Northern WA: September-November

Southern WA: good in spring to summer. Albany=70 high/50F low, Perth=85/63F.


Northern WA: June-August is the Dry season. (December-February is the Wet, with monsoon thunderstorms, high humidity, tropical cyclones, many roads impassable.)

VICTORIA, Melbourne

November-April

Visit Victoria’s Australian Alps in January-March (summer). Melbourne summer=77 high/55F low. Melbourne best Oct/Nov (spring). Inland best in winter.

SOUTH AUSTRALIA, Adelaide

September-November

Kangaroo Island best March-May and August-October. Hiking best in spring. Inland best in winter.

NEW SOUTH WALES (NSW), Sydney

all year

Good hiking in Kuscuiscko National Park and Australian Alps in Jan-March (summer), but hot at lower elevations. Sydney=77 high/66F low in February, 75/65F March. Inland best in winter.

CAPITAL TERRITORY, Canberra

spring-summer (September-February)

Visit Canberra’s Australian Alps in January-March (summer).

TASMANIA

October-April

Best weather is in March/April, with beech fall color. Jan/Feb/March has lowest rain in Cradle Valley.
December-March is peak tourist season.  Few tourists come in November, sometimes warm, but storms arrive weekly.

QUEENSLAND

May-October

March-November is best walking season in the Top End and Great Barrier Reef.  (Jan-March is the Wet in northern coastal areas, 91F and very humid.)  In Brisbane and southern Queensland, walking in summer (Dec-Feb) is okay but not ideal.

NORTHERN TERRITORY

May-October

April-October is the Dry season. The Red Centre and Uluru have best weather April-June (fall). September-October can have wildflowers in Centre.
(November-March is the Wet).

Recommended books for Australia

Search for latest Australia travel books at Amazon.com.

2011: 2006: 2011: 2012: 2011: 2001: 1988:

Fiction:

1950/2010: Movie on VHS tape: 2008 DVD:

NORWAY: 1981 solo hitchhiking journey

Norway solo hitchiking trip June 1 – July 29, 1981

Pulpit Rock (Prekestolen) 1959 feet above a car ferry on Lysefjord, Forsand municipality, Rogaland county, Ryfylke traditional district, Norway, Europe. Norway made a big impression on me in 1981 when I was 25 years old, as recounted below. I gladly returned to Norway in 2011 (see separate article) with Carol.

Contents:
  1. Introduction
  2. Begin: Around the World in 9 Months, Frankfurt to Oslo, DNT, Røros & Fabulous Huts, Scandinavian Languages, Hitchhiking, Trondheim, Sweden
  3. Northern Norway : Narvik, Lofoten & Vesterålen Islands,  Bodø
  4. Fjordland : Innerdalen & Trollheimen, Hike Lake Eikesdalsvatn to Åndalsnes, Geirangerfjord, Hjørundfjord,  Briksdal Glacier, Southern Fjordland, The Pulpit, Stavanger
  5. Interior Hikes : Finse to Aurlandsdal, Stalheim to Flåm, Hardanger Plateau, Jotunheimen, Troll Wall
  6. Epilogue

Introduction

With continental Europe’s lowest population density, Norway offers vast unspoiled wilderness, lit in summer for 24 hours a day. Comfortable backcountry huts (mountain refuges) form a vast network, making Norway one of the best places in the world for overnight hut walking and cross-country skiing. Norwegians greatly respect their natural world, a land of difficult terrain, cold winters and brief summers. Perhaps their active connection with the outdoors has helped give Norwegians the longest life expectancy of any nation on earth.

Glaciers have deeply gouged Norway, creating steep cliffs & deep fjords, which slowed the building of roads, railways and communication lines, until oil was discovered. Roads starting from sea level must negotiate 3000 to 6000 feet up the glacial U-shaped valleys to reach the central plateau that forms the bulk of Norway. Fjords stretch inland as far as 125 miles at Sognefjord, and have historically linked the country by boat. If unraveled, the fjord-pierced coastline would stretch for an amazing 21,000 miles, inspiring the Norwegian expression “the sea unites, but the land divides.” Norway, which is 20% smaller than California, stretches 1100 miles from the latitude of northern Scotland up to the North Cape (320 miles north of the Arctic Circle). Half of Norway lies above the Arctic Circle, if you include the large islands of Spitzbergen located far north in the Arctic Ocean.

Despite its high latitude, Norway’s climate is relatively mild. The North Atlantic Drift, partly fed by the warm Gulf Stream, keeps the fjords ice-free in winter as far north as Hammerfest, at 71° North latitude (at what would be icy Alaska’s most northerly point). Nevertheless, Norwegian summer can feel like the winter of a Mediterranean climate (such as found in Chico, California, where I was raised). Norwegians actually pioneered the study of weather because, as one local told me, “Norway gets so much of it.”  Two out of three days are cloudy in summer, surrounding the peaks and plateaus with mysterious mists, until every third day when sun shines glory upon the spectacularly carved mountains.     

For a more memorable trip, explore areas away from heavy tourist influence, such as away from train lines and during the off season.

Around the World in Nine Months

In 1981 when I was 25 years old, I traveled around the world for nine months, an adventure of a lifetime, visiting New Zealand, Nepal, Norway, France, and Switzerland. In the poor health conditions of Nepal, I had lost 15 pounds (7 kilograms), and I looked forward to better conditions in Europe. After two weeks with friends in Germany at Frankfurt and Emmendingen (near Freiburg), I recovered my zest for travel and looked forward to experiencing new countries in Scandinavia using a Eurail Pass. A little research in Oslo convinced me to concentrate two months of hiking in mountainous Norway.

By Rail from Frankfurt to Oslo, Norway

Starting in Frankfurt, Germany on June 1, I began a round trip by rail that would return July 29. I knew little about Scandinavia at first, and planned my 58-day tour one week at a time. As I approached island-bound Copenhagen (capital of Denmark), I was amazed as our train boarded a large ferry in several pieces for a one-hour crossing. With a flash of my American passport, I passed through the surprisingly cursory border check. At first, I worried about the potential loneliness of traveling alone so long in a foreign country; but soon I would meet dozens of friendly Norwegians including an Ole, Ola, and Olav . . . .

Join DNT

In Oslo, Norway’s largest city, I reached a higher latitude (60° North) than I had even been, and said goodbye to stars for the next 55 days, with light skies around the clock! I studied glossy bookstore pictures of Scandinavia for three days, concluding that I should give up on seeing Finland and most of Sweden in favor of spectacular Norway. The following wonderful book became my “bible” for the trip: Mountain Touring Holidays in Norway, published by the Norway Travel Association, Oslo.

At the excellent non-profit Norwegian Trekking Association (DNT, or Den Norske Turistforening, in 1981 known as “Norwegian Mountain Touring Association”), I bought an inexpensive one-year membership. DNT provides a master key for self-service huts and joins you with all 30 local mountain touring associations which maintain huts, mark trails, guide trips, and teach courses.

At DNT, I learned that most mountain walking areas were covered in snow until the end of June. I might be too early! In mountain elevations from 3000 to 8000 feet, summer only lasts from the end of June to the beginning of September. Luckily, below 3000 feet, summer extends from early May through September. While waiting for snow to melt in mountain areas, I would first visit lower-lying areas of Norway, such as the moors of Østerdal-Femund, the islands of North Norway, and the fjords of southwest Norway.

Røros: Fabulous Wilderness Huts (June 6-8)

I rode the train to Røros, located in the Østerdal-Femund area, in the eastern rolling hills, which lie in the snow shadow of the mountainous central plateau of South Norway. Copper was mined in Røros for 333 years, and the remaining ghost town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site complete with turf-roofed houses dating from the 1700s and 1800s.

From Røros, I hiked on snow-free, squishy yellow reindeer moss, rushing to reach the alpine Marenvollen Hut before nightfall, which never came. I realized that the skies would be light all night, a novelty for me. I tired before reaching the hut, and camped outside in the open pine moor using my new Goretex bivi (bivouac or bivy) sack for the first time. I strung a poncho over the bivi sack as double protection against the continuous drizzle.

I would end up bivying for free outdoors on 23 nights out of 58 on the trip, which was very economical. By camping frequently and buying all food in grocery stores, I spent a frugal $15 (or 90 kroner) per day in 1981. By Norwegian law, you can freely camp on any unfenced land located at least 150 meters from buildings. On fenced land, I just asked the farmer if I could camp there, and he usually gave me permission (plus sometimes a dinner and hot shower).

The next morning, a wet walk through open pine moors brought me to Marenvollen Hut. Using the self-service hut key obtained from DNT in Oslo, I entered the building as the first visitor of the “summer.” I was amazed by the pristine polished wood interior and complete kitchen, with propane stoves, china plates, silverware, pots, pans, dish cloths, and so forth. Although I had carried in my own food, the complete pantry provided stores of dried and canned foods for purchase on the honor system. The separate dining room contained couches, chairs, and tables, all warmed by a pot-bellied stove. Pre-cut wood for the stove filled half of the separate work room, which also contained various household tools on a large work bench. Four rooms with four bunks each provided foam mattresses and blankets sporting the DNT logo. Another pot-bellied stove heated a separate drying room for wet clothing and boots. On top of all these luxuries in the wet wilderness, this delightful haven provided two pristine pit toilets within the building. Stunned by this mountain Ritz, whose contents would be picked clean in most other countries, I obediently slipped my fee into the honesty box. I had this great hut completely to myself. Welcome to the wonderful Norwegian hut system!

Out of 58 nights in Norway, I slept 15 nights in the fabulous yet inexpensive Norwegian huts. Nine of these were staffed mountain hotels where I could have bought hot meals; but I usually carried all my own food. I loved the six self-service huts in which I stayed, where I could cook hot meals from food that I had frugally carried in myself; or, in a pinch, I could have purchased food from the extensive self-service pantry, making payment in the honesty box.

Hitchhiking

To return to the train station at Røros, I walked a few hours to a highway and with some trepidation, tried my hand at hitchhiking for the first time in my life. Only four cars passed before I received a ride for 10 miles straight to town! Bouyed by this initial success, I would eventually hitchhike in 50 rides for a total of 1100 miles, the length of Norway. Once I got over my initial reluctance for hitchhiking, which is discouraged in most countries, I considered it a great way to see Norway. No other method of travel allows you to meet as many local Norwegians. Hitchhiking costs nothing except patience, and paid me back with a priceless experience.

All kinds of people gave me rides. My most likely ride would come from a single driver who probably lived within 30 miles. Sometimes I studied the cars as they passed without indicating that I wanted a ride, ignoring the cars with tourist luggage and trailers. On several occasions, I would spot a young single driver with no visible luggage, I would extend my hitchhiker’s thumb signal and the driver would immediately stop for me, despite little space to turn off!

Surprisingly, I obtained more than a few rides from fellow tourists, whom are supposedly infamous for ignoring hitchhikers. Even families would pick me up. By the end of my trip, I had discovered the three best conditions for catching a ride:

  1. slow road conditions, such as an uphill climb or a town’s speed zone.
  2. a clear line of sight for at least 10 seconds in order to give the driver time to examine you.
  3. a visibly wide turnout for the driver to stop just past the hitchhiker.

Always project a neat appearance and aura of confidence when you signal for a ride, remembering that a ride can come from anyone, whether they be Norwegian, Swedish, German or French. And when a Norwegian driver tells you that he is only going a couple of “miles”, take heart, because a Norwegian mile is ten kilometers! (six American miles)

Scandinavian Languages
As of 2004, most Scandinavians speak English (except for those over about 55 years of age), making travel relatively easy for English speakers. All Norwegian schools teach English as a second language, because next to Mandarin Chinese, English is the language most spoken in the world (Russian is third). Bring a Norwegian-English Dictionary and a phrase book to Norway to read signs and communicate better. English speakers can easily learn Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, or Icelandic because these four Scandinavian languages come from Old Norsk, which is a Germanic language like English. Finnish is unrelated to these languages and harder to learn.      The Norwegian alphabet adds three letters not found in English: 

  1. æ = pronounced “eh”
  2. ø, or sometimes ö = pronounced as a short “uh”
  3. å, or sometimes aa = pronounced “oh”

Some letters are pronounced differently in Norwegian compared to English, such as g and j, which are softened to a “y” sound before certain vowels, as in “fjord (fyourd) and “Geilo” (yaylo).

Trondheim Baby Strollers

After the train ride from Røros through some good scenery and gorges to the city of Trondheim, I slept at the inexpensive Ungdomsherberge, or Youth Hostel. Staying in youth hostels for 10 nights out of 58 helped keep my costs low. Strolling through town, I was surprised by the large number of baby carriages, each which sported a storm fly like a tent! In fact, I saw a plethora of baby carriages everywhere in Norway: folded and strapped to the roofs speeding cars, stashed on public buses, and pushed by proud mothers along city streets, country roads and grassy fields. Norwegians greatly value motherhood.

By Rail, Sweden to Northern Norway (June 10-11)

In Sweden, icy sleet battled with warm sun on my ascent up the ski slope of Mount Åreskutan (4680 feet elevation). On top was a beautiful view of the smooth, snow-patched hills that roll over the Swedish border from Norway. However, most of southern Sweden is a plain punctuated with many rivers and lakes. In contrast, rocky mountains cover 72 percent of Norway, which claims almost all the rugged grandeur to be found in Scandinavia.

I slept overnight on the long train ride up the Swedish coast. After shopping for groceries in Boden, Sweden, I continue north on the train towards Norway, crossing the Arctic Circle (66.5° North latitude) for the first time in my life. Looking at the snow-covered bogs of Lappland, I couldn’t believe this was June 11th.  I had wanted to hike in Abisko National Park in northern Sweden, but the heavy snow outside kept me on the warm train. As the train descended to Narvik (68° North latitude) at 11:30 PM, I gazed down in awe at my first Norwegian fjord, 3300 feet below. The midnight sun almost succeeded in piercing the overcast sky, tantalizing me and my carload of boisterous German tourists.

Ice Cream in Icy Narvik (June 12-14)

After camping overnight in a park in freezing Narvik, I waited through two cold, rainy days for better weather. As I wandered the frigid streets, I noticed in front of every dagligvarer (“daily goods”, or grocery store), a waste basket boldly proclaimed ÅPEN. . .DIPLOM IS, which means “Open…Diploma Ice Cream”. All over Norway, ÅPEN waste baskets boldly proclaimed the various ice cream brands, such as Dola Is and Jotun Is. Despite their cold climate, Norwegians love eating this frozen dessert. In agreement, I ate a full liter of ice cream in one sitting.

Finally, on my third day in Northern Norway, the clouds parted to reveal the bluest of skies on a fine summer day with shirt-sleeve weather. As I walked half way up the hill above town, I was surprised to see the Narvik Hang-Glider Club poised for flight at the ski lift terminus. Continuing to the top of the mountain revealed a fantastic view of Narvik, its fjords and mountains.Mount Reka (1991 feet / 607 meters elevation) reflects in Eidsfjord, lit by the midnight sun. Langoy Island, Vesteralen, Norway, Europe.

Lofoten and Vesterålen Islands (June 14-18)

That day I began a hitchhiking trip that would take me from Narvik to Stamsund, 225 miles through the Lofoten and Vesterålen Islands. The wild and jagged peaks of these beautiful islands rise up to 3600 feet, often directly from the ocean, forming the imposing “Lofoten Wall” when viewed from the mainland. At their feet lie picturesque fishing villages and rorbus, which are traditional fishermen’s shanties perched on piers and painted in brick red. Since modern fishermen live at sea when fishing, rorbus now accommodate tourists. These remote islands offer unspoiled mountains, rich bird life, fishing holidays, pleasant daytime temperatures averaging 56° F (13° C), and great views of the midnight sun from May 20 to July 24. In contrast to the “light season”, the sun never rises above the horizon between the end of November and mid-January. But winter is not entirely dark, as snow brightens the land and the ethereal “northern lights” (or in latin, aurora borealis) colorize the skies.

Rich cod fishing has attracted tens of thousands of people to settle the Lofoten and Vesterålen Islands. Although the fisheries lie north of the Arctic Circle, the warm waters of the North Atlantic Drift (and Gulf Stream) carry rich plankton to feed the fish caught by the world’s largest cod fishing fleet. From January to April, fishermen work 20 hours a day as the cod arrive from the Barents Sea to spawn between the Lofoten Wall and the mainland. In mid-June 1981, I was awestruck by acres of cod hung on huge racks drying everywhere in the arctic air. As of 2004, severe overfishing of spawning cod by competing countries has provoked crises and restrictive quotas in the cod industry.

On Langøy (“Long Island”), I hitchhiked to see knife-shaped Mt. Reka (1991 feet), one of the most striking mountains in Norway. A local electrician, Jarle Sivertsen, picked me up, and by chance happened to live at a classic viewpoint for Mt. Reka. He hosted me for dinner, a shower and camping on his parents’ fjord-front property. While setting up my bivi sack bedding outside for the evening, I watched him check his arrow-shaped salmon net, which pointed away from the shore to catch any fish swimming out with the tide. Before I went to sleep, I captured a favorite trip photo, Mt. Reka backlit by the midnight sun. At that time, I did not learn my host’s name, but I cherished his hospitality. Coincidentally 22 years later, Jarle’s sister May-Liss happened to find Mt. Reka on my web site Photoseek.com, and asked me via e-mail for a copy of the image to give to Jarle as a Christmas gift! I happily sent her a copy of the image and exchanged well wishes. Jarle married in 1995 and lives with his wife on the same wonderful fjord front property.

e Svolvaer Goat (1955 feet high), Lofoten Islands, above the Arctic Circle, Norway

The next morning at the luxurious Svolvær Youth Hostel, still feeling hungry from Nepal, I stuffed myself for breakfast on smørbrød (“butter + bread”), the traditional Scandinavian open-faced sandwich, upon which you spread jam, sweet hazelnut butter, cheese, fish, liver paste, kaviar, and so forth. (The hazelnut butter tasted like the egg jam that I ate in Singapore in March.) I loved everything except the brown geit ost (“goat cheese”), a Norwegian staple which I found too pasty and pungent. I much preferred the traditional Norvegia cheese, a mild white cheese with holes. Two friendly Swedish women introduced me to Scandinavian kaviar, made from the roe (egg-laden ovaries) of cod, to which I became addicted for the remainder of my stay in Norway. Curiously, this kaviar (or caviar / caviare in English) comes in a convenient squeeze tube, resembling a red, salty, fishy-tasting toothpaste! I preferred the inexpensive 300-gram tube of Kavli Kaviar, the highest quality brand, which would last for a week of camping. The tiny eggs of Scandivavian kaviar measure only half a millimeter in diameter, in contrast to the famous Russian caviar which contains expensive sturgeon eggs measuring five millimeters.

I next hitchhiked westward to Stamsund, an attractive fishing village on the next island. A variety of local Norwegians gave me rides, including two truck drivers, a man in an expensive car, and a farmer’s wife on the way to play bingo. Most of them spoke little English, but we enjoyed trying to communicate with what few words we knew of the other’s language. I would say Jeg snakke lite norsk, meaning “I speak little Norwegian.” In 1981, the Norwegians who spoke English tended to be under 30 years of age, reflecting language courses introduced to their generation in public schools. I crossed between the islands of Austvågøy and Vestvågøy on a ferry which has now been replaced by a gracefully-arched bridge. In linking their fjord-pierced country, the Norwegians may have spent more per capita on bridges than any other country.

Stamsund was a more tranquilly beautiful version of Svolvær. In the relaxed Stamsund Youth Hostel, which was renovated from a fisherman’s shanty resting on harbor pilings, I cooked a delicious meal from some freshly caught cod. I climbed the mountain above Stamsund for a good view.

Just as I prepared to leave Stamsund on the coastal express, the sun pierced the overcast low in the sky, creating beautiful reflections of boats and red rorbus reflected in the mirror of Stamsund Harbor. Tall racks of drying cod soaked in the sun’s rays. I madly rushed around snapping photographs, then with just three minutes to spare, I breathlessly caught the steamer leaving for the mainland. As the ship plowed towards Bodø on the mainland, I said a fond goodbye to the Lofoten Wall shrinking behind under the orange glow of the midnight sun.

(If you go to Lofoten, don’t miss seeing the spectacular town of Reine near the southern end of Moskenes Island. Moskenes is among the most scenic municipalities in all Norway, and the picturesque fishing villages of Hamnøy, Reine, Sørvågen, Moskenes, and Å have a dramatic backdrop of jagged peaks rising above the Vestfjord.)

Bodø

I slept for a few hours on the hurtigruten crossing to Bodø and slept the remainder of the light “night” bivying in a park. Saturated by the wild beauty of the Lofoten and Vesterålen Islands, I found Bodø to be relatively uninteresting. I hitchhiked, after a two-hour wait in busy Bodø, to see the curious Saltstraumen Current, which brochures claim is the world’s most powerful tidal race, or maelstrom. The Saltstraumen Current flows in response to the tides, rushing in or out every six hours through a narrow (150 meters wide) channel at the mouth of a large fjord. (This tidal race is not as interesting as a “tidal bore”, which is a standing wave which occurs where some rivers meet the ocean.)

On June 19, I crossed the Arctic Circle southwards by train, leaving North Norway and the land of the midnight sun. However, the midnight skies would still glow starlessly throughout July in southern Norway.

Begin Fjordland: Innerdalen and Trollheimen Mountains (June 20-21)

Returning to the unremarkable scenery of Trondheim, I completed my 11-day circle through Sweden and North Norway. I continued south by train to Oppdal, where I began a hitchhiking tour that would take me all the way to Stavanger, through the most spectacular fjord scenery in Norway.

With great luck, I hitched on my second ride from Oppdal 15 miles directly to the trailhead for Innerdalen (“the Inner Valley”), one of Norway’s most beautiful valleys. I squeezed into the back seat of a Volkswagon Beetle between the two backpacks of Kari and Ola, a local couple who by chance planned the same hike to Renndølseter Hut. I thought that I had left the icy-cold rain back in Narvik, but Innerdalen spat the same weather upon us. Just as in Narvik, the next day proved to be an incredibly beautiful, sunny summer day. I climbed 3300 feet in two hours up the shoulder of a mountain for a refreshing panorama of the Trollheimen Mountains and Innerdalen, dominated by Dalatarnet (“The Tower of the Valley”), a 4600-foot pyramidal spike like a small Matterhorn, or geologic “sugarloaf”. Next to it, a perfect “hanging valley” abruptly spilled into the main valley, marking where 18,000 years ago, a side glacier met the top of the main Innerdalen Glacier.

Kari and Ola offered me a ride which evolved into dinner at Kari’s flat in Hjelset. While waiting for pizza to cook, we watched a curious game show on Norwegian television, where the object was to identify jigsaw pictures of flowers and animals. Norwegians certainly love nature! After dinner, on his way home to Valldal, Ola left me off at a crossroads where I could hitchhike to my next goal. I stepped off the road to set up camp for the night in a grove of fir trees on the edge of a fjord. I would see Ola again in just four days.

Hike from Lake Eikesdalsvatn to Åndalsnes (June 22-25)

In the morning, very few cars drove by because tourist season had not yet begun. I waited 3 hours on that backcountry road before an Oslo engineer picked me up for the 18-mile drive to Lake Eikesdalsvatn. (Luckily, I did not have to wait for a ride as long as my brother Dave did for two and half days in the outback of Australia!)  I ferried across Lake Eikesdalsvatn to Hoemsbu, a self-service hut in the cellar of a sheep farmer’s house. The gray day slightly reduced the grandeur of the peaks which impressively rose a vertical mile above the lake surface. In perhaps my riskiest venture in Norway, I walked alone over a 4600-foot pass, of which the top 1300 feet were steep snow. I put plastic bags between my socks and boots to keep my feet insulated from the snow. Snow mostly buried the red “T” trailmarkers, and I only found my way by discovering the tracks of someone who had crossed earlier. I climbed and descended 4600 feet in 9 hours through rain, fog and snow, transitioning from snow-covered alpine to rainforest (reminding much of backpacking the Copland Pass Track over the shoulder of Mt. Cook in New Zealand in February). Feeling both proud and relieved, I traversed the pass to the next valley bottom, where I fell fast asleep in my bivi sack.

The next day, on a 10-mile walk to the town of Åndalsnes, I enjoyed meeting a friendly Czechoslovakian couple who were hitchhiking and rock-climbing on a six-week vacation, and carrying all of their belongings in duffle bags with shoulder straps but no hip belt. At the Åndalsnes youth hostel, I joined an impromptu dinner of à la dente spaghetti with an Italian man, two French women, a French Canadian, and a Swiss German man. Then two charismatic German men entered and stunned us by announcing their plans to parachute from the 3300-foot Troll Wall (Trollveggen), the highest vertical cliff in Europe! I immediately pictured the incredible films I had seen of BASE (“Building, Aerial, Span, Earth”) jumpers leaping from the 3500-foot overhang of El Capitan in California’s Yosemite Valley; however, fickle winds and bad weather make the Troll Wall much more dangerous. The next day, rain canceled the Germans’ jump, and they had to wait a full month for suitable parachuting conditions. I would learn their fate near the end of my trip, which I tell later.

Rain shelved my plans to see the spectacular Romsdal (the deeply glaciated Roms Valley sided by the Troll Wall). After waiting for a ride 2.5 hours in the rain, I resorted to taking a bus to reach Valldal in order to again see Ola, whom I met at Innerdalen. The bus labored up the steep switchbacks of Trollstigveien (“the Troll Path”), sometimes reversing to turn a hairpin curve on the second attempt. Mists hid the famous views.

At his flat in Valldal, Ola whipped up a delicious dinner featuring cuts of ox meat. Although he spoke limited English and my Norsk (“Norwegian”) was next to nil, his slide show of mountain walking in Norway and (the former) Yugoslavia broke any language barrier. In thanks, I later sent him prints from my trek in Nepal.

Spectacular Geirangerfjord

The next morning, Ola took me to the ferry, where I met the Kunz’s, a Swiss German family of three, who drove me to Geirangerfjord. In September, I would visit the friendly Kunz’s at their photo store in Bern, Switzerland. Traveling alone motivated me to meet many more people than I would if I had a companion along, which made Norway especially memorable for me.

The tourist town of Geiranger prospers from spectacular Geirangerfjord, the epitome of Norwegian fjords. In summer, the town speaks mostly German, and world class cruise ships anchor daily. An elegant Russian liner pulled in as I watched. Many Norwegians claimed that summer had the worst weather in 40 years, but usually the sun shone for me at the major sights, including Geirangerfjord. I left my luggage at the fjord-front campground and walked up 12 switchbacks of the Eagle Road for an amazing view of the dark-green, snake-shaped Geirangerfjord.

Hjørundfjord Milk Run

I ferried the impressive Geirangerfjord and hitchhiked to the wider and similarly remarkable Hjørundfjord, but with no foreign tourists in sight. I ferried up and down the sparsely populated Hjørundfjord, deciding eventually to camp at Trandal, a 21-person farming community clinging to the steep slopes, accessible only by ferry. An old man at the dock led me up the hill and took me to a house where a woman spoke English. She happened to serve as postmaster for Trandal, whose name means “Cod Liver Oil Valley”. I inquired about camping spots, and the woman and her husband eventually gave me a comforting dinner, room, and hot shower. Their spacious new dream house built of handsome wood contained all modern conveniences, electrified via a cable laid beneath the deep waters of Hjørundfjord. They shared raising 200 goats with three other families, rotating into a vacation of half a week every week and a half. Near fjord level, they cut the grass two or three times per summer for winter fodder, which they hung on parallel wire fences to dry, creating a distinctive sight seen throughout fjordland. While this hay dries at low elevations in summer, the goats graze high pastures. Norwegians call a homestead on the high summer pasture a sæter (or seter).

The next morning was sunny and uplifting, and I thanked the postmaster and her family for their generosity. I boarded the ferry along with the goat milk truck, which was collecting milk from each local farm. I enjoyed this spectacular “milk run” on Hjørundfjord.

Now saturated by gorgeous scenery, I decided against walking up impressive Mt. Slogjen, which rises directly from Hjørundfjord nearly a vertical mile. After 15 cars passed me in 3 hours waiting for a ride, I finally flagged down a bus. In fine weather, I bused and hitchhiked 75 miles to the famous Briksdalsbreen (“The Briksdal Glacier”), where I camped.

The Briksdal Glacier

As in Geiranger, the summer language in Briksdal is also mostly German. Touristy horse carts draw dozens of older couples to Briksdal Glacier, which snakes down 3000 feet from its source of Jostedalsbreen, an ice plateau which is the largest glacier in Europe (171 square miles & 1000 feet thick). The Briksdal is one of 24 glacial tongues that originate in Jostedalsbreen at about 6500 feet elevation. I saw long jagged ridges of ice perched atop the mountains around me, hinting at this huge ice plateau beyond, which I hear is very exciting to explore using mountaineering equipment.

A side view reveals a long vertical crack in the Pulpit (Prekestolen), 1959 feet above Lysefjord, in Forsand municipality, Rogaland county, Ryfylke traditional district, Norway, Europe.

Hitchhiking Southern Fjordland (July 1-3)

The next five days I zoomed through fjord country catching ride after ride, heading for Stavanger and a nearby wonder of nature called “the Pulpit”. Ferrying across Sognefjord at Vangsnes gave striking views. On my longest day, I hitchhiked 145 miles, ending up in a hotel room furnished by Olav, a generous cannery representative on a solo sightseeing tour. On our way to Voss, Olav took us on a scenic sidetrip to Stalheim, which stunned me with its view over the Nærøy Valley, dominated by a 3000-foot granite dome, reminiscent of California’s Yosemite Valley.  I vowed to return to Stalheim, which I did 9 days later.

Situated at a major road and rail junction, Voss was the busiest tourist town that I experienced in Norway, and tourists mainly spoke American. Americans notoriously zoom around Europe on railpasses, spending only a few days in each country, as immortalized in the movie “If This Is Tuesday, This Must Be Belguim.” Americans tend to concentrate on ralways, since they usually don’t rent cars in Scandinavia. Many Americans stop in Voss on their quick rail trip between Bergen and Oslo, the two largest cities in Norway. Americans usually ride the nearby Myrdal to Flåm rail line, the most accessible fjord attraction in Norway. However, trains cannot reach most of the best fjord scenery, so Americans often miss the great highlights that other European tourists see from cars.

I caught an instant ride leaving Voss with Ole, a young Norwegian who spoke excellent English. When I asked Ole why I had seen so many mentally and physically handicapped people on the public transportation systems, he explained that Norway actively encourages the disabled to engage with their world, and also 1981 was the International Year of the Handicapped. Socialistic Norway devotes a healthy portion of its North Sea oil profit to such beneficial social programs. The United States has the same proportion of disabled people as Norway, but offers much less public social support.

I ferried then hitchhiked the length of Hardangerfjord in a large goat truck. Builders carved the narrow fjord road into the granite a hundred years ago, leaving room for only one and a half goat trucks. Only the occasional turnouts allowed large vehicles to pass. My driver passed others at breakneck speed, leaving little room for error. Pelting rain added to the atmosphere of our wild ride through 80 miles of fjordland, my longest single ride. At Åkrafjord, we again barreled along an even narrower road that clung to the side of sheer granite walls. At one point, my wry driver pulled in his mirror in order to squeeze past a truck-trailer rig! This was one of the main highways to Stavanger, Norway’s fourth largest city.

With additional rides from a Coke truck and a German couple, I reached Vikedal, a town seemingly in the middle of nowhere, where I camped in the nearby woods. On the next day, oil derrick workers gave me two of three rides, indicating my proximity to oil-rich Stavanger, the main port for Norway’s generous share of North Sea oil. The oil workers said they worked 14 days then vacationed for 21 days in a regular cycle. Sounds like a good job!  Pulpit Rock (Prekestolen) 1959 feet above a car ferry on Lysefjord, Forsand municipality, Rogaland county, Ryfylke traditional district, Norway, Europe.

Hike the Pulpit (July 4)

At the trailhead for “the Pulpit” (Prekestolen), I discovered that a group of German teenagers had fully booked the mountain hotel (Prekestolhytta). Tired by nonstop hitchhiking, I camped outside in the occasional rain. To keep out the clouds of tiny mygg, the biting midges which can pass right through mosquito netting, I had to seal my bivi sack, making an uncomfortable and stuffy atmosphere for sleeping. Luckily midges did not bother me anywhere else in Norway. I hear that midges can be a nuisance just after the snow melts in Lappland and North Norway.

On July 4, I awoke to an overcast sky and occasional rain. I ate breakfast of the usual smørbrød cold cuts, while pacing back and forth to avoid the midge cloud. Finally, during a break in the warm rain, I struck out along the muddy trail, determined to see the Pulpit despite the misty weather. I walked 1.5 hours through an eerie landscape of blocky mountains, sparsely peppered with trees. Suddenly the Pulpit appeared, and my eyes bugged out at Lysefjord, 1959 feet directly below. As a tourboat drew into view down on Lysefjord, I quickly snapped my favorite photo from Norway: a lone traveler perched atop the Pulpit, high above the tourboat pulling into the sun’s reflection.

The sun came out and I photographed every view. The Pulpit, an impressive sharply-cut monolith of rock that juts above Lysefjord, was yet another highlight of my trip, joining the ranks of the islands of North Norway, Innerdalen, Geirangerfjord, Nærøy Valley, and Briksdal Glacier.

Old Stavanger

I had just completed a hitchhiking journey of 621 miles (not counting buses and ferries) from Oppdal to Stavanger. At that point, only halfway through my 58 days in Norway, I was becoming scenically saturated. As a spur of the moment day away from nature, I wandered Stavanger, admiring the white-faced row houses of Old Stavanger and the big tankers in the harbor carrying liquid natural gas (LNG). On that beautiful summer day, people even swam in the ocean, taking advantage of a heat wave.

Hike from Finse to Aurlandsdal, the “British Route” (July 5-9)

I slept overnight on the train from Stavanger to Oslo, where I restocked my photographic film supply, then zoomed on to Finse, the highest railway station in Norway (4268 feet). Stepping off of the train on July 6, I entered a world still locked in winter. The lake was one-third covered in ice, the ground was half-covered in snow, and the temperature was 40° F. (10° C). DNT had advised me correctly, saying mountain areas would be snow-covered until about now.

In the next three weeks, I would hike above Sognefjord (in two places), on Hardanger Plateau, and in the Jotunheim Mountains.

From Finse, I began a three-day walk known as the popular “British Route“, five hours per day over a 5570-foot pass to the Aurlandsdal (“Aurland Valley”). July 8th marked the first day that I wore shorts in Norway! Summer had officially arrived. Convenient access by rail and ferry makes this hike popular, but the scenery is unexceptional until Aurlandsfjord. Expecting a wilderness experience, I felt disappointed by Aurlandsdal, where I found dams, roads, and power lines on the surface feeding a hydroelectric project whose huge size was mostly hidden underground. (On the other hand, some wilderness-loving friends of mine hiked this route in 2004 and enjoyed it.)

Many other natural wonders in Norway have been tapped for human use, such as Mardalsfossen (above Lake Eikesdalsvatn), formerly the highest waterfall in Europe and the sixth highest in the world. Now engineers turn on Mardalsfossen only in July for tourists to see, and the remainder of the year they divert it for hydroelectric power. Engineers have also reduced the volume of one of Norway’s most stunning waterfalls, Vøringsfossen. These and many other water power schemes make Norway the European leader in hydroelectric development.

At the tourist town of Aurland, I caught the famous ferry through Aurlandsfjord and Nærøyfjord (the southern tongues of Sognefjord, longest fjord in Norway). Accessibility by rail makes this fjord tour one of the most well-known attractions in Norway. I rate Nærøyfjord as second only to Geirangerfjord in grandeur. Nærøyfjord, billed as the narrowest fjord in the world, squeezes only 600 feet wide between cliffs that rise 3000 to 5000 feet. I bivied at a motorcamp in Gudvangen in the mile-deep trench of the amazing Nærøy Valley.

Hike from Stalheim to Flåm (July 10-13)

I hitchhiked up the Nærøy Valley, the cousin of Yosemite Valley, and returned to Stalheim as I had vowed on July 1. At Stalheim, I played my usual photographic game of waiting hours on end for the sun to come out. Finally, the sun shone feebly on the impressive 3000-foot dome of Jordalsnuten.

The same day, I walked six hours to a snowy retreat called Grindaflethytta (“Grindaflet Hut”, 3574 ft elevation), halfway between Stalheim and Flåm. Halfway to the hut, rain began to fall, and I knocked on the door of a tiny cabin, where an extremely friendly dentist and his wife invited me inside for tea. They gave me valuable advice on where to backpack on the Hardangervidda, my next goal.

I rested all the next day alone at the luxurious, self-service Grindaflet Hut. On the hut radio, I created musical electronic noise as I searched for stations. Radio Moscow competed with Voice of America on the crowded European band waves. BBC said “Let’s Speak English.” Outside, reality drizzled rain on the melting snowy landscape. Inside, I comfortably sifted memories from my trip around the world.

The following day, rain did not abate, but I set out anyway, changing my goal from Undredal, a snowy seven-hour trudge away, to Flåm, a five-hour walk. On the last mile as the crow flies, I descended 2300 feet straight down to Flåm in dripping rain, stepping with sore legs ever downwards on slick rocks and ferns, losing the trail in dense rainforest several times. (Friends Cecile and Dave hiked this in 2004 and found the descent to be equally punishing.)

That descent reminded me much of walking the rugged Dusky Sound Track in New Zealand with my brother Jim. The Flåm Valley strongly resembles the rain-forested glacial valleys of Fiordland National Park, New Zealand (where they spell “fiord” with an “i” instead of “j”). However, instead of the dense beech forest of New Zealand’s Fiordland, Norway’s fjordland has spruce, fir and birch forest, plus its snow and alpine zones start closer to sea level.

I finally rode the famous Flåm to Myrdal railway line, the most expensive 12-mile section of standard-gauge railway in the world. Unlike the special rack railways of Switzerland, the Flåm to Myrdal line runs on ordinary railway tracks, and overlaps itself five times in one spot on its ascent of 2845 feet in 12 miles. The train plunges through so many dark tunnels (20) that it is more impressive as an engineering wonder than a scenic one. I returned to the DNT hut at Finse, completing a round trip of seven days. For dinner, I found a new treat: sauerkraut in a box.

Hike the Hardanger Plateau (July 14-18)

From Finse, I rode the train then hitchhiked onto the Hardangervidda (“Hardanger Plateau”), Norway’s second most popular hiking area. Hitching with two French students, I visited the breathtaking Vøringfoss, a powerful waterfall that thunders 597 feet from the Plateau to fjord country. Hydroelectric projects have diverted some of its roar, but Vøringfoss still impressed me.

The students left me at Sæbø, near the eastern end of Hardangerfjord. Since I would again be sleeping in mountain hotels, I left excess weight, such as Ensolite pad and bivi sack, with a campground manager.

I ascended 2600 feet on a farm road, switchbacking twenty times to reach a trailhead. My head ached most of that day, and I finally admitted that I felt lonely. Traveling alone for six weeks had taken a toll on my spirit. Along the way, some unnaturally friendly sheep ran up and followed me, bleating loudly! This was the third trail where sheep had followed me, perhaps hungry or lonely. On my previous hike from Stalheim to Flåm, a sheep had approached and sniffed me. On my earlier hike from Lake Eikesdalsvatn to Åndalsnes, a flock of ten sheep had run across a steep snow field and followed me excitedly! These sheep seemed overjoyed to see me in their isolated summer pastures, in sharp contrast with the flighty, dull-witted behavior of the penned hordes of sheep I saw earlier that year in New Zealand.

Encouragingly, my headache disappeared when I socialized with fellow walkers at Viveli mountain hut, four hours later. Once I had ascended from fjord country up to the Hardanger Plateau, walking became a breeze on the gently undulating top. Hardangervidda is probably Europe’s largest alpine plateau, measuring 40 by 60 miles, resting between elevations of 3000 and 4000 feet. Entirely above treeline, the desolate Hardanger Plateau fascinates many wilderness lovers. I had heard good reports about the Hardanger Plateau in conversations as far away as Nepal and New Zealand: nice scenery, lakes with good fishing, and a variety of alpine flowers (200+ species) and wildlife (reindeer, ducks).

As I walked to Hadlaskard mountain hotel, the hat shape of Mount Hårteigen (5500 feet) popped into view, a striking erosional anomaly on the relatively flat plateau. Climbing Hårteigen required a tricky ascent up a very steep snow gully. I methodically kicked snow steps upwards. A slip could have dropped me instantly onto rocks below. I definitely needed a rope and ice ax for safety. But with confidence and care, though, I topped Hårteigen and was rewarded by a striking panorama of undulating hills striped with snow like a zebra. To the north, I saw the sprawling permanent ice cap of Hardangerjøkulen (“the Hardanger Glacier”). I had the summit to myself. Beautiful summer days such as this made my journey all worthwhile.

Descending Hårteigen took just as much care as the ascent . . . but I concluded my venture with a triumphant slide down the snow chute! None of the 20 passers-by had attempted the climb that day. At the next mountain hotel, Torehytta, I became the legend for the day with my story of climbing Hårteigen. I encountered the most crowded hut of the trip at Torehytta: fourteen people in bunks and three (including myself) on the couches. Tourist season, July 15 to August 15, had begun!

Two days later, I hiked the spectacular transition from the Hardanger Plateau to fjordland. Huge cascades of water paralleled my course as I descended 3300 feet across smoothly glaciated granite and fir forest. On a hot summer day, I reached Kinsarvik, an important junction town on Hardangerfjord. Since I had passed through Kinsarvik two weeks earlier, I was surprised at how the campgrounds had become choked with visitors in such a short time.

Hike Jotunheimen, the Home of the Giants (July 19-25)

I hitchhiked back to Sæbø to collect my extra camping gear, then continued on to Geilo with a young Norwegian man, who was playing Bob Marley and Pink Floyd on his tape deck. He commented that American popular music reaches Norway five or ten years after its release.

On the train to Gol, to my great surprise I was surround by a carload of Russian tourists, who were visiting Norway in two days, like many Americans do. None spoke English. I conversed in basic French with a Russian cardiology professor. With extreme curiosity, the Russians riddled me with questions about the prices of cars, houses, and wristwatches in the United States, and were amazed at the low price of my digital wristwatch. We reached Gol all too soon, and I had to step off that exotic train car. This brief brush with Russia provoked my excitement as much as my four-hour layover in Moscow Airport, on the way to Europe from Nepal. In 1981, the “Cold War” was thawing quickly, and Russians and Americans had a lot to talk about.

In searching for a camping place across the river from Gol, I bumped into a group of six French campers in the bushes. We conversed in English, which they spoke better than my French. They eventually  invited me to dine and camp with them. Several weeks later, I would visit one of them, Philippe Contet, in his hometown of Chalon-sur-Saône, in the province of Burgundy, France. Philippe’s study of electrical engineering required many journals written in English and motivated him to learn my language.

From Gol, I hitchhiked in two rides to the “Home of the Giants”, where I would hike my last and best backpacking trip. One driver, a farmer’s wife, told me that she and her kids seated in the car, ages 8 and 10, had recently walked up Norway’s two highest peaks! I had pictured these peaks as arduous climbs, and now her kids seemed to be bionic athletes. I would soon find out for myself in my climb of Glittertind, Norway’s second highest peak.

I spent five days in Jotunheimen(“the Home of the Giants”), the highest mountains in Scandinavia. I stored excess weight at Gjendesheim, a DNT mountain hotel on the shores of the glacially green Lake Gjende. I was surprised to see the nearby ridges free from snow, despite being higher than snowy Finse. Then I learned that the 8000-foot Jotunheim Mountains capture the bulk of winter snowfall into a dazzling display of glaciers and snow-capped peaks, creating a drier “snow shadow” area around Gjendesheim. For an evening walk, I hiked up 2600 feet to Veslefjell Ridge, which drops steeply down to Lake Gjende (elevation 3240 feet).  Shaped like a link sausage, beautiful Lake Gjende stretched off to the foot of the distant snow-capped Jotunheim Mountains. Turning around, I suddenly spotted a dozen reindeer which were grazing the thin layer of yellow lichen on the otherwise bare rocks. Reindeer prefer high ridges like this one. I approached to within 50 meters of the reindeer, noticing large racks of antlers on the noble beasts. I felt privileged to share this place of stark beauty with these fellow wanderers of nature.

At 7:00 AM, I embarked across Lake Gjende on a motorboat, packed like Lofoten sardines with fellow walkers who would traverse the famous Besseggen Ridge that day. I stepped off the boat at Memurubu, located at the “link” of the two sausage shapes of Lake Gjende. The six-hour walk back to Gjendesheim provides a stunning view from Besseggen Ridge, one of the best sights in Norway, if not the world. I walked up the ridge 1300 feet to Lake Bessvatn, then another 1000 feet where the ridge became a quite narrow and airy “hogsback”, with a remarkable view back down to light green Lake Gjende and the adjacent contrasting deep blue of Lake Bessvatn. In the distance rose the snowy glaciated peaks of the Jotunheim Mountains. Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen immortalized this place when he described Peer Gynt’s wild ride on the reindeer across Besseggen Ridge.

Leaving camping gear behind in Gjendesheim on the following day, I walked seven hours over stony ground to Glitterheim hut, “home of Glittertind“, which is officially the second highest peak in Norway (8047 feet). However, a 60-foot-thick snow cap on Glittertind makes you stand at 8107 feet, the highest point in Scandinavia. Officially, the highest mountain in Norway is Galdhøpiggen (8102 feet), located across the valley from Glittertind.

By now in excellent physical condition, I easily hiked up 3500 feet in two hours to the top of photogenic Glittertind, which sports a jaunty ice cap that overhangs an impressive 1500-foot deep cavity. I saw a fantastic panorama of glaciers and peaks, another highlight of my tour. Although the Norwegian peaks only reach about 8000 feet above sea level, in my book, their snow-capped beauty match the great mountains of the world, including the Himalayas, the mountains of the Americas, and the New Zealand and Swiss Alps. Not only that, many Norwegian peaks can be hiked by the whole family, everyone from young kids to senior citizens, plus their dogs. (Norway also offers many challenging technical climbs, such as the Troll Wall, rated as one of the world’s six most difficult rock climbs.) To descend, I joyously slid 3500 vertical feet in one hour down the snow.

In my previous seven weeks, I had seen highlight after highlight without much rest. Tired and saturated with incredible scenery, I decided not to climb Galdhøpiggen, which has a view similar to Glittertind. The next day, in another stony walk, I hiked five hours out to Spiterstulen, a mountain hotel connected by road to civilization.

Skydiving the Troll Wall (July 25-27)

To complete one final unfinished sight, I returned to Åndalsnes in order to see the spectacularly glaciated mile-high walls of Roms Valley, which rain had obscured earlier. I just caught sight of the shear 3300-foot vertical drop of the Troll Wall as the fickle mists parted, then closed again. “That’ll do” I thought.

I shuddered at the risk taken by the two German skydivers who had jumped off the Troll Wall (Trollveggan) just one week earlier! One month after I had first met the two Germans at Åndalsnes Youth Hostel, I learned their fate via word of mouth and Norsk newspapers, which friends roughly translated. One parachutist had apparently landed safely on a snow patch near the bottom of the Troll Wall. A Norwegian police helicopter picked him up because either they wanted to arrest him, or maybe he could not descend without help. The second jumper fared badly, breaking his back upon landing after his directional parachute failed to fully open, and a day or two passed before he could be rescued and hospitalized. Each year, several skydivers leap from the Troll Wall, to the consternation of the Norwegian government, which usually ends up paying for rescues. Norway was considering pressing charges against the two Germans to collect the $100,000 rescue fee. Aside from legal ramifications, very poor wind and weather complicate jumping from the Troll Wall ­ the skydivers had to wait more than a month for good conditions! (Update 2004: Norway is one of the few countries in the world where BASE-jumping is still legal, subject to strict regulations. For example, in the last week of June each year, the town of Voss holds an Extreme Sports Week, where qualified jumpers can leap from a thousand-foot cliff called “the Beak”.)

Back to Home Base in Frankfurt, Germany (July 28-29)

Burnt out by my almost nonstop journey through the great scenery of Norway, I zoomed back through Oslo, Copenhagen and Hamburg to return to home base with an American friend in Frankfurt, sleeping two nights in a row on the train. I did not mind giving up the two extra days remaining on my two-month Eurail pass.

Epilogue

My initial ignorance of the snowy conditions of the Norwegian mountain walking areas in June became a blessing — that time was spent discovering the fantastic Lofoten and Vesterålen Islands of North Norway and the spectacular fjordland of southwest Norway. Because most of the great sights and experiences are not directly accessible by rail, I hitchhiked via car 1100 memorable miles, meeting many wonderful and generous Europeans.

To this day, Norway remains vivid in memory as my longest solo journey. Actually the trip began alone, but I met many friendly people along the way. On the trail in the Jotunheim Mountains, I encountered Willie Aeberhard, who would later host me for four days in his home of Sarnen, near Lucerne, Switzerland. And don’t forget Ole, Ola, and Olav (above).

I loved hiking Norway’s wilderness with a light pack, using its extensive network of well-marked trails and huts, the world’s best refuge system. Areas away from heavy tourist influence were most enjoyable, away from train lines and in the off season. When in Europe, don’t miss Norway, one of the most beautiful countries on earth.

References:
  1. Den Norske Turistforening (DNT), office at Storgata 3, two blocks from Oslo Central (train) Station.
  2. Mountain Touring Holidays in Norway, an excellent hiking guidebook published by the Norway Travel Association, Oslo. Check for a copy at the DNT office.

Recommended Norway books from Amazon.com

Search for latest “Norway travel books” at Amazon.com.

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CANADA: Bowron Lake Provincial Park story

“Pardon Me, I’ll Run to my Ambulance Now…”

A true story from Bowron Lake Provincial Park, British Columbia, Canada. September 18-28, 1993.

Adventure travel sometimes takes an unexpected turn. While backpacking in Canada, I heard tales of a wonderful 73-mile canoe trip where you paddle a rectangular circuit of wilderness lakes and portage by rolling your canoe on wheels. Rugged mountains soar a vertical mile above you, mysterious mists hug the waters, and ravaging bears take your gear unless it is hung in caches reached by ladder. After dreaming about the trip for two years, I borrowed a canoe and joined some friends at Bowron Lake Provincial Park, near Quesnel, British Columbia. Little did I know that we would encounter an animal more fearsome than any bear. On the first day of the trip we witnessed a marriage proposal, a case of hypothermia, and a trip member running to catch his own ambulance!

Above, Bowron Lake images automatically play in a show. (PAUSE || or START SLIDESHOW as desired with buttons at lower right.) But mobile devices just display a fixed image, so click center to enlarge as a set of images with full captions in GALLERIES mode (where Add to Cart button lets you buy photos).

An Unexpected Phone Call

I planned to spend seven days canoeing the Bowron circuit with Mark and Kim, a married couple whom I knew through work. Kim’s friend Laura from the East Coast decided to join us. We chose to go in late September, when the summer crowds diminish and the leaves of the aspen trees glow gold.

A week before the trip, my phone rang. On the line was Dale, a stranger to me, calling from Oregon. (I’ve changed the name of Dale for this story, but all other details are true.) Laura was going to visit Dale for three days on her way to meet us in British Columbia. With enthusiasm, he asked if he could join our canoe trip, which would be a great break from his stressful high-tech job.

I chatted in a friendly manner, then questioned Dale closely about his outdoor experience. The Bowron canoe circuit requires paddling and camping in remote wilderness areas, a few days away from help. Dale said he was an experienced river rafter, triathlon athlete, and mountaineer. He had led climbs of several high mountains. Although he sounded a little manic and excitable, I felt that he might add positive energy to our group.

When he asked if Laura was my “blind date,” I said no, and he seemed relieved. Laura had never been his girlfriend, but he seemed interested in renewing a friendship with her. We spoke at length. Because I had initiated the trip, I had some power over who would go. Finally, I agreed that he could join us on our dream trip.

“This Guy Is Crazy!”

Mark, Kim, and I drove two cars from Seattle to the airport in Quesnel, British Columbia, which was just an hour’s drive from Bowron Lake. Dale and Laura arrived by plane. As she entered the baggage claim area, Laura was a little tired but in good spirits. Laura went in the car with Mark and Kim. Dale rode in my car. His eyes showed exhaustion, yet he pushed himself to stay awake. Last week on the phone he had spoken energetically, but now his voice was flat and devoid of emotion. I felt tense in this presence.

“Do you own a car?” I asked.

“No, but there’s a car in my driveway at home,” he said in an odd monotone, with a straight face. In the same mechanical monotone he asked, “Are you going to plant seeds?”

His question seemed out-of-context, and I was speechless. After a moment of thinking, I replied, “Oh, do you mean like when you toss an apple core into the wilderness, and it turns into an apple tree?”

Yes, that was what he meant. Something disturbs me about his flat, robot-like voice, I thought.

Despite his apparent exhaustion, Dale spoke with logic and intelligence. With more energy, he asked me if I wanted to climb a high mountain with him at some point during the trip. I said yes. He described his leadership experience, then questioned my abilities as trip leader. I said that I led informally by consensus and honored the opinions of those with the most experience.

“Would you be willing to risk your life to save someone else’s life?” Dale pressed.

I replied, “In an actual emergency, I probably would react by instinct without thinking. I would only risk my life if I had a reasonable chance of bringing myself back alive.”

My headlights pierced the pitch black night. I followed Mark and Kim’s red taillights as we drove the winding gravel road to Bowron Lake. Suddenly, the road forked ambiguously. Mark and Kim stopped their car and stepped out with Laura. Dale and I joined them.

“This guy is crazy!” I blurted, half-jokingly, towards Dale. Dale’s robot-like behavior was giving me the creeps. Dale didn’t react. To break the ice, we joked about being lost in the wilderness with Dale as an ax murderer. Dale cracked a small smile. Only Laura knew Dale, but she offered no unusual insights about the past three days she had spent with him in Oregon. Until this week, she hadn’t seen Dale in four years.

We chose the correct road and drove to our lakefront lodge to get some sleep. All five of us shared one cabin.

Wow, I thought, Dale has seriously disassociated himself from his feelings. I did not trust his ability to cooperate with the group. I lost several hours of sleep worrying about how I would handle seven days in the wilderness with Dale. Finally, I decided that stress and lack of sleep explained Dale’s unusual behavior. He would probably awake with the normal personality that I knew from our telephone conversation.

A Marriage Proposal

As I undressed to take my shower in the morning, I heard a knock at the bathroom door. I wrapped a towel around my waist and opened the door. Dale addressed me on his knees.

“May I please have Laura’s hand in marriage?” Dale asked seriously.

I laughed and said, “Sure, but you’ll need to ask Laura.”

Maybe Dale normally spoke in this style of deadpan humor. Only Laura knew Dale’s personality. I trusted her to tell us if Dale was unfit for canoeing 70 miles in the wilderness.

Mark told me later that Dale had rustled loudly through several packs in the wee hours of the morning as others slept. Dale had apparently eaten an apple and then planted its seeds outdoors in the frosty ground. Mark found this behavior rather strange, because apple seeds would never germinate in this cold climate. I agreed. But then I silently forgave Dale, because for him, planting seeds in the wilderness might be symbolic, like placing flowers on a grave.

Rays of sun pierced the morning fog and illuminated the golden aspen trees, which reflected in the expanse of beautiful Bowron Lake.

As we ordered breakfast at the lodge, Dale asked the waitress, “Do you need any help in the kitchen?” The waitress looked at him quizzically. She silently shook her head and returned to the kitchen.

With mingled fear and excitement, our group discussed the coming trip. When Dale asked if anyone knew water life-saving skills, I said yes. I said that if anyone fell into the water of these lakes, within five minutes they would lose most of their strength. This happened to me in a limb-numbing practice swim from a raft in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. The Glen Canyon Dam releases the Colorado River into the Grand Canyon at 46 degrees Fahrenheit, which is very cold. The lakes of Bowron Lake Provincial Park are even colder. Not surprisingly, hypothermia poses the greatest danger on the Bowron circuit. We agreed to keep within voice distance at all times during the trip.

We repacked gear for the canoe trip. “Is that your pack?” I asked Dale, pointing to his pack. “That’s not my pack. That’s a pack” he corrected.

This smart-aleck behavior could get out of hand, I thought. I felt oddly fearful.

“Your Friend Is Naked”

The lodge’s van carried our boats and gear to the trail head. Sun filtered through the aspen trees and warmed the air pleasantly.

We strapped our canoes onto rented carts for wheeling a mile to the first lake of the Bowron circuit. However, Dale seemed confused. He kept trying to wheel his single-man canoe to the lake visible below instead of up the trail. We had to redirect him twice. Once he found the right trail, Dale ran far ahead, contrary to our agreement to stay within shouting distance.

We arrived at the crystal-clear, inviting lake outlet, which twisted through a reedy marsh surrounded by pine trees. The sun forced steam from the still surface of the outlet channel. But we saw no trace of Dale or his canoe. I confided to Mark, “This is really getting out of hand.” Despite the beautiful surroundings, my mood soured from distrust of Dale’s behavior.

A canoe approached around a small bend. A concerned woman in the canoe said, “Just around the corner, your friend is naked and neck-deep in water. His wet clothes are in the boat. He says he’s meditating, but he acts a little strangely. What should we do?”.

“We’ll be right there,” said Mark, as we hastened to detach the wheeled carts from our canoes.

A few minutes later, the woman returned by canoe and said, “Your friend has stopped shivering and no longer replies. We’re getting very concerned for him.” By then, Mark and Kim were paddling madly around the corner.

By this time, Dale may have been in the icy cold water for 25 minutes. As Mark and Kim approached him, Dale instinctively reached out of the water and grabbed their canoe, almost capsizing them. His bluish body clung to their canoe as they paddled to shore. They helped the tall, now-shivering Dale to shore, and Kim wrapped him with a silver space blanket. Laura (clothed) joined Dale in a sleeping bag to help warm him. I heated some hot water on a stove to help revive him.

Mark and I privately shared anger at Dale’s irresponsible behavior. Kim ran back to the ranger station and ordered an ambulance, as suggested by Mark.

Reborn in Wilderness Waters

After an hour, we were able to revive Dale from the depths of hypothermia. He finally stopped shivering. Eventually he crawled out of the sleeping bag shared with Laura. “Here, Dale, put on another coat,” said Kim.

He shook his head, then said in a childlike voice, “I don’t need clothing. All I need is a compass and a wife.” Dale’s simplicity struck a chord in me: I was also single, and looking for a sense of direction as symbolized by the compass. From the book Fire in the Belly by Sam Keen, I remembered two fundamental questions that a man must ask himself: first, where am I going, and second, who will go with me? Dale lifted and fondled the compass that hung from a string around his neck, and said softly, “A man drowned here today. I’m reborn.”

“No, Dale, no one drowned here today,” I said. Although still suffering from hypothermia and shock, he had now returned to his robot-like personality. He followed our instructions and allowed us to paddle him back to the start.

We felt fortunate that Dale had not chosen to pull this stunt in the middle of the trip, days away from help. As a confident swimmer and triathlete, perhaps he didn’t really believe my saying that in these lakes, hypothermia can hit you after only five minutes of immersion.

Dale’s eyes darted furtively. Suddenly he sprinted down the trail. I shouted, “Wait Dale, we’ll first need your life jacket back.” My voice stopped him in his tracks, and he obediently returned the life jacket. To prevent him from retreating further into himself, I engaged him to help put his one-man canoe on wheels for return to the lodge.

Dale jogged with Laura a mile to the waiting ambulance. How strange, I thought, here is a man running to catch his own ambulance! Later we learned that Dale spent three days in the hospital under observation. His parents flew across the continent especially to care for him. After his recovery, he thanked us for saving his life. He left thank-you letters on our cars parked at Bowron Lake and phoned us after the trip. In his letter, he confessed difficulty in pulling himself out of the cold water and thick mud. “I’m surprised how fast hypothermia sets in and how much shock it put me in after my body was warmed back up,” he said. “I am very disappointed that I shook you guys up and hope you will forgive my foolishness.”

Power Rangers

Laura’s return flight restricted us to finish the Bowron circuit by a certain date. Unfortunately, Dale’s flirtation with hypothermia cost us a day. Our group, minus Dale, athletically paddled the loop for six days, instead of the seven days originally planned. For greater enjoyment, I recommend taking eight or more days. Luckily, a tailwind pushed us most of the trip.

Canoeing the Bowron loop turned out to be safer than I had expected. We shared our wilderness experience with about six other canoes per day. Rangers in powerboats patrolled each lake about once a day. A ranger had taken less than half a day to travel 30 miles around the lake system on foot and by powerboat to help us with Dale. However, by then we had already sent Dale away in the ambulance. I thanked the ranger for his valiant efforts. “I’ve seen a number of disassociated people like Dale come to this park in the past,” he said.

Walking on Water

We paddled fifteen long miles across “L”-shaped Isaac Lake. I paddled the “J”-stroke thousands of times to propel the canoe straight. Once or twice a day we reshuffled gear and mounted the canoes onto handy bicycle-wheeled carts for overland portaging. We wheeled the canoes for only 5 miles of the 73-mile circuit. As darkness fell each evening, we had just enough time to set up tents and cook a tasty dinner before admiring the starry sky. As a nightly ritual, we climbed high ladders to pile our food in bear-proof caches provided in the designated campgrounds.

We shot the whitewater chute of Isaac River, and successfully negotiated the snags of Cariboo River. Fresh snow dusted the Needle Point Ridge a mile above Lanezi Lake. A small glacier clung to a mountain in the distance. In the middle of shallow Sandy Lake, we appeared to walk on water as we pulled our canoes to deeper channels. On the West side of the 70-mile loop, Spectacle Lakes reflected spectacular rows of golden aspen trees. Gradually the mountains receded into the distance, the warm sun shone, and lakes became calm as mirrors. A few days after our harrowing start, I began to relax. On the last day, in the final stretch back to the lodge, rain fell gently as we paddled across Bowron Lake.

For campfire entertainment during the trip, I enjoyed quoting from Dale: “Are you going to plant seeds? . . . A man drowned here today. . . . I’m reborn. . . . All I need is a compass and a wife.” I must credit Dale for enlivening my vacation memories. Perhaps he got all that he wanted out of his trip: a compass strung around his neck for a sense of direction, and a warm woman in his sleeping bag to help revive him. Along with Dale, I felt reborn in the wonderful wilderness waters of Bowron Lake Provincial Park.

Copyright 1993 by Tom Dempsey.

See also my related articles (with multiple trips consolidated):

Recommended Canada and Montana guidebooks from Amazon.com

Search for latest “Canada Rockies travel books” at Amazon.com.

Search for latest “Montana travel books” at Amazon.com.

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