The Marble Mountains, just outside Danang in Vietnam, are a honey-comb of niches, many with a shrine or deity inside.
The Marble Mountains: I kept calling them “Magic Mountains” by mistake.
But they are a bit magical!
Near Non Nuoc Beach, nine kilometres south of Danang in Central Vietnam, five marble and limestone outcrops rise up dramatically from the flat plains around them. According to legend, a dragon climbed out of the East Vietnam Sea onto the beach and laid an egg. After a thousand days and a thousand nights, the egg hatched, and a beautiful girl emerged. The broken pieces of shell that were left on the beach eventually grew into the five mystical Marble Mountains. (Story paraphrased from Hotels.com; I want to know what happened to the girl!!)
Craggy and steep, these impossible-looking mountains are topped with Buddhist pagodas, and riddled with tunnels and caves. Alcoves and crannies are filled with Buddhist and Hindu temples and shrines, many many of them more than 300 years old. More recently, the tunnels provided hiding places for the Vietcong, very near the military air base maintained by the Americans during the Vietnam War.
It is not just me who finds these peaks magical. They are a popular tourist attraction and well-known pilgrimage site.
Their name in Vietnamese is Ngũ Hành Sơn, or “five elements mountains”: referring to the five elements that, according to ancient Asian philosophy, make up everything in nature. The individual outcrops are named for – and said to represent – one of these elements: Thuy Son (water); Moc Son – (wood); Hoa Son (fire); Kim Son (metal); and Tho Son (earth)).
My husband and I were staying at a coastal resort nearby (see: Resort Living) and it was an easy cycle to Non Nuoc Village at the foot of Marble Mountains. The village is famous for its stone sculptures and handicrafts – although, these days the marble used by the local craftsmen comes from nearby provinces or China, so that the precious mountains here are not destroyed.
We had a look through the shops before heading to the entry to Thuy Son or Water Mountain. We bought our modestly-priced tickets and started up the 150+ stone steps that rise and wind through the caves and alcoves to the lookouts at the top.
Non Nuoc Village is crowded with outlet shops selling marble carvings: from the smallest jewellery, through souvenir knickknacks, to the largest religious and decorative objects for public spaces.
Bright Lights and Crafts
The shops carry a range of local handicrafts; the teapots come in all shapes and sizes.
Stairs up the Mountain
There are said to be 156 steps up to the viewpoint at the top of Thuy Son, …
Kwan Yin (Quan Am) in a Niche
… but there are plenty of things to look at along the way.
Marble Bodhisattvas and Nagas
Around every corner, the visitor is met with Buddhist imagery.
Buddha over a Reflecting Pond
The rising steps are broken by landings …
Buddha in the Garden
… where visitors stop to rest and pose for pictures.
Tam Thai Pagoda
Inside Tam Thai Pagoda
Some of the shrines are wildly colourful and garishly decorated.
Shrine in an Alcove
Others are more subdued: carved from stone and aged with a patina of moss.
Prince Siddhartha on Horseback
Buddhism has strong ties to it’s Hindu roots: the Kshatriya Warrior Prince Siddhartha, was the ninth incarnation of the Lord Vishnu, the second god in the Hindu triumvirate. After his enlightenment, he was known as Siddhārtha Gautama, or the Gautama Buddha.
Buddha in an Alcove
As we follow the tunnels through the limestone caves, we come across more altars, …
… and more Buddhas.
Images of deer are often found in Buddhist gardens. They remind us of the first sermon Buddha gave after his enlightenment: to five beggars in Sarnath, a deer park in what is now Uttar Pradesh, India.
Pagodas in the Garden
From our first vantage point, we can see north west to Danang …
Marble Mountains and Prickly Pear
… and west over the outcrops towards the mountains.
Coconut is a refreshing energiser after a long hard climb!
The Bodhisattva of Compassion
All over Vietnam, you will see statues of Quan Am, the Bodhisattva of Mercy or Compassion.
Local Buddhists pray to her for guidance, fertility and protection.
Stairs into the Caves
In most places, the stairs up and down through the caves are well formed.
Look up through the Limestone
In other sections, we were literally climbing through rough gaps in the craggy limestone rock.
Shrine in a Cave
Another cave: another shrine; …
Buddha in a Niche
… another alcove: another Buddha.
Tháp Xá Lợi
We come back out into the open behind the Xa Loi Tower.
We make our way through Heaven’s Gate …
View over Non Nuoc Village
… and up to another lookout.
Back at the bottom of the mountain, we admire the sculptures awaiting packaging and transport …
Giant Kwan Yin in Marble
… as we pass under the blessings of a giant Quan Am …
… and past a Laughing Buddha who looks as though he’s been abandoned.
Before finding our bicycles and pedalling back to the resort, we stopped into the shops for another look around. We found a small piece of marble to take home with us; the stone might have its origins in China, but the carvers live right here – in the shadow of these magic Marble Mountains.
Until next time,
Twin Upper Falls, Linville Falls
It’s a short walk through a lovely wood to the upper falls at Linville Falls, North Carolina.
We had started planning the year before …
My husband and I had been driving, in our usual hurry, from a friend’s house in North Carolina to an airplane in Nashville, Tennessee. Not far from Asheville, NC, we pulled a short way off the highway to visit the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center. A working wifi, a clean toilet, a few interactive displays, and I was hooked!
I picked up numerous pamphlets and maps, and started dreaming…
Dreams Start Here!
The Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center just outside of Asheville, North Carolina, has just about everything a Blue Ridge trip-planner needs.
So, when I was mapping out our trip to visit family in Tennessee and Ohio the next year, I expanded the loop with a drive down the Skyline Drive through the Shenandoah National Park and then into the Blue Ridge Mountains via the Blue Ridge Parkway (see: Blue Ridge Parkway, Part 1 and Stepping into the Past, Part 2). Naturally, the days we had originally allotted to the drive had long-since eroded, and here we were: after two days of driving down the Blue Ridge Parkway, we had a fast-approaching deadline, but a lot more road to enjoy.
In the car, I alternated between thumbing through the maps and guide books and watching the road and scenery, while my husband drove. I had to try and pick the highlights as time slipped through our fingers like sands through the hourglass…
It is hard to believe that people get up to this glorious view every day! Skyline Village Inn, Spruce Pine, NC.
That is how, on our third morning on the Blue Ridge Parkway, we came to be driving backwards.
Because I had booked our overnight accommodation based on where I thought we would/should be, we ended up backtracking from the tiny hamlet of Spruce Pine (Mile 330.8), north to Linville Falls (Mile 316.3). The waterfall looked too good to miss.
As it turned out, the town of Linville Falls wasn’t too bad either!
“Turkey in the Straw”
The wild turkeys at the side of the road were a morning treat as we drove north. Unfortunately for me and my camera, they move pretty quickly for a heavy bird!
Fishing in the Linville River
The river is quiet near the car park and National Park’s Visitor’s Center – clearly it is a good spot for fly fishing.
Into the Linville Woods
There are many short trails leading to waterfall over-looks; all of them are well maintained.
The extensive roots of the trees form an intricate webbing underfoot.
Hikers on the Trail
Our first breath-taking view of Linville Falls as it plunges down through Linville Gorge, was from an upper over-look. The river drops a total of 46 metres (150 ft) down several tiers.
Flowers on the Edge
Wildflowers cling to the steep drop-off next to our viewing platform. The canyon floor seems a long way down!
Upper Linville Falls
Just a short walk away, there is a completely different perspective over a different section of the falls.
The walking paths are full of colour and beauty, from the fungus at our feet…
Mountain Laurel (Kalmia Latifolia)
… to the spring flowers on the trees.
Rocky Fall Base
At every turn, there is a new view of the racing water.
One of the Twin Upper Falls
Rhododendrons at the Linn Cove Viaduct Visitor Center
After completing our morning’s walk, we drove back further, to the Linn Cove Viaduct (Mile 304.4). We had driven over the 379 metre (1243 ft) concrete bridge in the dark the night before, and were determined to get a better look.
Growth under the Linn Cove Viaduct
The Viaduct was the last section of Blue Ridge Parkway completed – designed to protect the ecology of Grandfather Mountain, one of the world’s oldest mountains. It’s hard to get a good look while you are one it, and there is nowhere to stop, so we decided to take a walk that was meant to take us to a viewing platform.
Under the Linn Cove Viaduct
We clambered through greenery, …
Path under the Linn Cove Viaduct
… and over rocks and roots, …
Car on the Linn Cove Viaduct
… but we never found a clear and unobstructed view.
Completed in 1987, the bridge comprises 153 concrete segments, only one of which is straight. It snakes around the slopes of Grandfather Mountain.
Stack Rock Creek (Mile 305)
Linville Falls Post Office (Mile 317.5)
Heading south once again, we stopped in at the charming town of Linville Falls for lunch – and even made use of their quaint Post Office. (iPhone6)
Here are two of the vehicle tunnels along the Blue Ridge Parkway; 25 of the 26 Parkway tunnels are in North Carolina.
Green Knob Overlook (Mile 350.5)
After our long morning, we were fast running out of time, so stopped only briefly at overlooks that appeared interesting.
The weather turned, …
Into the Rain Clouds
… and we drove up into the clouds …
Looking Glass Mountain from Log Hollow Overlook (Mile 416.3)
… and out the other side.
Storm Clouds over Graveyard Fields ( Mile 418)
It seemed fitting that black clouds should roll over Graveyard Fields when we stopped there; no one is sure where the name comes from, but all the proposed explanations are gloomy! (Phone6)
Visitors on the Highest Point (Mile 431)
Like any good tourist, we had to stop at the highest point on the Parkway: the Richland Balsam Overlook (6,047 ft/1843 m).
Thomas Divide Overlook (Mile 463.9)
After over-nighting in Cherokee, we were back on the Parkway just so we could say: … (iPhone6)
The Final Marker: Oconalute River (Mile 469)
… “We finished it!”
It was a beautiful drive, and we can’t wait to do it again –
Maybe in a different season,
or maybe just stopping in different places.
Man in a Colourful Rajasthani Turban
At the Camel Fair in Pushkar, the turbans are as colourful as the “characters” you meet!
That direct, forthright gaze!
Eyes red from the ubiquitous dust and the smoke from the dung-fires; skin weathered by time and the elements; teeth broken and stained by hard-living and tobacco – but still happy to stare at the foreigner’s camera with a complete lack of self-consciousness.
For me, one of the many joys of being in India is the ease of making “environmental portraits”: candid, street-style pictures of people (or animals) in their natural environment.
The annual Pushkar Camel Festival – or Kartik Mela – in Rajasthan, Northern India, ends with the full moon this Saturday, November 4th. A number of my friends – including photographer Karl Grobl and local guide DV Singh – are there, and I can’t help but feel a little envious as I watch all the pictures coming through my news feed, especially as it has been four years since I was there with them and enjoyed the Camel Fair myself.
But seeing their pictures reminds me that I still have countless photos I have yet to process. So, I was motivated to return to old files and revisit some of the wonderful faces from Pushkar’s dusty fair grounds. I have shared some pictures from the fair before (See: Scenes from a Fair and A Gypsy Portrait), but it has been a while!
Please enjoy these environmental, candid portraits of some of the fabulous faces at Pushkar’s Camel Fair.
Around the Fire
The people who bring their animals or other trade-goods to the Pushkar Fair grounds sleep on site: in tents or under their carts. When I arrived on my second morning there, it was cold, and still dark. Those people who were up were huddled around their camp fires.
Young Man at a Fire
There are only small twigs and branches in the surrounding desert – the resulting fires are thin, and don’t give off much warmth against the cold November morning.
The campsite comes to life slowly, as dawn starts to lighten the horizon.
Feeding the Horses
The Camel Fair is not just about camels: the prized and rare Marwari horses, with their strong bodies and inward-curving ears, are also a feature.
Man in a Blanket
Camels and Ferris Wheels
The camels, with their carefully shaved coats and painted markings, are everywhere.
Camel and Ferris Wheels
Their soft eyes and long lashes, and the flowers and pom-poms they wear, belie their notoriously bad tempers.
Man in a Green Turban
Man in an Orange Blanket
Cigarettes, pipes, and cheroots are everywhere.
Impromptu Family Group
If I see a camera, I duck for cover, so I’m always surprised by how enthusiastically I am met when I walk around with mine! A patriarch in this household (the man whose picture leads this post) insisted I stay at his campsite until he gathered up the whole family for a group shot. He then proceeded to give them stage directions from over my left shoulder, so that half the group is looking at him rather than me!
Man in a Cream Turban
Rajasthan is an arid, sandy place. November days are hot, but the nights are cold, necessitating the twig- and dung-fires that burn all around the campsite. It is not surprising that everyone has red and irritated eyes.
Woman in a Green Dupatta
These people spoke no English, so I’m not sure how many of the children in this group belonged to this woman. I can’t imagine how difficult her life in the desert must be.
Camel Herder Camp
Cover a camel cart in tarpaulin and throw a few woven mats on the ground, and Presto! you have a campsite.
Young Man and his Rajasthani Horse
My presence there prompted the youngest member of the group to leap up on his Marwari horse …
… to practice his Bollywood smoulder.
Marwari Horse – Equus Ferus Caballus
From the Marwar (or Jodhpur) region of India, these beautiful horses were originally bred by the Rathores, the rulers of Marwar until the 12th century. Today’s horses are descended from a careful cross between native Indian ponies and Arabians. During the feudal period, only the Rajput families and the Kshatriyas (the warrior caste) were allowed to ride them, as they were considered divine.
Smoke and dust hang in the winter morning air.
Camels at the Water Trough
One of my favourite spots was the water trough …
… where the beautifully decorated animals gave voice to their discontent.
Watering the Camels
The job of giving the huge animals their drinks can fall to the very young.
Man in a Blue Scarf
That direct gaze with strangers – so common in India – is something I see much less often in other parts of the world.
Man in a Blue Scarf
Once you have eye contact, it doesn’t take much to elicit a radiant smile.
Girl in Yellow
The rising sun finally cuts through the smoke and dust, …
Boy in a T Shirt
… casting a yellow glow over everything, and reflecting in the children’s eyes.
The central water supply is a busy place.
I just loved all the different shaving and painting designs the camels sported, …
… and their colourful pom poms!
Man in a Red Turban
But, it was the people, and that direct gaze, that I kept coming back to.
There really is nowhere quite like India!
Until next time,
Bull Elephant in the Afternoon Light
Raising dust as he trudges the well-worn path in the afternoon light, an old bull elephant approaches the King Nehale Waterhole in Etosha National Park, Namibia.
It was mesmerising.
Elephants in the wild move with a lumbering grace that lulls one into a trance.
At the King Nehale Waterhole, on the eastern side of Etosha National Park in Namibia, there is a fence that keeps the people out of the animals’ domain – and vice versa. Thanks to photographer Ben McRae and local guide guide Morne Griffiths, I was camped for three wonderful nights right next to the waterhole.
I spent hours and hours, across four days, just sitting there, on a bench behind the fence, with my camera on a tripod and the remote in my hand. The air was soporific, buzzing with heat and insect noise, tranquillising me into a dreamlike state as I watched the animals come and go (see: A Day at the Waterhole; Birds and Beasts on the Veld).
It was the elephants and their waltz-like rhythms that really captivated me. Perhaps is is the hot, thick air that slows these pachyderms down; they wade through it like we move through water, with sedate, measured strides. They are in almost-constant slow motion: plodding, swaying, swishing a tail or tossing a trunk in smooth, unhurried movements, then, for no apparent reason, the whole group stops still for a few moments. It is like watching a tableau where almost nothing happens for ages; then you lose focus and let your attention drift, and all of a sudden the whole scene has shifted.
Elephants at the Waterhole
My first visits to the waterhole were rewarded with family groups of elephants.
Elephants at the Waterhole
In the heat of the day, the elephants come …
Elephants at the Tree
… and go. The single tree growing at the edge of the waterhole provides little escape from the unrelenting heat of the day.
New elephants approach the waterhole periodically. Apparently, these huge pachyderms have tender feet, so they follow the winding paths they have cleared through the rocks that surround the waterhole.
Elephants can drink up to 200 litres of water a day – but their time at the waterhole involves as much splashing as drinking.
They are mottled with water and mud as they follow the well-worn path away from the waterhole.
Elephant on the Horizon
On a morning drive, through the veld in Etosha National Park, it is not long before one of these magnificent creatures comes into view.
Without pause or change of pace, the great animal approaches, crosses the road directly in front of our jeep, and lumbers off.
Pied Crow – Corvus Albus
Back at our campsite, the birds watch carefully, lest we leave food scraps anywhere.
Elephants at the Waterhole
Other animals seem to give the elephants a wide berth …
Elephants at the Waterhole
… as they nuzzle and play. Elephants – especially the females and immature males – are very social animals, and bathing together reinforces group bonding.
Giraffes and Oryx
Even when the elephants aren’t around, giraffes approach the waterhole very gingerly, watching their surrounds carefully.
It is as if there is a secret roster system: when one group of elephants has been enjoying the water for a period of time, another batch comes into sight on the horizon.
The newly-arrived clan files into the back of the waterhole …
… while the original group continues to play a while, before moving off.
Afternoon at the Waterhole
The late afternoon light bounces off the water as the elephants splash about.
Giraffes at the Waterhole
The poor giraffes look very ungainly when they do, finally, decide to get a drink.
Black Backed Jackals (Canis Mesomelas)
As the light and temperature drop, the jackals come out.
Dust on Fire
The angled afternoon sun lights up the dust the elephants raise as they leave the waterhole…
The King Nehale Waterhole
… and casts an orange glow over the whole scene.
Sunset on the Veld
The sun drops quickly over the veld, but there are special lights around the waterhole, so I can continue to sit and wait and watch as the animals come and go.
Everything looks different around the waterhole after dark. In the blue light after sundown, two males approached each other …
In the Blue Light
… and spent a lot of time engaging in the elephant equivalent of arm-wrestling. This is how they fight for dominance, although – from where I sat – it didn’t feel like there was any real aggression happening here.
Tree at the Waterhole
Under the protective cover of darkness, the rhinos, who have been elusive during the day, come out to drink.
Elephant After Dark
I sit, half daydreaming, watching as a bull wanders off, before taking myself off to bed.
As I lay in my sleeping bag at night – in complete safety – I listened to the roars of the lions in the distance. Jackals were yipping and yowling as they scrabbled through a tent nearby, where some silly fool had left meat jerky unattended.
But it was the rhythm of the elephants’ slow waltz that lulled me to sleep, even as the night’s parade of animals at the waterhole continued.
Crystal Clear Waters
It is not for nothing that this section of New South Wales (NSW) is called The Sapphire Coast. The views from the Kangarutha Track in Bournda National Park are stunning.
It is always a treat to explore one’s own back yard – especially when that yard includes some spectacular coastline.
As much as I love travelling, it is nice to spend some time at home – particularly when the weather is right for walking! My husband and I have been members of the National Parks Association of NSW for a lot of years, and every so often the walks that our local chapter offers line up with “pockets of availability” in our schedules. So it was that we were out on a glorious Sunday last month with a group of nature-lovers, walking one of the “60 Best Walks in NSW”.
Rated at a Grade 4/6 difficulty by WildWalks, the Kangarutha Track runs up over the bluffs and down into the coves for nine kilometres along the Pacific coastline through the Bournda National Park. One of the advantages of doing it with a group was that we could shuttle vehicles to the other end of the track, parking some at our end point at Wallagoot Gap, and leaving the others at our starting point south of Tathra.
We had the most perfect winter weather: sunny and clear but not too hot.
Do join us!
Chamberlain Lookout – Vista Point, Tathra
Google Maps are not perfect! Although I had programmed our meeting point: the Kianinny Boat Ramp, Tathra, into the search engine, the map delivered us to a lookout at the top of a cliff. Fortunately, we could see the parking lot far below us, and we had plenty of time to enjoy the view before setting off again.
Kangarutha Walking Track
Once the cars are shuffled and the whole group has gathered, we can set off. As with most walking tracks in the NSW National Parks network, this one is pretty well marked.
This walk has a lot of ups and downs – according to my walking app, I gained (and lost) 655 meters in elevation. After the first steep climb, walkers are happy to pause and enjoy the view over the coastline.
View from above Kianinny Bay
The walk takes us through the northern half of Bournda National Park. Our first view, looking south from above Kianinny Bay, is pretty spectacular. A tourist boat is tiny in the water below us.
Into the Tea Trees
Once we’ve caught our collective breaths, we set off again – climbing higher through the Melaleuca (myrtle – myrtaceae) tea-trees, …
Down into Boulder Bay
… before dropping down again steeply into Boulder Bay.
Boulders in the Bay
It is pretty easy to see where Boulder Bay gets its name!
Boulder in the Spray
Boulders in the Sand
White Water – Boulder Bay
In summer, this would be a perfect spot to cool off.
The Colours of Boulder Bay
Still Life Found – Seaweed
Once Again – Into the Myrtle (Myrtaceae)
What goes down, must climb up again!
Through the Trees
The sapphire waters recede below our track.
The Sapphire Coastline
Bournda National Park follows the coastline for about 13 kilometres south.
Rock Pools at Rocky Beach
We drop down to sea-level again at Rocky Beach. The waters in the rock pools are crystal clear …
Reflections in the Rock Pools
… and glassy smooth.
Grasses on the Rock Pools
Although we usually see kangaroos and wallabies when we are out walking, on this occasion, the only wildlife we spotted was a little spiny anteater who was trying desperately to hide, …
Sea Eagle over White Rock
… and a sea eagle, too high overhead to get a good shot.
Lunch at White Rock
White Rock marks the half-way point in the walk and provides a great vantage point for a scenic lunch stop.
Inlet north of White Rock
Sapphire Waters south of White Rock
View from White Rock
It was mesmerising watching the waters ebb and flow over the granite rocks of the rugged coastline.
Heart – Games Bay
The next time the trail drops us back to water-level is at Games Bay, where someone has left their heart in the sand.
As we continue south, the mix of bush changes around us.
The lookout at the dramatic Wallagoot Gap marks the endpoint of our walk; …
Bournda Coastal Walking Tracks
… although there are further tracks south, around Wallacoot Lake, we head to the carpark, only a short walk away.
We couldn’t have asked for better weather.
My husband and I thoroughly enjoyed the walk – although, I confess, we were both too exhausted to move the next day!
Until next time,
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