Diary for Our Excellent Adventure

Tom´s emerging styles...


A gallery of Tom´s latest looks and lookalikies.Feel free to email your suggestions....

Final day in UK


Well - its finally arrived.  We're off!  Ready or not?!  I still feel like I would like to repack my rucksack a few more times, but hey, I'm guessing I'll soon get bored of that when we get out on the road!!  Is it normal that my stomach feels like jelly?  um...

The move out of Shadwell was as smooth as.  Or maybe not.  Ask Tom's mum ;) Although it was almost as if we planned the finish to be early hours of Sunday morning - clockwork every time.  Someone remind me when we get back that I still have too many belongings and that I shouldn't move house more than once every five years.

Thankyou everyone for your words of encouragement, check lists, valuable words of travel advice and wisdom.... not to mention spare boxes, loans of rooms/warehouses/garages and spare beds.  We appreciate all your help. You know who you are. 

Going to keep this brief, as all the parents are downstairs patiently waiting for our farewell lunch.  Keep us up to date with all your news, or better still, come and find us somewhere along the way!!!

Adios amigos.  Hasta pronto.  Bill and Ted xxxx


"Hey ma, the gringos are here again".... From Gatwick to Caye Caulker


Ok so I've already lost track of what day it is - that has to be a good sign?

We arrived in Cancun late Saturday afternoon having calmed my nerves with a nice glass of red and a massive sleep on the plane!  Hostel Quetzal turned out to be a treat.  Some Danish backpackers had been out fishing earlier in the day and caught a 40kilo sailfish, and brought it back to put on the communal barbie - result!  It fed about 30 of us with big steaks that would cost $70 in a restaurant.  Met some Aussies, Danes, Norwegians and a Puerto Rican guy, and an aussie chap who had just missed his connecting flight to his first Glastonbury festival and was trying to work out a plan.  Tom's stories of the stone circle convinced him it would all be worthwhile!!!

Resisting the temptation of Coco Bongos "everyone has to do at least one trip to Coco Bongos" so they say here.  To which Tom replied "Er I don't reckon" and we headed sensibly off to bed.  Nuff said.  End of Cancun.

After a top quality egg breakfast and arriving at the bus station by 7.30am for our 8am bus, we were pretty impressed with ourselves.  Something had to go wrong?  In search of some cheap lunch and cigarettes, Tom spots a cheaper option than the bus station shop 'just across the road.'  All good till he steps out the shop to find a tropical storm, which appears to have started whilst he was browsing the crisp selection.  In the short period of time he was in the shop, the street had turned into a shallow river.  I watched to see what would unfold as my eyes glanced between the river (street), the bus station time 7.46 and Tom having a pensive cigarette under the shelter of the shop doorway.  Knowing the bus would be leaving, he decides to make a run for it, but doesn't emerge the other side.  Momentary panic on my part - had he remembered to look the right way when crossing?  Nope.  Turns out he has lost his flip flops and is chasing them as they float away down the street.  Day two - too soon for losing shoes Tommy Rock.

Turns out to be a great day for a long bus journey as it doesn't let up most of the day.  We arrive Chetumal without much problem, but then run into a series of what could be film scenes while crossing the Mexican border by foot.  Tom challenging boder control about the supposed $40 exit fee (which we know we shouldn't have to pay), some guy in a van trying to pick us up while on the border (we politely declined) and then the randomest taxi duo who took us on a wild goose chase for a boat that didn't exist (and soon became clear that they had known all along didn't exist).  Sting no 1, nothing major but a few lessons notched.  Thankfully we hit lucky on Seabreeze hotel in Corozal, as an ex-pat brit looked after us with a few beers and tips about the locals while we re-grouped to head to Sarteneja the next day.

Sarteneja was worth the stop.  Nathalie and Eduardo showed us round their 'lifetime project' which is creating a eco-school in the forest, basically living off the land and hosting the occasional backpackers.  We met a nice couple, Zac and Stacy, from Arizona, 4 days in to a similar trip, with a bit of Africa thrown in!  I could have stayed here longer, but the humidity and mosquitos were pretty intense so we headed off on the 6.30am bus the following morning in pusuit of the patch of blue sky appearing after all the torrential rain.

Thankfully the Carribean weather has now re-emerged, so we have decided to stay a few days on hte island paradise of Caye Caulker, off the coast of Belize.  No cars here man, just golf buggies, bikes and flip flops.  And to top that, it turns out to be Lobster season!  It'd be rude not too, so last night we sampled full lobster with Mango Tango sauce at Bamboo bar on the sea front.  Bargain at $15 per head.

We're staying in a great little beach hut on stilts (check the pictures) and started with an early swim, followed by a cruise on the bikes and now off to try some fishing accompanied by another Belikin beer!  Starting to get into the pace of life here where the locals like it at reggae pace.....slow!!!!!




The Sweat.... Caye Caulker to Guatemala

2011-06-23 to 2011-06-27

Ey up! Tom speaking..

Firstly apologies for the lame start to our blogging. Our past three attempts were shot down due to a combinaiton of bad weather and German selfishness. Anyway, here we are at last.

Well our time on Caye Caulker ended pretty well. We ate well and took a great snorkelling trip out on the reef and it was teaming with life. The trip incorporated a stop at the infamous "Shark Ray Alley" where we both swam with countless sharks, sting rays and a number of other crazy looking creatures. Unfortunately we missed the manatees by half an hour but saw a big turtle chillin out below us on the first stop. So far so good on my quest to toughen up Claire. Already achieved riding a bike and swimming with sharks. I´ve got 6 months to prep her up for jumping out of a plane so let´s see how I get on..!!

After the boat ride back to the island (and about a gallon of rum punch) we headed out to the split for a spot of fishing. Pulled out 3 snapper which felt great as the setting was stunning (check out the pics). With a dirty white vest smelling of sardines we headed out for a nice meal in an outdoor restaurant with the guys off the boat. Zig-zagging home on the bikes we suddenly heard rustling in all the bushes around and some shady looking little creatures scarparing across the path. Then we realised were surorunded by massive crabs migrating across the island. These bad boys were huge. I hadn´t noticed crab on the menu in the restaurants which was a shame as I guess they´d taste pretty good! Oh well will have to pick up some crab sticks in Whitby instead! Caye Caulker was full of life and we shared the beach with countless giant iguanas.

A little burnt we leave our beach hut and head off to Belize City. Incidentally the Canadian owners had paid 200,000 pounds for their piece of paradise including her own stretch of beach, a 50ft jetty and about 8 huts - it definitely gets you thinking!! Arriving in Belize City we don´t stick around and jump straight on the Bus to San Ignacio, a market town in the mountains in the district of Cayo. As we pass through rural villages white folk with distinct beards start boarding the bus. It seemed quite odd given where we were so I grabbed Lonely Planet to read that the Belize´s agricultural sector is held together by a small Mennonite community that we had by chance stumbled upon. First impressions of San Ignacio were good and we find a great little guest house above a large family home. The family were welcoming and relaxed - much like the rest of the Belizian´s we have met. We take a mouch about, grab some quesadillas then retire early. Next morning after ducking and weaving the street corner scroungers we find ourselves at the local market for a breakfast of spicy tacos and other local corn-based snacks. We priced up the local tours which were massively over priced so we decided to take a self created trip with "Morgan´s Tours" involving the local chicken bus, a crank powered ferry and a taxi that had a lovely pattern on the windscreen (or were they huge cracks?). We visited the recovered Mayan ruins at Xunantunich. These were pretty impressive, a good warm up for Tikal. Next we get a local Taxi driver to take us out to Ix Chel Farms, the former home of a legendary Mayan Healer named Dr Eligio Panti who died in 1996 aged 103. Before he died he took on an apprentice named Rosita Arvigo and created a medicine trail in the forest to teach her about all the trees and their healing properties. The small visitors centre contained some thought provoking information including the fact that in 1991 researchers isolated a compound from twigs found on a gum tree in Malaysia that blocked the spread of the AIDS virus in human cells. However the tree was cut down before biologists could get there and another sample has never been found. With much of this medicine dismissed by "science" it makes you think whether drugs companies actually want people to be well or not??!! With no one there to take our entry fee we take a wander in to the jungle to see the trees with the supposed power to heal and take a sit down by the river. This is our first trek in to the rainforest but I´m guessing it won´t be the last. I test out my new spotting scope on a heron then we head back to San Ignacio and sample a delicious veggie curry containing cloves and all sorts of mad spcies at Erva´s restaurant. This was a rare treat as the Belizean cuisine was somewhat limited.

With Claire´s bum like a water pistol and mine on fire we get up early, drop the beer bottles off at the chinese owned supermarket (of which there are hundreds) and head for the Guatemalan border at Benque Viejo Del Carmen. Here we are greeted by a chap holding a gigantic wad of what he claims to be Guatemalan bank notes but to be fair they could have been monopoly money and I wouldn´t have been able to tell the difference. We figure he´s kosher so negotiate a decent rate and pass through the border no questions asked.

We take a taxi to El Remate a beautiful village besides Lago De Paten Itza. When we arrive it is warm. Well when I say "warm" I mean you could boil an egg in my underpants. It was like I had spent a few hours relaxing in a sauna fully clothed. We therefore spend the afternoon doing a combination of sweating and swimming in the stunning lake. We join a guy called Carlos and his drunken pals in the evening for a quick beer then fill up on Empanadas and Tacos with the villagers pouring out of Sunday service for less than a quid. It was almost embarassing so I left a decent tip - well 20p! ;)

Next morning we get up at 5am and head to Tikal and take a 6 1/2 hour guided tour. We laughed as we packed the headtorch "just in case we need to go in a cave". I´ll let the picture speak for themselves but Tikal was a magical place. Our guide had grown up in Tikal so we got to see some great wildlife including digging out turantulas and he got us in to the archeaologist tunnels below one of the larger temples.

I´m starting to love this place already...

Where´s Wally? - El Remate to San Pedro Laguna

2011-06-28 to 2011-07-04

Having enjoyed our time at Tikal and El Remate it was time to push on. Hey, our pigeon spanish was exhausting the locals, and there is a limit to how many empanadas you can eat (no, really Fi, I´ve tested the theory and it is true!!!)

Walked out of the hostel and 3 metres to an immediate bus to Santa Elena. Then got a prompt connection to Sayaxche, and even managed a more dubious longboat connection to go 10 metres across a river between the bus station and the town. Result! If only the rest of the day had been so easy.... Despite quite clearly asking for a bus to Lanquin in our best spanish and agreeing a price of 25 quetzals per person, it turned out the bus conductor had other ideas. His translation was for a bus to Coban for 50 quetzals, followed by another bus (run by his mates presumably) back up to Lanquin for 25 quetzals. Only about a 3 hour detour!! He was completely oblivious to any of my attempts to request he stopped the bus (including at the junction where they turned the opposite direction to where we wanted to go, and the time where I desperately needed to pee) so decided in the end to admit defeat. But hey, the scenery was breath-taking, so beats being stuck on the London - Leeds for three hours because someone has thrown themselves under a train in Hertfordshire.

After 11 hours of this bus "experience," the final two hours of which comprised of 34 people on a 17 seater mini-bus (detailed photo of how to achieve this and perhaps get yourself in the Guinness Book of Records attached) we were relieved to get to our destination El Retiro and have a beer. Would have been a brilliant idea had we brought cash to a remote village that had no ATM!!! School boy error, but we weren´t the only ones (a couple on another bus had nothing and got back on the bus all the way to Coban)!!!! We managed to string out what little cash we had to make it last 3 days and with a bit of extra help from Mr Visa.

Despite this, we enjoyed our few days in Lanquin. Got the impression that the El Retiro haven might have been more serene before Lonely Planet made it substantially less lonely, but it was a beautiful setting on the lake nonetheless and some gorgeous veggie food (yes its only taken 2 weeks, but I am already practically veggie, I give it till the end of this month!) On our second night at El Retiro there was a power cut, which we felt improved the atmosphere no end, and saved us from any more cheesy backpackers music. On the last night, true to form, Tom nominated himself the ipod dj and brought the bar back to our little hut, and we swapped a bit of Mumford and Sons, Toots and the Maytals and Sheenalagig with the latest music trends from Mexico City, Finland, and Chile, including some great Finnish reggae! All of this was topped when (after all the financial faffing around) we finally made it to Semuc Champey, beautiful rainforest, caves and natural pools, where you could swim in clear water pools with the freshwater fishes nibbling your feet. Worth the wait :)

Transport from Lanquin to Antigua went without event (could have been a very different story judging by the number of times I visited the toilet between 5-7am prior to the journey, and for that I am very grateful). We stumbled on a great little hostel in Antigua called UmmaGumma, so our one night stay turned into three. Enjoyed a local acoustic and reggae act at Rainbow Cafe (with a cheeky upbeat version of "Creep" by Radiohead which had me in hysterics), a Saturday night out with the rest of the hostel to Cafe No Se, and a night in with some home cooked pasta and preparing packed lunches to try and get the budget back on track! On Saturday night, one of the other travellers turned out to be a bit of a character and the epitome of No Se (which I think means "don´t know") when in his drunken state decided to plunge his entire head (like a dog) into a bowl of popcorn bought by a couple of locals on the table behind us. Thankfully, the initial steely glares turned into them just laughing at him, rather than trying to kill him which I first feared. Turns out this dude had a picture of Where´s Wally tattooed on his stomach.....(nice one Kai!) ;)

While in Antigua, we couldn´t resist the offer to walk up the active volcano Pacaya (although that´s not what I was saying at 6am yesterday when I was facing a steep uphill climb after 5 hours sleep). The pictures speak for themselves really, although was a little freaky toasting marshmallows under a rock at the top - that´s hot! I was quite keen to get down off the thing after that. Mum you would have been in your element ;)

The history of Guatemala still looms quite fresh in every day life. The contrast of rich and poor is so stark, and we particularly felt this during the 24 hours we moved between talking with the local villagers and drunk construction workers in the north in El Remate, with the wealth of Antigua. Some of the people in the northern villages literally having nothing except a lovingly made mud or wood hut, and their families. Jobs include selling food from your own kitchen, making handicrafts, farming, working in teams with machetes to cut grass (looked very tiring), and the tourism industry. Alot of people seem not to work, but just cobble together enough to get by day to day. Despite this, no-one moans, everyone makes some kind of contribution and the children are adorable (seemingly entertaining themselves with absolutely nothing). I saw a boy from the bus this morning, who could have been no older than 6, carrying what looked like a week´s worth of firewood on his back and head..... Our hostel owner in El Remate, Humberto (an immigrant from El Salvador) had sadly lost his father in the troubles of 1981, and we spent alot of time chatting with him about the challenges and rewards of life here, with him very patiently trying to improve our spanish.

Despite feeling really safe in Guatemala - everyone we have met is so friendly, helpful and welcoming - you are also conscious you wouldnt want to step out of line here! Armed police, army and self-tooled beer trucks are the norm. Was quite glad we weren´t sticking around too long in Sayaxche for example, there seemed to be a lot of heavy artillery on every street corner. Instead of security screens and CCTV the local bank had opted for 5 guards sporting weapons that looked like they could bring down an army helicopter, never mind a bank robber. Don´t worry mum, I´m keeping Tom in line ;)

So today we have taken the 4 hr bus journey from Antigua to San Pedro on Lake Atitlan. Thanks for the recommendation Nathan, I think we´re going to like it here :) First views of the lake from the top of the mountain were breathtaking, although I´m not sure if I´m ready for another vertical hike back up there just yet. Maybe tomorrow.... For today, I´m going to enjoy my 75p mojito on the terrace overlooking the lake and see what happens......

Where there´s a will, there´s a Wainy... (San Pedro La Laguna to Livingston)

2011-06-29 to 2011-07-10

Our time at San Pedro has been a much needed chill out for a few days and the perfect place it is for doing just that. We checked in to a great little hotel called Pinocchios at the far end of town and spent our time supping cheap drinks and devouring delicious quessadillas whilst soaking up one of the most spectacualr views I´ve ever seen. The town is a bit of hippie hangout with a few strung travellers looking like they´d perhaps hung out a bit too far, but hey the pace was good for me - a far cry from the usual hussle and bussle back home.

After a leisurely first day sipping cocktails we spend the evening with an american named Ted. Ted lives and works on the outskirts of Mexico City and was taking some time out to see Guatemala. We go on a mini "mahousive" one with him and end up at the final celebrations of San Pedro´s "All Saint´s Day" week long celebrations in the town square. It was bustling with street vendors and live music with cowboys on every corner. We stick it out out for half hour or so then decide to retire to our balcony for some homemade entertainment on the guitar. Turns out Ted was formerly in a band in the States so the quality of the tunage was actually reasonably high.

Next morning we oversleep and miss our appointment with Ted to climb Indian Head - a ridge which unsurprisingly resembles the face of a Native American Indian and instead opt to view the mountain from the comfort of a kayak on Lake Atitlan in its shadow below. We decide to paddle across the lake to a tiny village called San Marcos Laguna, a place full of holistic retreats and folk of Claire´s interests. We have a mouch round and a beer and are releived to find our kayak still beside the pier as we return. The water is a little more choppy for our return voyage and as the sounds of thunder rumble over the mountains beyond the lake we are keen to get back so as not to be the highest point in the lake holding metal paddles. After a little persuasion I convince Claire we have time for me to throw my self of a rather high ledge I´d spotted on the way over. A Scandinavian couple got a good shot so hopefully I will receive it by email at somepoint??!! After a landing scoring straight 10´s we head off back across the lake like two Polynesian warriors heading in to battle. We make it back fine and in the end the rumblings failed to turn in to anything of substance so we have a celebratory beer and quessadilla in a little family run garden restaurant and make a toast to Kat and Keith as it is their birthdays today.

Regrettfully it was time to move on so we head off for an early morning bus (by the time it left it couldn´t be described as early) and on the way bump in to Cesar and Mary the Mexican/Finnish couple we´d met previously in Tikal and Lanquin - Nathan do you know these guys too? Eventually we make it Antigua where we change for Guatemala City - a place I wouldn´t recommend sticking around. The mini bus drops us of on the path outstide a small bus terminal and as the driver hands us our rucksacks quickly says "Don´t stand around here it´s not safe!" then swiftly heads off. "Yeah cheers mate!" Claire sits guarding our bags in the ticket office whilst I prepare my stealth operation to obtain drinks and snacks. Result! I return with all my limbs, wallet and some tasty tacos. We eventually board the pullman bus for Rio Dulce - the Guatemalan gateway to the Carribean and all is well until it gets dark and the bus gets increasingly rammed. Thankfully we´re there a shortwhile later and spend the night at a hostel built on stilts over the river where we bump in to a nice guy called Ollie (this was to turn out to be a real blessing later).

Next morning were up and off early to take the excillerating speed boat ride up the Rio Dulce to the garifuna town of Livingston. On the way we pass great limestone cliffs with vines hanging down. Turns out it was where they filmed the first Tarzan movie and stop off at a natural sauna in a cave. Warning - if you ever go hear do not go in there fully clothed with a backpack on! As we pull in to the dock at Livingston I wonder if this is where I will get to feel the vibraitons of the carribean soundsystem I´ve been waiting to hear????

After trekking round a few places we check in to what seems to be the nicest looking place but in fairness we had no more energy to turn around so check in at Iguanas. Unfortuanltely we soon realise that depsite it´s tasteful treehouses this is in fact gringoville with "I come form a land down under" blastign out til the early hours - "SHIIIIIIIT!" Happy with our view of the river we head out for a walk round town and sampñle the local delicacy of Topado at Gabys. As we devour countless varieties of sea food we pray that tomorrow will be a good day!

Next morning, "Phew!" all is well down below but we sleep through our alarm so trough down some breakfast before jumping on our boat trip to The Seven Altars waterfall and the private beach at Playa Blanca for some much overdue Carribean sunning time. Sunned up to the max, we get back and are instantly alarmed to find the town´s only ATM out service and we´re leaving tomorrow (Sunday!) - our tab is about $100. When we get back to the hostel Ollie has checked in and offers to lend us some dollars as do some aussie lovely girls. We find the charges are huge to transfer such a small amount of cash to an Aussie bank so I put the email in to my trusty old pal Wainy in Brisbane. Within 10 minutes were backing supping beers and heading out to see what the Livingston nightlife has in store.

First stop is a live music bar I´d spotted the previous day and despite it´s promosing exterior is completely deserted. We sit down for a while and do kareoke to drum percussion with a Nelson Mandela look and soundalike and chat to a couple of mental japs before heading to the beach - surely here will be more lively it´s Saturday. We head down the hill and suddenly there she was, the wall of sound, about 9 huge speakers pumping out some Reggaeton in a tiny open-sided club. In fact there were a few but we settle outside one for a bit and watch the locals in action. Sadly we have to call it a night due to low funds and an early bus (much to my frustration it must be said!).

All in all, for such a poor country our experience in Guatemala was excellent as were the people, I even got to play my new favourite game of "spot the thing which isn´t broken" and "how slowly can you overtake a lorry on blind hill?"

Next stop, Honduras...

A hop through Honduras (Livingston to El Paraiso)


So we set off from Livingston at 6am quite bleary eyed with hardly a wink of sleep thanks to Rusty, Crusty and pals partying till 4am (you can keep yer apple pie shots mate). Headed off for Puerto Barrios. We arrive to the usual transport heckling, which this time extends to mini-buses kerb crawling and shouting us down the street, quite insistant we want to go somewhere completely different to where we are headed. Eventually we just have to ignore them as this message isn´t getting through. The local bus to Puerto Cortes (en route to San Pedro Sula) turns out to be a similar mini-bus when we have walked half way across town, but we have a bit more haggling power on the price.

The border is bizarrely deserted, but for a lonely dog, presumably looking for his passport and the 60 cordobas he didn´t expect to be charged on the border (yeah me and you both mate!) Border control ignore my reminders of the CA4 (the agreement between central american countries which means you should´n´t be charged to cross borders) and takes down his "official" sign behind the desk explaining why he can charge us whatever he wants. My spanish isn´t up to challenging this, and besides, I am starting to worry where the next toilet might be so we pay up and head off.

We arrive in Puerto Cortes with little cash and growling bellies, so set off in search of a cash point. Double bonus, it turns out to be inside the world´s best air conditioned Burger King. Its like an ice box in there - bliss. 3 burgers it is! Just as I have dried out/ de-sweated, unfortunately its time to haul the rucksacks back across town, but we are rewarded with the first air conditioned bus we have been on since Mexico. I am liking Honduras at this point :) We do notice that the country is markedly better off that Guatemala, the infrastructure, the clothes people are wearing and the buildings are much more westernised here (with the associated rise in prices of things). I take my Lonely Planet politics lesson by reading up on the economic, political and social history of the two countries.....

Within minutes of the journey starting, our over-enthusiastic bus conductor (Tom describes him as "like a 5 year old on skittles") runs off the bus to herd on some more passengers. Unfortunately he doesn´t spot the motorbike that I can see in the next lane out the corner of my eye, and within a split second both bikers and the conductor are on the floor with substantially less skin than they started out with. Ouch! Instead of hanging around and without time for any sympathy, we are all simply rounded up onto the next bus (already waiting behind, and presumably the competition and reason why our conductor was in such a rush). We conclude that they must work on commission!

My mind casts back to our first journey across the border to Guatemala, when our driver ran into a dog, and barely flinched (and certainly didn´t stop). We hope this isn´t a bad omen....

Unfortunately over the brow of the next hill, another biker incident, but this time the driver has been less lucky. The poor guy is laid face down under the wheels of an artic truck with the remains of his mangled bike. It could only have happened within minutes, but I wished that someone had taken the trouble to cover him from the eyes of the growing spectators. I have a little reiki moment, and we both vow to take extra care with the green cross code in Honduras. They are certainly in more of a rush than folks were in Guatemala......

After a quick and surprisingly easy bus change in San Pedro Sula, we are en route to D&D brewery on Lake Yagoa. Yet again Lonely Planet have conveniently shaved an hour of the actual travel time, and the twisty windy route means we arrive in a rain storm just as it is getting dark. The room is a little damp and with a few more bugs than I´d like, but hey its a brewery, so we head off to sample the menu.

Next morning, its another early morning start (up with the school kids) and on the bus to Tegucigalpa. Thankfully I remembered to look up how to say this the night before (the middle bit sounds like goose) so the driver could understand me. Its a nice drive down through Honduras with some lovely scenery so the four hours flies by. We are glad not to be staying in Tegucigalpa, as it looks like an equally scary version of Guatemala City (another traveller tells us later that it is so unsafe that everything shuts up at 6pm at night). BAMOS! Another example of poorly planned bus links, costs us another taxi across town, and we get the last direct bus to the border by the skin of our teeth.

Turns out the bus driver and his conductor fancy their chances with the ladies, and even I have to agree the duo have a certain amount of cheeky charm. They whistle, smile and flirt their way to the border, with apparently no preference whether the objects of their desires are women of school or retirement age. Turns out the international signals for "I´m not interested mate" are pretty much the same wherever you are, but they are undeterred by this!

The Nicarguan border is the same old story, and an even pricier sting than Honduras, but equally it doesn´t feel like the place to be hanging around, so we change some more monopoly money and tootle off. The place is infested with bity ant things, and on top of which its blazing hot and very unobvious where-/the bus is. Tom is very amused by my choice of protection - a fan, an unbrella and some deet (not exactly blending in, but needs must).

We get on the next local bus to Ocotal, along with a very smiley family seemingly very pleased with their new additions to the family (two chickens). Headed to Somoto, our first stop in Nicaragua..... We´ve been looking forward to this one......

Somoto and Leon, Nicaragua

2011-07-11 to 2011-07-14

Our final bus of the day rolls up in the sleepy town of Somoto and we head off to the only place mentioned in the guide book. After a slog out to their second site on the edge of town we aren't too impressed with the room. Despite being pretty empty they reject out reduced offer on the room so we take some directions of the nice old porter man and head across town (it's not far) and check out a couple more options. We finally check in at a nice little place called Oriental Hostal which has a TV and ensuite for less than the room with a shared bathroom. As useful as it is, it definitely pays to ignore Lonely Planet sometimes and go with your own choice! It seems the social scene revolves around a volleyball game at dusk or a trip down the pool hall for a few frames and a blast on the slot machines. We head to a local restaurant and without a menu opt for the dish of the day. Turns out to be a great meal of chicken in a delicous sauce costing next to nothing. We wash it down with our fist taste of Tona beer which ain't too bad!!

Next morning we head down to the bus station as we hope to catch a bus to the Somoto Canyon. We have just missed one so instead of waiting an hour for the next one we arrange to take a trip there with a local "tour guide" (I use this phrase loosely). We take a cab up to his house on the edge of the canyon where we are greeted by his family who have set up a basic canyon tour operation. At this time we thought we were simply taking a guided hike but before we knew it we were changed in to Timmy Mallet beach clothes and given a life jacket. Not sure what we were letting ourselves in for (but quite excited) we head off down a country track with his brother. The first obstacle is to cross the river which is running high due to the rains. We link arms and wade across slowly as I try to stop my suitably dodgy pink shoes from sailing away. Next it's a hike up to the Mirador for our first glimpse of the canyon. Although not massively high, the most spectacular thing about it is how narrow it is. At points you could virtually touch each side - well when I say virtually you would need to be very tall indeed but you get my drift!! After taking a few snaps we descend through the forest incorporating some gigantic cactus and again cross the river. From here we pick up a small rowing boat and a small boys rows us up the river in to the canyon. Unfortunately, we can only go a short way due to the fast flowing water but we stop a few hundred metres in for a quick snack. At this point we are given the option of either swimming out the canyon or returning on the boat. Unsurprisingly I'm straight in whilst Claire opts for the boat back. Not quite what we had expected but it was good fun. We would have left the guy a better tip if the cheeky bastard hadn't taken half the tip we'd given the lad for rowing the boat. He had just paid him something so I guess he felt he got too much. Ah well he got himself less in the end!

That night we return to the same restaurant to sample the dish of the day and afterwards go looking for a shop to buy an ice cream. At the time I was looking for a shop with an ice cream fridge as I expected nothing more in small village after dark. When I couldn't find anywhere I asked a local in my best Spanish and he directed us round the corner where to my surpise wash a lush ice cream parlour. Sweeet! I thought, so we grabbed a double cone each for a mere pound and headed back.

Next morning we head to Leon on the bus and arrive at the bus station on the outskirts of town (well that is what we were hoping) as the area around the bus station was a little run down and full of frenetic market stalls and busling traffic which isn´t what we were expecting. Thankfully, our taxi drive us through the madness and in to the colonial streets of Leon and to the door of a great little hostel called Sonati. That evening we take a walk out for a beer in between the rain showers and enjoy a stroll across the large town square overlooked by an angel stood on the roof of the church with their halo lighting up the sky above. We find a great steakhouse and treat ourselves to some western grub agreeing it is the best food we´ve had in ages. Leon seemed to have a modern up and coming vibe with a promising party scene.

The next day we decide it´s time to get some jobs done and replenish our supplies. We drop in some laundry and spend the morning browsing the market. In the afternoon I find a barbers to get a head and beard shave. A nice little gay man agrees to give me a trim so I sit down with the local girls who are flicking through out of date style magazines. They handover the only mag containing men´s styles and I laugh to myself at hairstyles you might have seen Rick Astley sporting in the mid-eighties. One of the ladies flicked to a page of a guy with a neatly shaved beard around the rim of his jaw and pointed at it suggesating I may want to partake in making myself look like the president of the gay club, so I politely smiled and said I like to keep my haircuts simple. The nice ladies let me jump the queue so I sit down in front of the mirror for my shave but not before the hairdresser shows off his royal scrapbook. After revealing my nationality he wanted me to know how much he liked the Royal Family, so much so that he kept every newspaper cutting he had ever seen in a scrapbook in his shop. It was quite sweet but a little mental. Some of the clippings were as old as his style magazines with William sporting some kind of quiff. He finally gets to work and doesn´t do a bad job in the end. Though to be fair it´s hard to go wrong with number two all over! I pay him 2 quid and just before I leave he tells me how he thinks English people are beautiful. Well he may be gay but he´s obviously not blind!! ;)

All sorted we head out for dinner (we get tempted back to the same place) and there we bump in to Ben who we had met previously in Antigua. We have a catch up with him and a gang of his friends, some of which had been travelling round Guatemala in an old bus which sounded pretty "full on". We learn they are going to a full moon party in a tree house on the outskirts of Granada on the Saturday night so we agree to meet them there. Sadly we were never to make it there nor to Isle de Ometepe or San Juan Del Sur, our final stops in Nicaragua.... :(

A short intermission (Nicaragua)

2011-07-15 to 2011-07-19

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Apologies for the short intermission.  Turns out our fortune was to have our bags "checked" by one of the local Nicaraguan gangs.

We are disappointed to miss out on Granada, Masaya and Ometepe, particularly when it has been swapped for the inside walls of Managua police station and the Holiday Inn.  We find out later that incidents of tourists being held up and robbed in taxis and collectivos across Managua is all too common.  Tom manages to outdo his own personal best, losing 4 pairs of glasses and 3 pairs of shoes in one go (and its the middle of the daytime and he´s not even drunk).

Needless to say, we leave Nicaragua with our bags over 20kgs lighter, but with our pants at least 5kg heavier!!!

After a few wobbly days, we get our heads together in time for the flight from San Jose, Costa Rica.  Or as Fiona so eloquently puts it... "We get the f*** out of dodge!"

We pledge not to be beaten, and hope its true that "what doesn´t kill you, makes you stronger."   Next stop, Quito, Ecuador....  We´re on a blind goose chase for some new glasses (quite literally).

PS.  I think best we don´t print/relay this entry to Grandma, por favor! 



Shopping in Quito

2011-07-20 to 2011-07-22

The flight into Quito is quite something to behold!  The city is perched within a huge valley, but sprawls as far as the eye can see into the distance.  The height of the mountains (some 3000m above sea level) against the cityscape is quite a bizarre contrast, and vast parts of the city and farmland are on land that looks clearly too steep!!!

We check into the Backpackers Inn in the Mariscal and head out (as enthusiastically as is possible to when you can hardly see!) with our shopping list, only to return home, deflated and empty handed.  All the glasses are double the price as home for frames you would have debated wearing 4 years ago, the fashions are straight out of a 1980´s Madonna video, and the technical gear would require most Ecuadorians to sell their home before making a purchase.  After a slight showdown with me bursting into tears in the opticians, we pull ourselves together and do what anyone would have done, head to the pub!!!!  Hum, this is not going to be as easy as we thought....

Thankfully, after a good nights sleep, day two turns out to be a great deal more successful.  We agree to adopt the approach of stop trying to replace everything that went missing, and just buy stuff, as and when we can, to get us through to the next leg.  In real terms, this means Tom taking it back to the 1980´s with his too cool for school frames, me buying a cheap pair of 40 quidders, and us accepting that most of the technical gear will have to wait till Cusco.  We have a nice couple of hours wandering around the Mercado de Artesanias, and haggling for Alpaca wool jumper for Tom, and a local handbag for Claire. Further down the road Tom manages to find a decent pair of trainers, some great 20 quid jeans, and we even locate wellies for Las Tolas (with the help of Johan, a swiss guy who lives near quito, who is staying in our hostel).  One of the worst things to track down, would you believe, is shower gel!  i think they are still in the land of soap, because when we do finally track it down, the cheapest bottle is still over 3 quid (not that the insurance company will be interested in that receipt, Im sure!)  We celebrate our comparative success with a burger and a bbq chicken fillet on the main square in the mariscal (well it is happy hour)..... 

When we get back to the hostel, we hang out with Johan, and his Swiss friends, including Tony and Sandro, who have come over for a visit and a mini Ecuador tour.  It is great to see some friendly faces, and they cheer us up with their perceptions of different europeans, snowboarding stories, and challenges of learning foreign languages.  They also share their mini crisis.... one of their group has ending up in hospital with severe food poisoning from seafood.. so they are also "stuck" in Quito for a few days! 

On Friday, we get a glimpse of the old town, and sort out a few final jobs before calling Las Tolas to let them know we can be on tomorrow´s bus.  On yet another visit to the internet cafe, we are thrilled to receive a message from Jany (the American who helped us out of the pickle in Nicaragua) to say that 2 of the thieves have been caught!!  We are somewhat dubious at first (as we know the police station didn´t even have internet!), but then it turns out that they have been caught red handed commiting a similar crime on two other unsuspecting tourists, which has lead one of them to confess to being involved in our robbery.  Result!  We fully expect that this isn´t going to lead to making our belongings reappear, but it is enough to know that these people are off the streets and can´t do this to anyone else. 

We head back to the hostel in jubilant mood, and the Swiss lads share in our celebration by cracking open some beers and inviting us for a night out in the Mariscal with them and there local friends.  Why not?!?!

We head out to a cosy little bar, with a great vibe and some good tunes, and enjoy a few beers and cubre libres.  Half way through the night, a great little trio of musicians come in, playing guitar, tenor sax and soprano sax, with funky little takes on classic numbers like Take 5 and others.  Its a great atmosphere, so we enjoy a couple more beers and cubre libres!  The lads are heading on to a club round the corner, so we figure, in for a penny and all that....  its mainly salsa moves, and the whole place is dancing, and tony looks like he´s enjoying the locals showing him the moves ;)  not sure that clubs like this really exist at home!  It gets onto about 1am, and we´re ready for off.  Bless Johan, he won´t let us take the 300m walk home on our own (apparently this area is known for street snatches), but like he says "the locals know who he is, and they know that he isn´t scared of their little knives," so with this, and the fact that he is a 6 foot with a broad build to match, we decide to take him up on his kind offer!!!!I sleep well, excited at the prospect of getting my vision back in the morning, when hopefully our glasses are ready!!  Woo hoo!!! 

Bienvenido a Las Tolas! (2 hrs from Quito, Ecuador)

2011-07-23 to 2011-07-28

The village is kind of how we expected. Very safe, people very friendly, accomodation quite basic but homely. About 300 people live here and the daily volleyball game seems to be the village highlight. Great to see kids playing out on the street all hours (like we used to in the 1980´s!) including regular games of marbles! Lots of roaming chickens, cows, pigs and dogs, but all very well cared for and tendered to (unlike what we saw in parts of central america). The weather is really nice, not too humid, but we have seen some sun (we were expecting alot of rain, but not much yet). Internet only works on satellite so is weather dependent (slight bit of cloud and it goes down!)

The family we are living with are absolutely lovely, Sebastian and Amparo and their four kids, Daniele 17, Jany 16, Juan 10 and Erick 3. The kids are so adorable and well behaved. Juan and Daniele live on the farm and get up at 5.30am every morning to go and milk the cows before school. Watching Juan on the farm is unbelievable to consider he is 10, so hardy and enthusiastic about helping out with everything. Erick is absolutely adorable, we would secretly quite like to bring him home with us, he is possibly the best bahaved 3 year old in the world, entertaining himself for hours with the most simple stuff. Yesterday I watched him playing with 2 sticks for over an hour (but to him I think they were a bow and arrow). His other favourite pastime is chasing mariposas (moths). There is a village fiesta next Saturday, to celebrate the end of school exams, so we are looking forward to celebrating with Daniele and Jany - apparently there is going to be a lot of dancing and cervesas. Sounds perfect!

The family don´t speak any English, so we are slowly trying to rise to the challenge of speaking Spanish. I think most of what is coming out of my mouth is grammatical garbage, but they are being very patient and seem to be understanding (at least in part) the new language we have created called "pigeon spanglish." Thankfully we are now having spanish lessons for two hours each afternoon with a great lady called Mariana, who is training to be a Spanish teacher, so quite happy to have us to practice on. However, she only speaks a few words of English too, and shouts at us everytime we speak in English "solo Espanol por favor", so its keeping us on our toes! The best is when she tries to explain spanish grammatical terms that we probably wouldn´t even understand in English (I never was good with adjectives, verbs, pronouns, split infinitives and all that stuff - would be helpful if you were here Dad!!!) So far, Tom seems better at understanding than speaking, but I am a little better at speaking it than at listening (qué sorpresa!), so between us (and a bit of miming/pointing at the dictionary) we are getting by.

We are only in our first week of volunteering, but so far have been hand-milking the cows at 6am, picking coffee on the plantation, and using machetes and hoes to chop down weeds on a plot the community are hoping to use to plant vegetables etc. Tomorrow we are going to help with some planting of medicinal plants outside the medical centre, as apparently the doctor there is into alternative therapies. I´m going to also have a word (better take the dictionary with me!) and see if any of my holistic treatments can be put to good use.....

I think this is the ideal place for us to be right now for a number of reasons. Particularly it is just great that the pace of life is so slow. There are no fixed arrangements, people just call round to see whether you are in. People are up early (whether they like it or not thanks to all the cockrels!), but everyone is in bed for about 9pm (usually with a siesta slung in somewhere in the afternoon too). We work in the mornings and have our afternoons free, so the days are seeming really long, and as far away as you could be from sitting in front of a computer for 9 hours a day!!!!! Hopefully we won´t have to leave too soon...........

Fiesta time! (second week at Las Tolas)

2011-07-29 to 2011-08-05

On Thursday its time to make the 2 hour round trip to the nearest cash point in Los Bancos (which turns out to be nearer to a 4 hour round trip by the time you´ve worked the buses out, and hitched a ride back up the hill to Las Tolas from the main road!)  We had been told there were "loads of shops" here, so I was a little disappointed to find the random hotpotch of clothing on offer (not that i was expecting the Trafford Centre, but i was hoping for more than a pink snoopy t shirt, some plastic flip flops and some 1980s chinos).  Unfortunately, needs must, as the trousers I am trying to work in have about 5 inches to spare and keep falling down (though I´m sure I haven´t lost that much weight) so I buy the least offensive pair of combat short thingies and hope I can get away with it. We also decide to get a little treat for Erick, and after much debate, plump for a car transporter, with two cars and a truck.  And some fancy fiesta eye shadow for Jenny!

Our last day of work this week was at the medicinal plant garden, which is a great project.  The doctor suggested the idea of an outside waiting area for patients and a medicinal herb garden, but thanks to the tourism and volunteering group, is now apparently overjoyed to see the project come to life.  A previous group of volunteers have made great progress clearing the land, so our job is to finish the fence, construct the final steps, start building the flower beds, and plant some of the border plants. I enjoy cracking on with the challenge of the steps, and Tom takes on the sawing!

As the weekend arrives, Fiesta fever is buzzing, apparently this is the event of the year!  All the women are getting rigged out in their new outfits, and the kids are positively buzzing.  We head out to Pacto to access internet and, on my part, to try to find some much needed red wine (without success).  Late afternoon, Tom is pleased to see Daniele pull up on his motorbike (he had asked for a bit of tuition a few days earlier), so off they go for a lesson.  Turns out, before the lesson, they end up in the thick of the annual fiesta "stick the pencil through the hoop while riding a bike fast" game (no I hadn´t heard of it before either, but apparently I missed a treat)!   However, Tom comes back smiling to have mastered riding a motorbike with gears.....hopefully it doesn´t matter that he was taught by a 17 year old, without a license, on unpaved roads without cars?

Fiesta night finally arrives, and we are not really sure what to expect.  I find the dressiest thing in my rucksack, jeans and a yellow top, which thankfully gets a good response from Jenny  (as I don´t have an alternative option!!)  We arrive to some surprise dirty electro beats, but the DJ soon progresses onto the salsa action everyone is waiting for, and soon the whole village (young and old) are swinging their moves in pairs on the dancefloor.  The bar is clearly expecting to be busy, we notice crates stacked floor to ceiling, and some people literally buying "by the crate."  After we have exhausted all our moves, we head off home (although we hear that some people drank straight through to the morning.....)

We are given a surprise monday off, and Sebastian offers to take us down into the valley to see a waterfall.  Unfortunately, I think he has underestimated that we are not all quite as physically fit and used to the altitude as him, so it turns out to be more gruelling than a day at work, but its good training for us none the less!!!

During week two, we revisit the volunteering projects, making more progress on the Centre de Salud (complete with more nasty blisters from weilding the machetes again!), the medicinal garden and help one of the volunteer families with clearing some of their land.  The spanish lessons are also coming on apace, as we move onto verb conjugation, adverbs of place (not sure why they need so many... aqui, aca, ahi, alli, alla), and the various feminine and masculine endings.  All makes sense on paper, just putting into practice when speaking is the tricky part!!!

We also discover Mariana and Renee´s artesanias workshop, where they make beautiful jewellry from natural items like seeds, stones, and other bits and pieces from the forest.  We have a great afternoon with Renee showing us his trade, and even impress ourselves with what we come out with at the end!  (i get a bit addicted and end up going back most afternoons of the week to make more stuff!!!)

Tom finishes off the week with a camping trip with some of the other volunteers down to the forest, including building a fire, tricking another volunteer into licking a frog (now thats just cruel!), and a morning swim in the river.  I was a bit sad to opt out, but feared the mosquito onslaught (and the verbal diarrohea from one of the other volunteers, Lisa, who we all agreed was possibly the most annoying person we had all ever met)!!!

Our last day comes around all to quickly.  We debate whether we can stay longer, but having looked at the route down through Ecuador and Peru, unfortunately we need to go.  Reflecting on our time here, we realise how how content almost everyone in the village seems to be.  Particularly the family we are living with, so much time is spent with the family laughing and joking, and so little working, stressing or shopping!  All of the children are so enthusiastic, active and healthy, and there are no questions asked about helping mum and dad with whatever needs doing, or with eating whatever is put on their plates.    There are certainly some lessons from here.....

I have a lump in my throat as I say goodbye to the family, especially little Erick, but Amparro gives me a hug and invites us both back anytime, which is a nice dream to hold onto that we could come back one day......

Market madness and sore arses all round! (Otavalo to Baños, Ecuador))

2011-08-06 to 2011-08-11

We share the bus back to Quito with our friend Joe who is heading to the Galapogas for another month of volunteering there and also Katy. We each go our seperate ways in Quito and our next stop is the famous market town of Otavalo about an hour and a half north. The setting of the town is stunning besides a huge lake and surrounded by snowcapped peaks and we are pleased our hostel has a great roof terrace where you can play pool with a view.

We spend a the day mouching round the market and find a great almuerzo for a dollar fifty on the side of the square. After kitting myself out in some new clothes at last we head out for an expensive dinner - we accidentally ordered an expensive bottle of wine sending our budget out the window but nay mind, it went down well with me carbonara!! Otavalo is a little disappointing and the market has a limited range given its size. It seems that no one has taught these traders the simple principle of diffrentiation with every store a mirror image of the one next door and we sadly have no room for the stunning alpaca blankets - let´s hope Nepal has a similar offering!!??

Claire spots that the nearby town of Cotaccachi is famous for it's leather goods so we head there in search of replacement sandals. The town seems to be a wealthy commuter town for Otavalo with clean streets and nice cars. There are countless stores selling beautiful leather jackets and a great little market. If I was at home I´d have been seriously tempted but they don´t really go with flip flop. As nice as all the leather stuff was I wondered how much these people actually sell as it wasn't exactly cheap!? As luck would have it we stumble on some right bobby dazzlers for Claire in orange leather so we leave chuffed but not before a trip to the local bakery!

Next morning it´s back to Quito to collect glasses and hopefully the post but this time we opt to stay in the old town as we are sick of shopping centres!! We eventually find the place the Chicago Hostel up a slightly dodgy street and check in. The place has a stunning roof terrace where we enjoy a chinese takeaway overlooking the quito basilica lit up and a full vista of the city. Next morning we pick up Claire´s new shades and I pick up some 80´s style pop up shades to clip on my glasses. I think they are bloody excellent!! In the afternoon we head up the teleferico cable car to 4400m where we can see the stunning views over Quito. Just a short walk takes your breath away at that altitude so it´s good practice for our plans to hit the mountains in Peru. That evening we eat our favourite travelling meal of tuna, pasta and mayonese and chat to a couple from Norfolk about the chavs rioting back home. I recently watched a documentary on the lads who got involved in Manchester and it was embarrasing - right set of chavs "no what a mean?"

At last we are ready to leave the city and head to the countryside. We aim for Baños and on the way meet a couple of Canadian brothers on a long holiday between studies. Turns out that they to were robbed in a Taxi but this time in Guayguil and at gun point. We trade stories and books before checking in at a great hostel called Grand Rio. Baños reminds me of Queenstown in New Zealand. A little touristy but plenty to keep the extremne sports fan happy.We hire bikes the next morning and spend the day cycling and visiting waterfalls on the Ruta de la Cascades (Waterfall Route) down the valley towards Puyo. It is a great day but hard work climbing up and down the hillside at each place. Thankfully you don´t need to ride back up the valley so we throw our bikes o n top of an open sided tourist bus full of Ecuadorian holidaymakers eating ice cream and singing along to the music blaring out. We were sat facing them and it all went a bit mad as we went through the tunnels and it suddenly got dark and cold but we could still see the sillouettes of the passengers eating there 99¨s whilst singing at the top of their voices. It was like some bizzare fun fair ride and bloody hilarious. That night we take a dip in the hot pools along with about 3000 locals. They are made particualrly hot by the fact you must take an ice cold shower before you get in. Unsurprisingly, Claire didn´t like it there but it certianly helped our aching legs and bums. My seat had been wobbling all day so my bum was killing! We then headed back for dinner in the kitchen on the roof of the terrace where we spent some time with the owners family. They treated us to beer, some great green plantain tortillas which taste like mash potato with cheese and a giant fresh mango even though we had already eaten. It was all to good to turn down!!

Baños was fun but I´m deeply craving to get deep in the wilderness. Where´s next??

Volcano aftermath, chicken house and cowboys... (Riobamba to Vilcabamba)

2011-08-12 to 2011-08-15

The journey from Banos starts dubiously as the bus heads off in exactly the opposite direction to the one I am expecting (ie in the same direction in which we arrived!)  However, it a few minutes later it becomes apparent that thankfully we aren¨t headed back to Quito, but we are going  ¨up and over!¨  And up and over an active volcano at that! 

We remember the conversation with the hostel owners from last night, and we don¨t have to wait long before the aftermath of the volcano eruption that happened 3 years ago comes into sight.  It is bizarre.  The road has literally been recut into the side of a slope which is made of black lava rock.  There are huge trenches running down into the valley where presumably the lava flowed down destroying everything in its path.  In the bottom of the valley, what looks like it was once a scenic river setting, is now a black lava plain.  It goes on for miles, and the bus leaves a trail of black dust in its path.  There are displaced rocks scattered across the hillside, and the occasional abandoned property, begging the question of whether it once had more neighbours.  It is really sad, even the locals are looking out of the window agast.   

Remnants of the eruption continue for much of the journey, and as we arrive on the outskirts of Riobamba, it is like a building site.  Every few metres there is a pile of rubble, new bricks or wood and building supplies.  There is no doubt that this city lives up to its name in the Avenue of the Volcanoes.  Although, despite the altitude of 2754m, it doesn¨t really feel it, and in fact as we head into the city centre, everything is noticeably gridlike and flat!  Thankfully it looks as if some of the colonial buildings in the city centre survived, and although (as it turns out) there isn¨t a great deal else to do here, it isn¨t a bad place to wander around.  We also hit lucky with our quirky little hostel, Hostel Oasis, which is little cottages built out of lava rock and stained glass windows, built around a little sun terrace and kitchen, with classical music piped through!!!   Bliss ;)

Unfortunately, the main reason we are here ( for the Devils Nose train ride)  turns out to be a complete goose chase, as a) we quickly hear on the grapevine that it isn´t all its cracked up to be, and b) it isn´t presently running from Riobamba in any case!!!  We don´t discover this until Saturday lunchtime so we´re stuck here another night (although I really like the hostel and there are much worse places to be stuck).

Next morning we are up and out early for the bus to Cuenca.  We pick postively the worse day (Sunday) to do Cuenca, which is immediately obvious as we arrive and everything (except the flower market and the church) is shut!   With tummies rumbling we tredge the streets until eventually we stumble on the indoor market which is just starting to close up.  By now we have learnt that most of these type places have a little food court, with a dodgy looking almuerzo (set lunch) usually going for about 2 dollars. It´s amazing what you will eat when you are really hungry, however, I decide to draw the line at a very sweaty middle aged woman, with rings on every finger, who is dishing out the lunch with her bare hands (which I also suspect haven´t been washed for several hours).  Uw.  This doesn{t appear to have deterred the locals, as this is the busiest stall in the whole place!  Maybe it adds to the flavour.....  We both decide not to risk it, and head next door for some pork (taken straight off the whole pig on the front) and some non-descript potatoes/vegetables.  It tastes better than in looks!!!

Thankfully, the food propects vastly improve by the evening, and up the road from our hostel El Cafecito, we find a great little cafe where we treat ourselves to fish/chicken with daupinoise potatoes and a gorgeous salad, topped off by (finally!) some nice red wine.  I can sleep happy tonight (even if we have made the slightly dubious decision to save money by sharing a single room instead of a double!!!)

On Monday morning, we head off Central America book in hand, hoping that the bookstore will be open today and good for an exchange.  We are desperate to get rid of a weighty book we don¨t need, and to start reading up on Peru.  All starts well, when as soon as we enter the bookstore, we see the sign offering exchanges, and bump into a chap with a very enthusiastic interest in Central America.  Unfortunately for us, he decides to take up a three way negotiation with the bookstore owner (who is only offering us 5 dollars for the book, but offering to sell it onwards for 20 dollars) and is a bit slow on the uptake (despite Tom´s winking and head nodding towards the door) that it would work out better all round if we just sell to him direct.  Dur!!!  Instead we fork out cash for the Peru book, and linger about outside with our bookswap in the hope that the penny will drop.  It doesn´t.  So we move on with the extra weight in the backpack for now, a bit later than planned!!!! 

We head off to the bus station, as we need to grab a bus to Loja then change for a local bus to Vilcambamba which could take a few hours.  Hoping to relax or maybe get a bit of shut eye, we are quickly disappointed, the bus driver seems to have other ideas and decides to inflict his own brand of early 1990´s hard house and trance on the entire bus!  I can be quite confident in saying that I´m pretty sure I wasn{t the only person on the bus that didn{t want to listen to it.  Mary, I remembered your stories of inconsiderate people playing guitar on the bus, but seriously, I think this was worse.  3 hours of Baby D ¨why can´t we just stay together´, ´zombie nation (the crap version), and ¨put your hands up in the air´ (which sounded like it could have been the Venga Boys).  There was also some track I hadn{t heard before, but which had squeaky repetitive chicken noises for its entire 5 minutes duration.  Someone get me outta here!!!!  It was quite a surreal musical interlude to accompany the beautiful scenery, though I noticed that the woman across quitely breastfeeding her baby whilst asleep didn´t seem to bat an eyelid!!!!

After changing at a really hectic, rush hour Loja station, we were heading off into the dusk towards Vilcabamba.  First impressions on the edge of town were quickly overcome as we reached the village square, with its quaint little church, central park and a few restaurants with little terraces and chatting locals.  We had been drawn here by the label that this is the ´Valley of Longevity´ (apparently residents here statistically live the longest of everywhere in Ecuador), so if its going to be anything, its going to be chilled!  Lonely Planet also promises some spectacular horse rides through cowboy country.  We check in for 3 nights.....

Peru through the backdoor - Vilcabamba to Chiclayo

2011-08-16 to 2011-08-19

Hostel Rendezvous turns out to be an even better catch than the one we just left. It is owned by a lovely French couple, and has been really thoughtfully built over the last 4 years around a leafy terrace. Each group of rooms has its own little terrace with a hammock, it is spotlessly clean and better still a full continental breakfast with homemade bread is included. Not at all bad for $20 a night!!!

We get to know most of our neighbours quite quickly, all with quite interesting stories. A group of lads from Holland, who are 13 months into their trip cycling from Alaska to Ushuaia (for those without great geography, thats the entire length of the Americas - Wow), a lovely couple from France who are battling to stay on their year long trip after he unfortunately caught pneumonia and is spending every day travelling to the hospital in Loja, and two teachers from France who we recognise but takes us all a while to work out that we stayed in the same hostel as them way up in Otavalo. We have a really chilled day swinging in the hammock, reading the books and chatting with everyone else about their plans. We also venture out to investigate the horse treks on offer, and are disappointed that after three attempts we fail to find Holger of the recommended Holgers Horses, so instead we book around the corner. Tom talks me into the full 6 hour trek instead of the 4 hour one, a decision I will regret within 10 minutes of getting on the horse the following morning....
Its not that the trek isn´t absolutely stunning, the views as we head up the valley towards the surrounding mountains are awesome - its just that every step absolutely kills. Part of my anatomy is not built for riding!!! When I finally manage to catch up with our guide, he is quite sympathetic, and every soft jumper, coat and spare piece of clothing is added to my saddle.

The rest of the trek improves vastly, as I can concentrate on the scenery and the lovely horses, Indio and Titan. They are so well behaved despite carrying all our weight up a huge hill to the top of the valley. The sun is out, the valley is really peaceful and you can see for miles. Tom is very entertained by his ability to control my horse and his horse at the same time, and constantly pushing Indio to trot, and me to squeal (there is a several hundred feet drop to my left hand side, and I think the last horse I got on was in the 1980´s!!!) We stop for a break at a secluded waterfall, and then head on for lunch at a river that is on the edge of primary rainforest. Cheese and guacamole sandwiches, yum! Despite having the proper fear that the way down is going to be horrendous (it does feel even more like you are going to fall off every time the horse looks downwards), it is actually really good. Indio seems to have got a better footing, and my technique must have improved throughout the day, as I actually feel quite stable and in control, although I do hold on to the back of the saddle anyway.... just in case!!! We cross the river and even reach a canter for part of the way back to the village.

We head back to La Terraza for dinner - seems silly to eat in the same place for 3 nights running - but the fajitas and guacamole were to die for, and they also had the best spot for people watching on the square. Speaking of which, Tom manages to catch a particularly special ´you´ve been framed´ moment involving some kids on skateboards and a frisky dog (check the videos page for details!!!)

Its been a great stop, but we´re up early in the morning for what we know is going to be a long journey, so we head off for a relatively early night. We have also spotted that our neighbours (we later learn Sophie and Mick) have got the bus departure time wrong, so we pop them a note under and hope they don´t miss the bus in the morning!!!

Sunrise over Vilcambamba is almost as lovely as the sunset, and we head off on a rickety little bus towards Zumba. Thankfully Sophie and Mick have made it, and it is nice to have some company heading in the same direction. The road quickly gets out into the middle of nowhere and the views are amazing, huge rolling hills for miles, and the bright morning sun making shadows and colours through the valley. The road that twists and winds around every corner is currently being relaid, which seems like a massive job when it is headed out towards miles of wilderness before the border with Peru! We pass through some remote little villages (I´ve just tried to look up the villages we went through on google maps, but the road isn´t even marked!!!), where people get on for short stretches of their morning commute (although it isn´t exactly clear where or what they are heading to work to do, as there is very little around!!)

After 6 hours we make it to Zumba, and locate the open sided bus for the border pretty quickly. Shame is that it doesn´t leave for about three hours! We head off in search of an almuerzo, which proves to be less than easy, there only seem to be two eating establishments in the whole place. We settle on the cleanest looking one, and Sophie explains that she is a vegetarian. Not a problem, smiles the waitress, the soup is ´sin carne´ and they have a fish as a main dish (in this case, not a problem, as Sophie does eat fish!) However, when my soup arrives, there are some ´floaty bits´ in it, which although are strictly speaking probably more bone than meat, I am pretty sure Sophie may not want them. Come to mention it, I am not really sure I want them in mine either!!! We all reach the same solution by ´ignoring the floaty bits´ and just eating round it (whatever ´it´ is?) The main dish turns out to be equally as unappetising, and only Mick chances a sip of the unidentifiable juice which looks like it is straight out of the drain!!! I feel a bit guilty that the waitress can´t understand quite what went wrong (the place is now full of locals, scoffing down their tasty soup, carne and jugo), but we pay up and shuffle off. Thankfully we brought lots of snacks!

The open sided bus takes us further out into the wilderness. Tiny little settlements (similar in feel to Las Tolas) out in the middle of nowhere. We watch a family back from what looks like the weekly trip to restock their shop with the essentials - coca cola, eggs and water (flippin coca cola is easier to get hold of in some places than water!!!) The views and the location they have is amazing, but I really wonder what life must be like out here, it is so far from anywhere..... The journey goes on quite a bit longer than we expected, but that could be partly because we are all nursing incredibly sore bums from the horse ride yesterday (which isn´t a good match with these size holes in the road and a truck without suspension!)

Finally we make it to the border and its deserted. A little dust road and a couple of little offices and shops. We get our exit stamp and head off across the international bridge in what is now scorching sunshine. Definitely the best border crossing of the trip yet, and come to think of it, the best one we have both ever completed. On the other side, the customs officer literally opens the office for us, and selects some local music off his computer to make us feel welcome (a far cry from the Nicaraguan border crossing.... not that I´m going back there....) The only method of onward travel from here is a taxi, so we are glad there are four of us, and we agree 10 soles each to get to San Ignacio. This is the end of an amazing day of scenery, and we get our first views of the mountains of Peru as the sun is setting.

Dusk probably isn´t the best time to arrive in San Ignacio though, it feels distinctly the kind of place you don´t want to wander aimlessly, although there are loads of people around all busily doing something. The taxi driver attempts the compulsory sting trick, by upping the price to 16 soles per person now that we have arrived and we don´t have the correct change, but is quite taken aback when I argue the toss in spanish (I actually surprise myself when it all comes out, but I never am one to take an injustice lying down!!!) so we settle on 12.50 soles each and vamos!

Its been a long day, and so when it becomes a toss up between some dodgy looking hospedaje, and the 3* Grand Hotel, we all think of the hot showers and head off to find out the price. I´m on a roll with the spanish, so I negotiate a reduced rate if we don´t have the included breakfast (we are leaving at 6.30am anyway) so we get a bargain for 55 soles a night. Desperate for something decent to eat, we all grab a quick shower, and ask at the reception for a recommendation on somewhere to eat. If we haven´t tried the local delicacy, ´dry meat´ we should definitely go to a place just up the road. Looking back, none of us are quite sure why alarm bells didn´t start ringing at that point, ´dry meat?´ why on earth would that be a good idea?!

Tom and Mick confidently place their dry meat order, only to be greeted with... a huge plate of dry plaintain chips, topped with some dry salt beef, perfectly topped off with some dried, salted corn. It was like the worlds worst salty snack, but as a main meal! As Mick put it, ´Why, at the point when the chef dreamt this up, even if he mistook it as a good idea, didn´t someone else point out that it was in fact a terrible idea?!´ The salt, salt and salt combo, didn´t turn out to be too easy to digest, but was only marginally better than my deep fried chicken bones. Sadly, I didn´t have the camera, but trust me, it was hilariously entertaining!!! All in all, this rounded off what is positively the worst day of food on the trip so far!

At the crack of dawn, we make it to Jaen, and its time to say our goodbyes as Mick and Sophie head east to Chachapoyas, and we head to the coast at Chiclayo. We are hurried into a tuk tuk, and helped to buy tickets and bundled onto the bus to Chiclayo (unfortunately it is only as the bus is pulling out of the station that we realise it is a 6.5 hour journey, we haven´t had breakfast, and we only have a couple of biscuits, an orange and a chocolate bar in my bag). Tom´s proposal is to eat it all immediately and go to sleep, whereas I know that this could make the last 5 hours of the bus ride hideous, so I decide to ration him a snack at a time!! We watch the new Karate Kid film in Spanish, and thankfully, some popcorn actually comes through the bus window at a junction for us to snack on!!  As we head down out of the mountains towards the coast, before we know it we are travelling across vast desert plains with dusty moutains in the distance to both sides, then after a few hours, catch our first glimpse of the eastern shores of the Pacific.

I read in the book that Chiclayo is the best place on the north coast of Peru for food, so given we feel like we haven´t eaten for 48 hours, we dump our bags and head out for something decent. We decide not to risk another recommendation for some local food, and instead head to a nice looking pizzeria with a roasting pig in the window. The pizza isn´t cooked, and the base tastes like something you made in a home economics class, as Tom puts it. Thankfully we have a bit more success in the morning, and sample the local sweet, ´King Kong´ which is a sickly sweet but very tasty biscuity, chocolate and cream concoction, that probably isn´t meant for breakfast, but does actually fill you up!

Chiclayo isn´t too impressive, quite a big and dirty and busy city, but we want to see the Witches Market before we catch the next bus out of here. Turns out you can buy everything and anything there - animal feet, herbal teas (though I´m not sure how herbal, if you know what I mean!!!), fresh herbs, charms and all sorts of bizarre things. Unfortunately, its difficult to work out what most of it is, or what ailment you should use it for. Finally we settle on searching out a remedy for altitude, in case we should need it, and speak to a guy who claims to be a shaman and has just the thing for 5 soles. As we leave the market, I wonder if it matters that I have a bag of powdered coca plant leaves in my pocket? (don´t worry mum, apparently it is totally legal.....until you start to buy more than 3kg at a time!!!)

Now, where did I put my surfboard....

Surf´s up at Huanchaco!

2011-08-20 to 2011-08-23

After a few hours our bus arrives at Trujilo but we have no idea where we are. We ask around and eventually jump in a cab driven by a nice old man who drives us to the centre of town to pick up bus tickets for Lima. We then jump on a rickety local bus and head up the coast towards the surfing town of Huanchaco. We get off at the bottom of town and follow the front past the pier. The sun is going down as surfers catch the last few waves. It is quiet but has a nice safe feel. I guess Summer time would be much busier but it´s still pretty warm.

We check in at a great surf hostel called Naylamp. Our room is just off the upstairs terrace with great views of the ocean. This is definitely a good place to chill for a few days! That night we have the some great veggie food at Otra Cosa and spend the next day pottering about and reading.

Finally got round to reading Richard Branson´s autobiography which is utterly inspirational. His achievements by the age of 21 were astounding and I think I like this guy so much because he is a hippie businessman who much like me gets bored easily and likes to move on to new things (only difference is he makes millions of dollars with every decision). He´s also a complete nutter. He has written goodbye notes to his family just in case on more than one occasion before heading off on seriously dodgy ballooning trips but so far always survived to tell the tale. I didn´t realise the full extent but this man has been at the heart of British popular culture for the past 40 years from siging up The Police, The Sex Pistols and The Rolling Stones on Virgin records, to direct negotiations with Saddam Hussein during the gulf war and from owning the initial European distributions rights for Sega computer games to producing George Orwell´s 1984 as their debut film with Virgin Films. The list goes on and on... My favourite of his stories was when his friend Simon Draper jumped out the bath on hearing a early version of Sultans of Swing and called Richard saying we need to sign this band. It turns out that Dire Straits were unsigned at the time so they had a great meeting then took them all out for dinner to a greek restaurant feeling confident that they would sign. At the end of the meal the restaurant owner thought he was being kind by bringing out a plate full of joints as the party seemed to be celebrating. They all enjoyed the smoke but next day Dire Straits signed for a rival label with no explanation. Richard later read in an autobiography that the reason they didn´t sign was they felt that Virgin were trying to drug them in order to befuddle them. It his how he casually says that joint cost us 500 million pounds that gets me!

Next morning I have a surf lesson and am pleased to get up (at least briefly) on the majority of waves with a little help from the instructor I might add. I rest for the afternoon and go down for the evening high tide with Claire armed with the camera in hope I can relive my former glory. Unfortunately, the mornings lesson has taken its toll on my ribs which are bruised like hell. I only realised this when I got in to the water and lay on the board and it was really sore even just paddling. I persist for an hour or so and catch a couple on my own which was good but really frustrating I couldnt do more. I try again in the morning but it is still really painful so I decide to leave it for the time being. I feel with a little more practice I could do alright so promised myself to do a day at each opportunity I get to see how I go??!!

We spend the last afternoon in a beach bar and meet Richie for the first time (mainly because we overhear him comically trying to borrow a camera from the table next to us, so that he can put his memory card into it which is the only thing that survived after he accidently peed on his?!). Richie is from California and is taking a rest from his career as a party animal back home. Needless to say we hit it off briefly before he had to catch his bus. After a final veggie meal we take a night bus to Huaraz in the foothills of the Cordillera Blanca mountain range (my new favourite place in the world).....

The mountains take our breath away (literally!) in Huaraz

2011-08-24 to 2011-08-27

The bus ride to Huaraz wasn´t the best as neither of us slept much and arriving at 7am with nowhere stay and nowhere open was a bit of a ball ache but we manage to get a hostel owner out of bed to let us in at Familia Meza Lodging at the top of town. I confirm we are happy with the room to prevent an hour of roaming the streets but it was perhaps a bit hasty given how bland the room was and how hard and creaky the single beds were. However, we decide to take a nap on the paving slab pillows as Claire is feeling pretty unwell with a cold and i´m shattered. After a few hours shut eye we head out for breakfast at Cafe Andino next door. It´s a bit pricey but it has a nice balcony and there we meet a nice guy called Len who´s a British sparky on an extended climbing trip before heading on to try start a new life in the mountains of Canada. We also bump in to Richie again who´s out for early morning refreshments. After a funny half hour chatting and a somewhat substandard breakfast we were keen to find out about our trekking options as the vista of the mountains was dragging us in, so we went down to an agency called Andean Kingdom to see what´s on offer?? We decide on an acclimitisation hike to Laguna 69 at 4,609 metres but first we need to get Claire some new boots. Most the outdoor shops were on siesta so after a mouch round the rest of town we head back for some beers with the lads. Richie agrees to come on the trek too and Len suggests we head out for a curry. All sounds good but still no boots for Claire. The race is on. We all want more beer and the shops are starting to close but after a speedy trip to every little backstreet agency we eventually find a pair of boots which are only two sizes too big for Claire so we take them. It´s hard to believe that the main town of one of the world´s greatest climbing regions has virtually no trekking boots for hire and the shops which sell boots only seem to stock one size of each style and for a ridiculous price. I reckon you could set up a killer business in Huaraz selling quality outdoor gear at a fair price. One for the future perhaps??

Armed with some boots we head to a curry house for dinner run by an arrogant Brit but the food isn´t bad and we have a good time sharing old stories - it´s nice to have a chat in English for a change and we really wind down. Claire still isn´t feeling great and the curry has done strange things to her so we head back to the hostel to get ready for the trek as we are up at 5.30am.

We meet Richie at 5.45 and take a minibus to Yungay for 45 mins then a subsequent one for 1 1/2 hours up the mountains and in to the Park Nacional Huascaran where we are finally dropped after a very bumpy ride in Chopicalqui in the foothills of Huascaran Sur, Peru´s highest peak at 6,768m. We then head up the valley towards the Laguna. Without a doubt it was the most stunning hike either of us have ever done but it wasn´t easy towards the end as the air was really thin. My head was pounding due to the altitude and Claire was struggling with her bad chest, but we eventually got up there and boy was it worth it. I think the pictures show you why. The trek down was much easier but by the end our legs were shot. The ride home took forever and by the time we got back we were starving. We check in to a new hotel called Hotel Galaxia as it had a comfier bed, ensuite and TV then head out for celebratory beers and pizza with Richie. A top day all round.

Next morning Richie heads off on the 4 day Santa Cruz trek on his own and me and Claire look at how to spend our last day before we move on. I´d loved to have climbed Ishinca but we didn´t have the time so instead opted to head to Hatun Machay for some rock climbing on Len´s recommendation. We hire some boots and a harness then catch the afternoon minibus to the climbing refuge nestled high in the Cordillera Negra across the plains from the Cordillera Huayhuash mountain range home to the Siula Grande - the mountain Joe Simpson and Simon Yates scaled in the film "Touching the void" before getting in to a whole world of trouble. The setting of the refuge was awesome and we arrived just as the sun was going down over the "rock forest". We soon realised it was to be a very cold night with clear, star filled skies overhead. We spend the night chatting to other climbers over a box of red wine and yet another tuna pasta before heading to bed in the loft. That night the altitude keeps us both wide awake all night and I lay there praying I don´t need a pee as the loos are outside. Sadly my "lie on the side technique" fails me and I have to go as does Claire, so we brave it outside before returning to bed to lie wide awake for another few hours. In the morning we grab some breakfast and share a strong herbal tea with some Argentinians before heading down to the climbing site. It´s described as a "climbers paradise" and it´s easy to see why. There are hundreds of routes and boulders for climbers of all levels. We meet up with some lovely guys who invited us to join them the night before and we all chip in the gear we have to ensure we can all climb what we want. In the morning I climbed a really nice 32 metre 5a and finished the day on a 27 metre 6a which was really pleasing given the altitude and lack of sleep and food. Despite feeling under the weather Claire got up the worst bit of the 5a and was looking good before she decided to bail - if she had been at full strength we both know she could have done it so we agree to do some more climbing later in the trip. Jana, Rob, Anna and Markus helped make it a great day so nice one guys!! After a tiring walk back to the hut it´s time for off - early night and big sleep tonight (altitude permitting)??!!

From the mountains to the Lima shop stop...

2011-08-28 to 2011-08-29

We are both quite sad to be leaving Huaraz so soon, not so much for the town itself, but we would like to spend more time in the mountains. Even now looking at the photos of Laguna 69 feels weird, they look like postcards! Tom is itching to get his crampons on and get up in the snow! Unfortunately our schedule (and lack of appropriate footwear) doesn´t allow for a multi-day trek. Next time gadget.

We are up (again) at the crack of dawn, as we aren´t 100% confident of our bus reservation made on the move on Friday!!! Turns out its as well we did, as when we get to the bus station at 7am they have no record of our reservation, but as luck we have it, the two seats we thought we had booked are free - result. The bus station is deserted, but we wait for the baggage drop (or as they put it, ´backagge drop´) to open at 8am, and then decide to kill a bit of time in the local cabinas/internet. Turns out its a comfy Movil Tours bus to Lima, for 35 soles, and the journey goes surprisingly quickly.

Its quite a bizarre ride in terms of scenery, in a split second, the view changes from inner city, to mountains, to sand dunes, to open desert, to farming and green fields, to city slums, to inner city. First impressions of Lima ain´t great, but we are on a mission (Tom´s map of outdoor shops in hand) so needs must.

We almost get off the bus a stop too early (on Lima outskirts) but luckily realise our error in the nick of time, and so pretend we only got off the bus for Tom´s cig break, and casually get back on!! We arrive in central Lima, and have to politely decline to share a taxi with an american girl who is heading in the same direction as us (I think she thinks we are a bit nuts, but hey, we have our reasons, and we´re sticking to them!!!)

It is a relief to get to downtown Miraflores and discover it is much nicer than the outskirts. And I have to confess, it does feel quite nice to see some international comforts (even the big M is appealing right now!!) We check into Flying Dog hostel on Parque Kennedy, even though its way above what our budget should allow, and Tom convinces me that we should head straight out on the shopping mission. I don´t fancy it, its gone dark, I´m tired and I´m hungry. But he´s right, our plan is to head out of Lima tomorrow, and there is alot to do....

We head straight for the Larco Mar shopping centre (which incidentally is one of the most scenic shopping centres ever, cut in layers, set back from the beach!). We find Tatoo, North Face and Columbia within our first few metres and breathe a sigh of relief!!! The range of styles and sizes is sketchy, but after a bit of a mad frenzy we manage to pin down possible North Face boots for Claire (and in the sale!), thermals and trousers for Claire, jacket for Tom, possible Asolo boots for Tom. We put it all on reserve for tomorrow and leave feeling positive that the impossible is finally becoming possible. Our luck is changing! We celebrate with a Big Mac meal and a cheeseburger back at the hostel.

Next morning, we´re up to check out quite early, and discover just in the nick of time that breakfast is included, so we hoof it across the park to Cafe La Paz, and who should we bump into but Ritchie (our friend from Laguna 69). He´s only completed the Santa Cruz trek in about 2.5 days quicker than you´re supposed to (apparently he needed a beer....!) We finish our trek round Lima´s camping, climbing and outdoor shops, squeezing in the traditional Indio markets (for hats and gloves). Finally its back to Larco Mar to make the purchases (after a last minute panic that we aren´t going to be able to make a withdrawal for enough cash, the lovely woman in the bank lets us do an over the counter withdrawal - phew!)

I look down at all the shiny new bags and labels, "how are we going to get back to the hostel?" Tom suggests an armoured tank, but we decide to opt for the bus at 50 centavos (but fill our daysacks and turn all the remaining carrier bags inside out first!!!) Finally we can breathe a sigh of relief and we celebrate the moment by trying on all our new gear!!! The whole expedition has taken longer than planned, its now nearly 4pm, so we check ourselves back into the hostel and head out for a late lunch/early tea on the park..... which when we bump into Ritchie, turns into a few beers in the local tasca bar as well. After the influence of a few beers, Tom persuades Ritchie (against my better advice) that he should bring his Peruvian date for the evening here to join us...she isn´t best impressed...although we are not sure if it is because four is a crowd, or because we are all talking really crap Spanish!!!  Better luck next time Ritchie.....!!

Pisco Sours, ceviche and loads of birds - Pisco, Paracas and Nazca

2011-08-30 to 2011-09-02

Next morning after much humming and haa-ing, and interjections from Ritchie, we switch our plan to go to Huachacina, and instead head for Pisco. He reckons the Isla Balletas and the Paracas reserve is well worth a trip, and besides, we still haven´t tried a Pisco Sour! We discover Soyuz bus, with top spec TV´s onboard and a free sandwich and drink included, so the 3-4 hour journey goes super quick. We check into El Tambo Colarado hostel, and go out to haggle the trip - which Tom manages to get down from 71 to 55 soles each. Its still a stretch on our budget, so we decide to make use of the hostel kitchen and cook up another tuna pasta!!

The tour starts early and we´re on the beach front by 8am, and I´m wishing I brought my woolley hat! I get the impression that Paracas is a great little resort in summer though. The boat speeds off for Isla Balletas, and quickly we become aware of the number of birds circling overhead. We go past ´El Candelabro de Paracas´, which is an unexplained, weird symbol etched into the land, similar to the Nazca lines.  Is is a candalabre or is it a San Pedro cactus??  I feel quite dubious about it either way, looks to me like someone in Paracas got jealous of tourism for the neighbouring Nazca lines and thought up a counter attack!!!

As we reach the islands, the number of birds overhead goes wild, I have never seen anything like it! We can see all sorts of birds - Peruvian boobies, pelicans, Humbolt penguins, and some red beaked things (I can´t remember their name!) We also spot sealions, seals and even some dolpins. Its quite a bizarre experience, and if this is the poor mans´s Galapagos, I am jealous of the real thing. Apparently the unique conditions of the cold water current, mixing with the warmer water create prime conditions for plankton, and therefore plenty of food for all these creatures to live on. I am also lucky enough to get pooed on (thankfully I had my hood up!!!)

Next its back to the mainland to experience the contrast of the rest of the reserve, which is desert. We only get to see a small proportion of it, but it, and its new visitors museum are really interesting (mum you would have been in there for hours!). The red beach is quite spectacular, and we finish off by finally sampling Peruvian ceviche (raw seafood and fish, marinated in chilli, ginger and lime) - it is delicious (if you can overcome the mental torture of what is has the potential to do to your insides - luckily we were both fine)!

We only have a couple of days before we need to be in Cusco, so time causes us to rush past Huachachina and Ica, and head on to Nazca. On Ritchie´s recommendation, we ask the bus conductor to get us off at the mirador, which is 20km outside the town. He suddenly comes to raise us in what feels like the middle of nowhere.... oh, thats because it IS the middle of nowhere!!! We are bundled off with our backpacks and daysacks into open desert, with the huge Panamerican highway all you can see in either direction.

Its quite low key considering that this is one of Peru´s greatest tourist attractions, but we head up to the top to get the view of the lizard, the tree and hands. Its kind of weird (partly because they have built the Panamerican highway through the majority of the lizard!!!), but impressive that other than that, they have withstood such a long test of time. We are not sure which of the explanations to believe, about their creation and purpose, but ponder the other images on postcards, which apparently cover over 50 miles of land outside of Nazca. We decide against doing the flight over the lines, its not cheap, and we´ve heard stories of air sickness, and also of tourists as recent as 4 months ago being killed in the planes.  So far neither of us are impressed enough by the lines to fork out, so we decide to save our money and opt for the archaeological museum on the history of Nazca instead.

Nazca itself doesn´t have much in the way of entertainment, but for some reason I kind of like it. Its small and chilled out, and generally nice just to wander about. Even the bus stops play on the biggest local attraction. Our hostel room is a bit reminscent of a prison cell, but the owners are really nice at least. Tom resists the temptation to sand board down the worlds largest sand dune (at 2000m!!) so generally its a quiet 24 hours, while I quietly dread the 15 hour overnight bus ride to Cusco.... speaking of which, we are due to depart in an hour, so time to get the bags.

Inca trail here we come :)

Our search for the Inca's begins in Cusco (Cusco and the start of the Inca trail)

2011-09-03 to 2011-09-06

So we arrive in Cuzco bright and breezy (sort of) at midday on Saturday after a "not absolutely hideous, but equally not very sleep filled" 15 hour night bus from Nazca. However, the sun is shining and the descent into Cuzco is wonderful, "Viva el Peru" says the mountain, so we decide to press on out and enjoy the day. Despite the rave reviews our hostel turns out to be a bit shabby, but the staff are really nice and helpful, the showers have hot water and we trust them to look after our bags for 4 days, so it´ll do!

We spend a couple of frenetic hours running around the banks trying to withdraw enough cash for our final payment for the Inca Trail. Its a bit of a boob, as all the banks have just shut (its lunchtime Saturday), and we get charged about $8 for every separate withdrawal of 400 soles at a time. Grrrr. Besides that initial hitch, it is really nice to be in Cusco. The city is beautiful, quite touristy, but the quaint little streets and buildings are fab, and there are loads of little knooks and crannies to explore. Surprisingly, it isn't even that expensive. We manage to find a set menu just off the Plaza de Armas for 15 soles (about 3.50 UK pounds) , including a glass of Pisco Sour or red wine each, a lovely starter (avocado salad for me, stuffed peppers for Tom), followed by Alpaca steak and chips for Tom and lasagne for me, crepe with toffee sauce, a bottle of coke! Can't argue with that!

The next day we decide to fork out for the slight con of Cusco's Boleto Turistico, which basically lumps together all the entrance prices for everything in the city, so that you need a small re-mortgage if you want to go see anything!! In the end we opted for a regional deal which got us into the ruins at Tambomachay, Pukapukara, Q'enqo, and Sacsaywaman. A bit over the odds, but I've had it on my list for a while and it was a great day out. How on earth the Inca's moved all those massive stones there, and created such perfect formations, kept us scratching our heads for days after!!!!

On Monday, we are up in the darkness ready for our Inca trail pick up at 5.20am (which doesn't arrive till 5.55am), but everyone else on the bus is as bleary eyed and looks similarly unprepared for a 43km hike as us, so I feel reassured! We immediately warm to our guide, Wilfredo, who gets the whole bus laughing despite the fact that we are all half asleep. He's got a great sense of humour and superb local knowledge, having been brought up in the Sacred Valley, so we can't ask for more. Tom easily wins the accolade of being the first name the guide has learned (causing trouble as usual) and is thereafter is probably also the most frequently used name throughout the four day trip. My favourite was at km82 (the start of the trek), where Tom gets off the bus and lights a fag, and Wilfredo just looked at him confused and, in school teacher-esque tone just said "Thomas, what ARE you doing?" Quite! Clearly this is not the way to start a 43km hike up 000's of Inca steps!

First impressions of the Sacred Valley, even from the river level are more impressive that I had been prepared for. It feels remote, now that we have passed through the small town of Ollantaytambo, we know it is over 3 days walking before we reach the next main settlement at Aguas Calientes. We head through the first Inca Trail checkpoint, get our passports stamped, and head across the bridge. Quickly we get introduced to the rest of our 16 trekker group, mainly Americans (from LA, New York, San Francisco, Phoenix and Washington DC), a couple of canadians, one Dutch girl (who lives in Spain), one Italian and we're the only Brits. Makes for some interesting chat about people's lifestyles and likes/dislikes about their respective cities, and pushes San Francisco even higher up my "must visit" list, and adds Granada in Spain newly onto the list. We make a mental note to ourselves that there are amazing world cities and countryside on our doorsteps in Europe. This is what we should be spending our future weekends doing....

The first day is Wilfredo's so called "easy day." Despite this, it is quite tiring, but we are easily distracted by the views and the twists and turns and ups and downs of the path, and the weather is absolutely perfect. We see a couple of people from yesterday's groups heading back in the opposite direction on donkeys, which is slightly concerning, but we have spent quite a bit of time at altitude over the last few weeks, and have definitely been doing a hell of a lot more exercise than at home, so hope we should be ok..... Wilfredo keeps us entertained and informed along the way too, showing us how the Inca's used parasites as a dye for fabrics, flora and fauna specific to the area, local facts and figures, and details of the first Inca ruin on the trail. We get great views of the Sacred Valley mountains especially Le Veronica at its snowcapped 5860m, beautiful backdrop.

Its at the lunchtime stop that we realise we are in for a real treat.... I was expecting rough and ready camping e.g. soggy sandwiches and communal stews, but it turns out we have 21 porters and our own chef, Eddie, who together prepare a four course meal for every lunch and dinner! So at lunchtime we are served up a avocado "amuse bouche," followed by a delicious soup, some fish, daupinoise potatoes, veg and salad, followed by a mousse and coca tea. Superb. This is made all the more amazing, by the fact that the porters carry all the equipment, food, and some of our gear (to the tune of 20kg each), up the same path we are taking at almost twice the speed, and have the tents up and each meal ready by the time we rock up at camp. These guys are nothing short of machines!!! Most of them seem really happy in their jobs, but we do feel awkward that some of them are missing what we would consider to be "essentials" for this kind of trek.... some of them are doing it in sandals handmade from old car tyres, and carrying huge duffel bags twice their size, rather than modern supported rucksacks and the goretex boots we have so carefully hunted down for this purpose. Thankfully, the porters on our trek seem to have some of the better conditions of those we see on the trek, so we are pleased with our choice of company, even if we do feel that even more regulation on porter welfare could perhaps be due (the last lot was brought in during the late 1980's to prevent some of the porters carrying loads of up to 50kg, sometimes in bare feet). Thank goodness things have moved on from then.

In the afternoon, we get views of the extensive Inca ruins of Llactapata, 'upper town' in Quechua, which was first discovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911. It was primarily an agricultural station used to supply Machu Picchu with maize, the staple crop of the Incas and the settlement comprised over one hundred buildings, houses for the workers and soldiers, and five baths.

At our first evening campstop, we get individually introduced to each of the porters, where they are from and their roles, which is a really nice touch - some of them only speak Quechua, others Spanish, so we all make an effort to introduce ourselves in Spanish, and I learn my first Quechua word... "Yusulpayki", meaning thankyou. We have another great meal, followed by our day two trek briefing from Wilfredo, a slightly less pleasant trip to the French style loos (!), and then we're all pretty much tucked up in bed with lights out by 9pm. Apparently day two is "the most difficult day," consisting of 4 sections, a "gentle up" (read massive long hill), a "steeper section" (reads more steps than you have ever seen in one place in your life), a high pass between the mountains (having climbed 1200m that morning), and then "the descent". Hum, sounds ominous.

Day two starts early, we're woken up at 5.40am sunrise, but with a nice touch of coca tea in the tent, brought round by the porters (who have presumably been up an hour already making breakfast!!!) Knowing mine and Tom's record at getting up and out on time, this is invaluable, and the whole group is ready for off before 7am. This turns out to be yet more superb advice from Wilfredo, as we take on this, "the most difficult day," and enables us to get at least the first section complete before the sun gets too hot. We also stop for a "second breakfast," a relatively recent change to the trek itinerary (as apparently people were failing to make it through section two after a four course lunch) and we quickly learn why.....

The second section is like a mind game, everytime you think you are almost at the top, you turn another corner and there are yet more steps. Everyone is feeling the slog, and natural selection means we get to meet people from other groups along this stretch as everyone goes at different paces. Bizarrely, the top just seems to be getting further away the closer you get, however, finally we reach the first pass, Dead Woman's Pass at 4200m. Its pretty breezy and foggy, but an amazing sense of satisfaction. The realisation of what it must have taken to build this path also starts to sink in, its phenomenal. Where did they carry all these stones from and how?!?

Within seconds of the descent beginning, I'm sortof wishing we were back at the start of section two!!! Its a proper knee crunch, although my knee supports and new boots are doing a sterling job, and so we press on down the other side of the mountain with grumbling tummies. This part is a treat in terms of scenery, and we all make good time, arriving earlier than predicted at the camp around 3pm. We prepare ourselves for "the coldest night" as we are camped at Pacamayo at a height of 3,600m, brrrrr, but grateful we didn't come in July when temperatures drop to well below freezing! Another stunning meal (although very confused about how Eddie has managed to make pizza and roast chicken for 16 on the hob!), and we have our briefing for day three...."the longest day" eek.... (to be continued....)

Job Done! (Inca Trail Day 3 & 4)

2011-09-07 to 2011-09-08

I woke early in a world of pain, bruised on both hips from the hard ground but more due to the fact I desperately needed a pee. It had been a bitterly cold night and our sleeping bags were not quite up to it so I was holding it for as long as I could. Turned out to be a bad idea as it kept me awake when I much needed more sleep. :(

Anyway, Day 3 was the longest day of the trek, about 10 hours in total but was also one of the most breathtaking. The scenery changed lots over the day as we dipped in and out of cloudforest on a path clinging to the mountain side with views of circa 6000 metre peaks above stunning interlocking valleys. The day was easier in that it was up and down rather than just up like the day before. On Day 3 we also descended through several Incan tunnels where they had impressively carved steps in to the solid rock to continue the trail and we explored a couple more Incan sites including Sayaqmarka which was effecively an Incan old people´s home in an incredible setting high up on the hillside. Apparently this is where aged Incans would go to spend their last few years of (this) life and what a place to do it. The views were incredible!!  We also learned abou the Inca Cross (or Chakana). For those of you who are interested, more details on this important symbol can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chakana

Will finally tells us why they call the first pass Dead Woman´s Pass and reveals that the previous night´s campsite is haunted by a woman who died on the mountain in the 1940´s and who´s face you can see in the mountain pass. There have been several reported sightings of a woman floating around the campsite and one porter woke up in the night half outside his tent as if he had been dragged out in his sleep. I stroke my chin thinking "yeah nice one!" but it´s understandable why he no longer tells the story on Day 2.

On the third day we crossed the second and third high passes at 3,950m and 3,670m respectively with each revealing new even more spectacular scenery. The final campsite was in the foothills of some impressive Inca terraces. How they got all the stones up there I dont know as these things were huge! That night we had our final evening meal and gave thanks to the porters and chef who somehow baked a huge cake beautifully iced and decorated. That guy had seriously mad skills with only a gas hob at his disposal. Nice one to Mike too for sortin out all the complex arithmetic on the tips.

Everyone calls it a night early as we are up at 3.40am for the short climb and final decent to Machu Picchu. Feeling surprisingly spritely we´re up and eating pancakes by 4am then head down to get a good spot in the queue and hang around for an hour until the gates open at 5.30am. From there we gently climb for an hour or so until we reach The Sun Gate overlooking the majestic site of the long awaited Machu Picchu. The site was magical as the mist came over making it invisible then as the mist lifted it was all there to see and well worth getting up for! After a few photos we make the descent down and have a guided tour for 2 hours thanks to the knowledgable Will. Two of the temples we explored were the Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Condor. Impressively the window of the Temple of the Sun is perfectly lined up with the rising sun on the June solstice.

Machu Picchu is a great place to visit and even better to do so after the 4 day hike. The only draw back is piss take prices on refeshments. Who in Peru has 3 quid to spend on a bottle of water, so I don´t see why they should expect us to pay that, especially given the cost of everything else we´ve had to pay?! They have even started charging 50 dollars to climb the Waynu Picchu mountain overlooking Machu Picchu when this used to be free. Apparently the new left wing president has brought in loads of new costs and regulations, but I think he is really milking it now!!

After the tour we have a little wander round then get the bus to Aguas Calientes (or Machu Picchu Town).  Mike sums it up perfectly as we get off the bus and he looks round and says, "Wow!! Well I was expecting this place to be touristy, but yep, this is er..... touristy."  However, its not bad for a few hours to wander round and we´re long overdue a beer, a bite to eat and a dip in the thermal pools. They may have smelt like wee but they certainly helped our muscles recover as the next day we felt great considering we´d just walked 43km in the mountains. Aguas Calientes was touristy but nice. It´s just a shame the bar and restaurant touts are so annoying hassling you like hell to try their place for food or drinks insisting on listing you the whole menu when you´re not even interested.

At the end of the day we catch the train back to Ollantaytambo then a bus back to Cuzco. We arrive late but jump stright in the shower as it´s been a while since our bodies have encountered soap. We then enjoy a great sleep in the comfy bed.

Machu Picchu all done and dusted we start putting our thoughts to Snowboarding in Chile - woop, woop!! But first to Arequipa..

Through the mountains and over the Atacama Desert (Cusco to Arequipa to Arica to Santiago)

2011-09-09 to 2011-09-13

We negotiate a"late" check out, but its still only for 10am the next day, so we are both quite thankful that we don´t ache too much (probably thanks to the thermal pools yesterday!) We go to the bus station to purchase our ticket for this evening (frustratingly no online booking systems here, so you have to go in person) and then spend the day pottering about in Cusco including a lovely beer on the world´s narrowest balcony over the Plaza De Armas!! Despite having all day to spare, thanks to skype and in our true style, we still find ourselves cutting it fine to get back for the bus on time. We´ve been recommended Cromotec by the woman at the hostel... on the upside it was indeed half the price of Cruz del Sur, but unfortunately the quality pitched to match, so we´re not in for a brilliant night of sleep (not that sleeping on buses is turning out to be our forte anyway).

So we arrive quite tired in Arequipa, only to find that next week there is a miners convention, and all the hotels and hostels are pretty much fully booked. The lovely woman at tourist information at the bus station is really helpful, and rings round a few for us until she finds us something for tonight (but not tomorrow....) Happily our taxi driver has a cheaper and available option, so we head for the slightly bizarre "Home from Home" which is ironically very far removed from home (but as it later turns out, they do do an excellent breakfast on the roof terrace!)

We spend a day exploring Arequipa, including the Plaza de Armas, the Claro shop (to find out what on earth our crap replacement mobile phone is doing, or rather not doing, now), and a trip up to the Carmen Alto and the Yanahuara Miradors to look at the surrounding volcanos. We have just about enough energy for a few happy hour cervezas and a chicken kebab (it was the cheapest, edible thing we could find) before heading back to the hostel. We meet some nice folk from back home, and a chap from Holland who was on holiday from setting up his new business in Lima, which involves him making 000´s from importing some new fruit from South America into Holland (unfortunately we can´t remember what it was called, but if your in Holland look out for some mini-pomegranate thing that´s apparently going to go down a storm sometime in 2012!!!!)

We feel that we´ve seen enough to Arequipa - I´m a little disappointed that all the grand colonial postcards and promises of a place that claims to have once been separated from the moon, hasn´t really lived up to expectations - it certainly isn´t a patch on Cusco! Instead of staying another day, we decide to get up and off to Tacna and do the border crossing to Arica. It is a long day, not least of which as our bus grinds to a standstill less than 30 mins out of Arequipa (on the edge of the desert) to wait about an hour for a wide load coming in the opposite direction. We also have several other impromptu stops, including the one where we pulled up at a checkpoint where they ridded everyone of all fruit products (including some poor woman who had 4 huge avocados stashed in her jeans pockets!!!) We didn´t really have a clue what was going on, but I figured I´d better eat the orange they didn´t find...pronto!

When we arrive in Tacna, it turns out to be a bit of a dive, the usual border type town, except much more sprawling. The onward bus we need to book for the way back to Puno on 19 Sept leaves from a bus station on the opposite side of town, so regrettably we have to venture over there to buy tickets, only to find on arrival that they only sell tickets for the same day. God, is this really what life used to be like before the internet and credit card payment by phone?

We catch a super deluxe border taxi which takes us out through the desert and towards the border at Chacalluta, where we go through Peruvian formalities and then Chilean formalities (which requires me to declare my coca leaves and black pepper, but not clearly why, as they don´t take them off me!) before heading off through the sunset to the flickering bright lights of Arica.

The immediate change as we enter Chile is very noticeable - the westernised dress, the shops and promotions, the prices!! We draw 150,000 pesos out of the cashpoint, which feels a bit weird, but at 750 to the pound isn´t as extravogant as it sounds! We decide to stay at Jardin Del Sol, but quickly have to downgrade our room when we realise the price he is quoting is per person, not per room! Although its over budget, it is a great place with outside terrace, book exchange, huge kitchen, and onsite free internet cafe, so we agree to foot the cost and try to eat cheap for two days. The owner turns out to be... well to say it politely.... a little more than pedantic. No wonder the place is so clean, I think all his staff live in permanent fear of putting a big toe out of line!! That is the only thing that takes the slight edge of an otherwise excellent hostel.

Yet again we´ve done our trick of arriving on a Sunday, and we venture out to find a very disappointing selection of food on offer.... namely telepizza, Schopdog, some other ropey hotdog place, and Mac D´s. Two big macs it is (at comparable UK prices). Arica seems like a nice place though, and from the high street, could easily be mistaken for a European or American town. The next day we enjoy another lazy day, internetting, exploring the market, and checking out the beach, as well as a great set menu at Cafe Del Mar. By this point I have read in the Lonely Planet bible that Chileans enjoy their main meal at lunchtime, so this is the most sociable and most economical time to eat - useful tip!

The next day its up and out before sunrise for our flight to Santiago. We fly over the Atacama desert and get views of the Andes from the aircraft, and arrive to a hot sunny day in Santiago (which would be more enjoyable, had we not come dressed prepared for winter!!!) Santiago feels the most international of all the cities we have been to so far. Although not as iconic, the streets do have a bit of the feel of New York about them. The people here certainly seem to know how to party too, and as we arrive late morning in the area of Bella Vista, the pavements are already full of young people drinking and lunching in the sunshine. We check into the quirky and friendly La Chimba hostel and then off to All to Ski to make preparations for the big day tomorrow. The reality starts to kick in that it is about 16 years since I was last on two planks heading down a steep hill, and that I am probably much less bendy than I was then, but Tom is grinning from ear to ear as he gets his big moon boots on, and gets to select his choice of snowboard, so I guess its too late to turn back now...... eeek....

All Hail the Snow Queen (Santiago to Farrellones)

2011-09-13 to 2011-09-17

At 8am we´re on the mini bus and after a frustrating wait for some "no shows" start our trip upto the mountain. We head out of the smog of Santiago and up twisty windy roads past the suburban mansions to the fresh air of the andes. After an hour and a half we reach Farellones and are dropped off at our hostel, Chilextremo. We´re greeted by a rather "chilled out" host and promptly get ourseles ready to hit the slopes. We decide to head to El Colorado for the first day as there´s plenty of green and blue runs ideal for beginner skiers and snowboarders. First job is getting there and hitching is the best option. Within 30 seconds we´re riding up the mountain with a local guy and his daughter in a beautiful 4x4. We´re pleased to have saved the 20 quid transfer and ridden up in style. First impressions are that the the resort is modern, a reasonable size but it´s considerably more than reasonably priced. Well we´re here now so let´s get on with it. First up Claire books her refresher lesson and I leave her in the capable hands of her instructor whilst I head up for a first run. The board and boots held up well but it was soon apparent that the seemingly half decent clothing is actually well worn and the pants are not at all waterproof. Clearly not an issue for a pro like me though! ;) Well not quite..

I head down to meet Claire after her lesson to see how she has got on since it´s been 16 years or so since she skied. As usual it´s better than expected and she was back in to the swing of it no probs. I sense Claire`s confidence at ourdoor activites is building nicely. I start to think she is almost ready for our tightrope walk across Iguazu Falls (joke!). We spend the rest of the day together on the mountain stopping for a sneaky picnic in the restaurant to avoid the astronomical prices of the food and drink. How many Chileans can afford three pound fifty for a glass of coke or a five pound beer???????

At 5.30pm, we grab a cheap lift back from a ski tour driver and a pleased to find out that we have the whole ground floor flat with lounge and kitchen to ourselves. Even better it has great mountain views and a hot shower! We head for a well needed beer and a pizza for tea then head to bed.

On day 2 we opt to go back to El Colorado as there is a 2 for 1 deal on and I was yet to try out the snow park. We´re picked up by a young solicitor in another nice 4x4 who has a weekend retreat in El Colorado. It is now clear that skiing in Chile is like golf in the UK hence the high prices!! We have a nice day together on both sides of the mountnains but are glad to be trying somewhere else tomorrow as the runs are limited and are virtually straight runs down the mountain. It´s late in the season so there´s no fresh powder and the mornings are icy but at least all the runs were open. An Aussie guy we met on the inca trail went the first week in the season for a week and there was very little snow until the day he left as the season started late this year so only one run was open - gutted!! After we leave the slopes we grab some trusty pasta, and spice it up (a little too much) with a chilli from the supermarket then opt to ski back to farellones and there is just enough snow to make it. I´m impressed with Claire´s skiing skills and can´t see why she was ever nervous in the first place.

On the final day we head to the resort of Valle Nevado on the adjoining valley and find a local guy to cash in on the 3 for 2 deal. We are pleased with the better selection of more interesting and challenging runs and i´m beaming when I spot the big air bag. After seeing a few dodgy landings and signing my life away I opt to land on my arse on my first go. Sadly they close it before my second but perhaps that´s not such a bad thing?!! (check out the video). We have an amazing day and ski right up to the last possible moment before getting out transport back. All in all a great few days that sets us uip nicely for finally visiting Lee and J in France. :)

We arrive back in Santiago in time to enjoy the start of the independence day three day weekend. After spotting his Lancashire accent a mile off, we meet a nice guy called Stu and head out for some beers. Claire retuires early and I continue the night with Stu and end up at a great party in the city. Only prob was I then forgot the name of our hostel making for a long expensive taxi ride until I recognise somewhere. I make it in the end though and we spend the next day checking out the centre of Santiago.

Next morning we´re up early for our flight back to Arica and with it being Independence Day the streets are still full of the stragglers from the night before. We´re pleased a bus is ready and waiting when the taxi drops us at the bus stop and we´re off to the airport no problems.

We make the decison we´d like to see the celebrations through so agree then to stay in Arica an extra night...... (or was that two????) ;)

Plonk, Puno and p***y hands!!!! (Arica, Tacna to Puno)

2011-09-18 to 2011-09-21

As we land down in Arica, we decide we don´t want to hurry off, Chile has been fun so far, and its Chilean Independence Day tomorrow! Besides, we have no schedule now, so we can do as we please :) Unfortunately, in this decision, we both forget just how "closed" Arica was last Sunday - so when we arrive back downtown, everything is even more shut that it was last week (if that were possible). Ney mind, we take a change of scenery and head for Ian Bailey´s accommodation recommendation, Arica Surf House. He´s not wrong, this is a great little spot, with open air lounge/kitchen, cool surf staff and nice rooms.

What Arica fails us in party atmosphere, we make up for ourselves, by meeting Bjorn and Siwa, a lovely Norwegian couple on their travelling honeymoon. One drink turns into, well, several - I am definitely enjoying the proximity of this Chilean red!!! We discuss music, philosophy of life, yoga, learning languages, travel, beards, life back home, the European economy, politics, marriage - so yep - I think we pretty much got it all covered, and not many differences of opinion which was good!

The next day is unsurprisingly a bit of a right off, so instead of the early morning taxi + bus to Puno, we switch off the alarm and hit the sofa with a Liam Neeson movie "Unknown" (definitely worth a watch too, if you get chance). The plans only get pushed a day back mind (which is lucky, because we have eaten two Schopdogs in as many days - but its the only damn food place open), so the next day we are breakfasted and out onto the trundle of trundle trains to the Tacna (I have worked out in my hung over stupour that this is the cheaper, if less comfortable, way to reach the Peruvian border).  Its actually not as painful as it could be, and we´re in Tacna in no time, ready to get stitched up by another taxi driver just because he was "kind" enough to stop off for us to collect some empanadas.  Que?

Then comes the error (albeit not really our fault), the only bus close to this time to Puno is at 12.45pm (its now 10am owing to the hour we´ve turned our clocks back on the border), and with San Martin travel, a company we´ve never heard off. Originally we had planned to be taking the night bus, where there were alot more travel options. After killing a few quick hours online, and eating a dodgy chicken/rice/potato almuerzo we get onto the bus ready for our "semi cama seats, WC, movies" etc. Alas no. In hindsight, I would have settled for an operational toilet (9 hours is a long time without one, especially when you didn´t even "go" before you got on the bus as the staff told us there was one on board). Cheers! When I finally got a second to leg it off the bus, the bus restarted its engine almost immediately, and in my panic I managed to drop my purse down the loo (it was in my pants for security).  Argh!!!  Given we are already overbudget, I made the wise (?) snap decision to fish it out. This was regrettable, as it turned out there was subsequently nowhere to wash my hands, so I spent the remaining 4 hours of the journey smoothering my hands in anti bacterial wash and trying not to touch anything. Bluaarrrrrrrrrggh. Gross. Get me offa this hideous bus!

After what seems like a lifetime we arrive in Puno. It might be dark, but first impressions aren´t great either. We head to our booked hostel, Bothy Hostel, which is up a dark backstreet behind a large metal door. "Cosy" is the description they use, but its not immediately what springs to mind, and not only because its flippin freezing (did no-one tell them that some heat in the very least, is a pre-requisite to something being "cosy"?!?!) Oh well, we grin and bear it, frankly right now we could probably both sleep standing up - and at least the showers are hot (until you have to get out that is.....!!!)

Second impressions of Puno aren´t a deal more inspiring, although we busy ourselves with getting laundry done, finding a cash machine and the usual "domestics". We also have a reasonably nice set lunch, and I get to sample the local trout from the lake. In the afternoon, we decide to make the best of it and take the boat over to the floating reed islands, Isla Uros. We haven´t heard great things about them from other travellers, so our expectations aren´t too high at least. In the end, we are both glad we ventured to see them, its just unfortunate that it all appears to be a somewhat contrived tourist trip, rather than experiencing the original communities of the islands. We can´t quite get our heads round it, but some rumours have it that the "resident" people who host the tourists during the day, pack up on a night and head back to the mainland!!! It would seem that selling dodgy artesianias to tourists has, in the end, become more lucrative than fishing. What a shame. Our community boat driver from Puno, also seems to be in on the act, hanging around for at least an hour longer than we need to (presumably to get his free dinner in return). Us, cynical? Nah.

So, that was Puno! Frankly, we´ve seen enough, and while I might be waking up here on my birthday, there are plenty of places I´d rather spend the rest of the day, so we hotfoot it for the Bolivian border in search of a birthday dated exit stamp (never had one of those!!!).....

Three days of hippyness, sunshine and singing Barry Manilow!! (Copacabana and Isla del Sol)

2011-09-22 to 2011-09-24

The drive to Bolivia is only about three hours, and the route hugs the side of Lake Titicaca for most of the way, and we also get to see lots of the farming communities out at work on the plains aside the lake, so it passes quickly. We change some more monopoly money (there´s no point even haggling on the exchange rate, as there´s nowhere else to change your money!), get booted out the immigration queue by the elderly members of the rude French tour bus, and before you know it we´re in sight of Copacabana.

I am positively beaming when we arrive at La Cupula. THIS is more like it - views of the bay, sunshine, quaint little white and blue rooms, private bathrooms, four gardens, and a terrace restaurant that serves fondue. Now I feel like the birthday girl!!! We have a lazy day exploring the little hippy town of Copacabana, browsing artesianias, sipping cerveza in the sun, and talking to Nik, mum & dad and Cat at home :)

The next day isn´t any more energetic, except for a walk up to the mirador overlooking the town - where we get some great pictures, and bump into Ben...... a chap from Luxembourg who I think after travelling the length of the States is generally just quite pleased to meet some people who know where Luxembourg is, bless im!! He sounds like he´s had an adventure, which started in Canada, then buying a car in Seattle, travelling through N America on his own, before reaching central america and picking up travellers to share the petrol on route!!!

The next day its up and out early for the boat to Isla del Sol. The weather couldn´t be any more ironic, it is grey, raining and pretty darn cold. Thankfully we get two of the only two seats on the boat that a) aren´t underneath a dangerous shard of broken glass, b) next to a completely missing window ergo wet seat or c) mysterious "unspecified" problem which emerges halfway through the journey, and causes wet bums for everyone on the opposite side of the boat. We just have to cope with 3 hours of neat petrol fume inhalation - well, seems fair!! At least the sun comes out as we arrive on the island (maybe THAT´s where it gets its name?!)

We bump into an Irish couple we recognise from La Cupula, the "Friend-ly" Ross and Rachel (geddit? Yep I´m sure they love hearing it too...), and spend most of the rest of the trip with them which is cool. We take the tour of the north of the island, and then decide to brave the 3 hour walk down the ridge to the south of the island rather than getting the boat back. Despite the uphill climb we are all glad we did, the views are outstanding. You can see both coasts of the little island, as well as the mainland on nearly all sides of Lake Titicaca (including the distant snow capped peaks). I keep getting a bit weirded out as I keep forgetting that we are within a lake not out at sea - sounds stupid, but believe me, this lake is huge!!!

The enjoyment of my walk is slightly impinged by the fact that I´m struggling to breathe - its weird how the altitude gets you - I feel worse than on the Inca trail. You assume that your body gets used to it, but for me, every time you go back to sea level and then back up a mountain, you have to start all over again!!!

After a gorgeous day, we arrive at the south of the island, Yumani. Greeted by a local little fella with a superb grasp of English to say he´s only about 10. He is after a few bolivianos for finding us a room, but fair play for being enterprising!!! We trapse him around a couple of places before we conclude that the accomodation is going to be "basic," and finally plump for a place for 25BS per person per night (thats about 2.30UK), and grab a beer or two on the terrace overlooking the sunset. Who needs a shower or toilet paper when you´ve got that view?!?!

Thankfully, Ross and Rachel are much better technologically equipped that we now are. We celebrate by putting on Barry Manilow "Copacabana" on the ipod at full blast - well, I´ve been singing it in my head for days so we might as well!!! After that the playlist improves with a bit of Chili Peppers, Babyshambles, Kasabian, Kings of Leon, Fleetwood Mac, and of course, the compulsory Aslan. Not sure if it is the lack of lunch, the strong beer or the altitude (or all three) but I can´t remember much detail beyond that!

We watched the sunset as a storm was coming in from the hills, which was enough to make us brave the cold until way after dark to get us some amazing photos, followed by slightly bizarre dishes at the local restaurant (where, despite its claims, pizza was clearly not its speciality!!) After that, we´re not sure what happened to Ross and Rachel - we assumed they got up and off for the early boat, but maybe they had a lie in? Get in touch folks?

We headed back to the mainland and off, slightly apprehensively (eg purse in my pants again - oh, I should clarify, not THAT purse!), towards La Paz....

Bienvenidos a La Paz!!!

2011-09-25 to 2011-09-28

Beeping horns. Taxis. Cobblestone streets. Crazy packed minibuses. Tour agencies galore. Street stalls. Raw chicken and flies. People everywhere. Pharmacies. Dug up pavements. City slickers. More crazy packed minibuses. Indigenous dress. Freshly squeezed juice in the street. Coca leaf chewers. Little nooks and crannies. Steep uphills. Modern cafes. Unfinished buildings. Artesanias. More crazy packed minibuses. Bienvenidos a La Paz!!!

Quite quickly after arriving in La Paz, our negative expectations were blown away... this is a crazy place, but its one of our favourite cities yet!

Following a mix up with our booking at the Onkel Inn (and me refraining from a verbal punch up with a very rude receptionist), we quite by chance ended up in a hostel with a viewpoint of the front cover of one of Tom´s favourite books (Marching Powder). Albeit though that viewpoint is of San Pedro, one of the most reknowned prisons in South America....but it kept Tom quiet for a few days nontheless! We head off early for bed, as its the day we´ve been waiting for tomorrow.....

Passports stowed and map in hand, we´re up and out and off to the UK Embassy by 10am. Its about a 1km walk, but we get a real flavour of the city along the way and its a beautiful day. We hope it is soon to get all the more beautiful when after 3 months winging it on one debit card, we are soon to be replenished with our full debit and credit might in the form of 5 shiny bank cards couriered from England thanks to the dedicated efforts of mums and dads :) After the initial panic when the guy can´t find our packet in the big pile of post, we remember it was couriered so send him back with the precise details of arrival and signatory and tell him to try again. Attempt two is much better, and I think it makes the guys day to see how positively joyous we both are at the sight of the packet! He gives us a sympathetic smile as we sign all our new cards (he´s probably seen this a million times before), and we tootle off happy for a celebratory brunch of brocolli quiche and salad!!

Next stop, the cashpoint. Anyone would think it was lottery money coming out the way we celebrate our renewed access to our accounts, and more to the point, free withdrawals. We had better remind ourselves that this is still our money we are spending!!

With spirits lifted and money to burn (kind of) we extend our stay in La Paz to 4 nights. We spend the time researching mountain agencies, browsing artesanias, scouring book swaps, and absorbing the atmosphere. Things are certainly much cheaper here, and its a freshing change not to be hounded by the streetsellers... everything in Bolivia is just that little bit more chilled out!

We discover a great little cafe/bar called Sol y Luna, where we end up spending most of our dining and drinking time thanks to the Pacena Chopp cerveza and the amazing quality food....chicken in mushroom and cream sauce, dauphinose potatoes and vegetables in butter! Its stretching our daily budget a little, but this is the best we´ve eaten in a while, and its still only 48 bolivianos per dish (about 4 pounds 50!!!)

After much debate and research, we come up with a plan for moving on. After three months in each others pockets 24/7, we are taking different routes (no we haven´t fallen out).... Tom is off to take on the challenge of the 6088m Huayna Potosi mountain, and I´m off to Coroico for some sunshine, yoga and relaxing with my book. Now that´s what you call a happy compromise!!!!

6088m Mountain v´s Hatha Yoga (Huayna Potosi and Coroico)

2011-09-29 to 2011-10-03

Despite the initial paranoia of the taxi ride to Villa Fatima (on the northern slopes of La Paz city) and the one hour bus wait where I felt the need to check my backpack was still under the bus every 2 minutes, the journey to Coroico was very smooth. Well, when I say smooth, I mean figuratively not literally (the road surface and lack of bus suspension took care of that). I took up on the back seat joined by several local indigenous ladies with their huge bags of market wares and babies wrapped in the traditional back straps, so it was a tight squeeze but at least they were friendly!

We have hardly been out of the city 10 minutes, when the bus suddenly pulls up alongside a totally isolated row of street stalls and ladies waving plates of goodness knows what (some kind of nondescript chicken) under the bus windows. Without further announcement, and within about 5 seconds, the entire bus (less myself) had emptied out, all to purchase what was essentially a meat, potato and two veg meal in a bag to eat on the bus. Quite bizarre! The rest of the journey saw some beautiful scenery, as we wound our way up through the valley and eventually into the hillside village of Coroico. Thankfully the lady next to me nudged me to get off as not quite sure where everyone else was going, but I seemed to be the only one alighting here.

Arriving at the Sol y Luna ecolodge, I was quite happy to know I have the next few days to spend here.... The place is set on the hillside, in beautiful cloudforest and gardens, with quaint little cabanas, its own yoga studio, a little cafe with cheap and delicious veggie food, and walkways and miradors within the gardens. Bliss :) I arrange myself some daily Spanish lessons, sign up for the hatha yoga class, and unpack. I hope Tommy is having this much fun......?


Tom speaking...

The short answer to this is "yes I was" the longer version is as follows...

Once leaving Claire to finish her breaksfast in a nice Swedish owned cafe I ate my cheese toasties outside the agency and waited for the group to show up. The guides arrived followed by two great couples from Australia and Switzerland so the initial vibe of the group felt good. I get kitted out with some winter boots then we head to the town square to pick up the minibus. We take a bumpy ride out of the city northwards then begin to climb up in to the mountains towards the Cordillera Real. The views back over La Paz are great but perhaps a little less dramatic than I´d expected. So far Quito wins on the spectacular setting front. We stop to pick up supplies then head out of civilisation towards the snowcapped peaks ahead. The first peak we see to our right is that of Chacaltaya which resides in the Cordillera Oriental mountain range. This used to be the world´s highest ski resort until the glacier melted a few years ago. It still looked a pretty big mountain at 5,421 meters (17,785 ft) but was some 667 metres short of the mountain we were about to take on. We continue up the mountain path and then suddenly we see her all 6,088m of her - Huayna Potosi. We stop for some photos and marvel at the beautiful view, we also realise at this point the scale of the job at hand as this is a big f**king mountain! :)

After a drive past the cooperative mines and mineral rich lakes of varying colours including one spectacular red lake which I guess was rich in Iron we arrive at lower base camp (4,700m) where we speand a little time considering whether we should opt for the French route, i.e. go directly up the 1000m high face (joke!). We are greeted at base camp by some friendy locals who have prepared us lunch. Rice and sausage (mmm-mmmhh!!??)

After lunch it´s gear on and off to the glacier for some basic training and a spot of ice climbing practice. It is at this point my crampons are revealed as something better suited to an alpine museum of early polar exploration and the guys enjoy ripping the piss out of me. Turns out my shoe size, average in the UK, is considered that of some kind of giant in these parts and they had no models from the current century available. Once again it shows that if you overlook something or let your guard down for a moment on this continent you pay some kind of price. Similarly in La Paz the one time I didn`t ask for a price they tried charging me eight quid for a haircut. In the end we settled on a fiver but I still felt robbed! You soon learn these ways but it´s annoying when you slip up.

The weather closes in at the end of the day so we head back for dinner and get to bed early (about 5.30pm). The night is bitterly cold despite me being in two sleeping bags, gloves, hat, etc. and due to the altitude I sleep for a maximum of two hours in small chunks over the night. Next morning we´re up early and prepare our rucksacks for the 2 hour hike up 430m to high camp at 5,130 metres above sea level. The hike up is nice and not too far which is great considering the weight we were carrying on this leg (all our gear, circa 15kg). On the way we saw some great views of the mountain we would attempt to summit that night.

We arrived at high camp around lunchtime and at this point the place was covered in dense cloud. We spend a few hours relaxing then in late afternoon the cloud cleared revealing some awesome views of the surrounding mountains. We take some pictures and have a read of the graffiti left by previous climbers whilst sharing stories of previous trips to the mountains. After dinner I am paired with a lovely French guy for the ascent and we have our briefing with our guide. We then all promptly head to bed to try get some sleep as we are up at midnight for breakfast.

After a couple of sketchy hours sleep in two sleeping bags, 3 pairs of socks, 2 pairs of trousers, hat, gloves and a duck down jacket, we make to the table about 12.15am and have a light bite and a cup of coca tea to get us going. At 1.15am we´re roped up and ready to start our 3km climb up the glacier hopeful to reach the summit by sunrise. The first 5 hours we spend hiking in the dark. This had several key benefits. The first being you can´t see the top and hence the constant reminder of how much pain there is left to go through, although you do have a constant feeling that you are climbing a beast. As I looked up ahead at the star filled sky I realised that we could in fact work out the shape of the terrain ahead by the silhouette of mountain in the sky where there were no stars. Looking at the size of this silhouette did little to motivate you but did give you a sense that it would be a great physical achievement if we were successful. Secondly, it was cold (very cold) and thus you did not overheat. And thirdly, the beauty of the mountain is kept as a surprise until later.

The guides set a manageable pace, i.e. very slow and after about an hour of climbing I could see an orange glow behind us which I thought at first was thge early signs of sunrise. It turned out to be the lights of La Paz illuminating the valley below. "Bollocks" I thought "It´s still the middle of the night. There is much more too come!" And right I was. For the next four hours we crossed crevasses, climbed and traversed steep ice slopes and hiked up the open glacier. The only thing we could see were the flickering head torches of groups ahead and behind us. It was an eerie but exhilarating experience. My chest had gotten quite cold and I had started coughing a lot. Luckily I had no other symptoms so felt good to go on.

Just before 6am we reached the field of ice formations below the summit ridge which we needed to traverse whilst gradually climbing. This was one of the toughest 30 mins of my life and I had to stop every 10 seconds to catch my breath. My legs were very tired too. A group of Brazilians turned back at this point but despite doubting my ability I pushed on slowly. We reached the bottom of the ridge as the sun began to rise, slowly revealing what I can only describe the best natural site I have ever seen. It was utterly mindblowing and it´s giving me goose pimples just writing about it. We stop for some photos. Sadly the pictures give an idea but nothing like do it justice. We then make a few more steps to see our first glimpse of the other side of the ridge, in other words, the other side of Bolivia. I lift my head to see the moutain drop vertically away and a view that includes Bolivia´s highest peak Nevado Sajama (6,542m) and even Lake Titicaca. To top it off Huayna Potosi is casting a huge shadow over the landscape giving you the feeling you are on top of the world.

The final challenge is the knife edge ridge to the summit which we take slowly (not that I had any choice in that) and we finally reach the summit about 7am. We made it and it felt great once I had got my breath back and stopped coughing. We stay on the summit for about fifteen minutes soaking it all and taking snaps before starting the long decent back the same way we had come. The French lad said he nearly shed a tear on the summit and on the way down I was starting to feel a bit emotional myself. I think in part that it was partly because the place was so beautiful, partly becasue I was exhausted but primarily because I had completed a tough physical challenge when I have been questionning my fitness a lot in recent years. I´m definitely at my best for a few years and feel really great about it.

The walk back down the mountanin was stunning and full of surprises. It was incredible to see the amazing views across the ice and surrounding mountains including Illimani (6,438m) we hadn´t been able to see during the night and it was also mind blowing to retrace the distance we had come up. The descent dragged and it was unbearingly hot with the reflection of the sun bouncing back at you. The was no escaping it. On the final stretch of ice my crampons finally proved how crap they were making me fall a couple of times as they were packed full of snow. At my physical limit and with my legs wobbling we arrive back at high camp and i´m in need of a quite few moments to sit down as my head is pounding. I skip lunch but drink some water and smoke a cigarrette before it´s time to descend back to lower base camp for our transport back to La Paz.

I say my goodbyes to the group and head back to the hostel to pick up my remaining luggage. I´m knackered and hungry but want to get to Coroico. I end up on a packed minibus but the drive was awesome except for the fact I was bussting for a piss the whole way with a women asleep with her elbow in my stomach and a 2 litre bottle of water wedged between my legs descending one of the world´s most bumpy roads. Did they not know what I had just been through? I fianlly get there and after the world´s longest wee I can finally enjoy a stroll round the square and it is the perfect place to end to one of the toughest but ultimitely most rewarding days of my life. One which I will always treasure.

Now where´s the little sod??


Tom arrives about 6pm Saturday evening, and I am especially pleased to see him, and relieved to know he is back in one piece as well as having achieved the summit :) I get a quick glance through his amazing pictures, a little jealous of the views, but equally reassured that the climb probably wouldn´t have been my thing! We settle in with a bottle of red and a tasty dinner, pausing for a quick toast to Stephen and Mary as its their wedding day today (congratulations guys!!!)

We enjoy few more days in Coroico, witnessing the crazy costumes (and all night brass band) of the village fiesta as well as meeting a nice couple from Finland, and a chap from France who is recovering from a possible combination of salmonella, altitude sickness and low blood pressure (bless him). Fully refreshed, and with batteries recharged, we´re back on the mini bus to La Paz. Its slightly disconcerting that the driver feels the need to do the Catholic cross over himself on more than one occasion during the journey, but I guess with this number of holes in the road after previous landslides, who can blame him!!! We arrive back to La Paz in time for a quick tour of the Coca Museum and to get ready for our morning flight to Rurrenabaque. We´re off to the Amazon jungle folks!!!!

There´s a rumble in the Jungle! (Rurrenabaque and the Amazon basin)

2011-10-05 to 2011-10-14

We are up and out super early as our check in time at La Paz´ military airport is at 6.30am. Its a chilly start, and I have to fish back into my rucksack for an extra alpaca jumper before check in. Brrrrr! The airport is a strange little set up, but reassuring that all the staff (including the air hostesses) are in their military rig out - they must know what they are doing! We meet a nice couple from Australia, and while away the waiting time exchanging stories and recommendations on Bolivia so far.

The plane is probably the smallest I have ever been on, and we are seated below, rather than above the wings, so in full view of the planes wheels which feels a little strange. Take off is pretty smooth, but mid way through the flight I´m starting to feel more than a little nauseous. Enough to request some sick bags..... just in case!!! I keep reassuring myself that however bad this is, it HAS to be a million times better than the alternative.... which was a 24 hour bus ride along essentially a narrow, twisty ledge (having heard the horror stories from other travellers). However, aside from that, it is a superb hour and 10 minutes of scenery. We pass over the mountains surrounding La Paz (still in view above cloud level) before descending down over the lush, green jungle landscape.

As soon as the plane doors open, we are greeted by a wall of heat. Its at least 35 degrees, and pretty humid. Definitely not going to be needing the alpaca here!!! Rurrenabaque airport is brilliant, its essentially more like an English cricket pavilion than an airport, and most of the landing strip is grass!!! It is also the first airport I´ve been to with outdoor toilets - class!

Despite the heat and humidity, we take an instant liking to Rurrenabaque. The pace is pretty slow (and afternoon siesta taken very seriously) but everything is well kitted out, and there are some nice bars and cafes. We trek round about three or four different hostels before finding one we are happy with, so by the time we check in we are both pools of sweat!! It might only be about 10am, but its definitely time for a cold beer :)

We get chatting to another great Ozzie couple, Zane and Claire, who turn out to be our "jungle buddies" and we hang out with them for the majority of our time here. Its great having some quality time and company with people with similar tastes to us in terms of music, travel, festivals and generally the good things in life!

After a bit of research, we plump for Mashaquipe to do a four day tour of the jungle starting on Friday. Its a bit more expensive than some of the others, but as well as being eco friendly, the organisation is owned by the local indigenous communities, with all profits being reinvested locally, so it has to be worth supporting. Zane and Claire opt for the Pampas tour, so we head off in separate directions and agree to share photos on our return.

We start the tour on a slightly rushed footing, having been slightly stumped by the fact that there are no return flights back to La Paz on Wednesday, the day we intended to fly back, so it takes longer than anticipated trying to negotiate our return flight in Spanish at the Tam office. I am already not sure that I can cope with this heat for an extra 2 days, but looks like we´re here till next Friday. We arrive to start the tour, and besides a young French guy who seems quite nice, we are greeted by a grumpy middle aged German chap and a loud Austrian woman... who I already know I probably wouldnt select to spend four days of my life with...but we´ll give it a crack!

You know those people that always have to be first? Take the best seats? Their photo is more important than your photo? What they want to do is more important than what everyone else wants to do? Well this was Norbert and Doris (yes that really was their names). I thought he said "nobhead" when he introduced himself, which was remarkably fitting as it turned out!!! Anyway enough of that, you get the idea. And if you don´t, maybe have another watch of Ball Trap on the Cote Sauvage, for some typical European stereotypes!!! Nightmare tour companions!

That aside, our guide, Sergio, has an amazing grasp of English, and an even better knowledge of the jungle flora and fauna, having been brought up in one of the communities locally. He wastes no time in getting us up and off for the first hike (the first of many!!!), seemingly completely oblivious of the fact that it is now about 40 degrees, and I can bearly move an eyelid without disintegrating into a puddle!!!

The rainforest canopy is absolutely beautiful. There are so many different species of tree in every direction, palms, walking palms, rubber trees, banana plants, pineapples - you name it, its all here. Thats before you even get onto the insects! So many creatures, and in the most dazzling array of colours. Red beetles, giant flies, caterpillars that look like they have been drawn in the imagination of school children, huge spiders, jumping stick insects, baby frogs, camoflaged lizards, buzzy things, crawly things...crazy!! Thankfully nowhere near as many mosquitos as I had feared, which was a super bonus. And then the birds.... our guide was able to identify the birds just from their bird call, or a small fleck of colour on their tail, and together the sound was incredible - constant jungle music!!! At night, the jungle really came to life, and the music was so loud, it was a real experience to sleep in the lodge, knowing that all that life was going on around you.

Our top spots were the macaw nesting ground lookout.... red and green macaws that looked as if they had flown straight out of a disney movie! (A shame only that without a SLR camera, we couldn´t really do them justice on the photos). A vine snake, that I spotted less than a metre from my foot, and then quickly scarpered off into the trees. We even managed to see a group of noisy but often elusive howler monkeys - much closer up than we had seen them at Tikal - and with their little babies, which was fantastic! We only really fell short of the pumas and jaguars, but given even the guides only see them 2-3 times a year, we can´t complain. We did stumble on some fresh jaguar paw prints though, so they were in our midst!! Which did nothing to ease my apprehension on the second night, were we camped out in the forest in nothing more than a mosquito net and tarpaulin. Try getting up for a wee in the night with all that lot buzzing round your bed - eeek! I´ve ticked that one off my list, and I can pretty safely say I won´t be doing THAT again....!!

The first two days of the tour were a bit too "walking heavy," so we were pleased when day three opened up some new activities... including building a raft to float back down the Beni river to main camp, making jewellry out of local seeds and palm fruit stones, and for Tom, a little spot of fishing. After a slightly grumpy and hot Morgan for the first two days, I was in my element on day four, when we went to visit one of the local indigenous communities, who showed us their traditional handicrafts, including weaving a bag, hand spinning cotton, and making bows and arrows for hunting fish and animals. Pretty cool to imagine how long these crafts have been handed down, but also sad that there was obviously a limit to how far they were to continue for generations to come.

A little shocking too to learn that none of the children are able to study their indigenous languages in school. Because there are at least three different local languages, Tacana, Quechua, and Aymara they instead study the lowest common denominator of Spanish (even though their parents may not even speak it). Thankfully there is a new plicy to have one native speaking teacher in each school and without this the indigenous languages would most likely die out almost completely within a few generations. For the sake of cultural diversity, let´s hope it works!!!

The difference in lifestyle and culture was a real eye opener, but hardly surprising considering this climate! We were greeted at the desks in the outdoor school, before meeting a 45 year old woman with 12 kids (although she couldn´t remember how old her eldest was), an elderly lady who had been spinning cotton by hand since she was a little girl but didn´t know how old she was, before the teacher stopped his class to pull the kids out to meet us so that they could have photos taken and see photos of themselves!!! You could rest assured that he didn´t have any stress of national curriculum, SATs exams or school league tables.... ;)

Then back to camp, including possibly the hottest walk I have ever done in my life, through open jungle on the edge of the river, in the midday heat back to the boat. This was the point where I think my heatstroke really started to kick in!!! When we arrived back at camp the guide told us it was 80% humidity that day, but also interestingly, that it never used to be this hot at this time of year. Over recent years, they have been witnessing many changes owing to climate change. Worse still, they currently have the threat of the proposed change in national legislation to allow the building of a huge road through the middle of the Madidi National Park and to commence drilling for oil. There is currently a standoff between the government and the local indigenous people, who rightly fear the worse for the local ecosystem and the threat of massive pollution should this be allowed to happen. We didn´t fancy their chances in winning the battle against Evo Morales, but wished them strength and good luck all the same.....

Well our four days was coming to and end. Looking back, it was a worthwhile experience, although I must confess I was just ready to get outta there by the last afternoon, so I particularly enjoyed the boat ride out!!! We arrived back in Rurrenabaque to find that Zane and Claire had not enjoyed their pampas tour, so had extended their stay in Rurrenabaque a few more days, so we took the opportunity to have a night camping in the jungle with them too (with tents, albeit leaky ones, this time!!)....

All in all it had been a great week, but I think when Wednesday came round, we were all ready for our flights back to La Paz to get back to a more "normal" climate. After a farewell lunch, we headed off to the Tam office for check in. Only to find a misleading sign, referring to today´s date (but a different flight number), explaining that today´s flight was leaving at 9.30am not 4.30pm. Que? Given its now 3pm, we are slightly perturbed either way.... either we have missed the flight that morning, or we have yet another night in Rurrenabaque!! (By this point, our hostel staff already think we are complete loony tunes, as we have checked in and out of the hostel three times owing to various tours and trips). Turns out the flight was indeed that morning, and despite ringing round all the hostels, our hostel didn´t think to tell any of its guests (thats the difference between 2* accomodation and 5* accomodation I guess!!!)

To add insult to injury the next available flight isn´t until next Wednesday!!!! We have already done 2 days more than we intended, but I don´t fancy another 5! As well as the fact that I think my body heat might boil over before then, we are also aware that we only have a few days left on our Bolivian visa, and still other things we want to do, so I´m not impressed. After the initial panic, we manage to negotiate a refund, and hotfoot it over to the Amazonas office in the hope they have seats on tomorrow´s plane. Thankfully within the hour, we have everything on track for a 7am flight tomorrow, so just one more night to sweat it out!!!!

On our way back to Hostel Los Tucanes de Rurre (to check back in for the 4th time) we have a little giggle to ourselves. Its been a great stop, and maybe Rurrenabaque just doesn´t want to see us go?!

Next stop is still on the toss of a coin, as we are trying to arrange a rendez vous with Mick and Sophie from back up in Ecuador and Peru to do the Salt Flats tour from Uyuni. Maybe we´ll head to Sucre first, or maybe straight there....? Watch this space.....

PS. In the meantime, don´t miss our other recent new diary entries from 13th Sept (snowboarding), 25th Sept (La Paz) and 29th Sept (Huayna Potosi) - we´ve finally caught up with ourselves!!!

Planes, trains and automobiles (Rurrenabaque to Uyuni)


So after 11 hot, sweaty days, it finally looks like we are leaving Rurrenabaque on attempt three!  We are up early and down the cricket pavilion (AKA airport) for 6.30am and I´m already breaking a sweat. 

First sight of the plane doesn´t help my temperature either!!!  Its even smaller than the TAM plane we took on the way here ie. you can´t stand up straight inside the cabin.  Tom practically has to crawl into his seat to avoid banging his head!!!  Bizarre too that we can see straight into the cockpit including all the flight control buttons and switches - lets hope there´s no reason for the pilots not to be calm at all times then!  Thankfully, the flight is over quickly, and we are making our decline to La Paz (me still clutching my sick bag in one hand and my stomach in the other) within 45 minutes.  It goes down as my second worse flight in history (only topped by the flight from Edinburgh to Manchester after the PPS Xmas party in 2006, where apparently I actually turned green!!!)  We take a few minutes on the tarmac to enjoy the normal climate and bit of breeze, before heading back into La Paz to collect our spare bag and work out what we should do next....

We are both hungry and feeling a little ropey, so decide to treat ourselves to a full English fry up, pint of PG tips, and a bit of Brummie banter at La Paz´s only English pub!!!  Its the first English meal we´ve had in four months so we don´t feel in the slightest bit guilty, and blimey, that PG Tips is GOOD!

During the course of  the conversation, we also come to a full realisation that Bolivia is essentially under a 48 hour lock down for the elections due to take place tomorrow.  All alcohol sale and consumption is banned from midnight Friday to midnight Sunday, all shops are closed all day Sunday and and all transport is halted from afternoon today till Monday.  Well, that´s one way of getting people to vote I suppose, out of sheer boredom!!!  We decide there is going to be little here to entertain us, and so head off towards to bus station to investigate where we might go instead.

We reluctantly rule Sucre out on the basis of long, difficult journey´s both ways (not really worth it for a couple of days).  And discover that the last bus leaving for Uyuni (until Monday) is in about 45 minutes.  Can we make it?  The sales ladies assure us we can (!) so we start a race against time in chaos traffic to get across La Paz and pick up our rucksacks and get back to the bus station before 2pm.  We make it with about 3 minutes to spare, just enough time to buy a bag of snacks sufficient to keep us going for 12 hours!!  We also meet Greg and Kristy, two Canadians also rushing for the bus (and who we later spend much of our time in Uyuni with).

The journey turns out to be better than feared, with the exclusion of the last four hours... if you imagine the sensation of driving a 20 year old bus, with limited suspension, down continuous sets of cobble steps you would probably be about there.  But thankfully it doens´t plunge to quite the depths of the Puno bus, so we arrive relatively upbeat in a freezing cold Uyuni at 2am.  Happily, there are quite a few other gringos on the bus, so we go out in convoy looking for a hostel with a door open, and find Hotel Avenida. 

The contrast in climate, altitude and landscape couldn´t be any more stark.  The temperature is probably in (or close to) negative figures, we are back to being slightly short of breath at 3669m above sea level, and the vistas from the town are solely sand and desert, with barely a hint of wildlife or greenery in sight. 

As promised, election day arrives with pretty much everything closed.  We bump into Greg and Kristy and decide to risk a meal in one of the only places that´s open, in spite of its "ever so slightly" strange decor.  As long as you don´t look up, its ok.  So I stay focused on the table and try to order something safe from the menu.  Turns out we have quite a bit in common with our new travel companions.... Kristy is a social worker and the "manager" of the couple, and Greg is a developer from Amazon, working on their Cloud Music Player, and the "rock star" of the couple (terminology we coined from Claire and Zane in Rurrenabaque!!!)

Despite Uyuni being deserted, we manage to book our Salt Flats tour late in the day with Red Planet Expeditions, and are all set to head off in a group of 12 in two jeeps at 11am tomorrow.... can´t wait.....

Walking on the moon (Uyuni´s Salt Flats)

2011-10-16 to 2011-10-20

We all bundle into the jeeps ready for our three day adventure, and are quite relieved that we seem to have hit lucky on our group.  Besides the four of us, we are also joined by Fern and Paul from the US, and we can immediately tell that we will all get along. 

We are also travelling with a second jeep comprising two Germans, two Swiss sisters, and a Dutch couple - so its a pretty electic spread.

First stop... the train cemetery.  Its difficult to tell which is more surreal...  the fact that these huge engines were made and shipped from Sheffield 125 years ago (!), or the erie setting in which they now sit, isolated, on a track in the middle of, and going nowhere!!!  Despite this, it is a pretty impressive sign of British workmanship that they are still standing, although unfortunately, we don´t manage to find the "Made in Sheffield" placard in time for a photo :(  So the story goes, these trains were the victims of one of the last heists by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (although we hear different conclusions on whether they were killed by the Bolivians or captured elsewhere....)

Next stop, we reach Chulchani on the edge of the Salt Flats.  This community literally lives off the salt plain, spending most of their working days shovelling salt into one ton piles, and some living in houses made of salt (despite them only having a 10 year lifespan before they need to be rebuilt).  Shortly after, we witness this gruelling job in motion.  Whiteness is the only thing you can see for miles, and many workers start shovelling at dawn and don´t finish till sunset.  We learn that they pay a tax back to the government for the salt they extract, which then needs to be dried and exported at a price of $500US for 10 tonnes.

Underestimating the vastness of the Salar, we all start asking questions about the longevity of the flats and the environmental impact of extracting it.  The answer... the Bolivians haven´t even thought of that yet... but with good reason.  We learn that this, the largest Salt Flat in the world, covers 12,000 square kilometres, and from end to end is 300km!!!  Moreover, in the centre of the flat, the salt is 150m deep.  Now that is ALOT of salt!!! 

With our fears allayed that it isn´t going to run out any time soon, we embark on the "must do" activity for all tourists here... the crazy perception shots!!  We could play here all day, but eventually get pulled away by our tour guide!!!

Next stop is the Incahuasi Island, also known as fish island, as it used to be a coral island at the time when the flat was a sea.  This has to be one of the bizarrest and most brilliant sites I have ever seen!!!  It is literally a coral rock and cactus island, sitting in a sea of salt.  We climb up to the top and the views are spectacular.  There aren´t many words to easily describe it, but hopefully the pictures speak for themselves!! 

After a short stop to check out the hexagonal patterns, created by the change in humidity of the salt, we check into our accomodation for the night..... our Salt Hotel.  It sits within such a barren landscape it is hard to imagine how or why there are people living here, but life does indeed continue on.  We brave the cold to watch the sun setting, before heading indoors to check out our rooms.  It is positively luxury (well compared to what we expected anyway).  We have electricity for 3 hours this evening, a bed made of salt (complete with multiple layers of blankets), and our own bathroom.  Slightly weird getting up onto salt crystals between your toes when you need a wee in the middle of the night, but all in all a new experience!!! 

Day two, is the day of the lagunas - with sights equally as bizarre and brilliant as the Salt Flat.  Huge lagunas, set against a chilly mountain backdrop, complete with hundreds of flamingos.  Yes, flamingos!!!  If you thought they only lived in tropical climate think again... but it was a strange sight to behold.  We learned that there are three species of flamingos here:   Andean, Chilean and James's flamingos  (although spotting which was which was more difficult). One of these migrates from the jungle each year (probably to escape the 80% humidity, and I don´t blame them!!!)  The flamingos against the setting of the Laguna Colorado (or red laguna), were something really special.  Apparently, the rich mineral content of the lake attracts algae, which are eaten by the flamingos and enhance their pink colouration.  Mum, you can probably tell us if that is factually correct or not!!!

Final stop of the day is at the Arbol de Piedra (or rock tree), which has been linked to the work of Salvador Dali.  Who in turn, has some rocks further into the desert named after him (despite never actually having been here!!!)

Our "refuge" for the night, turns out to be another relatively pleasant surprise!  Although the veggie lasagne they prepared for us was somewhat less than impressive.  Me and Greg couldn´t quite get over the irony of sitting next to the world´s largest salt flat, and yet they hadn´t yet grasped to put some of it in the food!!!  But besides the seasoning issue, and the freezing cold temperatures it wasn´t a bad night.  If you can call it a night, as we were rudely awaken at 4am for day three......

After a brief stop at the steaming fumaroles, we arrived at the 33 degree thermal pools before 7am.  Tempting though they looked, the air temperature was nothing short of baltic, so there was no way on earth I was stripping down to my bikini!!!  The others laughed at me in my 27 layers as they all had a steaming hot bath.  But no thanks, I can wait until New Zealand thermal pools in summer time!!! 

We headed out through desert landscape, almost touching the Chilean border, and reaching the dizzy heights of almost 5000m above sea level, before making our long journey back to Uyuni (day three was 13 hours driving in total!!)  But we can safely say we have thoroughly seen this corner of Bolivia! 

We said our goodbyes to the tour group and then sympathised with Greg and Kristy (over a tasty pizza and a glass of wine), who had a 12 hour bus back to La Paz to catch from Uyuni that night.  Hope it wasn´t too painful folks!?  Without such a tight schedule, we felt lucky to be off to bed and for a lie in with morning telly. Thanks to our visa extension, and a cracking 30 days so far, we aren´t in any rush to leave Bolivia...... so we can head off to Tupiza on Friday......!!  

Cactus Country - Tupiza, Bolivia

2011-10-21 to 2011-10-24

We opt to take the 6am bus as it was the best option in terms of scenery. If we´d taken the night bus we´d have missed amazing views from the bus window all the way. As we approach Tupiza the mountainous scenery gets even better and we are sure that we have made the right decision in making the effort to get here. The red rock formations all around are so incredible that they look manmade. All the hillsides resemble a natural version of Petra or the vatican. Quite incredible!

We check in at a great hostel called Valle Hermoso and are surprised to find a great flat screen Samsung TV in our room. Not bad for 3 pound 50 each a night. I just don´t quite understand why they see a top notch tv as a priority when there is no furniture on the roof terrace? It´s these subtle differences in approach that teach you alot about the local psyche.

We spend the next day lazing around town and at sunset head up to Corazon De Jesus for the great views across the valley. Afterwards we return to a great pizzeria we found the night before which became our second home for a few days. Great fresh topppings about an inch thick on top of a nice thin base served up on a wooden board. Perfect! That night we meet an Irish/Aussie couple on an extended honeymoon and trade robbery stories over a couple of beers.

We hope to do some hiking before we leave so instead of exploring the area on horseback, on our third day we decide to go for a jeep tour to see more and save our legs for the next day. You see the last horseriding trip left me with a second arse and Claire walking like John Wayne!

We head out in to the canyons and up the mountain side in a Nissan Patrol and are blown away by what we see. The colours are incredible and we are pleased with our "wallpaper" shots of the cactuses contrasting against the rocks. You get a real feel out there of what it must have been like for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid who met there bloody end close to Tupiza. Local legend has it that they were surrounded in their guesthouse and Sundance was badly wounded so instead of being gunned down by the army Butch put a bullet in the head of Sundance and then one through his own temple. Heavy stuff, but I suppose it serves them right for robbing those trains from Sheffield. ;)

Next morning we take a cab up the valley to follow the railway tracks back in to town. It´s a long hot walk but nice to get out on foot. On the way back we ponder how different life is for some people in these remote places and how humbing the mountains make you feel and how they pout you in perspective. I love the feeling of remoteness whilst Claire loves the sea so we talk about options for living close to both after the trip.

That evening we take a beer in one of the identical restaurants in town before heading back to our favourite one for a final pizza before bed as we´re up for the 4am bus in the morning. Personally I´d call it a late night bus but here the bus is full of early morning commuters to Argentina. Not for me thanks!

Bye byes, boutiques, buses, budgets and bl**dy massive waterfalls!! (Salta to Puerto Iguazu)

2011-10-25 to 2011-10-28

Its a bit of a bumpy ride down to the border, and we arrive just after dawn, not expecting it to be quite so chilly!!! Its only been 2 and a half hours and its another different climate system. We get hounded by all manner of people trying to sell us bus tickets, but as they are all contradicting each other on what we need to do and who has the best deal, we decide to ignore all of them and hope we can pick up a bus from the Argentina side! After changing a bit of cash, its a easy walk over the border. We say our goodbyes to Bolivia, its looked after us really well, we´ve had a fabulous 5 weeks, with hardly a single hitch, and even the border guards give us huge smiles and an adios on the way out. Bolivia.... our new favourite country..... we will definitely be back one day!!!!

So we rock up in Salta after a relatively uneventful journey down. Certainly we have already noticed that the Argentinian roads are a good deal smoother, and we´ve both had a nice kip on the bus which makes a pleasant change!!!

Views coming into Salta are lovely, although it is a much bigger city than we thought, so we are quite glad on this occasion to have booked ahead. We have an imcomprehensible exchange (including various hand waving and pointing) with a taxi driver at at the bus station, before resolving that it is going to be as easy to walk!! Although, this does remind us that our bags are in urgent need of a clear out, they are running pretty heavy...

We quickly realise Salta is a pretty fancy place - we´re talking wine bars and boutiques, rather than almuerzo´s and tiendas. Its a nice place to walk around, but unfortunately we can´t afford to buy anything (including dinner!) After walking the full length of the centre of town, we realise that one of the first places we ruled out is probably our best bet, so we settle in for a steak (well, in for a penny and all that.....) Dinner conversation centres around how good the fun/cost ratio was in Bolivia, and how on earth we are going to keep the budget under control at these kind of prices for the next 5 weeks. We conclude the following in order of priority 1) hostels with kitchens/eating in, 2) staying in dorms rather than our own room 3) modifying the route depending on how the budget is going. So first things first, its off to the supermarket to purchase red lentils and powdered squash - that should save a few quid!!!

We decide that its probably not the kind of place to be hanging around too long, so head off to the bus station to sort out our onward journey. Our best option turns out to be a 24 hour bus to Puerto Iguazu. It works out cheaper than doing all the legs separately, and plus at least we won´t need any accomodation for the night. Still the priciest bus yet though, at 457 Argentinian pesos (about 67 quid).

Thankfully its a pleasant surprise to find the bus only a third full, so setting off at 4pm we are pretty comfortable, and after a few movies we get a pretty decent kip in, so the first 22 hours pass relatively ok. Unfortunately, its the last 2-3 hours which somehow seem to take forever, so we are both feeling slightly gripey and ready for a beer by the time we reach Iguazu!! Thankfully, the excitement of heading to the falls tomorrow suddenly dawns (it seemed like such a long way off only a week ago), so our mood quickly recovers. We decide to take Lonely Planet´s tip and do the Brazilian side of the falls first (on local buses, of course!!).

We arrive at the park as proper full paying tourists for the day! It actually feels quite nice to have everything taken care of, and be in the safety of a world class attraction for the day. Although it is a bit of a "theme park" it is done relatively tastefully, and actually there aren´t AS many tourists as we expected. After a bus through the park, we get dropped off at the start of the walkway, and despite still being quite a way off, we can hear the falls before we see them. The first views are immense - it is so beautiful - and the walkway guides us down the side of the river closer and closer to the falls. It it a different perspective around every corner, so I can´t stop taking photos. The local wildlife, particularly the butterflies, are also captivating. When we reach the falls close up, there is a walkway that enables you go all the way out to stand on top of one of the falls, getting completely drenched of course!! You can also get an elevator to the top of the falls to get a full panoramic view of the park which is amazing. Also, fascinating to see display pictures of the falls at all times of year - some pictures where it is completely dried up (presumably at height of dry season or a drought), and then other pictures, where the water levels got so high, all the walkways were destroyed!!

My favourite part though, was at the end of the final walkway, where you could stand a few metres away from the main falls... the noise, and sheer volume of water is like nothing I´ve ever seen... it was completely mesmerising. Amazing to think that all that water is flowing out of the Amazon rainforest! They say that the Argentinian side is the better side, but this is going to take some beating.....

Our side is better than your side....

2011-10-29 to 2011-11-03

We decide we are too tired to do the "double-whammy" on the falls, so opt to take a day of rest on the Friday. Actually, it turns out to be a very wise choice, as we are woken up early doors to the sound of a tropical storm outside, and it literally pelts it down all morning. Wouldn´t have been a good day for sightseeing! Although, it isn´t a great day for getting our bits and pieces done either, there is a town wide power cut, so no laundry, no internet and very little to do. We busy ourselves making a lentil and chickpea curry on the world´s slowest electric hob cooker, and bump into an Irish couple who seemed familiar. It wasn´t until I was too deep into the conversation, when I realised that they were

two of the world´s most annoying travellers (who we had met at Manchester airport on our outward flight). Arghhhh! I won´t be making the same mistake next time I see them, that´s for sure...!.

We also make friends with two guys from the UK who are lookalikees of Tom´s mate´s Luke and Windy. We name them to this effect, but they keep remembering it wrong and consequently ultimately become known to us as "Ideas Man" and "Swifty". I can´t now remember what their real names were, but you know who you are. Sorry lads, nicknames it is! :)

Anyway, it´s up and off early to the Argentinian side of the Falls on Saturday... and perhaps the combination of a weekend and the day after a bad weather day isn´t great, as its teeming with tourists (annoying ones with their "more important" cameras as well). We are amazed to pass so much wildlife along the way with crowds this big - but spot loads of birds, coatis, a caiman lazing in the sun and numerous butterflies, lizards and insects. As we´re on a timescale for tonight´s nightbus, we decide to hit the main attraction first, so we go straight on the train to Garganta del Diablo AKA Devil´s Throat.

The downside for the poor Argentinians is that they have a hell of a lot of water to cross before reaching the falls, so all of this side is self-constructed metal walkways. For me, this takes away a bit of the natural beauty of the landscape (so I have to say, controversially, I preferred the Brasilian side), but it does mean that you can get right up close to the top and bottom of each waterfall and really feel the force and volume of water.

The name "Iguazu" apparently comes from the Guarani or Tupi words y [ɨ], meaning "water", and ûasú [waˈsu], meaning "big", and when you reach the Devil´s Throat you can really see why! The sheer power of this thing takes your breath away (if only the same could be said for the annoying tour groups!!!). After a bit of argy-bargy we manage to get some photos taken, but we linger around for a while, watching the birds diving in and out of the water spray, it is all quite surreal. You can literally peer over the edge of the fall, to the extent that you can make yourself a bit dizzy with the force of the thing.

We then head off on the Circuito Superior, which takes you on a walk across the top of each of the falls, followed by the Circuito Inferior, which takes you up close to the bottom of each fall. Again, the pictures speak louder than any description, so we´ll just leave you with the fairytale...... Legend has it that a god planned to marry a beautiful woman named Naipí, who fled with her mortal lover Tarobá in a canoe. In rage the god sliced the river, creating the waterfalls and condemning the lovers to an eternal fall.

Or to bring the story more up to date... to my horror, I read in Lonely Planet that there used to be a tourist attraction here where a local rowman would row a boatload of tourists to the edge of the falls, then row backwards like mad while you looked over the edge, took pictures, spit, or whatever tourists do when they´re perched precipitously on the edge of a waterfall (?). Don´t worry mum, this "ride" was only available until the 1930´s when there was an unfortunate accident with a boatful of German tourists, and a rowman whose rowing skills weren´t quite up to par. Yes, they all died of course. And no mum, I wouldn´t have been tempted (although I can´t speak for my adrenalin junkie other half, who couldn´t see what the problem was....??)

So THAT was Iguazu. Certainly worth the wait, and glad we saw both sides. We get back the the hostel just in time to hound the staff for our laundry back (it eventually arrives with 5 minutes to spare, but completely wet - not entirely handy for the night bus to Sao Paulo - but these things are sent to test us I´m sure!) We make our connection in Foz de Iguazu (on the Brazilian side of the border), and quite quickly learn that things are very different here! The atmosphere on the bus is positively buzzing, these Brazilians certainly are CHATTY! It feels a bit weird though, as after months of finally getting to a comprehendible level in Spanish, we can currently understand precisely NADA! The rumour that Portuguese is anything like spanish can be quashed here and now!!

Bizarrely, as the bus heads out into the countryside, this is the first landscape we have seen in months that could be mistaken for being the UK. It makes me feel a little homesick even, but for the odd palm tree here and there! Meanwhile, Tom has other worries. Some chap on the bus has either mistaken Tom as someone else, or simply taken a liking to him (maybe its the beard?), but is trying to engage him in Portuguese conversation, much to my amusement at each and every stop!!! Wouldn´t have been so weird if Tom had acknowledged him on any occasion, or if he had not been missing an eye!!!

After what feels like a lifetime, wedged between two fully reclined seats with inexplicably itchy skin (?) and cramp we make it to Sao Paulo. Unfortunately (thanks to our bus being late) we have just missed our connection so have a few hours to kill in the bus station. We decide to cut short of our planned destination (Ilha Grande) and buy tickets for Paraty instead. Even in the couple of hours at the bus station, we get another flavour of the Brazilian personality. Quite a few people jump to our aid, and have a positive sense of humour when I try to pay for something in Argentine pesos, or as we try to order the "do it yourself" pasta meal at the station and can´t make ourselves understood. One guy even offers us a bit of his dinner to help out!!

We finally arrive at Paraty at about 10.30pm. Just in time to squeeze in a quick beer on the beach for last orders :) We have to switch hostels for day two, and end up at Backpackers House in the centre of town. Its owned by a friendly Argentinian (along with most of the other hostels in town), but unfortunately his tag along mate AKA "kayak man" is straight onto to our arrogant and ignorant list. I don´t think he expected me to argue back to him (maybe he doesn´t get many politics students through!), but he certainly rubbed Tom up the wrong way. Needless to say, we didn´t do the canoe tour! However the hostel itself was just like living in someone else´s house, so we made ourselves at home, and got the lentil curry on the go again!!! It was only a few days later that we finally deduced that I was allergic to the curry powder we bought in Iguazu - which finally explained why my mysterious rash was getting worse and worse by the day - that was all we had eaten in 4 of the last 5 days!

In the end we decide to ditch our plans for Ilha Grande - we want to make it to Rio in time for the weekend - so decide to chill here and feel at home for a few days. We find plenty to do, including a trip up the road to an isolated beach (Sao Goncalo) where you can wade out and take a little boat trip over to a tiny island, and also a day trip to the hippy town of Trinidad (pronounced Trinidaje). Despite the weather being a bit changeable, we have a nice few days and by Friday morning, its safe to say we´re ready to hit Rio baby!!!!

The Cidade Maravilhosa! (It's Rio baby!!!)

2011-11-04 to 2011-11-08

It’s a wonderful ride up the coast from Paraty to Rio, the green of the hillsides is so lush, and in pure contrast to the clear turquoise sea. It is absolutely stunning, and we realise that another trip to really see Brazil more fully is going to be due sometime this lifetime. As one of the more expensive countries in South America, we knew we were just going to have to hop through, so for now, we´re glad to get a flavour....

I´m feeling a bit apprehensive about getting to Rio, its image for crime and trouble precedes it, however we quickly realise that we probably don´t need to be too paranoid, as (as soon as we are out of the bus station district!) it actually feels like one of the safer cities we´ve been to. We later hear that a massive clean-up operation of the city is underway, in preparation for the World Cup in 2012 and Olympics in 2016, so crime is on the down, and business is on the up – and it really shows.

We barter down the extortionate taxi price quite considerably, although we are still acutely aware that a significant "non-Portuguese speaking, tourist tax" is sitting on the fee, but neither of us fancy seeking out an alternative! We arrive to our B&B in the district of Santa Teresa by late morning, to be greeted by Ignacio (the Italian employee who runs the place on behalf of Manu the owner). The place is stunning, it is indeed (as one of the previous Trip Advisor reviewers stated), like an apartment off a James Bond movie. Complete with the dulcet tones of Michael Buble to finish it off (later to become solely known as "The Booble", due to his repetitive overplaying for our entire stay)! From Santa Teresa you have views down into the city, and quaint little cobblestone streets, little cafe bars and live music spilling out into the streets. We are pleased with our choice, and confident that it will be a different experience from the reported majority of tourists who stay solely in Copacabana and fail to venture anywhere else in the city.

First up it’s a beer on the terrace by the pool, before we decide to walk down through Santa Teresa towards Lapa to see the Escalaron de Celaron. This work of art started as a temporary installation of tiles on a local neighbourhood staircase, but then progressed so well that its eccentric artist decided to devote his entire life to preserving and constantly updating the tiles so that it is never constant. People send him tiles from all over the world, and now it has become a real feature of the city, not just for Lapa. As chance would have it, he is there in his studio as we arrive, so we get a signed postcard and buy a little display tile as a reminder. We head off for a few early evening beers, but haven’t quite got the stamina for waiting for the Lapa street party action to get started at midnight, so instead we head back to Santa Teresa for a delicious (but unfortunately mini-size) Brazilian Shepherd’s Pie (beef jerky in mashed potato topping), and consequently, have to pick up two dodgy pasties on the way back to the B&B!

After a monster breakfast at our B&B (it has everything, including homemade cake!), we head off eagerly for Christ the Redeemer. Saturday might not be the best day to go in terms of the crowds, but it’s clear blue skies and the sun is shining, so we figure it’d be silly to risk waiting. The views of the city are absolutely stunning, and the occasional helicopter swooping overhead, or plane landing at the central airport, totally adds to the cityscape. This city really has everything – the beaches, the sights, the history, the business district, the nightlife – no wonder they call it the marvellous city! We eventually tear ourselves away, and make it back down to the bottom (despite the fact that Tom has lost his super-sticky bus sticker ticket!).

Next stop, it’s the Marina de Gloria for a comedy conversation with a local guy from the marina who is doing his best to be helpful, but who clearly doesn’t understand a word we are saying (and likewise we don’t understand a word from him!). All we are trying to do is find out where we can get a boat trip for views of Rio round the marina, but it ends in what could be a 20 minute comedy sketch, with Tom speaking a mimed version of precise Queen’s English, me attempting more pigeon Spanglish, and the poor guy speaking Portuguese and writing numbers on his hand. True international relations at its best! But the Brazilians seem to be used to no-one speaking their language, so it is all in good humour, and they always seem to do their best to make you feel welcome.

After finally deducing that we have missed the boat for today, we head off past the Harley Davidson bike convention, to check out Copacabana beach. We were expecting Rio to be a huge sprawling city, but it’s actually only a 15 minute cheap and speedy bus ride across town (they don’t break for corners), and when we get there we can see the attraction. The sandy beachfront extends for as far as the eye can see, and is full of all shapes and sizes, sunbathing, playing volleyball, doing press ups – you name it, it’s all here. They say that the levelling factor about Rio is that everyone – whether rich or poor - becomes equal on the beach, and that is probably true. Another unique feature compared to Europe is the absolute no-no of even considering going topless, yet the absolute acceptability of women showing their entire butt cheeks parading about on the sand, or guys heading off from the beach into the shopping streets, in nothing more than their speedos!! “Unfortunately/fortunately” we haven’t got our swim stuff on us, so instead we do what any true Brit would do….. we have an overpriced half a lager on the beachfront, followed by a cheeky beachfront take out, before heading back up the hillside to Santa Teresa!!

Back at the B&B we are just sorting out some directions for our Saturday evening out, when in walk two of the other guests. Despite being dressed up and ready to go, without hesitation, they offer to wait for us to get ready and share a taxi out together. This is the lovely Fernanda and Fernando – a Brazilian couple on a weekend away from Belo Horizonte – who turn out to be some great company for the rest of our time in Rio. Getting ready quickly isn’t too much of an ordeal, we each only have one “outfit” that is marginally smarter than the rest of our clothes, so it’s a quick shower and chuck that on! We enjoy getting to know Fernanda and Fernando as we amble through the streets of lively Lapa, before heading into the reknowned local Samba club for dancing and music. Despite its reputation, we all find it a little pricey, so although we are glad to experience the live Brazilian samba, we decide to head off for the ongoing party in the Lapa streets, meeting some more of Fernanda and Fernandez’ friends en route. It turns out to be a late one, and the four of us stumble into a taxi, and home for a nightcap just before it starts to get light. Another observation about Rio is the focus they have on work-life balance, it is definitely more geared towards “play” than “rules” ie closing the Lapa streets every Friday and Saturday night for a party, or closing the beach front streets to traffic every Sunday.

Thankfully, Sunday’s plan had only stretched to a day on the beach, so when everyone wakes up late and a little bleary eyed, it isn’t too much of a drama. Better still, Fernanda and Fernando have their car here in Rio with them, so we all head off together in air conditioned comfort, for Ipanema beach. We share a lovely afternoon drinking beers in the sunshine (or Coconut water in my case), exchanging stories, talking about where in the world we want to visit, and learning a little bit about life in Brazil. Despite initially claiming he didn’t speak much English, Fernando now appears to be in his element, even giving Tom’s sarcasm a good run for its money! They also show us a lot of the traditional Brazilian generosity, buying drinks and snacks, and Fernanda even treats me to a Sugarloaf sarong as a memento of Brazil  Together they help to make our weekend in Rio pretty special, and we exchange details, hoping that their planned trip to Europe will come off one day soon – and whenever it does – our door is always open!

On Monday, after the extended debate of the last few days (should we, shouldn’t we…), we decide to book onto a tour of Rio’s favela’s. It’s been a bit of a bone of contention for me, as I didn’t want to partake in something which essentially makes a tourist attraction out of other people’s poverty, but having done a bit more research we are reassured that that isn’t the case. We book to go with the company that founded the favela tours (see: www.favelatours.com.br), has staff members who live in the favelas and which invests a proportion of its profits back into favela community projects. Apparently the whole purpose of starting the tours up was to increase awareness about the favelas and improve perceptions of them, rather than what the authorities have been doing for so long in ignoring their existence (even missing the areas completely off maps of the city). The founder based his initial idea on a survey of local support.

The two favelas we visit are Rocinha (the largest favela in the whole of Brazil) and Vila Canoas. Ironically, these neighbourhoods (along with most of the other favelas) lie on the high slopes of the hillsides, with amazing views of Rio (and in contrast to most other modern cities where the rich reside at the top). This is historically because the former slaves, once freed, were unable to afford the existing accommodation, but were not properly provided for, so were forced to build shanty towns away from the main neighbourhoods. Over time, and without intervention, they have grown and modernised, and now are fully established with a full range of shops, a few formal banks, running water, electricity, sky TV, their own radio station and most recently, a hospital. They also have a bus service into town, although these neighbourhoods aren’t stated as a destination on the route, as this wouldn’t be favoured by the people in the rich districts that the bus has to pass through first…

We take a walk through a few streets and are introduced to some local artists from the favela, most of the art is really good, and we buy a small canvas we would like to put up at home. We also get to see the views across the favela, and the distance people who live at the top have to walk to get home (as there are no proper roads after the entrance road, only narrow alleyways). As an outsider, you wonder how they even find their homes in this chaos street layout. Apparently at one of the favelas that has been pacified, an escalator has been installed to improve this issue. At the second favela, we take a walk through the twisty windy little alleyways and it is quite bizarre – narrow staircases, front door steps, small communal areas, sewage tunnels, washing on the line – one flows seamlessly into the other somehow. I have never seen anything quite like it. We also get to visit the community school (part-funded by the favela tour), which is intended to keep the kids off the streets for the time they aren’t at formal school (which apparently is only either/or morning or afternoon). This is one of my saddest moments of the tour, as we go into the classroom and there is barely any natural light, we notice a brick wall about three inches from the window. With no planning regulations, the next door neighbour can build wherever they like, school or no school. It must have been devastating for the kids and the volunteers, particularly as one of the rooms blocked was the arts and crafts room. Conversely, across the road from the favela are what would have been multi-million pound properties (though devalued now), and the stark contrast of rich and poor can be felt across the street. Allegedly, despite their proximity to the favela, these homes are one of the safest places to live, as the rules not to sh*t on your own doorstep (see below), extend to surrounding streets.

Whilst most of the favelas are largely in the control of the drugs lords, apparently they are generally very peaceful places. Rules are in place that punish (usually by death) robberies or crimes against people within the favela, and that, whilst obviously not very democratic (!) seems to serve as a deterrent. The rules are rigorously enforced so as not to attract unwelcome attention from police. The main issues arise when gangs challenge authority within one favela to another – as there is a constant battle for overall supremacy within the city. We don’t feel this tension as much as I had expected, although we do take seriously the advice not to take any photos of the 000’s of lads zipping about the place on motorbikes. As well as being the local taxis, many of these also serve as the eyes and ears of the drugs gangs in control of the favela, and consequently, they aren’t all too photogenic….. Incredibly the drug lord in charge of this favela is only 23, but it’s a short career as his life expectancy is not much higher.

In the event, we are both really glad we made the decision to visit the favelas. Had we not been, we would have seen all the gloss of Rio, without the reality of 20% of its population living in the favela districts. It was also an enlightening opportunity for me to see from a professional perspective the result of a community growing organically without any input from authorities or without any planning regulations in place. In fact, it was very encouraging to see the strength of creativity and community in most of these places. Certainly a different atmosphere from “poverty” stricken communities back in the UK, who have much better support and facilities, yet infinitely less drive to better the place in which they live. This is a familiar theme to most of the poverty we have seen whilst away, compared to back home, in that it is generally marked by a visible determination for people to improve their situation, whatever that takes. So we’ve seen a hell of a lot of self-enterprise, creativity, craftsmanship, home businesses, driveway shops, and street entertainment along the way.

Only a few days after we had been to Rocinha, mum mentioned that she had seen it on the international news… the police had been in as part of their massive programme to pacify the favelas and turn them over from the hands of the drugs lords. Certainly, I wouldn’t have wanted to be there on THAT day, but pleased that progress seems to be coming, little by little.

Later that afternoon, we take a brief trip to Centro to see the business district, but it’s a little like any other, so we soon head home for the evening. So impressed with Ignacio’s skills on breakfast, we have booked to eat the evening meal at our B&B and in the irony of all irony’s, the sod cooks us an equivalent of tuna pasta!!! Actually his is posher with olives in it, but still…!

We decide to make the most of our final morning in Rio and are down at the harbour for 9am for the boat trip. We find it confusing that we have literally had to search out this trip, and can’t understand why it isn’t top of the tourist list? The views back of the city, which lines all along the coast are fantastic, and the incoming planes fly right overhead for their landing on the harbour strip. We circle all the way round past the Sugar Loaf, across to Niteroi (the unlucky city across the water from Rio which never gets a look in!), out to the bridge, and back to the harbour. We also pass by a disused gas rig (up for sale if anyone is interested?), which apparently was a bit of a “Millennium Dome” of a project, that was installed before they realised there was only a tiny trickle of gas!! The boat trip might have been a little extravagant, but we felt it was the final element of Rio, to see the views from the water.

So after farewell lunch on the terrace at the B&B it’s off to the airport. It’s been a fantastic few days, and we feel we’ve seen a lot in the four days we’d had! We pass by some huge favelas on the outskirts of the city, on the way to the airport, which stands as a lasting reminder of the contrasts within this city. Our final view is Rio from the air – and we certainly wave it off with a fond farewell – it definitely is a marvellous city!!

With all the big events headed its way over the next few years, its thriving economy, its upbeat attitude, and one of the world’s biggest super-ports in construction for trade with China, we leave with this thought… “Watch out world, here comes Brazil....!”

Late start to The Rockstar Conference 2011 (Buenos Aires via Uruguay)

2011-11-09 to 2011-11-11

We make our way through to the gate to find the usual overpriced café is more overpriced than normal so opt to have a picnic in the terminal. Brushing off the crumbs we board the plane for our three hour flight (or so we thought).

First stop is Montevideo, the capital city of Uruguay then on to Buenos Aires. First leg goes fine then we see the “delayed” notice on the screen along with a number of other Pluna flights. Bummer! We decide to grab a beer and pizza as we suspect it could be a long night. We get speaking to a local waiting for another delayed flight and find out that BA airport staff are striking, then somehow wangle another free meal just before they announce we are boarding. We rush a further two pizzas through the restaurant and board the plane carrying great big takeaway pizza boxes. We sit and wait on the plane for a bit and with nothing happening unleash a second pizza. I can feel the envy of the other passengers but “f*@k ‘em” I think and tuck in!! ;)

Then the tannoy goes and it’s bad news. The delay has meant the pilot is now at the end of his shift and can no longer fly the plane. Back to the airport it is where are given an indecent proposal. Wait in the airport all night with a chance of getting on a flight in the morning or wait in the airport until 2am then get a bus to the 4am ferry. We figure there wasn’t much chance of getting on a plane in the morning so go for the ferry option. We are really pissed off as Zane and Claire are awaiting our arrival at the Rock Star Conference 2011 and we only had a couple of days in BA before our flight to Patagonia. So we wait in a pointless queue for a couple of hours before we are finally rounded up for the bus. We arrive at the ferry terminal in time for the biggest thunderstorm I’ve ever seen and are told the ferry will take longer than usual. WTF?!

After a few hours kip on the ferry we finally dock at Buenos Aires and head straight for a cab. In the queue we get chatting to a Brazilian and an Argentinian about the incompetence of Pluna and one of the guys guy said it was probably all bull shit and the reason we didn’t fly was probably because Pluna had failed to pay their airport fees or something. I don’t think we’ll ever know what happened but we decide we’re going to see if we can get any compensation out of Pluna – it’s worth a try?! As you might expect the conversation soon moves to football and some friendly banter between the two guys commences. Being English I had little to add to this argument of two great achievers but to settle their argument of which country is best I simply say: “Brazil are brilliant at football and Argentina are brilliant at handball” and that was the end of the debate. Even the Argentine had to hold his hands up, all in good humour!

We eventually grab a cab and arrive at Zane and Claire’s almost 12 hours late. Despite being tired we enjoy a catch up with them and head out to see what BA has to offer. First impressions are that this is a monster of a city with lots of small neighbourhoods like those in New York and by far the most stylish place we have visited on the trip so far. The architecture is impressive and the shopping areas are similar in scale to those in London although a bit cheaper. It even has a Bond Street like it’s English counterpart. It’s just a shame we couldn’t come here earlier as we’d have been sorted out with new gear in no time.

We check out a few shops then get a cab to the start location of our graffiti tour. The cab driver looked perplexed as to why four gringos were getting dropped off in the centre of dodge but the address was correct. After a pint of lubrication we hit the streets guided by two female street art fans and a number of other travellers. We check out the work of various local and international artists and learn of BA’s unique, relaxed attitude towards street art. In fact it is actively encouraged in some areas and the artists can work delicately in the daylight rather than rushing to complete a piece of work in the dark before the police arrive, as with most other cities in the world. We visit a local art café and a studio of local artists Jaz and ?? There was a street art festival commencing that weekend and Portuguese street artist Vhils was going to be there creating artwork on/into walls with his drill next weekend. Sadly we’d miss this. After a couple of beers in town we head back to the flat and sit up to the early hours drinkin’, chattin’ and listenin’ to some tunes.

Slightly hungover and even more tired we head out mid-morning to explore central and the district of San Telmo. Central was the usual downtown big building thing you find everywhere just VERY big, whilst San Telmo was a bohemian shopping and drinking neighbourhood with cobbled streets and some great little independent boutiques. If we had had time we would love to have had more time to look round.

That night we head out for steak and eventually find a parilla (an Argentinian barbecued steak house) where we treat Zane and Claire to dinner and toast the end of their trip. As one might expect in Argentina, the steak was delicious but was gone in seconds as we were all so hungry!!

So that was our brief encounter with Buenos Aires as next morning we were up at 4.30am for our early flight to El Calafate in Patagonia, home to the Perito Moreno Glacier, Torres Del Paine and the mighty Mount Fitz Roy. I think it’s gonna be good there!!

A flippin' big block of ice and a zig zag trek (Perito Moreno and Torres del Paine)

2011-11-11 to 2011-11-19

We arrive in El Calafate for lunchtime, and it feels so good to be back in the fresh air, away from the city! We find a great, cheap little hostel, Los Dos Pinos, and check in to our little cabin for 100AR per night (12 quid). Besides the slight worry of discovering the bank cards are blocked (AGAIN!) we have no trouble in dropping off to sleep early (as tired is not the word) and we are due up early for a day at the Perito Moreno Glacier tomorrow. All is going well until we are rudely awoken at 2.30am by the screams of pleasure coming from the bedroom next door – it seemed our French neighbour had got lucky down the tango club!!! Thankfully it is relatively shortlived, and the next thing we know, we’re on the early bus to Perito Moreno.

They are few words to describe the beauty of this magnificent glacier, but it is like nothing I have seen before and seems to go on forever up the mountain. Seeing something like this up close gives you a feel of what the earth must have been like during the ice age, and back then, it is hard to imagine that this would have been comparatively nothing! The colours and sounds of the glacier are a real surprise – the perceived blue colour is to do with the density of the packed ice and the way it therefore refracts light, and the sound as huge pieces of the thing crash off into the water resembles cracking thunder, and is captivating to watch. I could have watched that thing for days. We failed to take the boat trip (thanks in no small part to our t*t of a bus driver, who drove off without giving us chance to buy a ticket) but in the end are pleased to have saved our cash as we don’t feel the catamaran could add much more to the experience. By chance, the best ice fall of the day happened right in front of us, just at the time the catamaran was at the other side of the glacier and missed the views! Despite this, I don’t apologise for the mouthful I gave the bus driver, because he was still an arrogant w***er!!

The next day we are back across the border to Chile on route to Puerto Natales, access point for the Torres del Paine National Park. This is the strictest border crossing we have done yet, and it takes over an hour to get everyone off and through the border, as all the hand luggage is searched, and everything else gets the sniffer dogs over it. Bizarrely, they are looking for fruit and vegetables, not drugs. Which would be more amusing if I didn’t have an entire bag full of food! We stuff as much of it down our faces as possible before joining the queue, but it’s too late. The dogs have already sniffed out the left over spag bol in our Tupperware that we left on the bus!! Embarrassingly I have to step forward to claim it, but when I tell him it’s my dinner for tonight, the Chilean customs guy takes pity on me and waves me through (a few apples and oranges down of course).

Puerto Natales turns out to be a strange little backwater type place. We haven’t really thought ahead about where we are going to stay, so when a little old dear with a walking stick comes over with her hostel flyer at the bus stop, we figure we might as well take a look. We follow her, hobbling all the way across town, only to arrive at what appears to be her house, with a couple of spare rooms she rents out, off her lounge. Not so bad in itself, but it doesn’t look like this place has been cleaned in about 3 years – there is washing everywhere, and not a visible surface available in the kitchen. Chintzy would not do this place justice! We politely decline, only to bump into her down the road half an hour later (we are still looking for a room), where she offers us the room for half price. We can’t think of an appropriate excuse quick enough so we have to shuffle off awkwardly, leaving her to wait for the next bus of incoming tourists – bless her!

In the end we plump for Lili Patagonico’s, which is the ideal hostel for trek preparations, and run by a local guy who started off the place with just two beds only a few years ago. After a few complicated sums, we figure out that camping is going to half the price of our three day trek in Torres del Paine, so we decide to rough it and set about hiring the gear we need, and planning some top quality camp meals (yep, you guessed it, tuna pasta)! In fact, we also cook up a superb lentil curry (which is becoming, the ‘new’ tuna pasta), and box it up hoping that the pound shop Tupperware we brought from home is up to scratch. We also foil the local sting of hiring out gear for the trek ‘per day’ from Puerto Natales, by realising, if we hire ‘per night’ in the park it is only 3 quid more expensive and we don’t have to carry our tent – bargain! After hiring the remaining gear we need from the same guy we booked the bus, we also wangled a day free – so we set off confident we have got the best deal in town for the W trek – now let’s just pray for decent weather….

We arrive at the park early and thankfully the sun is shining and the outlook looks promising. We are doing the “W” from east to west, but without the final leg, so its actually more of a “Z” on its side, if you get my drift! We set off through the first valley towards Camp Chileno and beyond that, the mirador for the Torres. As we start to climb steadily we realise the wind is getting up, so fix all our gear tight and decide to have lunch after it blows over. It doesn’t! Instead the wind whips itself right up, just at the point we are crossing one of the few narrow ledges on the side of the mountain. We (and several others) are practically blown to the floor, and in the kerfuffle, my prescription sunglasses are blown right off my face and down the mountain. Damn it, that’s already the 2nd pair this trip! But at least we didn’t blow off with them – which did cross my mind for a split second back there…. We later find out the winds got up to 100mph at some point that day!

The rest of the valley passes without a hitch (besides my squinting in the sunshine), and we arrive at Camp Chileno for late afternoon. After ditching our bags there, we make the final ascent to the towers in relatively short time, and thankfully the valley is clear and the sky is blue and we get some great shots. To me, the way the granite catches the sunlight makes the towers look shiny silver, it is really beautiful. I even enjoy the scramble up and down to the final mirador. We also bump into the lovely French lady with the green jacket for the first time here, we are impressed with her stamina and drive, she is 65+ and appears to be on her own. We assume she is just on a day trek (but later learn this is not so, as we bump into her at least twice a day from here on in!) We arrive back to camp early evening, and glad we have a premade curry ready to go. We estimate we’ve trekked about 7.8km, including climbing about 800m.

We are rudely awaken in the morning to a shoe dispute, where it appears that a chap in the tent next to us managed to leave the refuge for his tent with someone else’s boots. The owner of the boots was not best impressed, and had been up half the night looking for them by the look of his face. Whilst our neighbour, a 50+ Frenchman didn’t strike us as a shoe thief type, we did think it was a bit sketchy that he had his own pair of boots too? Surely he would have noticed wearing two pairs back to his tent? Or that the pair he had acquired looked nothing like his own boots? Henceforth, their entire group were to be named “the shoe thieves,” made all the more entertaining by the fact that we seemed to bump into them frequently across Patagonia for the following two weeks, usually with the warning, “watch out, the shoe thieves are here!”

Day two is a long day, we don’t realise as we set off, but it’s about 12kms in total (made a little longer by us taking an early wrong turn!) On this leg, we meet Nick and Liz from Kent, and while away a few hours discussing our various travelling achievements and treks. Nick generously takes pity on the two budget travellers as we arrive at Camp Cuernos, and treats us to sharing in their bottles of wine, which is greatly appreciated :) We notice the shoe thieves are camped just round the corner from us, so we bring our boots inside for the night!

Day three starts really early, and it’s pretty fresh when we get out the tent. We get ourselves moving with an instant porridge and then straight on the track, as it’s the longest day today with 15.5km to cover. We make it up to Paine Grande in time for lunch with some of the best views of the trek so far – a huge glacier with snow avalanches on one side, the back of the torres opposite, and views of the lake and the valley down to our left. It is fantastic, and takes my mind off my sore knees, for a short while at least!

The walk back down the valley is enjoyable, although we have vastly underestimated how far there is left to go, and we are both really tired by this point. Our total “Z” trek distance is estimated at 35.3km, and despite the low altitude I am suffering more than on the Inca trail (although also carrying substantially more gear I suppose)! Just as I am starting to get grouchy, the final refuge comes into view, and we celebrate with a beer in the sunshine and a tuna pasta at the campsite! We laugh at the Germans queuing an hour early for the catamaran, and then choosing the wrong seats inside when the boat arrives…. we end up on the top deck and get fabulous panoramic views of the whole park on the way out!!

We are pleased with our achievement, so take a day to relax at Lili Patagonico’s before heading back across the border (with the shoe thieves in tow again!) Owing to the slow border checks, we miss our bus connection to El Chalten, so check back into Los Dos Pinos, and instead of getting our old room back, we end up in the noisy sex room next door! Its been a while since we have eaten out, so we decide to treat ourselves to an all you can eat parrilla for 75 pesos (11 quid each), but it includes a range of starters including whitebait, as much meat as you can eat from the grill, and even a range of desserts (probably only our 2nd dessert in 5 months, since the jelly we got at Las Tolas!!) We leave the restaurant bursting at the seams! Well, as the saying goes, “When in Rome…”

The mighty Fitzroy (El Chalten and Parque Nacionale Los Glaciares)

2011-11-20 to 2011-11-22

After the usual mad rush for the early bus via various dodgy ATM’s, we arrive in a freezing cold El Chalten by mid-morning and at the bus stop we meet a nice but slightly dim kiwi who was surprised by the cold weather. He was also surprised that his New Zealand dollars weren’t getting him very far. He had it in his head that he would be a rich man here and that all the girls would be swarming round him. My favourite comment of his was thus: ”It’s almost the same prices as back home and this is a third world country!” I couldn’t help pointing out that Argentina was a former world super power. What a plonker!

We eventually find our lodgings, Aylen Aike and meet its friendly owner, rocker lawyer Sebastian. He’s a top bloke and better still he has a 5.1 surround system set up to a big tv with loads of music videos – magic! It’s a cosy ski lodge type place with log fire, bar and huge country style kitchen and it soon enters our top ten list of places we’ve stayed in. We have a quick leg stretch to the Chorillo del Salto waterfall as we have a long walk planned the next day, but although it did its best the poor thing was not a patch on Iguazu (not that it is at all a like-with-like comparison). That night we whip up another of our classic chick pea curries and get stuck in to some red wine. I end up sneaking in an extra beer after Claire goes to bed and whack on Nirvana Unplugged followed by the Police Live in Buenos Aires followed by some LA Woman tribute concert. To be fair I didn’t much care, I was just so excited to have some audio visual entertainment and a seat on a sofa – the first time in months.

A tad rough we share a cab with a French couple to El Pillar to take on the hike back to El Chalten via the mighty Mount Fitz Roy which helps form the dramatic skyline of El Chalten at 3,405 metres with its neighbour Cerro Torre. Our legs still aching from the Torres hike, the pain is worth every second of pain as the views of the mountain, the glacier and glacial laguna are incredible. Best of all it’s a gorgeous sunny day and these are rare in these parts. Climbers often come here for two months to ensure they get a good climbing day and here we are with the perfect day on day one. The walk back is long and we end up in bed for 9.30. We both agreed that the view from the mirador at the top of laguna los tres was on a par with Laguna 69 in Peru. It’s amazing that Laguna 69 only gets one small paragraph in Peru’s Lonely Planet!

Next morning we were due to take a hike up to see Cerro Torre but we don’t have the energy. Our guilt is eased though by the fact the weather is crap and visibility non-existent. Instead we have a chilled day and visit the visitors centre to read up on the climbing history of the mountains then check out a small chapel built to commemorate the mountains’ fallen heroes. This only kills an hour or so and then we experience our first day of boredom on the whole trip. Even the internet was too expensive to keep us entertained.

So, our Patagonia cake eating pays off in the main and we are glad we made the trip down here. We did however find it all a bit busy and with all the hoards of people, expensive park fees and nicely marked paths felt the place had been a bit spoilt. It was all too organised and too easy thus, for us at least, loosing the important feeling of escapism and isolation which we both really enjoy. We agree that it was definitely worth the visit but lacked the feeling of adventure offered by the mountains of Peru and Bolivia which were a fraction of the cost. This may be splitting hairs though as it all beats a day at work! ;)

'Surviving' the Ruta 40 (El Chalten to Bariloche)

2011-11-23 to 2011-11-26

So we are rudely awoken at 2.30am for our 3.10am bus up the Ruta 40 to El Bolson, in the Argentinian Lake District. We never quite worked out what the point of the ridiculous hour was, because it didn’t seem to benefit anyone - whatever stop you got on or off was always the middle of the night! You can buy badges, stickers and various souvenirs relating to “surviving the Ruta 40” which doesn’t really set you off with a great sense of confidence for a bus ride….hum. Anyway we’re here for the next 24 hours or so, so we might as well get comfortable.

True to form, we are rudely awoken (again) at 7.30am to the sound of the bus wheel spinning in mud (well it was more like clay really) and not going anywhere fast…apparently a bus got stuck in this spot this overnight once….this could be a long 24 hours!!! They decide this is a good time to bring out breakfast, and had it not been Borrowers sized it may have served as more of a distraction, but unfortunately it just consisted of two miniature bread rolls and a measly jam. After half an hour or so, the bus driver clearly loses patience for waiting for the local diggers to come and fetch us out, and he decides to take a running “jump” at it. We are all off-loaded from the bus and he drops it back, before flooring the accelerator in a shower of mud and slaloming off up the hill with the rear end sliding outwards behind it. Wow, he’s done this before, we all think!! After a few courageous tries we are all back on the bus and continuing our journey, but if anyone was under any illusions about this journey they are now back in reality…. the Ruta 40 is essentially a farm track for the most part, rather than a major bus route. Added to which, there are very few scheduled stops as there is literally nowhere for the bus to stop – not a toilet, a service station, a café or even a road junction. It is the textbook definition of “the middle of nowhere.” When you look out the window it is just a flat, desolate landscape for as far as the eye can see. We both agree that this is probably one of the most remote places in the world we have been, and are pleased that we remembered to pack a whole bag worth of food and drink!!!

After a whole day, and the best part of the next night on the bus, we finally arrive at El Bolson at around 5am in the morning. In the half asleep daze getting off the bus, we manage to leave my little bus bag in the back of my seat and I lose one of my favourite souvenirs from Peru – a little alpaca headscarf – but hey, we are headed off to warmer climes now and hopefully it has found a good home ☹

El Bolson turns out to be a little bit of a disappointment. We were both expecting a tiny little hippy place, but it’s actually a decent sized town. There are hardly any bars, and we struggle to find somewhere even for a pint. Having said that, the sun is out, and Tom bags himself a nice little Argentinian mullet haircut, so it’s not all bad. Nevertheless, we decide not to bother sticking around, partly because we miscalculated how far away Mendoza is, and we actually have another 22 hours (not 10 hours) to go.

We make a brief overnight stop in Bariloche. Blimey, and we thought El Bolson was bad for finding a beer! This place wins the award for the “most difficult place to find a beer” we have both ever visited. Not the best tourist accolade if you ask me! The town is also covered in grey dust, owing to the recent eruption of the volcano nearby in Chile, so wandering around town in this kind of wind isn’t fun. We go on an unsuccessful mate hunt (the famous tea/coffee alternative in Argentina, drunk from a small hollowed out squash), and I get an Argentinian bob cut (not exactly what I was after, but hey), and head back to the hostel.

We get chatting to the staff there and are reminded of an earlier observation about the Argentinians. On the whole, they are very animated and chatty, but let’s just say, they aren’t good listeners!!! For even Tom not to be able to get a word in with one of his stories, this guy must surely have fins?! We have worked out though that eventually, if you can win respect from an Argentinian, they might let you get an occasional word in, but generally our rule of thumb is that you can expect to start on the back foot!

So after a night on dodgy bunk beds (with quilts that may well not have seen a wash for a good few weeks – uw!) we head off to the bus station. This is the first bus station we have come across that has an outdoor soundsystem – unfortunately the musical taste leaves something to be desired… You know you are missing your ipod when you look down and find yourself clicking your fingers and singing along to the 60’s and 80’s megamix outside the bus station! Such classics including Bad Bad Boy, Aha’s Take on Me, Karma Chameleon, Life is Life by the Scorpions, Part Time Lover, and from the 60’s “Say Yeah Yeah.” Jive bunny move over!

Tom is clearly quite glad to get me on the bus before I embarrass myself further – so we set off on our penultimate leg towards Mendoza. The home of the Malbec. Bring me wine!!!!

Land of the Malbec (Mendoza)

2011-11-27 to 2011-11-30

It isn’t a comfortable bus ride, as we’ve got the two front seats, meaning Tom can’t stretch his legs out for 22 hours, and neither of us can see the video without craning our necks into a weird position. Thankfully it is only another Jason Statham movie (we have seen so many movies of his we never knew existed since we came away!), so we don’t have to worry about keeping up with a complex plot. A couple of Argentinian lads next to us include us on their mate round, which is pretty nice considering we only just said hello, but customary of the Argentinian social nature.

We are booked into Hostel Empedrado, which is a great place in terms of communal areas, it’s just unfortunate that our room appears to be a bunk bed in a broom cupboard… I am half expecting Gordon the Gopher to turn up at any second! Not exactly what we had in mind when we booked a “twin.” We have also done our “arriving in a big city on a Sunday” special, so nothing is open. There is nothing for it but to settle in at the hostel with a few beers (oh, after I manage to crack my head open on a concrete plinth while hanging our washing out that is - ouch).

We meet Michael and Mandy, two Americans who have got really disillusioned with life in the States and have come away passionate about finding life change. It’s interesting to hear some similar views from across the pond, as well as some of their more extreme views about the realities of capitalism, and it makes for a lively and stimulating debate.

Later on we head out in search of something to eat and stumble upon an international food festival and market in the main square, which turns out to be quite a find! After tucking into a few empanadas, some grilled meats and watching a bit of live dancing we are glad we came. We also finally manage to find our much sought after mate sets, which is just as well as we only have two days in Argentina left!

Next morning it’s time for the wine tasting. I’ve been looking forward to this part for a while and it doesn’t disappoint. Courtesy of Mandy’s recommendation, we opt for the Lujan wine region (instead of the more commonplace Maipu, which apparently is just full of drunken groups of backpackers). The recommendation is good, but for the fact a lot of the wineries are closed today owing to a national holiday (!), but as it turns out owing the volumes of tasters and the uncomfortable bikes, two wineries is plenty! We go to Dante Robino and Bonfantti. Wine connoisseurs eat your heart out, here is what we learned….

• The year of Argentinian wine, is much less significant than for European wine. This is because the land is controlled by irrigation, so essentially there are no “bad” weather years.

• All Argentinian grapes are still handpicked. Groups come down from Bolivia and Peru to do the Mendozan wine harvest, then generally stay to do the fruit harvest.

• 70% of Argentinian wine is consumed within Argentina. After that, that largest export is Brazil, then the US and then Canada.

• The effects of climate change are being strongly felt in the Mendozan region, with temperatures soaring over the last few years by at least 7 degrees, to give regular summer time temperatures of 35-40 degrees (the opposite of the problem in France, where cooler, wetter weather is causing problems for wine growers). Consequently Mendozan wine growers are gradually moving the vineyards closer to the foothills of the mountains where it is cooler.

• Malbec in Mendoza’s prime grape. It originates in France, but the climate is much better for growing it in Argentina, so it is primarily grown here.

• 1kg of grapes makes about 600cl of wine.

• In mixed wine varieties, the grape that is mentioned first is the largest in number.

• It is the grape skin that determines the flavour, quality and ultimately the strength of the wine. Grapes with thick skin when picked need to be aged in oak, whereas thin skinned grapes are bottled straight after processing.

• Argentinian wine often has a slightly higher % alcohol, owing to the dry climate and hence the thicker skinned grapes.

• True rose is only made from one grape, whereas cheap rose is made from a mixture of red and white. Contrary to popular belief, the rose grape makes white wine, not rose wine!

• All wine is fizzy owing to natural fermentation in the wine making process, but most of the CO2 is then vented off. It is hard and more expensive to keep the natural fizz in sparkling wine, so in a lot of wine, the fizz is re-added later.

• Oak barrels for wine storage cost 1000 euros from France or $700 from America. This is because oak trees need to be 100 years old before they can be used. What is more, an oak barrel can only be used in the winery for three years, after that point, they are often sold to whisky distilleries in Scotland, or used to make furniture.

• An Argentinian Reserva has been aged in oak for 6 months, whereas a Gran Reserva has been aged for 18 months. Imitations are easy to spot because they use terms like “oaky flavour,” but this generally just means that pieces of oak have been immersed in the wine, rather that it being properly oaked.

• Generally, the longer the wine is aged in oak, the more expensive it is. However, the “best” wine, can only be determined by an individual palate and will be different tastes for different people.

• Increasingly French wines suggest storing the bottle for a certain length of time before drinking. This is generally because the grapes have had to be picked early owing to bad weather, and therefore the wine needs some time to fully develop.

• Many wine growers also grow olives as they grow well alongside grapes, and can supplement income. Black olives are just green olives, picked later in the season i.e. July instead of April.

• Half a glass of red wine a day is good for you, as it is rich in anti-oxidants (it is drinking the rest of the bottle at the same time that is generally more in question for your health!)

• All wines include a small amount of sulphur as a preservative, however, cheap wines add a higher percentage of sulphur which is what can give you a headache.

• Contrary to popular belief, one type of cork isn’t bad, and another good. It all depends on the wine. A screw top is best if the wine doesn’t need to breathe, a plastic cork helps the wine to breathe a bit, whereas a natural cork is best for an aged wine that needs to breathe a lot.

• The key to tasting is: colour, smell, flavour/strength. The tannins are what determine the strength.

Our favourite wine of the day was the Dante Robino Malbec Reserva. We would have definitely been tempted to buy a load if we weren’t flying out in two days time (which is probably just as well, as they were 70 pesos per bottle, about 10 quid). Instead we opted just for a bottle of the Dante Robino rose. All in all, a great afternoon out, although we should have eaten more before we went, as I was feeling decidedly ropey on the bus back to Mendoza!!

The next day we are sad to be taking our final South American leg… the route over the Trans-Andean Highway into Chile. Check out the photos of the road over the border, this is quite a feat of engineering! As we eat our packed lunch of slightly burnt chicken on slightly burnt bread, we reflect on the fact that a lot of the food in Argentina has been overcooked! Even their world famous steaks are generally well done.

It is nice to arrive to the familiarity of Santiago as our final stop, and everyone is also noticeably friendly and helpful, the staff at the bus station, the taxi driver etc. Just as we are discussing this, and how Chile feels one of the more developed, safer countries we’ve been too, we are reminded of the constant need to be on your guard everywhere in South America…. A woman has had her passenger window smashed at the lights and her handbag stolen. Unfortunately, this is one of our key learnings from South America.

It is nice to know our way to the hostel though, and we give the taxi driver the final directions to the door. The hostel staff at La Chimba recognise us straight away, and we get a really enthusiastic welcome as well as getting checked into “our” old room, with its comfy queen size bed. Nice! We tuck into our Dante Robino rose and Bonfantti olives, and left over bits of food that survived the border (which was actually a lot more enjoyable than it sounds!)

We spend our final day wasting time trying to purchase various stuff we need, before we finally resolve that we should have learnt by now that South American shopping is a waste of time.. and head back to the hostel for some late afternoon beers. The atmosphere at La Chimba is great, and they have even made a load of improvements to the place since we were last here, so it is now an even stronger contender for the “best hostel award” of our trip so far. Unfortunately the party is just gearing up a notch as its time for us to say our goodbyes for the airport, but nevertheless, it’s nice to have a send-off, and we both bid a fond farewell wrapped in the Chilean flag.

It’s a shame that the airport takes the edge of our good mood with its disorganised chaos. We arrive two hours before our flight is due to depart, but get seated seeral rows apart, we have to queue over an hour to get through security, and then the staff confiscate our drinks that we bought after going through security…grrrrr. Never mind though, our mood quickly recovers when we sweet-talk a chap into swapping seats, get the onboard wine cracked open, have the best airline meal ever and get a non-dubbed film on! And, RELAX.

New Zealand, here we come……!

The Beard's Prayer


The Beard’s Prayer...

With warmer weather on the horizon and it’s future now uncertain, I felt it only right to pay homage to what has brought me so much comfort and joy for the past 5 months.

Ladies and gentlemen please bow your heads for The Beards Prayer. Long live the beard!

Our beard who art in heaven,

Holy beard’s thy name.

By kingdom come

thy will be grown

On earth as it is in heaven

Give us this day our daily trim

And forgive us our barbers

As we forgive those who backcomb against us

Lead us not in to temptation

For my beard is my kingdom,

My power and my glory,

Forever and ever.

Our beard.

The long lost day and a dodgily painted campervan! (New Zealand's North island)

2011-12-02 to 2011-12-06

The 11 hour flight from Santiago to Auckland is an absolute breeze after all these long bus journeys we have been doing, and in honesty, we are a bit disappointed when it comes to an end as we are enjoying the inflight entertainment system!! Bizarrely, when we touch down, we have lost a complete day, as it is now 3.20am on the 2 December. So happy birthday from cyber space James May, hope your 1st December was more enjoyable (and existent) than ours!

After all this time looking forward to getting to an English speaking country, ironically, I struggle to understand the first three people I speak to in New Zealand! We are sent through the ‘special’ customs aisle, having both ticked more than three of the statements on the immigration form (thankfully we remembered to clean our walking boots just before we set off from Chile). But no, we aren’t carrying bees or bee keeping equipment. Although maybe we did once leave a country gate ‘slightly ajar’?

We kill a couple of hours in the airport before heading downtown into Auckland at about 6am. It’s the start of a really nice day and we are contented to have arrived safely after the successful completion of the South America leg, and ready to take on the New World!!

We get a good first impression of the city centre, it’s totally clean, the people are really friendly, and it’s got that manageable size, Irish city feel about the place. We check into Silverfern backpackers before heading off to the shops in anticipation!! We have both been wearing pretty dodgy clothes for some months now, so anything with style, or fit, or preferably both will go down a treat. In fact, anything without some dodgy pattern or fake logo will do me! All in all we have a successful day. We manage to pick up a little netbook as an early Christmas present, as well as shorts and vests – all to the sound of Christmas music and the sun shining outside – which feels slightly bizarre! But a nice welcome to my first Christmas in the southern hemisphere. :)

The next day we’re up and off to Onehunga to pick up the camper van. The guys down there are pretty laid back, and so we head off with loads of extra bits for our camper. It’s really a Toyota people carrier, converted into a camper, but it’s customised pretty well with kitted out interior and spray painted exterior of Boes Boes and the fitting rear message: “There are two theories to arguing with women… neither one works!” It’s the first time either of us has driven in 5 months, and it’s a flippin’ automatic, but hey, it just feels nice to have our own wheels! We can go wherever we want, whenever we want for the next 2 weeks!!

Ironically, after weeks of longing for some decent, Western music, we discover there is very limited radio signal and our only CD turns out to be a souvenir from Peru…. “Waynapicchu – Music of the Andes Volume 1,” so, pan pipes it is for yet another 500km!! Although, as weird as it might sound, we actually enjoy the first playing… the music brings back fond recent memories of our South American adventures, and we get nostalgic about our time in Peru and Bolivia in particular. If you had told me two weeks ago I would miss the panpipes I would have laughed you out of town - strange!

We decide to take a drive up the Coromandel peninsular. The sun is shining, and the drive up the coast is beautiful… one little secluded cove after the next, small little villages and towns, and amazing properties overlooking the sea. All less than two hours from Auckland. It’s pretty awesome. We find a great little spot for what the locals call “freedom camping,” right on the banks of the water, in a little clearing surrounding by trees, so, ignoring the “no camping” sign, we get the beers cracked open and the broccoli stir fry on the go. Yum – I’ve been having vegetable withdrawal symptoms for so long!

Next day, we start the day with a bacon butty and brown sauce (to feed Tom’s cravings) – the first one in 5 months and it’s pretty damn tasty! We head over to the east side of the peninsular and stumble on a deserted little beach at Waikawau bay. Well, deserted but for four local guys setting up their fishing reel and bait on the beach. We haven’t seen this kind of thing before so we idle over to see what they are up to. Turns out it’s a type of beach fishing using a small boat to tow a line of hooks out from a reel into the bay, before dropping the bait and waiting an hour and a half for their catch. Apparently they used to row out in a canoe, but then they got lazy! So these days it’s the motor powered boat, or a kite in offshore winds, or a little motor. They are a friendly bunch, so we stand around chatting, generally in agreement that THIS is the way to spend a Sunday! They also give us some tips for our onward travels through New Zealand.

We head further down the coast and the weather starts to turn to pretty heavy rain so we stop off in Coromandel Town at the Chai Tea House for a ginger and lemongrass brew and to set up the new laptop!! The weather doesn’t improve much for the rest of the afternoon, so unfortunately we have to pass on Whitianga, Cathedral Cove and the Hot Water Beach (where you can dig your own personal hot pool from the thermals under the beach). But it really wouldn’t be fun in this rain. We press on, making it to a campsite in Tauranga at 9pm, just in time before they close the office. Thank goodness, I don’t fancy cooking out in this, and a hot shower wouldn’t go amiss either!! Despite it being late, we were looking forward to a spag bol, so we get it moving and the box of Shiraz on the go!

Day three starts with a cooked breakfast, and a quick scoot round Pac N Save, before heading off to check out the geothermal activity at Rotorua. There’s a lot of choice of things to see, but we plump for the Whakarewarewa living thermal village, which features geysers, hot pools, steaming vents and bubbling mud pools, but is also a fully functioning Maori village, where 65 locals still live. Apparently they were displaced here following the eruption of Mount Tarawera in 1886, and learnt to incorporate the geothermal activity as part of their cultural way of life, including daily bathing in the hot pools, and steaming food in the hot mineral pools. I have never seen anything like it, it’s pretty cool! We also get to see a traditional Maori performance, including the Haka (the Maori war dance you see the All Blacks do at the start of each match). You might mock its purpose when you see it on the pitch, but I have to confess when it’s a metre in front of you, its powerful stuff - it gave me goosebumps!

After a quick wander around Rotorua and a refreshing cider in the park (again the first one in months!), we headed out to find a camping spot for the night. We were aiming for a free campsite at Humphrey Bay, on the banks of Lake Tarawera, only to find when we got close that there was no road access! We stopped for directions and met Tony Barmby (who turns out is a British ex-pat who moved out to New Zealand in 1974, and having recently retired, now enjoys his holiday home on the lake for a week each month). Not only that, but guess where he was from? Willerby Road in Hull! He even still has family living in North Ferriby!! We laugh at the coincidence and end up having a good chat and he suggests a little spot down the road where we can park up by the lake if we are discreet, and also invites us over for a glass of wine later….of course, we accept… and head up there after our sunset BBQ on Otumutu lagoon on Lake Tarawera. We also pick up another traveller on route… Maria from Spain pulls up to check out our camp spot, on part of her crazy world tour (now 3.5 years in) from Spain overland via north Africa, Iran, Pakistan and various other dubious places, hitchhiking or driving her way here – brave lass! She told an interesting story of three 22 year old English lads she had met who had grown beards to aid their safe travel through Afghanistan! (Is there something Tom isn’t telling me about our route home?!) She even mentioned how one guy dressed in robes to blend in a bit. This has just reminded Tom of an old favourite joke of his…. “What do you call an Ibizian terrorist?” Allsummer Binlargin’it!

Anyway, Tony and Anne seem really pleased to have us over – I think they have all but lost contact with the UK so are pleased to have a bit of a reminisce. The things they miss most about the UK surprise me, as they are things I wouldn’t have thought of: the history (as New Zealand’s doesn’t go back very far), the architecture (for similar reasons) and the accessibility of travel to Europe (or anywhere with a different language – they have to go beyond Singapore if they want to experience this!) Maybe if we were away longer we’d feel similar, but right now, we were thinking more along the lines of missing HP sauce and Marmite!!!

We have an interesting chat about how they came to be here, the differences with the UK, and the perks of life in New Zealand. There are some ongoing interesting cultural issues with the Maori’s (who still form 20% of the New Zealand population), but which I didn’t previously know much about. Such as the hot political debate over whether an “h” should be included in certain Maori place names, why two generations of Maori’s were prevented from learning their native language in schools, and why the government is still being forced into settling land disputes from the 1800’s with current tax payers money, but which turned out had already been settled in the 1940’s! Most interestingly, the Maori’s had no written language prior to the arrival of the European’s, yet are now using the English alphabet to spell their words, and when a new phrase is introduced to the English language, e.g. nuclear reactor, someone has to create a Maori word (usually, just by scrambling the letters of the English equivalent)! Questions must be asked about the ongoing viability of this language, but as of recent times, the whole country is now committed keeping it alive.

We go and admire the view from their balcony, and thank them for having us, before we head back off to the waterfront for a quiet nights kip. We never get to say goodbye to Maria, as she must have been up and off at the crack of dawn. We get a couple of funny looks from dog walkers and the guy pulling up to go out on his flash boat as we are eating our cereal, but besides that no problems!!

We set off for Taupo, which is a lovely drive round the edge of the lake, and arrive by late morning. We stop of at the lovely Huka Falls en route, which brings back memories for Tom from his previous trip to NZ in 2005. We make a flying visit to the centre (which is very similar to Rotorua), use some overpriced wi fi and have a bit of lunch in the camper on the lake front. The weather is still a bizarre mix of bright, hot sunshine, with the occasional torrential downpour, and so we opt against the Tongariro Crossing (the one day walk through the land of volcanoes and craters, used as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies). We find out later that day that we made a wise decision (as we meet some Germans who did the crossing, but failed to see a thing because of the bad weather!)

We decide to press on further south, realising we have quite a bit of ground to cover if we are to get the crossing to Wellington at lunchtime the next day. We head down the Desert Road and stumble upon a cute little campsite on the banks of the river near Mangaweka. It’s up and off early the next day, with time for a quick scoot round Wellington city centre, before getting over to the ferry port for midday. Wellington is yet another beautifully kept city with a friendly vibe, and we can see why so many Brits end up over here (its just a bit too far away from home!!!)

New Zealand's South Island - Part I (Picton to Buller Gorge)

2011-12-07 to 2011-12-10

The ferry starts well, but as we head into the Cook Strait, the water gets a little choppy and it’s sick bags to the ready! Ignoring what is going off around us, we take the opportunity to charge our new laptop and speakers, and try to keep our mind off the rocking motion with a bit of reggae from Ben B Selecta! The sail in through the Marlborough Sounds is stunning despite the grey skies, and we decide to head straight up there when the boat docks.It’s a twisty, windy drive up to our campsite at Cowshed Bay, but well worth it. The scenery is an absolute treat – turquoise waters, contrasting against plush green forest, with amazing houses sat above the countless sandy bays. Yes, we can definitely see the attraction in living here!Next morning we are dying for a dip in the water, but to be honest, it’s just a bit flippin’ cold!! When the sun is out it’s burning weather, but otherwise it’s pretty nippy. Instead we opt to walk a short section of the Queen Charlotte Track, which runs 71km up the sound and in full takes 3-4 days to complete. We decide to chance it without the expensive walk permit, and make it to the top of the mountain for some great photos, before running into the grass cutters and turning back to avoid any awkward questions!! After overshooting the turning for Mistletoe Bay, Tom decides to do a dodgy three pointer, which ends with the back wheels in a roadside drain, and the exhaust wedged against the verge, thus stalling the engine!! Nice one. We can’t push it out or start the engine, so in a bit of an uncompromising position, blocking one lane. Hum. Thankfully, after 10 minutes of nervous waiting, four strapping Germans pull up and rock us out of the hole. I am sure they assumed that I had been driving, but I resisted telling them it was Austin Powers over here (AKA Mr Holt), who got us in this mess!!! We take our time driving back down the Sound, stopping off for views, snacks and supplies along the way. After a flying visit to Havelock (The Capital of the Green Lipped Mussel), we end up in Maitai Valley Campsite on the outskirts of Nelson. A bargain for $6 each per night! We sit down for a salmon salad and a cider, and finally get the evening sunshine we’ve been waiting for :)We spend the morning in Nelson, well, mainly skyping, buying a fishing rod, and wondering how on earth we are going to get Claire some prescription sunglasses sorted out for a reasonable price. But in all seriousness, Nelson is a really cute little place and has a lot going for it – lovely centre, right on the river and close to beautiful countryside. Another New Zealand town I could definitely live in!  The drive up the coast from Nelson towards Able Tasman National Park is lovely and we pass through inland vineyards, before heading up the coast road to Marahau, where we pitch up for the night at The Barn, right on the edge of Able Tasman.Despite the early alarm, we rise later than planned, but are out walking on the coastal track through the park just as the late morning sunshine pierces the clouds. The track follows the coastline for 51km, through lush vegetation, occasionally dipping down onto gorgeous secluded coves, with turquoise waters. It is some of the most beautiful coastline we have both every seen (shame the weather just isn’t quite warm enough for a dip in the sea!) We walk a total of 13.2km up the coast and back, making it as far as Stillwell Bay before we have to think about returning back. Tom tries his hand at spinning with his new rod at Appletree Bay, but without success – so we’ll have to settle for just burgers and steak on the BBQ tonight! Tom is convinced the big fish must swim down the west coast, so we’ll test that theory in a couple of days!!! Meanwhile we pit stop for the night at a little camp ground situated on a kiwi orchard and vineyard, and after a bit of campervan musical chairs, we end up parking up on the lawn. All that is missing is the tea and scones! We leave late morning and stumble upon the Motueka Sunday market, which is a lively little affair so decide to stop off for an hour or so. There’s a real variation of stuff, but one particular stall catches our eye… it is full of alpaca clothes and Andean looking nik naks! We get chatting with the stall owner (who is also wearing one of Tom’s SA stripey jumpers!), and it turns out he is from Cornwall, now living in Nelson, NZ, but importing goods from his previous travel destinations. Was a similar idea that Tom had had, but we haven’t made much progress on (owing to the various distractions on route), but reminded us that we need to keep our eyes peeled in Asia. The guy also parts with three of his old CD’s for a dollar – so we leave with some more tunes for the car (although in the event only the reggae CD actually plays – but still a bargain at 50p!). No sooner have we got on our way, than we end up on the road back towards Nelson and through all the wineries. Well, it would be rude not to! We pull up at Rimu Grove for a generous tasting of Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and a really nice sweet white wine (with a German sounding name I have forgotten!) Chance is in our favour, as our mutual favourite is also the cheapest wine they have (not very often it happens that way round), so we head off with a nice chilled bottle of Pinot Gris in search of some fresh mussels to go with it. We make a slight detour back up to Ruby Bay (on a tip off that there might be mussels on the beach for the taking), but unfortunately its high tide, so we’re out of luck! We settle for another cheese and tomato sandwich, but with a great view on the seafront. Next, after a brief stop at Nelson Lakes, I decide to have a go at mastering the automatic, and drive us the rest of the way to our campstop for the evening. We get sandflied out of our intended stop at a free campsite (there are swarms of the flippin’ things), and instead press on a further 50km to Lyell, on the edge of the Buller Gorge. Still a few thousand more sandflies than is ideal, but we put some extra chilli and garlic in the Chilli con Carne, and hope they’ll get the message! Turns out to be the best meal we’ve had in a while, so we celebrate with another glass of Shiraz and some cheese and biscuits – which tastes all the better for not having enjoyed them for several months :)We head off super-fast after dawn, partly to get away from the flies, but partly because Tom is itching to get down to the river to try his hand at a bit more fishing. Unfortunately the gorge is pretty well protected and we couldn’t find a spot to get down to the water’s edge. So there’s another trout that got away….

Beer for breakfast? On the way to Chesterfield? Its true! (South Island II, Westport to Queenstown)

2011-12-11 to 2011-12-16

We make a slight detour into Westport to get more fuel, and remember the Lonely Planet recommended the West Coast Brewing Co for a pitstop and some beer tasting. Undeterred by the fact that we haven’t yet had breakfast, we sit eating our Rice Crispies in the brewery car park – even we know it’s not good to drink on an empty stomach! All of the samples are delicious (and I try to keep polishing them off before Tom does, as he is driving!), so as the session of 10 brews nears the end I am noticeably “merry.” My favourites are definitely the draught lager and the American Amber ale, but unfortunately, none of them are that easy to get hold of the further away you get from Westport! Just as we are finishing off, a young Canadian lass arrives to do a tasting. We have sensed that Ben (the deputy Brewer) is pretty busy as his colleagues are on holiday, so through a bit of stirring, we manage to get her roped into helping out at the brewery for the day (for payment in beer of course) – and we sense, potentially with a little bit of romance into the bargain!!!

With our work here done, we head off through the rain to the wilds of the West coast for some spectacular scenery and crashing waves (but despite our continuing efforts, still no mussels!) We stop off at the Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki, which are layers of sandstone rock which have been eroded away into weird shapes over the years. Another one for the biologist and geographers in you mums!

I am very amused to spot “Chesterfield” on the map just south of here (we have already passed through “Wakefield” a while back), so we stop for a photo opportunity. Unfortunately there is no Crooked Spire, no Town Hall where we could drop in to see the Mayor, and actually the place is so small there is not even a welcome sign, so we have to settle for a sign of Chesterfield Road! Our stop for the night is little more than a layby just outside of Harihari, and we are glad of the leftover chilli, as the sandflies and rain are out in force again. The posh campers next door seem intrigued by what on earth we are doing cooking in the rain. And I have to confess, these campers are great in the nice weather and good facilities, but a little bit tight for space and comfort when it’s wet outside! Yet it seems we are still having more fun over here than they are in their super-luxury, dry camper (the miserable sods!)

We get up and off without breakfast as the sandflies are beyond irritating now, and head straight to Franz Josef. By the time we arrive, the sun has come out, and so we decide to bag a pitch at Rainforest Retreat. It’s a bit steep at $39 a night, but we haven’t showered in 3 days, and they have wi fi and a spa pool, so we decide to treat ourselves. We then head off for the 1.5 hour walk through the glacial valley to the face of the Franz Josef glacier. Apparently, during the ice age, the glacier filled this whole valley, almost connecting it with the sea, however for most of the last 75 years the glacier has been in retreat. We take a few pictures up near the face, and read the sad story of a several tourists who ignored the safety barriers to get closer to the glacier face and were killed by ice falls.

For the rest of the afternoon we chill out in the relative luxury of the campsite, and enjoy a nice dip in the hot tub, which is good we did, as from 3am in the night and for the whole of the next day it does nothing but tip it down! The rain washes away our plans to go to Fox glacier and Matheson (the mirror) lake, which we swap for a campsite fry up and a day on the road. Thankfully we used the wi fi to download another Ben B reggae mix, so at least we are keeping the sounds of summer alive in the camper! We see a mini landslide on one part of the road, and numerous waterfalls cascading down at the side of the road all the way to Wanaka. It seems New Zealand has had a very rainy few weeks! When it finally starts to brighten up, we figure we might as well stop for a few pictures and cook while its dry, and we find a great little spot (again, but for the sandflies) on the edge of Lake Hawea. Thankfully another kind camper spots that I’ve left the lights on, otherwise that could have been a disaster in the morning!!

Its blue skies in the morning, so we are up and off site early and in Wanaka before 10.30am. Tom has fond memories of this place from his last trip, so we decide to hang around for the day. We haven’t eaten or drank anything “out” in New Zealand yet, so we treat ourselves to a nice lunch at Gusto café (which by chance, has the speediest internet connection every known to mankind), followed by a pint/nice glass of Sauvignon Blanc at a bar on the lakefront. We ALMOST (but not quite!) take a dip in the lake, but just as we’ve got ready, the sun goes in again, and we loose our bottle for the freezing cold water!! Still only managed to have a paddle in New Zealand waters so far – come on weather!

Unpredictable as the New Zealand weather seems to be, in another hour, the sun is blazing out and the skies are clear blue, so we head off to the supermarket to buy BBQ food and drive 3 km to a gorgeous spot under the pine trees at the side of the river in Albert Town. No sooner has Tom fired up the coals, and cracked open a cider, than the wind starts to go into a frenzy, and a massive grey cloud looms over. Within seconds, the heavens open, and it’s a battle for the next half hour to get something edible off the BBQ! It’s quite entertaining, but at the same time a little frustrating – New Zealand hasn’t been kind to us on the weather front! Although thankfully “we’re only on the edge of it” compared to what they have had in Nelson (we have heard that the Maitai river where we camped just a few nights ago has flooded really badly, and people have had to be rescued from a tree – turns out that they were tourists who just wanted to see how powerful the flooded river was - the plonkers!). We make the most of our night anyway, enjoying the views of the river, a fruity cider, and our new tunes (thanks to Wanaka’s decent wi fi). Overall we have been so lucky with the weather over the last 5 months, we can’t really complain.

For our final day in the camper, we get straight up and off, making a brief stop in the picturesque Arrowtown, which makes us feel festive, as it is the most geared up for Christmas we have seen yet. Think Castleton, with its little boutiques and quaint little buildings. We have the best pie I have ever eaten – steak, bacon and cheese – delicious, before heading off to Queenstown.

There isn’t much time for Queenstown sightseeing as we’ve got to clean the camper and get all our stuff prepped for our Milford Track trek tomorrow. We keep our distance from most of the other backpackers in our hostel, who as well has having ten years off our age, also want to drink their own body weight in goon every night by the sounds of it – so we keep a low profile – only emerging for the free thai chicken curry provided by the hostel in with the bed price! Having managed to get all our stuff done, the camper back without a hitch, and our trek bags packed we head off to bed. Everyone is rudely awaken by the fire alarm going off in the hostel 5.50am because someone has left a gas ring on and the place is smoking!! Well, everyone except me that is, who hadn’t had much kip in a room full of snorers, so I was one foot into the shower at 5.50am – so just pleased the fire alarm didn’t go off one second later! The fire brigade do their stuff, and it is quite an entertaining sight, seeing some of the sorry states that are dragged out of the hostel . We thankfully get back into the building just in time to have showers and get off for our bus to Te Anau. We don’t feel super geared up for this trek, everyone keeps warning us about the amount of rain in Fiordland and it’s the longest trek we have done yet at 52km, so wish us luck….!!

I don't like the "Sound" of that "Fiord"!!?? (The Milford Track)

2011-12-16 to 2011-12-20

After a short wander round Te Anau and a fish and chip lunch, we head off on the bus to Te Anau Downs, to catch the catamaran over to Glade Wharf, the starting point of the track. The boat journey is lovely (if a tad nippy), and we get some great photos along the way. We also get the answer to a question that has been bothering Tom…”What’s the difference between a Fiord and a Sound?” Apparently, a Fiord is a flooded glacial valley, and a Sound is a flooded river valley. This technically makes Milford Sound a Fiord, not a Sound, so all in all a tad confusing!! They apparently re-named the whole area Fiordland to try and eradicate the mistake!!

We get off the boat and cross our fingers that the rowdy group of 15-16 year olds are on the guided version of the trek and not staying with us independent trekkers. But alas no! They follow us the first five kilometres to arrive at our first night’s hut, Clinton Hut. All of the other independent trekkers have arrived, and there is only one bed left, so for a minute, the ranger seems to be about to suggest that one of us goes in with the 20 strong school group. I think he sees from our faces that that would be a very bad idea, so eventually he manages to persuade one of the other young’uns to go in there with them – phew! Despite the basic surroundings, and 000’s of vicious sandflies, I sleep like a log, so am up at 6.20am and raring to go…

Despite Claire’s early wake-up call it still somehow takes us two hours to get ourselves fed and out. We start the day with instant porridge jazzed up with lots of sugar and some dried apricots and raisons which was actually pretty tasty.

It’s a lovely walk through the valley, 16.5km in total, and passing some great waterfalls cascading on the edges of the valley. We work out our probability of having such amazing weather, and realise we’re pretty lucky to have not just no rain, but actually clear blue skies and bright sunshine!

The final leg of the day drags a bit, but we still make it to Mintaro Hut by 2.40 giving us plenty of time to find a nice swimming hole and somewhere for Claire to loosen up with a bit of yoga. Turns out that the best spot is on the decked helipad by the river and I take a breath-taking plunge in to the icy water to freshen up. My wash lasted five seconds then I lost feeling in my legs and had to get out but it was mighty refreshing. Meanwhile Claire busts out a few mad stretches on the helipad then we sit out and sunbathe admiring the views of the mountains towering around us. By luck, we catch one of the final avalanches of melting snow which was accompanied by a thunderous rumble. It was a nice couple of hours and a break from the teenage girls back at camp.

That evening I have a good chat with the hut Ranger who was new to his job after spending 4 years in the NZ army. It becomes increasingly clear during the conversation that Kiwis are largely “English” and we shared many similar views on life. He also told me how one third of kiwis died in WW2 which gives another example of how vast that war was to add to my walk round the graveyard at Kanchanaburi in Thailand a few years ago. Kanchanaburi is home to the bridge on the River Kwai and there you can find row after row of British war graves of boys aged 18 and 19.

After the hut rangers’ entertaining talk about how the Milford Sound was “discovered,” and a few jokes at the school girls expense, we head off to bed.

Next morning it’s fancy porridge again, whose high energy content is instantly put to good use as the first couple of hours consisted of a steep upward climb to Mackinnon Pass. As we climbed up through the forest and into the low lying cloud we both realised that we are getting pretty fit. I was doing the hike with a full 80 litre pack which I reckon weighed around 15kg and so far was experiencing no burning calves and my thighs were making easy work of the uneven ascent.

When we top out on to the pass it is cloudy and flippin’ freezing but the views are special. The wind was blowing over the lip of the pass which was sending the cloud flowing down the valley like thick lava flowing out of a volcano. It’s easy to see why New Zealand was chosen as the film set for Lord of the Rings. Thankfully there is a shelter on top of the pass so we head across to keep warm whilst the sky clears. The pass symbolises the end of Mackinnon’s part of creating the trail whilst another party led by European explorer Sutherland was hacking away at the forest trying to meet him at this point.

By the time we’ve finished our soup the skies are blue and views superb. In fact the best views back down the valley came from the glass fronted “loo with a view” perched on the edge of the pass. If I’d needed one I’d definitely have taken a “poo with a view” as it looked like a perfect spot! ;)

We descend for a couple of hours down Sutherland’s trail back into forest passing beautiful multi-drop waterfalls along the way. We take an optional 90 minute side trip to visit Sutherland Falls unsurprisingly named after its “founder,” Donald Sutherland (missing the small fact that the Maori’s had already found it about 1000 years ago and named it Te Tautea, or “White Thread”). In fact, they also already had a trail before the Milford Track was “discovered” which they used for transporting Jade. It’s amusing no-one thought to “ask a local”. The only difference between Mackinnon/Mackay and Sutherland’s hike was the Maori’s used to do it with 80kg sacks of stone on their backs.

“Sutherland” (tongue in cheek) Falls is the highest waterfall in New Zealand and fifth highest in the world cascading down a 583m face. It is an impressive site with three drops and at the bottom the water all lands on a flat rock sending splash and spray far and wide. The views up the fall are magical as the wind whisps the cascading water in to a swirling mist on the mountain side surrounded by rainbows. It gives you an idea of how amazing Angel Falls must be at over 900m high surrounded by jungle. That being said, I probably wouldn’t recommend filming the next Timotei advert on those falls!

After a tiring 14km we finally arrive at Dumpling Hut to be greeted by who else, the sandflies! We veg out on the bunk beds chatting about the day, which is then finished off with the classic tuna pasta. In fairness, we are so hungry that anything would taste good!

The final day is long 18km slog descending slowly and largely through forest. We eventually arrive at Sandfly Point (which surprisingly seemed to have less sandflies than pretty much EVERYWHERE else – although I wouldn’t want to be here at sunset to test that theory….), ready to board the boat across the bottom of the Sound.

We have been debating whether to do the Milford Sound cruise for most of the trek, and the deal we had was that if we can afford it and it’s a clear day, we’ll treat ourselves. Thankfully the sun is coming through the cloud, and we find a cruise for about 60 dollars, so we’re on! Let’s face it, it’s going to be a long time until we’re down these parts again…!!

Jeff, an Ozzie from our trek decides to take the ride with us, and we see some spectacular scenery all the way along the sound – including a massive fault line crack down the rock, quite a sight to see. We also spot a school of dolphins and see some sea-lions basking on the rocks. We make it all the way out to where the Sound joins the sea, and imagine what it was like for the explorers discovering these places all those years ago. Apparently, Milford Sound was discovered some years after Captain Cook had mapped the New Zealand coast, when a crew were almost shipwrecked, and floated towards the rocks, thinking it was the end. Suddenly, as they went round a corner, the Sound (well, technically a Fiord) opened up in front of them and they were able to send a member of the crew to seek help! Thankfully our boat ride is less eventful, but very enjoyable, and we pick up the bus back to Te Anau happy that we forked out.

Just as we pull back into Te Anau, and after four days of sunshine, it starts to rain! Our luck with the New Zealand weather turned in our favour in the end. We decide to ditch the planned DIY tea at the hostel for a tasty chinese and a beer – after 55km we feel we deserve it! We stayed in a very creaky bunk bed dorm at the YHA hostel (everytime one person moves, the other 4 people are woken up!)

We are up in the morning for Tommy’s special one pound bus ride from Te Anau to Christchurch (we booked it from the UK about 10 months ago!!) The 8-10 hours goes relatively quickly thanks to the great scenery and multiple coffee shop stops along the way. We even get a glimpse of coastal Dunedin on route. However, as we pass through the various towns and settlements we realise what it is that is “missing” from New Zealand…. Its lacks that bit of history, culture, character, multiculturalism, “edge”… whatever you call it, but conclude that beautiful as the scenery has been, we probably couldn’t settle here…. Or, in Tom’s words, “It’s largely boring English people, with a few Maori’s. That’s it!”

There’s no "church" left in Christchurch! :(

2011-12-21 to 2011-12-22

The bus drops us off on the outskirts of the city centre and it’s a short taxi to our hostel on Chester Street. It was one of the only hostels close to town that was left standing after the earthquakes. When I last visited Christchurch with the boys in 2005 we stayed at Base Backpackers in the main square but along with many others it was destroyed.

As we check-in we pick up on the slightly downbeat, anxious vibe about the place but we are yet to understand fully why. Turns out a third big aftershock is due anytime and it’s only a few days until Christmas. The hostel did have a real tree though which was nice and freshly baked cakes were cooling on the sideboard in the homely kitchen. We ask the Swedish hostel worker what to do just in the event a quake hits just in case as I had a feeling there could be one soon.

After a tiring hike round looking for a wifi point we opt for a Maccies followed by a final bottle of New Zealand wine and call it a day.

Next morning we take a walk down to centre to see the extent of the damage which was MUCH worse than we expected. It was a sad sight to see the whole city centre fenced off for demolition. The buildings that remained were slanted or irreparably damaged. It was like a ghost town which reminded us of the film “I am Legend” and you almost expected a zombie to appear from behind the rubble. We met a young photographer who was keeping a photo journal of the aftermath. He shared with us his story of living in temporary housing for 4 months and pointed out the buildings were people had died. The buildings all had spray paint on them indicating the emergency crew who had searched the building, the date, the number found and then number found dead. Approximately 200 died.

Christmas wasn’t going to be much fun for residents of Christchurch and there was a distinct lack of tinsel and lights about the place. The fact that it will be 10 years before the rebuilding is complete probably goes some way to explaining why 30 families per day were abandoning the city immediately after the earthquake to start new lives elsewhere. Those who remain were doing their best to salvage something of Christmas and we watched people last minute shopping in the makeshift shopping mall made from glass-fronted shipping containers. They had actually done a pretty cool job of it and I think it would be a nice feature to keep some of it to form part of the new town centre. Apparently someone in the States is trying to sue as they reckon they had some patent on the idea. What a scumbag!

It was touching to see the child musicians entertaining the shoppers with a backdrop of a demolition site. As we walk round the city we get a glimpse of the main square and see the damaged cathedral. It looks like the spire had collapsed through the roof. They are planning to try and salvage some of it and I guess rebuild the rest?

So that was our brief stop in what was left of Christchurch. It will be a challenging 10 years for its residents but I suspect a fantastic new city will be built and I guess tourists will flood from all over the world to see it. Good luck guys, this is a huge project and we take our hats off to you!

Surf's up, but Christmas is down under! (Noosa, Australia)

2011-12-22 to 2011-12-29

So we land at Gold Coast Airport for our first Christmas down under and are greeted by Wainy looking suitably Aussie with his “Mick Dundee” style hat and a fat pair of shades. It was great to see a familiar face after almost six months on the road and even better to catch up as we drive a couple of hours up the coast to his and Leesa’s pad in Noosa. They live in a beautiful bungalow ten minutes from the sea and as we pull up we instantly spot the outdoor lounge featuring the biggest barbeque you’ve ever seen and a real Christmas tree twinkling in the kitchen. At this point we knew we were in for the perfect Christmas away from home. As Leesa arrives home we immediately notice the big bump, aka Leo Wainright due March 2012, and become envious of the beach life he will most likely grow up in.

We spend a great few days relaxing, catching some sun and surfing. Our aim is for me and Wainy to surf a wave in tandem before we leave. Apparently, the waves were the biggest in ages and after getting smashed to bits on the first day, it was difficult to say whether it would happen, but I was certainly gonna give it a good bash!

Suddenly it’s Christmas Eve but a far cry from Christmas Eve in the UK, there’s no major drama. No one’s panicking like the world’s gonna end and the supermarket is nice and quiet as we stock up on supplies.

Noosa is a great little surf town and I remember why I liked it so much when we went for Christmas day breakfast in a beachfront café in town. The pace is slow and relaxed and the pace was full of a wide range of characters. Notably a number of round bikers having breakfast in full lycra – nice!

After breakfast it was out for a Christmas swim and the beach was packed out and full of santa hats and antlers. How different from a cold, overcast Christmas day at home, especially when the waters were emptied due to a shark spotting. Now you certainly don’t get that in Ferriby/Chesterfield, whatever day it is! As we drive back we pick up on the fact that most Aussies are not that bothered about Christmas and we laugh at how most Aussie blokes take the opportunity to wash the car or clean out the shed. I guess Christmas is just a little too camp for these butch b**tards!! ;) Next it was time to open presents. Thanks so much to the folks back home and family and friends for our gifts, it was great to slip on a new t-shirt and fresh pair of pants. It is Christmas after all!

The whole time we are there, Wainy and Leesa spoil us rotten with top class cuisine, none more so than on Christmas Day and Boxing Day when the table is filled with GIANT shrimps, stuffed lamb chops and Wainy’s speciality Beer Chicken. This was a welcome change from turkey, and is made by seasoning the chicken skin, then stuffing an open can of beer up its arse and wacking it on the barbie for an hour and a half. The end result is the juiciest chicken imaginable, best served with lashings of mayo and a handful of salad on soft white rolls –“proper pukka” as Jamie would say! All was made better by the fact Wainy has invested wisely in his home entertainment system so it was all to a blues and psy-dub soundtrack, but not before some old Christmas vinyl first in Claire’s honour. After a nice chat with the folks back home I end up sitting up until the early hours with Leesa’s brother Darren armed with some Aussie Ale and a bottle of port. Needless to say Boxing Day had a hint of fear and self loathing, but not as bad as it could have been!! ;)

We spend the remainder of our time in Noosa swinging in the hammock, getting to know Leesa, catching up on old times and, of course, surfing. After all, we had a job to do!

After an outdoor curry at Noosa’s new and apparently only decent Indian, we’re up at 5.30am for an early-morning surf and it is here… we finally ride a wave in tandem on our final day. Whoop, whoop!! Our work here is done! I really enjoyed the surfing and look forward to getting back out in the waves in Indonesia where I believe some of the really good shit happens!!??

On our last night Leesa cooks up an amazing meal topped off with a gorgeous homemade strawberry cream dessert which we eat in front of the second Zeitgeist movie. None of this stuff surprises me anymore, but it’s particularly relevant to us having read up on the political history of the countries we visited in South America to learn how many of their presidents were most likely killed by the US government as they weren’t prepared to play ball with the American corporations. Does it not seem strange how so many Central/South American presidents die in plane crashes??!! The US speaks of freedom and democracy but they subject their people to more brainwashing, corruption and financial manipulation than any other nation on earth, sadly all with the support of the UK. I’m pleased I no longer read the news or watch TV, it’s a total waste of time and does nothing but stress you out.

So, our trip to Noosa was almost over, time flew so fast. Wainy and Leesa kindly drove us to the airport and we said our goodbyes after an amazing week. We are both looking forward to catching them Christmas 2013 (if not before) and meeting little Leo. Thanks so much for having us guys we had a great time! :)

Pigging out for New Year in Bali!

2011-12-30 to 2012-01-05

After the luxuries of Christmas, we are launched straight back into the excitement of life on the road with a somewhat eventful flight from Sydney to Bali. It starts with Tom getting pulled over for a “spot check” at customs with a full frisk search and swab test - maybe it’s the beard with him being on the way to Bali? In the process, he ends up with getting his fishing rod confiscated! At first I question whether it’s a quarantine issue after our experience entering Australia but it subsequently turns out that all sports equipment is banned on Jetstar international flights as they could be potential weapons. Potential weapons?! Tom and I sniggered at the thought of trying to hold someone up with a low quality, retractable fishing rod… “Your money, or your life pal!” The accompanying tackle was packed in the hold so one couldn’t even hook an eye out. Maybe you could try to hit someone over the head with it and when it snaps they would die of laughter, who knows?! After a bit of “debate,” in an effort to get rid of us, the guy suggests we find someone from Jetstar to see if they can escort it onto the plane for us. Fine. We’ll do that then.

When we re-emerge 10 minutes later with a Quantas flight attendant, who has spoken to the chief flight attendant for our flight who agreed to take the calculated risk of having a fishing rod on board, the customs guy looks surprised! Rather than back down, he decides to change his story and tells the flight attendant “I never said that they could fetch someone to do this.” Me: “Er, yes you did.” (Nudge in ribs from Tom). Thankfully, the flight attendant doesn’t seem interested in being pals with the customs guy either, and she manages to get him to hand it over (after he has filled in a ton of paperwork at the pace of a snail). Don’t worry mate, it’s not like we have a flight to catch or anything! Blimey, we’ve met a few “jobsworths” on this trip, but this guy takes the biscuit. Talk about “power trip”! Are we trying to prevent terrorism here or just to ruin everyone’s holiday?!

At least it’s killed our waiting time in the airport, and so we head straight to our gate and board the plane. Ironically, we are handed the hold-up weapon (I mean, fishing rod), as we get on!!! Clearly, not as much of a concern as Mr Jobsworth made out!

Not long after take off, the customs forms for Indonesia come round. It doesn’t seem much of a coincidence that in the 10 minutes following the receipt of the form (which states in large letters at the top “Death penalty for drug smuggling”) a small bag of white powder appears in the aisle a few feet in front of us. Thankfully the girl in front of us reports it, but we watch on as a woman a few rows in front of us searches her bag every 15 minutes for the entire journey. Seemingly oblivious to the fact that she dropped it out of her bag the first time she looked for it, and that everyone in the rows behind her knows where it is! Wouldn’t like to be in HER shoes at touchdown!

Meanwhile, we spot another minor issue. The form requires you to declare various things on entry to Indonesia, and because Tom has a camping knife in his bag, he is forced to tick the “yes” box for “Are you carrying any weapons (e.g. sword, knife), narcotics, physcotropics, pornographic material or explosives?” Excellent – that’ll be the red lane for us again then! However, as we head through the customs lane, the woman simply takes the form, laughs, puts it in the box and waves us through. Tom looked at me with a “did that just happen?” face, and out we went! Good to see that they are taking the terrorist threat seriously....

Thankfully, and true to his word, Chris and Maria are there to meet us at the airport – which is very reassuring as it’s a bit manic round here – there are literally tons of motorbikes, and even more taxi hustlers – and it’s nice for once not to have to bother with getting involved in the bargaining!! They bundle us straight into the car, and off through the busy streets of Kuta up the coast to their beautiful villa between Seminyak and Canggu. Blimey, talk about a New Year treat! They offer us the huge upstairs bedroom, complete with its four-poster bed, an outdoor bathroom, and a terrace with second four-poster bed!! Downstairs, you can jump straight into the swimming pool from the sliding doors in the lounge – it’s so cool! We grab a beer and sit around chatting for a few hours. It is the first time Tom and I have met Maria, and probably about 10 years since Tom and Chris saw each other, so there is a lot of catching up to do!

We spend a lovely few days just chilling out by the pool, reading, lounging and catching up with skype calls. Interspersed with plenty of beer, and even more delicious food. For New Year, we order a full suckling pig (a rare treat!), before heading down towards Legian beachfront for New Year’s drinks and thousands of fireworks on the beach. Beats the standard New Year choice of “staying in,” “the local” or “town!” Felt weird seeing in the New Year about 8 hours ahead of all our friends and family at home, and I’d been up and had a dip in the pool before some of you crazy lot had even got to bed!! ;)

On Monday we decided to head out for a bit of sightseeing, to Tana Lot, a beautiful sea temple just up the coast from Canggu. We have my first taste of “real” Asian cuisine at one of the local restaurants – a full coconut, followed by an individual platter with rice, satay, curry and veggies – yum! It’s a great little place to wander round, although the tide is in, so we don’t get to see the temple close up. We do manage to get our feet wet though, when a larger than expected wave crashes over everyone taking photos from the water’s edge, which is quite amusing, even if my feet subsequently turn orange from the dye in my soaked leather flip flops!

We quite quickly decide that we are going to need longer than 30 days to see the best of what Indonesia has to offer, so thanks to Maria’s local lingo, promptly set the process in motion for extending our visa.

The next day, we get the privileged opportunity to share in one of Chris and Maria’s standard Bali holiday days out. We hire a driver and take a trip to Ibu Oka in Ubud for suckling pig, travel up through central Bali to Kintamani to see the volcano, before heading back to the spectacular rice paddy files of Tegallantang, the Sacred Monkey Forest and on to Naughty Nuri’s for delicious ribs for tea. It is great to see some of “the real Bali” as Chris puts it, which is a vast contrast to the overcrowded resort of Kuta which most tourists base themselves. However, even out in the countryside I notice that there isn’t much spare space left on Bali – what isn’t already built on, is being built on, or is full with paddy fields or temples – it’s a pretty bustling place. Another notable feature is the hundreds of motorbikes and scooters, zipping in between the traffic. Apparently it is common practice that if you hit a bike in a car, it is the cars fault, whether the bike was going the wrong way up the street, or turning in front of ongoing traffic!!! Driving around here you certainly seem to take your life in your own hands, there doesn’t seem to be a mutually respected highway code!!

We enjoy the remainder of our time at the villa catching up on The Inbetweeners movie and The Hangover II (thanks to cheap purchases in Ubud), and enjoying massages to the door for only four pound each! I get a bit more than I bargain for, as Maria forgets to warn me that they generally include your chest in the front of body massage, so when Tom looks up from the end of his massage he is also surprised to see me getting the full “rub down””!! I’ll know for next time!

The final two nights, Chris and Maria go all out on treating us – I think they were on a mission to feed us up before we got back to the traveller’s budget! They get a full range of food in for our penultimate night, most excitingly for me is the entire range of local tropical fruit!! It keeps us entertained for a good hour or so while we work out how to peel/get into it, how to eat it, and compare what it tastes like….

• Rambutan - red spikey one, flesh tastes like a lychee, but thicker like a grape. Delicious.

• Passionfruit - larger than home, and lighter skin colour.

• Snake fruit - small tear drop shaped, with brown snake skin, has the texture of a chestnut, but tastes like a mango. Probably the bizarrest fruit I have ever eaten, but rather nice!

• Manggis - Shaped like pomegranate, inside looks like a white orange, but is soft, and tastes somewhere between a banana and an orange!

• Dragonfruit - Pink on the outside, white with black specks on the inside, tastes like a kiwi fruit.

Our final night is at an impressive local floating restaurant, built over a man-made lake, for a huge platter of seafood!! We tuck into fresh crab, delicious prawns, shrimp skewers and more… It was absolutely delicious – probably all the more so as we know we’re not going to be eating like this again for a while! Well Chris and Maria, you have really spoilt us rotten!! Thanks so much for having us, for feeding us up, and for seeing us so well on our way. It’s been a fab start to our Asian adventure :)

"Do the reggae".... or not! (Padangbai and Gili Trawangan)

2012-01-06 to 2012-01-10

In her last “gift” to us, Maria manages to negotiate a cheap price for their driver to take us direct to Padangbai. We are very aware that this is not how “real” travellers should be making this journey, but having discussed the alternative transport of a taxi, a bemo (mini-bus), a public bus and a motorbike taxi (which quickly becomes known as the “ball ache” option), we conclude that we’ll go back to the travellers budget tomorrow…

Our driver, Mr Jo was the same guy who’d taken us to Ubud and he spoke pretty good English. He was a freelance driver with great knowledge of Bali. He told us his family’s story, and how his wife was going to have to move to work in Turkey to afford a better life for their four boys and that he would now be looking after them his own. He was also trying to pay of his Daewoo which he’d bought on finance. Tom gave him a few marketing tips for his business and we felt we needed to tip him, so the price ended up being nearly as much as before Maria had started bargaining on our behalf! But hey, sounds like they need it more than us, and it hopefully helped them along their way.

We arrive in Padangbai for late morning. It is quite a nice little harbour town, if you can get used to ignoring the constant hustles to buy something (Taxi? Snorkelling? Transport?) and we have a nice wander round the shops, and a walk to the temple on the hill and to Blue Lagoon bay. I could easily stay here a couple of days (and not just because we have a great little room in the ramshackle, wooden Topi Inn overlooking the beach, and the café downstairs serves amazing food), but Tom persuades me to move on in the morning :(. Before we do, we get to see a spectacular thunderstorm from the hostel terrace, with possibly the loudest thunder I have ever heard!

Despite our commitment to be “real” travellers from now on, the next day we bail out again. In our defence, the options were a) public ferry, bus ride, and local boat (totalling 8 hours) for 100,000 rupiah (about 8 quid) or b) 1 hour speed boat for 220,000 rupiah (about 16 quid). So we take the latter and vow to eat/drink cheap for the day to compensate. The sea is actually really choppy once we get out into the open water, so I am glad to have the journey over quickly!

We arrive over to the Gili islands just as the sun is coming out. These islands are just fantastic, no cars, no stresses, not even a fresh water supply. It is basic at its best though. Everyone gets around on horse drawn carts, bikes, or simply powered by magic mushrooms (which seem to be a local delicacy!) We opt for Gili Trawangan, where a gorgeous sand beach runs all the way up the east coast of the island, dotted with bamboo huts on stilts where you can kick back with a Bintang and enjoy the views. After a bit of trekking around to find what we are after, we finally settle for a bungalow at Warna II. The place is brand new, and with breakfast included is only 6 quid each a night so we can’t really argue! Food on the island is even better value, and you can get a tasty curry or stir fry from the market for less than 1.50. We find an amazing little local café called Bu’de down a sidestreet from the market, which lets you pick whatever you want from a tasty range of dishes on display, for 15,000 rupiah (just over a quid!)

We hire bikes and take a tour of the island, and buy ourselves a snorkel and mask as we figure we should get some good use out of it during the next two months. Sure enough, the second time I go out in the water, I see a turtle – just 15 metres from the beach – and the range of fish is just amazing too.

Unfortunately, for us, the island is let down on a night-time by the type of bars they have let develop. There are a few too many Western owned bars with neon lights, crap names and an even crapper music policy (think Euro-house/pop classics). But the biggest crime for us is “The Reggae Bar”, which doesn’t play any reggae!! Like, not one tune in the whole four days we are there!! An absolute travesty.

We do find one nice bar at the top end of the island though, and Tom manages to infiltrate their music system with his own selection of Ben B reggae and Far too Loud which makes for a top night. All of the bar staff are loving it too, so we leave them with a selection on a memory stick which seems to go down well. The bar is new, and doesn’t have a name yet, so we try to influence them to go down the reggae route with “The Natty Dread” and take on the reggae bar that doesn’t play reggae (shouldn’t be too difficult!?) Tom also can’t resist leaving them with a few marketing ideas, so here’s hoping we’ve left a bit of a legacy for turning the tackiness around!! We also make friends with a English chap called Neil, who lives in Australia and is on his two week holiday, so spend a couple of nights propping up the bar here and discussing alternative lifestyles with him.

After four nights I am starting to get itchy feet though. I have been reading up about Gili Meno and Gili Air, and can’t help but wonder what they have to offer just 10 minutes across the water. By this point, Tom has persuaded me to have a go at getting my PADI Open Water qualification so that he doesn’t have to dive on his own, so we decide to take a chance on a change of scenery before we sign up….

Taking the plunge in paradise! (Gili Air)

2012-01-11 to 2012-01-21

After asking about six people all with different answers, we finally manage to deduce that the boat to Gili Air leaves at 4pm – just after the heavens open in another torrential downpour! It turns out to be a very wet and windy ride over to Gili Air, and loaded up with my backpack, I slip over on the wet wooden boards and give my shin a cracking bruise! For a second we are doubting the wisdom of moving, but that quickly dissipates at soon as we get onto the island. This is more like it! Loads of chilled out bars, great music, really friendly locals, less western influence and much less rowdy tourists. AND, a reggae bar playing reggae, Toots and the Maytals as well :) We check into Banana Bungalows about half way up the island and head out for dinner.

Our accommodation choice turns out to be an absolute winner, we are in easy reach of the bars at either end of the island, but immediately served by great, cheap food at Wiwin café, which is where we come each morning for our included breakfast. The fresh juices are amazing, and every morning the view over to Lombok has something new to offer.

We don’t waste any time in getting out to explore on the bikes again, so despite the pending grey clouds we venture off on a loop of the island. Just as we get to the opposite side, the storm kicks in – forcing us to take refuge in a bar for the rest of the afternoon – shame! Despite all our careful planning, we seem to have gone wrong somewhere in the Indonesia planning, as we have arrived at the height of wet season.

After a couple of days, the weather starts to pick up though, and we finally take the plunge and sign up for the diving course. I am regretting it as soon as we get into the shallow end of the swimming pool and am asked to fill up my mask with water, and quickly come coughing up to the surface!! However, before I have chance to make my excuses and leave, I find myself kitted up for my first open water dive and getting bundled onto the dive boat!! Despite it being a bit of a nerve-wracking experience, it is also one I will never forget. There was such an amazing array of coral and the most spectacular fish life at Hans Reef that I was very quickly distracted from my diving equipment, and swimming merrily along with a huge school of tropical fish! Even Tom (now on his 7th dive) said he has never seen such a spectacular dive site with so many fish – it was awesome! Needless to say, I forgot any issues I might have had in the pool, and came back to dry land with a steely determination to make it to day two…

Ironically, it was only a fish that got in my way! A tuna kebab to be precise. Delicious on the way down, but pretty hideous to see him again at midnight, half past midnight, 1am….. and so on. Food poisoning from fish is not an experience I am keen to repeat (and I’ve been avoiding the little fellas ever since… )

So unfortunately we had to temporarily call off day two of the course (and for me days three and four while my stomach readjusted!) Meanwhile, Tom was fully “refreshed” in his scuba skills, and underway with his Advanced Open Water diver, comprising a night dive, a deep dive, an advanced buoyancy skills dive, a navigator dive, and a drift dive. Waving them off at dusk on the boat for the night dive, I was mainly just glad I wasn’t on it, and apparently it was pretty eerie under the water too! For the navigation dive, they got to go and see a wreck off the coast of Gili Meno, which sounded pretty amazing though.

Finally I got back to fighting fitness again, and nervously got back to the dive school to take on day two. I had used my “spare” time to watch the PADI videos, read up on the theory and pass my theory exam, so I was actually more confident that I might just be able to do it by this stage. Today’s skills included taking off and replacing my mask underwater, simulating running out of air and bubbling to the surface, using an alternative air supply, simulating regulator free-flow, swimming underwater without my mask (and therefore my eyes closed) and various other things outside of my comfort zone!! Whereas I am pretty sure I would have happily embraced failure had I tried this six months ago, I am pleased to say that I stuck at it.

On my third dive, I was reunited with Tom and Bruno (our French friend who had started on the Open Water with me, but progressed onto his Advanced while I was out of action), so we decided to hire the underwater camera for our dive to the Gili Air wall. It’s amazing how distracting it can be to have something else to concentrate on, and we were so focused on getting a good shot that we were cutting each other up and putting flippers in each other’s faces the whole way!! We managed to take 120 photos in 45 minutes though, so it was all in good cause! The dive ended in a comedy moment when Albert (an unqualified diver) unilaterally decided to “help” Tom and Bruno do their drift dive task, by shoving the alternate regulator too far into the surface signalling device and causing the regulator (and Tom, because he was attached to it!) almost right up to the surface. I hadn’t been involved in their briefing, but it didn’t look like it was what they were supposed to be doing! Mario, the instructor looked equally confused, but we all had a good laugh about it afterwards!

Each of my four dives got progressively better, and by my fourth dive any panic had gone and I felt totally relaxed and serene floating along in the water. The final dive to 18 metres at Andy’s Reef of Gili Trawangan was spectacular, getting within two metres of some beautiful turtles, and spotting colourful parrot fish, angel fish, and more neon damsel fish, amongst other things. So not only am I now PADI qualified, but I feel confident we will definitely be enjoying some more diving over the next five months.

The food and nightlife was also a huge improvement from Trawangan. We were lucky enough to get to know an amazing group of local lads at Warung Sasak, just near our bungalow. They were a great little group of entertainers, especially considering they only had one real instrument (a guitar) between them, the rest was all improvised from empty water containers and bottle top shakers as percussion, and several good singing voices! The first night we met them they had got a bonfire going on the beach, and built up a little crowd of people to make requests and sing along. Our favourite was an Indonesian reggae track (called Rege music by Mr B), and I think from the dance moves and the way they threw themselves into it, it was their favourite too! Thankfully we managed to get a movie to capture the moment :)

Aware now that our purpose on the Gili’s was complete, and that we had spent nearly two weeks here instead of the planned four days, we knew it was soon time to move on. Happy coincidence then that we spot the flyers for the Fractal Island party at the Space bar over on the quiet west side of the island just in time! Contrary to Trawanagan which is party night every night, Gili Air only parties once a week, but it would appear the party rocks when it does! So we met up with Bruno and Lulu and got our dancing shoes on to a bit of psychedelic trance. Out on the wilderness side of the island, and in the rain, its reminds us of the LFA parties – we only wish you were here :)

I’ve heard that fresh coconut milk is good for rehydration, so the following morning we head to Warung Sasak and I ask if they have it to help my hangover. One of the lads comes over and explains they don’t have it, but asks if I want to go with him to go and get one? It’s not your standard waiter response when something is out of stock!! We go round the back of the restaurant and before I can even get my camera out he is half way up a massive coconut tree, shimmying up with as much ease as a monkey. They get it down hack it into shape and poke a straw through the top, and voila! You don’t get them any fresher than that!!!

We remember we still haven’t paid for our dive courses (they seem pretty laid back considering how much money we owe them), so we head up to Blue Marlin to settle the bill. We take the time for a sunset beer on the north coast of the island, and marvel at the wonders of modern technology by skyping my folks using our internet dongle right on the beach.

There’s time for one last meal at Gili Santay (our favourite restaurant, with amazing Thai food) and a final sing-along with the Sasak boys. The Bintang is flowing nicely and everyone is really on form, so we find it difficult to leave. We finally drag ourselves away at 2.45am, leaving us only a few hours kip before our early morning boat to Lombok! Only then do we realise that most of the lads don’t have homes to go to on the island, and they all sleep in the restaurant’s bamboo huts on the beach…

Well Gili Air, we’ve had an absolute blast and these couple of weeks will be very fondly remembered for lots of different reasons. Keep the cars and the neon lights off the island; there aren’t many places like this left in the world, so keep on preserving your little piece of paradise…. xx

Can you show me the beginners waves please? No, I said beginners! (Kuta Lombok)

2012-01-22 to 2012-01-29

So it was time to say goodbye to our good friend Gili Air as we board the morning shuttle boat to Bengsal, our final destinationbeing the surfing mecca,Kuta Lombok. Thankfully it’s a nice morning and the crossing is smooth and after the warnings of the Bengsal hustlers, we are quite surprised to find that Bengsal is actually just a quiet port and small village. It was made even easier by the fact we had a through ticket so after a short walk we’re on to the awaiting minibus and away to Mataram.

The ride is gorgeous and green as we climb up through Lombok’s forested interior past hundreds of wild monkeys sat confidently watching the world go by. They seemed to occupy every roadside barrier, tree stump and fence post in a wide variety of humanlike positions. You see so many similarities with these creatures and us, yet somehow it was us who took them in to space (allegedly), us who play donkey kong and us who photograph them on our web enabled smartphones. From a similar start, how did we end up so different?

As we arrive in Kuta we opt for the cheapest accommodation in the book “Segar Reef” and negotiate a discounted rate for a few nights. Our room is large, if a little dingy, but it’s about eight quid a night for the two of us with breakfast and occupies a spot right on the beach, so no real complaints on that front. I almost immediately befriend a Canadian named Owen who is also trying to develop his surfing skills and we arrange to meet up early the next morning to go check out the inside reef at Gorupuk. We load the boards up on the rack and scoot up to the fishing village of Gorupuk with local surf guide Yen and a couple of his friends who have agreed to take us to a good spot for beginners and give us a few pointers. So we board a small boat and make the 15 minute ride out to the reef which was experiencing big swell. We reach the break by 8.30 and our first thoughts were” it’s quiet” which is nice, but soon followed by,“these waves are massive!”

I think to myself that you never get anywhere in life by being a pussy so decide I’m gonna give this a bash. We sling our boards overboard and paddle across to join the other surfers as the sets of 6 footers are rolling through. The water is deep on the inside reef and the bottom is a mix of weed, sand and some coral/rocks. A much safer option than the shallow outside reef which is most certainly the domain of the experienced surfer.

Over the next 3 hours or so we try to find our feet on boards a little shorter than either of us have used before and despite spending most of the time being put through the wash we both manage to catch a couple. We leave tired but determined to better our performances tomorrow.

I decide to switch to a larger, more buoyant board and we spend the next couple of mornings out in the same spot building strength and catching what we can. It was certainly best to go early, as by late morning the water became more choppy and the crowds grew considerably. So much so that almost every wave we tried to catch was already claimed. This really started to piss me off, especially when I ended up caught up in the wave and washed shorewards, then having to paddle all the way round and back out which took a fair amount of time and a lot of energy. I began to understand the concept of “board rage” but that’s surfing I suppose and far better than taking someone out?!

Some of the local surfers were pretty decent and pretty ballsy pulling off some decent tricks.Whilst in Kuta I read the story of Oney Anwar, a young Indonesian from the island of Sumbawa who started his surf career with the broken tip of a surfboard he found on a beach. With no money to buy a complete board he paddled fearlessly out to the outside reef at Lakey Peak (a world class break) on this small piece of surfboard and was mocked by the othersurfers in the water. Well those surfers are not laughing anymore, as by the age of 12 he was sponsored by Rip Curl. At 13 he was national junior champion with 11 junior titles in 3 years, and at 18, he now lives on the Gold Coast, Australia where he is being groomed by the world’s elite trainers to compete on the world tour. His dream is to be the first Indonesian world champ so he can support his country. Not bad for a boy who grew up in a three bedroom hut – a true underdog story!

Whilst in Kuta we spend the afternoons exploring the amazing beaches and bays along the rocky coastline east and west of Kuta with the highlights being the gorgeous secluded bay of Murah Beach and the relaxed SamaSama (You are Welcome) beach bar at Tanjung A’an where huge swarms of friendly dragonflies and herds of water buffalo kept us company as we soaked up the Lombok sunshine in front of the turquoise Indian Ocean.

Whilst eating and drinking options around town were a little limited, we make too great culinary finds. First up is the Ashtari vegetarian restaurant on top of the hill overlooking the Kutacoastline. We make the trip up there a couple of times with friends and enjoy the world’s finest chocolate, coconut and sweet syrup milkshakes, gorgeous salads, amazing veggie platters and homemade chocolate brownies, all with a front row seat to the best view in town. It seems Wikitravel has used the same vista for their lead image of Kuta Lombok online. The second is Murah Moriah, a basic warung (traditional Indonesian eatery) which is part of a small supermarket beside the beach. After Owen’s initial discovery of this place, we enjoy a good few meals there as the Nasi Campur is big, delicious and best of all it costs about a quid.NasiCampur is a local platter consisting of fried chicken, tofu, tempe, fried vegetables and rice. To jazz the rice up we douse it with chilli sauce and a sweet soy dressing called kecapmani (the locals’ version of ketchup) with makes everything taste even better.

TheKuta locals are super-friendly and helpful to a fault. They would offer assistance at every opportunity and even make phonecalls on their personal phones to obtain any information you might need. They were also very poor and most of the children in the village head out to sell bracelets for about 8 hours as soon as they get home from school. The children were gorgeous and in the main very bright with a good grasp of English as early as 5 years old. It’s just sad to see the mothers and fathers running their little selling rackets and driving their children round bars late at night to sell things to tourists. The shop owners and sarong sellers were struggling though so I guess they have little choice to get by. At present the only tourism Kuta really sees is in August and the remainder of the year it is mostly surfers on a tight budget passing through. It seems there have been several attempts to develop the region which have currently come to nothing but I am sure it will be a very different place in 10 years, so we are thrilled to have seen it in its natural form.

Whilst we are in Kuta we experience the annual windy week, as predicted by the local calendar which is based on the moon, which means we have to postpone our bus to Flores for a few days as the ferries are not running. We opt to change accommodation to somewhere cheaper and quieter as “Lipstick,” the late night karaoke behind Segar Reef, is getting a bit much (surely this place will drop off the Lonely Planet “Our Pick” when they find out who their new neighbours are). We opt for Banana Homestay, a small bungalow complex beneath a banana and coconut plantation at the edge of town which offers a much more serene ambience and a nice mix of guests.

Within a few days the winds die down and after a few more trips to the beach we decide to take the plunge on the supposed 26 hours bus and ferry journey across Sumbawa to Flores, our first real test of the Indonesian transport system. Now this could be interesting…!!!

The 26, 27, 28.....nope, make that the 44 hour journey to Labuanbajo, Flores

2012-01-30 to 2012-02-01

It’s an easy start in the car up to Mataram. We meet Annie (German) and Chrissa (fellow Brit) and get chatting about the travelling routes and surfing spots along the way. It’s only on arrival in Mataram that we get our first taste of the Indonesian version of a transport “connection.” We get dropped at a deserted restaurant, and told our coach doesn’t leave for two hours or so! Oh, but by the way, we can use the spare time to buy lunch in the restaurant if we like! The food turns out surprisingly ok, and before long we are off to the bus station.

We locate the bus without a hitch and while it does seem a little crowded, at least it is a proper coach and has a loo. We find our seats and cross our fingers that the promised air con is going to work, as it’s steaming hot on here!! Thankfully it does, but our initial reassurance about the onboard loo turns out to be shortlived, as it is already inaccessible before we even set off thanks to box after box of produce that is loaded onto the bus. It takes about an hour, and two different stops in Mataram, including various shuffling of goods in the hold, in the back of the bus and down the aisles before everything is fitted on. Fresh carrots, bags of fruit, clothes, suitcases, you name it; it’s all going to Flores!

I don’t need to pull my book out on the bus, as the views out the window are enough to keep me entertained. We get a view of GunungRinjani, Lombok’s impressive volcano, plus local Lombok streetlife has it all going on! On the downside, I am very much distracted by the amount of rubbish I can see throughout the journey. There’s a massive litter problem, at the sides of the streets and floating in the water ways, and it makes me think of the complex environmental issues that still need addressing in Indonesia. Our friend Stannard, who has just moved to Jakarta to work as an environmental engineer certainly seems to have his work cut out!!

We pull up at Labuan Lombok, the ferry port, at about 4.30pm, and everyone immediately decamps from the bus. No communication, no announcement, but the grapevine gradually spreads that we could be in for a long wait. Our bus is apparently too tall to fit on the ferry that is currently in port, and the next ferry isn’t until 5am. Great! This isn’t exactly a scenic place to be hanging around, and the thought of spending the night on a hot bus full of food isn’t appealing. It becomes even less appealing when we pop onto the bus an hour or so later and discover a huge bag just behind our seats literally swarming with ants – you can’t even actually see the bag anymore, just a pulsing mass of life! Lord knows what is inside there!

We decide sitting off the bus is preferable, and quickly get chatting to the other Westerners hanging around – Kevin, an upbeat Welshman, Eva and Giles (German and English respectively, who have spent their last 3 years in China), and Chrissa and Annie. We grab some food from one of the street side stalls, and chat until it has gone dark. Kevin keeps our spirits up with his comedy price comparison travelling stories and by reminding us that tonight will make a good story in a week’s time. We concede he is probably right! I am also starting to scope out the potential to hang our mosquito net under a tree and get my sleeping bag out, when out the corner of my eye I see our bus moving. Again, no communication, no announcement, but off it goes towards the ferry loading dock. We all grab our stuff and leg it after the bus - turns out the ferry is leaving earlier than we thought! It isn’t exactly P&O, but hey, at least we’re on the move, and the crossing is only an hour or so.

We dock in Sumbawa and reluctantly find our seats on the bus. The pulsing mass of ants is now in an absolute frenzy, and poor Eva has to try and sleep right next to it for the next 12 hours! It really takes the biscuit when Tom wakes up in the middle of the night to nudge me and Kevin, “er, guys, there’s a bl**dy bat on the bus!” Sure enough, somehow a bat seems to be doing lengths of the bus. Not sure why we’re that surprised given how many bugs there are inside this vehicle. Or as Kevin puts it, “For god’s sake, there’s more biodiversity inside this bus than there is outside!”

It’s a 12 hour journey across Sumbawa island, but we only really get a glimpse of the scenery towards the end of the journey as it gets light. Living conditions look pretty basic, and as morning dawns, we pass many people washing in the front gardens of their wooden stilted houses. We don’t see a single other Westerner in the villages we pass through, and conclude that we are finally reaching the more remote parts of Indonesia we were in search of. We spend a few hours with some locals at Bima, before the next minibus to Sape (Sumbawa’s eastern port) is due. This two hour stretch of the journey passes through some wonderful scenery before dropping us back down to sea level.

But, it’s the same story again! We get off the bus at 3pm (27.5 hours after we started this journey), only to be told we have missed the one ferry today, and the next one is at 3am. Ha, only 12 hours. And I used to moan about the 30 minute delay on my trains home from London?! We get talked into taking a room in town, and we grab a bit of food and check emails before getting our heads down. Thank god Kevin decided not to pay for a room and to stay awake! We get a loud rap on the door at 11pm “the ferry’s leaving now – get up!” Blimey, has no-one invented the concept of a transport timetable over here?!

We get our stuff together and stumble over to the ferry – all the locals have already grabbed their spot and seem to be sleeping soundly on the deck, apparently oblivious to the smell of wee and the roaming cockroaches. We stumble across the VIP lounge, which is probably the best pound I’ve spent all week, as we upgrade to leather reclining seats and some peace and quiet for a mere 15,000 rupiah (cockroaches included free of charge throughout).

Thankfully, the crossing is calmer than we feared given the recent weather, and although we don’t get a great deal of sleep, we are thankful for small graces at this stage! The ferry finally docks into Labuanbajo at about 7.30am. Door to door in 44 hours and safe to say, we’ll be flying back!

We grab a room at the Gardena hotel and spend the rest of the morning absorbing the views as well as a load of local information which seems to be coming direct to us from other travellers who have been around for a few days. It’s a perfect help, as the last thing we feel like doing is wandering around and haggling. We also get chatting to one of the most upbeat people to ever grace the planet, a chap called Donald from Quebec. He brings a dose of enthusiasm to every story or place we might want to go, and so by the end of the morning we aren’t even feeling so tired anymore, and head off together to a local warung for lunch!

We figure Donald is the perfect companion for a trip into Komodo National Park, and get our two day boat trip and tour of Rinca and Komodo islands booked, along with a friendly German lad called Bernard who we bump into in the street. Tom has been waiting to see these beasts for years, and now the wait is almost over….

The dragon hunters! (Rinca and Komodo islands)

2012-02-02 to 2012-02-04

Our last meal on dry land turns out to be a bit of a disaster; my noodles taste distinctly of cat food, and Tom’s watery curry is concisely summed up by Kevin as “rank.” Save for the “dry meat” experience in Peru, this meal definitely comes a close second for the worst meal of the trip so far! In fact, it’s a close call, as neither of us could eat this meal, whereas at least the dry meat and banana chips got a reasonable innings!

The next morning we are up early to meet the final member of our tour group, Rico, a Canadian from Alaska who certainly seems to have got his work-life balance sorted. Six months working out in the sticks as a goldminer, and six months every year to travel. He says he occasionally considers that he should be getting what he calls “a proper career,” but then laughs at the ridiculousness of the idea of changing from a job that gives him six months off a year! Stick with it I say!

It’s a slow chugging boat out into Komodo National Park, and despite the looming grey clouds, the scenery is spectacular. It is actually to our favour that we are in wet season as the greenery is all really lush, and there aren’t too many other tourists around. In dry season the hills are barren. When we arrive at Loh Buaya on Rinca island, we are quickly rewarded with our first sight of a Komodo dragon before we get to the initial camp. Although they move slowly and look in some ways quite placid, on the other hand they are pretty fearsome when they eyeball you! Even more so when we learn from the ranger that one of the rangers was attacked by a dragon, unprovoked, just a few months ago, and had to undergo emergency medical treatment. I potter off to the toilet before we start the hike, only to be told in no uncertain terms to come out…”There’s a dragon passing right outside the door, stay where you are”! Eeek. Don’t worry, I’m staying!

We set off on the trek and there is a certain amount of adrenalin pumping. There are 1300 carnivore dragons on the island, and they hunt their prey generally by sneaking up on them from behind, before landing one killer bite containing 60 types of bacteria, which ultimately causes a slow death from septicaemia. Nice! Although they hunt independently, dragons can smell blood up to 5km away, so when the buffalo, deer, or other animal passes away, it’s definitely feeding time!After a big feed, a dragon may not eat for another month. Just in case, we decide it is wise to follow the ranger’s advice closely, which means sticking together as a group, keeping our distance from the dragons, and being aware of what is going on around (and behind!) you.

We are lucky enough to see several Komodo’s in the wild, as well as water buffalo, deer, monkeys and numerous insects. Komodo’s are cold blooded so can be quite lethargic or lacking energy unless the sun is out, so you can actually get closer up than we thought and there are some great photo opportunities….particularly if you’ve got a zoom like Bernard’s – it was like being out with the photographer from National Geographic!We learn a lot about the dragons, whose ancestors lived up to 50 million years ago. For their first three years of life, the young ones live up trees, to prevent getting eaten by their mother or other larger dragons! They live to be 50 years old, but like humans can lose teeth with age, so hunting prey as an OAP becomes difficult and they often starve.
After a two hour hike round the island, it’s time to get back aboard the boat. We are off in search of a good snorkel spot and then the Flying Foxes, but before we find them, we are lucky enough to spot a large school of dolphins leaping about in the water. Too fast for photos though!

Unfortunately it starts chucking it down just as we pull up and de-robe at Pink Beach for a spot of snorkelling, it’s a bit nippy, and Bernard and Rico bail on the snorkelling idea. I figure it’s going to be a long time before I’m snorkelling again in Komodo National Park, so with that, I’m in (and actually it’s warmer in the water than it is on the boat!). Turns out to be well worth it, as the coral is really close to the surface and there is lots of marine life to distract us from what’s going on above the surface!

We finish the day by pulling up in a sheltered bay at dusk, just in time to see a gang of huge fruit bats taking off on their nightly tour of the island. They are flying right overhead and in formation like birds. I haven’t seen bats quite so massive, but you’ll have to take our word for it on the size as our camera wasn’t quick enough! Our crew get us all set up for a comfortable night sleep on the deck of the boat, but their efforts are thwarted by the windy and rainy weather which keeps us awake most of the night. Despite this it’s a nice experience to spend the night on the boat, gently rocking to the waves and listening to the rain on the tarpaulin!

We are up early and off to Komodo island. Shortly after docking at Loh Liang, and setting off on our hike, we see the largest two dragons yet. They are sitting in a perfect formation – head to toe and toe to head – it’s as if they know this is going to work well for the photos! Having said that, these ones seem particularly intimidating and none of us want to take our eyes off them long enough to pose alongside for a photograph!

The rest of the hike isn’t as eventful as Rinca, although we do see another couple of dragons, some cockatoos and lots of wild deer. We were also amused to find some droppings of the Sewuk cat, but despite having a close look, there were no coffee beans in it! Apparently if you can find coffee beans in this rare cat’s poo, you can make a lot of money from selling it to make Luwuk coffee.

To top off a great couple of days in Komodo National Park we finish with some more great snorkelling, finding a blue spotted stingray, a frogfish, and loads of angelfish, sweetlips and butterfly fish. The mantas at Manta Point might have got away this time, but we’re not going to take defeat lying down….. As soon as we get back to Labuanbajo, it’s off to Kanawa island to try our luck with the scuba gear...

Dropping in with the mantas! (Kanawa island)

2012-02-05 to 2012-02-07

Two beautiful islands close to Labuanbajo are Seraya and Kanawa. Seraya sits just outside Komodo National Park and is cheaper than Kanawa but unfortunately has no dive shop so we plump for Kanawa instead, we had a job to do after all!

We share the journey over with some familiar faces from The Gardena and are thrilled to see clear blue skies overhead as we make our approach. Kanawa’s coastline stood out from the shores of the neighbouring islands and mainland coastline because of the bright turquoise seas which lay over the pristine reef surrounding it. A true paradise island! 

We arrive at the end of a long pier (it was so long because the reef extends some 200m off the shore) and immediately take a heap of photos in case this is the only sunny day we get. There is only one resort on the island so it’s not long before we’re checked in to our bungalow , superbly located less than 10 metres from the water with an undisrupted view from the hammock – nice! 

The evening scene on Kanawa was limited, so whilst on Kanawa the days are the highlight and we spend most our time in the water. We do lots of snorkelling round the island as the marine life is extraordinary. Most dips in the water you could expect to see turtles, lion fish and sting rays. In the shallows we even saw around six baby sharks preparing for life in the open seas. But the real attraction of Kanawa is the diving so we went to introduce ourselves to Ed, the English owner and divemaster at Kanawa Dive. He has just set up the independent dive school on the island with his wife and their first year is going really well. We hit it off straightaway so book on for the following day’s trip to Manta Point and Batu Balong - a world top 100 dive site. 

On the morning of the dive we are lucky and relieved to find perfect conditions in the middle of rainy season, so Ed decides to get us off earlier than planned. After a quick pancake we’re on our way to Manta Point. Once at the site, Ed gives us a professional briefing on the dive, then armed with the underwater camera we drop in. Within minutes we spot a couple of huge mantas and despite quite a strong current are able to get close enough to them for some great pics. They are probably the most amazing creatures I have ever seen. They hover effortlessly in the water and have a wise wizard-like look about them which I am lucky enough to experience close up, as a manta with a 3 metre wingspan soared over my head allowing me to get a couple of great shots. On the remainder of the dive we explore the largely flat sea bed and spot a reef shark. We exit the water buzzing with excitement for the next dive. 

After a short ride and a brew we arrive at a small rock protruding from the water. This is the tip of the underwater pinnacle of Batu Balong. As we pull up another dive boat is just leaving and we spot our friend Donald exiting the water. “How was it?” I shout and unsurprisingly the answer is of course “AMAZING!!” Excellent, I think and we drop in. We see straightaway why this is considered one of the world’s best dive sites as within moments of entering the water a giant manta soars up the wall. We see a giant Tuna fish, shark, turtle, great coral and a massive Napoleon fish which looked like something out of a Disney movie – almost artificial. The wall was deep and we descended to a depth of around 30m on the dive. Either side of the pinnacle was a strong current so Ed took us carefully side to side on the sheltered side. All in all it was the best dive of my life and we saw everything we expected to see and more and in perfect conditions. We were indeed very lucky!! On the way back we have a good chat to Ed about life in Indonesia and what it’s like to set up a business there. 

The rest of our time in Kanawa was spent lounging round on the terrace and discussing with other guests about where to head next. We meet a German guy named Florian who works making nature documentaries for German television and decide to join him on a trip to Wae Rebo, a recommendation from a Swiss couple who were travelling in the opposite direction. 

There is no question that Kanawa is a great Island, it’s just a shame the Italian resort owners tarnished the experience with sub-standard service and over-pricing. We were always hungry and thirsty on the island as they served up mini-cans of drink and tiny portions of food. All whilst they tucked in to giant platefuls of food made for themselves in full view of their customers. Despite being expensive and not having our room cleaned the whole time, tax was still added on at the end leaving a bitter taste in our mouth as we left. I got the impression the consortium of owners were probably pretty small time and needed to recoup their investment quickly. This is a real shame as a properly run, customer focussed business on this island would make it a dream destination. 

So, now to see how the Flores locals really live with a trip to the interior…

Journey to Wae Rebo... beyond the end of the road...

2012-02-08 to 2012-02-10

We arrive back in Labuanbajo and after a bit of haggling, the three of us manage to secure a decent deal on a driver and a car to take us to Denge, the access point for Wae Rebo village. Our driver, Frances turns out to be a really nice chap, and we learn a lot about the island and local culture from him, and as an added bonus his nice shiny Hyundai also has air conditioning!

The scenery as we start to drive out into the countryside is fantastic. Little isolated properties, set amongst bright green rice fields, and we find it difficult to believe Frances when he tells us that Flores has a rice shortage! We pick up some mini sweet bananas and some snakefruit from a roadside stall (which in hindsight might have been an error, as they affect everyone’s stomach’s a little unpredictably!!) Before we leave civilisation completely, thankfully Frances takes a stop off for lunch in Lembar. This is when it really pays to travel with a local, as the food at the little warung is cheap and very tasty.

Shortly after lunch we take the turn off the main road towards Denge. It is another 3 hours from here, and looks like the majority of it is on more or less a single width track, which slowly deteriorates in quality the more remote it gets! We twist and turn all the way down from the centre of the island towards the southern coast, passing people hard at work in the rice fields, and harvesting the rice at the side of the road. All of the locals are pretty intrigued to see us and we get a few odd looks, ranging from a confused glare, to a welcoming smile and wave – I don’t think they get too many Westerners down these parts! We make a stop off in the final village before Denge that has a shop, and the car gets pretty much ambushed by a gang of kids wanting to give us high fives and have their photographs taken. I get out of the car to get some water and it feels like the entire village is staring at me….oh, that’s because the entire village IS staring at me! I’ve never been anywhere where people look quite so stunned to see you, but with a smile and a hello, they seemed to be pleased to see us really.

After about 7 hours we finally arrive in Denge, to a similar reception. Huddles of kids stand nervously around the car wanting to say hello and practise their English, but a little too nervous to be the first to step forward! We are greeted by Blassius the local school teacher and owner of the homestay where we plan to stay for the night. It’s a little pricey at 350,000 rupiah considering how basic it is, but he was born in Wae Rebo so I guess all the proceeds are at least staying with the local community. We have dinner of red rice, green veggies (a bit like spinach) and chicken, then after a quick briefing on what we can expect at the village, it’s off to bed.

Blassius’ brother, Phillipous, who still lives in Wae Rebo, agrees to be our porter/guide (he speaks about 5 words in English…), and we set off early for the four hour hike up the mountain (which we get the impression usually takes him nearer two hours!!!) I’m sure Phillipous thinks we are all a bit bonkers – but who can blame him. We all have our trousers tucked deep into our socks and smothered in tiger balm (to protect against leeches) – but it’s not a look that I’m sure is going to be in this season, or next for that matter!

Some parts of the trail are really steep, and it’s amazing to think that this is the only access point to the village, for both young and old, as well as any food, water and fuel they need to bring. We learn that when the village children reach six, they leave Wae Rebo to live in Denge so that they can go to school, only returning to see the rest of their family on Saturday evening and Sunday. The older members of the village must surely just get to the stage where they decide not to take the trek on, and who can blame them!

We finally make it to the top, just as the clouds are lifting to reveal a cluster of traditional huts nestled on the side of the hilltop. It does have an element of the Machu Picchu effect all over again, especially to think that this is still a living village which has been here for around 1000 years, and we feel quite lucky to have stumbled upon it.

As it turns out, we are only the 9th, 10th and 11th foreign visitors this year, which probably explains why we get such a warm welcome, despite not really being able to properly converse with the villagers. We learn that the village was only “discovered” in 1975 by a Kiwi photographer, and the government didn’t even know they existed until that point, and have therefore granted them an exemption from paying tax.

We get taken straight over to what feels like the “head” Gendang (hut), take off our shoes and head inside. The first thing that hits you is the darkness, and it takes our eyes a little while to adjust before we can look around. The traditional structures were originally built with no windows at all, and small openings have only recently been added for safety, but it’s certainly a pretty dark place to be spending your daytime hours. The second thing that hits you is the woody, smoky smell. Right in the centre of the hut is an open fireplace, which is used for all cooking and heating, and with very little ventilation all the smoke and cooking smells linger around for a while. It is also the social centre of the home, where people seem to congregate and chat, and, as we are to learn, make their many cups of Wae Rebo coffee that are downed each day!

Luckily, Florian has brought the Indonesian phrasebook pages from his Lonely Planet, and so, much to the locals amusement, we try to ask a few questions about who is who, and what various things are. Unfortunately, we can’t understand any of the answers, but at least it breaks the ice! Many of the people are just sitting around and it would seem don’t need to work as they are either minding the smaller children or one of the village elders. Apparently, the oldest and highest status members of the family never leave the Gendang. Unfortunately, the rural Indonesian habit of chewing betelnut (a mild stimulant) appears to have taken hold here too, and many of the women have teeth reddened and dropping out from years of chewing and rubbing the awful stuff into their gums.

After a cup of very strong, black, sweet coffee, we decide to head out for a look around. It is the first coffee of many, as everywhere we go in the village, people offer us a cup, until eventually I can drink no more! There are lots of things going on, hidden away in little nooks and crannies… a couple of older women grinding coffee, many of the younger women in the shade of the huts weaving traditional ikat, men feeding the pigs or collecting bananas, and a couple of chaps making rope out of the fibres of the palm tree (which is used to attach the damp proof layer on the wooden foundations of the huts.) There are chickens and dogs running around everywhere, as well as lots of the younger children who are keen to greet us and follow us round!

Florian (our travelling companion) manages to teach the kids a traditional German game where you stack fists one on top of the other whilst holding each other’s thumbs, and I communicate using the international language of “biscuits” which seems to work quite well in winning me a lot of followers!! The children are so adorable and good humoured, despite having very little to play with, they seem to make their own fun…. and hopefully long may it stay that way; there is no role for computer games here! They do seem to like their football shirts though – one of the only signs of Western society that has made it here so far.

Initially, we are quite pleasantly surprised by the food – rice, stewed greens and noodles – and it’s actually rather tasty. However, we soon realise that this is what the villagers eat for every single meal, at which point, I imagine it starts to become a bit of a drag! Once a week or less, they might venture to kill a pig or chicken, but generally the food is all vegetarian. For special occasions, only once/twice a year, the villagers may have a buffalo sacrifice. This, and the clusters of feathers in each Gendang, are a sign of respect for and protection from their ancestors.

We are given our beds for the night in the guesthouse, but learn that the villagers sleep up to eight families together in one hut. The adults sleep in a circle around the outer edge of the hut, while the younger children sleep in curtained off areas at the back. All generations of the family live together harmoniously along with their “neighbours.” There is hardly any privacy, and I wonder what it must be like to be brought up and live your whole life here… Indeed when I come to get undressed for bed, I am not quite sure how best to avoid offending anyone – you are not supposed to expose certain areas – and yet, there are loads of people milling around and nowhere private to change! Another rule is that you are not allowed to touch or kiss your partner, or to be left alone with them whilst in the village, so poor Florian has to nestle up as a third bed alongside ours!!

We actually all sleep pretty well considering, and wake up way after dawn to find Phillipous sitting and staring silently at us from the other side of the hut!! Either that’s our signal we should be getting a move on, or he is just more than ready for his breakfast! I’m in agreement on that one, although my appetite disappears quite quickly when we are presented with plain white rice, noodles and greens again…

After packing up and saying our goodbyes, we set off on the hike back down to Denge. We were expected the way down to be a lot easier, but it’s actually pretty gruelling on the old knees, and it still takes us nearly four hours.

We set off in the car from Denge, but it isn’t long before some pretty heavy rain starts to close in, making the roads pretty sketchy. Just as we are within 5kms of Ruteng, a steep patch of muddy track with no proper road surface prevents us from passing. In typical smiling Indonesian “unfazedness”, Frances reassures us he knows an alternative route (unfortunately for us, he just omits to mention that this is a 2.5 hour detour!!!) And we think we are hacked off with our government! It really opens our eyes to what some people have to put up with in their day to day lives... the Indonesians all know that living conditions and the country’s development are being inhibited by a lack of investment because their government and its officials are corrupt, but they are all so resigned to putting up with it, there is barely a word of complaint.

When we eventually get to the main road, we decide its best on all fronts if we cut our losses on following the original route, and so Tom and I head off on the public bus to Ruteng to prevent Frances and Florian from having to double back to Labuanbajo. Thankfully we make it to Ruteng without incident (although we later hear that they weren’t so lucky; getting in to a scrape with a truck as they swerved to avoid hitting a bike. As well as arriving back in Labuanbajo to a malaria outbreak!).

We had been recommended the local convent to stay in (of all places!), so on our best behaviour, we head off to check in. It is the cleanest room we have stayed in for weeks, a comfortable bed (with duvet) and even a hot shower (only the second one since Xmas). So after a quick local Padang, its showers all round and bed!

Well, we said we didn’t quite know what Flores was going to entail, but so far we’ve seen dragons, sharks and mantas; swam a circuit round our very own desert island and spent one night in an ancient village and one in a convent. Now, if you had told me that was going to happen a week ago, I may not have believed you!!! What have they got in store for us next???

Bass bus to Bajawa… land of the friendliest locals on the planet?

2012-02-11 to 2012-02-13

The lovely nuns organise a tasty breakfast and a minibus to the door for the next morning, so all is going well, until we pull up at the out of town bus stop. The minibus is already packed full, with two people sharing the front passenger seat, four on the back seat, and three of us in the back. I know it’s bad news when the driver starts peering through the back window with a “Surely, you can squeeze another one in there?” look on his face. Sure enough, we have to fit another chap in, which is a real shame as the amazing six hours of scenery would have been much more spectacular if I could feel my legs!!

Seemingly oblivious to the discomfort everyone else in the bus is in, the driver (the only person in the vehicle with his own seat….), decides that now is a good time to show off his subwoofer with a bit of his favourite genre, Bassline, at full volume. Just a shame that the back seat appears to be resting right on top of said subwoofer, and my insides have started to vibrate!! After five minutes I resort to earplugs (it doesn’t block the music, but it stops my ears stinging!), but when the driver sees me in his mirror, he seems to take this only as encouragement that his speakers are doing exactly as he hoped! Of course the other passengers on the bus are Indonesian, so in true national style no-one even flinches or breathes a word of discontent, including the elderly passengers. I have a little chuckle to myself about how p*ssed off and irate some of the business people used to get on the commuter trains from London about something so insignificant by comparison – a telling contrast!

We finally arrive with a sigh of relief in Bajawa. It’s a basic kind of place but somehow all the rooms are pretty expensive? After looking at a few, we can’t see any difference in quality between any of them, so we opt for the one that Lonely Planet calls “the bottom of the Bajawa barrel” because it is 50,000 rupiah cheaper! And breakfast is included (unfortunately it turns out to be a toastie sandwich with a sprinkle of sugar but nothing else inside, and a boiled egg. Random!) In fairness, I think they need all the help with income they can get, because the sooner they can afford to connect some of their plumbing and replace the lime green and fuchsia pink interior, the better!

Next morning we find a bike, and after an initial difference of opinion about what constitutes “roadworthy” tyres, we manage to negotiate getting the tyres changed and are heading off down the valley. We have drawn our own map out of a page in Lonely Planet, and it turns out to be a good job the locals are so nice, as there are next to no roadsigns. Anywhere.

As we drive out through Langa towards Bena, we get our first taste of just how welcoming the locals are, we are greeted everywhere we go with “Hello Mr, hello Mrs” or a wave, or even sometimes blown a kiss! All seem so pleased to see tourists in their area and we figure they don’t see very many of us, particularly in wet season. We stop for photographs and to admire the wonderful views of Gunung Inerie, the largest and most impressive volcano in the area. Standing at 2,245 metres, it is a spectacular backdrop for the traditional village of Bena, and looks slightly out of place to see washing hanging up in such a postcard setting!!

We stop to sign the visitors book and have a wander around Bena village to meet some of the locals. It is Sunday morning, and most of the villagers are enjoying some family time, but this doesn’t stop them from taking the time to introduce themselves and ask about where we are from. The dreaded betelnut is also a big habit here by the look of the red mouths and lack of teeth, and with it some of the characteristic laziness it seems to induce. However, some people are still working, drying out and peeling the nuts, or selling cloves, vanilla or ikat. We decide to buy a small piece of ikat as a memory of our time in Indonesia, before heading on to Nage.

Unfortunately getting to Nage appears to be a bit of a wild goose chase, and the road has pretty much crumbled into nothing, so by the time we get there we can only be bothered with a quick photo before tackling the road back. I end up walking most of the way back down the hill, while poor Tom has to try and keep the bike upright on the rubble. Some lovely local kids are on hand to help out though, pushing the bike through some of the tricky patches, and of course, taking the opportunity to practice their English. They love it when we say we are from near Manchester, because of course they have all heard of Manchester United, and for some of them it is their favourite team. Well they do say that most United supporters don’t come from Manchester!!

After an enjoyable day and some beautiful scenery, we decide to get back to Bajawa for dinner at Dito’s. Whilst the noodles leave something to be desired, the sate is good, and the iced lime is the best we’ve had yet.

For our second day in Bajawa, we take the bike out again, and go to see Wawo Muda volcano. Again there is no signage, so we have to rely on shouted directions and mimes from locals all the way there. We venture up a grassy track until we daren’t take the bike further, and then walk the final leg to the top at 1,753 metres. There are locals working away up here, and we pass people farming, picking coffee, and herding their cattle.
It’s worth breaking a sweat, as you can see all the way to the coast from the top. There are also two impressive volcanic lakes, one in olive green the other turquoise, which stand out again the desolate grey ash surroundings and charred trees. The volcano is the newest one in the area, and only erupted in 2001.

Unfortunately, we arrive back at the bike to find the back tyre flat! Not great news as we know they were only new on yesterday. So it’s another downhill hike for me, while Tom skilfully negotiates getting the bike down to the village. As usual, a friendly local is never far away and a chap on a bike escorts us to the nearest garage for some air. Thankfully this seems to do the trick, so after a slightly dodgy chicken sate lunch, we are back on the bike and off to Mangaruda Mata hot springs (which even has a hot waterfall you can sit in!). Unfortunately, we didn’t realise quite how far away it was, otherwise we might have brought a map. This was the most amazing journey though, as for the entire hour there and back, we were greeted and waved by locals the whole way. Literally, people were waving and shouting hello from passing motorbikes, roofs of trucks, gardens and doorways. There were even little disembodied voices coming out of the forest as you drove past, even when you couldn’t see anyone. We both felt like film stars. It was so welcoming, and on that note, Bajawa definitely wins our award for the friendliest locals on the planet!

The Ende of the road for Indonesia…

2012-02-14 to 2012-02-18

Our early morning Bemo to Ende arrives on time and after a high speed rally round town picking up other passengers, the driver thankfully chills right down and it’s an easy journey up through the mountains, then a beautiful ride down to the coast. There’s not much to Ende, in fact it’s a bit of sprawling dump, but the people on the streets were nice and we saw Indonesian life in full swing on the street markets. The only reason we stopped by was to arrange our flight to Kuala Lumpur so we check in at Ikhlas Hotel as it’s close to the airport. The rooms at Ikhlas were fine but the service was flippin’ terrible. Arriving at the hotel you felt like you were intruding on them even though the place was dead and they seemed to be doing nothing? Not an ideal setting for Valentine's Day, but you have to take the rough with the smooth!!  The owner was a grouchy Muslim lady whose children seemed to do the running round. They were hardly charismatic either but I guess you learn by example or something like that?? She was the only person in all of Flores we had met who had any kind of attitude problem. A career in hospitality was definitely the wrong decision.

Ende was also our hottest stop in Indonesia by a mile and we spent a few sweaty hours trawling the streets in the midday sun looking for a bargain flight. Unfortunately for us there were no bargains to be had that day so in the end just go with our preferred date even though it was a bit dear – we were so ready for some good food that the KL was calling loudly and we were ready to follow its sounds!

We decided to spend our last few days in Indonesia visiting the village of Moni and its neighbouring volcano, Kelimutu. The ride to Moni is gorgeous and we enjoy some rare space on the bus to spread out and enjoy the view. We are dropped off outside our chosen digs “Bintang Guesthouse” aptly named for our final stop. The weather was pretty good that afternoon so we decided to hire a bike and head up to see Kelimutu and its famous tri-coloured lakes.

It’s a jaw-dropping ride up the mountain past the paddy fields and in to the national park. Best of all when we get there, there is no-one else around. We hike a short way through the forest to the crater rim and get our first glimpse of the lagoons below. The colour is bright turquoise which looks out of place compared to the rock colour surrounding it. The locals believe the three lakes to be sacred and when you die your spirit will be sent to one of them. Apparently the lakes also change colour, and be anything from green, turquoise to brown or black, so it’s not surprising they are seen as mystical. There is a small monument and viewing platform at the top of the crater so we climb up there and soak up the views. Kelimutu was certainly nice, but it’s times like these we realise how spoilt we were with South America’s landscapes that nothing has since cut the mustard or maybe we are becoming slightly de-sensitized to natural beauty having already visited three of the seven new natural wonders?? I am hoping that Nepal has something to say about that, so we’ll have to wait and see??

On our second night in Moni we are invited by a local to have a traditional meal at his little restaurant called “Bamboo”. We eventually find it by torchlight at the end of a small side street and find him trying to repair the drain on his drive by oil light. The restaurant is extremely basic and his wife is busy preparing our dinner in the kitchen.

After a cup of fresh lemongrass tea our huge dinner is served up. We didn’t have enough money for him to kill a chicken so we went veggie. We had red mountain rice (I think it’s red because it is grown on dry soil?), veggie coconut soup and the inside of the big pink flower of the banana plant served as a salad. The meal is apparently used for ceremonial occasions and was all pretty tasty. It was just nice to have something with some flavour compared to the mostly bland cuisine we’d had thus far in Flores. We had a nice chat with the owner who spoke pretty good English (despite only learning from speaking to tourists in the street!) about how it is to work for yourself. He agreed that it is great to have your creative freedom and to be your own boss, but admitted it can be pretty tough and in the quiet season they have to rely on the food they grow themselves. But hey, at least you’ve got no-one telling you what to do!!

Our remaining time in Moni is spent exploring the local area on the bike and chatting to fellow travellers in the roadside cafes.

To fly to Kuala Lumpur we had to go back to Denpasar first, so in case of delays we decide to have a night in Kuta on our way back as it’s close to the airport. We find a nice place to stay and after what we had heard about Kuta, we were pleasantly surprised by the selection of restaurants. We were starving and plumped for a Greek taverna for Souvlaki and a couple of magnums to fill the gaps before bed. We had to be up at 3.15am so that was the extent of our final night of our Indonesia leg.

So that was Indonesia... Looking back, it’s been a real eye-opening seven weeks. We have been privileged to enjoy what must now be some of the world’s most unspoilt territory, and to meet local people living in the remotest of places, often in very basic living conditions. The contrast between what most tourists see when they visit Bali, with the rest of Indonesia is so pronounced, and we feel so lucky to have enjoyed a piece of it before the inevitable spoils of tourism hit.

All in all, the Indonesian experience has been made by the people. Yes, some of them are very lazy (probably not helped by the betelnut!), but that seems to be compensated for by some very hard working farming people who lead tough lives. Indonesians are an exciting mixed bag in terms of religion, culture and language, yet all held together by a common identity and pride of being Indonesian. What is more, the Indonesians, and especially the rural Indonesians, are so welcoming and hospitable, it is an absolute joy to be a visitor. It felt slightly awkward sometimes when people felt the need to apologise if they couldn’t speak English, or occasionally to apologise for the state of the roads, or something else that blatantly wasn’t their fault! The state of the Indonesian government and its corruption really needs some urgent attention if Indonesia is going to have a fair chance of development. At the moment, despite being the world’s fourth most populous nation (after China, India and the USA) with 130 million inhabitants, Indonesia’s GDP per person is a quarter of that of Malaysia, and only one twenty-second of that of Australia.

The other striking and hopefully lasting memory of Indonesia is some of the spectacular landscapes we have seen; ranging from the lush green countryside's and paddy fields, to the pristine desert islands and underwater world of Komodo National Park. We will remember the contrasts of the busy motorbike-filled roads in Bali, with the people showering in the chilly front yards in Sumbawa at dawn, as well as the vast variety of properties ranging from huge luxury villas, to the way the majority of locals live in simple concrete, wood, or even bamboo constructions with very minimal interior or anything by way of furnishing. A telling reminder that around half the Indonesian population still live on less than $2 a day, and around 100 million still live without electricity; yet you never hear people complaining, and we never came across one misbehaved child….  There's a message in there somewhere....!

Oh yes, and I don’t think we’ll ever forget the smell of the famous Indonesian clove cigarettes, or the classic non-existent travel connections!  “Selamat tinggal” for now Indonesia, and “terima kasih!” :)

“What are you doing here anyway? Malaysia is rubbish for tourists!" (Kuala Lumpur)

2012-02-18 to 2012-02-22

KL comes as a pleasant surprise to both of us. It was not necessarily “on the list,” but after 7 weeks of pretty basic conditions in Indonesia, we are both ready for a bit of relative luxury ie. we have only had two hot showers since Christmas and eaten pretty much the same food for every meal! We decide to treat ourselves and book ahead for the Hotel Chinatown 2 – it has hot water, tv, air con, free wi fi and is right in the centre of the action – all for 15 quid a night.

We have a smooth flight in, even managing to get a bit of kip on the plane (to make up for getting up at 3.15am), so as we touch down in KL we are ready to hit the city. We hop onto the Star Shuttle, which takes us directly to Chinatown, and find our hotel. This has to be the smoothest and cheapest airport to city transition we have done yet; KL certainly seems to have its transport infrastructure sorted out!

We know we’ve got a lot of bits and bobs to do while we here, but first things first….. food! We locate the Chinatown foodcourt, Tang City, and tuck in for a late breakfast of sweet and sour pork and thai style chilli chicken – yum! It has been a while since we have eaten anything with this much flavour!!We spend the next few days gradually working our way through a list of supplies we need – a third (and hopefully final) pair of sunglasses for Claire, a watch for Tom, medical supplies, and replacement clothes. We fall short of finding suitable contact lenses, but we do manage to get a disposable camera developed that we have been carrying around since Peru (and can’t even really remember what’s on it!) We also make a couple of trips to the Embassy to get our Thai visa sorted out :)

KL makes life pretty easy for us in getting fixed up. Chinatown and Little India have stall after stall of cheap clothes, bags, watches and niknaks, as well as some amazing street food. The Central Market also sells clothes, antiques, jewellery and souvenirs, and is a wonderful escape from the midday sun, as it is fully air conditioned!! Everything in KL is so accessible via their cheap, spacious and efficient metro system, KL rapid. One stop is 20p, in busy times trains come every 20 seconds, and it is all fully air conditioned. Think of the exact opposite of the London Underground and you’re about there!

KL is also a pretty friendly place, I guess because there is such a mixture of people here, no-one really seems out of place. We get into a pretty amusing conversation with a Chinese chap after having stopped just to ask some directions. He was having a bit of a laugh saying “What are you doing here anyway? Malaysia is rubbish for tourists! Not like London, you’ve got Trafalgar Square, Convent Garden, the Queen!” We explained the dire situation with the economy, and why we were taking a break from the UK and his response was refreshingly to the point: "That's the problem with you Westerners isn't it, all you want to do is spend, spend spend." I was about to try and defend myself, when I got a glance over his shoulder into Chinatown, to row after row of fake gucci bags and rolex watches, and throngs of tourists going mad for it, and I had to admit... he's got a point!!! Consumerism is out of control. He also offered his professional opinion on the situation in Greece: "The problem with the Greeks is they want to start work at 30, and retire at 50. Greece, Italy, Spain - they're all facked. FACKED!!!"  Forget Robert Peston, we should get this guy on the bbc, he'd soon give people the wake up call they need!!!

We also visit the modern shopping areas around Bukit Bintang and the Golden Triangle. There are a crazy number of shops and shopping centres; and after a few hours trekking round, it all gets a bit much and we have to bail with an icecream! The Pavilion was definitely worth a look though (even if we couldn’t afford to buy anything in there), but the design of the shopping centre itself was pretty swanky. It felt more like a palace than a shopping centre.

In between the shopping, we manage to see a fair bit of KL. We visit the Petronas Towers (unfortunately on the only day of the week that the Sky Bridge is closed!), but we do manage to get up the KL Tower the following day. The views of the city are spectacular, and you can see out to the Batu caves and the mountains in the distance. We also take a very humid stroll around the Botanical Gardens, which has a fantastic orchid garden (I took loads of pictures for you Grandma!!), a Deer Park and a lovely lake – just a shame we got rained off towards the end!

Other than the night markets, and the local reggae bar, we don’t venture out to see much of what KL nightlife has to offer, but we get the impression we aren’t missing too much as a bit of vibe and entertainment seemed to be the only thing the city misses. Besides which, the beer costs about as much 3 or 4 meals in Chinatown, so it just seems a bit out of kilter. We decide to make the most of having a TV in our room instead, and it’s actually nice to lounge around and watch a few movies, and I finally get to see Jaws (having missed it completely the first time around in the 1980’s!)

So…. that was KL! All in all, a pretty modern and multi-cultural place. All the facilities of a major city, but less of the crowds and congestion. We settled in pretty well considering we have come straight from the wilderness of Flores!!

Feeling suitably refreshed, replenished and shopped out, we decide it is time to move on. The beaches of Thailand are calling us (and have been calling me for about 10 years since I first decided I wanted to visit!) We book a 13 hour sleeper train to Hat Yai in southern Thailand, and pop to Little India for a final delicious Thali at SagarKafe to see us on until we get to India….

Welcome to Thailand.. Great food, neon lights and beer we can afford. Yipeeee! (Trang and Koh Muk)

2012-02-23 to 2012-02-27

After what seems like a long wait at the border, we finally arrive at Hat Yai. It’s not exactly what I had in mind for my first experience of Thailand! It’s a sprawling border town, laid out on a grid, with no character whatsoever, and worse, we have to trek all the way round the place in the blazing morning heat with our backpacks to find somewhere to eat. After a narrow escape from a slightly weird ‘fish only’ place, we settle for “The Pubb” (mainly because it has free wifi, and we haven’t got a clue where in Thailand we are heading from here!!) Granted, it doesn’t sound like authentic thai, but the food turns out to be delicious. With the help of the internet, we finally manage to get our heads together and decide to plump for Koh Muk, via Trang. If we are quick, we can get the minibus out of this place this afternoon and avoid having to stay the night!

It’s only about 3 hours to Trang, but when we get there most of the accommodation is full. Thankfully one of the reception staff who turns us away also makes a quick call for us, and gets us in across the road at PJ’s guesthouse. Luxury it ain’t, but overall it turns out to be a result at 3 quid a night, as all we are after is getting our heads down for a few hours before the morning boat to Koh Muk. The family owners are really welcoming and helpful in getting our transport and accommodation for the island sorted out; in between caring for their elderly mother who, bless her, seemed in a bad way, but at least she was with family and being cared for at home.

After a quick restock at the pharmacy, we set off in search of Trang’s night market, which turned out to be a great little spot for sampling thai street food; fresh fruit shakes for 20p, my first “real” pad thai, the most amazing thai fish cakes I’ve ever tasted, and banana pancakes!! No need for a sit down meal tonight.

The next morning we are up and off on the mini bus to the coast, and on the boat to Koh Muk by mid-morning. While waiting for the boat to set off, we are kept entertained by the amount of stuff they are managing to cram onto one small boat; it is obviously a well-honed loading process, iceboxes of cold drinks get slid on tyres onto the deck, before all the scooters are loaded onto the roof! We get chatting to a nice Israeli chap, Ben, who has already spent a few days on the island and gives us the low-down on what it’s like. The views on the way over are stunning, it is clear blue skies with limestone islands dotted around all over the place. As we dock on the island, the palm fringed beaches look pretty inviting I have to say!

As promised, a guy from Hadfarang bungalows is there waiting for us in his motorbike and sidecar, and takes us over the bumpy trails to the other side of the island. We check into a nice little bungalow, which is a good deal as its set back a little way from the beach. We have a lazy afternoon, with late lunch in a quiet little café set into the rocks on the corner of the beach in between dodging some big rain downpours! In the evening it’s time for my first red curry of Thailand, and it’s one of the best (to the extent that we both order the exact same thing for three consecutive nights!)

Immediately though we notice a big change in tourism here in Thailand compared to our recent experiences in Indonesia. We were hoping that these southern Andean islands would be less “discovered” by tourism than many of Thailand’s mainstream islands, but are a little disappointed to find that this island is already full of holiday makers, older couples and families, and not exactly the unspoilt backpacker haven we are searching for. But I suppose we can settle for “near perfect” for now….!

We have one day exploring a little of Koh Muk, finding a wonderful, quiet, white sand beach on the opposite side of the island (just a shame about the jellyfish!). Whilst riding around we notice the tsunami evacuation routes and siren towers. They obviously want to avoid repeating the death toll of 26th December 2004 when upwards of 5000 Thais lost their lives. The next day we head off in a two man sea kayak to find the Emerald Cave (which it turns out is actually called Morakot cave), where you can swim or canoe through a cave at low tide, to find a totally enclosed bay in an opening inside. I have never seen anything like it, it’s pretty impressive and eerily quiet inside (when you get a moment to yourself). Apparently, in days gone by, the cave was used by pirates to stash their stolen treasures. It’s just a shame there were too many other tourists around spoiling Tom’s “Goonies” fantasy. Quiet season is probably the time to visit this spot.

Our final day is spent on a trip over to Koh Rok with the Chillout Diving crew. After much deliberation over where is best to dive in Thailand, we decided that this was our safest bet. We have heard that much of the coral is getting damaged around Koh Tao (which now has 100+ dive shops), and there is a massive problem with coral bleaching around the Similan islands too.

We do two dives off the coast of Koh Rok, spotting turtles, lobsters, cuttlefish, barracudas and many colourful fish. I really enjoyed it, as these are the two dives where I have been the most relaxed and at ease yet, controlling my buoyancy and air usage much better. I have realised I seem to be much more comfortable on dives where I can see the bottom, than the ones where you can see down into the blue abyss, which gets a bit unnerving!! And, how cool are cuttlefish?!?! Proper loved them, they are like mini hovercraft!!

In between the two dives, we get a nice spot on Koh Rok beach for some lunch. The sand here is so white and soft and the colour of the water is bright turquoise, it’s simply gorgeous. We remember the Mexican couple we met in Kuta Lombok raving about this place too. There are also some resident monitor lizards and red squirrels on the island which are getting everyone excited! All in all it’s a great day out, but it also makes us realise how spoilt we were in the waters of Komodo, as the colours and sealife there was just breathtaking.

The divemaster, Richard, and his Portuguese wife Pauline are really nice, and so we decide to hang around at Chillout bar for a beer or two and watch the beautiful sunset on the beach. It’s a great ambience (going to have to poach a bit of their music policy by looking up Om Lounge when we get home!) We get chatting to Pauline about how their business came about and it turns out they do this in Thai summer, and then head back to their second home in Portugal for the summer season there – nice life!

We may have been a little hasty in our decision to move on, as by the final day we had both warmed to the island a lot more and could maybe have stayed another couple of days…. But hey, no matter, as we’re only going across the water to Koh Lanta….

Is it a plank of wood? Is it a paving slab? Nope its our bed for the night! (Koh Lanta)

2012-02-28 to 2012-03-04

After some stress sorting out our diving payment we’re off on a longtail to meet the ferry to Koh Lanta. Once on board it soon becomes apparent that this is not a normal ferry. It is in fact a multipurpose ferry/island tour boat full of people on a day trip from Koh Lanta. So rather than heading directly to Koh Lanta (90 mins) it’s taking a big loop round taking in snorkelling stops at several islands including Koh Kraden (5 hours). We had no quarrels with this as we got a very cheap day out thrown in and some quality tanning time on the deck!

On the boat we meet a Swedish scriptwriter who had some entertaining stories to share so we enjoy a few beers with her putting the world to rights on film and tv related topics. At the end of the day we make a short stop in the mangroves to see the monkeys before docking at Koh Lanta. The timing was good as our skin was rather hot by this point and we’d started fearing the worst for morning!!

After receiving a million accommodation offers from the taxi drivers on the port we opt to head down to the south west beaches where we hoped to find a chilled out, laid back vibe. We make the 25km journey down with a young German couple. The lad was an archaeologist with an interest in Arab history. He has spent the last 4 years excavating some royal buildings of little historical interest in Syria. I spent some time prompting to see if the buzz was about finding something valuable but it seemed the buzz for him came from revealing the scale of the building. He was a nice guy but Claire had totally zoned out by this point and possibly rightly so?? It then started to rain.

We arrive at Klong Jaak Bungalows but unfortunately they have no cheap bungalows available until the next day. After trying the neighbouring resorts, which turn out to be more expensive, we have no choice but to stay in one of their decidedly dodgy guestrooms at the end of the muddy drive. The bed was like a paving slab (Claire refused to sleep in it, opting for the marginally softer spare bed) and bathroom was grotty, so needless to say we only stayed the one night.

Klong Jaak Bay is beautiful but we decided that in the morning we would head back up the coast a bit where there are a few more choices for food and drink as we are craving a little more action. We flag a taxi pickup truck and enjoy the ride sat on the back. We get dropped off at the south end of Phra Ae beach, just north of Relax Bay where I wander off to find us somewhere to stay while Claire looks after the bags on the beach. After about 10 minutes hunting round I stumble across Linga Longa Lanta, a small field of newly renovated bungalows with big terraces, hammocks and wifi just set back off the beach for 600 baht a night – ideal! After our previous night’s upset this place hit the spot and we ended up staying 4 days.

Koh Lanta is a long island with many beaches and bays lined with accommodation down its west coast, but on that side of the island it has no real centre so you need transport. Therefore we hire a bike one day and explore the island. We head over to the old town on the east coast and up to Saladan for some shopping. Claire treats herself to a new dress and I splash out on a new sarong. My old one did well almost lasting two round the world trips but now ripped in several places it was time to say goodbye!

Despite being peak season the beaches of Koh Lanta were pretty quiet and you had plenty of space to yourself, whilst on most evenings there was a party on somewhere. We ventured down to a half moon party at Klapa Klum which was actually pretty decent. The bar and decor was nice and the dj was spinning some Metro Area-esque disco early on moving to some progressive house. By far the best music we’d heard out all trip!

Whilst at Linga Longa we get chatting to the South African owner and meet a nice couple from Brighton called Scott and Melissa who we enjoy dinner and drinks with one night. It’s just a shame that “Somewhere Else” bar failed to deliver on their Friday night party flyer. Very disappointing!!

So that was Koh Lanta, it was fun but a little wet, raining most afternoons and evenings. Next stop Koh Jum for some chill out time…

Mosquito ambush! (Koh Jum)

2012-03-05 to 2012-03-06

We catch the Krabi bound ferry from the main port in Lanta, and it’s only about an hour before we reach Koh Jum. The island looks decidedly less built up than Lanta, but there still seem to be a lot of tourists around outnumbering backpackers, and a lot of older French and German couples…!

About 6 longtail boats surround the ferry and we are unceremoniously “unloaded” with all our bags onto a little boat heading to one of the northern beaches. We have made a booking at Old Lamp, but as soon as we see the bungalow we quickly realise it’s a bit of a disaster. There is no screening whatsoever, and as it’s shaded under the trees, the place is literally swarming in mozzies. After 15 minutes I’ve had as many bites and I decide I can’t handle it (particularly as we’ve heard that Dengue Fever is around in these parts at the moment). The owner seemed really nice so we are sure he’ll be understanding…..

Or not! The guy went from friendly and welcoming to absolute psycho in the space of two seconds. It’s not like we weren’t polite, we just explained the issue and he lost it. In the end we paid 500 baht to get him off our back (annoying, but worth it to not get eaten alive!). We headed up the beach and checked in at Oonlee bungalows instead. They’ve made a really nice job of this place, the décor and layout is full of charm and we are made to feel very welcome by the French owner, Valerie and her family. We explain why we’ve moved and they become obsessed with keeping us safe from the mosquitos, bringing out mozzie coils and repellent spray for us.

The beach out front was very picturesque, and was pretty much deserted. We didn’t manage to venture any further than the beach here as it was stinking hot from the moment the sun came up in the morning, and then rain set in on most days at lunchtime which was a shame.

In the end, we decided to cut our stay short and head on to the next part of the adventure. It has its positives here, but with the bad weather, pricey menus and the quiet nights it didn’t leave us with much to do! Still a couple of marks short of our island paradise.

We enjoy a final evening with a sunset walk along the beach, and a nice dinner with a game of chess at Oonlee. And I accidentally kicked a frog in the restaurant – hope that doesn’t bring me bad luck!

I'm leaving Ton Sai tomorrow..... maybe!!!

2012-03-07 to 2012-03-12

We board the Oonlee long tail and head out to meet the Krabi-bound ferry, waving bye to our sarongs drying on the chairs. My new one didn’t last very long!! :(

It’s an easy and beautiful journey past the stunning Krabi beaches. As we arrive at the pier a fake Ray Ban clad tout tries to sell us some transport to Ton Sai. He is clearly the money grabbing type who tries his best to fleece tourists. After rejecting his initial offer he eventually comes back offering us a cheap deal filling up some empty seats on a mini bus, so we decide to snap them up and head to Ao Nang.

As we arrive in Ao Nang there is a long tail ready to go so we jump straight on and head round the limestone cliffs and rocky bays of the Krabi Peninsula. We turn left round the headland and arrive at Ton Sai beach. We make our way up a bumpy dirt road through trees and arrive at The Forest Resort dripping in sweat. We manage to negotiate a discounted rate of 650 baht and check in for 3 nights. Despite the nice bunglalows, we pick up straightaway on an air of laziness about the place. Maybe the staff are just tired after a long season, or more likely stoned as the bamboo pipe seemed to be doing the rounds, but we felt it had either had its heyday or perhaps they had made enough money and couldn’t be bothered anymore? Either way, it was lacking some life and enthusiasm but we were in the main happy with our choice. In the afternoon the tide is high so we replace our sarong and find a spot high up on the beach to get some rays. As the afternoon sun sets and the air cools, climbers begin to scale the incredible limestone crags beside the beach. The shoreline is shallow around Ton Sai so when the tide goes out it goes out a long way revealing a huge bay of rocks but opening up the possibility of walking round to West Rai Ley, the next bay round.

The Krabi region is a world famous climbing mecca and Ton Sai is the beach of choice for many climbers due to its cheap prices. It is cheaper than the other beaches as it has no electricity supply so the area only has generator power in the evening. This leaves the place sleepy and quiet by day, but lively at night when the lights come on and the local bands turn on their amps and the DJ’s fire up their turntables.

Our first night on Ton Sai fell on half-moon and Chillout Bar were throwing a party. We get down there early and grab a seat at the bar just in time for the heavens to open. We spend a few hours chatting to the English bar girl, who like many others cannot bring herself to leave Ton Sai, and enjoy the DJ warming up with some nice tunes including a mix incorporating Mr Scruff’s “Trouser Jazz” and later a “late night” version of Fat Boy’s Slim “Praise You” which brought a big smile to my face! Sadly the DJ who brought great promise early in the night lost it later as his tunes deteriorated in to some big cheesy beats including some terrible remix of Bob Marley’s “Jammin’”. At this point we decide to wade off up the beach as the tide was high up the beach by that time, both a little disappointed we hadn’t even gotten chance to exorcise the dancing demons within! :)

The next day we laze around the beach and enjoy a 49 baht (1 pound) veggie pad thai lunch at Mambo café and I begin to crave a spot of climbing. Since I heard about it years ago I’d always fancied having a go at deep water soloing. This is where you climb overhanging cliffs above the sea without the aid of a safety rope. Instead the “relatively” soft water below provides your safety net. I find an outfit called Basecamp who offers these services and book on for the next day.

Next morning, whilst Claire soaks up some more rays, I head out on a long tail with a bunch of climbers and adrenaline junkies to Poda Island a few kilometres off shore. Poda Island is top heavy providing great overhanging cliffs above deep water, perfect for what we had planned. We arrive at our first spot and the guides set up rope ladders to get you out of the water easily. They then run a kayak shuttle to drop climbers off at the face. One by one we attempt a number of routes starting at 5b-6a and then jump from the top (or fall off on the way). The first climb included a long traverse which was fun although the face became increasingly slippery as more climbers with wet hands completed the routes. The cliffs were high and one of the guides climbed a 7a barefoot then jumped from a stalactite at circa 20m. Unfortunately my climbing ability limited me from completing this one.

For lunch we pulled up in a gorgeous bay for spicy chicken and rice, a spot of snorkelling and some, what I called “shallow water bouldering,” off the beach. After a few attempts I managed to complete a short 6a which was nice as I haven’t climbed for ages. The bay was a magical spot, the sort you could fantasise about discovering in the days that Thailand was less travelled and setting up camp with some friends.

After lunch we headed to a second site which was much higher and in the main more difficult. I settled for a spot at around 12m for my highest jump, whilst a few people made the final push to 14m. With a beautiful girlfriend sat waiting for me on the beach and a trip to Nepal and India still to come, it was adequately high. The water hitting my bumhole from that height was force enough!!

So, my adrenaline urge satisfied we returned to Ton Sai and that afternoon we shared a few beers with Stacey, a girl Claire had met on the beach. Stacey is a fashion designer from London who is completing a similar trip to ours in just 6 months. Hopefully our blog will give her some inspiration on where to go and how long it takes to get around.

The next day we take a long tail round to West Rai Ley beach. The tide was high as we first arrived so the small strip of sand was packed out with tourists and an unfair percentage of old, fat and wrinkly Europeans. How do they all know about these places?? Thankfully as the tide drew out the beach expanded considerably into a picture perfect landscape of golden sand, lush green trees and a backdrop of stunning limestone cliffs. It is now clear why these people are here! Mango shakes, banana cake and beers were on the menu that afternoon and once the sun began to set we waded through the shallows back to Ton Sai and had a great chicken bbq for tea – perfect!

By this point we were finding it hard to leave and the logo on a t-shirt I later purchased summed up our feeling nicely. On the front it reads: “I’m leaving Ton Sai tomorrow….” and on the back: “Maybe!!” Needless to say, we book in for a couple more nights and I convince Claire she should give climbing a go.

Our final day in Krabi is spent in Rai Ley East climbing with guys from Basecamp. It is only Claire’s second experience at climbing and after an uncomfortable first climb in very tight shoes she changed shoes and nailed a couple of “not-so-easy” beginner climbs to a height of circa 25 metres. The views from the top were amazing and it’s easy to see why it is so popular with climbers worldwide. She did great and was pleased with her achievements. Maybe we’ll do some more climbing together in the future???

Well that’s the beach time over for now, time to see the bustling metropolis and bright lights of Bangkok. Hmmm… I can taste those spring rolls already!!! :)

Tuk-tuks, temples and tailors (Bangkok)

2012-03-13 to 2012-03-16

Tearing ourselves away from Ton Sai, we finally get around to booking our night bus north to Bangkok. We need to get a longtail boat to Ao Nang, a minibus to Suratthani and a big bus to Bangkok – what could possibly go wrong?! Thankfully, the nice chap who sells us the ticket emphasises and re-emphasises that we should go for the long tail boat 1.5 hours before the 3pm minibus, which gives us the hint there may have been issues before!! The longtails from Ton Sai don’t have a schedule, they just leave when eight people are ready to go, so after an hour of waiting we start to get a bit nervous and are about to fork out the difference in price when a few stragglers turn up. Turns out to be just in the nick of time, as when we get to the beach in Ao Nang there is some issue with the boat docking and so we are told we have to wade back to the beach! Not ideal when you have a 20kg rucksack and a daysack with a laptop in, and have dressed not for the beach but for a 12 hour nightbus!! Thankfully a kind Dutch guy on the boat offers to do the majority of the wading, and we pass all the bags overboard while he gets wet. In fairness, we all get wet too (I have to strip down to my pants before getting in the water as it’s up to my thighs!!)

Even with a swift change we manage to meet the minibus with 10 minutes to spare. After an unexplained stop at the bus office, we get dropped off at an isolated little café to wait for the big bus. We soon realise the scam when we look at the menu and get a tiny little portion of food, before getting shipped off to the actual bus station an hour or so later! Oh well, at least we have eaten, and we got a better deal than our Dutch friend, who ended up having to wait for the later bus to Bangkok.

After that, the journey was pretty easy as we were kept entertained by one of Tom’s old favourite films, Point Break, followed by a few hours of kip before arriving in Bangkok just before dawn. I was already getting a flavour of Bangkok’s vibe by the number of people who were sitting out still drinking beer at 6am. After checking out a few hostels that were full, we were just starting to wonder if we should have called ahead when we stumbled on “My House” on Soi Rambutri (just round the corner from Khao San Road). We snapped up the last room going, which wasn’t bad for a triple at 430 baht per night (less than 9 quid).

After a couple of hours catch up kip, we went out for an initial look at Khao San Road (which wasn’t really as I imagined it) and in search of the local temples. After 10 minutes walking in the heat across routes not really catering for pedestrians we were starting to wonder if we should have just paid a quid and got a tuk-tuk?! The last thing we wanted to do when we arrived at the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha was put on more clothes! So with that, and the 8 quid entrance fee, we decided to pass and give a treat to the bank balance. Instead we opted for Wat Phra Chetuphon (with a huge golden reclining Buddha, and lots of stupors with intricate details), Wat Mahathat and then Wat Tri Mit (with a seated golden Buddha). With our fill of culture for one day, we then set off in the direction of Siam Square and the MBK centre for some shopping (which in hindsight was a little ambitious as by the time we got back to the hostel at 8pm we were both knackered, although Tom still managed to squeeze in a late night haircut!!)

Later that evening, over a beer and some dried frogs (tasted like pork crackling) we got chatting to a nice Swiss guy who had just come over via Nepal and could tell us everything we needed to know about the place. It was interesting to hear that this is his favourite travel destination ever; which only served to get Tom even more excited. He turned out to be a great help too, as we worked out we could get our Indian visa for half the price in Nepal as in Thailand, which also saved us from the long drawn out visa application system in Bangkok!

On the second day we pulled a right cat out of the bag when Tom decided to contact Souled Out studios to ask if we could pay them a visit while we’re in Bangkok. For those who don’t know, Souled Out is the studio which lists street artists including Mau Mau, Beejoir, AMP and several other of our favourite artists, and is very aptly named as all of their work is always “sold out!”. They replied to say that unfortunately the studio is closed, but arranged for us to meet Beejoir at his house instead. Works for us!

We take a tuk-tuk across town to find his house, and are greeted by his wife in her salon downstairs. We wander in as if we are a couple of mates, and he greets us pretty much as such to be fair, so we can’t work out if he does this all the time, or whether he rarely comes across people who are cheeky enough to ask! Either way, he seems like a top bloke and doesn’t seem to feel the need to hold anything back in sharing some entertaining stories with us (and as a guy who likes to party, he seems to have a fair few).

He shuffles things round so that we can get into the room with all his work, and we trample in over loads of plastic pills rolling about on the floor. Turns out they are part of his latest commission which is an American flag made entirely out of pills for an upcoming Berlin show. We have a pretty enlightening discussion about what is going on in the world of street art at the moment, and he shares his views with us on several of his close pals and acquaintances within the industry including Mau Mau, Banksy, Mr Brainwash, Blu, Toxic, Bon (an upcoming Thai artist), and David Choe (who incidentally has just had a 117 million dollar windfall from selling his shares in Facebook, earned when he painted the interior of their offices in the early days, and kicked himself at the time for not insisting on cash payment!)

Unfortunately, he seems to have more of other people’s work knocking around than his own but we do have a chat about how a few of his pieces came about though, including the insight that the Iraq banknotes used on the “Blood for Oil” print are originals acquired off bent US soldiers in his former days as a war photographer in Iraq (a career he says he abandoned when he realised there weren’t many old war photographers kicking around!) He also shares his views with us about the economic and social state of the western world (usually a major theme in his work), as well as his experience of last year’s rioting in Thailand (where he brought his old bulletproof vest out to get downtown for some snaps!)

We share a few stories of our own about the trip so far, including our graffiti tour of Buenos Aires, in which he seems pretty interested as he is familiar with the artists. Inevitably, the conversation also comes around to his good friend Mau Mau, whose print “Little Red Riding Hoodie” used to take pride of place in our living room. He shares the story of the night they painted the piece “It’s bite is worse than its bark” on the side of a barn in Devon. When he realises we are big fans, he offers to get us on the guestlist for the opening night of Mau Mau’s forthcoming show in London. Can’t believe we had to turn that offer down, but it’s the first week in May and we’ll be in India . He doesn’t send us away completely disappointed though as we managed to purchase a new addition to our Mau Mau collection - result!

We decide we’d better go before we outstay our welcome. Let’s face it, last week’s houseguests were Snoop Dogg and Kelis, and this week he gets us! He draws us a map to a little commuter boat back to Khao San, and the walk takes us past Mau Mau’s mermaid and three monkeys along the way. All in all, a top afternoon out!

With the number of weddings coming up in the calendar, Tom decides to take up the chance of a fully tailored suit from a Bangkok tailor (especially now he has shrunk out of all his old suits). Turns out to be a bit of an ordeal finding the fabric matches that he wants (this boy knows what he likes….) but we get there in the end, even though it meant parting with a little more than planned to the biggest a*sehole of them all. In the end I just had to stop listening to him because he was talking so much sales drivel, and so I got my book out instead! Fingers crossed the suit will be nice, watch this space, as the second fitting is coming up on the 28th March.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a trip to Bangkok without sampling a few of the street stalls for delicious 60p pad thai’s, or breakfast of sticky rice and mango and a fruit shake. Food heaven! We also had to experience a full thai massage, which was an absolute bargain for 4 quid with as much jasmine tea as you could drink! We didn’t do a crazy night out in Bangkok, but there is still time, as we are likely to be passing through here a couple more times. So that, and the souvenirs can wait till then….

"They know what is what, but they don't know which Wat is what? WTF?" (Ayuthaya & Chiang Mai)

2012-03-17 to 2012-03-21

After some deliberation on whether it was the right decision to come, we arrive in Ayuthaya, Thailand’s former capital. It is well-placed on an island at the confluence of three rivers and steeped in history of Thai/Burmese conflict. The minibus we are on is carrying passengers on a day tour of Ayuthaya’s temples so we end up with a free stop at one of the out of town temples on the way and learn some important temple terminology. We also notice that there are giant cocks everywhere. When I say “cocks” I mean cockerels and I think it is connected to historic cockfighting battles between Thais and the Burmese. The guide had a funny accent so that’s what I managed to pick out??

Shortly afterwards we are dropped off on the main tourist street and check in at Ayuthaya Guesthouse. It is a ramshackle sort of building but we are greeted with a smiling face and a “Welcome to your new home!” from the lady owner. The room lacked curtains and a private bathroom but the family were lovely and really helpful so we decided to stay.

The main attraction of Ayuthaya is the temples and it is recommended to rent a bike and cycle between them. So we hand over 50 baht each for a bike but after wheeling them out into the midday sun and watching the sweat start rolling down Claire’s neck, quickly decide to handover a further 150 baht and upgrade to a motorbike. Beep, beep! That’s more like it!

First stop is the train station to book our tickets for the morning train to Chiang Mai, then we spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the city and its impressive Buddhist temples. We visit numerous Wat’s, but we can’t remember which wat is what (but have a look at the photos and you’ll get the general idea!) We especially like the one with the reclining Buddha. The temples are busy with Thais and tourists alike, wandering around eating ice creams and trying to avoid the blazing sun.

The city is pretty small and the roads are quiet, making it a nice place to zip around. There seems little much else to do in this laid back place but it’s just nice to see authentic Thai life in action. It was baking hot so there was a requirement for the constant flow of drinks and ice lollies all day to keep dehydration at bay and by the end of the day we are pleased that we made the stop.

That night we take a walk down the road to find a nice spot for dinner and after assessing a selection of menus on the strip make a bad choice. I order a Chicken Tikka and Claire a Massaman Curry, both turn out to be disappointing. It isn’t surprising though when we realise who the owner is – some white, chavvy, skinhead thug who loves the sound of his own voice. Food is clearly not his forte.

After dinner we skip on a beer and opt for ice cream and reading in bed (a far cry from my previous party days!). I’m currently reading Into Thin Air, a book on the 1996 Everest Disaster, it’s gripping and getting me so excited for Nepal. Hopefully our trip will turn out better than that particular expedition though… it left 8 dead.

Next morning, it’s up and off early for the train to Chiang Mai. We are both excited to get there as the folks have treated us to a few nights in a nice hotel. I suspect it’s partly because they’ve seen some of the room photos and thought “My god, you can’t make Claire stay in there Tom!”? Whatever the reason, the offer was much appreciated after 9 months of, in the main, basic accommodation.

As the train heads up North and into the countryside we see many more temples and huge gold Buddhas in the fields and in the surrounding hills. The Buddhist religion is still widely followed in Thailand and the temples are generally well cared for and used regularly by the local people. You see glistening shrines in the middle of dirty wasteland and none with a speck of dirt or graffiti as you would expect to find back home. I think in part this is because of their superstitious beliefs where disrespecting Buddha would surely bring bad luck?

As the afternoon sun starts to go down, the scenery changes from flat farmland, into lush green mountain jungle and by 8.30 the train arrives in Chiang Mai. I was glad the journey ended when it did as my toes were starting to show signs of frostbite from the excessively powerful air conditioning. When we step off the platform two smartly dressed hotel staff are awaiting our arrival and greet us with big smiles. They then escort us to a VERY flash Mercedes people carrier with what I can only describe as leather “lazy boy” seats in the back. The whole thing seemed crazy as we were dressed in flip flops carrying dirty rucksacks.

We check in and see straightaway why the Rimping Village gets such great reviews. The staff are lovely and every little detail has been thought of. The porter takes our bags to the room and the hotel staff couldn’t believe the size of rucksack Claire was carrying. The room was great with a huge bed, dvd player, air con, hot shower, the lot and we were really glad of these home comforts.

We spend our first day in Chiang Mai riding round the city on bikes provided free by the hotel. They gave us some tips on where to go and marked up a map for us so it was all nice and easy. We have a look at some bookshops and tour around the main temples. We spend some time chatting to a monk and learn about their daily routine, meditation and their commitments as a monk. There certainly are appealing aspects to this purist lifestyle without the stresses of the modern world and the complications it causes. That night we try go for a Veggie meal at Mai Kaidee but arrive too late to eat so opt for the Indian next door. We also bump in to Scott and Melissa who we had met previously in Koh Lanta and have a quick catch up on what we’ve been up to since we last saw them.

Next morning we have a light breakfast (easier said than done with the superb breakfast buffet) as today we are attending a Thai cookery course at Siam Rice Cookery School and will each be making and eating seven dishes. We are picked up at 8am and our first stop is the local market where we learn what all the different vegetables and herbs are. The owner Pot runs the tour and is a witty bloke with the same laugh as Simon Amstell which keeps us entertained. After the lesson on ingredients we have some time to roam the market and see what is for sale. My interesting find was deep fried chicken heads whilst Claire stumbled across a guy making huge twirls of pork crackling out of pig fat – all interesting stuff!

We are then taken to the school where we meet Pot’s wife Nancy who will be our teacher for the day. The course is expertly run and everything goes like clockwork. This is really impressive as there are four groups of about eight people with each group member making seven different dishes. They have clearly perfected it over the past five years since they started up. Over the course of the day we each make a soup, a starter, a stir fry, a noodle dish, a curry paste and Thai curry, and a desert all of which turned out to be delicious. We ate each course we made so by the end of the day we were stuffed and all left with doggy bags. In the afternoon we learnt to carve vegetables with some VERY sharp craft knives. Needless to say there was blood! We had a great group and before we left we were presented with certificates and a cook book each of all the day’s recipes to take home. Not bad for eighteen pounds each – highly recommended! That evening we have a stroll round the night market and find a nice gift for my Mum’s birthday.

On our last day we have a lazy day by the pool. The hotel takes responsibility for all our little jobs - post, printing tickets and onward bus tickets so we head of to Pai the next morning de-stressed and refreshed! Nice one folks and the guys at Rimping, it was a great few days.

We Love Pai!

2012-03-22 to 2012-03-27

After another delicious breakfast at Rimping Village, sadly, it is time to move on and back into the world of “under 10 quid a night” accommodation! It’s a shame the four days are gone already, but we have certainly given a good recharge to the batteries, thanks to Tom’s folks :)

The mini-bus picks us up directly from the hotel, so we don’t even have to get sweaty with the backpacks this morning. We get chatting to a nice couple from Slovenia, although I embarrassed myself by asking when they joined the Euro (as I didn’t realise they were in since the start!!!) It is a lovely scenic ride three hours up and out of Chiang Mai into the surrounding mountains, although by the time we arrive in Pai we are both ready to get out, as with all the twists and turns we are feeling rather nauseous!

Thankfully it would seem Pai has not been spoilt (as we feared it might have been since Tom’s last visit seven years ago), and although it is much bigger, it has stayed true to its hippy vibe. It is a really laid back place, so we plan to stay for a few days. We’ve had a recommendation for Giant Guesthouse, so despite some lovely looking accommodation in town, we decide to press on down towards the riverside. Giant turns out to be a bit basic, but we stumble upon an amazing bungalow next door called Golden House for 300 baht a night i.e. 3 quid each - it has a fan, TV, wi fi, hot water and is fully screened against mozzies and is set in some lovely gardens – perfect!

After a quick lunch special – pad thai and a can of Chang for 90 baht – we waste no time in getting down to PTTM to enrol for the thai massage course, as my research suggests there is a course starting 9am tomorrow. Tom has decided to sit in on this one, which is a bonus as I’ve got something to trade with him now, rather than him just getting all the massage treats!! Turns out the course is ideal as it’s just for 3 hours each morning, with a lovely chap called Utti (short for Suttipong), giving our afternoons free to explore the area.

We learn that Thai massage originated about 700 years ago in Thailand, to assist people with the aches and pains of working all day in the rice paddy fields. Many of the postures are designed so that you use your own body weight, meaning that it can even be performed by small children on adults, and it is still a skill that is passed down in the home from generation to generation. Similarly we learned that children also learn Muay Thai (traditional thai boxing) every day at the start of school to ensure the longevity of this ancient culture and tradition (but we also suspected that some savvy teacher dreamt it up to teach them some discipline and get rid of all that hyper-energy kids have at the start of the day – not a bad idea?!)

As soon as we see the handbooks we realise there is a lot to learn, with 73 postures in total (some of which include parts a, b, c and d!). It sharpens the concentration when you realise that some of the postures could be extremely painful if you are as much as an inch out of position (as Tom has already been privy to when a recent, and we assume, experienced, masseuse trapped a “certain” body part in a clincher move - ouch!!)

In the afternoon, we nip and hire a scooter, for the princely sum of 3 quid for 24 hours, and set about pottering off for each afternoon to see the surrounding countryside. Unfortunately, owing to a lot of illegal slash and burn in the region recently we can’t see as much of the countryside as we had hoped, as it is covered in smog! Shame, as from what we can see, it looks like it would be beautiful. We manage to do a nice southern loop round on one day (stopping off at Wat Mae Yen, Tha Pai hotspring, World War II memorial bridge, and Pai Canyon) and a northern loop out (via Mae Khong village, Wat Mor Paeng, Mor Paeng waterfall and the Sanctichon Chinese village) on the second day. I only manage to get in the bottom pool at the hotspring, as it is flippin’ hot, but relaxing when you get out and get some breeze on the bike!

On the final day of the massage course, we are pleased to receive our certificates, although not yet 100% confident in our abilities at pulling off all 73 postures. Maybe Nepal will be a good time to practise to ease our weary muscles during the trek? We celebrate not having to get up at 7.30am tomorrow with a few drinks at Ting Tong bar, followed by a morning hangover brunch at The House.

I could easily stay here in Pai a few more days (or weeks for that matter), but with only 2 weeks left before our flight to Nepal, we know we need to press on to Cambodia if we are going to squeeze Angkor in! We therefore nip off to get an overnight bus ticket back to Bangkok.

A little sad to be leaving, we decide to make the most of the last day, taking a walk along the Riverside, and then over to the outdoor swimming pool, Fluid, for some sunbathing, reading and a refreshing dip. They whip up a mean watermelon, lime and mint shake for me, and a lime, mint and soda shake for Tom – delicious! Our final evening is spent back at Na’s kitchen for a thai red curry. It’s a close call for the best thai curry yet, but I think this one might just beat the one on Koh Muk to first place, and not just because it is only 69 baht! The whole meal including our non-alcoholic mojitos, comes to two quid each! We also get chatting to a nice couple from Leeds/Harrogate who have just arrived in Pai, and share some travel tips as well as some first aid (as the poor bloke has had a nasty slip off his bicycle and is covered in bandages).

We leave Pai hoping that it can manage to stay true to its roots for a long time to come. It has a special feel about the place, the art, the lighting, the music, and even the buildings. We like the way that the streets come alive on a night as the walking streets close to traffic and a quirky little street market sets up throughout town. We can easily see how a few people we have met have “lost” a month here. This is my favourite place so far in Thailand, hopefully we will be back one day…

Bangkok to Siem Reap-off!

2012-03-28 to 2012-03-31

Thankfully going down in the minibus is marginally better than it was coming up, and we are back in Chiang Mai in no time. After a quick switch of buses we are on our way back to Bangkok, and somehow manage to arrive nearly two hours early at 4.30am (I think we can safely say that’s the first journey to run early the whole trip!) It’s a rare treat on a trip like this to arrive back to a place where you already have your bearings, so we are straight into a tuk-tuk and in bed back at My House within 30 minutes!

Unfortunately we can’t lie around in bed all day, as in the intervening period between ordering Tom’s suit and getting back to Bangkok, we have discovered a scathing review of the tailors warning of all sorts of issues with ordering from these guys. We are therefore a little nervous about the fitting, but thanks to the review are able to go armed for any problems and ready to bypass the schmooze. Turns out, we needn’t have been too worried, as the suit is pretty much there, so with a few tweaks agreed we can head off confident on collecting the final result in a couple of weeks’ time.

After a few boring bits of housekeeping (visa forms, backing up pictures and various other bits and bobs), we are on our way to Cambodia. Despite Lonely Planet’s vague suggestion against purchasing the direct bus tickets to Siem Reap, we can’t work out what the likely issue is, and decide to go ahead anyway. Turns out to be a ‘bit of an error’, as the direct bus companies seem to have concocted a scheme whereby instead of taking you to the border, they take you to their stop some 15 minutes short of the border, where then they proceed to fleece you on the price of your visa into Cambodia. We were well aware of the visa scam (but not that it was linked to the bus tickets), so refused to pay, but failed to convince anyone else on the bus not to purchase the visa and in the end had to back down and pay the extra. Added to which, the “fleecing process” involved lots of pointless queues and waiting around, meaning that an easy half day journey ended up taking nearly 12 hours (we finally arrived in Siem Reap at dusk). At this point I try to recall whether there has been a border crossing yet that we haven’t been “stung” on. Besides New Zealand and Australia, I think pretty much everyone has scammed an extra few quid out of us somehow, damn it! Certainly seems that the UK is pretty much the only country who gives people money on the way in…

Thankfully we have made a booking in Siem Reap, so we can head straight there without the compulsory tour of town with the backpacks. It turns out that Palm Garden Lodge doesn’t have a palm or a garden, and that the photos on its website were taken somewhere else entirely, but hey it’s been a long day so we’re too tired to argue!

We decide we need a day to chill out and recharge the batteries, so we put off the trip to Angkor Watt for the following day. This gives us a bit of opportunity to check out Siem Reap, which quickly gets renamed Siem Reap-off! We can’t believe the prices and frankly how un-Cambodian it is! The place is packed with tourists, all paying in US dollars, and all the prices seem to be totally out of kilter given that we have read that a large percentage of Cambodians are living on less than 2 US dollars a day. Like everyone else though, we are only really here to see Angkor Watt, so we decide to get in gear for a sunrise start and a whistlestop tour of the temples first thing, before moving on to see a bit more of the “real” Cambodia.

Turns out the camera has other ideas….! As we head out for dinner at 8pm, I stop to take a photo and discover that the touchscreen has gone completely beserk. As we ponder over what may have happened, we realise that 40 degree heat and Tom’s shorts pocket may not have been the best combination… Yes, he appears to have cooked the camera in his pants!

We have discovered that sometimes on a trip like this you are fully “in flow” and everything just drops into place; but then, at other times, something just conspires against you to make life difficult – this is turning out to be one of those weeks! However, thanks to a friendly tuk-tuk driver, we promptly find ourselves in the best camera shop Siem Reap (and possibly Cambodia) has to offer, haggling over the price of a new camera with 40 minutes to go before closing time!

Breathing a sigh of relief, we are back on track for sunrise at Angkor. It is quite a comedy scenario, as despite it being 5.00am and still dark, every tuk-tuk on the road is carrying excited tourists towards the main temple, racing others where their overloaded motorbike engines will allow them!

Turns out we all wasted our time getting up for sunrise, as it is a cloudy day! We have quite a laugh about it, as some people seem to be taking the whole thing a little bit too seriously! I have to stop myself laughing the face of one poor chap who is obsessing over the position of his huge tripod, which has a tiny little instant camera balanced on the top, presumably trying to locate the (non-existent) morning sunlight!

The rest of the day proves to be a bit of a free for all, and by lunchtime we are totally sick of having other people’s camera lenses jammed into every spare inch of space with total disregard for the ambience of the temples or the fact that anyone else might want to take an odd photo themselves. On that basis alone, Angkor Watt storms way ahead of Iguazu Falls to scoop the award for “the most touristy tourist attraction in the world.”

We reach the jungle temple just in time though, as this amazing combination of nature and architecture can’t fail to amaze you – there are literally trees growing through and over the crumbling parts of this amazing temple. If you had the opportunity to explore this place by yourself it would be really special!

Yet again though, fate is against us, and not only does the camera battery decide to die, but we get back to the hostel to discover it has barely taken a decent photo all day. Might be a Finepix by name, but it’s more of a Crap-pix by nature! Epic fail – there’s no way we can take this flippin’ thing to the Himalaya!

Thankfully by this stage of the trip we are proving quite adept at rising to whatever challenges are thrown at us, and I must confess, my tendency to stress out in difficult situations has been greatly influenced by Tom’s inherent desire to problem-solve his way out of everything. Needless to say, that evening, we are back in the camera shop with Tom sweet-talking the guy into an “upgrade” for the camera, despite it obviously having been used, and him holding a receipt in his hand that quite clearly states “no exchanges or refunds.”

Eternal thanks go out to this guy who decided to take pity on us, and do the exchange when we didn’t have a leg to stand on, and could have quite easily been a costly waste of 140 quid. Thankfully, our recent run of luck takes a turn for the better from here on in…

In any case, completely putting any of our minor worries into perspective, we also manage to fit in a quick visit to the Angkor Hospital for Children before we leave Siem Reap. I was shocked to read the statistic that before the hospital opened in 1999, that 1 in 5 Cambodian children were dying before the age of five. A pretty stark reminder of the difficulties everyday citizens are facing, largely out of the eyes of the emerging tourism industry. Thankfully, as of 2011, this statistic has improved to 1 in 20 children, but there is still clearly some way to go... (you can read more about this amazing institution at: https://angkorhospital.org)


2012-04-01 to 2012-04-02

The scenic boat ride from Siem Reap-off to Battambang is supposed to be the best journey in Cambodia and shows rural life in action - a real highlight, so we book our tickets to go. It is only after our purchase that we overhear conversations about a nightmare boat ride. Keywords we picked up on were “..low water levels…”, “…stuck in the mud…”, “…12 hours..”. Oh dear, turns out that the dry season is the wrong time to take this trip. Thankfully the guy in the travel agency eventually agreed to switch our tickets for a bus ticket instead.

We felt it would be nice to visit Battambang anyway as it was the only place in Cambodia I hadn’t visited before and it was perhaps going to give us a glimpse of real Cambodian life through exploring the nearby villages?? The travel company picks us up in a mini-bus at 7.30am from our hotel for the 8.00 o’clock bus and once on the main bus we circle the city for over an hour collecting more passengers. At about 9.15 we pass by our hotel where we could have easily jumped onboard having enjoyed an extra hour in bed, but hey ho!! :(

As the bus pulls up in Battambang bus station the usual touts waving hotel signs chase the bus jumping up at the window at any tourists onboard. One particular cheeky chap catches our attention and he happens to be holding a sign for our desired destination – Royal Hotel (a nice place for sure but not as nice as the name might suggest). He has a fancy tuk-tuk with two rows of comfy seats and a powerful motorbike on the front. He speaks good English so we agree to use him for a tour round the local area the next day for 15 dollars.

We check in at “The Royal” and are pleased with our 7 dollar room. It is bright, clean and has a TV and private bathroom. It also has a desk, mirror and hat and coat stand – all very posh indeed! ;) The staff are also lovely and really helpful.

Battambang is a small city beside the Sangker River and that afternoon we take a stroll out through the dusty streets and have dinner at the Smokin’ Pot a few blocks down from the hotel. A local dance group were circling the city performing for diners at local restaurants so we catch the end of their show outside the restaurant across the street.

The next day our smiley tuk tuk driver picks us up at 8am and our first stop is an old Pepsi bottling plant a few km’s north of town which had shut down in the 70’s. Now I read about this in the main Cambodia Lonely Planet book and the only reason I can think of why it got a mention was the author had a word count to meet or he was told it was worth a visit but got drunk on 50 cent beers and never actually got round to making it there forcing him to blindly promote this ridiculous suggestion for an excursion. After about 15 minutes we pull up at the locked gates of an old factory building with broken windows and a faded Pepsi logo on the wall. So, “This is the Pepsi factory” explains our host and we disembark for photos. We soon realise this is a very poor tourist attraction and even when we manage to get the groundsman to unlock the gate and let us get a sneaky close up can barely fathom the point of the trip out. All you could see through the broken windows were a few crates of dusty glass 7-Up bottles. Now if Fido Dido had been hanging about it might have been worth it but without him it was utter bollocks! The whole thing made us laugh though, so perhaps that was the point??

Not a good start but it’s fun to be out and about exploring and as we come back towards town we witness a number of monks collecting alms (donations of food, money, etc.) from local businesses who seem to have something ready as they arrive. It’s nice to see this traditional way of life continuing in an ever developing world of money, high technology and excess. Our next stop was a ride on a bamboo train, a somewhat amateur tourist attraction put together by the locals who have been illegitimately using the abandoned railways lines to ship produce across the countryside on homemade trains. As you might think it was incredibly safe with rigorous health and safety practices in place… or not! These things were in fact amateur contraptions designed to be dismantled in a few moments when there is an oncoming train.

Basically they are two axels with wheels on each end and a floating bamboo platform that has grooves in the bottom at each end so that it can sit on top of the axels. A small engine is connected to the rear axel with an elastic band that powers the train – “Sounds robust” I hear you say!! So we each pay our five dollar fare and carefully board the train so as not to tip it over.

Suddenly, after a slow start, we’re bombing along the tracks like Indiana Jones and co in the mine carriages in the Temple of Doom, bumping hard where the track is buckled and small gaps have emerged in the line. You feel those minor flaws in the line more at track level believe me! After 20 minutes or so we arrive at a small village and are greeted by the local children who are keen to give us a guided tour of their family businesses in return for a tip. We have a look round a rice factory before re-embarking the train to avoid getting hussled by the food and drink sellers. The return ride is equally bumpy and at several points we meet oncoming trains and have to get off and dismantle the train to let the other through.

It was a unique experience if a little touristy but it’s easy to imagine how it must have changed since some tourist who must have stumbled upon this quirky little phenomenon but it was nice to have experienced it before it is all over. Within the next few months the government will be refurbishing the line and reactivating it as a trade route between neighbouring countries. This will be great for Cambodia as a whole but may kill this lucrative little sideline for the locals and mean they will probably have to pay more to transport their produce or find alternative means.

After our train ride, it’s on to visit a temple high on a hill for its views over the surrounding countryside. After a sweaty climb up what feels like a thousand steps we arrive at the top and find a number of locals up there giving Buddhists offerings and hanging out with friends and family. Dotted around the temples are warning signs re landmines. Despite the nightmare reign of the Khmer Rouge being over many years ago now, the terror continues in the form of 2 million mines which were planted during that period none of which were mapped and many of which have not been found and deactivated. Children playing and animals grazing are regular victims of these hideous contraptions and you see many mamed people in Cambodia as a result. This is very upsetting to see.

On my previous visit to Cambodia I paid a visit to the landmine museum near Angkor Wat and learned of the work of Aki Ra (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aki_Ra). Having been forced to work as a child for the Khmer Rouge regime laying mines, this man has now dedicated his life to eradicating landmines and looking after mamed children. The UN charges circa $1500 to deactivate a mine using high tech bomb disposal equipment. This is simply unaffordable for a developing country so instead this man deactivates numerous mines a day by hand without any protective equipment. In addition he runs an orphanage for any children from rural villages who are injured and from families who cannot afford to look after them. His charity is one of the most worthwhile causes I have ever stumbled upon, and an example of how modern day Cambodians are still a living part of this awful chapter of history.

Next stop on our tour was a brief visit to Cambodia’s only winery. It wasn’t quite Dante Robino and a little pricey considering so we pass on the tasting session. Our final stop was the temples and killing caves at Phnom Sampeau. We grab some lunch at the bottom of the hill then make our way up the big hill glugging down gallons of water as we go. At the top of the steps we reach some temples with a group of monkeys playing around them. We enjoy taking snaps up close until I suddenly feel some sharp bites on my feet, then my neck and back. Arghh, I’ve aggravated some giant biting ants and they are in full-blown attack mode. After a painful few minutes and some loud shouting I finally manage to rid myself of the horrible little beasts and we make our way up the final part of the hill. The views from the temples at the top was nice and there was a small canyon to explore.

On the way down we make a stop at a couple of caves used as makeshift graves by the Khmer Rouge. These were eerie places with Buddhist shrines now occupying the place where over 10,000 human remains were found. As with the killing fields, many victims were simply pummelled over the head with a blunt object and thrown to their deaths. Some were not killed by the initial blow so were effectively buried alive. A lucky few managed to climb from the caves and escape, but as they were often from places far away did not know where they were and must have just ran frantically for their lives. Claire will provide some more history on Pol Pot’s regime in the Phnom Penh post. After this chilling experience it’s back in the tuk-tuk to Battambang and out for Cornish Pastie for tea – yep that’s right Cornish Pastie! I couldn’t resist!!

Well Battambang might not have a Great Barrier Reef or an Iguazu falls to shout about, but it is certainly trying its best to promote the best it has to offer and has put together a worthwhile day out for its guests. Good work guys!

The Killing Fields of Phnom Penh

2012-04-03 to 2012-04-04

Neither of us is particularly looking forward to Phnom Penh. We are tired and the prospect of traipsing a big, sprawling, dirty city isn’t much appealing to us at this point in time. However, having learnt a bit about the Khmer Rouge in International Studies at university, I felt I wanted to come to experience the Killing Fields for myself.

Actually, Phnom Penh itself turns out to be a pleasant surprise. Yes, it’s a bustling big city, but it feels pretty safe, and the activity on the streets makes for some excellent people-watching!

We let a tuk-tuk driver at the bus station talk us into his choice of hostel (mainly because none of the ones in the book sound particularly enticing!) Surprisingly, the gamble pays off, and we end up in a reasonable hostel in a pretty good location close to some nice restaurants and bars. We are too late in the day for getting into the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, so decide just to spend the afternoon taking a wander around the city centre, and end up down on the waterfront. Sydney harbour it ain’t, but still it isn’t bad for a little mooch about and we enjoy watching the old dears working out on the public gym equipment. We head back through a side street and end up right in the thick of a busy street market which is a total feast for the eyes. It’s all going on, though you have to keep one eye on your toes as there are motorbikes zipping about amongst the people without much of a care for what’s in their path!

While we are out and about, we get chatting to Jen, a tuk-tuk driver/guide who lived through the Khmer Rouge period of rule between 1975-1979. We figure he’ll make as good a guide as any, so we sign up to go to the Russian Market, Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre and Tuol Sleng museum with him first thing tomorrow.

We meet up first thing, and Jen has got another tourist in tow, a Kiwi woman (whose name we can’t remember!) so we agree to do the tour as a three. First stop we head to the Russian market, so-called because it became the foreigner’s market during the 1980’s, when most of the visitors to Cambodia were Russians. It doesn’t turn out to be too exciting, but then markets generally aren’t much fun when your backpack is already brimming to the seams and you know you can’t squeeze a single extra item in!

After that we drive out through the very dusty streets to the Killing Fields/Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre, and Jen tells us about his personal experience before we head inside. Turns out that he was aged about 13 in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge stormed to power. He remembers the seizure of Phnom Penh, and being marched out into the countryside with his mother, brother and sister, and being forced to work in the fields. He gave us a very interesting personal account of his family’s own experience, and how they used to try and find their own food to supplement the tiny portion they were given in the communal canteens. Felt pretty weird to hear about these comparatively recent historical experiences first hand, and it really brought to the forefront of our mind that many Cambodians are still living with the impact of what happened day-to-day. Or as our guidebook so aptly summarises it:

“Pol Pot is a dirty word in Cambodia due to the death and suffering he inflicted on the country. Whenever you hear his name, it will be connected with stories of endless personal tragedy, of dead brothers, mothers and babies, from which most Cambodians have never had the chance to recover. Such suffering takes generations to heal and meanwhile the country is crippled with a short-term mentality that encourages people to live for today, not to think about tomorrow – because not so long ago, there was no tomorrow. No-one has tasted justice, the whys and hows remain unanswered and the older generation must live with the shadow of this trauma stalking their every waking hour.”

There isn’t really much one can say to sum up the experience of the Killing Fields. It feels almost eerily peaceful despite the number of visitors here, but at the same time you can never forget you are walking amongst the mass graves of 000’s of the dead. After reading some of the shocking statistics about the Khmer Rouge, and how few of the perpetrators were ever really brought to proper justice, we walk around and read about how this could have come about.

The idea of the regime was to return Cambodia to a more simple, peasant way of life based on Communist principles and without being tainted with the ideas of Capitalism. Based on these criteria, the regime killed all professionals (including teachers and doctors), city-dwellers, minority populations and those who spoke foreign languages. Even wearing glasses was reason enough to be killed. Children were separated from their parents, and indoctrinated into the Khmer Rouge’s principles, and invariably used as torturers and executioners (sometimes being forced to kill friends and members of their own families). Leaders within the regime were paranoid about retaining power, and so they also turned on members of their own party, as well as identifying innocent people who were forced to make confessions against the party which resulted in weeks of torture and ultimately death. Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge systematically wiped out around half of Cambodia’s seven million population. I found it totally impossible to get my head around some of the details of what had happened, and that these type of atrocities could have taken place within my lifetime.

We finish our visit at the memorial stupa, which holds the skulls, bones, clothes and remains of so many of the victims, organised by gender and age. It would seem that so many Cambodians still do not have closure on precisely what happened to their family members, so this place has become a collective place for grieving.

Chilled by the experience, we head off back towards town to S-21 or Tuol Sleng prison. Before the Khmer Rouge came to power, this building was a school, and it now sits as a dark reminder of the atrocities right in the middle of a residential area. Innocent citizens and young children, were subjected to weeks and months of torture within these walls, before being carted off, sometimes barely alive, to the mass graves of the Killing Fields. Classrooms were sectioned off using wood and brick partitions to make tiny little cells, where victims were held chained to the floor, and spatters of blood still remain across the ceilings and walls or the torture rooms. The authorities have decided to leave the buildings and their contents in tact, and to display the faces of the victims (all of which were meticulously photographed before and after death by the perpetrators), as a reminder to the world to prevent anything of this nature ever happening again.

Unbelievably, it is only this year that the first of the perpetrators have been brought to justice. Four of the Khmer Rouge leaders were found guilty by the UN backed court in February, the most notorious of which is the man known as Duch, who was in charge of the S-21 prison (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-16865834). Unbelievably, three of the four have still failed to admit any responsibility for what happened and have shown no remorse for their actions.

The whole experience left me a little reflective about the state of humankind for a few days, but nevertheless, I was glad I came. In my mind this is an important chapter in history that may never be fully comprehended, but should never be forgotten….

One last dip in the sea... :( (Sihanoukville and Ko Chang)

2012-04-05 to 2012-04-11

After a few days of death related activities it was time to hit the beach. This was to be our last dip in the sea of the whole trip and we were struggling to decide whether to head to Koh Chang in Thailand or Sihanoukville on the Cambodian coast. We just wanted somewhere chilled for a final few days tanning time before heading to the mountains. We decided on Koh Chang after hearing a few dodgy reports on Sihanoukville, which was upsetting to hear having had an amazing there back in 2006, but in the end our mind was made up for us as the Koh Chang bus was fully booked. We thought we’d head to Sihanoukville and give it a chance, and if not head on to Koh Chang the next day.

Sadly, within a few hours of checking in at our guesthouse at Sihanoukville we were over the road booking our ticket out. The once paradise beach with a few family run beach bars was now wall to wall with restaurants and drinking establishments whose bars were propped up by gangs of old western sex tourists and general wrong-uns. Horrible buildings have been built willy-nilly across the beach front which have really spoilt the look of the place and the mix of people about the town is all wrong. The resort has attracted a whole range of people and therefore tried to cater for them all. This however doesn’t really work. In one bar you have an older couple enjoying dinner whilst the bar next door is full of young backpackers playing drinking games and next to that seedy old perverts sit trading dark tales. It’s sad to say that this place is heading in the wrong direction and is likely to become the new Pattaya in not so many years’ time. That being said, we savour a few hours on the beach in the afternoon and enjoy a pedicure whilst devouring 8 lobsters costing about 3 quid. It’s then time for us to sneak off to Ko Chang.

Next morning we’re up and off early on the bus to the border where we changed to a smaller bus that took us to Trat bus station. From there we had to wait for enough people to fill up a pickup to take us to the pier where we caught the ferry to Koh Chang, and from the ferry terminal, a further pickup to the not so lonely, Lonely Beach. The journey was easy enough, but it took a lot longer than planned and it was going dark by the time we arrived at Magic Garden bungalows. The bungalows were great and set in a nice jungle garden which is lit up at night with coloured lights creating a nice ambience. I got the impression, however, that Magic Garden was once a more serene place to relax, but the vibe has changed slightly since the eruption of a party scene amongst its neighbours.

Koh Chang has developed massively since my last visit, but our spot at the end of the bay was pretty quiet and we decided not to let it spoil our fun, as we only wanted some sea and sun. Both of which were plentiful and about 35 degrees a pop!

For the next few days we occupy a regular spot in front of a nice little beach bar and wind down. It turns out that Magic Garden has a good set of chefs so we eat in most nights tucking in to great Thai curries and awesome all you can eat barbecues – we are both going to miss the Thai cuisine which hasn’t let us down once since we’ve been here.

Whilst on Koh Chang I celebrate my birthday with some afternoon beers on the beach which inadvertently leads to an early night, so we use this as an excuse to celebrate my birthday at a reggae concert the following night instead. The guys at Ting Tong bar put a lot of effort in to throwing a great party with four different bands and a fire show. The first three bands played some great reggae and had some very good musicians, in particular the first band featured a white bassist whose neck moulded seamlessly in to his chin. He looked quite odd and out of place alongside the other rasta-style band members, but boy could this guy play? Some truly great work on lead! The second act was a great singer who used the same band. He looked a bit like Lenny Kravitz and did a top quality Reggae version of 10CC’s “Dreadlock Holiday” – which I didn’t like, I loved! I got the impression that the third band, The Rasta Band, was quite well known in Thailand and the highlight of their set for me was a cover of Job 2 Do’s “Doo Doo Doo”. You can listen to the original here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WAdZzr0ysxg. This track was our anthem of Thailand as it followed us everywhere we went. It’s so damn catchy and makes you happy when you hear it – the perfect holiday song!! The last band wasn’t to our taste so we used it as a good excuse to sneak off to bed and escape a hangover.

With the sandy leg of our adventure at an end we head to Bangkok for a final bit of souvenir shopping and the final fitting on my suit. After the initial relief on my first fitting I was pleased when I went back this time to find the suit fit perfectly and was beautifully finished – phew!

As we leave for the airport the Thais are busy setting up for their Songkran new year festival. This is a three day water festival and the street vendors were now stocking giant super soakers and other homemade water firing devices. I noticed as we drove past that Coca-Cola had cashed in on the event and had its banners flying the full length of Khao San Road. We had to make a call on whether to spend Buddhist New Year in Thailand or Nepal and opted for Nepal, let’s hope the gamble pays off!!

After a scary drive in the minibus we arrive at the airport early. The driver’s pressure driving was erratic to say the least and totally unnecessary given that he was running an hourly minibus service and gained nothing by driving in such a way. Anyway, thankfully, we arrived in one piece and I for one was now very excited about seeing the big mountains of Nepal…!!

Happy New Year 2069 – here’s one we won’t forget in a hurry! (Kathmandu and Bhaktaphur)

2012-04-12 to 2012-04-17

It’s a relatively short flight over to Kathmandu, but slowly, slowly we are regaining the day we lost when we flew from Santiago to New Zealand back in November :) We annoy the guy in the aisle seat quite extensively I think, by constantly sneaking over to the other side of the plane to try and get a view of the Himalaya! Unfortunately it’s all a bit of a waste of time, as the clouds prevent us from seeing very much at all, and then the fasten seatbelt signs come on.

We obtain our visa on arrival without a hitch, and then head out into the airport carpark melee and the sunshine. Thankfully we have arranged a car pick up through our booking with Khangsar Guesthouse so we don’t have to get involved in any negotiations and get straight on our way.

As soon as we set off through the streets of Kathmandu, we start to get the impression that the next month is going to be a good “warm-up” for India. Maybe it’s the occasional cow wandering about in the road, or maybe it’s the way people drive around here, we’re not sure!! The place is so colourful (if a little dusty!), and there is something going on in whatever direction you look. We are both excited to be here after all the anticipation, and for a change of scene from South East Asia.

The general rule of the highway is slightly different to that we experienced in Asia, where “largest vehicle or object has right of way.” Here it seems the predominant rule is that “he who is best at playing ‘chicken’ has right of way.” Just pull out, change lanes, or drive directly towards an oncoming vehicle, preferably without a seatbelt on, and you’ll blend right in! The second and third rules of the highway are “Compulsory and repeated horn must be exercised if you are required to wait any longer than a millisecond for another driver” and “It is preferable to run someone over and/or run them off the road before you should be required to apply brakes.” We are glad we aren’t going to be doing any driving here, but quickly learn that a new technique is required for crossing the road!!

We are only staying one night in Kathmandu, and just about have time to get our bearings in Thamel, before we head off the next day to Bhaktaphur. For a moment we are worried we have totally messed up on the dates, as it turns out last night was New Year’s Eve, but then eventually it comes to light that Nepali’s celebrate bigger on New Year’s Day, so we are just in the nick of time! We pay our whopping entrance fee (1,100 Nepali rupee each) to get into the walled city of Bhaktaphur, and check into Ganesh Guesthouse.

Well, if it was a dose of culture that we felt was missing in Thailand and Cambodia, we have certainly come to the right place now. This place is amazing – it feels like you have stepped back in time into a world of cobbled streets, low ceilinged buildings and trading on the street. Alternatively, we might have been transported directly into the setting of an old Kung Fu movie – surrounded by pagoda temples, colourful dress and a complementary mix of Buddhist and Hindu symbolism! The architecture is stunning, and there are really intricately carved wooden shutters as well as stone carvings and sculptures all around town. It’s so lucky for this heritage site that more damage wasn’t done in the 1934 earthquake, although we do spot several buildings with so many loose bricks that they would have been long-since condemned in the UK.

There is a real air of excitement about the town, which is crowded with locals all dressed in their best outfits. Many of the women are carrying brass platters full of food and nik-naks (which we learn later have been brought as offerings and sacrifices), and even the smallest babies are all dressed up complete with thick black eyeliner! We also notice the groups of men, particularly older men, hanging around together like mischievous teenagers! It seems that men and women largely socialise separately here, and the men have no qualms about being very tactile, holding hands or linking arms in public. Everyone has a really prominent tika or bindi (the mark on the forehead to denote blessing / the third eye), and it isn’t long before we have been approached by a sadhu and had our forehead’s dotted in powder (and charged a quid for the privilege!)

We explore round the crowded alleyways and streets, which is hard going as there is something going on at every twist and turn, and with this many people around its really difficult to get your bearings. In the end we opt just to go with the general flow, and end up down in Khalna Tole, where we find the two huge chariots and a 25 metre wooden cross high in the sky made out of a tree trunk. Throughout the Bisket Jatra festival the chariots are pulled through the streets and ultimately an east-west tug of war over them determines who will be blessed with good fortune in the coming year. Turns out that Khalna Tole is the main centre of the festival, and some friendly locals advise us to get back down here at 4pm to see the main highlight…

In the meantime, we head over to take a look at the chariots and take some photos. Just as I’m occupied trying to get a shot of the kids climbing the chariot, Tom turns to me excitedly and says “Did you see THAT?!” Turns out that the kids up on the chariot have been tasked with carrying out the animal sacrifices, and some young lad has just sliced a chicken’s head off! Sure enough, one after another, families are lining up with their trays and live chickens and passing up offerings one by one to the chariot. Without hesitation, the lads chop each chicken’s head clean off and throw the headless, shaking body to the ground, before handing the chicken head back for the family to carry away proudly on their tray. Apparently, we read later that this is the farmers sacrificing female chickens that have not yet laid eggs? Well it’s all news to me, as isn’t this supposed to be Buddhist New Year (and I always thought Buddhists were not supposed to harm a living thing?) In any case, all I can say is, thank goodness we weren’t there when they started doing the goats and buffalos (which apparently came later!)

After a spot of lunch overlooking Taumadhi Square, we head back down to wait for the highlight of the festival. Sure enough, hundreds of people are gathering in Khalna Tole, many of whom are congregating on the roofs of the buildings surrounding the square. Given what we have noticed about the crumbling architecture, Tom starts to visualise one of those scenes you see on the news where “38 people killed by collapsing wall at ‘X’ festival” and you wonder how that happened, well now we know!

We wait around, people watching and soaking up the atmosphere until it’s starting to get dark, and we start to wonder when they are planning to pull the pole down as soon we’re not going to be able to see a thing! From the way the pole is tilting we can tell it’s going to fall over the south side of the square, and we are assuming that the police have moved everybody out from underneath and cordoned the area off….. In the meantime, I am also starting to feel a little conscious that we are the only westerners stood amongst a big group of young lads, and so we decide to move a little bit further back where there is some more space. As we are doing so, an old chap comes over and starts waving his arms about trying to tell us something, but he speaks no English so it’s unclear what he’s trying to tell us? We have seen a few bizarre characters today, so we think nothing more of it.

Eventually, some religious figures appear from the small building in the centre of the square having completed the new year’s rituals and the crowds start to cheer. The ropes on the cross are then released, and all of a sudden the crowd surges into action. Schoolboy error! We find ourselves in the middle of what turns out to be another tug of war over who can pull this 80 foot cross into the crowd! R. U. N. We take one look at the thing and realise its coming in our direction and start to leg it up the square. S. H. I. T! Within seconds the thing crashes to the ground right where we (and hundreds of other people) were stood a few minutes earlier. Someone surely has to be dead? Amazingly not, although we later learn than this festival has been known to claim some casualties and we can certainly see why. If you think I’m exaggerating, you can watch the moment back here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ACC4EFQ36vs (and on the slow motion version you can see a guy who literally just makes it out from under it in time). So that’s what the old fella was trying to tell us! After a really nice day, this is a slightly scary moment, but it’s certainly different to Old Lang Syne!!

We are exhausted, so after an Everest beer we are tucked up in bed. The following day is slightly calmer, but the town is still a hive of activity. We decide to embark on Lonely Planet’s walking tour of the town, which takes you round the back streets and temples, and is a real eye opener. Just watching daily life going on is so entertaining in this place!

The following day, our dose of culture well and truly filled, we grab a taxi back to Kathmandu. The streets of Thamel are equally (if not more bustling), but this is mainly owing the hundreds of tourist shops, trekking outlets and bars crammed into the narrow streets. There’s no rest for us, as we’ve got a huge list of stuff to get for our trek, so the shopping starts here!

We also go round a few of the trekking agencies to get information on the treks. Having more or less decided we were going to do the Annapurna circuit, we have a last minute change of heart and plump for the Everest Base Camp trek. Let’s face it; we’ve got a month in Nepal and we just can’t bring ourselves to leave without seeing the big one! Tom is immediately excited to finally settle his childhood intrigue of Everest and this is what his heart was telling him all along. Whereas I am more focused on (read: nervous about) the walk stats, its 14 days, over 60kms walking, gaining 2695 metres of altitude, with only 50% of the normal concentration of oxygen in the air when you reach the top…. but I figure in for a penny and all that… We arrange our friendly Gurung porter-guide, Harry, through Alliance Treks, the flight to Lukla is booked and we’re off the day after tomorrow!

In the evening, we discover an amazing Indian, The Spice Garden, tucked away upstairs in Thamel. And this turns out to be our first visit of many. A veggie thali, including three curries, poppadum, rice, naan, salad and a dessert is 255 rupee (about two quid). Tom claims it was in the top five meals he’s ever eaten (praise indeed!)

We decide to use our last day in Kathmandu to wake our limbs back up as it’s a while since we’ve done any trekking. We catch a somewhat cosy local minibus out to Budhanilkantha, and do a trek up to Nagi Gompa (the monastery) in the Shivapuri National Park. At the gate, we get chatting to the army guard who notices we are English and strikes up a conversation. Turns out he has several friends based at Sandhurst, who are Ghurkha Soldiers fighting on behalf of the British Army. Unfortunately, he hadn’t made the selection (and he won’t be the last person in Nepal we meet who hadn’t quite made the cut); many thousands apply for just a couple of hundred places a year and the testing is rigorous. Getting selected is very prestigious but more importantly very lucrative in local terms, as well as coming with a lifelong visa to the UK and a military pension. We realise this is an interesting historical relationship between Britain and Nepal that we need to learn some more about. The walk is a good leg stretch, with some nice valley view’s thrown in. Bizarrely on the way back down, I discover my hands have started to swell up and go weird, so we hotfoot it down to a chemist for some anti-histamine which quickly gets it under control, thank goodness.

Before we head for the bus, we spot an Indian snacks stall and decide to treat ourselves to some hot samosas. We get chatting to the lovely Sonya, who is keen to practise the English she has learnt in school, to the extent that she offers to take us a mini tour of her village! It’s a good job she did, as we would have missed the highlight of the village, the Budhanilkantha temple, which contains the reclining statue of Vishnu as Narayan, the creator of all life, and is a reknowned Hindu site across Nepal. It’s a great little finish to our day out, and we head back feeling positive to take on the packing for the big day tomorrow…

We’re off to the mighty Himalaya!

Everest Base Camp Trek (Part 1) - By Claire

2012-04-18 to 2012-04-23

Day One (Lukla to Phakding)

True to form, we are up till about 2am packing our bags, so we only get about 3 hours sleep before the alarm goes off at 5.00am. In our defence, lack of sleep was not the reason we missed our flight!! We had questioned the agency when they suggested a 5.30am taxi for a 6.30am flight, but we were assured it was plenty of time. Turned out that it didn’t allow for any kind of delay, so when our hostel messed up the taxi booking and it came 10-15 minutes late, that was all it took! Thankfully, we had Harry (our porter-guide) with us at the airport, so he did an excellent job of sorting everything out for us and getting us on the next flight at 7.45am. Phew!

After the experience of the flight to Rurrenabaque in Bolivia, I knew better than to eat anything before boarding a small plane, so it was a hungry and nervewracking wait for the flight on my part! I have never been scared of flying before this trip, but I seem to have developed a bit of a sensitivity to it lately – but who can blame me with some of these flights we are picking?!

In the event, most of the half hour we are in the air is quite enjoyable. The contrast as we fly over busy Kathmandu, over the sparsely populated hills and towards the mountains is incredible. Even from this distance away the mountains are towering up over everything, with their peaks amongst the clouds. The last few minutes of the flight as we enter the Khumbu Valley are a little bumpy, but from what we’ve heard about these flights, it could have been a lot worse!! We touch down in Lukla on the shortest and narrowest runway I have ever seen, at an altitude of 2970 metres. The runway actually slopes down and off the mountain, so I just tell myself not to think about the flight back to Kathmandu until we finish the trek! The mountain views even as we get off the plane are a treat, so gradually my nerves start to give over to excitement, we both get the feeling we have made the right choice of trek in the end.

After a late breakfast in Sunny Garden restaurant, and a few snaps of The Everest Cyber Café and Lukla’s fake Starbucks, we get on our way! We get our passes stamped at the first checkpoint and head down into the valley. It is slightly reminiscent of the start of the Inca Trail, but with even higher snow clad peaks all around us. Simply stunning.

We immediately notice a difference from the Inca Train though - the porters. There is obviously no government regulation here like there is in Peru, as some of them are clearly carrying four backpacks each, upwards of 60kgs in total. Unbelievable! We question how some tourists can watch their porter walk off on the start of the trek like this, it’s got to do so much damage to their backs to walk like this for 2 weeks. Having said that, as we walk further along the trail, we see more porters carrying produce and local goods than supporting trekking teams, and they are carrying as much weight, if not more. Often, their loads are carried in a large basket called a “doko” strapped to their head, and they walk with a “T” shaped walking stick that they use to rest the basket on when they stop to rest. Some of the porters are carrying 10 solid struts of wood strapped together, and Tom even saw one guy with a cooker strapped to his back! Some of these loads were 100kg plus. This has been how things have been done around here for a long time; there are no roads beyond Lukla, so anything that can’t be brought on donkey or yak is brought on your own back.

It’s not a long walk for the first day, so we arrive at Khumbu Travellers Guesthouse in Phakding in early afternoon. We are pleasantly surprised to have our own room with private toilet (basic though it is) as we were expecting to get dorm beds! We get wrapped up with our thermals and books, and head to the dining room for a flask of tea. I am reading “Into Thin Air” (the story of the Everest disaster in 1996) and Tom is reading “No Way Down” (the story of the 2008 disaster on K2) – certainly atmospheric, I just hope that we don’t scare ourselves too much on the way up!

Before it goes dark we take a walk around the village and get our first taste of Sherpa culture. True, it’s clearly changed a lot since trekkers started coming here in the 1970’s, but the place hasn’t been as commercialised as we feared. And who can blame the Sherpa’s from wanting to modernise? If you could swap a day of backbreaking work in the potato fields for a day selling overpriced chocolate bars to trekkers in a cosy little shop (and probably making 5 times as much money), which would you choose?!

Day Two (Phakding to Namche Bazaar)

In the morning we are up early and sampling the Sherpas tsampa porridge, eager to get going as it’s a really sunny, bright morning. The trek continues up out of the village and across to the other side of the river, and we cross numerous long suspension bridges all the way up the valley. We also start to spot the prayer flags, chortens and inscribed mani stones which are going to become very familiar all along the trail, and a constant reminder of the strongly Buddhist influence on the region.

It’s only today that we actually enter the Sagarmatha National Park – Sagarmatha being the Sherpa name for Everest. In Tibet the mountain is known as Chomolungma. Both names refer to the mountains as gods. Why it was considered acceptable to change the name of a holy mountain to the name of human being baffles the Sherpas. This is a trend we have noticed throughout the trip, with Europeans “discovering” sites around the world which have be known to locals for centuries.

At the entrance to the park, they have a tiny little museum, which houses a scale model of the valley and some interesting historical information. It’s a nice pit stop, and helps to get us up the hill to Jorsale where we stop for a dal bhat and veggie curry lunch. Dal bhat – soupy lentil curry and rice – is the staple food of the Sherpas, and recommended for trekkers as a good energy fix! We go to stock up on water before we set off, and the guy serving us in the shop barely looks a day over 40 and his back is a complete hunchback – maybe we were right to be concerned after all?

Not long after lunch I start to feel the effects of the altitude already. We can only be at around 3000 metres, but we decide to take it steady just in case. Turns out there is a massive hill between us and Namche Bazaar (our planned overnight stop), so we aren’t going to be going anywhere fast anyway!

It’s a long zig-zagging climb up, but luckily we are distracted from the slog of the climb when we get chatting to Cam (a guy from New York) and the rest of his group, who are on their way up to attempt the summit of Ama Dablam. It’s interesting to hear about their plans and preparations for taking on this 6800 metre peak.
By the time we finally get to the top I am certainly ready for a rest, so it’s good that Namche comes quickly into site, and we check into the International Foot Rest lodge. We decide to treat ourselves to a veggie burger and chips for tea, as two Irish girls recommend we should eat well while we still can (sounds like the menu’s get less and less creative the further you go up!!) The lodge is packed, as there is a big tour group from Thailand staying tonight. They are friendly enough, and we feel for them as they all seem to look a bit cold – it’s not very often that Thailand sees sub-zero temperatures I shouldn’t think! One woman crossed the Cho La Pass in what can only be described as a white abattoir suit on over a thin layer of trekking clothes?! I bet she’s wishing now that she thought more about protection from the cold than the dust!!

Day Three (“Rest” day in Namche bazaar)

After another early night, Tom is awake at 5am taking photos of the mountains through our lodge window!! Usually I wouldn’t be impressed to be woken up with an icy 5am draught, but our corner room must have the best view in the whole lodge, and as soon as I open my eyes I can see clear blue sky and crisp peaks on all sides so I can’t really complain!
Despite being our “rest” day for acclimatisation today, it’s not exactly what I would call a rest day! More accurately, it’s a 2.5 hour walk up 440m to the Everest View Hotel. Generally it’s recommended to try to gain altitude in the day and then sleep low, as it helps your body get used to the decreasing oxygen in the air faster, so we decide to follow the advice. We get chatting to a friendly French chap, Emmanuel and his guide, so we do the walk up with them for a bit of company. Harry and all the other poor guides are tired, as the lodge was so busy last night, they had to sleep in the dining room and some trekkers kept them up till 2am. Typical Nepali’s though, as you don’t hear a moan out of them, they just get on with it!

We reach the top and get our first view of Everest (just peeping out behind its surrounding peaks) from the Everest View Hotel at 3880 metres – awesome! It’s an amazing landscape for a hotel, and an absolute steal at 100 USD a night (if this was place was in the Swiss Alps it would set you back a fortune!!)

We head back down the hill and have a quick visit to the Sherpa and Mountain museums in Namche, before a restful afternoon chatting and reading. Over dinner we meet Andreas and Astrid, from London and Norway respectively, and have a good laugh about how we are dealing with our sub-standard trekking equipment compared to all the two week holiday trekkers who are fully kitted out! We have a bit of a laugh at Andreas’ expense when we get him to believe that we have brought ice axes with us on the hike!!
The night at the lodge is much quieter (as only five people are staying), so we eat our surprisingly tasty yak meat spaghetti bolognese alongside the porters, and are well looked after by Gobinda who runs the lodge.

Day Four (Namche to Tengboche)

Again, it’s a beautiful start to the day, with clear skies and mountains on all sides. We traverse the valley, along a path that zigzags in and out hugging the side of the mountain, with amazing photo opportunities at every corner. The trail isn’t too crowded, and we have a nice chat with Harry about his background, how he got into trekking and what is family do back home. A combination of the weather, the views, and the company makes this easily our favourite day of the trek so far.

As we turn the last corner Harry points out the path we will be following after lunch – eek! Looks like we’re headed all the way down into the valley bottom; only to have to climb all the way up the other side to our overnight stop! Thankfully we have a nice lunch by the riverside to give us the energy to get up the other side – which turns out to be a 2.5 hour climb up to Tengboche. On route, we get chatting to a friendly Ozzie called Solomon who has raised money for Sherpa schools as part of their trek sponsorship. Their trek ends in Tengboche, which is probably just as well as they are camping, and it’s got to get pretty cold on an evening much higher than here!

We make it into the village just in time – partly as the weather is starting to close in and clouds are looming, but also because we learn that at 3pm the Tengboche monastery opens its doors and you can see the monks daily chanting. It’s quite hypnotic to listen to them, and intriguing to see a taste of what their life must be like living up here. By nightfall we really felt that we were “in” the clouds, probably because, at nearly 4000 metres, we were!

Day Five (Tengboche to Dingboche)

It’s another early start as I’m awake at 5.15am, so after some tsampa porridge we’re off hiking by 7.30am. We can’t believe our luck - it’s another really clear day and the sky stays blue nearly all day. Despite the fact that I upped the ante to factor 80 suncream and had a sunhat on all day yesterday, I still somehow managed to get burnt, so today I have to resort to wearing a scarf wrapped around my face and head! No, I don’t think it’s going to take off as a new fashion, but it seems to do the job!

We start off up the valley really well, if anything, probably a bit too fast, as by lunchtime we are really feeling the altitude. We stock up on some increasingly expensive mineral water (250 rupees) and have to keep stopping and sitting down to rehydrate and monitor our headaches. As a result, it takes us ages to get across and up the other side of the valley to Dingboche.

All the hard work is worth it though, as when we arrive in the village we check into Himalaya Lodge which has 360 degree views of the mountains, Taboche on one side and Ama Dablam opposite, with Thamserku down the valley, and Nupste, Lhotse Shar, Peak 38, Island Peak and Chabalu all up the valley. We have an outstanding view of Ama Dablam right from our bedroom window (particularly considering the lodge is less than a quid per night!) and we notice that the mountain looks really different this close up than it did when we saw it from afar, but still striking from every angle nevertheless. Ama Dablam has to be one of the most distinctive and beautiful mountains in the Khumbu valley, and arguably the world, and I also took a liking to Thamserku. With Fitz Roy and Ama Dablam we have now seen two of the world’s most stunning peaks.

As dusk falls, the temperature plummets, and we realise we could be in for a cold night. Sure enough, after dinner I open the lodge door to be greeted with snow. Well, Tom did wish for some Himalayan snow, and here it is!

Day Six (rest day at Dingboche, hike to Chukuung)

We wake up to a light covering of snow and our wet washing frozen on the window ledge. Seeing the foothills all white adds a new dimension to the views of Ama Dablam and makes the perfect backdrop for breakfast in the courtyard. It’s time for another “rest” day, and despite it being the longer walk of two options, we have heard great things about the day walk up the valley to Chukuung, so we set off around 8am. The views just get more and more impressive the further up the valley we go, which considering they were already amazing at Dingboche is quite something. On the way, we get chatting to a couple of French chaps from Bordeaux, who are heading up the valley to climb Island Peak. It’s one of the trekking peaks, so sounds entirely do-able without much climbing experience.

Almost at Chukuung, Tom and Harry decide to take a detour over to the ridge to get closer to the wall of ice and snow which extends out from Ama Dablam. They can’t get as close as it looks though, as there is yet another valley in between, but it’s still close enough to get some even nicer photos. We sit outside one of the lodges in Chukuung for half an hour or so, just gazing up at the mountains and trying to absorb the view. It is so peaceful and quiet and despite the cold air, the warm sun on your face is calming. As this is a side trip from the main trek, the valley is really quiet and there are hardly any other trekkers around. It turns out to be one of our favourite days of the trek.

Eventually, we decide it’s time to descend back to Dingboche, but as we reach the edge of the village we are greeted by the wind! We all wrap up in our down jackets and cover our faces with scarves and thankfully its much quicker going down than it was coming up as it literally feels like our faces are being whipped by the wind.

We get back to Himalaya lodge and have just ordered a pot of tea, when two fellow Brits, Jim and Lisa, are arriving at the lodge from Tengboche. We empathise with the pain they are feeling, as they have come the same way we did yesterday. We get chatting and it seems we have a lot in common, even down to Lisa and Claire’s current unexplained shoulder pain, or Tom and Lisa’s rampant snacking!! We all go off together to the medical talk about altitude sickness, and then stay up “late” (well…. 8.30pm) chatting to Jim. After all this time away it was great to have some English banter and a chat about life back home. Jim regularly visits his friends in Leeds so we hope to catch up with him some time when he’s in the area.

Everest Base Camp Trek (Part 2) - By Tom

2012-04-24 to 2012-04-30

Day Seven (Dingboche to Labouche)

The following morning we have breakfast in the sunshine with Jim, but Lisa is still suffering with her sore shoulder in bed. I have my usual porridge breakfast with about ten spoons of sugar topped with lashings of honey. It sounds ridiculous but my body is just screaming for sugar and has been all the way up. I just hope I am still shedding a few pounds with all the exercise as it’s my last real shot before home. Failing this I’ll be relying on Delhi belly which isn’t the most sustainable weight loss program!

With Lisa needing to rest up it looks like we might not see Jim and Lisa again so we get ourselves loaded up and say our goodbyes. The first part of the walk is up a gentle sloping, high valley plain. It is a really nice section of the trek with mountain views on all sides. We have to keep stopping to look back as you get a great panoramic view of the Himalaya with multiple layers of peaks on the horizon behind us.

We take lunch at a place called Duglha/Thukla which is perched on the inside slope of a small valley. The portion to price ratio here is the worse yet and we hope it is just because it is a tiny place with a captive market and not a sign of what’s to come?! After dinner there is a long and steep, rocky climb up hill and at this point my legs are too strong for my head. I begin to get a headache from gaining altitude too quickly and have to sit and rest for a while until it passes. Following this I set off more slowly and I teach Harry the phrase “Softly softly, catchee monkey!” as you have to move so slowly if you are to have a chance of getting to the top, particularly as are now at over 4600 metres.

When we reach the crest of the hill we encounter a large number of stone memorials in honour of fallen climbers. We find the one for Scott Fischer who died in the Everest 1996 disaster we have both recently read about in Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” and we each place a stone in his memory. Most interestingly in mountaineering, more people die on the way down than on the way up. It’s so important when climbing mountains to remember it is a two way trip and that the summit is only half way. Many climbers get in to trouble as a result of suffering from “summit fever,” failing to leave themselves enough energy to safely descend. There is something so romantically devastating about death on high altitude peaks and something I find really touching and often frustrating to read about. I’ve also learnt that human behaviour changes in the “death zone” (above 8000m, 26000ft) and it is not uncommon for climbers to walk past a dying climber, without attempting in any way to help for fear of risking themselves, or perhaps more importantly, their summit bid. A very sorry state of affairs, but one to remember if you are planning a trip to the high Himalaya.

As we start to head up a rocky glacier field, we really started to feel we were a long way from civilisation and sensed we were entering the wilderness we’d come for. There was nothing around, except the odd yak herder and occasional Tibetan mani stones, then we see a small selection of lodges nestled in to the rocks. We had reached Labouche.
That evening we sink plenty of hot drinks, grab some food and have a chat with Andreas and Astrid who turn up at the same lodge. Then cold and tired we hit the sack early - before it had even got dark in fact, looking forward to a big sleep!

Day Eight (Labouche to Gorak Shep and EBC)

Suddenly the day is upon us, as we realise we are off to Base Camp this afternoon! Strange, as it still felt so far away when we were in Dingboche. Unfortunately my big sleep didn’t happen though and I wished I’d taken a Diamox before bed as it’s a long day’s walking ahead. :(

We make an early start (walking by 6.45am), as we’ve heard there are a shortage of beds in Gorak Shep, but it takes us 2-3 hours to get up the valley as we are pretty tired and feeling the altitude by this point.

Despite claiming she wasn’t going to do both Base Camp and Kalar Pattar, Claire feels ok when we arrive in Gorak Shep so decides to give it a go. We start well, but the slog to Base Camp is up-down-up-down and pretty heavy going. Still suffering from her bad cold, Claire was pretty much at her physical limit and before we’d got there was already dubious about her ability to make it back down. What was that I was saying earlier about summit fever??!! Ha,ha!!

The dots of orange we can see at the foot of the Khumbu Icefall slowly become larger and finally take the shape of tents. We had made it! When we arrive we are nicely greeted by the Indian Army team attempting to summit this year and are invited to join them for a cup of tea. It’s a very kind offer and one we’d usually have jumped at but their tent is a further 25 minutes’ walk away and the weather is starting to turn a bit grim so we sadly decline and after a few photos with Andreas and Astrid head back down.

It’s only when you get close to an Ice Fall or Glacier that you see how treacherous they can be. From a distance they just look smooth and white and you cannot see the deep crevasses or hear them moving. The most dangerous and feared section of climbing Everest is crossing the Khumbu Icefall on the lower slopes of the mountain. This is the most unpredictable section of the climb as large seracs of ice could fall from above at any time, killing the climbers below. Regardless of skill and experience, there is a certain element of chance at this point in the climb and it has taken the lives of many climbers over the years. Climbers cannot climb Everest in one go. They have to climb up and descend from a series of four high camps over a period of a few weeks to ensure that their bodies are best adapted to cope with the strains of the summit bid. Unfortunately, this means that climbers must pass through the icefall up to 10 times during the expedition, and the porters pass through many more times doing multiple trips up with supplies and equipment to the high camps. Some teams now do some of their acclimatisation climbs on Lobuche instead, to reduce the number of times they have to cross the icefall.

On the way up we learn of the first death of the season. A climbing Sherpa in his early twenties from Thame close to Namche Bizarre had slipped into a crevasse at Camp Two and died of his injuries. Apparently he was being too complacent and wasn’t wearing crampons when he lost his footing. This was really sad news to hear in a region with a permanent population of just over 5,600 people and when you know how little these guys are paid for risking their lives to get rich westerners to the top (circa $2000 a season). At Base Camp we learn of a further death, a second Sherpa had died of a heart attack. Myself and Claire also witnessed a porter suffer a terrible epileptic fit in his sleep on our first night in Phakding and worry about the stress they will put their bodies under to earn a few dollars each day.

Without the Sherpa people, only a handful of elite climbers would be able to scale Everest, yet few summiters truly acknowledge this in their accounts of how “they” climbed Everest. These climbers rock up at the high camps on their last legs, carrying nothing more than their daily rations. They then collapse in their tent, get in to their warm down sleeping bags and warm up on cups of hot Sherpa tea, all provided for by the Sherpas who are doing multiple ascents with full loads whilst they write their blogs and upload pretty pictures on their iPads. Do they seriously think that without the Sherpas to carry their tents, sleeping bags, gas canisters, stoves and food that they would have reached the summit?? In the majority of cases I think not, yet the Sherpas climbing achievements rarely make the news.

The Sherpas are the real heroes of Everest and the photos on the wall at the Everest Museum in Namche make awesome reading. Who do you think holds the fastest ascent records, who has a climber who has climbed 21 times and who generally ends up saving the ass of western climbers in the shit – yep the Sherpas every time. In fact this year, a climbing sirdar named Ang Dorja is attempting his 16th Everest summit. We’ve all heard of Chris Bonnington and Reinhold Messner but how many people have heard of him? These guys are phenomenally strong, both physically and mentally, and it’s no surprise the British Army found something special in the Nepali Gurkha Army. The UK’s lazy dole spongers could learn a lot by spending a day in the life of these guys, but they probably couldn’t hack it! They have no idea how easy life is in the UK, yet they are prepared to do nothing. Incapacity benefit my arse, I’ve seen 14 year old girls carrying 40 kilos on their backs.

Two hours later we finally make it back to Gorak Shep. It was lucky we had been able to drop most the bags off there on the way up as we are maxed out by the time we get back. It’s been a very long day of walking which prevented us from being able to properly soak up Base Camp. This is a bit frustrating, but hey the views have been amazing and the best is still to come tomorrow.

It’s another early night for us, but this time I take a Diamox and sleep like a baby despite our altitude, which is now 5164 metres above sea level.

Day Nine (Kalar Pattar and back to Labouche)

Well the Diamox worked well and thankfully we both slept really well as we’ve heard it’s a tough slog up to the top of Kalar Pattar, the peak which stands immediately over Gorak Shep at 5545m. Kalar Pattar forms part of the lower ridge of the 7161m Pumori but is a summit in its own right and although a much less attractive peak compared to its glamorous neighbours it offers amazing views of the Himalaya and the best view of Everest you can get without actually climbing it.

Claire has her heart set on reaching the top as this is to be her highlight and is her target for the trek. Half way up, however, she is nervous as to whether she has the steam left to make it despite being up ahead of me. I’m opting for a gentle plod approach and kept getting caught up taking snaps, but I’m always confident we’ll get there – we have to!!

Kalar Pattar is one of those mean ascents with hidden hills. Just as you reach the brow of one hill and think you are near the top, a further hill appears in front of you only this time the hill is even steeper. Perhaps there is an element of optical illusion with these peaks for those not used to being in high mountains, i.e. something that looks close never is, because the landmarks, e.g. mountains, you are using as reference points to estimate distance, are way bigger than anything you have ever seen before even if they do not seem so?? On several occasions on the trek we have seemed so close to the summit of these monster peaks, but really we are not that close. To put it in perspective, although the summit of Everest looks within spitting distance of Kala Pattar it is still 3.5 vertical kilometres higher.

Moving slowly, the final push to the top takes a bit of effort with tired legs but with the help of a precious Snickers we are finally within metres of the summit. Claire is happy to perch herself on a rock just below the prayer flags on the very summit but I insist she joins me a bit higher up to give Harry the chance to get a good photo (and give me the opportunity to propose). It’s very windy on the top but I manage to get myself down on one knee (being the true gentlemen and all that) and keep hold of the ring whilst I ream off words which can only be compared to the works of Shakespeare or Tolstoy and she cannot help herself from saying “Yes!”It is worth noting at this point that these are the series of events as I recall them, Claire’s account may vary slightly. Either way, it is a happy moment all round, even if Harry isn’t quite sure what is going on. And what better place to come together…… forever-est! Boom, Boom!

For a few moments we have the place to ourselves so we stick around on the summit to savour the moment before heading back down and manage to take a short video just before the camera battery dies. We were pleased that we had not got up for sunrise as the sun would have been behind Everest and spoilt the photos, whereas now the sun is a little higher in the sky and we managed to get some great shots. On the way back, we meet Andreas and Astrid on their way up. They had decided to have a lie-in so had set off late. We tell them our news and they are really pleased for us.

Back at Gorak Shep I order a pricey plate of cheesy mash potato and beans and we get chatting to some climbers from the IMG Everest Expedition who are out acclimatising and making use of the restaurant’s wifi. One of the chaps was a guide who had summited twice previously, but the other two were clients including a Saudi lad who at 29 is hoping to become the first Saudi to complete the seven summits (the highest peak on each continent). Most of the other seven peaks are considerably lower in altitude and are considered trekking peaks. Most of them do not even require crampons. Although not particularly technical, Everest is a big step up so it would be interesting to find out how they get on. The Seven Summits is not a challenge I’m interested in, I would prefer to handpick my challenges, and take on something more technical. I shared with them the story I had heard from Jim about a women who is attempting to summit this year having been bed bound with a back problem for 9 months. She recently had amazing results from using a cutting edge treatment and as a result the medical company responsible have sponsored her $40,000 towards the cost of her climb. I can picture the advert on TV already!!

I’d been looking forward to chatting to the climbers on the mountain but had been warned that with an Everest Expedition costing as much as $65000 per client, Everest climbers were often a bit hostile towards trekkers wanting to say hello in case they spread any germs which might bugger up their climb. A bit extreme perhaps, but fair enough I thought. Well I hadn’t found this to be the case with anyone I’d met so far and I’d enjoyed some nice open chats with the climbers I’d come across and even made a couple of new friends. Perhaps the person who gave me that warning was just a bit annoying and they used that as an excuse to get rid of them??

After lunch we begin the long walk back to Dingboche. We are absolutely exhausted and moving very slowly after the exertions of Base Camp and Kalar Pattar. It seems a long journey to be taking on having been hiking all morning, so when we stop for a rest in Labouche we decide to call it a day. It’s probably a good idea rather than heading off further down the valley in the cold and probably not arriving ‘til nightfall.

With some time to rest up and reflect on our day, I think given the chance to do the last couple of days again, we would have not gone to Everest Base Camp the afternoon before and rested at Gorak Shep instead. Like a guy we met today, we would have climbed Kalar Pattar the following morning then cut across the side of the mountain and dropped down in to Everest Base Camp afterwards. This would have meant we wouldn’t have had to do the Base Camp hike both ways and meant we would have got to Base Camp earlier in the day and been able to spend some quality time there. We would then have stayed an extra night in Gorak Shep before heading down. A little frustrating we hadn’t known about that option before but hey, hindsight is great isn’t it – and it was still an AWESOME day!

Day Ten (Labouche to Tengboche)

Me and the fiancé wake up in what seems to be the coldest morning yet, with frost on the inside of the window.

We decide to head down through the valley via a windy Pheriche (instead of Dingboche) for a slight change of scenery, and rest there for lunch. We stop at a seemingly deserted restaurant and despite appalling service Claire enjoys her best Dal Bhat yet, but I’m very grumpy as Scrooge still won’t let me buy a bottle of Fanta or a chocolate bar. In fairness, they are 3 quid and 2 quid respectively each so the tightness is probably justified (on this occasion). To be honest if Claire hadn’t kept such a close eye on the books, I’d probably be home by now, so no complaints really! ;)

After nearly two weeks in the valley we have started to see how the whole tourism thing works here and have learnt quite a bit about the Sherpa people. Most of them are lovely, proud people, but on occasion we felt that they were really fleecing the tourists to ridiculous levels and added to that, not offering very good food or service. The inflated prices were way beyond the transport costs and some places didn’t have lights or heating on until it was desperate. We were often left to wonder what we were paying for exactly and considering the easier life that tourism provides them felt it was a bit of a shame. Perhaps deep down they do not like tourists that much and who can blame them, but they were happy to take our money and you can’t have it both ways in my mind.
We also felt that there were some Sherpa people getting very rich from running lodges etc. whilst others remained very poor, e.g. the porters who really make the whole thing happen. This change in priorities from a spiritual life to one based on money and possessions is an example of western pollution eroding the Tibetan routes of the Sherpa people – a step in the wrong direction in many ways, but also inevitable, as we have witnessed this around every major tourist attraction we have visited on this trip.

During the descent we discuss how strange it is that some mountains seem to dominate the view and provide a permanent backdrop to the whole trek, e.g. Ama Dablam, yet others just come into view for a very short space of time then disappear, e.g. Lobuche. I guess it’s their height and position, i.e. whether other mountains block the view, but it’s certainly a strange phenomenon.

We make good time to Pangboche so decide to head on further to Tengboche making it a good seven hours of trekking. The last section is a hard slog uphill, but we reward ourselves with a hot shower and a good feed afterwards – it feels amazing after not having showered for 7 nights (and barely having washed either as there has been next to no running water)!

Now down to a mere 3870 metres, we are feeling full of energy and even stay up reading until 11.30pm! That might also be a sign of a good book and the fact I was reading about those poor climbers who were killed/stranded on the upper slopes of K2. They couldn’t get down and I couldn’t put it down. Another gripping read!

Day Eleven (Tengboche to Namche Bazaar)

We sleep really well that night then make the seven hour journey back to Namche which really drags towards the end. I pass the time singing with Harry and focus my mind on the edible rewards in store for me at the end of the hike. On the way we pass porters carrying 60 litres of fuel on their backs which helps put things in perspective and keeps us going.

We arrive back at International Foot Rest, and treat ourselves to a tube of Pringles, several twixes and a bottle of coke – man they were the best, my eyes even closed when I was eating the first twix and I think I started making some moaning noises. We then announce the engagement to our folks via skype and start to get slightly worried about how excited they become!

Day Twelve (Namche Bazaar to Lukla)

The final day back to Lukla is a long way in one day. Seems a lot of uphill considering we were supposed to be going down! As an indicator of our weary legs, we seem to be making even more use of the chautaras (stone platforms where walkers and porters can set down their loads and rest) equally, if not more than we did on the way up.

The last few steps up to Lukla are a real struggle and at this point we pass more locals carrying about 7 long beams of wood on their back. It hits home that we are just on holiday whilst this is a way of life for them. We then pass the memorial to the 18 people, mostly trekkers, who died on the Yeti flight which crashed on its way to Lukla in 2008, not the nicest reminder before your flight out but our heart goes out to their families.
We spend the night at Sunny Garden Lodge and after a very poor meal hit the sack. Next morning we get to the airport for the 10.30 flight and are disappointed to hear that it will not be flying due to high wind in the valley, or that is what they tell us anyway. It is at least reassuring not to have to take off from that runway in anything less than perfect weather. We then find a nice café to hang out in for the afternoon and decide to spend the night in a different, cheaper guesthouse with good food and where we enjoy a belting veggie burger and chips – see, they can make good food when they try!!

Early the next morning we have better luck and at 6.30am, after 300 yards of pure adrenaline rush, we hit the skies for Kathmandu. Our work here is done!

A potter about Pokhara...

2012-05-01 to 2012-05-08

It’s nice to get back to the familiarity and relative luxury of Thamel, and after a bit of searching round to find a hostel (we are looking for something that doesn’t have a plank for a mattress), we settle on Kathmandu Maduban Lodge in Chhetrapati. Turns out to be a winner as we get a massive room which, given all the stuff we have recently acquired, is helpful to enable us to sort everything out. It also has a TV and hot water - when the electricity is on…!

We have a lazy afternoon, mooching around the shops and buying souvenirs, and we have a good laugh at the “Dal Bhat Power – 24 hour” t-shirts which remind us of Harry. Speaking of Harry, we have agreed to meet him at 6.30pm tonight,as we’ve offered to take him for a thali and a Gorkha beer to say thanks. He seems to appreciate the gesture, and we share a few funny stories and exchange contact details, before saying our goodbyes. He’s been our extra travelling companion for the full last two weeks, and we’re kind of going to miss having him around :)

The following afternoon we are happily distracted from yet more souvenir shopping (if you’ve ever been to Thamel, you’ll understand….), when we bump into Andreas and Astrid (from the Everest Trek) and a couple of their friends, who are on their way to The Garden of Dreams. Sounds too good to be true, so we tag along, and sure enough it is a lovely little haven of peace and quiet considering how close it is to Thamel. Well, should I say it “was” a lovely haven of peace and quiet until we decided to play some Norwegian card game called “hit and slap” or something to that effect!! As the name suggests it wasn’t exactly a game of wits, but more of brute force! By this point we have all worked up a bit of an appetite, so we persuade everyone else to come and sample our favourite place, the Spice Garden, and even their Indian friend is impressed – that has to be the sign of a good curry!

We are up early doors the next day as our bus to Pokhara leaves at 7am. When we arrive at the tourist bus stop it’s amazing to see the hive of activity going on! There’s people selling anything you could want (all at over-inflated tourist prices of course), as well as people bustling about with their usual way-to-work business. They certainly like to get up early these Nepali’s!

It takes what feels like ages to get out of the city (with all the associated beeping that entails), but finally we get out into the open valley that leads all the way to Pokhara. It may only be a relatively short distance as the crow flies, but we are twisting and winding all the way there so it feels like a long 7 hours when you can’t read or do anything to entertain yourself without feeling sick! Thankfully they do have proper food stops, and at several opportunities along the way we have chance to purchase a meal from a full canteen spread of curries, pakoras, noodles, rice and more for about 1-2 quid. Certainly beats the crap sandwiches you get at the “Take a Break” style services we get at home!

It’s only a shame the same praise can’t be lavished on the toilet stops… I kid you not, the first toilet stop was a breezeblock shed at the side of the road, with a plastic curtain that barely covered the door, and nothing inside, well besides the stench of course and a trough at one side. You were literally supposed to go in there, perhaps alongside a couple other people, and do your business on the floor. And I used to moan about the continental loos when we went caravanning as kids in France? At least they had a compartment, a hole and a flush!!

When we eventually reach Pokhara I am more than ready to get out of the heat of the bus. Thankfully we stumble on the homely, Celesty Inn for just 550 rupee a night, which has a lovely room with a supremely comfy bed and loads of natural light and a terrace just next door. We dump our bags and head straight out for a cold drink and a look around. It makes a refreshing change from Kathmandu, as Pokhara is much slower, quieter and more chilled out, and so we are looking forward to spending a few days here in the relative fresh air. Of course, that’s not to say that the relentless touting isn’t here too, and Tom incessantly gets “eyed up” by the local barber on the same street as our hotel – I think he can see dollar signs in that beard!!!

The following day we decide to go and visit the Gurkha museum as we both want to learn more about this subject that we feel we should know much more about. Turns out that the Gurkhas, or Gorkhas as they are known in Nepal, were so named from the era when King Prithvinarayan Shah ruled Nepal from his palace on the hilltop at Gorkha. The unique relationship between the Gorkha’s and the British army started in 1814 when they were engaged in fighting near Dehra Dun in India. In the battle at Kalanga, 600 Gorkhas stood to fight against some 4000 British troops for over a month. Both the British and the Nepali armies were more used to encountering enemies who broke and ran when faced with organised military opposition, not an enemy who fought bravely. Eventually the Gorkhas were forced to retreat with their remaining 70 men, but the British were so impressed with the courage of the Gorkhas that they erected a stone to honour the fallen Gorkhas, alongside that of their own soldiers, at the end of the fighting. By the end of the war, such a mutual respect had developed on both sides that the Gorkha army suggested they would prefer to fight on the side of the British – a proposal that was swiftly accepted. Ever since that time, the Gorkhas have fought bravely on the side of the British, including 120,000 soldiers in the First World War, and a similar number in the Second World War. Gorkhas were also active in the Falklands in 1982 and the Gulf War of 1990. More recently they have been enlisted in numerous UN peacekeeping operations across the world, including Africa, the former Yugoslavia, Bosnia, East Timor, and currently Afghanistan. From our point of view, we found it a little sad that they seem to have been dragged into, and lost lives, in all sorts of conflicts on our behalf, and we couldn’t help but wonder how much of this is due to the prestigious status of the Gorkha army, and how much is down to the huge salary they earn when compared with local wages in Nepal.

After a brief look round Old Pokhara (which is more the “real” Pokhara before the tourists came in and commandeered the Lakeside), we head off to the International Mountain Museum. It isn’t exactly the mountaineering history we thought it was going to be, but the information turns out to be quite interesting, and we end up wiling a way a few hours.

Before dinner, we decide to go for a quick walk on the lakefront, as we realise we haven’t even seen it yet! As another sure-fire sign of a completely absent planning system – the whole town has been built with its back to the lake, instead of facing the shops and restaurants towards it – to the extent that we wondered if rather than ”Lakeside” it would have been better to call the place “Roadside” instead. Admittedly, it does look much more picturesque on the postcards when you can see the full Annapurna range in the background, but unfortunately at this time of year the haze of the dry season means that we can barely make out an outline of Annapurna, Macchapure and the other 6000-8000 metre peaks surrounding us.

The following day, we take a rowing boat across the lake in the morning to climb up to the World Peace Pagoda. It’s a pretty steep climb uphill, and I can feel my legs recoiling as we start to head up the steps, they must be thinking, “oh god, not again, what the hell are you making me do NOW?!” But as a sign our fitness has surely improved, we are up at the top in no time, admiring the views. After a refreshing Sprite, we walk back down the other side of the hill, dropping down into Damside (the spot where all the locals have convened to do their laundry in the river), dodging the numerous cows and water buffalo that are roaming about in the street, and picking up some spicy samosas in East Riverside on the way back to our hotel. We eat another of, what is now many, meals in the Maya restaurant (they won us over from the first meal where we rejoiced upon finding real bacon in the carbonara!!), before heading back for a well-earned sleep.

We spend the rest of our time in Pokhara soaking up the café culture, and starting to read up on India, which seems to have suddenly crept up on us! We’ve got a guidebook that is three inches thick, and only four weeks in which to devote our time, so it proves to be a tricky series of discussions and decisions. In the end, it is made a little easier by retiring to our hotel balcony with some well-timed samosas from the meals-on-wheels guy who comes down the road!! We are also given an authentic taste of the craziness of India with the view over the road from our hotel balcony. Some aged, grey hippy is pulling some pretty unique moves in his front garden. Either he is deluded that what he is doing constitutes some kind of work out, or he must have taken too much acid back in the day, as he appears to be fighting off an imaginary person!!

Little do I realise that it’s going to take more than a guidebook, a few samosas and one crazy man to prepare me for India….. but hey, that’s another story…

Lightning and strikes (there's a joke in there somewhere) Farewells to Nepal!

2012-05-09 to 2012-05-11

The journey back from Pokhara to Kathmandu seems a little bit more comfortable that it was on the way there, and we even manage to squeeze in a little snooze between stops. It’s still pretty hot on the non-AC bus though, so by the time we arrive in Kathmandu we are pretty sweaty and ready for a drink. That evening we head straight back to the Spice Garden for a Thali, and the staff look a little surprised to see us again, to the extent that they ask how much of our holiday is left!

The next day we’ve got a fun day out planned at the Indian Embassy and the central post office – but needs must. Our bags have got so heavy with all the trekking gear and souvenirs that it’s just a bit too ridiculous to lug this lot all the way round India. The post office in itself is quite an experience though, the rules seem to be that every parcel has to have a hand-stitched linen cover made for it – so there are three people sitting in the corner sewing perfect package shapes at the speed of light, I am rather impressed. There’s even a little dude in the corner sitting with his candle and his wax hand-sealing every join of each parcel with a wax stamp! There are some spurious charges added to the parcel by the customs officials – who don’t actually look inside the parcel, but do charge us 600 odd rupees for their “inspection”! Oh well, as long as it actually gets back to the UK we’ll be happy.

We had planned to head to Kathmandu’s Durbar Square in the afternoon, but it seemed the post office process had taken about three hours, and besides it was raining, so we decided to go for an afternoon curry instead! We had just sat down inside the café when a massive strike of lightning hits the lamppost outside with a big crack that sounded like a gunshot. Certainly made me jump anyway!

The following day was intended to be our last sightseeing day in Nepal, but unfortunately there seems to be a national strike about the proposals for re-drawing state boundaries, so all the public buses are off, and taxis are charging extortionate prices. It’s a shame, as we both wanted to see the monasteries at Bodnath, and the impressive Durbar Square in Patan, but that’s another one that got away! Instead we take a wander round south of Chhetrapati – that’s one of the great things about Nepal, you don’t really have to “do” anything, just watching the world go by is entertaining and colourful enough.

We get down as far as Kathmandu’s Durbar Square before the ticket lady collars us and asks for 750 rupees each for us to enter! You’ve got to be kidding – that is probably two week’s wages for a Nepali, but somehow they seem to have plucked it out of the air as an acceptable price for foreign tourists. We think it’s a bit too far, and on principal this whole thing about multiplying local prices over 100 fold for the tourists is just getting a bit annoying, so we take a photo through the gate and turn on our heel and head back to Thamel!!

Before heading off to our next stop, we decided to reflect on what we’d observed during our time in Nepal. On the whole it’s been an amazing month, in spite of a lot of things we’ve noticed that the average Nepali has to put up with. First and foremost, most of the country seems to be a pretty constant building site - everywhere you look things are just not quite finished – there are bricks piled up at street corners, holes in the road, and overloaded electric junctions. The latter probably explains why the power is constantly going down! In Kathmandu, the power is down almost as much as it is running, but people just get on with it, and the simple solution is just to wait till the power comes back on!

Nepali’s certainly seem to have perfected the art of sitting around (probably more so than any other country we have visited). It’s not like anyone’s in a rush…. Well, unless they are behind the wheel of a vehicle of course, in which case they tend to drive like their wife is giving birth in the back!! It’s amazing there aren’t more smashes or altercations on the road, but we never saw a raised voice in Nepal, which reflects their otherwise placid nature. We found that people tended to be very sociable, and there were little hubs in each community around the market, shaded areas, and public running water taps, or the river (where people often gathered to wash dishes, clothes or themselves). In particular, we noticed the men who liked to socialise together, and you would regularly see fellas young and old holding hands or sitting having the equivalent of a “mothers meeting.”

We also found Nepali’s on the whole very welcoming to tourists, you would always get a “Namaste” and locals would always try to be helpful to the extent that sometimes they would nod and agree even if they didn’t have a clue what you were saying! In areas like Thamel and in the Khumbu valley, they certainly had their eye on the tourist dollar, and we noticed a two tier price system for everything in these areas, putting the tourist economy totally out of kilter with local earnings. This was a feature we noticed in Cambodia too, and we wonder whether it is a feature in the growth of new tourist economies before they really take off and all prices equalise.

Environmentally Nepal still has a long way to go, and we left hoping that change will come soon before there is a lasting impact on such a beautiful environment. The worst aspect was the mounting piles of plastic bottles, plastic bags and litter everywhere, as there just seems to be no strategy or infrastructure to deal with waste. Local people seemed to have little alternative solution but to dump waste in the rivers or to burn it at the side of the road, letting off a black haze of toxic smoke. It was really sad to see, but I guess the initiative for changing this has to lie with the government, and at the moment no example is being set.

All this being said, together some of this is what made the experience of Nepal so different and unique. It was such a colourful and exciting place – literally, in terms of the saris, flamboyant tikas, and buddhist prayer flags - but also metaphorically, in terms of the mix of cultures, religions, scenery and activity going on everywhere you looked. There is definitely a lot more to see here at some point in the future…..

But, finally it’s time to pack the bags, and with a last check of the ticket we realise we are supposed to be at the airport “at least” three hours prior to the flight. There’s still a national strike on, so annoyingly, we end up setting off for our 2pm flight a little after 10am. Well that’s one way to run the country I suppose, if you know everything is really inefficient, just tell your customers to wait longer!!

Fasten your seatbelts (or not, as the case may be) it’s time for India….

Delhi madness!


It’s a short pleasant flight to Delhi and a steal at 30 quid a ticket. We land at Delhi International Airport and are pleased to find it is new and super modern. We use the cheap Delhi Police prepay taxi system and get a ride all the way to Pahar Ganj for just 325 rupees.

We notice the driving is even more erratic than Nepal with every manoeuvre a close call. Every vehicle is beeping and barging other cars out of their lane or barging in to another. It’s amazing you don’t see accidents every five minutes, but hardly a surprise that most cars are scratched or dented.

We check in at Cottage Yes Please (what a name!) and are pleased to receive a free upgrade on our room as they are overbooked. Our deluxe room is fancy with a big bed and over-elaborate, retro décor (although it could do with a bit of a clean). It would have made the perfect set for a porn movie back in the 70’s.

We head out in to the chaos to grab some lunch and find Claire some suitable clothing to keep the pervs at bay. She’s been getting a fair bit of attention already so we must do what we can!! We sample our first authentic thali and get Claire kitted out in some baggy attire whilst dodging cars, tuk-tuks, rickshaws, vocal street vendors and the odd cow which you just see wandering about in the busy city streets. Yes, it’s not just the clichéd impression, Holy cows get free reign in India. We grab a beer to slow our heartbeats then decide that’s enough for our first day. It’s definitely gonna be a full-on few weeks!

Next morning we go to see the Red Fort and get dropped off Chandni Chowk for a bite to eat first. The area we get out in is pretty grim so opt to sample a spicy Macdonald’s instead. Being in India, there are no Big Mac’s on the menu of course.

Our visit to the Fort turns out to be one of the weirdest experiences of our trip so far. We soon find out that we are clearly the star attraction of the day and are met by crowds of stares. People start following us with cameras and taking sly pictures on their phones. Women were sneaking up besides us whilst their families took photos. It is weird because hardly any of them actually try speaking to us. I later read that Indian people idolise white people so they will use the photos to copy our style or show their friends and make up stories connected to us. I also get the impression that some of the men are doing their best to activate x-ray vision. It’s all very strange and makes you feel uncomfortable.

We then go for a look in the War Museum and at this point I totally lose the plot. I’ve never seen such a mad house. Adults and children are running round like nutcases taking pictures of anything at a million miles an hour and barging in to each other. It is cramped inside and Claire is finding it too much too which adds to the feeling of chaos. Suddenly I begin to go under and begin to worry I have been drugged – I haven’t, but it’s time to get out. It takes me a while to sort my head out afterwards and after a quick walk round the garden we decide to head back for a lie down. WTF? Pretty weird experience, I hope it’s not all gonna be this insane.

Next morning we take breakfast at a café across the street then are glad to be getting out of Delhi. We realised we have hardly taken any photos in the last few days, probably for fear of attracting any additional attention to ourselves! Hopefully, Agra is a little less frantic...

The Taj Mahal and a bizarre bazaar (Agra)

2012-05-13 to 2012-05-14

We board the train at New Delhi station which is handily located at the bottom of the road from our hotel and find our seats. Thankfully we have a nice set of passengers in our carriage and the four hour ride flies by as we get our heads stuck in to our books. There’s another prepay autorickshaw booth at Agra station, so far, the train travel certainly seems to be working out easy for us!

We arrive down in the Taj Ganj area of Agra and book into Hotel Sheela. Although the rooms aren’t much to shout about, they do have an air cooler system, and the hotel itself has a lovely peaceful garden away from all the hustle outside.

I am dead excited to see the Taj Mahal, and after missing lunch we are both starving, so we decide to head straight out to the rooftop terrace at Saniya Palace Hotel to catch a glimpse before it gets dark. It’s amazing that you can be within spitting distance of one of the world’s biggest tourist attractions and find a place like this! You can see the Taj over all the rooftops, and a beer, two curries, rice, four chapatis and three drinks came to a little over six quid!

The following morning, we are up at 5am, and inside the grounds of the Taj Mahal in time to see the sun come up over the trees. It may be a bit clichéd, but this really is one of the most beautiful buildings you’ve ever seen. The impact as you walk through the gate is impressive, and then the closer you get the better it becomes, as you start to spot all the symmetry and intricate detailing involved. Thankfully, after a raft of disappointing “sunrise starts” (Tom swore this was going to be his last one), the Taj delivers! The light and the clarity of the sky at this time really adds to the photos, and we are surprised by how few people are here, enabling us to get some prime shots which we hear are impossible later on.

As we are hanging around taking photos and admiring the view, we get chatting to Alex, from Wolverhampton. He seems to have as many entertaining travel stories as us – including an escape through a 2nd floor window from a bar ‘sting’ in China, and suicidal lizard who fell through his ceiling fan and ended up in several pieces - and he’s only been away about a month so far! He has travelled on his own down through China, plans to do a few stops in India, and then head to Nepal before home. Unfortunately for him, he arrived on the beach in Kerala exhausted from several hard weeks work and the challenges of travel in China, only to fall asleep on the beach in about 45 degree sunshine and burn himself to a frazzle. I have never seen sunburn like it, it looked so painful. Alex, if you’re reading this, let us know how you are mate?!

After we have admired the Taj from every angle outside, we head inside to where the tombs of Emperor Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal are laid. The majority of the structure is made of marble, and there is some amazing marble carving, inlay precious stones, and calligraphy work all over the place when you see it close up. The Taj was created as a memorial for the Emperor’s third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child in 1631. He must have really loved her, as apparently it took over 20,000 people to build! The really sad part of the story is that shortly after the building was finished, the Emperor’s son overthrew Shah Jahan and imprisoned him a little way down the river at Agra Fort – so the poor guy could see his amazing creation and his wife’s memorial through a tiny window, but nothing more. He then died himself in 1666.

After the calm and serenity of our morning, we decided to mix it up a bit and venture out to see a bit of normal life in Agra, and headed out to Kinari Bazaar. Well, bazaar by name, bizarre by nature – that’s all I can say! It was all going off down there – anything you want, but quite a lot more stuff you probably don’t – plus masses and masses of beeping motos, tuk tuks and cars. It was simply frentic! If you stopped for more than a second you would just get mobbed, so after about 45 minutes of constant walking we were ready to head back for some peace and quiet. We are slowly discovering that that seems to be the best way to take on India – in bite-sized pieces!

In the evening, we can’t pass up another opportunity for a Taj view, so it’s back to the Saniya Palace for more curry and to watch the sunset and the kiteflyers over the rooftops. There are several other travellers in tonight, and we get into some amusing chatter about the common places we have been (prompted by Tom’s Tonsai T shirt) and our plans for India.

The next morning, we are up and out for our train to Jhansi, which is near our next stop of Orchha. For the day trains, we are sticking to the sleeper carriages which seems to be going well. It isn’t crammed to the rafter like the second class carriages, but you can still get chatting to the locals and get a taste for Indian train travel – which amazingly carries about 20 million people every day! On this journey, our new friends turn out to be a group of banking students from Gwalior on their way back home to Dabra. Besides the fact that they are taking sly pictures of me on their mobile phones (!) they seem relatively harmless, and are enjoying the chance to practice some English. After a short while, they all pile off, and we are just left with enough time to gather our thoughts about how we’re going to get from Jhansi to Orchha….

Chillin' with the locals in Orchha

2012-05-15 to 2012-05-18

After consulting the travel desk in the station, we decide that a tuk tuk is the best option for getting to Orchha. It certainly feels nice to be driving through countryside after a few days in the big cities, and we get a glimpse of local life on the way through. We have made a booking at Shri Mahant, so we get taken straight there,dump our bags and are about to jump in the shower when we get chucked out because they can’t find our booking! Turns out we’ve come to Hotel Shri Mahant instead of Shri Mahant Guesthouse (well, we can’t be the first and I’m sure we won’t be the last).

After a quick freshen up in the right room, we have a quick explore about town. Orchha is a tiny little place, with a pedestrianized market set in the centre around the temple, and some old Palace buildings backing onto the river. It’s especially nice to be somewhere that isn’t catering for the tourist market, and we notice straight away that the stalls here are all local, with samosas, indian sweets and bangles on display instead of cheap ali baba pants or tacky souvenirs. Thankfully this place is running at a much slower pace than either Delhi or Agra and we aren’t getting stared at or hustled which is a great start! However, unless it’s my imagination it’s even hotter here (and I don’t think it is, because even the locals are sweating!), so before long we have to retreat back into the air conditioning. We find a nice rooftop restaurant for our evening meal, but it’s still like an oven – even the little bit of breeze that is blowing is boiling. I guess that’s why it’s so hot here (45 degrees) at this time of year, as the air is blowing straight across from the Rajasthandesert!It makes it a good place to do your handwashing though – we hang up a load of wet clothes and they are all bone dry within 10 minutes.

The next day we take a wander round the grounds of the palace and go down to see the river. It’s really tempting to follow the lead of the locals and get in for a cool down, until you get up close and see the colour of the water, and then you think better of it! Besides which, the policy round here seems to be that the women all go in the water fully clothed, so I think donning my bikini might be a very bad idea.

The following day we’ve got a waitlisted ticket for the night train to take us to Umaria, and although we’re pretty confident it will come through (we’re places 3 and 4 in the queue), we decide to hang onto our room so that we don’t melt during the afternoon. Turns out to be a good job we did, as two hours before the train departs none of the waitlisted tickets have moved up – so that’s our plans for the Bandhavargh Tiger Park blown! We explore a range of alternative options for getting there, but anything besides hiring a private driver is going to a real pain, and the driver would charge over 7000 rupees for the privilege – which is a bit out of our range. It’s a shame, but seems to be par for the course for travel in India – your plans can’t be too rigid.

While there isn’t a great deal to do here in Orchha, we manage to keep ourselves entertained for a couple more days, pottering about and chatting to the locals and enjoying the relative calm. We get to know a few of the local characters, and before long we have a chap who knows us on the drinks stall, our internet café man, and our smiley friend at the rooftop restaurant to talk to. By the time we leave we are practically locals!

After consulting a map we decide to break our journey to Varanasi with a stop at Chitrakot. It’s dubbed as a mini-Varanasi, as it also sits on the banks of the river Ganges so it should be a good spot to while away an extra couple of days…

Its a hoot in Chitrakot! (prounounced Chitrakoot)

2012-05-19 to 2012-05-20

We find our train carriage no problem and seem to have it pretty much to ourselves, apart from a guy in an official uniform (which might not be a bad thing). We also have the two window seats, so we get to have a decent look at some of the Indian countryside, and besides which, the breeze from the window gets increasingly appreciated as the morning rolls on despite being at oven temperature.

Over halfway into the journey the carriage fills up, and as usual we seem to be the star attraction. Thankfully it’s only from a family with their kids and a little baby, but even then their stares of awe and wonderment do get a bit much after an hour or so! We break the ice with a bit of conversation and a few photos, and then suddenly I am their new best friend. One of the ladies decides she wants to share everything with me, and after I’ve politely declined some non-descript snacks, she starts trying to give me her jewellery! I tell her I don’t wear earrings, so then she obviously notices I’m wearing a ring, so gives me one of hers. Even though it’s only an imitation crystal, I feel I shouldn’t accept it, but in the end she insists I take it as a sign of friendship. She then takes a mirror out of her bag and holds it up to my face and tells me I’m “very sweet”. Bearing in mind these ladies are wearing perfect make-up and beautifully intricate saris and I am wearing some haggard trousers, a sweaty top I’ve had on 4 days, and haven’t had my hair cut in six months, I feel slightly ridiculous in accepting the compliment, but it appears to be the only acceptable course of action. The way western women seem to be almost idolised is a little overwhelming and at times uncomfortable.

We finally arrive, a little late, in Chitrakot station and the place appears to be packed considering we were only expecting this to be a quiet little town. We decide to get out of the hustle and bustle of the station to see if we can find a tuk-tuk into town but all the ones we see are packed to the rafters with as many people as they can physically cram in, as well as a few bags perched on the roof. It’s a wonder some of these things are still moving! We set off walking down the dusty hot street,and eventually a friendly chap comes over to offer us some assistance, and helps us to flag an empty tuk-tuk that will give us a private lift for the 10kms to the centre.

It’s a bumpy, busy road, so the horn is out in force. We are busy concentrating on the road, our daysacks and adverting all the funny looks and don’t notice that on one of the bumps the back of the tuk-tuk has flipped open and Tom’s backpack has bounced out. Although I have been checking on the bags every few seconds, when we notice it has gone we can’t see it anywhere on the road behind. We get the driver to turn back (which he does, down the wrong side of the road into the oncoming traffic!) and we can’t see it anywhere. Just when we are about to start panicking that someone has swiped it and stashed it, we spot a small crowd of people huddled round on the other side of the road. They are all standing looking bemused at the bag like it might as well be a UFO! When they see us, more than anything else, they just seem pleased that they haven’t got to work out what else to do with it, and with a friendly wave we are back on our way. Holding onto all four bags this time!

When we arrive down at Ram Ghat in the centre of Chitrakot we really start to feel like the aliens have landed. Many people are looking at us like they have never seen a white person before, and some people just stop dead in their tracks and stare open-mouthed until we have gone out of sight. It turns out that the reason it is so busy here, is that for the next two days it is a holy time on the Ganges, where all the pilgrims come to clear their sins at places like Varanasi and Chitrakot. We can only conclude that maybe some of these people never HAVE seen a white person before! To start with, we try to appreciate this and in some cases, see the funny side. But, after a few hours of every single person in the whole town staring at you it does start to get tedious, and at times a little intimidating. People also seem to go and tell their friends they have seen us, and then a string of people come tailing after you for a quick butchers.

We start to notice that there are a range of reactions, some are shock, some are amazement and some from the men are just plain pervy.Considering I thought I was wearing quite respectful clothes for 45 degree heat (full length baggy trousers, a vest and a shawl covering my back, neck and arms) some of the looks do seem more than a little “outta control” and would be more the kind of look I might expect if I walked down the street in my underwear. Makes you wonder which came first – the pervy men, or the sari, which Tom has observed has additional lose fabric over both the chest and bum? In any case, now I can certainly see the appeal for neck to toe cover. The local women are even wearing this full attire into the river.

We have a few strolls up and down the waterfront to see what’s happening. Music is blaring out, there are tonnes of colourful little shops and stalls selling offerings, people bathing in the sewage and gargling the “holy” water in their mouths, there are vicious monkeys running round everywhere including one carrying its dead baby and in the river children are floating round in rubber rings with buckets on strings collecting the offerings of coins that are thrown in the river by the pilgrims. It really is all going off! You certainly don’t need to try hard to find a culturally rich experience in India. In fact you just need to get a bus anywhere and take a five minute walk in any direction. There is never a dull moment.

Unfortunately though some chap staying in our guesthouse who can’t seem to stop talking seems to want to be our best buds as well. He is one of those people who is trying so hard to convince us he is legit that he isn’t convincing at all, but he just refuses to take the brush off. He loves the sound of his own voice with something to say on everything and he must also think we are a right pair of mugs as he shows us a dodgy music video on is phone and claims to be the lead singer. “This is me in my younger days with long hair.” “That’s not you!” I tell him but he won’t admit it and continues ranting on. If you are going to lie, at least tell a good lie - the video was totally rubbish!

We sneak off out for dinner to the only reasonable looking restaurant in town called Annapurna. When we arrive and explain that we’d like to order the thali we are for some reason escorted to the back room which appears to be the posh bit (if you can call it that). This is when the behaviour of staff and other customers starts to get a bit weird. There are customers from the front room coming back in groups and poking their heads in to get a sneaky peak of me, the waiter is collecting and returning the same glasses on the table and our order is repeated to what seems like every member of staff. “Is this really happening?” asks Tom “or is it me?” It is all very bizzare and needless to say we don’t stick around for desert.

In the end, the only refuge is in our non-AC room, and we’re in for the hottest night of our lives! Even for India, the temperatures are breaking records at the moment, and we estimate daytime temps are in the early-mid 40’s and nighttime temps are in the mid 30’s maybe more. Even many of the Indian’s are looking hot. I, on the other hand, am melting! I resort to covering myself in a wet shawl, and we both lay there with wet socks on our foreheads, drinking lukewarm water, listening to the hindi shouting on the festival loudspeaker and drifting in (but mainly out) of sleep until dawn.  I’m sure we’ll see the funny side of the whole thing when we look back on it!  At 6am, Tom decides to go and get a new cold drink and goes outside to see a crowd of long-bearded sadhus in nothing but thongs heading down into the Ganges. It’s certainly starting to rival Bhaktapur as most full on cultural experience.

By lunchtime though, we’ve had enough. I need to get my body temperature back down to normal range, and we just want a bit of peace and quiet, so we check out and head for the only hotel in town that has air-conditioning. Ok it might sound like a cop out but I challenge anyone to stay two nights in that place, in that heat and that mayhem, without knocking out either the wittering man or one of the pervs. Its not like the AC hotel was luxury anyway, it looked more like a refurbished prison!  Trust me, it was in everyone’s best interests!

So after another tasty paneer curry and some therapeutic air con, it’s time for an early night, as we’re on the 3.53am train to Varanasi. It says in the guidebook that Chitrakot is a “chilled out version of Varanasi” which is a bit worrying as there was nothing chilled out about Chitrakot this weekend!! 

An assault on the senses… five days in Varanasi

2012-05-21 to 2012-05-26

We arrive at Chitrakot station around 3.15am only to find that the place is packed! The shops are open, the tuk-tuks and rickshaws are still touting for business and there are loads of people just wandering around. There are hundreds of people kipped down outside the station, and as we get inside, there are even more laid out on the station platforms. It’s quite a bizarre sight, and while we have seen quite a few people sleeping by roadside stalls or under trees throughout India, we can only assume these are pilgrims that have come for the special day on the Ganges but can’t afford anywhere to stay or maybe these people are here every night?? We get quite a few stares as we find a place to set our bags down on the platform, but we have to agree that one of the good things about safety in India is that you never find yourself anywhere that is deserted, because everywhere seems to have some activity going on round the clock!

Unfortunately we turn out to be in for a long wait, as the train doesn’t arrive until gone 5am. We are directed down to the AC carriages where we have two sleeper bunks booked, only to find when we get to AC3 that the beds with our numbers have people in them! Before we wake them up we find a conductor, and it comes to light that there is another AC3 carriage, but….. it’s right down at the rear end of the train. Brilliant!

We set off all the way down the train, stepping over people asleep in the gangways and huddled in the space between carriages, and after we’ve got through about 5 carriages we come to a partition. Great, we head back to find the train conductor who shall we say isn’t that communicative, but just marches off back down the train. We trail after him, stepping over the same sets of people, and by this point are starting to get just a little hacked off! It turns out that the second class carriages are partitioned off, so the only way to our carriage is to wait till the next station, get off the train and leg it down to the end of the train. We finally make it to our beds at about 6.30am, about 15 minutes before the guy who is snoring loudly next to me decides to get up, open the curtains and does everything he can as loudly as possible, including breathing, right next to my head. I think I’ll give up on the idea of sleeping!

The journey goes quite fast and we arrive in Varanasi at lunchtime. To say it is sweltering is an understatement; we learn later that it is about 45 degrees. Nice then, that our tuk-tuk driver decides to drop us off about a 15 minute walk short of where the pedestrianised area starts, and about 30 minutes from our hostel. It seems he has taken umbrage at the fact that we already have a hostel booked and therefore he can’t take us to his own choice of place to get commission. That’s Indian service for you!

We immediately get swarmed by about six people trying to give us directions, all a little bit too eagerly, but we are left with little choice but to trust one of them knows the way through the little alleys to our guesthouse. The alleys are packed with people, beeping motorbikes, street stalls, a strong smell of urine and the odd cow, dog or goat (complete with their trail of poo). Unbelievably, half the people are walking round here in their bare feet – they must be braver than me as I feel a bit exposed wading through this lot in flip flops! Considering the entrance way to Ganpati Guesthouse, we are pleasantly surprised when we get inside. There is a lovely little courtyard, and several balcony areas, and our room is bright clean, and most importantly of all, it has air con!

We haven’t got the energy to do much, but do go for a quick explore round and get something to eat at the much overhyped Brown Bread Bakery. We also venture down to the river at dusk to catch our first glimpse of the evening aarti ritual on the holy river Ganges. We learn that this ritual with flames, incense and music takes place 365 days a year (with one more special ceremony once a year), and by the sight of how many people there are down here, the locals and tourists never tire of it.

On our walk, we see the main burning ghat, where cremations take place 24 hours a day, every day of the year on a fire that never goes out. Apparently people travel from all over India to have their relatives cremated here on the banks of the Ganges as the ultimate honour (and one of the locals tells us that they often bring the dead bodies with them on public transport!) Although we learn that there are 7 types of people who can’t get cremated (including sadhus and young children) and instead their bodies are just weighted and dropped in the middle of the river.

We decide to get the “must do” thing in Varanasi pitched down early, so we plan for our dawn boat ride on the Ganges for our second day. I can’t quite believe my eyes when we arrive at the bank of the river at 5am to see hundreds of people already swarming the ghats. On reflection, I suppose it makes sense…. this is the only time of day where the temperature is bearable, so you might as well get up early! The sun is only just rising and so the light and temperature are lovely. As we float down the river we see people bathing, swimming, washing clothes, buffalo bathing in the water, cows wandering about, and sadhus (holy men) undertaking their prayers and rituals. There’s never a dull moment. We notice how happy some of the people seem to be here, saying their prayers to the Ganges, washing away their sins and filling their mouths with the river water (er, rather them than me. Apparently cholera can’t even survive in parts of this river it’s so polluted!) We make it down the river as far as the second burning ghat, where more cremations take place. I find it quite weird that people are bathing and washing clothes in the water just up/down stream from the ghat where they are burning bodies, but here, death just seems to be more a part of everyday life. Even the kids playing nearby are totally unfazed by it.

We get back to the hostel in time for breakfast on the roof terrace. It’s nice to be able to drink a cup of hot chai masala tea before the temperatures reach the 40’s! Unfortunately, breakfast ends more sombrely when we notice people on the balconies looking down towards the river. It takes us a few minutes to work out what is going on, but then someone explains in broken English that a young lad has gone missing under the water. We look down but there doesn’t appear to be any panic, in fact people are just standing around watching on, so at first we aren’t sure if it’s true, otherwise we can’t work out why more people wouldn’t be frantically searching in the water. If this was in the UK all hell would be breaking loose. Then, all of a sudden, a guy pulls out this limp looking body which gets immediately absorbed by the crowds. We can’t see what is going on, but shortly afterwards someone picks the lad up and starts carrying him off. It is only at this point that we realise that maybe no-one down there knows CPR? Tom quickly sets off down the stairs and we leg it down to see if we can help, but by the time we get to the riverside he is nowhere to be seen. We can’t get him out of our mind for most of the afternoon. In the evening we learn that his family had tried to take him to the hospital instead of getting him treatment there and then, and he had died, aged 15. We reflect sadly that life seems to come and go much more transiently here.

The following day we decide to take a walk down the riverside at sunset and see what is happening on the Ganges at this time of day. It’s just as busy, if not busier than the morning. At every other ghat there are a group of kids playing cricket, and we notice a few westerners have been challenged to a game! It’s a great atmosphere, and the ultimate place for people watching. We make it all the way down to Assi Ghat (the last of the main ghats), and grab a tasty middle eastern thali at Haifa, with falafel, pita, baba ganoush, salad and hummus, yum! We pop into a chemist as we’ve run out of painkillers, only to find the chemist chomping away, high on betelnut. Everything he pulls out is in extra strong dosage, it seems whatever you might want is available here, no prescription required!

By this point it’s dark and it would be a long walk back, so we decide to opt for a cycle rickshaw. This is the first one we have taken in India and it is certainly an experience! It would seem that life in summertime Varanasi takes place first thing in the morning and then after dark to avoid the daytime heat, and so the roads are packed with cars, tuk-tuks, motorbikes, rickshaws and loads of people going about their shopping. That in itself might not be so bad, but the way that they all approach roundabouts by pressing and holding their horns, before they think to touch the brakes, often going the wrong way round, makes it altogether more “exciting.” We can’t resist taking a picture in the middle of the mayhem, it’s hilarious!!

On our second to last night we decide to take an evening boat ride to watch the aarti ritual from the water. There can’t be that many places on earth where you can witness an event like this. The vibrancy of the people, the colours, the music and the smells combines to create something really special, and you can see from the looks on some of the people’s faces how thrilled they feel to be here. There are sadhus collecting baksheesh (tips) from tourists, sellers touting their wares, and the chai tea sellers walking round from boat to boat with their hot tea pots. Free enterprise at its best! We can’t resist buying a puja offering to light and put in the river from some kids who are just too cute to say no to. It’s a shame our camera doesn’t really excel at nightime shots, but instead we decide to just sit back and absorb the atmosphere. I want to savour the moment, as I’m sure it’s going to feel pretty unreal when we look back on this experience from the comfort of our armchairs back in the UK.

On our final morning in Varanasi we feel we can’t really top what we have already seen, and opt for a lazy breakfast at the hostel. It turns out to be a good decision, as we get into a great old chinwag with Tom and Georgia, a couple from London. Most of the travellers we have met so far in India are just a bit “too cool for school” (or at least, think they are!), so it’s nice that we seem to have quite a bit in common with these guys. It transpires that they are three weeks into their round the world trip going east, just as we are three weeks away from the end of ours having come round going west! We admire them for taking on India as their first stop, and we share some of our travel tips and stories which seem to get them even more excited about what they’ve got in store. We reminisce about starting our trip which now feels like so long ago, and reflect on how much we’ve been through and achieved since then. Enjoy your adventure guys, and keep in touch :)

The next morning, having taken the cheats option, we are up for our flight back to Delhi – well, the train cost 25 quid and took 14 hours, and the flight was only 35 quid and took 1.5 hours – and this is month 12! We are again surprised to be greeted with a brand new, fully AC airport in Varanasi – and are repeatedly stumbled by what a land of contrasts India is! How come something can be built to such standard and quality amongst the chaos and dirt that is going on around it? It’s almost like some Indians are living in a totally parallel world within the same country.

We kill the afternoon in Delhi with a bit of souvenir shopping, before heading off to the bus stop at the Red Fort for our night bus to Rishikesh. I’m not exactly looking forward to this journey, but thankfully we should be well rewarded, as Rishikesh is renowned as one of the world centres for yoga, holistics and meditation. And relax…..!!!

Our haven of calm amongst the Rishikesh rabble!

2012-05-27 to 2012-06-08

The night bus goes surprisingly ok and despite the fact my seat slides forward every time I lean back and the temperature plummets to about 2 degrees in the early hours, I manage to get a few hours’ sleep.

It is early morning when we arrive in Rishiskesh and the bus stand is full of the usual crowd hustling you into the nearest tuk-tuk. It’s about a 15 minute ride up the side of the valley to Laksman Jula and the road follows the Ganges river which flows below. When we arrive we are busting for the toilet and are disappointed to find that Divine Ganga Cottage is not so divine. In fact, it is a dated, basic and overpriced hotel in an area undergoing lots of construction work. Not quite the haven we were after, so it’s back to the drawing board on this one! We have a wander back up towards the top of town and find a better deal at a reasonable hotel called Hemkund Basera. Well when I say reasonable, a full refurb wouldn’t go amiss, but the location was good and the guy on reception seemed nice.

We’re starving so we head down the narrow steps passing lots of shops selling the usual Hindu offerings and charms as well as Sadhus and beggars hoping to take advantage of pilgrims seeking good karma. We wander across the small market square and cross the long suspension footbridge over the river. This is our first encounter with what was soon to become known as the “Rishikesh Rabble”. Children are trying to sell you fish food, motorbikes are forcing their way through the crowd on the pedestrian-only bridge, gangs of tourists are stopping for photos and blocking the way, monkeys are causing mayhem and down below gangs of Indian tourists are shouting and screaming as they zoom past on white water rafts. It’s a bit full on, particularly when you once again feel like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie getting gawped at by everyone. It’s mostly good hearted though and most of the locals are just so happy to see us and simply want to know where we are from and to wish us a warm welcome to India – well that and perhaps a quick peak at Claire’s chest.

As we walk away from the bridge, and the temples and ashrams which line the river, the road quietens and then we stumble across Little Buddha Café and what a find it turns out to be. Great river views, comfy seats, nice staff, excellent healthy food and the now legendary Lemon Nana’s. These fresh lemon and mint slushes are seriously refreshing and hugely addictive, particularly after two months of drinking just bottled fizzy drinks. These are to be the first of many!!

That afternoon we visit some of the many yoga schools and ashrams in search of the right place for a few days of yoga and meditation. We meet a nice yogi called Ram at the Himalayan Yoga School and agree to go down for his morning session the next day. We enjoy his hatha yoga and meditation so much that we decide to stick with him and attend his classes every day, sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon and sometimes both. The yoga routine is expertly structured and we very quickly start to feel the benefits of tension relief, toning and increased flexibility, as well as clarity of mind.

Our plan after Rishikesh was to finish our trip with a week in Mcleod Ganj near Dharamsala – a Buddhist town in the Himalaya made up largely of Tibetan refugees and home to the Dalai Lama. We were booked on to a two day silent meditation course at Tushita school of meditation, followed by a stay at Buddha Hall where we were to enjoy a few more days of yoga and holistic treatments before heading home. Unfortunately though, this isn’t to be. First up our course is cancelled as his holiness is teaching in Mcleod Ganj on the same days, and secondly our travel agent messed up our bus ticket so we can’t get there anyway.

After much deliberation of alternative travel options we take the stress-free option of staying put for another week in Rishikesh and working on reaching Zen here instead. We check back in at Hemkund Basera and decide to up the game on the yoga and meditation front by arranging a tension reducing, body cleansing session with Ram. A key part of this is drinking a couple of litres of warm salt water before doing a few postures to swill it all round a bit and finally vomiting intensely until there is nothing left. We also learned to pour water through our nostrils and a number of meditation techniques to keep the mind calm. We leave the session starving suffering from mild diarrhoea (if clear water coming out your rear end can be called that) which makes for an active afternoon down at Little Buddha – it’s all good for the waistline though as I keep reminding Claire.

Whilst in Rishikesh, we spend our afternoons getting our heads in gear for the future. I work on my new web venture whilst Claire investigates career options. Whilst it’s so hot and there’s not much to do, it’s also a good opportunity to get a bit of admin done so there will be less to do when we get home. Both our folks kindly help us get a few things sorted in advance, which means now all we need to focus on is what will be in the fridge when we get home?? ;)

Over the two weeks we’re in town, we become regular faces at Little Buddha and get to know the mostly Nepali waiters who are all lovely and hardworking. As we enjoyed every meal and every Lemon Nana we leave our favourite waiter a nice tip on our final day and are thanked with a big hug each. I guess it meant a lot as I don’t suppose these guys are paid much for their 12 hour shifts??

Suddenly, our final day is upon us and after a final spot of souvenir shopping we feel it important to at least take a paddle in the Ganges as we are yet to take the plunge. Thankfully the water is much cleaner up here, being closer to the mountains and thus containing less dead bodies! We head down to get a close up of the nightly aarti ceremony on the river banks and get our feet in the water. The water up here is fast-flowing and icy cold. We are also given some flower offerings which we throw in the river (I think that is what you are supposed to do with them). Whilst watching the aarti, once again we seem to be the highlight of the show and I catch a guy stood blatantly filming Claire for about 5minutes. As I am half way through making a video myself I turn the camera on him for a while and we lock cameras until he finally gets the message the cheeky f*cker!

Rishikesh is a town of contradictions. It markets itself as the yoga and meditation capital of the world yet meditation sessions have a constant soundtrack of car horns and street noise. It is a holy place yet people behave totally inconsiderately. The best example being the elderly and disabled lady with a very severe hunchback who was slowly crossing the road whilst a man driving a big jeep holds his hand flat on the horn. That being said, this has been our general experience across all the places we have visited in India. Social etiquette and manners are very different to those in western cultures. I have never seen so much deliberate littering, vulgar spitting, pissing and shitting in public, pushing and shoving and general lack of consideration for others. It seems to be an every man for himself society. However, most locals do not lose their temper with any of the above, it is just the way they do things and beneath their often brash exteriors are helpful, caring and likeable characters with a strong family unit. They just don’t seem to understand the concept of personal space or the phrase “look but don’t touch”. I laughed to myself when in a discussion with the hotel owner at Hemkund. We were talking about the good relationship between Britain and India. He explained how many films portrayed the British badly but he did not see it in this way as his father had told him how the British people had brought many good things to India. Cricket, railways and traffic lights. He said before it was mayhem and people didn’t stop at junctions. They do now I thought? He finished by saying how we had taught them manners whilst we there. All I could think was how they must have forgotten them in the 56 years since we left!

So despite the rabble and our messed up plans, Rishikesh turned out to be a good stop on our brief tour of Northern India but now after 51 weeks on the road we are ready for off. Get the cheese and wine ready, we’re coming home!

We're home!!!!

2012-06-09 to 2012-06-30

So it turned out that the journey home was an absolute breeze after the rest of the trip! A 9 hour flight with movies, legroom and toilets - pah - we can piss that. Arriving in Manchester in 14 degree heat was a little painful, but Beverly made up for that by bringing us champers, cheese and biscuits for the ride home!!

We just wanted to finish our blog with a big thank you to you all for following us. The little messages we've received and words of encouragement have meant a lot to us. And the messages that have come with cash, well, you've been absolute lifesavers! ;)

Its been a whirlwind couple of weeks back in old Blighty, but we are slowly emerging from the mound of admin and are now ready for any offers of food, drink and beds for the night (it'll give John and Beverly a night off!)

It's difficult to sum up the experience of this year, but it turns out we were so right to call it "Our Excellent Adventure"!! We've visited 21 countries, taken 22 flights, been on 45 boats, 6 ferries, 8 trains, 2 kayaks, 15 bikes/motorbikes, 5 subway systems, 6 surfboards, and one cable car, lost count of the number of buses, tuk-tuks and cars we've been in and slept in 144 beds. Phew!

We'll leave you with some of our trip highlights and lowlights, and don't all rush at once to see the rest of the 10,000 photos will you?!

Hope to see you all in person very soon...

With Love,

Bill and Ted xx

Best hostel award nominees:

Colinda’s Cabinas, Caye Caulker, Belize

Naylamp, Huanchaco, Peru

Arica Surf House, Arica, Chile

La Chimba, Santiago, Chile

Sol y Luna, Coroico, Bolivia

La Cupula, Copacabana, Bolivia

Vila Casa Nova, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Banana Bungalows, Gili Air, Indonesia

Linga Longa Lanta, Koh Lanta, Thailand

Golden House, Pai, Thailand

And the winner is…… La Chimba!

Worst hostel nominees:

Rabin Itzam, Lanquin, Guatemala – because arriving home in a pitch black power cut to a room full of cockroaches (including one under the mattress) is not pleasant.

Bothy Hostel, Puno, Peru – because warmth is a prerequisite in order for something to be described as “cosy.”

Klong Jaak Bungalows, Koh Lanta – because THAT was NOT a bed.

Seger Reef, Kuta Lombok, Indonesia – because an outdoor karaoke bar that doesn’t close till the early hours is not a good next door neighbour.

Hotel Korina, Bajawa, Indonesia – because you need a new interior designer and some proper plumbing, and because a toasted sandwich with just sugar in it is NOT a breakfast in any country I’ve been to.

Kanawa Island Resort, Indonesia – an island paradise spoilt by greedy, small-time owners serving measly portions.

Pitri Smiviti Vishramgrah, Chitrakot, India – for the hottest night ever (even when covered in wet towels) and stalker guest

And the winner is… Pitri Smiviti Vishramgrah, Chitrakot, India!

Funniest character award nominees:

For sticking his whole head in the locals’ bowl of popcorn, Kai in Antigua, Guatemala

Richie “can I put my memory card in your camera,” from Huanchaco and Huaraz, Peru

Ignacio AKA Mr Buble, at Vila Casa Nova, Brazil

Crazy magic mushroom man, Gili Air

Our German National Geographic cameraman wannabe, Komodo tour, Indonesia

Chinese chap and his views on the western world in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Kung fu space cadet fighting with an invisible man in Pokhara, Nepal

Sunburnt Alex and his Chinese escape story

And the winner is……the Kung fu space cadet fighting with an invisible man!

Best food award nominees:

Full lobster with mango sauce at Bamboo, Caye Caulker, Belize

Veg stir fry, with cloves and star anise at Irvas, San Ignacio, Belize

Ceviche at Paracas Nature Reserve, Paracas, Peru (Claire only!)

Chicken/fish with veg and dauphinoise potatoes, Cuenca, Ecuador

Chicken, mushroom and dauphinoise potatoes with a cerveza Chopp at Sol y Luna cafe, La Paz, Bolivia

Birthday cheese fondue at La Cupula, Copacabana, Bolivia

Mixto pizza with pineapple at Restaurante Romana Italiana, Tupiza, Bolivia

Lentil and chickpea curry (homemade by us) at Backpackers House, Paraty, Brazil

Summer BBQ’s in the camper, various stops, New Zealand

Christmas food including beer chicken, king prawns, pumpkin and goats cheese salad, marmite and cheese board at Wainy and Leesa’s, Noosa, Australia

Babi Guling (suckling pig) for New Year at Chris and Maria’s holiday apartment, Bali, Indonesia

Seafood platter at the Bale Udang floating restaurant with Chris and Maria, Bali, Indonesia

Thai fishcakes at Trang Market, Thailand

All you can eat BBQ at the Magic Garden, Ko Chang, Thailand

Veggie thali at The Spice Garden, Kathmandu, Nepal

‘Hello to the Queen’ at Cookiewalla, Kathmandu, Nepal

Spaghetti Carbonara (with real bacon!!) at Maya Restaurant, Pokhara, Nepal

Angel Special salad at Little Buddha Cafe, Rishikesh, India

Chocolate ball with ice cream at Little Buddha Cafe, Rishikesh, India

And the winner is……Christmas food at Wainy and Leesa’s!

Best drink award nominees:

Cerveza Franca, Tapas bar, Lima, Peru

Gran Reserve Oak Aged Malbec at the Dante Robino winery, Mendoza, Argentina

Sparkling rose at the Dante Robino winery, Mendoza, Argentina

Hopcracker beer, various supermarkets, New Zealand

Wild berry fruity cider, various supermarkets, New Zealand

Fresh coconut at café near the sea temple, Bali, Indonesia

Mixed fruit shakes at Banana Bungalows, Gili Air, Indonesia

Coconut shakes with syrup at Ashtari restaurant, Kuta Lombok, Indonesia

Strawberry shakes from Rambuttri street stall, Bangkok, Thailand

One pound mojitos in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Gorka beer at The Spice Garden, Kathmandu, Nepal

Masala Tea at Ganpati Guesthouse, Varanasi

Lemon Nana’s at Little Buddha Café, Rishikesh, India

And the joint winners are…… Coconut shakes with syrup at Ashtari restaurant and the legendary Lemon Nana’s at Little Buddha Cafe!

Most ridiculous journey award nominees:

Collectivo taxi with what turned out to be an armed gang from Managua bus station, Nicaragua

Nine hour, uncomfortable bus ride to Puno with no toilet, and where I had to fish my purse out of the world’s most disgusting toilet at one of the few stops, Peru

The bus ride from La Paz to Uyuni over what felt like cobblestones for about 4 hours! Bolivia

Our flight back to civilization from the jungle in Rurrenabaque which left without us about 6 hours early! Bolivia

The 24+ hour ride up the Ruta 40, where the bus had to be dug out of the mud, Argentina

The 44 hour multiple leg journey without connections, but with millions of ants and a bat on the bus, from Lombok to Flores, Indonesia

Twisty, windy road to Pai where we were both close to being sick, Thailand

Crazy tuk-tuk ride through Bangkok to Beejoir’s house, Thailand

Rishikesh to McLeod Ganj – after a series of false starts, it never actually happened! India

And the winner is……besides the obvious choice (which would win hands down), it has to be the 44 hour bus ride in Indonesia!