Hiking and Other Arm-Shrinking Activities

Being cheapskate unemployed bums we are required to strictly prioritise what we spend our money on. Bob comes pretty high up the list. After all, a neglected Bob could revolt against us and leave us in a rather sticky – or at least wet – situation. After Bob comes food, fuel etc. and there isn’t really a whole lot left over for frivolous recreational activities. So with what activities do we occupy ourselves in our impecunious state?

We tried sailing our dinghy again. Those of you who have been following our adventures and misadventures for a while may remember that our dinghy was unfortunately rendered unsailable by the loss of the dagger board (and a paddle, an oar, Sarah’s shoes and an anchor) during a moment of stupidity on my part when I failed to secure the dinghy properly one night way back in the Marquesas Islands last year. Well, we finally made a new dagger board (out of cheap plywood this time) and took Numpty (that’s the dinghy) out for a sail in a stiff onshore breeze among the beautiful inlets around the North Coast of the South Island. As we were sitting in the van waiting for a violent rain squall to pass it did occur to us that perhaps this wasn’t the best idea, but we shoved that thought aside once the sun made a fleeting appearance through the clouds, headed to the beach and pushed out from shore. Numpty performed beyond expectations. She was remarkably stable and carved to windward like a champ. Unfortunately, just as we were about a mile from shore and thinking of turning around there was a slightly gustier gust than usual, we heard a loud CRACK and half the dagger board appeared floating on the surface to windward. Well, at least it was a downwind leg back to the beach. We eased the sheets and bore away but the next thing to come down was the mast, which shattered spectacularly and turned the sail into a sea anchor. Jury-rigging consisted of me standing up and spreading my T-shirt (between fits of laughter) while Sarah diligently kept us going in vaguely the right direction. I really really wish we’d thought to get some before and after shots to post here. Needless to say, Numpty looked a bit sorry for herself back on the beach and is now without a sailing rig once again. Perhaps she’s trying to tell us something?

Another activity that has been popular with us is hiking (or ‘tramping’ as it is often called here) . It has been a top-rated activity for us for three reasons:

1. It’s not something we’ve really had the opportunity to do on account of Bob’s limited range of hiking destination options.
2. It’s free.
3. New Zealand boasts a phenomenal range of mind-bogglingly spectacular sights and experiences that are only accessible by hiking. So, while my arms waste away for lack of ropes to pull, my legs are getting stouter and our general fitness has noticeably improved.

“What ‘sights and experiences’ speak thee of?” I hear you clamour. Sarah has written about the Tongariro Crossing in an earlier blog. Since arriving in the South Island we have also visited some amazing caves and no less than three glaciers.

We have learned, among other things, that when the New Zealand Department of Conservation posts a sign somewhere giving information or warning you of some sort of hazard it is wise to pay heed to it. When they say it’s a 6-hour hike they don’t mean a six-hour stroll for an overweight lady pushing a wheelchair and stopping to have a chat with everyone she meets, they mean a six-hour hike for someone far fitter than either of us when weather conditions are perfect and without taking any breaks. Similarly, when they say to be mindful of heavy rain because the trail (which involves several river crossings) may become impassable they really mean it. We set off along a trail looking for some caves and took a wrong turning at one point. The trail appeared to lead directly into a river that was barrelling along at a rate of knots and didn’t look at all friendly. I waded in to literally test the waters and found myself waist-deep pretty quickly struggling to keep my footing in the current. We sensibly gave it up as a bad idea. Just then, however, a red-jacketed lady appeared on the opposite bank wearing an expression of curious surprise mingled with no small quantity of fear. She and her partner were stuck, had no tent to spend the night in and the only other way out was an eight-hour hike in the opposite direction. When they had crossed the river just three hours previously it had been no more than 10cm deep. Now it was definitely impassable. I can’t express how stupendously lucky they were that there just happened to be a random guy blasting up the river in a jet boat who was able to ferry them across. The chances of such a serendipitous eventuality occurring must be phenomenally low. But, there we are! We were fortunate to learn a valuable lesson the easy way. What’s more, it turned out that we didn’t need to cross the river at all in order to reach the caves, which were perhaps the best I have ever visited.

Here I am ‘testing the waters’. The other side of the trail is marked by the orange post on the other side of the river, upstream from our location:

 

Here’s the guy in the jet boat (finally! A use for jet-driven boats!) blasting past us. The depth of the water is perhaps 10cm – you can clearly see the rocks beneath the surface. Apparently these things are even able to become airborne if necessary in order to clear logs and whatnot:

 

Here he is ferrying one of the stricken hikers across the torrent:

 

And here was our destination for the hike – this cave. Pretty cool eh?

Next up were some walks to visit several glaciers. Glaciers are really cool (har har). Basically they are rivers of ice. Snow falls high in the mountains and as it funnels down the steep mountainsides it gradually becomes more and more compact until it is ice. MASSIVE forces are involved which drive the whole lot down the mountainside, tearing away huge chunks of rock and shaping the mountains and valleys of the land. During the last ice age much of the South Island was covered in glaciers. All have receded but a few are still around to be seen…… for now at least. Global warming is accelerating glacial retreat to unprecedented rates. Franz-Josef is receding at a gargantuan 100m per annum. That’s a kilometre in the last ten years, and it’s been fairly well documented since the first photographs were taken back in the late 1800s.

It was a gray, rainy day so the light wasn’t great for photography. Nevertheless Sarah managed to get this one of the Franz-Josef Glacier. The source of the river is meltwater, and it is coloured grey by suspended rock particles that were scoured from the sides of the valley and incorporated into the ice matrix, only to be released as the ice melts:

 

In the picture above, the position of the glacier in about 2008 more or less corresponds to the line where the greenery turns to yellow/bare rock. It is starkly depicted by this picture of a picture from an information board. Each of these was taken from the same viewpoint, just 4 years apart.

 

We tried to visit the famous Fox Glacier next, but unfortunately a recent cyclone has destroyed the trail (yes, cyclones are now hitting the SOUTH island of New Zealand – a country that supposedly ‘doesn’t get cyclones’) so we were only able to get a glimpse from afar.

This is as close as we were able to get, and to manage this we had to bend the rules regarding ‘closed’ tracks a little:

 

The third glacier, which was extra-specially-cool – is the Rob Roy Glacier in the Mount Aspiring National Park. To get there we had to take Jacangi down a harrowing 30km stretch of gravel road and across eleven nerve-wracking fords (places where it is possible, in some conditions and with the right vehicle, to cross a stream or river by driving through it. Generally a 2-wheel-drive camper van would not be considered ‘the right vehicle’) before hiking 5km up a mountain and 5km back. It was totally worth it.

Here’s a beautiful long-exposure shot that Sarah got of the river:

 

And a view of the glacier itself from our viewpoint. Being high enough to be just above the tree line we had a good, unobscured view:

 

Finally, on the way back from Rob Roy we took a detour up to the Treble Cone Ski Area, which is the highest ski resort in New Zealand. It’s not open yet for the ski season but it was an amazing drive up and a spectacular view from the top. Jacangi protested furiously at the climb by producing lots of black smoke (due to the thin air I think………) and we had to stop twice to avoid overheating the engine, but she got there and is none the worse for wear.

Here was our reward:

 

Oh, I should mention that Sarah did not accompany me on the drive up to the ski area. Instead she chose to travel up there Mary-Poppins style 🙂

 

Our adventures continue. Tomorrow we’ll drive the five hours or so to the famous Milford Sound, which is purported by some to be the most beautiful place on this island full of beautiful places.

Birthday Bungee!

As many of you may well know, Alex turns 34 today. It’s now an annual ritual for Alex to wake up on this day each year and feel old, miserable and dejected. I then spend the rest of the day trying to make him feel young and vibrant again, or simply try to take his mind off things. God knows what he’s going to be like in many decades to come when he’s actually old! This year my job was made a little easier by the fact that Alex decided to do a bungee jump from the Kawarau Bridge in Queenstown, the worlds first bungee jump. What better way to feel youthful than to fling yourself from a 43m-high bridge! Well done Alex – my brave, wonderful, amazing and crazy man!

HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

 

 

Jacangi is the new Bob

This is our new home… for a time at least. We’re now back in New Zealand and have moved from Bob into our new camper van ‘Jacangi’ for a few months to explore all that this beautiful country has to offer.

We arrived back at the end of February after spending a fabulous few months in Thailand with my parents. I didn’t have to wait too long to see family again, however, as just two weeks later my brother Tom and his girlfriend Sue flew out to join us for an epic fortnight exploring the North Island.

The two weeks before they arrived was spent frantically doing various jobs on Bob and Jacangi in preparation for their visit. Most jobs involved preparing Bob to be sailable and then to be left unattended for a few months (again!) whilst preparing Jacangi to be lived in for a few months. I did find some time, however, to make a few home improvements…

This is the galley just after I started working on it. You can see where the old wood has degraded, the counter top is very stained with various disused holes and the tap was starting to get a little corroded.

This is the galley after. Actually, it’s still a work in progress as it needs painting… but you get the idea. The taps were replaced, counter top was tiled and grouted, wood was sanded and varnished (4 times) and I even polished the sink and cooker!

Tom and Sue were only able to take 3 weeks off work to visit us. They spent at least 3 days of that time travelling on various flights, so it was VERY important to make the most of their visit and cram in as much exciting stuff as possible! I think we succeeded. It’s possible to see a lot of the North Island in just over two weeks when you put your mind to it, and it has a LOT to offer.

The Bay of Islands

The best place to sail in the whole of New Zealand is thought to be the stunning Bay of Islands with its tranquil warm waters (well, warm in comparison to the rest of the country) and impressive green islands protruding from the depths. The four of us spent a couple of nights on the boat and luckily had absolutely perfect weather for a few day sails around this spectacular group of Islands.

Sailing through the Bay of Islands on a lovely sunny day.

The group on Bob, minus photographer of course.

Tom was exhausted after our loooong 20 minute hike to the view point on the elaborately named island of Urupukapuka.

A home on wheels

We moved into our camper vans after the boat trip. Alex and I into Jacangi while Tom and Sue moved into their hired camper ‘Shadowfax’. Any Lord of the Rings fans will know the significance of that name as being the name of the horse belonging to Gandalf the wizard. What better way to explore the very land where Lord of the Rings was filmed than on Shadowfax! Although Tom quite rightly pointed out that perhaps the name was a little unfitting as Shadowfax is supposed to be the fastest horse in middle earth – their camper van on the other hand is about as fast as a tortoise on a treadmill. Just like the tortoise, however, we were able to take our time and enjoy some of the enchanting wilderness of this stunning country.

Shadowfax!

It’s a wonderful thing to be able to take your home with you as you travel and enjoy many familiar comforts in unexplored territories. As with boats, motor homes also require a lot of upkeep and we had to be constantly aware of our water and power usage. Toilet breaks had to be properly planned and dumping of waste water in appropriate locations had to be considered. This particular aspect was something new for all of us and sometimes proved to be a bit of a challenge, as Tom demonstrated when he accidentally emptied the contents of the toilet all over his hand! Don’t worry Tom, a wise man once said that the most valuable lessons in life are usually the most challenging ones.

Freedom camping near Matamata at one of the Department of Conservation sites.

Camping and doing laundry in the Tongariro National Park

Hobbiton

As huge Lord of the Rings fans, Tom and Sue were finally able to fulfil their lifelong dreams of becoming hobbits. We of course were more than happy to join them in the fun as we visited the charming Hobbiton film set. The set is now a popular tourist attraction and the grounds are immaculately maintained. Very well done to the four gardeners who do a super-human job keeping the grounds looking vibrant and lush all year round.

A hobbit hole complete with its beautiful garden.

You ACTUALLY become a hobbit in this magical place.

Exploring the enchanted hobbit holes.

Enjoying a drink at The Green Dragon.

The wake up call of a thousand Scots

We spent a night camping by the lake in Rotorua, only to be abruptly woken up at about 7am to the sound of bagpipes! As time went on the more bagpipes started playing. Not able to ignore the sound any longer, we stuck our heads outside and to our amazement we could see at least 5 bagpipe bands (all fully kitted out in the proper Scottish attire) playing instruments in various streets and car parks in the vicinity. It turns out that the National Bagpipe Championships were being held in Rotorua that day and everyone was practising for the upcoming parade – what a wonderful and fortunate surprise!

Practising in the streets of Rotorua.

Here are a few snaps during the parade. I know Scottish music isn’t renowned for it prowess but I promise you they all sounded and looked amazing! I guess they were the best in the country.

Getting hot and steamy in Rotorua & Taupo

Some of New Zealand’s active volcanoes are located in the region around Rotorua and Taupo and have led to some truly amazing natural wonders. Scalding hot water, bubbling mud pools, serene hot springs and explosive geysers are all products of volcanic activity deep beneath the earth’s surface.

Having a dip in the natural hot waters of a hot spring near Taupo. The temperature is about 40 degrees Celsius – perfect bath water temperature.

A mud splat at the bubbling mud pool near Rotorua. There was an entire pond like this – just amazing!

A hot water beach with a man bathing in the apparently ‘scalding’ water. It was a bit chilly at the time so I was quite envious of him.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing has been voted as one of the best day-hikes in the world. It spans the oldest National Park in New Zealand and crosses adjacent to the peak of Mt Ngauruhoe – an active volcano better known as ‘Mount Doom’ from Lord of the Rings. The track covers rare alpine landscapes, babbling streams, luminous turquoise mineral ponds and violently boiling pools of sulphurous water. These natural wonders are combined with amazing views of awe-inspiring scenery. Who knew Mordor was so pretty?!

Tom and Sue on the climb to the summit of the crossing. You can see Mt Doom (Mt Ngauruhoe) in the background. Unfortunately, I stupidly had my camera on the wrong settings so these photos are not so good. Tom took some better ones which I’m hoping he’ll share with me soon.

The turquoise mineral pools of the crossing. You can also see the steam from the boiling pools to the right of the photo.

After four hours of uphill hiking we finally made it to the top! Hurrah!

Ohakune Old Coach Road cycle track

We decided to do a bike ride over the Old Coach track in Ohakune. This trail covers areas of historical significance and passes over some wonderful old viaducts, bridges and tunnels as well as through beautiful native bush with stunning views. The locals have done a fantastic job at restoring this trail and have installed a lot of information boards along the way. It also has the bonus of being mainly downhill. Unfortunately this only served to highlight my unfitness as I still spent most of my time struggling to haul myself and my bike through the uneven terrain. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge.

Admiring the lovely stream while having another quick rest during the bike ride.

The old viaduct on the Old Coach Road cycle track. It’s a lot higher than it looks! In fact, it was one of the first places in New Zealand to bungee jump from – until killjoys… erm… I mean ‘health & safety legislation’ put a stop to it.

Another old viaduct on the journey. There are three in total.

There were a number of other highlights along the way which of course added to the whole experience. We enjoyed the sun filled afternoons in the outdoors with cold beers and board games. The Milky Way was prominent on clear nights, it’s vastness never ceasing to amaze. There were also treetop adventures at Adrenaline Forest, which is like GoApe but even more intense. Tom and Sue (being a little more flush than us at the time) also splashed out on a white water rafting experience and a cave tour to see some glow worms. Oh and I can’t forget about The Big Carrot – one of New Zealand’s finest attractions.

One of the easier obstacles at Adrenaline Forest in the Bay of Plenty. I’m told the views were wonderful, but I was too scared for my life to notice.

We weren’t able to watch Tom and Sue on their white water rafting adventure as we were busy doing laundry. We did, however, get another opportunity to watch some brave people fall down a waterfall in a bright yellow inflatable tube. This is what they looked like and how I see Tom and Sue in my minds eye during their experience.

The photo of these glow worms were actually taken near our friends house (Alexa who we originally met in Niue and her boyfriend Blair) after Tom and Sue had already left, but it’s similar to what they must have seen on their tour.

It’s a big carrot!


Tom and Sue flew back to the UK at the end of March while Alex and I have continued to drive south to visit friends and explore more of New Zealand. It’s always heartbreaking to say goodbye to those you love, not knowing when you’ll next see them again. Hopefully next time won’t be quite as long. It reminded me of just how many people I care about who I’ve not seen in far too long. We still have the rest of April to enjoy our road trip, so there’s still time if anyone else would like to join us! Anyone tempted….?

What’s Alex going to do with that scorpion?

Alex is looking fondly at his recent purchase – bought from a market vendor on Khaosan Road, Bangkok.

With over 8 million residents, Bangkok is one of the busiest capital cities in the world. I was filled with anticipation and slight dread at arriving in this metropolis after spending two years in some of the worlds most remote areas. What I actually found was pleasantly surprising. I don’t know if it’s the short height of Thai people or their Buddhist religion (or perhaps both) but I found that the Thais are some of the most unassuming, calm and respectful people in the world. Despite being surrounded by thousands upon thousands of people, I never felt overwhelmed or intimidated and always had plenty of personal space. This, along with the vibrant colours, wonderful food and sundry cheap market stalls makes Bangkok one of my all time favourite capital cities.

Colour is everywhere in Bangkok. The stalls, food and clothing make the city look like it’s been kissed by a rainbow.

The famous street food of Thailand.

Bangkok is absolutely massive and very built up. One of the down sides is that much of Bangkok’s natural swamp is being sacrificed daily as more and more buildings emerge. The remaining swamp is home to many native snake species which are now often venturing into residential areas as their natural habitat is diminishing and becoming more fragmented.

We learnt about the various native snake species of Thailand at the Bangkok Snake Farm. This gentleman is showing off a highly venomous banded krait.

This is me holding a stunningly beautiful albino Burmese python at the snake farm. Alex, can we get one for Bob please? Pretty pleeeease?

I’m not sure what this species is but this particular snake was slithering along my parents garden wall one morning!

There are still a few green areas that are preserved in and around the city. We took a visit to Lumpini Park to see the fresh water turtles and huge monitor lizards. We also took a scooter journey to ‘The Green Lung’, which is an area of Bangkok where much of the wetland has been preserved. There is stunning parkland interspersed between small houses and narrow lanes. It even has an unexpected ornate temple and a small floating market with amazing food and great bargains to be found.

Lumpini Park

Monitor lizards can be found roaming everywhere in Lumpini Park.

Fresh water turtle at Lumpini Park. I think this species is a red eared slider – an older one with a somewhat faded red ‘ear’. One of the world’s top 100 invasive species!

My parents on my Dad’s scooter during our day trip to The Green Lung.

A tranquil and lush park at The Green Lung

Thailand is a Buddhist country and I always thought that if I had to choose a religion, I would choose to be Buddhist. I really like their respect for nature and their desire to acquire knowledge and greater understanding of the world around them. I also know that I would benefit greatly from adopting some of their outlooks on life. The world is always changing, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Being able to accept this and find positive ways to deal with bad feelings is something that doesn’t come naturally to me but something that I would very much like to improve. I also like that, at least in theory, Buddhists don’t worship a deity – they ‘give thanks’ to Buddha for his teachings but don’t worship him as a god. Having said that, the many temples around Thailand unfortunately have a specific agenda that reminds me of many other religious establishments – they are after money. Foreigners are charged to enter the temples, then there are donation boxes EVERYWHERE constantly guilting people into giving more money and of course it’s often the local Buddhists themselves that give the most even though the average salary in Thailand is very low. The whole thing seems very un-Buddhist to me. Still, the temples are beautifully ornate and a wonderful spectacle which obviously costs a lot to maintain. New temples are still built in a similar way today and it’s nice to see that this magnificent architecture has not yet been lost to history. We were lucky enough to see a number of impressive temples on our travels. Those that we didn’t have time to visit we were able to see replicas of at ‘The Ancient City’, which is a kind of interactive museum giving information and history of Thailand’s most iconic religious sites.

This is the White Temple in Chiang Rai. This is quite a modern temple as far as they go and you can see many modern art sculptures around the grounds.

This is the giant reclining Buddha at Wat Pho temple.

By comparison this is the reclining Buddha replica at the Ancient City

Replicas of ancient Cambodian ruins, similar to those we saw in Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, but not quite to the same scale.

Towards the end of our time in Thailand we visited Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai with my parents. Both are wonderful towns and really they deserve a dedicated blog each to properly do them justice. Unfortunately I think we would fall drastically behind with this whole website if I did that, so to avoid giving you outdated blogs I’ll just tell you about my favourite bit for each place.

We visited an ‘elephant sanctuary’ in Chiang Mai which was a really fabulous experience. They advertise themselves as ‘elephant friendly’ and allow their elephants to roam the camp freely and do not use sharp hooks to control them. We avoided visiting an ‘elephant riding camp’ because we had heard terrible stories of cruelty in how they train the elephants with the brutal use of hooks and that carrying people on their backs the way they do is really bad for them. We were given a talk when we first arrived by a local Karen man who has spent his life raising and looking after elephants. He had some very strong views about elephant riding, but they weren’t quite what you’d expect….

He explained that there are about 7000 Asian elephants left in Thailand and over half of them are owned. It’s the legal responsibility of the owners to look after them, but as elephants are no longer used for forestry work as they once were it’s very difficult for the owners to make money from them – and therefore difficult to afford to look after them properly. The tourism industry has provided a wonderful opportunity for locals to earn money once again and therefore provide their elephants with the necessary care. However, the recent backlash from tourists regarding the use of hooks to control elephants has led to changes in the way Thailand runs its elephants camps. Now there are fewer riding camps and more ‘elephant sancturies’ as a result. Surprisingly, our local Karen guide does not think these changes are necessarily for the best. Since they no longer use hooks around the tourists, they can only do tours with passive elephants who have a friendly temperament. This has led to many family groups being separated which is not so good for a species as social as the Asian elephant. Some of the more temperamental elephants are still used for riding camps and are controlled with a hook. Ultimately the hook will not do a thing to physically stop an elephant on the rampage and will not do any real physical harm, but they learn to respect it through a harsh training ritual and it is this fear which keeps the elephants in check. In this way the more aggressive, temperamental individuals can be safely managed. This might well seem cruel, but without the means to control these elephants safely there would be no income to care for them at all and they would be left starving and neglected. So perhaps the lesser of these two evils is not as bad as many think… at least until a suitable alternative is found.

This lovely girl was one of the older elephants of the herd. She has some nice views from her home camp in Chiang Mai.

Elephants love bananas for their dessert and we had a great time feeding them. They were very good at using their trunks to sneakily find bananas hidden behind your back or even in your pockets!

We also got to have a mud bath with the elephants and swim with them in the river. Of course Alex and I ended up having a mud fight… I think I won 🙂

My favourite part of our visit to Chiang Rai, which is a few hours further north of the similar sounding Chiang Mai, was the International Balloon Festival which I believe is an annual event. We had no idea this event was being held when we planned our visit and it ended up being one of the most amazing displays I have ever seen – what a fabulous surprise. The very best hot air balloons in the entire world gather here, and for over half a week they fly during the day and take part in a festival in the evenings. After dark the balloons inflate around a large lake in Singha Park and burn in time to music. We all gathered around the lake to watch this most amazing light display.

The hot air balloons burning in time to the music. Their reflection off the water makes the display even more spectacular.

Here is a short video of the display. It really was spectacular and I don’t think the video does it justice, but hopefully you get the idea.

Oh, I almost forgot. You wanted to know what Alex was going to do with that scorpion right?…

Death Railway

415km of railway were constructed between Thailand and Burma during WWII – that’s a lot of sleepers!

Although I had heard of the book title ‘bridge on the river Kwai’, I never knew the full story of the construction of the Thailand to Burma railway or the significance of that bridge until our visit to Kanchanaburi a few weeks ago. It’s one of the most moving and heart wrenching stories I’ve ever heard. The cruelty that was inflicted on so many people was so truly horrendous that even thinking about it now sends chills down my spine and makes me feel incredibly uneasy. It’s a story that I think is important to share and important to remember.

The beginning

Back in the late 1800s, the British government considered building a railway to connect Burma with its neighbouring country of Thailand. After surveying the proposed route, it was decided that the mountainous jungle and numerous rivers would not only be physically challenging to penetrate, but would be totally inhumane for labourers working in the stifling tropical heat and inhospitable environment. The proposal for the railway was, quite rightly, abandoned.

During the Second World War, Japanese forces invaded many countries in eastern Asia and the Pacific. Part of their conquest included seizing control of Burma from the British government. They supplied their forces in Burma using an oceanic route but were frequently attacked by Allied submarines. They became particularly vulnerable after they lost a gruelling sea battle (the Battle of Midway) in May 1942, so to avoid the hazardous 2000-mile sea journey the Japanese formed plans to construct a railway linking Thailand (Ban Pong) to Burma (Thanbyuzayat). This would connect existing railways and be the key to safely supplying much needed resources to their troops – even though they knew it would be the worst kind of living hell for the labourers.

Many Japanese and Koreans were employed to work on the railway as engineers, guards and supervisors. However, the cruel task of constructing the railway itself was given to prisoners of war and slave labourers from neighbouring Asian countries.

POWs

Prisoners from Britain, Australia, America and Holland were forced into trains, 30 – 40 people per carriage, where they travelled for up to 4 days with no food and barely any water, in the stifling heat, no toilet facilities and no space to even lie down and take nap. Once they arrived at their destination, many men then faced an exhausting trek through the hostile terrain of the tropical jungle. Sleep deprived and already malnourished, they were expected to hike for days carrying supplies and construction materials to their designated work camps.

Romusha

The Japanese were in a hurry to build the railway and “employed” 180,000 Asian civilians (known as Romusha) to bulk out the existing workforce of 60,000 POWs. The Romusha were essentially tricked into working on the railway. Many arrived with wives and children on false-promises of good wages and housing facilities, while others were conscripted by force. They arrived into hell-like conditions, they suffered the same conditions as the POWs but they hadn’t had the same military training as the POWs and ultimately suffered even more as a result.

Working conditions

Camps were set up using bamboo as the main construction material. Sleeping platforms were created in a space about 60 meters long, they were completely open to the elements and each one housed around 200 men. The men had very few belongings and most just had the clothes they were wearing. In the tropical heat and humidity, clothes and shoes soon rotted away and many men were forced to work barefoot. By contrast, the nights were comparatively cold; many men saved their tattered clothes for sleeping in to keep themselves warm. During the day they worked in nothing but a loin cloth.

Just imagine this for a second – you’re in an impenetrable jungle and sleeping in filthy, tattered, often damp clothes on bare poles of bamboo at night, then during the day you are forced to do extreme manual labour in the searing heat with nothing but a rag to cover your genitals. Exposed to torrential rain during the wet season, to searing sun causing unforgiving sun burn during the dry season and to all the hazardous wildlife that live in the jungle. Of course, you might think the many poisonous snakes that live in Burma and Thailand would have been a big worry – but far more worrying were the microbes found in dirty drinking water that lead to many cases of debilitating dysentery and cholera, and the mosquitoes that spread malaria and dengue fever.

This drawing of the sleeping platforms was done by one of the Allied POWs and is on display at Hellfire Pass museum

Meanwhile the men were given food rations that were a quarter of that required to keep a regular man well-nourished, yet alone a man doing extreme physical labour. Food would often be sent from afar, but after travelling for many days in the tropical heat much of it would be maggoty and rotten. The Japanese would claim any good food for themselves, whilst the workers would be left with scraps. The guards would bury food they deemed unfit for consumption, but the workers would often dig this food back up and eat it – that’s how desperate they were.

Photographs on an information board displayed at Hellfire Pass museum.

Prisoners found themselves at the bottom of the social ladder in an incredibly cruel and unforgiving culture. Japanese culture is often about maintaining ‘face’ and many were brainwashed during the war to believe they were the world’s most superior race. They were taught to never surrender – that surrendering would be incredibly shameful and that even if the only alternative was death, this was way more honourable. They truly believed that if they were captured by the enemy they would have been treated unspeakably badly. Given the hierarchical system in their culture, they had zero respect for their captured prisoners and slave labourers and would treat them as sub-human. I listened to an account of a prisoner who survived death railway and he described how guards would dish out horrendous beatings, often for no reason, which would render men unconscious or even be deadly. He described a common punishment for misbehaviour where guards would force the men to stand holding a heavy rock above their heads for hours on end, then beat them when they were so weak that they could no longer hold the heavy weight.

Another drawing by a POW done in 1943 and displayed at the Hellfire Pass museum

Sickness was a major killer on the railway, but the Japanese offered little in the way of medical supplies. They would even prevent sick men from receiving their food rations as an ‘incentive’ to get back to work. They would get men to defecate on the floor and examine their faeces to see how ill they really were. If there was 50% blood or less, they were deemed fit to work. Skin ulcers often became so bad that skin rotted away exposing bare bones. The account of one POW describes seeing a number of cases of tropical ulcers with “legs bared to the bones from ankle to knee”. The medics did the best job they could with the supplies they had. They used natural resources from the jungle, administered charcoal to relieve the symptoms of dysentery, saved precious marmite to be used as medicine rather than food, used thorns from plants in lieu ofhypodermic needles and used bamboo to create prosthetic limbs after skin diseases became so bad that amputation (with no anaesthetic) was the only option.

An account from one of the POWs describes the stunning landscape as one of the few joys of working at Hellfire Pass and something that would help to raise morale in such a desperate time

Hellfire Pass

Hellfire Pass was a section of the railway that was particularly difficult to build. It’s an enormous cutting through the rocky hillside which was created by malnourished and sickly labourers with inadequate tools working up to 18-hour shifts a day. Sixty-nine men were beaten to death and many more died from disease in the 12 weeks it took to build this cutting. At night the starving men would work under fire light under the harsh control of Japanese guards – as a result the area became known as Hellfire Pass due to its remarkable resemblance to a scene from hell.

Another POW drawing depicting the labourers working at Hellfire Pass

Hellfire Pass as it is today

It’s amazing to think that this huge pass was created by men using nothing but manual hand tools

Bridge over the River Kwai

One of the most challenging aspects of the railway was the construction of the bridge over the Mae Klong River (which later on became known as the River Kwai Yai). A film was later made called Bridge on the River Kwai, which unfortunately I have never seen but I’ve heard is very good – albeit a little unrealistic.

A camp of British POWs were forced to build this section of the railway and conditions were equally as tough as what is described above. There were originally two bridges over this river; the first was a wooden construction which was finished in February 1943. This was accompanied by a more modern concrete and steel construction which was finished in June the same year. Many POWs tried to undermine the plans for the bridge by exposing parts of the structure to vulnerabilities whenever the opportunity arose. This would include planting termite mounds next to wooden structures and letting ‘nature take its course’, or reducing the length of piles which were subsequently driven into the ground to make the structure less stable. Despite being one of the most difficult sections to build, we learned at the Hellfire Pass museum that very few men died during its construction in comparison to many other sections of the railway thanks to the organisation and management of the camp leaders, who were POW officers. Both bridges were bombed on two separate occasions in 1945 by Allied Forces and subsequent repairs were done by the slave labourers and POWs. Since the camps were next to the bridges, some labourers were killed and injured during the raids. The wooden bridge was never rebuilt but the concrete-steel bridge was repaired and is still in use today.

A model of a wooden bridge displayed at Hellfire Pass museum shows how the old wooden bridge over the river might have looked

Bridge over the River Kwai as it stands today.

The railway over the bridge is still in use today

Final thoughts

The 415km railway was finished ahead of schedule in October 1943, just 13 months after the start date.  Over 200,000 Romusha were forced to work on the railway as slave labourers – over 100,000 of whom died from disease, starvation or brutal beatings from Japanese guards. Over 60,000 POWs also worked on the railway, over 12,600 of whom died. Interestingly, 1000 Japanese and Korean overseers also died during its construction. Well over 100,000 men lost their lives, that’s a death rate of 45%, in just over a year. I’m not a person of faith, but if I had to prey for something, it would be that no human ever has to suffer in this way again.

The memorial cemetery with 7000 POW graves