ES­CAPE

YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE RE­LI­GIOUS TO UN­DER­TAKE ONE OF THE WORLD’S BEST­KNOWN PIL­GRIM­AGES. FOR SOME, IT’S A SPIR­I­TUAL EX­PE­RI­ENCE – FOR OTH­ERS, IT’S JUST A LONG HIKE SOME­WHERE LOVELY!

Toyota Connect/Lexus Life - - CONTENTS -

Sa­cred pil­grim­ages or fun hikes? Fol­low your heart…

If we’re tak­ing a tra­di­tional stance, a pil­grim­age is, by def­i­ni­tion, a jour­ney to a par­tic­u­lar place that’s sig­nif­i­cant to you or your be­liefs, in or­der to seek ful­fil­ment and learn more about your­self along the way. A bit like life, re­ally, but in a shorter time-frame.

These days, those big buck­etlist jour­neys don’t have to have re­li­gious un­der­tones – many of the tra­di­tional pil­grim­ages, like the Camino de San­ti­ago (the Path of St James), which ends in north­ern Spain, still ex­ist, but they’ve as­sumed a dif­fer­ent sig­nif­i­cance for the In­sta­gram gen­er­a­tion. So with boots, back­pack and selfie-stick at the ready, let’s ex­plore four of our favourite sa­cred jour­neys...

JA­PAN: A WALK IN THE WOODS

Sarah Duff ex­plores the con­tem­pla­tive es­cape of walk­ing the Ku­mano Kodō

Among the dense forests of cen­tral Ja­pan’s Kii moun­tains are paths that will take you back 1 000 years. Link­ing a trio of grand shrines, the Ku­mano Kodō is a net­work of nar­row paths that have been walked by em­per­ors, monks and Samu­rai war­riors in search of spir­i­tual cleans­ing for more than a mil­len­nium.

In one of the most densely pop­u­lated and tech­no­log­i­cally ad­vanced na­tions in the world, these quiet trails, which lead you up and down moun­tain passes and through forests of uni­formly tall cedars and cy­presses, pro­vide a con­tem­pla­tive es­cape.

The spir­i­tual ground­ing for the Ku­mano Kodō lies in the fu­sion of two Ja­panese re­li­gions: Shinto and Buddhism. For thou­sands of years, the Kii moun­tains have been con­sid­ered one of the most sa­cred places in the coun­try and it’s here that the prac­tices of Shinto and Buddhism found a union in the wor­ship of na­ture.

The orig­i­nal fo­cus of the Ku­mano Kodō was to wor­ship at the three grand shrines to which the paths lead, but all along the way there are tiny stone shrines known as oji, as well as pa­per light­ning bolts strung on branches and string to des­ig­nate the pres­ence of spir­its liv­ing within the trees, rocks and water­falls.

While the big shrines them­selves are ar­chi­tec­turally beau­ti­ful, it’s walk­ing on the paths and see­ing these sim­ple mark­ers of the con­nec­tion be­tween spir­i­tu­al­ity and na­ture that make the Ku­mano Kodō feel like a med­i­ta­tive pil­grim­age, whether or not you know any­thing about either Shinto or Buddhism.

Other rea­sons the Ku­mano Kodō is so spe­cial are the sim­ple plea­sures that await you at the end of each hik­ing day. Ev­ery evening you fin­ish your walk in a small, sleepy vil­lage, where you spend the night in a cosy, fam­ily-run guest­house. Here you’ll sleep on a fu­ton in a tra­di­tional tatami-mat room and feast on multi-course meals of delectable, home-cooked Ja­panese food. The cherry on the top is the night-time sub­mer­sion in a nat­u­ral hot bath – al­most all the vil­lages have in­door and out­door ones – where you can soak your tired mus­cles in heal­ing min­eral wa­ter, just like all those em­per­ors and Samu­rai who’ve come be­fore you.

ALL ALONG THE WAY THERE ARE PA­PER LIGHT­NING BOLTS STRUNG ON BRANCHES, MARK­ING THE PRES­ENCE OF SPIR­ITS LIV­ING WITHIN THE TREES, ROCKS AND WATER­FALLS.

SA: INTO THE WILD

Tracy Me­lass ex­plores the mighty Ot­ter Hik­ing

Trail – the jewel in our lo­cal crown, with its heav­enly water­falls, rock pools, river cross­ings, jagged cliffs, ver­dant forests and views that last for­ever

As we reached the bend in the path, I felt the thud-thud-thud in my chest. I stepped into the clear­ing. My stom­ach churned, legs turned to jelly. I closed my eyes tightly, opened them again and looked down: the mighty Bloukrans River was in flood.

There was no way any of our group was will­ing to chance it. Even from that height, I could see the pow­er­ful pull of the cur­rent and the sea lap­ping hun­grily at the shore’s edge. The river mouth was a mass of swirling wa­ter and the ad­vance hik­ing group’s red wa­ter­proof sur­vivor bags – bob­bing around like corks – looked close to be­ing washed out to sea. Ac­tu­ally, so did the hik­ers.

There’d be no Bloukrans cross­ing for me to­day. Sec­ond time un­lucky. I felt a twinge of dis­ap­point­ment… I hadn’t been able to cross the turgid river on my first Ot­ter out­ing either. All it had made me do – two years later – was pull on my boots, hoist my pack onto my back, curse my stu­pid­ity, glow at my good for­tune and start all over again.

Be­cause that’s what the Ot­ter does to you. Spo­ken of in hushed tones, mar­velled at in hy­per­bole, it be­witches you with its im­pos­si­ble beauty and its many chal­lenges. It’s the first big multi-day trail most se­ri­ous South African hik­ers hear about and the one where you’re most likely to meet a for­eign hiker. Of course, not be­ing able to get a book­ing, ever (or so it seems) adds to its mys­tique. It’s the unattain­able hiker’s El­do­rado. Thank­fully, it more than lives up to its prom­ise.

Like ev­ery good pil­grim­age, the Ot­ter’s phys­i­cal de­mands force you to be in the mo­ment, ev­ery sub­lime one of them, ev­ery step of the way. Hug­ging the shore­line as we went, the days set­tled into a happy, com­fort­able rhythm: climb­ing steeply and then de­scend­ing to the beach or a river cross­ing. Breaks were punc­tu­ated with dips in the surf or rock pools, naps un­der trees, or snatched mo­ments to gawp at the fyn­bos and abun­dant wild­flow­ers, and be­ing mes­merised by the sea’s beauty and power.

But then off we went again, be­cause we had no choice: al­ways push­ing our men­tal and phys­i­cal bound­aries. Steep, wind­ing paths, lung-burst­ing climbs, boot-shod feet crunch­ing over the for­est floors and un­par­al­leled views of the At­lantic. Hik­ing blends nat­u­ral glory with that unique sense of one’s own phys­i­cal­ity. Five days of heaven, re­ally. Our hearts, full.

ALL IT HAD MADE ME DO – TWO YEARS LATER – WAS PULL ON MY BOOTS, HOIST MY PACK ONTO MY BACK, CURSE MY STU­PID­ITY, GLOW AT MY GOOD FOR­TUNE AND START ALL OVER AGAIN.

PERU: CAMINOS DEL INCA

Jenny Han­d­ley hiked the Inca Trail – large steps, even larger vic­tory!

It can take up to four days to ex­pe­ri­ence Inca ar­chi­tec­ture and mon­u­ments, end­ing with the clas­sic, heart-stop­ping view of iconic Machu Pic­chu from above.

The Inca Trail was orig­i­nally de­signed as a pu­ri­fy­ing pil­grim­age route from which to en­ter the sa­cred site of Machu Pic­chu, but there are short­ened ver­sions for the less ac­tive, and lux­ury train trips for the he­do­nis­tic who choose to hike only Machu Pic­chu, rather than the en­tire trail. The im­pres­sive Bel­mond Hi­ram Bing­ham train – with Cham­pagne, lo­cal Pisco Sours cock­tail and the oblig­a­tory Peru­vian band – leaves from Cusco, where many ac­cli­ma­tise to the head-aching alti­tude of 4 200m above sea level with lash­ings of sa­cred herbal coca tea.

The snow-capped scenery of the Sa­cred Val­ley along the Urubamba River and Anta – the “bread bas­ket of Cusco” – is spec­tac­u­lar and much of the live­stock and crops are grown here. The train passes fields of pigs – or­ganic, we as­sume – to an an­cient town called Huaro­condo, nick­named “the Cap­i­tal of Roast Pork”.

The train twists and turns into the Po­mo­tales Gorge, drop­ping al­most half a kilo­me­tre into the lit­tle com­mu­nity of Pachar. Next stop, al­most halfway, is Ol­lan­tay­tambo, where you spot the pyra­mid-shaped peak of Veron­ica, also known as Wil­lka Weqe (“Holy Tear”).

At Pis­cacu­cho, many hik­ers start the Inca Trail, while at Machu Pic­chu sta­tion, oth­ers start their less ar­du­ous ad­ven­ture. A hair-rais­ing half-hour up­hill bus trip, switch-back­ing around hair­pin bends, takes you to the en­trance of the iconic ci­tadel of Machu Pic­chu. A lim­ited num­ber of daily tick­ets, bought in ad­vance on­line, are avail­able for en­try to this Un­esco World Her­itage site.

Guides show you the best van­tage points – and will ex­plain why lo­cals have short, sturdy legs and broad chests, plus 20% ad­di­tional haemoglobin in their blood to cope with the alti­tude.

About 70% of the orig­i­nal Inca site re­mains, with lla­mas still wan­der­ing on the agri­cul­tural lev­els and pic­turesque lower lev­els, adorned with flow­ers like or­chids. In the main square of the Inca vil­lage is the cer­e­mo­nial rock where an­i­mals were of­fered to the gods, the Tem­ple of the Three Win­dows and the fa­mous Tem­ple of the Sun.

Check in at the en­trance at 8am to re­turn to the check­point by 10am af­ter climb­ing to the high­est point, with large steps at first, fol­lowed by a scram­ble along nar­row paths. It’s not crowded un­til the sum­mit, so ex­pect a pal­pa­ble feel­ing of joy and ex­cite­ment with all the hik­ers at the top: prove it on In­sta­gram, with a photo taken at the Machu Pic­chu 2 667,58m sign. Then, with a tremen­dous sense of ac­com­plish­ment, you’ll re­turn to the en­trance to tick off your name and pass­port num­ber, hav­ing com­pleted your mem­o­rable climb.

ABOUT 70% OF THE ORIG­I­NAL INCA SITE RE­MAINS, WITH LLA­MAS STILL WAN­DER­ING ON THE AGRI­CUL­TURAL LEV­ELS AND PIC­TURESQUE LOWER LEV­ELS, ADORNED WITH FLOW­ERS LIKE OR­CHIDS.

NEPAL: TAK­ING A BITE OUT OF THE AP­PLE PIE TRAIL

Sarah Duff is awed by the drama of one of the world’s best treks: the An­na­purna Cir­cuit

Start­ing in the vil­lages dot­ted among the ver­dant Hi­malayan foothills of Nepal and ris­ing 5 416m to the top of a snowy pass, sur­rounded by some of the high­est moun­tains on the planet, the An­na­purna Cir­cuit is con­sis­tently ranked as one of the world’s best treks – and it’s easy to see why.

The sheer di­ver­sity of star­tling land­scapes of the cir­cuit is hard to beat: ter­raced rice fields, tan­gled jun­gle and red-speck­led rhodo­den­dron thick­ets give way to patches of alpine for­est and ice-blue rivers which turn into jagged snow- and glacier-en­crusted peaks, loom­ing over dra­matic val­leys and stud­ded with pho­to­genic graz­ing yaks. Each day’s hike is to­tally dif­fer­ent: you wake up in one kind of land­scape and fall asleep in an­other, feel­ing as if you’ve trav­elled hun­dreds of miles.

But the An­na­purna Cir­cuit isn’t just about cap­ti­vat­ing scenery – the trail also has more cul­ture and his­tory than you can shake a hik­ing pole at. Along the way you’ll come across an­cient Bud­dhist monas­ter­ies built on lonely hill­tops and carved into the moun­tain­sides, spin­ning prayer wheels, stones carved with sa­cred mantras and at­mo­spheric ham­lets where some as­pects of life haven’t changed in cen­turies. Ev­ery night you’ll sleep in vil­lage guest­houses and re­plen­ish your burnt kilo­joules with de­li­cious, hiker-friendly food – think curry, Ti­betan dumplings, noo­dles, fried po­ta­toes, yak cheese pizza and, of course, the ap­ple pie af­ter which the trek is nick­named. You’ll also meet other trekkers from around the world.

The An­na­purna Cir­cuit, which ranges in length from 160-230km (there are var­i­ous op­tions for start­ing and end points) and takes two to three weeks to com­plete, is very de­mand­ing, es­pe­cially if you’re car­ry­ing your own back­pack (you can hire a porter to make the trek eas­ier). The hard­est part of it all is the alti­tude – the top­most point of the trail is higher than Ever­est Base Camp – and you need to do some re­search to pro­tect your­self from alti­tude sick­ness, but the re­wards of this phys­i­cal chal­lenge speak for them­selves.

YOU WAKE UP IN ONE KIND OF LAND­SCAPE AND FALL ASLEEP IN AN­OTHER, FEEL­ING AS IF YOU’VE TRAV­ELLED HUN­DREDS OF MILES.

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