Join me on an exploration of the spectacular mushrooms and mountains of the Belgian Ardennes, a range just South of Holland. I set out on a hike in the region with Stefje and her family on a crisp fall day and we were amazed to see the wealth and diversity of mushrooms after a recent rain storm. Nature is truly bountiful!
Last Friday morning, Stefje and I bade farewell to the grey skies and perpetual cold of December in Amsterdam, transporting ourselves both mentally and physically to sunnier locales. Just a few hours later, we were walking on the beach outside the town of Albufeira in Portugal, happily reunited with our friends Diana and Luca a few months removed from their last sighting in Europe.
Deep turquoise waters confirmed our arrival in tropical paradise. Our room was cozily set within the confines of a collection of thatched-roof cottages and wooden lounge chairs, just 10 steps from the ocean. Before even taking a sip of my welcome cocktail I was neck deep in the salty waters, swimming against the current and basking in the afternoon sunshine that glinted across our view.
A fascinating amalgamation of Asian spices and Arabian architecture, European tourists and African local, dazzling palaces and decrepit ruins, Zanzibar's stone town is a clash of cultures. Dizzying alleyways connect brand new Hiltons and Hyatts with buildings that date back hundreds of years, when this island served as one of the first major trading ports in the Indian Ocean.
From one crested vantage point, Stefje and I paused and could count 20 different species of trees, with the knowledge that we were probably missing many more. The Eastern Arc mountain range consists of 13 unique and separate ecosystems, each one evolving parallel to the others. The natural result is that this small segment of Africa contains more species of trees than all of Europe and North America combined!
Although after three days on safari our eyes were feeling a little spoiled, I doubt anyone could become jaded enough to not appreciate what we saw next. Grazing on the side of the road was a herd of elephants: 3 adults, 2 adolescents, and a pair of youngsters not more than two months old. The babies were more interested in rough housing than placidly enjoying breakfast like their mothers. They explored the surroundings with their dextrous trunks, smacking each other playfully like a pair of human siblings.
Even lunch was a barbaric affair. As jeeps settled into a picnic spot, a proud baboon perched on a railing, exposing his impressive chest.A few minutes later he transformed from a calm observer to a wild beast. With reckless abandon and absolutely zero fear of humans, he catapulted over the railing, bounded onto a picnic table, scared the people away, and grabbed as much food as he could. By the time a guide came over to shush him away with a stick, he had a sandwich in his hand and a juice box in his mouth!
Perched in the hillside amongst a dense grove of trees was the perfect Austrian bar. As we reclined outside to soak in the spectacular panorama of the lake, music, shouts, and singing erupted from the packed interior. Inside the bar people had clearly been drinking since early in the day, providing a welcoming and engaging atmosphere that enchanted Stefje and me.
Through three layers of forest and 2,000 feet of elevation gain, we pushed through fatigued muscles to truly earn the resulting vistas. The only constant here was remarkable beauty. Frequent rains in the Soca Valley meant the entire forest floor was covered with vegetation: mosses, ferns, sapling, and thick-trunked trees made our surroundings feel more like a jungle than a pathway.
After a refreshing dip, we decided to set off for a hike along the hills in hopes of capturing a gorgeous afternoon view of the coastline. The path wasn’t too steep but it was unyielding in its incline. Switchback after switchback punished our valves and poured sweat down our backs, yet I was too occupied with the view to feel the pain. Instead, I just found myself gazing in wonder at the spoils of this natural paradise.
Amidst walking tours, an overwhelming number of pedestrians, and restaurants lining every square inch of available real estate, we kept our eyes craned upwards at a wealth of ancient architecture that transported us back in time. A long walk along the city’s port had us relishing in the atmosphere of the city: a crisp sea breeze, a hidden cove of ships, and finally a perfect sunset that struck just as we crossed the in front of the city’s largest palace.
Our group of eight took a Gondola up to the trailhead. From our new vantage point, the postcard perfect farmhouses and connecting roads evaporated into the horizon. Yet more importantly, the smell of cow manure quickly disintegrated as well. To cap things off, we were now graced by a backdrop of impressive peaks, complemented by bright green grasses and dotted with intermittent farmhouses that spilled out into the verdant valley below.
Travelers possess unique traits which enhance the world.
Talalla has achieved an odd balance as a beach town. Only foreigners and local villagers coexist on this tiny crescent of fine sand; other Sri Lanka visitors haven't yet made this a popular destination on the map. As such, old fishermen equipped with plastic bottles and long strings of hooks still navigate deftly amongst tourists and swimmers. In the streets, school children excitedly waved hello every time I passed by. Yet local acceptance hangs in a delicate balance; should Talalla follow the development cycle of its more popular sister cities along the coast, backlash is inevitable. Trash will accumulate, irresponsible visitors will propagate, and a way of life that has worked for decades will quickly dissolve away.
As our jeep rattled on through the plains, our tour guide stopped intermittently to point out plenty of animals which our eyes glossed over and he was able to spot. Jackals moved swiftly in the distance and herds of deer were spooked by oncoming cars. Monkeys rustled in the treetops, taking a break from their morning snacking to spy on us.
The last two hours of the journey were perhaps the most breathtaking. Here the speed slowed as the number of curves increased, but the stops were few and far between. Now trees began to truly dominate the landscape: the exhilarating views on both sides of the train offered dramatic cliffs, towering palm trees and thick jungle undergrowth.
What seemed like just a few minutes later we were awoken by the sun on a clear Friday morning in Budapest, eager to set off and see what the city had to offer. It only took a few minutes for our eyes to bulge with outlandish neo-classical architecture in the form of the grandiose St. Stephen’s Basilica. It hadn’t hit the priority list of our vague plans for the day, but we immediately made a detour to accommodate exploring the massive dome which rose up like a sentinel standing guard of the city center.