Stranger in the woods

My list of undone and unfinished tasks continues to grow as I recently added a new title¬†to my list of unread books ūüďö ~ The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel.

It wouldn’t be difficult to identify the common threads that run through my reading list: nature, exploration, wilderness, walking, solitude.

Stranger in the city

I was born in a small country surrounded by city skyscrapers and man-made landscape. Our family activities and weekends were spent mostly in malls and cinemas. The only nature I knew was the botanic garden, the tree-lined avenues¬†and the weather. The highest hill stands at 163.63 metres (537 ft.) tall and I would hardly call that wilderness. My closest encounter with nature and outdoor activity was to get myself deliberately drenched in rain. It is a fast-paced, cosmopolitan city. There was hardly any rural life to speak of. The rural¬†was considered undesirable and outdated by modern standards, people would have scoff at the idea of living or working in the rural. In short, the city is the only way of life I knew and the default way of life I was encouraged to strive for.¬†And thus, I imagined myself grew up to be a¬†successful woman living in the city and working in a large corporate firm, confident, sociable and popular. This is far from reality and yes, I pictured myself sociable, even though I had difficulty making friends. This was why I chose a university in London to pursue my undergraduate degree without hesitation. If I was going to further my studies abroad, it had to be a city and preferably, the capital city. I did end up in¬†London eventually but I can hardly say I’ve experienced the city life for I was already quite a hermit back then and my reason? I was focused on my studies. I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t get to explore much of London in my 3 years of study in the city. Nevertheless, I still harboured the thought that one day, I’m going to turn out successful and sociable. I¬†honestly thought that the social aspect¬†would come naturally after I graduated and embarked on my career. Not that I was unhappy to be alone, in fact, I’ve always been comfortable on my own but on the other hand, being alone doesn’t sit well with the society image of a high-flyer.¬†I didn’t know much about autism then. In hindsight, I’d say I was trying to¬†fit myself into society’s mold. When I moved to Hong Kong at the age of 24, I still believed that I was destined for the bustling city life and was determined to make the most of¬†the city for I regretted not making good use of my time in London to explore the city and the rest of the country.¬†Still, I¬†was adamant that I’d make plenty of new friends and lead an active social life. I started hiking.

Hiking provides a great opportunity for me to get up close and personal to nature and the wild side and the experience has changed me in subtle and profound ways. It invigorates my soul and senses like no man can. Funnily¬†enough, the more I hike, the more solitude I crave. Nature has the ability to reflect and bring out your true self whether you are aware or not. My diagnosis and understanding of autism later on put things into further perspective. It’s time to admit that I’m never going to become the sociable person I imagined myself to be. For nearly three decades, I tried to blend into the city and lived under the false sense of belonging but all along, I am a mere stranger in the city.

“I¬†took a walk in the woods and came up taller than the trees.” Henry David Thoreau

Stranger in the woods

In my¬†reading and armchair travelling, I often wondered what are the chances of encountering a deadly snake or spider in Australia or dingoes or leeches and ticks? What are the chances of encountering a bear if I’m hiking in the US? To be honest, it scares me although most books would point out that the chances of being killed by a wild animal are slim and advice people to exercise their common sense and leave wild animals alone. If anyone asks if I’m afraid to hike alone in the dark, to certain extent, I’m. But it’s a question of probability (depending on the location and circumstances etc) and a question of relative (I’m scared but my desire to hike alone is¬†even stronger). I guess it’d be akin¬†to asking whether¬†surfers are afraid of sharks in the ocean?

I was out on a night hike and¬†expected the trail to be quiet as it was after 9:30pm and especially after a day of rain. As I walked up to the Pinewood Battery historic site¬†(link opens in new tab), I stopped as I heard movements immediately¬†followed by the sight of an animal moving swiftly across the trail and towards the direction I was going. Despite my headlamp, I couldn’t make up what it was that just moved across my vision. It was the size of a big dog, could have been a feral dog or a lost dog but I didn’t hear it bark. Also, I thought the animal looked stout and¬†‘thicker’ than a dog, could have been a wild boar. I immediately thought what are the chances of running into a wild boar on Hong Kong Island? Wild boars are common in Hong Kong but mostly found¬†in the New Territories region although they have been sighted on Hong Kong Island too. Whether it was a dog or a wild boar, I was certain that the animal was scared and wanted to avoid me as much as I was scared and wanted to avoid it too. At this point, I could either press on ahead without any idea where the animal went or retraced my steps back. Common sense and a cowardly mind told me that I should retrace my steps back. While it presented no immediate danger, I didn’t want to provoke it or made it felt threatened. In addition, my intent was merely to spend time alone, it didn’t matter whether or not I got up to the peak. Tracing my steps back down, I was amused that since I’ve started night hiking, no two nights were the same, each hike was¬†a new different experience. But then, I haven’t started night hiking for long. On my way down towards a pavilion, I was once again alerted to movements in the bush. It was a much smaller animal compared to the one I just saw, about the size of a duck or goose and feathery, moving¬†into the bush. If they were birds,¬†it must be quite a¬†big (medium sized) bird. It was a strange interesting night, mysterious, even creepy! The woods is very much alive in the dark and I wondered if the rain earlier had anything to do with my unusual encounter.

Even though I was by myself, I was aware that I’m sharing the trail with numerous living beings at the same time. When I think about how I felt when someone intrudes my solitude, I¬†felt a sense of guilt¬†for intruding their habitat. I was the intruder and the stranger, thankful to nature¬†for tolerating my presence.

“I love nature, I love the landscape, because it is so sincere. It never cheats me. It never jests. It is cheerfully, musically earnest.” Henry David Thoreau

In the¬†British tv series, New Lives in the Wild,¬†presenter Ben Fogle travels around the world to meet people who have given up the rat race to start a new life in some of the wildest and most remote places on earth. I watched the series with interest and admiration for these people. I also know that my¬†notion of wilderness will never match up to their living off the grid raw wilderness lifestyle. I simply lack the skills to do so. But I am content to leave the city behind for a more rural lifestyle, just as the¬†Walden woods wasn’t that remote from civilisation.

There is a saying that if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid. I sometimes feel like a fish that has learned how to climb a tree poorly but doesn’t know¬†how to swim.


The curse of the Maneki Neko: Haunted spirits in the dark

This is part two of a two-part post on my autistic dilemma, describing two separate events (mundane details of my boring life) that took place on the same day, 28th of March 2017. 

My heart longs for a place where I can be left alone to enjoy my solitude undisturbed. It is just another way of saying my heart longs for a place where I can enjoy the company of people. 

I used to hike every weekends in a¬†hiking group for 1-2 years.¬†When I first joined, there were around 10-20 people in each hike. Gradually, the group expanded (working my magic again) and the number of hikers grew. When I left, it wasn’t uncommon to see more than 40 hikers in a hike, it was getting too big for my liking. I was known then for being a fast hiker and I thought so too but after leaving the group, I realised that was an illusion. I appeared fast because I didn’t stop to engage in small talk, I pushed myself to go fast so I didn’t have to be stuck in between hikers where I’d be forced to listen, if not participate,¬†in their¬†conversation. Moreover,¬†with a big group like this, there was bound to be politics and as the group continues to grow, the (moral) pressure to socialise increased. It wasn’t about hiking anymore. We all¬†wanted to¬†have fun hiking but my idea of fun does not include socialising. Eventually, I removed myself from the group because our objectives no longer matched, I wasn’t enjoying myself¬†and¬†people were starting to wear me out.

After that, I hiked on and off. There was a period for about a year or so where I’d hike with a friend every Saturday until there came a point I felt the trail was getting more crowded by each week. The feeling was mutual, it wasn’t my hallucination. During one of those hikes, the human traffic was exceptionally heavy. I was going uphill¬†and short¬†of breath which meant I was stuck in the middle of the traffic and couldn’t go any faster myself. When I finally hit flat ground, I sprinted my way down, playing repeatedly¬†in my mind the chorus to Helen Reddy’s Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress) ~ “Leave me alone, won’t you leave me alone…” After that traumatised experience (nope, no exaggerate, I was traumatised), I stopped regular hiking again. It takes too much effort to head outside (for any reason), it feels like entering a war zone, my mood fluctuates so much being constantly in a fight or flight mode, I’m wreaking havoc on my mind and body, I decide my priority is to avoid the trigger. Even if I can’t avoid people¬†completely, the best I could do is to reduce as much stress as possible associated with leaving the house. I became a hermit. And to certain extent, I did feel better, my mood became more stable (although subject to the ‘cooperation’ and considerateness of neighbours) and I didn’t feel like I was missing anything by not going out. I enjoy the comfort of an indoor lifestyle as much as I enjoy walking in nature. I hold¬†a record of not leaving the flat for 15 days and I’m secretly¬†proud of it.ūüėĀ

More recently, I have a new found hobby, or more accurately, I’ve found a way to engage in and enjoy hiking again, or so I thought.¬†I discovered the joy of night hiking. On a ‘good’ night, I could climb up to the top of the peak and find myself alone, smiling and thinking this is true bliss. The night is quieter and louder at the same time. It is louder because without human distraction, I’m paying more attention to nature, the frogs croaking, the squeaking bamboos, the ever changing clouds, the colour of the sky etc, sounds and sights I’m still discovering which I have overlooked in the past because I was always either too busy trying to get away from people or in a haste to get back home before the rush hour. The night not only brings a new perspective but also brings me closer to nature.* And each time I write about nature, I’m putting my writing skills, vocabulary and knowledge to test and shame, my words (and pictures) can never do justice to her beauty.

The week I came back from Singapore, I was looking forward to be back on the night trails. I was disappointed when I saw someone else¬†at the hill top¬†but¬†the beauty of the night was so alluring, I wasn’t ready¬†to give up my new found hobby just yet simply because I saw one individual on the top. On the evening of March, 28th and after my grocery trip, I went back up the trails, starting at an even later time, hoping the later the lesser people. Weather was good, even though there were clouds, I could still see a few stars. I reached a spot where I saw joss paper lying around on the ground. Then I remembered that the Ching Ming Festival is just around the corner (a Chinese tradition paying respects to¬†their ancestors). I let my imaginations run wild, thinking of the dark spirits that must be following¬†me. I’d soon realise¬†that I’ve jinxed myself.

Before climbing up the¬†peak, I stopped to take some photos. Being a novice inexperienced photographer, I spent a considerable amount of time, trial and error, to take a decent photo. About 10 minutes later, I saw bright lights and heard noises approaching. It was happening again. They have found me¬†and were coming after me. Soon after, they appeared and my fears were confirmed, not just one or two of them, they were in a group, there must be at least 10 or more. I wanted to scream.¬†They just won’t leave me alone, won’t they! I thought I found the solution to avoiding the day crowd. I was wrong again.

I wasn’t going to climb the peak in that condition so I escaped and¬†returned to the site with the joss paper where I could be on my own and hopefully, remained undisturbed. The thought of¬†spending time with spirits might even sound more¬†appealing. There and further down the trail heading towards home, I was finally on my own, as I watched in amaze the night sky, the moving clouds and the intermittent stars. It was a beautiful night. But at the same time, I’m starting to appreciate bad weather¬†~ those cold wintry windy evenings and rainy misty days which might deter some hikers. It reminded me of those days in school, I’d talk to the rain like I’d sit and admire the sky now. I was known amongst my classmates for walking in the rain. People leave me alone when I walked in the rain. Walking back home, I started humming, not because I was scared, my mood turned for the better, I was actually happy. I’m measuring happiness by the amount of time I got to spend on my own undisturbed by the sound, view and sight of people.¬†I’m not sure if there is such a thing as an overdose of dopamine but when I was back home, I was hyper and elated.

29th March 2017 – Is this alexithymia?
I woke up the next day confused because I wasn’t sure what kind of a day it was and how I felt about the day before. I can describe the events and how they made me feel separately (angry, annoyed, anxious, stressed, happy etc) but as a whole, I’m confused. I can’t forget the panic at the supermarket and I can’t forget the annoyance at the bottom of the peak but there was also the elation towards the end. It was a day of extreme mood swing, I’ve lose my equilibrium.

Autistic Dilemma
I feel torn between two lovers ~ the comforts of staying in¬†and the healing power of nature. Time and again, my interest and solitude is interrupted¬†by people who get in the way.¬†My heart longs for a place where I can be left alone to enjoy my solitude, undisturbed by people. No doubt¬†I love my solitude but I didn’t become a recluse because I love my solitude so much I want to remove myself away completely from people. I become a recluse because the world outside is too loud and populated for me to enjoy.

When I say my heart longs for a place where I can be left alone to enjoy my solitude undisturbed, it is just another way of saying my heart longs for a place where I can enjoy the company of people. 

*Postscript: After posting this, I read a news article about Henry Thoreau. It brought a smile to my face when I read the following, which is exactly what I was trying to describe:

‚ÄúThoreau‚Äôs idea of walking was to be totally immersed in a place, really paying attention, getting to know it well,‚ÄĚ says historian Jayne Gordon. ‚ÄúHe wasn‚Äôt out to make speed records or to exercise as we know it. He often walked the same routes and felt you can always find new things to fill you with wonder if you allow yourself to slow down, be awake, present, and alive.‚Ä̬†

Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress), Helen Reddy (chorus begins at 0:40)

Related posts:
The curse of the Maneki Neko (March 30, 2017)
First a wishy-washy then a pantywaist (November 13, 2016)
Supporting a sensory and solitude friendly environment (October 31, 2016)
Walking in the rain (March, 7 2016)

Related news report:
Upturn in hiking has a downside, as solitude becomes increasingly hard to find

There is only one route ahead that is called “Keep Walking”

“It looked like vaguely the right direction, and after following for a minute I found a signpost to Rotterdam, 33km, further than I’d expected. That arrow was all I required. It really was that simple. I put one foot in front of the other, and began to walk.”
Nick Hunt, Walking the Woods and the Water

Planning for a solo overnight walk

I was in Australia last week walking the Six Foot Track at the Blue Mountains in the state of New South Wales. This was going to be my first overnight hike and I didn’t tell many people about it, in case it did not materialise for whatever reasons. Yes, I was alone but this was not a¬†reason to stop me from¬†enjoying the outdoors. I believe solitary walkers have every right to enjoy the outdoors as people in social groups. The thing is, despite my love for nature and walking, in reality, I¬†am a recluse living in the city spending¬†most of my time indoors. I live a reclusive lifestyle because going out in the city is becoming too unbearable and in order to survive, I had to minimise any¬†unnecessary sensory triggers. My intolerance for the city has confined me to being an¬†armchair traveller, which brought me into the Alaskan wilderness with Christopher McCandless; California‚Äôs Sierra Nevada Mountains with Randy Morgenson; Colorado‚Äôs 14,000-foot mountains with Mark Obmascik; and the Appalachian Trail with Emma Gatewood and Bill Bryson etc. I was fascinated with each and every of their adventures and admired their courage, especially the ones that went solo.

I have always wanted to challenge myself to do a long distance walk, like the Oxfam’s Trailwalker but I didn’t want to be in a team, I don’t venture into the outdoors for the social or team experience. Neither am I interested in marathons or competitive sports events which involve being amongst¬†hundreds or thousands of contestants. My interest in nature and walking is at a more spiritual level as I am more into explorations and establishing connections with a place¬†through self-experience and the process of self-discovery. For the same reason I started this blog, for the same reason I got a tattoo and for the same reason I have been reaching out to strangers, I knew I have to set out for my own little¬†adventure¬†and re-establish my connection with nature so I am not just talking the talk but actually walking the walk (or better still, walking the talk). Still, I needed some encouragement and motivation to carry out my plan. A lousy job became my motivation, then I was inspired by this amazing lady from¬†The Happy Walk¬†who has walked 16,000km around Australia, solo and unaccompanied for the past 3 years. My dear Wander Woman, if you are reading this, thanks for your encouragement! After that, all it took was a few mouse clicks to book my flight and the date was set for my little adventure – 20 November 2016. (I will attempt to provide a brief description of the trail conditions below, bearing in mind my words don’t do justice to the experience and the beauty of nature, please excuse my errors, ignorance and inarticulateness.)

The Six Foot Track is a 45km historic track that was first established in 1884 to provide access from Katoomba (home to the famous Three Sisters rock formation) to Jenolan Caves in the Blue Mountains region. The most common itinerary involves a three-day hike¬†and staying at camp sites along the track but I have chosen to complete it in two days with an overnight stay at an eco-lodge. For my first overnight hike, I will take it easy and being a pantywaist, I opted for the ‘luxury’ overnight stay at a lodge. Still, it was a challenge because this¬†meant that I faced a longer and tougher hike on the second day with 15km from the starting point to the lodge¬†on the first day and 30km with a lot of uphill walking on the second day. This was a cause of concern because if you have read my previous post, I have not hiked for a while. Essentially, I was expecting Day 2 to be double the challenge of Day 1.

19 November 2016, the day before the hike

Upon arriving¬†at Katoomba in the afternoon where I planned to stay for the night, I walked from my motel to the starting point of the Six Foot Track just to make sure I won’t have any trouble finding my way the next day. My anxieties ease a little after confirming the directions. In 1813, the explorers Gregory Blaxland, William Wentworth and William Lawson made their historic crossing of the Blue Mountains. It was reputedly reported that they engraved their names onto a tree, which became known as the Explorers Tree. This is where the Six Foot Track begins.

On the way back to the motel, I came across a guy walking in the opposite direction towards the Explorers Tree. He might be hiking the Six Foot Track although it was already around 3-4pm which I thought was a bit of a late start.

20 November 2016, Day 1 – 15km

I left the motel around 9:10am and reached the Explorers Tree half an hour later. Knowing that I had only 15km to walk on Day 1, I was feeling pretty relaxed. It was a beautiful day although the weather was hot (looking back at the weather record, it was around 25C). Not too much of a problem though as I was used to hiking 15-20km in hot and humid weather. Still, I dare not overestimate myself. Besides, I was carrying extra weight and 3.5 litres of water. Not long afterwards, a steep descent awaited me at Nellies Glen. By the time I reached the bottom of the gully, my legs were wobbly making it hard to stand still for a picture.

The trail then leads up to a small clearing through a gum forest, passing a concrete pipe with wild beehives and then a horse paddock, which used to be the site of the historic Megalong Village. I was in a jovial mood, being¬†away from the hustle and bustle and being close to nature. The trail was also well-marked which dispersed any fears of getting lost. There was an abundance of birdlife but very ashamedly, I only recognised the crimson rosella and fairywren and could only make out the distinctive calls of the kookaburras and whipbirds. It was approaching noon. I had not planned for any rest stops in between, preferring to keep walking until I reached my destination or until I can’t walk any further. I remembered Nick Hunt’s words, “It really was that simple. I put one foot in front of the other, and began to walk. This is what I like about walking. Each time I walk past an arrow post, it is¬†a reminder¬†I am one step closer to my destination as long as I keep walking. This is also why I like to walk alone because I don’t have to negotiate with anyone else. All I know is there is only one route ahead of me that is called “Keep Walking.” After about 3 hours of walking, I crossed a carpark near Aspinall Road, which had a sign post pointing to the eco-lodge.¬†I was half way to my destination.

The latter part of the journey passed through a mix of scenic farmland and open forest. It was also reaching the hottest part of the day. I was relieved to see the¬†arrow post marking 35km, which meant I had another 5km to go before reaching the lodge. At this point, I couldn’t imagine going double the distance even though that was what I will have to do the next day. The trail passed a couple of granite boulders and another wild beehive before the Coxs River Valley and the swing bridge came into sight. The highlight of the Six Foot Track must be crossing the Bowtells Bridge, which is a suspension footbridge that provides an alternate route when the river is in flood. The bridge spans 100 metres and provides an exciting experience and great views of the river below. I have been looking forward to cross the bridge since the day¬†I planned to walk the track even though I was nervous about it at the same time given the height of it, the safety restrictions of one person at a time and knowing that it could swing a fair bit. The experience reminded me of a pirate ship ride except that instead of strapping to a safety belt whilst sitting down, I had to try to walk across from one end of the ship to the other whilst holding on to the rails for support, each step sent my heart pounding out of my chest as it felt that the bridge could topple over any minute. It would have been a nicer outdoor experience if not for the fact that there were two adults and two kids before me who crossed the bridge at the same time, blatantly ignoring the safety restrictions sign.

The eco-lodge is located along the Six Foot Track and about a ten minute walk from the swing bridge.¬†Towards the end of Day 1, I came to the verdict¬†that it was a wise decision to invest in a new backpack which was worth every penny for I couldn’t imagine¬†hiking with¬†the extra burden of a¬†bulky canvas backpack that wasn’t suited¬†for hiking. After nearly¬†6 hours of walking, I arrived at the lodge around 3pm. I drank about 1 litre of water during the walk.

My hosts for the evening is a young family originally from the Czech Republic who bought the premise about a year ago. I was joined later by a young couple who were also hiking the track. It started to rain in the late afternoon accompanied by thunderstorms. After a delicious meal of kangaroo goulash with mashed potatoes, I had an early night given the longer and tougher challenge awaiting the next day. I woke up a few times during the middle of the night in anticipation of the day ahead. Despite not having slept through the whole night, it was an amazing experience waking up to total pitch black darkness, which was a rare experience given the constant distraction by lights in the city and from electronic devices.

21 November 2016, Day 2 – 30km

I woke up around 5:15am with the intent to start the hike at 6am. Given it took me around 6 hours to walk 15km on Day 1, I expected Day 2 to involve 12 hours of walking. The fact that there will be more uphill walking on Day 2 meant that I might even have to take additional time. My hosts woke up at 6am and served a scrambled egg breakfast I couldn’t resist. We ended up having a conversation about their life in Australia, my Australia dream and hiking in Australia. When I saw the¬†young couple set off, I thought that was my cue to set off too. My hosts were telling me from their and other hikers’ experience that it would take about 8 hours to reach my final destination at Jenolan Cave. I was in disbelief for it took me nearly 6 hours to walk 15km on the first day, there was no way I can walk 30km in 8 hours.¬†I thought they must be referring to hikers in super fit conditions. I bid my hosts farewell who gave me an apple and left the lodge around 6:50am, shortly after the young couple. I was carrying about 2.5 litres of water on the second day, having drunk a litre the day before although I could have refill my water at the lodge.

The trail continued past the lodge access path (although I didn’t see the young couple who were likely¬†to have gone¬†all the way back down the stairs to the bottom of the lodge) and gradually opens up to a wide dirt path where there were many kangaroos (or wallabies?) grazing around. It was mostly ascent from this point. Other than taking a few seconds to regain my breath every now and then, it was “keep walking”. A little over an hour later, I passed the arrow post which marks 25km to go. I was a little surprised because it felt like I had only started to hike and the uphill walk should have¬†made the distance and time seemed longer but instead I felt it made the¬†distance shorter (contrary to the Naismith’s rule). Shortly after, I walked past the¬†Alum Creek campsite and saw a solo hiker with his tent. I continued on until¬†I came to a few obstacles. Some of the creeks have become impassable after the thunderstorm rain. I do however remember reading that some creek crossings might involve getting wet feet. This was when I discovered a new purpose for my¬†hiking pole, which came in handy. I used it to test the depth of the water and as a support to walk across the creeks. I can now gladly announce¬†that my recent purchase of a backpack and hiking pole have both been put into good use and were useful. (Yay!)

I have been walking for about 2.5 hours when I came across the arrow post which marks 20km. This was significant because it meant that I had completed 1/3 of Day 2. Still, I was puzzled by the fact that I seemed to be making good progress despite a lot more uphill walking on the second day. Nevertheless, I wanted to make the best use of time and decided to only take a break when I reached the Black Range Campsite which was another 10km away and the mid-point of my remaining journey. The most part of this trail involved walking along a 4WD dirt road through open forests. I knew I was reaching Black Range Campsite when a pine forest came into view. It was noon by the time I reached the campsite and 5 hours since I started walking. I took a ten minute break to eat my apple, which was truly a gift from heaven.

From this point, I had only 10km to go which I was¬†finding it hard to believe. I started to contemplate the fact that I might be able to reach my destination in 8 hours just like my hosts had said. Part of this trail involved walking on a path alongside Jenolan Caves Road. After an hour later, I arrived at the arrow post which marks 5km. Excited by the thought that it was actually possible for me to finish it in 8 hours, the last stretch of the trail turned out to feel like¬†the longest 5km I’ve ever walked. Nonetheless, the view at the end did not disappoint and I did manage to finish my walk on the second day, which was allegedly 30 km, in 8 hours.¬†Don’t ask me how I did it.¬†I have absolutely no idea how I managed to walk¬†30km in 8 hours. Perhaps, the distance wasn’t that accurate (the last 5km did seem way too long)? Or by a stroke of luck and surprise surprise, miracles do happen?

22 November 2016, the day after the hike

I stayed overnight at the Jenolan Caves and was due to return to Katoomba where I will take the train to return to the city in the late afternoon. I was sitting at the cafeteria when I spotted a guy with his backpack. I was instantly reminded of the solo hiker I saw at Alum Creek Campsite and sure enough, it was him. He is a tourist from France and have been travelling¬†in Australia for 9 months. I always held great admiration for people who go about travelling in different countries for periods long enough to experience the local conditions and are flexible enough to do things spontaneously. Towards noon, I saw two figures approaching down the stone footpath opposite the cafeteria, which was the same footpath I took coming down from the Six Foot Track, I watched closer before confirming that they were indeed the young couple who had stayed at the same lodge with me. They saw me too and before I knew it, I was waving my hands eagerly and walking hurriedly towards them to congratulate them as though¬†they were my long-lost friends. I was truly excited and happy to see them again. I may not see the young couple or the French tourist or my hosts at the lodge again but nonetheless, our friendship was real albeit brief, like what the French tourist described, these were my temporary friends,¬†and the fact that it was temporary doesn’t make it any less real or less worthy. On the train station waiting for the train back to the city, I reflected upon the whole journey, from the day I arrived at Katoomba to the end of the hike and then an image suddenly appeared across my mind. Not only have I seen the French tourist at the Alum Creek Campsite, he was the guy I came across on the day before my hike when I was checking out the starting point! Well, while it wasn’t really that of a coincidence, it was interesting to see how the connections interweave.

I survived my first overnight hike unscathed, other than a pair of wet feet, I didn’t come across snakes, ticks, leeches or things¬†that caused me a bit of concern before the hike. All in all, I’m glad I did it. The Six Foot Track is a well-maintained trail. It was not entirely remote and I could imagine the trail to be quite popular during the holidays. Nonetheless, being my first solo and overnight hike, it was an amazing, once in a lifetime experience for me. Would I walk the track with someone else? It depends, but it would have been a totally different experience. I sometimes get the feeling that I haven’t really done something until I’ve done or tried it on my own. During the journey, a question keeps popping into my mind, what am I doing this for? I don’t think there is one single answer to this and even if there is, I don’t know that reason for now, which is why I’m walking to find out. After all, when I used to stand in the rain and talk to it like a friend, I never asked why, it just felt right and natural, so why would it matter now?

“I’m here on my own, though I never feel alone
In the silence, all is said”
Cold Weather Company, Fellow in the North

First a wishy-washy then a pantywaist

The wishy-washy

In a week’s time, I should be (hopefully) on a short walking trip. This is as much I will say on this for now. I haven’t been hiking as much as I would have liked. Many times during conversations with friends or acquaintances, we talked about what we’ve been up to or where to go. Naturally, I will talk about how crowded it is and people will nod their head saying they hate the crowd too. We never talk about the extent to which we hate it¬†and the degree to which that has affected us, leaving the impression¬†that people just¬†go about their activities as usual despite their dislike for the crowd. Because we don’t talk about it, I wonder how people cope with it: are they as annoyed as I am; do they get frustrated as I am; does it refrain them from going out like I do? Every time people nod in agreement, I am often left to wonder¬†if everyone shares my sentiment, why am I not taking it all in stride like others do? Are they better at hiding their anxiety than¬†I am? Or am I¬†exaggerating my reaction and acting like a whiner wallowing in self-pity?

Maybe it is human nature, maybe it is the inclination to want to feel connected¬†to one another, we often like to relate our experience with someone else’s to demonstrate understanding and empathy. Nothing wrong with that but sometimes¬†people use it to the wrong effect such that it sounds like they are belittling¬†a problem (such as¬†“I get that and I hate it too but you just have to deal with it, to put it nicely or¬†suck it up”) or to demonstrate their superiority (such as¬†“I’ve been through this so I would know better than you”). My stance, in this respect, is only assume to know less and never presume I know better than the person.

Back to the topic of crowdedness, I don’t know how people in Hong Kong deal or manage with the constrained space, there are many people who do not like crowd, this much I know. I once had no choice but to commute at the rush hour. I caught a staff of the train station looking at me with an amused concerned look. If looks could kill, I would have committed a mass murder (I am not going to sugar-coat my words here, it is exactly how I felt. I might be overly sensitive but please don’t twist my meaning¬†to suggest that people on the spectrum are innately violent or criminal).¬†Underneath that murderous looking mask however, concealed a highly anxious, sensory overloaded, deeply trapped and sensitive soul.¬†What drove me to write this was¬†I’ve been meaning to go on a day hike over the past two months (in preparation of my upcoming trip) but that has not materialised. I¬†woke up one morning this week with some time to spare¬†so I thought I could go on a hike. What followed after was I spent the next 3¬†hours seating by my desk pondering just one question repeatedly: should I go out for a hike or stay indoors? The debate¬†revolved around “My mood would be much less agitated at home but I really should go on a hike to build up my fitness”; “The satisfaction I will derive from the hike is not worth the frustration that comes with the¬†commute”; “I still have some unfinished work and even though they are not urgent, perhaps I should get them done sooner than later”; “I had to make a detour to the post office and it is near lunch hour, it is going to be crowded”; “The longer hiking route involves commuting and that kinds of put me off.” I didn’t get much work done during this period. I do realise that the longer time I take to decide, the shorter time I have for a hike and the more likely I will finish my hike at the same time as the rest of the people get off work, which is a no-no. I got somewhat mad with myself for the indecisiveness. However, I also came to realise that¬†this is exactly why I am going elsewhere abroad for a hike ~ because I can’t do it here anymore without major struggles. People exhaust me and I am tired of competing with the crowd.

I am still very traumatised by my last experience on this trail about 1-2 years ago!
Sunset Peak, Hong Kong ~ I am still very traumatised by the sight of this¬†when I hiked this trail about 1-2 years ago! Photo credit: K’s Family (click on photo for link)

I am not a clingy person, I value my independence but I am losing the motivation to step out of the house for reasons other than work or if I need to get something specific or do my grocery shopping, I do it quickly and then return, that is, I usually have a very specific purpose when I step outside.

The pantywaist

Eventually, I did go for a very brief walk up the Peak again (not the longer route I was originally thinking). I carried a backpack that was bigger and heavier than the usual one I carried even though it was just a short walk¬†as I wanted to prepare¬†myself for what it’s like to carry a bigger load. During my hikes in Hong Kong, I never had to carry a¬†pack that is more than 20-litre, in fact a 10-litre will do for most of my hikes which could be between 20-30km, or about 8 hours. I was thinking I need a bigger backpack for my trip as my 10-litre pack would not suffice. Now I do have other backpacks that are bigger in size but they are not for hiking purpose (which means no in-built features for my water bladder, lack of ventilation features, no hip straps etc.) ~ perhaps I could use those? I mean Emma (Grandma) Gatewood hiked the Appalachian Trail with a drawstring sack, certainly my other backpacks, even if they were not made for hiking, would do better than a sack? Or perhaps, I could just manage with my 10-litre pack even though that would be like walking with a tight budget.¬†I wasn’t planning on spending additional money to get¬†a backpack but at the same time, I do want to walk comfortably. I was debating with myself as to whether getting a new backpack is a luxury item or essential. The bigger backpack I carried today felt rather bulky. In the end, the brief hike ended with a shopping trip to the outdoor store where I got a brand new light-weight backpack. Oh yes, I even got a collapsible hiking pole that fits nicely¬†into my backpack which I could check-in with my luggage. I don’t actually use the hiking pole much in Hong Kong and the times I brought¬†it along, it served a dual purpose ~ to¬†defend¬†myself¬†against potentially aggressive dogs which are quite commonplace along some of the trails. Then I remembered reading from the guidebook that dogs (along with ticks, leeches and snakes) are fairly common on¬†the trail that I plan to walk. Should I be worried? I might¬†feel safer with a hiking pole, which I could also use for support. How else can I justify my purchase ~ if I’m buying something that is potentially useful,¬†that wouldn’t be splurging, right?

Guilty pleasure, special appearance by the cat
My guilty pleasure, with special appearance by the cat

I was actually quite pleased with my shopping trip but it comes with a feeling of guilt and a sense of shame that I ended up buying these for the reason that it will make me and my walk more comfortable as opposed to being essential for survival. Gosh, I am such a wimp. Grandma Gatewood would have called me a pantywaist ~ I am guilty as charge.

“Most people today are pantywaist,” Emma Gatewood told a reporter five decades ago. I wonder what she’d think of us now. I wonder what she’d think of the gear we’re packing by the light of our headlamps, into ergonomically designed backpacks with what must be hundreds of pockets. Our Leatherman tools and cookstoves and iPhones with compass apps.

Ben Montgomery, “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk”

A tour of my backyard

A short tour of my backyard. There is a trail from my place which leads to The Peak in Hong Kong, a well-known tourist attraction. There is hardly any¬†wilderness about the trail. It offers a great vantage point of the city (good for tourists) although¬†I’m not a fan of skyscrapers. That said, it¬†beats being amongst the concrete jungle. If I ever need a quick work out without the hassle of commuting, it is not a bad compromise. Running however, is not an option, as I’ve explained¬†in my earlier post¬†(link opens in new tab).

On the way up, you will pass the Pinewood Battery historic site. For those interested in the history, I am not very good with description so I will just reproduce the following extract from the official website (link opens in new tab),

As early as 1898, the British military authorities recommended a battery to be constructed on a hill 1,009 feet above sea level at the north-western part of the Hong Kong Island to strengthen the defence of the western approach of the harbour. Construction started in 1901 and completed in 1905. Located at 307m above sea level, Pinewood Battery was the highest of all the coastal defence batteries in Hong Kong. With the advent of air power following the First World War, Pinewood was converted into an anti-aircraft Battery. More battery buildings and bunkers were constructed around the Battery. During the Battle of Hong kong in December 1941, the Battery was air-raided and heavily shelled by Japanese artillery fire. The Battery was eventually evacuated. Pinewood Battery has remained abandoned after the War.”

This path leads to what was once my secret playground. Unfortunately, in a city like this,¬†you can’t keep a secret for long.

At 494m, the High West is the fourth highest¬†peak on the Hong Kong Island side of the city. It is pretty much concrete stairs but¬†with an outdoor gym like this, I’m not complaining.

Since I happened to be the only one when I reached the top, I took a few minutes break to relish the momentary solitude before heading back down.


If you are interested in posts like this, please leave a sign (comment, share, like etc). It might just motivate me to venture out further although I can’t promise anything. I love nature and walking but my limited tolerance with noise and crowd¬†have made it harder for me to pursue my interests.