Zadar, Experience Croatia Without the Crowd

Zadar, Croatia

Zadar receives a fraction of tourists that come to the Dalmatian coastline cities of Croatia like Split or Dubrovnik. Maybe it’s because Zadar’s old town isn’t as pretty and intact as the others. It has no castles, no remaining city wall to walk on.

But despite all of that, or maybe because of all of that we found Zadar to be a nice hub during our stay in Croatia. It felt nice not to be a part of the hordes of tourists that descend upon Croatia’s more popular cities.

Zadar has its own version of charms. It hasn’t been completely overrun by souvenir stores selling identical knick-knacks. Go a few blocks beyond the main street and I found tell tale signs of a ‘lived-in’ city: a city with offices, stationery stores, bookstores, and government buildings.

The Waterfront

The waterfront of Zadar is absolutely lovely. It has a wide promenade free of distraction other than the view of sweeping Adriatic Ocean. In the summer, locals and tourists alike jump off the pier to swim in the water. Even in late October, the water’s temperature was acceptable for a brief dip.

Walk along the water in the morning and you’ll see fishing boats off-loading their catch.

Every afternoon, weather permits, we inevitably found ourselves sitting by the Sea Organ. Listening to the hums of the organ and letting our legs swing free from the wall into the water.

How we spent our afternoons in Zadar
How we spent our afternoons in Zadar
Zadar Waterfront Sea Organ
Zadar Waterfront Sea Organ

Nearby the sea organ is the Greeting to the Sun art installation. It consists of 300 multi-layered glass plates and solar cells that, come nightfall, lights up like a dance floor and provides a breathtaking visual accompaniment to the Sea Organ.

Greetings to the Sun during the day
Greetings to the Sun during the day
Greetings to the Sun at night
Greetings to the Sun at night

Fresh Seafood

My favorite thing about visiting an ocean-side town? No, not the beach. I’m not much of a beach person. It’s the seafood! Fresh fish, simply grilled with a touch of salt, accompanied by cold beer, is my idea of a perfect meal.

Grilled fresh squid from Konoba Bonaca
Grilled fresh squid from Konoba Bonaca

Our absolute favorite restaurant in Zadar is the Konoba Bonaca. The fish soup, the arrabiata pasta, fried sardines, and grilled squid were great. The charming and friendly waiter/owner was the highlight though. Catch him in a good mood and you’ll never know what surprise he’ll give you at the end of your visit.

The Old Town

Zadar has been occupied since pre-historic time. The current urban layout came during the period of Roman occupation and their legacy can still be seen in the The Roman Forum and all around town.

The Roman Forum with St. Donatus church and bell tower in the background
The Roman Forum with St. Donatus church and bell tower in the background
Roman column in Zadar Old Town
Roman column in Zadar Old Town
Cheese from the island of Pag. Apparently famous. I've tried some, but I prefer the local goat cheese.
Cheese from the island of Pag. Apparently famous. I’ve tried some, but I prefer the local goat cheese. You can find various local cheeses in the market.

We climbed up the bell tower of St. Donatus church and were rewarded by a bird’s eye view of the whole town.

View from the bell tower of St. Donatus
View from the bell tower of St. Donatus
Beautiful bird's eye view of Old Town Zadar
Beautiful bird’s eye view of Old Town Zadar
St. Mary's church at night
St. Mary’s church at night. There are other churches scattered around in the Old Town – 8 in total if I remember correctly.

Croatia’s 4 National Parks

Our favorite reason for making Zadar our base? It provides a convenient base to visit 4 National Parks of Croatia: Kornati and Krka in the South, Paklenica and Plitvice in the North.

Plitvice is one of Croatia’s most famous national parks with its many turquoise lakes and waterfalls – it’s a 2-3 hour bus ride away. Krka is a smaller, less known sibling of Plitvice and is much closer. Many agencies in Zadar can help organize a day trip to these two parks although the latter is quite easy to visit independently using public transportation.

Paklenica NP
Paklenica NP

Paklenica‘s impressive karst river canyon with its hundreds of climbing routes is only an hour travel away from Zadar. While Kornati is a collection of 89 islands, islets, and reefs off Zadar’s coastline – a perfect destination for a sailing day trip that often includes a swim/lunch stop in a secluded cove.

Kornati Croatia
Kornati National Park by J Grunig

So if you’re visiting Croatia, I highly recommend not skipping Zadar. It’s not the sexiest, nor the coolest. But you get the best of the Dalmatian Coast has to offer, and more, without the crowd.

Have you been to Croatia? What do you think? I thought it was way too crowded in some parts, and I guess that’s why I ended up really liking quieter Zadar.

A Birthday Tradition: Our Upcoming Travel in The Balkans 2015

Fall is my favorite time of the year for many reasons.

Wait, what? “I thought you loved summer“, you’d say. I do love summer and the long days for adventuring in the mountains it represents.

But to be honest, I don’t deal with heat very well. A few years back the temperature in SF reached low 90’s for a week and some wuss was complaining of ‘heat wave’ striking the city. I was that person.

Slovenia Julian alps
Slovenia by nh53

So when the air takes on that cripsy-chilly feel, I’m torn. One part of me is sad that adventure season is over, the other side of me is excited that I get to wear my puffy and thick socks again.

In my opinion, Fall is one of the best times to travel. In a lot of parts of the world it’s considered the shoulder season. It means lower prices on airfare and accommodations. It also means less crowds to deal with. After heat, crowd is the second thing I dislike about summer. I usually reserve summer for N. America climbing or roadtrips and travel internationally in Spring and Fall.

Lastly, fall is about birthday. Mine that is.

Wouldn’t it be the greatest thing if only I could figure out a way to combine all of these great things about Fall in one celebration?

And I did.

Few years ago I started a tradition where I give myself a plane ticket for my birthday present.

With it being my birthday and all, I get to go wherever I want in the world. I told Jack that he’s always welcome to come, of course, but for so far has opted to hold the fort and take care of the cat instead. Let’s face it, there are places I want to go he can’t care less.

Places like S. Korea, Sri Lanka, or Georgia and Armenia. Not coincidentally places where I spent the last 3 birthday trips. Alone.

My solo birthday trip to Turkey, 2013
My solo birthday trip to Turkey, 2013

If you think spending your birthday by yourself can get pretty lonesome, you’re absolutely right. But for the most part, I’m loving this little tradition of celebrating my birthday in a country I’d never been before. You just never know what you might end up doing on your birthday: you can be stuck in a minivan with 30 drunk Russian tourists or you can be in a hot air balloon looking over one of the best landscape sceneries in the world .

Every year it’s memorable for a different reason.

To make it extra special, it’s also a period of time when I’m on a ‘real’ vacation when I tell my clients that I will be offline and I get to set my work email to ‘out-of-office’ mode.

It’s seriously the best birthday tradition ever and I always look forward to it.

This year, I see no reason to pause the tradition just because we’re currently on a yearlong road trip in a van.

The only tiny difference is: Jack is coming along. He wasn’t going to at first – as a matter of fact, I already bought my birthday ticket when I wondered what he’s going to during his time without me. “Where are you going anyway?” he asked, suddenly realizing that he had no idea where his beloved was running off to this time.

“Oh so many places!!” – I started prattling on about how I found this cheap flight to Ireland, from which I found another great deal on flight to Croatia. Then of course once in Croatia that means the rest of Europe is a possibility. Romania? Maybe Ukraine? Blah, blah, blah… it doesn’t matter because he eyes started to glaze as soon as I mentioned Ireland.

“Ireland…”, he mused. “They have good whiskey there,” probably thinking of the fact that we’re in Canada and have you seen how much they tax alcohol here?

Then somewhat unexpectedly, “Can I come?”

plitvice lake in fall, croatia
Plitvice Lake in fall, Croatia by F. Arnaud

So there you go. We’ll be parking our beloved van in a lot in Vancouver while making our way through Europe for the next month or so.

Our Balkans Trip 2015
Our Balkan Trip 2015

We have our flights to and from Dublin and Croatia but the rest is still up in the air. We’ll be renting a car in Ireland but I haven’t yet decided if I want to head north to Belfast, or visit the more popular roadtrip destinations in Ireland (Ring of Kerry, Dingle Peninsula, etc).

I heard the Julienne Alps in Slovenia is supposed to be incredible and I already bought a guidebook on Slovenia’s best hikes. Fingers crossed for good weather.

Then I’m thinking we’re going to head south through the rest of the Balkan countries: Bosnia, Serbia, and Montenegro. Maybe as far south as Macedonia and Albania if we have time. We’re keeping our plan somewhat loose – with the developing migrant crisis going on there currently, who knows what’s going to happen?

Nothing excites me more than exploring new parts of the world, but I’ve always found this corner of Europe particularly interesting. Mostly because I know very little about it. I haven’t seen as many photos coming out of this part of world as it’s not as widely traveled as Western Europe or the Scandinavian countries.

Before the trip I didn’t even know the capital cities of Serbia or Montenegro. Or that Macedonia is even a country. Embarassing, I know – especially for someone who loves to travel as much as I do. But in my defense, I’m older than some of these countries. Gawd, I’m old.

So on this birthday trip, I’ll be going with more than usual state of ignorance, with my favorite adventure partner, and honestly – I’m super excited about it.

Have you been to any of these countries?

Would love to hear what you think about them.

#VanLife, Our Solar Power Setup

This article is part of the #VanLife series where I talked about our Sprinter van, what goes into building it, our daily life on the road, and other sorts of fun and challenging things about living and traveling full time in a van.

One of the first things I researched into after deciding to travel and live in a van full time was was how to install a solar power system. With our gadget and Internet addiction, there was no way we could just depend on the van’s cigarette lighter. *shiver*

Along with much of everything else involved in retrofitting a van, it was a subject neither Jack nor I knew much about.

It’s a world consisting of solar panel, converter, inverter, and batteries. Which ones to get (and there are so many to choose from) and how to connect them all together? It was a big puzzle.

In the end we decided to take the easy way out and get ourselves a Yeti 400 from Goalzero. This is pretty much the closest thing to a solar system plug-n-play out there.

The Goalzero Yeti 400 and our 100W solar panel became the meat and bone of our solar system. The following is my attempt at explaining why and how we did what we did.

Our solar-powered handheld vacuum come in handy very often
Our handheld vacuum come in handy very often

A solar powered van in a nutshell

In its most basic sense a solar system goes like this: you collect and convert energy from the sun to electricity (solar panels) and store it (in batteries) until you need it.

But a battery is pretty dumb. Like a goldfish, it will take and take for as long as there’s energy available (like when it’s really sunny out) until – poof! – it destroys itself.

This is where a controller comes in. The simplest controller protects the dumb battery’s self destruction by saying, “Dude, stop or you’d get sick” and disconnecting the battery bank from the solar panel when it’s full.

Now how does one use this stored energy? If you think you can just connect the battery directly to your gadgets, you’d be wrong. If only life were that simple.

A regular battery’s voltage is 12V DC, but most of your electronics need 110-220V AC to operate. Different voltage. Different type of current altogether. An inverter converts the energy in the battery bank to the right kind of current and voltage that your gadgets can actually use.

So in a nutshell’s nutshell, here are the 4 things you need to build a solar powered adventure van: a solar collector (solar panel), a controller, a battery bank, and an inverter.

So you can go and buy these things separately, or you can cheat a bit and do what we did. But first, let’s talk numbers. It will get a little dry here in a bit, but bear with me. It’s kind of an important step because before you can figure out what to get, first you have to figure out what you need.

Cooking at night
Cooking at night

On batteries

You can have one or more batteries in your ‘battery bank’. How many batteries you actually need in your ‘bank’ depends on each battery’s capacity, your daily power usage, and how many days you want to be able to live ‘off-the-grid’ with no input.

You can calculate your daily power usage in amp-hour (Ah) by this formula:

Amp (Watts / Voltage) x Hours of usage in one day

Example 1:
Our overhead light uses 4 Watts on 12V. I’m guesstimating we’ll have it on for about 4 hours a day.

Its daily amp-hour usage is then: 4 Watts / 12 V x 4 hours = 1.2 Ah

Example 2:
My MacBook’s adaptor lists the maximum Amp it’ll provide (3.1A) and I assume I’ll use it about 3 hours a day.

Its daily amp-hour usage is then: 3.1 Amps x 3 hours = 9.3 Ah

You do this for every single major appliance you’re going to have in the van. Or at least the major ones. You total them up and you’ll get a rough idea of how much power you’ll consume in one day. In the above example, my daily power usage will equal to 10.5 Ah (9.3 Ah + 1.2 Ah)

When shopping for batteries, their capacity is often listed in Ah. But to complicate matters, you really shouldn’t drain your battery completely and only use about 50% of its full capacity.

So assuming I have a 120 Ah battery, in reality that only gives me a total of 60 Ah. And continuing on with the above example, that battery will give me 60 Ah / 10.5 Ah = ~ 5.5 days of power without getting charged.

Are you still with me? I hope I didn’t lose you yet.

My point is by doing this calculation, I realised that our power needs turned out to be much lower than most RVers out there. It’s low enough that getting an energy pack (like a GoalZero’s Yeti 400) becomes an option.

On solar panel

Hooking up our solar panel to the GoalZero for the first time
Hooking up our solar panel to the GoalZero for the first time
The GS100 on the Sprinter's roof
The GS100 on the Sprinter’s roof

If you have a small van with limited roof size, you can’t go wrong with this monocrystalline 100W panel from Grape Solar (we got ours from AMSolar).

From the research that I did, monocrystalline panels have the highest efficiency per square foot. From the very the beginning so all of our decisions were based on the ease of scaling things up in the future. With this panel’s small size, we could fit 4 on our Sprinter’s roof if we needed to.

How big of a panel? Well, the AMSolar guy told us that many RVs with a much bigger battery bank use the 100W solar panel. So I figured, it it’s good enough to keep a 200Ah system happily charged, it’ll be good enough for our measly 33Ah battery. Which brings me to our next point.

The Yeti 400

What’s cool about the Yeti 400 is that it’s a battery, a converter, and an inverter in one – a power pack. It has all sorts of ports already built into the panel. A 12V outpout, 2 USB ports, and 2 120V wall outlets. It’s as close to a plug-n-play as it gets.

Our Yeti 400
Our Yeti 400 with all of its input and output ports. The digital displays tells you the battery’s state, and current solar input and usage.

20 minutes after it arrived in the mail, we managed to hook up our solar panel and use the power of the sun to charge my phone!

Its biggest downside is its puny capacity. The battery inside holds only 33 Ah, and the inverter only has a max output of 400 W. In comparison, most conservative RV users recommend at least 200 Ah batteries and 1500+ W inverter.

I sat down with a pen and paper and started adding up numbers. Our projected power consumption was 16 Ah per day. That’s like nothing! With no fridge, no TV’s, basically nothing more energy intensive than our laptops, we can get by with very little.

Even though we were originally planning to build out our own system, this was the moment when we started seriously considering getting what we call a plug-n-play solution.

Our setup

The parts:
1. 100W panel from AMSolar – $380 (accessories needed to mount it included)
2. A Yeti 400 – $460
3. A MC4 to 8mm adaptor to connect the solar panel’s output to Goal Zero’s proprietory input – $14
3. A fuse box (optional)
4. A cigarette lighter to leads adaptor (optional)
5. Dual USB charger socket (optinal)
5. Misc cable

Total cost of our van’s solar power setup = $850 ++

Running the cable to the interior of the van
Running the cable to the interior of the van

The solar panel is attached to the Sprinter’s roof using, believe it or not, double sided tape. The first time we drove on the freeway, we kept looking in our rearview mirrors expecting to see our $400 solar panel smashed into pieces behind us. Now we only think of it when encountering strong wind gusts or hail. So far so good though.

We run the cable connecting the panel to our Yeti 400 inside the van through a hole on the Sprinter’s roof that we then sealed shut with waterproof sealant.

Goop!
Cables from the solar panel and from our backup camera
Our installed Grape Solar 100W Panel
Our installed Grape Solar 100W Panel

At this point, you’re pretty much done. You can start using the ports on the Yeti to charge your laptop, your phone and what have you.

The last thing we did was connecting the Yeti’s 12V output.to the fusebox installed under the driver’s seat. From the fusebox we run cables that connect our lights, 2 extra USB ports by the bed, and one cigarette lighter adapter by the driver’s seat.

It’s a complicated subject

As proven by the aforementioned headache and the one I got just writing this post, rigging up your own solar powered adventure van can be a complicated subject. This post barely scratched the surface and focused on what we did. For our needs.

Our 100W panel and the Yeti 400 power our 2 laptops, 1 tablet, 3 phones, 2 Kindles, a cell signal booster, 4 overhead lights, a coffee grinder, a handheld vacuum, and an electric water heater.

We’ve been on the road for almost a year and we’ve never had to go without power! The only time we ran low was when we encountered one rainy day after another in Colorado, but even then it never dropped below 40%.

Your mileage WILL vary

On the road, we ran into other vans that have these super awesome battery banks and were awed, AWED, at the array of electronics they run: electric water heater, water pump, refrigerator, TV, toaster oven (!), and more. It was truly a home on wheels (as opposed to our van that’s more like a tent on wheels.)

(If you’re looking into a bigger setup, our friends from Traipsing About wrote a detailed report on their solar setup build here. So did the couple behind Exploring Alternatives, you can read about their setup here).

On the other hand of the spectrum, we’ve also met people traveling full time in their vans getting by with headlamps and library outlets supplemented by small portable solar panels.

A big part the reason we can get by with our small solar system capacity is because the way we travel. Our climbing focused itinerary means that we follow the season and incidentally maximize our sunny days. These are the days our Yeti 400 is filled to the brim with solar power goodness.

During rainy days, we seek out libraries and coffeeshops. We use their wall outlets when we have the smallest solar input while catching up on work and real life. When it starts getting depressingly too rainy, we get in the car and drive somewhere else.

We have no Fantastic Fan, use propane for heat (total of 10 days this year), and a cooler instead of a fridge. All of this reduce our power need significantly.

Is this the perfect solar power setup?

Nope. If you consider what we spent and the amount of Ah that we got, it comes to quite an expensive $/Ah. You could build something with similar capacity as the Yeti 400 for about $150. So what you end up paying is the convenience of easy set up. With all the other works involved in building our van, we were glad to have one less thing to worry about.

So far it has fulfilled our electrical needs. It’s not perfect, but it works for us.


Do you have any experience with setting up a solar system for you vehicle? What worked for you? Let us know in the comment.

Into the Winds, Climbing the Cirque of Towers

Before we came to Wyoming, I’d never heard of the Cirque of Towers. Or the Wind River.

Now that we’ve gotten a taste of it, I hope to return to this place again and again in the future. Even after spending a week among these granite giants, we’ve barely scratched the surface.

The Wind River is part of the Rocky Mountains in Western Wyoming. Guarded by long approaches (and not being a National Park), it is much less visited than its neighbors, the Tetons.

I bought a new pack for the trip since we couldn't fit everything we needed in our 2 small packs. At 50L it's the largest pack I'd ever owned.
I bought a new pack for the trip to the Cirque since we couldn’t fit everything we needed in our 2 small packs. At 50L it’s the largest pack I’d ever owned.
Into the Wind River. When you're on a trail and just can't wait to have a snack.
When you’re on a trail and just can’t wait to have a snack.

It’s not to say that the Winds receives little visitors as proven by the various (large!) groups of backpackers we’ve come across. Its popularity is also its downside. A local told us that the Cirque ‘has been loved to death.’ Lonesome Lake was the first lake in the Winds to be declared unsafe to drink because of fecal contamination. Eeew!

(Going potty above the treeline can be problematic. There’s often little precious dirt to dig. We’ve used something like this in the past. Learn to love it!)

The perfect campsite in the Cirque! Sheltered from the wind among these trees.
We found the perfect campsite! Sheltered from the wind among these trees.
Our best attempt in protecting our food from marauding bears.
Setting up a system to hang our food. Our best attempt in protecting our food from marauding bears.
Into the Wind River and Pingora Peak
Our first day it was drizzly and cloudy. So we just hung around the campsite hoping that the next day would be better.
Snow in mid-July in the Cirque of Towers
It even snowed.
The quick change weather in the Cirque of Towers
The weather was changing so rapidly. We had a brief reprieve from the rain in the afternoon.
We used to time to scout out our approach and try not to get distracted by pretty reflections.
We used to time to scout out our approach and try not to get distracted by pretty reflections.
On our way to the base of the NE route
On our way to the base of the NE route
Pingora Peak is the chubby looking one on the right. To its left is the Tiger Tower and the Wolf's Head Ridge.
Pingora Peak is the chubby looking one on the right. To its left is the Tiger Tower and the Wolf’s Head Ridge.

On our first visit to the Winds, we wanted to climb Pingora Peak. One of the many in a collection of peaks known as the Cirque of Towers.

Inspired by his meeting with Hans Florin, a well known speed climber (he climbed the Nose in under 3 hours!) during Lander’s Climbing Festival, Jack wanted to move lighter and quicker than usual during our ascent on the North East buttress of Pingora.

Morning reflection of Mt. Mitchell on Lonesome Lake in the Wind River Range. This is probably my fave part of Wyoming.
Morning reflection of Mt. Mitchell on Lonesome Lake in the Wind River Range.
Getting everything ready for next day's ascent up Pingora.
Getting everything ready for next day’s ascent.
The last scramble up to the summit of Pingora
The last scramble up to the summit of Pingora

Being at elevation, it wasn’t easy. I felt like I was running a sprint the whole time, huffing and puffing, and paying scant attention to what I was pulling or where I was putting my feet. Thankfully, the climbing was straightforward. We ended up doing the 10 pitch routes in 4.5 hours. Considering that in the past we averaged about 1 hour a pitch, we were pretty proud of the achievement.

At the top of Pingora. Shark's Nose and Overhanging Tower peaks are behind us.
At the top of Pingora. Shark’s Nose and Overhanging Tower peaks are behind us.
Scrambling around at the peak of Pingora.
Scrambling around at the peak.
The knife's edge ridge of Wold've Head, Wind River
The knife’s edge ridge of Wold’ve Head, Wind River
Remember to stop and savor the view.
Remember to stop and savor the view.

The descent from Pingora involves some exposed scrambling ❤️

A photo posted by jacknjilltravel (@jacknjilltravel) on

Click here for more photos. Stay tuned for more stories from The Winds!

Neither Up Nor Down, Stuck on Castleton Tower

Castleton Valley seen from La Sal mountain

In general, I’ve been pretty lucky in all of my travels *knock on wood*. I’d never gotten sick. I’ve only been robbed once (in Chile). And the only drunk ever vomited near me got the person next to me instead.

But every now and then I encounter a string of bad lucks in one particular place that I can’t help but think that, ‘Man, this place just does NOT like me.’

In Ethiopia it all started from the moment I stepped foot in the country. I remember standing alone by the baggage carrousel in Addis airport, waiting for my luggage that never arrived. This was followed by a several mugging attempts, a bad case of bed bugs, and culminating in a rabies scare.

Feeling defeated, I left Ethiopia much earlier than planned.

I experienced a similar type of misfortunes in Castleton Tower near Moab, Utah. This 400 ft tall wingate sandstone is one of the most iconic desert towers in the Southwest.

Climbing Castleton Tower in Moab, Utah
If you’re a climber, you can’t help but think, “I wonder if you can climb that… and yes, you can”

On our first attempt, we had this brilliant idea to start our approach in the evening to spend the night at the base. We decided to go light. No tent, no food. What could go wrong?

Climbing gear, sleeping bag, and pad
Carrying our climbing gear, our sleeping bags and pad we hiked to the saddle.
At the saddle between Castleton Tower and the Sisters
At the saddle between Castleton Tower and the Sisters, watching the play of shadows of these formations across the valley.
At the base of Castleton Tower
We set up our sleeping bags at the very base of the tower.

So far so good.

However, as soon we tried to go to sleep, a freak sandstorm came upon us. I said ‘freak’ because it seemed to have come from nowhere. It went from 0 to 40 mph wind in seconds. Too scared to do the approach back in the dark, we decided to stay put, hoping that it would die down.

It never did. Between trying not get blown off the cliff by the wind and the whirling sand filling every orifice from neck up, sleep eluded us. Not to mention the noise. Not to be too cliche, but the wind WAS howling. Oh, it was.

I woke up feeling that I’d just been sandpapered from my neck up. (On the plus side, my skin was smoother than ever). I was still finding grains of sands in my ear and nose for days afterward.

But we got a dazzling sunrise out of it
We woke up to a windy morning and a dazzling sunrise out of it

The wind was still going strong I could only imagine that it was worse at the top. Climbing didn’t seem like a good idea. After waiting for a few hours we decided to bail with our tails between our legs. But we knew we would come back. Next time for sure.

Getting ready for Castleton Tower
We bought a #6 cam especially for one of the pitches on Castleton Tower. We were adamant that we wouldn’t leave until we used that cam.

We returned a few weeks later. This time we managed to get to the top of Castletown Tower (via the NE Chimney – stellar route, but too short) with very little drama. I was so relieved. I still hadn’t yet learned at the time that most epics happened during the descent..

At the top of Castleton Tower
At the top of Castleton Tower

We found the rappel anchor on the northern side of the tower. In retrospect, we would’ve been better off rapping the Kor Ingalls route. There would’ve been other people to help us out since it was a much more popular route.

The first rap needed 2 ropes to get us to the next station. As soon as I secured myself to the anchor, I was pulling to retrieve the rope so we could set the next rappel down. But…

The rope wouldn’t budge.

I pulled hard. I wrapped the rope around my hand and pulled and pulled as I pleaded to nobody in particular “Please, move…” I put my Grigri on and hoisted myself weighting the rope with all of my weight. Jack even pulled on my harness. The rope stretched and stretched, more than I thought it could (or should), but it was soon very obvious that it wasn’t coming down.

Our biggest fear had happened. We had our rope stuck.

Jack was going apoplectic with anger and frustration knowing that our only way out is to jug back up almost 200 ft. It’s a tiring and scary rescue endeavor. It also didn’t help that we realised around this time that Jack had left his pack on top of the tower.

We had found ourselves in a similar situation in Red Rock, Las Vegas and after since then, I always brought a Ropeman and a Grigri with us. After some trials and errors we managed to figure out a way for Jack to climb up the stuck rope the safest way possible. I was tied it to the other strand, just in case the rope frees itself as Jack is climbing it.

Cursing every single step of the way, Jack made his way to the top. It turned out that the thin and big rap rings (they were big enough to go around my arm) have twisted upon themselves and trapped the rope strands between them.

At the top of Castleton looking over our rap route on the north side of the tower.
At the top of Castleton looking over our rap route on the north side of the tower. You can sort of see the thin rap ring by Jack’s elbow. Next time we know better and thread our rope through the chain instead.

Jack retrieved his bag, re-adjusted the rap setup, and rapped back down to where I was.

This time when I pulled on the rope, I felt it give. I blew a big breath of relief. I started pulling and pulling and the rope was feeding through the rings just fine. It seemed the worst is probably over. I could taste that cold beer waiting inside our van.

“Shit!!!” I cursed. Jack looked at me, “What now?”

“The rope is stuck again!” – We looked up in horror at the free strand blowing in the wind. Out of reach. Almost out of sight. I felt sick to my stomach. This is bad.

With that loose end we couldn’t climb up again this time, not safely. If the rope freed itself while one of us was jugging up, it would run through the rings and fall to the ground, carrying whoever it is that was attached to it at the time.

Stuck midway on this massive 400ft column, unable to go up or down, I’d never felt so tiny and helpless. There seemed to be only one thing left to do

“Help, help! Anybody up there!” we started screaming. There was only silence. Well, that wasn’t quite true. There was the wind. The incessant, howling wind that made everything we tried to do just that much more difficult.

We kept on screaming our lungs out for a good 10 minutes while in the back of my mind I was running through various Plan B’s – all desperate, neither was 100% safe.

It wasn’t late enough in the day, surely there were other people summiting the tower? I feared the wind carried our voice away and nobody could hear us. When a head finally popped up over the edge of the tower, I almost cried with relief.

We didn’t need to explain. He understood immediately our predicament. Soon after, we saw the rest of our rope hurtling towards us, free from whatever obstruction it encountered. We didn’t know what this person looked like (or even if he was a ‘he’), but my gawd, we owed this person so much.

Finally back at the base of the tower, we quickly packed our stuff and left. We were eager to get back to the van and discuss our misadventures over lots and lots of beer.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite over.

I was going down the loose trail fast, trusting my legs to catch me. If only I had remembered that I was wearing a new pair of shoes, I wouldn’t have trusted my feet as much.

As I jumped down from a boulder I felt my foot slip inside my shoe. Before I had a chance to correct myself, my body and my pack’s momentum carried me downward and sideways and next thing I knew I was sprawling on the trail.

Soon after my ankle exploded in pain.

At first the pain was so intense that I couldn’t breathe. I was afraid I’d broken it. It’s funny the kind of thoughts that run through your head in moments of crisis. At that time I remember thinking whether or not I’d paid our health insurance premium.

But thankfully after a few minutes the pain receded to from sharp to manageable throbbing. I gingerly tried to move my foot. It hurt like hell but it moved. I was convinced that I only sprained it.

Jack carried my pack as I gingerly limped and hopped the rest of the way back. It took us 3 hours to get back to the van. By that time my ankle has swollen to the size of an avocado (never having a sprained ankle before, I found all of this fascinating.)

My ankle is already looking better the next day
My ankle is already looking better the next day

Despite the pain and the scare, it was hard to complain too much. It seemed that the universe wanted to remind us that mountains demand respect regardless how often we go outside adventuring. It’s a good lesson to keep in mind.

Oh, adventures! They sure make the best teachers.


For more peak related misadventures: Tenaya Peak, Krakatoa, Huayhuash in Peru, and El Hoyo, Nicaragua

Our First Via Ferrata, Taking the Iron Road in Telluride

We were in Boulder during the wettest May in 20 years and I was getting restless. I wanted to go south, as far as it takes to get out of the miserable weather. I sat with our old school road atlas, trying to figure out where to go.

‘Telluride’, a city in Colorado’s Southwest corner caught my eye. I knew I’d heard of this place before.

I swiped through my iPhone’s photo album and found a picture I took of a magazine spread a few weeks ago. It was a striking photo of a person traversing a cliff wall using a set of iron rungs. Yellow aspen trees and a waterfall formed the background. It was a striking image.

The location? Telluride, Colorado.

Italian for ‘Iron Road’, Via Ferratas is a way of scaling a mountain side using cables, iron steps, and other aid devices. Mostly popular in the Alps, I wasn’t aware that its existence here in the US. Not until I saw the picture.

I’d always been curious about this particular way of climbing a mountain. I remember taking the photo, taking note of the spectacular setting and filing it under my mental list of ‘Things to do soon’.

So now here was my chance! I checked the weather forecast for Telluride, Colorado. Cloudy. But at least there was no rain in the forecast.

I felt like it was meant to be. One of the joys of being in an open ended roadtrip is that when a destination calls out, there’s nothing that prevents us from answering it. I declared our next destination to Jack. We’re going to Telluride and we’re going to do this via Ferrata.

On the road towards the parking lot
On the road towards the parking lot with Bridal Veil Fall on the right of the picture
Bridal Veil Fall on the approach to the starting point of the via ferrata
Bridal Veil Fall on the approach to the starting point of the via ferrata

The starting point of the via ferrata can be seen from outside Telluride. There’s a switchbacky road climbing the far mountain side that forms the box canyon that Telluride is in, left of the 365 foot Bridal Veil Fall.

If you have a car that can handle the rough road, you can drive to a small, but noticeable parking lot at the end of the 2nd switchback past the fall. Unfortunately, there’s no way our otherwise capable Sprinter can handle the rutted dirt road.

We left our campground shortly after dawn to avoid hiking in the sun and in 45 minutes, we reached the parking lot. From the parking lot, a short scramble up takes us to the actual approach trail of the via ferrata.

The approach trail to the Via Ferrata
The approach trail to the Via Ferrata
Looking upon the town of Telluride from the approach trail
Looking upon the town of Telluride from the approach trail
Looking back towards our starting point. The switchbacks and the Bridal Veil Fall.
Looking back towards our starting point. The switchbacks and the Bridal Veil Fall.

The approach trail is a skinny foot path with vertical rock wall bordering one side and a screaming drop-off plunges from the other. Some sections were loose and a slip here would have big consequences.

We passed a couple of small waterfalls. A rock fell from one of them and landed a few metres from where I was standing. I quickened my pace.

Looking back on the experience, the scariest part of the via ferrata was actually this approach trail. When we finally got to the ‘Kroger’s Bench’ ledge from which the ‘main event’ starts it was a relief.

Finally the fun starts!

And what serious fun it was.

The view from the Via Ferrata in Telluride
The view from the Via Ferrata in Telluride
The main event section of the Via Ferrata
The main event section of the Via Ferrata

The exposure!
The exposure!
Continue reading Our First Via Ferrata, Taking the Iron Road in Telluride

Life in An Adventure Mobile: Month 6 Update

This article is part of the #VanLife series where I talked about our Sprinter van, what goes into building it, our daily life on the road, and other sorts of fun and challenging things about living and traveling full time in a van.

Hi there,
It’s been awhile since our last post. I’ve gotten a few emails asking if we’re alright – thank you for the concerns. We’re doing great. We’re having a blast.

Has it been 6 months already? On December 25th last year we left California in our converted Sprinter van. After 6 months and 15k+ miles and I still love waking up and taking a moment to remember where I am.

The van has taken us to some awesome places.

Joshua Tree - one our favorite National Parks.  Epic climbing. Epic sunsets.
Joshua Tree – one our favorite National Parks. Epic climbing. Epic sunsets.
Bear Mt hike in Sedona - a favorite! Don't be deterred by the warning sign at the trailhead. It's not bad at all.
Bear Mt hike in Sedona – a favorite! Don’t be deterred by the warning sign at the trailhead. It’s not bad at all.
Hanging out at Hanging Lake in Glenwood Springs, CO
Hanging out at Hanging Lake in Glenwood Springs, CO
Crested Butte, Colorado. Mid-June and the high altitude trails were still covered in snow.  We stopped  at the first trail we could see and followed it. Glad for a chance to stretch our legs after a few days of rain.
Crested Butte, Colorado. Mid-June and the high altitude trails were still covered in snow. We stopped at the first trail we could see and followed it. Glad for a chance to stretch our legs after a few days of rain.

We’ve climbed our first desert towers on this trip, including classic towers like Ancient Art (pic below) and Castleton Tower near Moab, Utah.

We were in Boulder during the ‘wettest May in 20 years’. Thankfully we still managed to sneak in many spring hikes and climbing trips nearby and in ‘the Park’ – Rocky Mountain NP – when the rain stopped long enough. Or even when it didn’t.

Backpacking in the Rocky Mountain National Park. In snow. Fun. (Not really)
Backpacking in the Rocky Mountain National Park. In snow. Fun. (Not really)

We took detours to visit new National Parks. My goal of visiting all of US National Parks is now closer than ever.

Saguaro National Park - not much hiking to do here, but still worth a visit. These giants have to be seen to be believed.
Saguaro National Park – not much hiking to do here, but still worth a visit. These giants have to be seen to be believed.

Onward to Wyoming, hoping to take advantage of the long summer days to climb some peaks. I heard they have them aplenty there.

Our Sprinter adventure mobile
Our adventure mobile – still going strong

Boondocking in Sedona

Dispersed camping, also known as boondocking or dry camping, means free camping in public lands like National Forest or BLM. You get what you pay for and that means no amenities like picnic tables, potable water, or bathrooms. We counted ourselves lucky a few times found sites with an existing fire pit.

Ever since we started traveling full time in our Sprinter van, we had been shying away from wild camping, preferring instead the many campgrounds around whichever national park or climbing areas we’ve visited. We thought it’d make the transition from apartment to van dwelling easier.

View from our site in Sedona

The view at the end of 525

We love the amenities: the awning, the potable water, the bathrooms – even if it’s just a stinky pit toilet. Admittedly the cost was quickly adding up. Camping fees in state and national parks now range from $20-$30 a night. Yikes!

But Sedona was way more crowded than we expected. All the campgrounds were fully booked and hotels all over town had “No Vacancy” signs up front.

We managed to score the last site in Pine Flat campground. But we didn’t feel like making it a long term home by any means. It was $20 a night, by the very busy 89A, and it felt a little claustrophobic. Not to mention the hosts were a little… intense to say the least.

So after the 2nd night, we started driving out of town to look for an alternative.

I wasn’t too worried about not finding a place. The worst case scenario was finding ourselves in some obscure parking lot, going ‘stealth’ mode with the van to wait for another day. Something we’ve done in the past.

As we debated on what to do and where to go, we saw a sign for a national forest road 525. Just on a whim we decided to take it and see if it’s suitable for boondocking. One of the best things to do when looking for a place to wild camp is simply to follow a network of forest service roads.

It quickly turned into a gravel road with many pullouts on its sides. Many were already occupied with long term RV’ers.

It looked like we hit the mother lode!

That was how we found our home in Sedona.

_3159196

settling into our home in Sedona

Sunset is worthy of noticing

Sprinter is made for boondocking

Hot air balloon over Sedona

We’d collect dead woods and build a fire every night. Somehow we made it work with having no picnic table (and no real kitchen in the van). Our cooler kept the beer cold. We even got cell signal out here. What else can a guy and a gal need?

Across the road from our site is a hill we dubbed the 10-minute hill. This was our favorite spot to see sunsets.

view from our wild camp site in Sedona

wild camping in Sedona

At night it’s so dark and so quiet I found it unnerving at first. So used I’d become to having other campers nearby.

But by the end of the 2nd night we realised that we much preferred the solitude and we couldn’t think of a reason why we hadn’t been doing this earlier.

Enjoying sunset while wild camping in Sedona

Boondocking in Sedona

Our sprinter van in sedona

Not having a bathroom facility is the trickiest part about this whole boondocking business. Doesn’t matter how many times I’ve done it, I still hate going to the bathroom in the wilderness. Someday I’ll get over it but for now let’s just say that I’m glad the town is only 10 miles away.

Thanks for reading. For more stories from the van, read about our time climbing and van living in Joshua Tree.

Wild camping in Sedona: Resources


Wild camping is available off FS 525 as well as Schnebly Hill Road. Wild camping is prohibited within a certain radius from Sedona. Stop by the information center and obtain a map that lets you know where this boundary is.

Shower: the closest we could find is the Grand Canyon hostel in Flagstaff, 30 miles away. Coincidentally the hostel also offers the cheapest laundry we’ve found: $1 a load!

Wildflower Hunting in Carizzo Plain

Carizzo Plain was an impromptu detour on our way from California to Arizona. (Yes, the van is FINALLY leaving its birth state). This National Monument is located 100 miles north of Los Angeles and had a feeling of being in the middle of nowhere (because it is).

_3088944

_3088921

Our Sprinter in Carizzo NP

_3098946

Leftover mining equipment in Carizzo

In the middle of this middle-of-nowhere plain is Soda Lake. From far away, it looked just like a regular lake. Then I noticed something odd – the waves, they weren’t moving!

It turned out that during wet season, Soda Lake is filled with water and visited by migratory birds. However, at this time of the year it was nothing but a 5-mile long salt bed.

Carizzo National Monument Soda Lake

soda lake in Carizzo

I grew up in the tropics and before I came to California all I knew of the deserts came from the movies. You’re all familiar with the cliche: never-ending sand dunes where nothing but scorpions and camels live.

The first time I went to a desert was in 2006 to Death Valley. It was spring and the park just teemed in life and colors from all of the blooming desert plants. The desert was nothing like what I had imagined. It was utterly gorgeous, and not to mention, colorful!

Ever since then, springtime showing of desert wildflowers has been somewhat of an obsession of mine and I always make a special effort to see it.

We were hoping that the wildflowers were out in Carrizo Plain. And they were.

_3088929

Wildflowers in Carizzo NP spring

Beautiful wildflower on the roadside to Carizzo

_3088917

_3098956

You can never tell how good the wildflower is going to be for a given year. It depends on so many factors like temperature and rainfall. I was told that the last wildflower bloom ‘explosion’ in California was in 2010. With the drought the state is experiencing, who knows when the next one is going to be.

Even with this somewhat depressing thought in the back of our mind, we were still happy that Spring – my favorite time of the year – is here. To catch the season’s rare and fleeting moment in this beautiful place is just the icing on the cake.

wildflower in california

Who else is excited about spring?

Thanks for reading. Follow us to where our van life is taking us next. For pictures of the most amazing desert I’ve been to check out Danakil Depression in Ethiopia.

Off the Beaten Path: Kampung Naga in West Java

Tasikmalaya, West Java, Indonesia

Kampung Naga
Kampung Naga

Everytime Jack and I visit my family in Jakarta, my parents would plan an epic road trip that inevitably involves all 5 of us stuck in traffic for hours on potholed rural roads. Or worse if we’re really unlucky.

Most families bond over dinner in their living room, mine bonds over boiled peanuts and fried tofu from street vendors, bought and eaten during these countless roadtrips. As an extended family we’ve driven all over Java, even as far as Bali at one point.

On our last visit (Dec 2014), we kept the roadtrip short because we only had 4 days due to my brother’s school. As a destination, I was championing for Tasikmalaya on the south eastern part of West Java. I wanted to see nearby Kampung Naga and the Green Canyon. My parents had always been reluctant to visit this region because the roads were often washed out after a period of heavy rain.

READ: The prettiest beach in all Java with no crowds

“How bad can it be?” – I reasoned. “It’s rainy season. So it would be pretty bad”, they warned.

I cajoled. And I wore them down.

Well, after a total of 6 hours of rutted roads with man-sized pot holes, treacherously hidden under an inch of muddy water I had to admit, it was really, really bad. My throbbing lower back reminded me how badly lacking the infrastructure in my home country is still.

But fueled by baskets of fried tofu everyone managed to keep their spirits high. It was all just part of the adventure.

As soon as we got to Kampung Naga, Jack and I flung ourselves out of the car, eager to stretch our legs and get away from the freezing interior of the car (what is it about Indonesians and AC?)

Down a few hundred concrete steps from the parking lot, lies our destination: the hamlet of Kampung Naga (or Dragon Village).

The thatched roofs of Kampung Naga
The thatched roofs of Kampung Naga

In Kampung Naga there’s no electricity and motorized vehicle. And it’s all part of the attraction.

This community of 100+ houses haf become a tourist destination because despite the out of control development that has taken over the island, it still managed to cling to ancestral traditions and way of life.

“Like the Amish but minus the beard,” Jack summed it up.

The villagers still abide to ‘adat’ – a set of informal laws that have been passed down from generations to generations.

This set of wisdoms governed the many details of the villagers’ everyday life including how the houses were built.

All the houses in Kampung Naga had a raised floor, kept off the ground by cement or wood blocks. ‘Adat’ specified that the materials with which to build the roofs and walls (‘alang alang’ – a type of wild grass), and which direction the front doors need to face (either North or South).

This helped explain the unique layout and look of the houses in Kampung Naga.

Alleys between the houses in Kampung Naga, Java

The grass roofs
The houses in Kampung Naga are laid out in grid like form, with doors opening to a shared dirt 'hallway'.
The houses in Kampung Naga are laid out in grid like form, with doors opening to a shared dirt ‘hallway’.

The villagers of Kampung Naga lived off the land as much as they could. The river running alongside the village provides water for bathing and irrigation. There were fish in ponds, goats and chicken in wooden pens.

They grew rice and vegetables in the surrounding fields. The rice grown here was still milled in the traditional way: by hand pounding in a mortar with a pestle.

The hut over the water where the rice for the village is dried and milled.
The hut over the water where the rice for the village is dried and milled.

pounding rice in Kampung Naga

traditional village of Kampung Naga

newly harvested rice stalks

They also made grass baskets and other souvenirs that they would carry up the 400 or so steps up to the parking area to sell to tourists.

Weaving baskets to sell to tourists to Kampung Naga
Weaving baskets to sell to tourists

Jack, as a foreigner, attracted quite a bit of attention here. I have a feeling that unlike Borobudur and Yogyakarta, few foreigners come to this part of Java. Somehow, Jack being gawked at made me feel better about visits such as this where I can’t help feeling like such a voyeur.

Kampung Naga girls
Upon learning that we live in the States, these 2 girls quizzed us on all sorts of celebrities. Unfortunately, Justin Bieber was the only name we recognized (and he’s Canadian!)

There’s something almost surreal about Kampung Naga.

The villagers here might live simply by Western standard but there’s an air of prosperousness and pride. The dirt paths looked they had just been swept. The white-walled houses were well maintained. Everyone wore big, friendly smiles on their faces.

Exploring the traditional village of Kampung Naga near Tasikmalaya

And the location couldn’t be more scenic.

Approaching Kampung Naga
Approaching Kampung Naga

Thanks for reading. For more roadtrip ideas around West Java, check out my posts on our favorite beach in Java, the best chicken noddle, and that one time my whole life flashed before my eyes.