Return to Middle Earth… (and/or home)

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Not a sound in Milford Sound (ask Google…)

Went to New Zealand, saw some friends, did some skiing, decided it was just like Scotland, came home.

The End.

What, you want/deserve more?

OK, and on with the final over(t)ly verbose blog…

A shaft of sun broke through the murky grey clouds of dawn, lighting upon crumpled mountains as old as the earth itself, the mist rising from enchanted forests of moss and dreams, the cold and weary traveller coming to the end of long a journey across moorland scattered with stunted trees, gnarled and bent through the ravages of time.  There were rainbows and dragons.  And sheep.  Lots of sheep.

IMG_4459Just ask the Hobbits.

Or indeed any slightly dazed backpacker who has just made it (almost) home on the overnight sleeper train from London, weaving their way through the beauty of the early morning Scottish Highlands.  (Funnily enough on the same route as the Hogwarts Express…  And there were dragons in that one too.)

But I digress.

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Middle Earth/Old Masters oil painting/Scotland on steroids

Back to Middle Earth – which, as it turns out, may as well be (yes) Scotland.  Painted in dramatic oils by the Old Masters.  And on steroids.

Or hallucinogens – they even have a town named after our capital city (Dunedin) with exactly the same street names, but perpendiculars are suddenly parallel, and Queen, George and Princes are in the wrong order (anyone who knows Edinburgh will (a) understand and (b) sympathise)… It played with my mind so much that I got out as quickly as I could and went to chat to some midget penguins instead.  (Not the drugs talking, I promise).

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He’d just been told about the horses’ hooves too

Frankly the realms of Middle Earth were preferable – but to prepare myself, I started my Kiwi adventure in Wellington, and thanks to my man on the inside, the doors were opened just a little for me to peep into the magical world of Hobbits and Orks and Trolls.  Only to discover that, really, nothing at all is real.  Seriously, nothing.  I sat with a post-production colourist as he showed me how he’d changed Gandalf’s complexion from nice, healthy ruddiness to a gaunt, translucent white.  And then a sound engineer demonstrated how they add the horses’ hooves to the most technological advanced films ever made.  I kid ye not – it involves two halves of a coconut shell.  And you thought Monty Python was joking.

After all of the slightly intimidating technological wizardry (coconuts aside), and having been reassured that the scenery was at least real, I decided it was time to head south to experience some of it. (This was also a bittersweet but probably necessary extraction from the unsolvable riddle of “you’d struggle to get unfit in Wellington” when faced with quite so many excellent foodie options.  Richard and Lisa, you broke me!).

However, I started in Christchurch: a sobering reminder of how New Zealand has become so achingly beautiful in the first place.  Earthquakes.

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Christchurch Cathedral – a glorified, though sad, pigeon coop

New Zealand is a country that sits on either side of a particularly active fault line – in fact the North Island will at some point shoulder-barge the South Island, though we’ve probably got a few years before that happens.  But from 2010 to 2011, the centre of Christchurch was devastated by two enormous tremors.  What is left is a city centre that, despite five years of dedicated reconstruction, still feels frankly eerie.  Multiple empty spaces still provide dusty temporary car parks, and the old stone cathedral has become a glorified pigeon coop.  Back in the excellent earthquake museum, my chuckling over the Kiwi toilet humour (a competition for the most imaginative back-garden temporary/emergency long-drops) was silenced when I pottered over to a computer screen in the corner.  Only to discover that this was an up-to-the-minute record of earthquakes across the country.  Three in the previous 24 hours. Excellent. I am clearly a sound sleeper…

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Enchanted forests

Heading out of town and into the wilderness, where I figured I might be safer if the ground moved again (?), this was real Middle Earth land.  Now hands up, I’m not a huge Tolkien fan (and yes, I just had to google how to spell his name), but apparently there were some Misty Mountains out there?  I found them.  And the incredible enchanted forests, whose thick moss-covered trees must (I was sure) have inspired the well-insulated, hairy Hobbits.

Luckily for me, New Zealand’s weather is also particularly Scottish – ie. if you don’t like it, wait 10 minutes.  Sunshine, showers, wind, snow (more on that later).  But actually, weirdly, mainly sunshine.  Which made for some stunningly perfect walking conditions.

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Not a bad lunch stop

I tried to keep moving to cover as much ground as possible – half of the celebrated three-day Routeburn track covered in four hours, was my top achievement.  (Not a sentiment shared by my legs all the same, which could hardly move the next day.)  But sometimes it was tricky when all you wanted to do was sit and stare.

Up near Paradise (yes, Paradise), the scene was so perfect you would never even make it up – you’d have to chuck in a couple of electricity pylons and a bright yellow digger at the very least.  A perfect rocky, shallow river reflected perfect light, with perfect snow covered mountain peaks stretching perfectly away into the distance, perfect gnarled trees dotted across the landscape, perfect grassy banks, perfect sunshine, perfect sky…

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Picture perfect

There was only one thing that wasn’t quite so perfect.  I wasn’t there to get all romantic and wistful.  I was there to ski.

And it was just too sunny!

So whilst I was waiting (and waiting, and waiting…) for the much anticipated Great Winter Storm (talked of in hushed tones), I embarked upon a programme of educational and cultural betterment.

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Closest any right minded person should get to a bungee jump.  The loos.

Day 1.  Terrifying myself by (merely) watching other people throwing themselves off a bridge into an abyss with an elastic band tied to their ankles.  I followed it up with some wine tasting to steady the nerves.

Day 2.  Meeting a kiwi bird.  Cooing a bit whilst the kiwi bird expert tried (almost in vain) to educate us about this incredibly cute but incredibly endangered species. And wincing when I saw the relative size of egg versus hen.  Ouch.

Day 3.  Scrambling somewhat inelegantly up a 40ft climbing wall.  More than once.  It never got more elegant.  More wine tasting may have been involved (later, people, later – I’m not a complete fool.  Not all the time anyway)

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Spot the kiwi egg.  Ouch.

Day 4.  Humiliating myself in an 18 hole round of frisbee golf.  After my third throw took me closer to the first tee than the first hole, we stopped scoring.  But the view wasn’t bad (though much like conventional golf: a good walk, ruined).  Particularly as, after 36 hours of rain, the clouds had cleared and we could finally see up to the mountains – and a snowline that looked, at long last, encouraging…

Day 5.  Skiing!  Or rather, spending 20 minutes apologising to an unsuspecting Canadian after he’d volunteered to roll around in the mud trying to fit my snow chains, then two hours sitting in a crowded café waiting for the winds to die down and the lifts to open.

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At last!

Happily this was followed by at least four hours of perfect (albeit frostbite inducing) skiing.  Even if I was manhandled off a chairlift on one occasion for inadvertently breaking the rules.  It turns out that the “three people minimum” mandate wasn’t there to keep the crowds moving, but to stop the chairs swinging against the pylons in the wind.

I refer you back to my earlier New Zealand = Scotland comment.

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Green car, green boots, green errr ski slopes…

I did actually manage another two days on the snow, one in perfect, light powder (skiing enthusiasts will appreciate the blissful happiness induced by one 10 second bounce down a deserted, unpisted run, with not a cloud in the sky – makes the other 7 hours of frostbite, queues, and avoiding 6 year old bombers worth it)  The other day was before the Great Winter Storm and would have been a slight disappointment had it not been for my many years of perfecting the art of skiing on grass, and the fact that the mountain café had a very generous wifi allowance. Given that Andy Murray had won Wimbledon overnight, I had a lot to catch up on.  The views weren’t bad there either.

With only a week left of my time in New Zealand – and of my entire year’s travelling – I finally managed to drag myself away from the mountains and headed down towards the coast where, to tick off another first, I became a literary tourist.

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Fush’n’chups in Hokitika’s bustling (?) port

Hokitika isn’t much of a metropolis now (even the poor Woollen Sock Shop was all boarded up – gone the same way as the gold?), but back in the latter half of the 19th century, it was one of the most important towns in the country.  If you haven’t read the brilliant Pulizer Prize winning “The Luminaries”, then please do!  It may not be a quick read, but don’t let that put you off – it’s still a page turner.  It also vividly describes New Zealand’s gold rush era, and the hardships and privations endured by the settlers.  Jade and bone carving now seem to sustain the town, but my highlights were exploring the magical glow worm dell after dark, and eating the obligatory Kiwi fush’n’chups on the seafront.  From the safety of my car.  Well if you’d seen the gathering gulls, you’d had done the same. I’d survived a year, I didn’t want to go out in a scene from The Birds…

Continuing north, on my way to the Marlborough wineries, and for three nights in a row I enjoyed “private” dorms to myself – with hot water bottles and electric blankets.  The upsides of winter travel, and a far cry from my accommodation options a few months ago on my South American leg.  Is this what you all meant when you said I’d have to spend my last month weaning myself back onto home-time?  Don’t worry, a mouse shared my room (and nearly my bed) in at least one of the dorms, it wasn’t all luxury.  (The mouse might disagree).

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OK, probably not Scotland

So a land of happy creatures.  Kea mountain parrots getting their fill of hire car windscreen wipers, kiwis with grubs on tap, mice warming themselves by my toes, sozzled sheep let loose in vineyards (my personal favourite), and on my final day I met some seals.  Pups pretending to be porpoises in the pool of a mountain waterfall, and big daddies lazing in the sunshine on nice warm coastal walkways.  My obligatory travelling cuddly toy had a lie down next to one – who promptly farted, snuffled a bit, then carried on snoring in the sunshine…

And so here I am, finally at the end of my travels, also a pretty happy creature.

I am sitting in a station café in the Highlands, watching the drizzle outside, about to head off on my final train journey across the Harry Potter Bridge (in case anyone cares: the Glenfinnan Viaduct – it’s pretty stunning, you should probably come visit Scotland too…) to the Arisaig Highland Show.  Topping off 12 months’ holiday with, well, another week’s holiday.

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The final blank page…

And I have the final satisfaction of my diary, the source of all of these blogs.  I bought a small notebook a year ago.  I wrote what I wanted, no constraints, sometimes two pages to a day, sometimes only a quarter page.  I amazed people with my teeny tiny writing.  I filled it all up.  But somehow, magically, I have ended with exactly one page to spare!  Any suggestions for how to fill it?  A plan for what to do next?  Or should I just leave it as a blank page.  An open book.  Just because I like the perfect symbolism of the whole thing.

But enough already.  You’ve endured too much of this wordy, drivelly nonsense.

Back to reality.

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The moment when all the magic memories of travel are eclipsed by one welcome home hug.
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Aussie Aussie Aussie… or “Life at the Toe”

(Well I had already reached the bottom of the world – where else did you expect me to go?) 

It was always meant to be a gap year.  And starting out in Alaska in the height of their summer was all very well – but try ending in Tierra del Fuego (sorry, beyond Tierra del Fuego) 12 months later, and you might find you have some very cold toes.  Indoors.

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Sydney winter. Just another 20C sunny day ahead.

Having paid attention to all of this climatological chat in school geography lessons, I decided, early on, that eliminating risk of frost bite was preferable to eliminating much loved digits.  Hence arriving in Australia in the middle of April, where winter may have been fast approaching, but this still meant ice creams and sunshine and flip flops (flip flops, people, not thongs – flip flops).

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A sad, sad day

Australia was also, to me, a long overdue opportunity to catch up with friends and family – and life as I (perhaps) used to know it.  I unpacked my entire backpack into my own room. As a write (on a brief sojourn to NZ), some of my belongings that travelled all the way from Alaska aren’t even with me…  And having become accustomed to carrying around the kitchen sink, this makes me feel slightly uneasy.  (On the other hand, I am wearing some newly purchased Ugg boots –an attempt, I suspect, to be either Australian or 16 years old again – or both).  I even did some ironing.  But don’t worry, it wasn’t my own.

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Time to indulge (again)

What else does “normality” mean?  Putting on a few pies in weight – a result of too many food and drink indulgences (not all of them pie related, but I’m learning to speak Australian).  And the replacement of my dearly beloved running shoes on public health grounds.  I also had great plans of getting back in shape with some Sydney morning runs, except that no-one warned me about the hills.  The Cottesloe and Fremantle shorelines, south of Perth, were better – except for the snake warnings I had to deal with instead.

Exercise is dangerous.  (And I refer you back to those pies).

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Does my bum look big in this?

Throwing myself into life Down Under, within my first two weeks I had also wedding crashed for the first time in my life, milked a cow (also a first), and sworn that my Melbourne hostel stay would be my last hostel stay.  Given that I am currently writing this in a hostel, it seems that I was less successful at that one.  I also suspect that Cakemaggedon has categorically ruled Wedding Caterer out of any future career plans.

But the whole point of spending quite so long in Australia wasn’t to sample every single possible variation on a cow pie.  It was to actually get out of the cities and explore.

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The Twelve Apostles. Go on then, count them.

So I drove the Great Ocean Road, south of Melbourne, to the Twelve Apostles – or was it ten?  Or nine?  (Not the best tourist tag-line when geological forces are involved).

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The vastness of the Blue Mountains

I gazed over the vast expanse of dense forest from vertiginous escarpments in the Blue Mountains before going back to a roaring fire and a sausage dog.

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Hunter Valley designated driver starts to get antsy when the sweet wines appear…

I toured the Hunter Valley wineries as (wait for it) the designated driver…  I even volunteered for this position.  Given that the last time this happened I was 21 and in Châteauneuf du Pape, you’d think I’d have learnt my lesson.

But I also ate truffle chutney and chocolate near Margaret River, and cooed at Quokkas on Rottnest Island – before they got too close to my king prawns and became decidedly less cute.

All of the above were fabulous, and all rather luxurious for someone who had been living life out of a backpack.  But I still hadn’t found the Australia I’d always had in mind.  The red earth, the huge open skies, the tropical coastlines.  The dingos, the koalas, the kangaroos…

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Western Australian wilderness

So I dusted the cobwebs off the trusty tent, jumped in a car, and headed north!  And straight into playing chicken with the road-trains on my interminable 8-hour drives through the wilderness that is Western Australia.

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Camp chair, ginger beer, sunset

But you’ve got to work for your sunset.  Or not.  Because it turns out that WA does sunsets pretty well already. You just need a camp chair (one of the many perks of raidable family garages) and some ginger beer.  Enid Blyton eat your heart out.

Except last time I checked, the Famous Five had a Timmy in their midst.  Not a Skippy.  On my first evening I was just leaving the Pinnacles (an impressively fossilised limestone forest – or at least this is the easiest of the numerous theories to understand) when Skippy popped out onto the road to say hello.

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The Pinnacles – before the Skippy incident…

Happily for him, I was still travelling slowly enough to stop at least two inches from his tail.  But this was a salutary reminder for me that kangaroos are in fact, and despite my dismissive assumptions, not at all like the massive, really very blindingly obvious and frankly entirely predictable herds of red deer I had nonchalantly declared myself used to looking out for in the Scottish Highlands.  (For the record, rogue red deer are also pretty dangerous and please don’t take any risks…  But in that instant, everything suddenly became very relative!).

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But road trains don’t care

Skippy’s cousins continued to keep me company in campsites and across numerous other roads, and I (possibly dangerously) started to imagine that I had become rather good at second guessing them.  That was before the emus entered the fray.  And the herds of enormous cows who stood their ground, looking at my little car in disdain…  (Sadly the same trick clearly didn’t work for them when it came to staring-down the thundering road trains.  I have learnt a lot about the rigor mortis of a cow.)

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Well now someone’s not obeying the rules

I also had a rather close encounter with Skippy’s Big Bruvver Bruce on one occasion.  I started backing away when the six feet tall brute started to sniff (yes, sniff) at me, and shuffled even closer than the four feet distance I had apparently deemed safe.  My next google search was along the lines of “can kangaroos kick forwards?”  (Yes.)

Wildlife continued to be a theme.  A week before setting out, I had entertained myself one evening reading a book about snakes.  Apparently pythons were actually the friendliest I might encounter.  The snakes marked (in red ink, just to get the point across) VENOMOUS or (for extra emphasis) DANGEROUSLY VENOMOUS were the ones I had to worry about.  Well now, camping was going to be interesting.  In the event I saw no snakes – possibly due to my “scare the bear” techniques learnt in the USA, as I stamped my feet and talked loud gibberish whenever disappearing for a bush comfort break…

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Oh good

But I did have to scare two goats off my tent one morning near Kalbarri (I’d have been more impressed if it wasn’t my tent).  And I lay awake listening to dingoes howling in the night in Karijini National Park, giggling at the “dingo ate my toe” jokes that I could tell when I got back.

Toes intact, I made it as far north as Exmouth – only half way up the west coast, and yet I’d already driven more than the length of the UK.  This is a big country.  And with the coastline came more wildlife.

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New friend

I have never been much of a marine biologist type, but a couple of close encounters with big fish are definitely worthy of mention.  First, on a chilly day, I had stayed outside whilst others retreated into the café at Monkey Mia marine reserve.  And then a dolphin swam up to the shore for a chat.  We had our own little moment (and yes, I can now speak fluent dolphin) before I melded back into the re-emerging crowd.

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Biggest fish in the sea.  And a tiny snorkeller.

Then three days later, I met his much larger cousin.  And I know that I always claimed my breaststroke was much faster than my front crawl in a triathlon (don’t laugh, it’s true) – but even I never imagined I’d be able to keep up with a whale shark.  An incredible experience, swimming along beside this enormous creature, his little buddies hanging out in front and under him.  On that same day I floated above flying manta rays, colourful corals and shape shifting octopuses.  And then someone gave me some cheap champagne as the sun was going down and I thought “this doesn’t get any better”.

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Australian dreamtime

Which was probably why I ended up packing away my tent in gale force winds at 1am the next morning, before seeking refuge in my car…

Escaping the tail end of the winter storms that had been battering the coast further south, I headed inland.  And finally through the red, red lands that I’d dreamt about.

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The colours of Oz

The colours of Australia are extraordinary.  Early morning is the best, highlighting multiple yellows, blues, greens, greys of the eucalyptus trees and low lying shrubs, against the brightening sky – then nothing else in the rest of the colour spectrum before your eye hits the ochre reds of the earth, the rocks – and the enormous termite mounds.  I spent one morning visiting a vast open cast iron ore mine (oh the fetching hat that could have been mine had I kept my geologist’s dream alive…).  Then discovered that the red earth was being attracted to the magnet in my tent’s fly sheet – this, a week after I’d discovered oil in Kalbarri – could I have made myself rich after all?

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Bath time in Karijini

Unlikely.  Back to basics, in Karijini National Park, bath time involved clambering down into steep sided gorges, swimming through the cold water at the bottom, and trying to close my mind to what might or might not be lurking in my bathtub.  There were definitely leeches, probably snakes, an awful lot of pond weed, and some lesser-spotted children terrorising one poor duck.

But at night, there were stars, stars and more stars, the silhouettes of the gum trees, and when I spent the night on an outback cattle station, a didgeridoo player by the campfire.

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Outback camping – happy days

I met many others on my trip – most falling into the “grey nomad” (great) or “20-something European taking advantage of Australia’s bizarre working visa rules” (bearable) categories.  This gave rise to many musings on Aborigines, how the Australian government and people treat the subject; European settlers, are they Australian or European or both, or should it even matter 20 years after you came to the country; immigrants, welcome or not, and how is that even determined, and what is the difference between them and those Europeans anyway; and my own socio-economic theories on Australia’s visa and job creation (or otherwise) policies.

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Melbourne artwork, celebrating Australia

Happily I am neither Australian, nor an economist, nor a politician.  I am, however, both British and European and so I have recently been asked for my opinions on a quite different topic altogether… But I digress!

Australia is huge, and diverse, and yet not so diverse, and not so huge after all.  Amazingly I even bumped into at least three travellers that I’d met in South America, completely unplanned, on opposite sides of the country.  Who ever said it was a big wide world?

Last time I visited Australia, it was during the Sydney Olympics.  This time, I got to experience Sydney’s welcome to winter, with the Vivid light festival and the Opera House and Botanic Gardens glowing multi-coloured in the darkness, brightening up the harbour and the crowds.  Sydney never fails to put on a show.

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Festival of light – and smartphones

Finally, in my last couple of days, I made it inside the Opera House.  This time to watch a performance from Bangarra, Australia’s indigenous dance company.  It made so much more sense having already explored the colours and sounds and (some of) the politics of the country.  And despite the tricky subjects which they are still dealing with, over 200 years later, it would have made me proud to be an Australian.

Except that I can’t be.  Because I still – still, for heaven’s sake! – still haven’t cuddled a koala.

Next time.

Adventurising from Top to Toe – the selected highlights show

(Though I should warn you that I have already received a puzzling number of requests for some musings on life with koalas and kiwis…)

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Is there life out west?

This time last year, I am ashamed to say that the only country out of the whole of the Americas that I’d visited was the USA.  Somehow I’d always looked east, not west.

 

But when I decided to up-sticks from London and head home, the long way, I took a look at a map of the world…  And somehow decided that the best way to head north was, slightly perversely, to head south.  Confused already?  Let me explain.

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Where in the world…?

Six years earlier my brother and his (future) wife had already paved the way for this mid-30s-quit-job-go-on-adventure lark with their epic trip across Europe and Asia, from Cambridge to Sydney in a Landrover.  So that route was already done and dusted (by an Ord, at least).  The other big romanticised journey is Cairo to Cape Town – but I had a niggling feeling that I might somehow find myself magnetically drawn to a War Child office in CAR/Uganda/DRC en route, armed with calculator, and that wasn’t quite the point.

 

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Bear/moose country

So the glaringly obvious alternative, once I’d ruled both of those out?  Alaska to Tierra del Fuego – one big, continuous landmass.  But I would do it properly.  No flying, take a tent, learn to chase away bears.

 

In the event, it was the moose I had to be more worried about.

There are a dedicated few who have read my blog ramblings from the beginning – there are others who have focused on the pretty pictures…

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Some important numbers

But people from both sets started asking, even before I’d reached the bottom, what my highlights were.  As I became more and more nostalgic towards the end of my American adventure, I started asking myself the same thing.

And so here you have it.  The extended highlights edition…

First up, the statistics.

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Distance travelled…

Now I had always planned to produce a whole load of facts and figures: number of nights in hostels/ hotels/ homes/ boats/ buses/ tents; distances travelled by plane/ train/ automobile (or bus /boat /canoe/ own two feet)

 
But the laptop on which I was so diligently keeping track of it all broke down in December and hasn’t yet been resurrected. Which is probably a relief to everyone.

However, in an attempt to keep the stats geeks happy, here goes nothing:

Number of…

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No flying allowed
  • miles/kilometres travelled as the crow flies: 9,174 miles/14,764 km (except, of course, that I didn’t fly – so a heck of a lot more.  One day I might work it out and let you know.)
  • nights camping in sub zero temperatures: 11? Maybe? Brain freeze, can’t remember
  • books read: not as many as I thought I might – but on the other hand one of them was War & Peace.
  • little old men who drifted off on long bus journeys and only narrowly avoided dribbling on me: 3
  • bear encounters: 3
  • moose encounters: 2
  • shark encounters: 1 (but there were a lot of them)

[And I now have kangaroos in my campsite, but that’s a whole other story]

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Habla Espanol?
  • chilli cook off competitions entered: 1
  • chilli cook off competitions won: 1 (depends who was judging…)
  • pairs of shoes originally packed: 5 (yes.  And?)
  • pairs of shoes that reached Sydney: 5.  After 4 different flip flop iterations, not to mention the replacement of a pair of runners on public health grounds…
  • Irish, French, Australians, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Argentinians, Uruguayans and Chileans who featured significantly on my travels: too many to mention
  • Scots who featured significantly on my travels: None. Where were you?! Just think, if there were more of us, I might not have had to field quite so many questions about Braveheart and kilts… (Though on second thoughts, maybe that’s why you’re not travelling. Which is fair enough)

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    Rice & beans & …oh…
  • imaginary conversations I’ve had with you all whilst whiling away the long road hours: Well, errr, too many…
  • plates of rice and beans consumed: not enough
  • plates of rice and chicken consumed: still not enough
  • days spent ill: 1. Only 1!!  Must have been the rice.
  • tortoises run over: 1.

And if you don’t remember him, you’d better start again from the beginning.

Something else I am also often asked is “do you have any regrets?” or “would you have done anything differently?”

Well now I don’t believe in regrets (still believing in advice dolled out to me as a teenager), and had I done things differently then, well it’s like the butterfly effect – things wouldn’t have ended up the way they did.

But as this hasn’t stopped anyone asking, some thoughts that may or may not help others in future:

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Home…

Take a free standing tent – one that isn’t fussy about the tarmac of North American camp grounds nor the sand of Central American beaches.  A single-hoop coffin contraption may be teeny-tiny and lightweight, but it cuts down on your camping options significantly. Having said that, Martin and Katie are probably relieved by this.  New Year might have been a slightly different kettle of fish otherwise…

 

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Utah.  Always Utah.

There are some places I should have paid more justice to (or frankly visited in the first place!) had my schedule permitted: Alaska (I will make it to Prudishness Bay one day).  And at other end, Antarctica.  My dream of kayaking by a glacier is still alive. I appreciate that both of those choices may be odd for a girl with terrible Reynauds, but that is why I travel with a pair of fleece lined mittens…  Then there’s Yosemite!  All of those US National Parks and I still haven’t made it to number 1 on most people’s bucket lists.  And of course, Utah. Always Utah.

And so finally to my highlights.  I would struggle to put these in order of favourites – so I am going to stick with a vague chronology where I can.  Except for the top three which I am saving up for the end.

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Cruising… And eating…
  • (Much to my surprise) The Alaskan cruise.  Perhaps not the Zumba – but the relaxation, the gym classes whilst sailing past icebergs, and the 24 hour ice cream bar…
  • (Again much to my – and probably others’ – surprise) A new-found appreciation for trail running.  The morning sun throwing shadows across the valleys in Banff, the evening sun filtering through the trees in Montana.  Abi and her crazy Fernie folk are only partially to blame.
  • Reconnecting with old friends – then making new friends – and then reconnecting with new friends who had already become old friends – and finally inviting all new and old friends back to Scotland one day.  I’d better buy an air bed.

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    Montana mornings: Deceptively sunny
  • The US/Canadian road trip and camping, even in sub-zero temperatures. Being totally independent, realising that I had everything I needed in one small car – food, clothes, equipment.  Musing on the simplicity of life lived out of a backpack – fewer choices, fewer judgments (by me/of me), and realising how little we actually need of all of the extra trappings we spend our money on…  (Well, except for the two pairs of thermal leggings, two pairs of socks, three thermal tops, a fleece, two goose-down jackets, a foil-lined hat, some fleece-lined mittens, and a top of the range goose-down sleeping bag.  And that’s only the nighttime attire.)
  • Dancing with my 82 year old cowboy in Jackson.

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    Alice in Wonderland Ficus Tree
  • The kindness of strangers – too many to remember them all, let alone mention, but the guy who offered me shelter in his events shed; Bill & Bob & B who shared their campsite, their stories and their smores; multiple Latin Americans (mainly bus drivers and luggage porters) fascinated by kilts & Braveheart; the Italian who mothered the invalid; the waitress who offered simple words of comfort.
  • That church near San Cristobal – strange voodoo goings-on, but entrancing.
  • Cementing a friendship over luxury rainforest living, cards & wine – and inadvertently addressing a fear of climbing somewhere up a ficus tree.
  • Ometepe:  Nothing in particular… Just everything.  Really.  Everything.

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    Adios 2015!
  • Hogmanay surf, sun set, stories, sparklers (or rather, ducking to avoid them), and a classy two litre bottle of rum & coke on our own (almost) solitary bit of beach.
  • A Desert Island Disks day at sea on full sail in the Caribbean.
  • Colombia – the historic beauty of Cartagena, the interest and people (and interested people) of Medellin, the calm breeze and palm trees of Salento.  Plus a gun-toting police force who ask for English lessons, and men who have been born with a wiggle in their hips.
  • Chill-out time by the fire in Huaraz.
  • Finally becoming part of the scene in Machu Picchu – and surprising myself by realising that, after years of indifference, there was no question of it not making my “highlights” list.IMG_7535_2455
  • Sweating, sloth(ing) and fishing (for pirana…) in the Amazon.
  • 4 (oh my word, really, was it 4?!) days in the Wild Rover – Aussies, Scandinavians, Brits, Bolivians, Irish, fun, drinks, dancing, dragons, banter, butteries – and rugby!
  • Kelpies dancing over the water in the Argentinian Lake District.IMG_3228
  • Sunrise over Mount Fitzroy and moonset over Cerro Torre.
  • The excitement of the last sea journey – beyond Tierra del Fuego.

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    Always a rainbow
  • Reaching the end of the road – no sign, no crowds, no fanfare, just a dirt track running into the sea. With some fishing boats. And a rainbow.
  • Finally, as a postscript, making it to the Iguazu falls – and realising what all of the fuss was about.

As for my top three – these may not surprise anyone who has been diligently reading from the start. But if you are ready for the big reveal, drum roll please………

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Boliviaahhhh…

In third place, Bolivia’s Salt Flats and the highest desert in the world.  Full of water and life and magic. It was a bucket list moment and it did not disappoint.

Coming in a close second place though, was camping in the desolation of Utah’s Canyonlands – sunrises, hikes, rocks, climbs and stars. And a sausage dog named B.

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Canyonlands – breakfast view

And finally, leading the way out front in first position (which also means I may as well have abandoned the whole trip after only 3 weeks away): Canoeing Canada’s Bowron Lakes circuit.  Bears or no bears, seven wilderness days with a long-suffering Irish friend, a couple of paddles, some elastoplast, and a pot of Nutella. A once in a lifetime experience that I will remember for ever. In spite of the faintly ridiculous (and ultimately futile) attempts to rehydrate a block of coconut milk for our porridge oats.

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And the winner!  Bowron Lakes bliss

Finally, a lot of what I did (at least through Latin America) was really only following a well-worn backpackers track.  Nothing very impressive about it.

To put my fairly easy ride into perspective, I found myself tangoing (as you do) with another traveller in Buenos Aires a few weeks ago, who modestly told me that he had also just completed his journey from the top to the toe of the Americas.  I had to prise it out of him, but it turns out that his trip had taken a little longer than mine.  He had just cycled (no cheating, just cycled) the whole way. It took him 21 months.

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Intrepid explorers?

When he was asked to describe this 21 months in one phrase?

F-ing bonkers.

He’s got a point.

Mine was a mere holiday.

For now though, as I get comfortable with life down under, some final thoughts on my top to toe adventure.

Things I will miss:

  • Spanish.

Things I will not miss:

  • Narrow water pipes (no arojar-ing your papel in the loo…)
  • Spanish
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It’s a big, wide world…

The Last Tango

Or “Epilogue numero uno”

(Buenos Aires, Argentina – Iguazu Falls, Brazil – Montevideo, Uruguay)

Back by popular demand… (well you didn’t really think it was the end, did you?)

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Oh hello, Mr Airplane – did you miss me?

The thing about getting to the end of the road is that somehow you have to get back again.  And so it was that, after eight months of travelling from Alaska to (beyond) Tierra del Fuego without stepping foot on a plane (responses to that comment will single out those who have diligently followed all blogs from the start), I managed to leap-frog almost the entire length of Argentina in one easy, three-hour flight.  Convenient, this air travel thing, isn’t it?  Even if I did have to re-pack all dastardly life-threatening toiletries and blunt penknives.

First stop, Buenos Aires.

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BA’s encyclopaedia of architecture

The city was apparently a mere outpost of the Spanish colony for many years, as they tried to keep the Portuguese hands off the land to the south, until the booming population and empire building of the rest of the world in the late 1800s/early 1900s led to huge exports of cows and crops, all channelled through BA’s port, and the landowning aristocrats moved in.  One of them had an encyclopaedia of world architecture under his arm.  So today’s BA is a bizarre mix of Italian Renaissance next to French Art Nouveau, next to English Gothic.

You get the picture. Whilst many of the grand palacios have actually been knocked down since then, a visit to the Recoleta Cemetery is still an eye-opener.  An extraordinary number of impressive vaults squeezed into a small space, (allegedly) the highest concentration of stained glass windows in the world (somewhat lost on anyone who is actually alive – stained glass best seen from inside, and all that), and a Veuve Clicquot champagne bucket in place of flowers.  Still trying to out-do the neighbours.

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Recoleta Cemetery – out-doing the neighbours

Having spent around four weeks in Argentina already though, I thought it was about time I learnt at least a little about at least its more recent history.  First fascinating fact for you – Argentina is amongst only a very small handful of countries that somehow ended the 20th Century worse off than they started.  From one of the wealthiest countries in the world in the early 1900s to breaking the record for the biggest default on global debt in 2001. Greece finally knocked them from the top spot in 2012.

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Beginning to feel more authentic

On asking my guide how this had happened, he asked me if I had a few days to spare…  I decided I didn’t.

Potted version of events?  They spent more than they earned.  Big time.  (Who said that economics was complicated?)  But the scary impact on the ordinary person has been huge inflation, continuing to this day – the talking point when I was there was the doubling in bus fares overnight.  I would be peeved too…

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Good bit of propaganda

As for Evita and Peronism – the past 80 years has alternated between military dictatorship and dictatorial socialism (to paraphrase another long explanation!).  The new president in 2015 is neither – so there seemed to be some cautious excitement about the future amongst the Argentinians I spoke to.  Turns out that most of the Evita symbolism around town only appeared in the past 10-15 years or so, a good bit of propaganda…  Still, I was most amused by the negative reaction many people seemed to have about “that film”.  I had to bite my tongue… Dear Argentina, Mr Lloyd-Webber wrote it for the West End – not the classroom!  And no, maybe she never did appeal to any Argentinians not to cry for her…  But I’ll bet that William Wallace never painted his face blue nor cried Freedom! as he stormed across the battlefield either.  (And is that the first time that anyone has ever likened Mel Gibson to Madonna?)

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Tartan Day???

Anyway, Braveheart.  How could this possibly be relevant to my trip to Buenos Aires?  Well by sheer good fortune I found myself in town on their annual Tartan Day!  Great excitement as I walked down the main street to the sounds of a stirring Flower of Scotland from their resident pipe band…  But then I became slightly confused by the medieval costumes and a few Napoleonic soldiers amongst the blue-painted faces (yes) and hairy Highlanders – and had to surmise that it was merely a good excuse to raid the dressing up box.

Nonetheless, I subsequently discovered that an Argentinian friend learnt the Highland Fling at school, and her father played the bagpipes for years…  This would have been strange enough, but then she admitted she knew nothing about the Tango.  What?!

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The professionals

Now it turns out that the Tango may be less prevalent in Argentinian culture than I (or indeed anyone) thought.  But at the end of the day, I was still a tourist, so no one was going to keep me away from a tango show – particularly when this included a free lesson.  And honestly, it really is remarkably simple.  As long as you have no OCD about odd numbers.  It’s all about 5, 7, 9…

And then we watched the professionals.  And I had to admit that maybe I did need a few more lessons before I progressed to the spins and head lifts…

From one show to another though – and a night at the opera.  The Teatro Colon used to be the biggest opera house in the world (Sydney is now in number 1 spot), and in order to test the assertion that its acoustics still are amongst the best, I dutifully sacrificed the best seats in the house (you can thank me later) for the peasants’ quarters up in the gods.

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A night at the opera

It was magnificent.  Almost every one of the 3,000 seats were full, people got dressed up, my shoes only attracted a few snotty looks (what happens when you use the posh loo…) and in the grand finale, Don Giovanni had cream cheese sandwiches smeared all over his chest.  What more could you ask for?  And all for the measly price of (wait for it…) £2.

Now with a few days to spare, what else to do?  I was never intending to visit the Iguazu Falls, but you wouldn’t believe the number of travellers (past and present) who look at you in horror when you admit this to them…  So I succumbed to peer pressure.

And despite the two 20 hour bus journeys within the space of 3½ days, and the shock to the system of 30C+ heat and 80%+ humidity (along with the jungle mists and red earth, I could have been forgiven for thinking I’d woken up in the Congo again), and realising that I’d been a little premature in discarding the remainder of my insect repellent…

…Yes ok, you were all right.

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Iguazu’s other calling card

As instructed, I dutifully “did” both the Argentinian and Brazilian sides – so I have visited Brazil in 2016 after all!  For a grand total of 5 hours.  Short but (very) sweet.  I had been slightly overwhelmed – and as a result went through a strange feeling of being underwhelmed – by the (allegedly) better Argentinian side the day before.  (Its calling card is that you get closer to – and soaked by – more waterfalls).  To combat this feeling I spent my time talking to the thousands of incredible, multi-coloured butterflies instead.  Just call me Doolittle.

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An awful lot of water

But on the Brazilian side, with a panorama view, you can really appreciate the huge chasm forged through the land by the sheer force of the water (hark – was that a GCSE geography flashback?) over hundreds of thousands of years.  I did worry for the fate of the toucan spotted midway across (though assume that he/she had probably flown that route before…).

However, rather than the usual futile attempt to stay dry by merely scurrying to and from the platform in the middle of the river for one quick photo opp – instead I found myself laughing in the spray from an immense curtain of water spilling over the top on one side of me, then down another 100 feet below in the next falls, under the “Devil’s Throat” cataract.

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Nature.  Not bad…

My hair was plastered all over my dripping face, I was seriously rocking the wet T-shirt look (photos not for public consumption), and I had only faint nostalgia for the memory of that cheap plastic poncho I had once known and loved…  The noise, power, speed, volume of the water; a rainbow arcing around and below us; long lush grasses still clinging onto the rocks right on the edge – truly nature in all its glory.

And I nearly missed this?

Then something else I nearly missed (swift gear change coming up, cramming a lot in!) – Uruguay.  My final country of the Americas. #16 in case you’re counting. Another place I’d never intended to visit when I set out.  But the biggest joy of travelling is making friends along the way, and I had lucked out by meeting three Uruguayan girls in Peru two long months ago.  Entirely supporting the general consensus amongst most South American travellers and residents that the Uruguayans are a friendly, kind and modest bunch…

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Any guesses?

Which is probably why they now find themselves grumbling that the Argentinians have taken advantage of them, stealing not only the Tango (so that explains it) – but Dulce de Leche as well?  Truly the stuff of diplomatic nightmares.

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Uruguay or Angus?

Happily the Uruguayans are frankly too happy with their lot to really take issue with it all – known as the Switzerland of South America because of its peace, wealth, neutrality.  Its landscape, however, is less alpine and more… Angus?!  I had a double-take when I looked up from my book on the bus to Montevideo and saw nothing but well-tended fields over a rolling landscape, tractors, hay bales, sheep & cows.  The only hint that we might be elsewhere – a couple of palm trees sneaking in with the oaks and chestnuts.

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Undeterred

Somehow I had also chosen to visit during the worst storm in Uruguayan history (or some such similar superlative).  The thunder and torrential rain seemed to continue for at least 48 hours, but undeterred, I pulled out my well-travelled brolly – ta da! – and ploughed on regardless.  Amongst other dutifully-touristy activities, I made authentic empanadas, had a private tour around the nation’s Teatro Solis (US$5 for any seat in the house for the resident Company’s productions – yet more brilliant accessibility to the arts), drove (I repeat – it was raining – a lot) along the famous “Ramblas” promenade at least 5 times – and finally, took a ringside seat at the bar of a hot, smoky, noisy parilla in the main market.

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Vegetarian nightmare

Juicy and delicious meats of all shapes and sizes, and small tree trunks being flung across the grill to replenish the embers on the side.  I just hoped that it wasn’t a vegetarian who had ordered the cheese starter I watched being prepared on the blood-stained chopping board…

Finally, sadly, it was time to leave.  And finally some travel plans that went wrong.  (It was about time I got to call the insurance company).  Turns out a tornado had struck the road I had travelled along three days earlier.  And so what did I do?  Traded havoc at the ferry port, and fights for the one boat sailing back to Buenos Aires, for the peace and tranquillity of, yes… The airport.

The environmentalists won’t like this, but…  Should I just stick to flying in future?

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One photo, three countries – Brazil, Argentina and (for another day…) Paraguay

And on that note, I am writing this whilst safely ensconced in the departures lounge of BA’s international airport, thunderstorm raging outside, waiting for my flight to Sydney.  The gap yaah continues (told you it wasn’t really the end).

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Farewell America!

I have promised a “highlights” blog to some (I suspect they are the cheats who are hoping to score well on the test when I get back…) so you’ll get that soon enough.

But in the meantime, having adventurised myself from top to toe, it’s now time to find out what life is like at the heel.

Ciao America – hola Australia!

To the end of the road – and beyond

(Patagonia to Isla Navarino – Argentina & Chile)

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Adventurising…

Adventurising from top to toe.  Alaska to Tierra del Fuego in one long (wiggly) line.  Sounds good, right?  It even sounded pretty unique when I was talking about it a year ago.  As I recall, a few of you were even quite impressed…  But have you ever wondered why I had to use the entirely fabricated “adventurising” (which, incidentally, has opened up no end of unquestionably dull UK vs American spelling conversations over the past 8 months)?  It was because someone else had already taken the “adventuringfrom…” blog.

That was a pretty big hint.

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X marks the spot (well ok then, a friendly blue dot…)

Then I looked at a map and found Ushuaia – the End of the Road.  Sitting on the south coast of (semi) mythical Tierra del Fuego, next stop Antarctica.  Wow, I thought, imagine getting there.  What would it be like?  How would I feel?

Turns out all I had to do was ask, well, just about anyone I have met along the way.  Really, anyone.  They’ve all been.  I mean, even Jeremy Clarkson made it here (before he was chased out in the dead of night… More on that particular inflammatory subject later).

Well fine then.  If Ushuaia is so last year, if everyone else has done it too, then I was going to go one step further.  Because it turns out that, despite all best efforts of the Argentinian tourist board to tell us otherwise, Ushuaia isn’t quite the end of the road…

However, like all infuriating writers, I am going to hold you in suspense for just a little longer.

Because I still had to get through Patagonia.

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Patagonia, but not as you know it

Now, straw poll.  What do you think of when you hear “Patagonia”?  Vertiginous mountain peaks?  Trekking the infamous W?  Expensive clothing brands?  A Welshman and his sheep?  All fair, all true (except, perhaps, for the Welshman – didn’t find any, sorry).  But what about mile upon mile of long, straight roads?  Vast, flat lands of nothing but scrubby shrubs and dust?  Wind, wind, wind and more wind?  And a realisation that the most famous mountain range in the Andes is also, bizarrely, one of the lowest?  (So no excuses for any huffing and puffing through any mountain passes here).

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Winter wonderlands at the end of the world.  No foldable saw required.

On the 24 hour bus journey from Bariloche to El Chalten, I finally finished “Wild” – a book I had been determinedly avoiding since last year’s film release, after so many unfair comparisons between the author and myself (for the record, the “unfair” part is to the author – her intrepid spirit is in a totally different league).  Nonetheless, I still giggled in solidarity as she described her preparations and kit list – I still don’t know how I have survived all this way without a foldable saw, and I was hoping it wouldn’t be my undoing in Patagonia.  But after the past few months in hostels, it was time to resurrect my tent (ok, and a few nights in refugios) – back to me, myself and I – and kindly locals (including, I may say, some particularly handsome Argentinian mountain guides) and the elements.

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The “A”.  Laughing in the (wet and windy) face of The “W”.

However, forget trekking the “W” or even the “O” for that matter.  Meet the “A”. Seriously, look at the map.  See what I’ve done there?

El Chalten is billed as Argentina’s hiking capital, and most people brave its whistling wind for day hikes. But having popped Torres del Paine back onto the bucket list for another day/season, I had decided I was going to make a multi-day trek out of El Chalten’s routes instead.  And in true Scottish summer “it’s definitely brightening up out there” (cue next torrential downpour) style, I finally made it out with tent, sleeping bag, stove, and what proved to be the most revolting powdered pasta meals known to man. (Though I concede that they had become more appealing by the end of day 2…)

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Pottering in Patagonia

After 8 months on the road, I had also finally invested in a waterproof cover for my backpack – largely won over by the earnest saleswoman “but it’s made of silver, the same as tents!”  What?  There are tents made of silver?  And no one told me this?  Hmph.

The upside of setting out into faint mountain drizzle?  (Almost) complete solitude.  Clouds scudding across the sky, the trees with their autumnal foliage rustling gently in the wind, mountain streams gurgling by and, after the previous 24 hours’ rain in the valley that had fallen as snow higher up, the impressive rumbles of avalanches in the distance.  Also, slightly closer at hand, the tell-tale clack, clack, clack of (completely unnecessary and footpath destroying…) metal-tipped walking poles.  Grrr.  I injected an extra burst of speed before Mr Rambler caught up with me.

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Camping culinary delights

Finally reaching the campsite at the base of Mount Fitzroy, I settled down for the night.  Nestled amongst the trees, it was chilly but homely – though I did ask myself (not for the first time) why someone who suffers quite so badly from Raynaud’s should ever think this fun…  But this is why a pair of fleece lined mittens is my number 1 luxury item.  For my next trick, I just need to find a companion pair of socks.

And was it worth it?

I’ll let you judge for yourselves.

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Mount Fitzroy sunrise

 

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Cerro Torre moonset

Though not even the best photographer could pay justice to the magic of Mount Fitzroy’s sunrise, and the next day’s moonset (work with me…) over Cerro Torre.  Stillness, solitude (even the nearby Scousers shut up for a special 20 minutes!), ice bergs shaped like Nessie, and then a condor sailing overhead just as the first rays of the sun struck the tips of the mountains, pinks turning to orange, to yellow and finally to an almost translucent white, glowing from the snow, glaciers and rock faces.

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Autumnal foliage

All together now – ahhhhhh………

Shaking myself out of this reverie, and onto the next Patagonian marvel though – I made it, more than happily, through my three day trek, repacked (urgh) my bags all over again, and headed for the Perito Moreno glacier.  Well where else would the Easter Bunny choose to lay his eggs?

Now I’ve seen and even been up close to a few glaciers in my time, but (well, aside from those buried under pristine ski runs in the Alps!) never actually walked upon one.

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Evil boots (yet friendly, honest)

So I donned the crampons and the harness – to which, ummm, nothing was attached… Must remember to retain consciousness when I fall into a crevasse – and did I remember to pack my Scouts book of knots?  Help!  After getting over the ridiculousness of the insurance company-imposed upper age limit (45 – what is the life expectancy in this country?!  I’ve spent my whole trip feeling younger and younger, but now find that I’m close to being classed as an OAP…), I happily pottered up onto the ice after my guide.

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An alternative universe

And into an alternative pure blue universe with an only slightly worrying soundtrack of loud pops, cracks and booms.  It was like an entire mountain range with hillocks, serrated peaks, lakes, ponds, streams, caves – but all made entirely of ice.  I promise I didn’t start singing songs from Frozen in my head.  I didn’t.  Really.  Well maybe only a little bit.

All the same, I did get some odd looks from the guides when I insisted on tipping out the (especially chiselled) chunk of glacial ice from my glass at the end of the day – it may only have been a cheap blend rather than single malt that they were pouring, but there are standards to uphold, people, standards.  Honestly.

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Happy Easter!

Finally time to embark upon my last few leaps and bounds to America’s toe though.  And across another border crossing.  For all of the antagonism between Chile and Argentina, they share such a narrow part of the continent down here that border formalities become nothing more than a smile, a stamp, and a wave.  And a magic airport scanner that even detects chocolate (the Chileans are very strict about this whole “transport of organics” thing – either that, or the Customs officials just really, really like bananas and chocolate).

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Well I think that’s clear then.

Having said that, when I came back into Argentina a couple of days ago, I was greeted by a sign at Ushuaia’s port: “No mooring for English pirate ships”. In Spanish it sounds official and unwelcoming.  In English, well…  I’m not going to get into politics here, and proclaiming that I am Scottish seems to get me past any awkward conversations (I am also British and proud of it, but this is not something to shout about in southern Argentina…).  But I know quite a few Englishmen who probably rather like the idea of dressing as a pirate and prancing around Ushuaia with a parrot on their shoulder.  Jeremy Clarkson isn’t even one of them.

Anyway, Chile is slightly more welcoming to Brits this far south, and so that was where I was going.  To the end of the road.

Punta Arenas used to be a bustling port, shelter for ships preparing for Antarctic expeditions, and others who had just rounded Cape Horn – before the Panama Canal sounded its death knell.  Or at least it might have done.  But I liked it – it is still a hustling, bustling town, and rather than being run down, it wears its southern heritage proudly.  It is still an important gateway to both north and south, and murals, statues and monuments remind us of its heyday.

This was where Shackleton set off on his doomed Antarctic expedition, and where he finally returned 100 years ago, seeking rescue for the rest of his men still stranded on the ice. I dutifully popped my head around the door of “his” bar (allegedly the room in the grand industrialist’s house where he made his appeals), before heading for another Punta Arenas institution, Kiosko Roco, for my banana milk and choripan instead.

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The final stage!

And the next day, in perfect mirror of the start of my trip all those months ago, I boarded my cruise ship to the end of the road…  So where were the dancing girls, the casino, the 24-hour ice cream bar?  Ah, no.  Slightly different scale.

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Wannabe penguins?

As I stepped off mainland Americas for the final time though, I felt I should have marked the occasion somehow.  But how?  There weren’t even many people around.  So I settled for waving to the ubiquitous flocks of nearby cormorants instead.  (On that note: are cormorants wannabe penguins?  Or are penguins wannabe cormorants?  Or does nobody really care, because they both have comedy value anyway?)

This was only a 30 hour ferry trip, but I still watched seals leaping through the water after the boat, gulls swooping figures of eight low over the water, wind sweeping spray off the top of the waves, rainstorms shrouding uninhabited islands, all rocky outcrops, glaciers, greens of mossy forests.  We even had our own, slightly more authentic, “dancing girl” up on deck.  And the films on board?  The Hobbit and Dracula – specialising in end-of-the-world fantasies?

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The (real) end of the road!

Finally I stepped off, slightly bleary-eyed as the sun was rising low in the sky, and onto Isla Navarino.  The “real” end of the road.  And no, there is no huge sign, no crowds of people.  Just a track running down into the sea.

It was cold, wet and windy.  And beautiful.  There was even a rainbow.

How did I celebrate this momentous moment?  Champagne?  Whisky?  A fine bottle of Chilean wine?  No.  With a nice cup of lemon tea and a chocolate brownie.

The next day I climbed up through woodland to the top of Cerro Bandera, snow drifts up to my knees, to views over Puerto Williams (the real most southerly town in the world) with its vivid blue fishing boats bobbing in the harbour and smoke from the wood stoves hanging in the cold air.  The snow-capped mountains of Tierra del Fuego lay across the Beagle Channel to the north (hear that, Ushuaia?  The north).

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Puerto Williams views of the Beagle Channel & Tierra del Fuego – to the north

And it’s funny, I got to the end of the journey and far from being the anti-climax it might have been, I felt hugely content, a smile on my face even whilst my toes froze in their woefully inappropriate running shoes.  Why?  Because, what with winter wonderland walks through woods of beech and pine, and moorlands of purples and browns and greys, and sea lochs and fishing boats, and shared stories and friendships formed around cosy log fires, and smelly damp clothes and bubbling cheese on toast…

…It felt just like home.

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Celebrations at the end of the road

Wine, beer, beef, chocolate – and wine

(Santiago, Chile to The Lakes, Argentina)

“It was as if I had been travelling in a tunnel for months and had just popped out of the other end, at the far side of the earth, in a place that was maddeningly familiar.”

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Strangely familiar

So said Paul Theroux on arriving in Argentina, after his epic train journey from Boston 40 years ago.  Not that the Argentines and Chileans like to be compared to each other (unless it is to say that you absolutely, definitely, categorically prefer their country to the other…), but my feelings on arriving in Santiago, Chile, weren’t far off.

In Santiago the local neighbourhood became my neighbourhood.  Full of character, with cobbled streets, an old tramline, multi-coloured warehouses and homes.

Had normality resumed?  Morning runs (proof that muscle memory and the effects of altitude aren’t just myths?), my own cooking (no rice!), kids running through fountains in the park on a hot Sunday afternoon, and a bottle of wine at a chichi pavement café in the evening sunshine.

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Resumption of normality (and doggy friend #1)

And then there were my canine friends.  The Englishman and his dog has nothing on Chile (and Argentina too, it turns out).  The burgeoning population of stray dogs have been a sad sight to me since I arrived in Mexico back in October, but the residents of Santiago are such dog lovers that they feed, shelter – even clothe (yes, you read that right)– the strays.  The local pound had to be shut down a few years back… Having said that, I nearly lost a flip flop to yet another pair of mating dogs during an open-air concert a few days later (don’t ask), so I’m not altogether won round by this doggy charity.

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You’ll never walk alone…

Now adopting dogs is one thing – but what happens when they adopt you?  Looking at it from Buster’s point of view though, he probably thought I was the stray, not the other way round… (Funny that even when you try to be alone, someone/thing always intervenes.  In the Rockies I diligently kept all food outside my tent for fear of a (real) bear hug in the middle of the night.  In Argentina’s Lake District, I was more worried about my new “friend” breaking in and going for my porridge oats…)

Back to Chile though, and my “normality” was given a kick in the teeth when I visited the Museum of Memory and Human Rights.  Because, even in (my) living memory, things were not always so normal.  September 11th had a significance for millions of Chileans long before the date became etched in the mind of the rest of the world.  On that day, in 1973, a military junta led by General Pinochet and (allegedly, possibly…) supported by the CIA threw out the (first ever democratically elected) Marxist government and took charge.

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Chilean hands of defiance

They didn’t just walk in either.  Well, actually, they did.  But then once everyone had already put their hands up and said “yes, ok, maybe you can do better, let’s give you a chance”, they still sent some war planes over and bombed the hell out of the seat of government.  What, they didn’t need an office?  Apparently not.  Symbolic gestures for the sake of the tabloids aren’t a new thing, it turns out.

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International Declaration of Human Rights – now on display for all

Many of you will know all about this already, so I won’t go into the full history (again – consult Google/Wikipedia!).  But my own knowledge was shaky to say the least, and I am grateful to the many Chileans for filling me in on the blanks that still remained, even after spending a chilling two hours in the museum learning too much (though probably not enough) about the 17 years of dictatorship, torture, and disappearances under Pinochet’s rule.

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Silencing, copper mining, education – an artist’s depiction

Now in the interests of balance, it is generally accepted that the country was in a right old mess before the coup. But on the other hand Allende’s (unwelcome) taxing of the huge copper industry was also funding free primary and secondary education – a novel idea at the time, and a legacy that remains to this day.  There are so many shades of grey though, even my tour guide was worried about speaking her mind.  It is still an enormously divided country – it seems that you are either on the left or the right, there is no centre ground.  There are some clear wrongs and clear rights, but no-one seems to have yet worked out which side was best.  I suspect this is because the answer is: Neither.  Imagine the problems the writers of the history curriculum have keeping everyone happy?!

End of the lesson for now though.

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Valparaiso – view from ancient funicular

And on to Valparaiso, notable for its steep hills, colourful port, ancient wooden funiculars, street art of all varieties (painters, dancers, and surprisingly decent musicians for once) and sea food.  Not so sure about range of unidentifiable molluscs floating in my lunchtime soup though.

“Valpo” is also notable for its no-go areas.  Including the thriving, bustling market with its huge population of cats (taking refuge from the dogs?), and kindly stall holders – who dolled out free personal security advice along with free bunches of parsley. I was more grateful for the latter.

I wasn’t sorry to leave though – it was the first time on my trip that a bus driver has been rude and unhelpful, and the first time I have been made to feel guilty by baggage handlers in the bus station (look, I know it’s a heavy bag, but I am considerably smaller and lighter than any of you and I can still manage it, right?).

Time to move on.  And probably time to consider some lonesome travel again too – after one too many “mauled by a bear/slept on a cactus” stories from a 50-something Canadian in one hostel, Justin Bieber on repeat in another (did I miss the moment when this became acceptable taste in music?), and the sheets being whipped off my bed by some drunken Irishmen in yet another (I’m not proud of my 1am outburst, they were only trying to persuade me to go dancing with them after all, and I only have myself to blame for the two-day wine hangover I was suffering…).  On the other hand, I was also lulled to sleep by another Irishman reciting Shakespeare sonnets from his top bunk that same night, so sometimes I just have to take the rough with the smooth!

Somewhere back there I mentioned wine though .  And so to my discovery of Carmenere – the grape exclusive to Chile after the disease wiped it out from Europe – and now my new favourite.  Luckily Concho y Toro (makers of the delightful cheap’n’cheerful Casillero del Diablo) didn’t disappoint.  The fact that they were also happy for us to take a stroll amongst their vines, eating as many juicy, sweet grapes as we liked, notched them even further up on my “favourites” list.

Just across the mountains, and across another border into Argentina, Mendoza is the other famous wine (and hangover) producing region of South America.  Harvest was in action, and I watched the high-tech de-stemmer with its high-tech sweepers (ripped up cardboard boxes) working away whilst nursing a glass of half-fermented, milky Chardonnay.  Can’t necessarily recommend it, but it would have been rude to refuse…

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Farewell to Chile (part 1)

But having marvelled at the dramatic, rugged mountains between Santiago and Mendoza, with their folds of pinks, greys, and yellows, passing Aconcagua (highest mountain in the Americas) and choosing the worst possible moment to go to the loo (learning point: look out for the hairpin bends next time…), it was time to continue on my relentless march south.

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Bus Bingo!

This time the boredom of the pampas was relieved not only by spotting the odd herd of wild horses (or not wild?  Difficult to tell in such vast empty spaces), but also by – wait for it – Bus Bingo!  Finally, some family fun for all – a welcome change from the usual violent/full volume movie screenings.  I actually did reasonably well, even without the Two Fat Ladies.  However the final victor was my neighbour across the aisle.  I would have suggested we share his prize – a jolly nice looking bottle of wine – but then his companion decided to bring out some cream cheese and crackers as an accompaniment. And the sight of his 8 inch “pocket knife” (no, no euphemism – it was alarming enough as it was) glinting in the sunshine a few feet away swiftly made me rethink.  I went back to my book.

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Colonia Suiza

Finally to the Lake District.  Which, in these parts, bears more resemblance to the European Alps than Cumbria.  I even camped in a tiny hamlet called Colonia Suiza.  And who said the Swiss never tried to build an empire?  Chalets, lakes, forests, mountains – and chocolate.  Disappointingly the “best chocolate in Argentina” still had more of a hint of Hershey than Lindt, but I still believed it was my duty as a tourist to try it out.  And to finish it.  Every.  Last.  Crumb.

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When in Argentina…

Being in Argentina, it has also been my duty to eat meat.  Lots of it.  The best beef empanadas since Mexico (from a little road-side stall near Mount Aconcagua, in case you’re passing by), an enormous juicy rib-eye in Bariloche, and an authentic “asado” (Argentinian BBQ) experience in my campsite. I was invited to join some friendly bus drivers who also appeared to be masters of the embers, sweeping them from the pile of burning wood to keep the meat at just the right temperature to cook the… Well, the chewiest bit of beef I’ve ever eaten actually.  Still, it gave me a chance to practise the “3 S”s (Spanish, Spanglish and Sign language) with varying degrees of success, for which I thank them.

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How to build an (alternative) oven

The next day, having sworn to give my stomach a break, I was persuaded to try a Curanto.  For those not in the know (anyone?), this is an Argentinian/Chilean feast of medieval proportions.  Beef, pork, chicken, chorizo, potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, squashes, apples, all piled high on burning hot stones, covered with a layer of young leaves and branches, then a few hessian sacks with heaps of soil thrown on top.  After a couple of hours, the anticipation is palpable.  The smell of hot earth, a couple of spades lying idly by…  And then the big reveal, with onlookers applauding as the chefs carefully removed each element with their asbestos fingers.  I dutifully accompanied my feast with a locally brewed raspberry beer (well if it’s alright for the Belgians…).  I know a few people who would have been in heaven, even during the meat-coma aftermath.  I suspect they know who they are too.  I, however, was more excited by the carrot I finally managed to eat for my dinner.

Aside from all of the eating, the Lake District also saw me cycling and hiking in bright sunshine.  Passing dogs probably raised an eyebrow as they heard me muttering “come on little engine” to my legs (yup) as I cranked down the gears going up the gravelly hills, imagining all of that dulce de leche petrol sloshing through my bloodstream…  Worth it for the incredible views of the same, endless lake going on and on.  And on.  Around peninsulas, up fjords like oil paintings (question: is a fjord still a fjord once it is inland?), towards the hazy mountains on the horizon.

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The lake that just keeps giving.  On and on.  And on.

Then the next day I spent dodging rain showers, grinning inexplicably at nothing but the fun of being the only solitary soul on a pebble beach, the pine trees howling at each other behind me in the wind, the squalls whipping up spray from the lake and throwing it into my face, and kelpies dancing across the water…

Well, it was Paddy’s Day – spirits and madness infect us all (!)

Or maybe it was just that I’d finally decided to go cold turkey on the wine.

The chills of Patagonia next though – we’ll see how long that one lasts.

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UnBoliviable…

Bolivia – the country of extremes!

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Bolivian sunset

Or so they tell us…

  1. The world’s highest navigable lake! Except that I’ve already walked to a higher lake on this trip, and that wouldn’t have even required a compass…
  2. The world’s highest capital city. Finally!  I’ve been keeping you in suspense about this one since I visited Quito.  Only to discover that La Paz’s claim turns out to be in serious doubt. Hmmm.
  3. South America’s biggest flea market. Now I’ve not actually researched this one, I only heard it in passing – but let’s let them have it.
  4. The world’s most dangerous road! Except it turns out that the “Death Road” reputation actually came from fatalities during its construction, not accidents since.  Not that the truth stops thousands of tourists claiming their “I’m a survivor…” T shirts. (Yes, me too.)
  5. The loudest/best/most notorious party hostel. In the world?  On the continent?  In the city? We’ll come back to that one.
  6. The world’s highest and driest desert. But I drove past at least five freshwater lakes and bathed in hot springs – so what’s that all about?!
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Highest/driest desert in the world?

But now I feel bad.  It may well be too good to be true – unBoliviable indeed (this is even the Bolivians’ favourite pun, don’t blame me), but do we really care?  I suspect not.  Let’s take a closer look…

First up:

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Lake Titicaca flooring

1. The world’s highest navigable lake. Lake Titicaca.  Whether it is the name (stop giggling) or the claim, this has been some sort of mythical place in my mind since school geography classes.  And to clear up confusion, everyone openly acknowledges that the lake is not the highest in the world.  The “navigable” part is important – and has more to do with steam boats than whether the needle still works on your compass.

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How to make yourself a floating island

In any case, Lake Titicaca is now more famous for its floating reed islands, around 1,000 of which bob about at the Peruvian end of the lake – reassuringly anchored to the surrounding reed beds, so at least the residents are unlikely to get a surprise when they wake up in the morning.  Unless they’ve upset the neighbours and been towed away (which has apparently been known…).

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A beautiful pea green boat

I also took a ride on a beautiful pea green pussycat-boat.  Clearly currently estranged from the owl, who may have sailed away with the morning’s busker from our first boat.  A one-man-band, I feel I should actually praise him for managing to play Obladi Oblada with guitar and pan pipes in entirely different keys and tempos – something that actually takes great skill.  Pleased to report that Hey Jude was marginally better.

Determined to make the most of my 20 year wait to visit Lake Titicaca, I spent the night on another (non-floating) island, in the home of an old farmer, Augustine, and his wife Julia.  Nestled amongst the terraced fields, a garden full of roses, donkey braying outside, black pots and kettles on the hearth – and solar panels.  Dinner was maize soup followed by a bowl of pasta with potato sauce and a side of rice.  Any bread with that?

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Alpaca handicrafts

On nearby Taquilla Island, there is a gender-reversal in the production of the UNESCO-protected handicrafts.  This leads to a brilliant Monty Pythonesque sign above the main store: “The Knitting Men”.  I am convinced that they do a dance in alpaca stockings every morning before the tourists arrive.

My final drive along the lake shore, whilst slightly less direct than planned, turned into the journey that just kept on giving.  The original Copacabana (no immediately obvious music and passion, but then it was only 11am); an unexpected ferry ride; fishing boats moored at the end of reed channels; flat plains surrounded by snow-capped mountain peaks.  Finally a breath-taking view of La Paz, as the plains suddenly opened into a huge chasm, with densely packed buildings filling every available space as far as the eye could see.

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(Maybe, possibly) the highest capital city in the world…

Smoothly bringing us to:

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Anything odd about this?

2. The highest capital city in the world. Which it may or may not be (depending on your definition of “Capital” – Bolivia actually thinks it has two anyway, but you can Wikipedia that one), but it is certainly the highest city I’ve ever been in.  La Paz isn’t as touristy as other cities either – instead it is really all about living (sometimes backwards, don’t trust those clocks…) and (just, given the altitude) breathing.

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Bolivian haute cuisine.  Posh tomato ketchup.

And eating.  On one day I devoured a plate of deep fried pastries with a glass of hot corn & berry “api”(ness – yes, that pun is well deserved) at a local market.  And on another I gave myself a five star treat at Gustu Restaurant (run by the people behind Denmark’s Noma – as this is sadly way beyond the Average Joe’s (or Helen’s) price range, their Bolivian venture was the answer).  Fish carpaccio, posh pulled pork and Bolivian rosé into which the waitress poured (wait for it) tomato juice…?  Don’t – no actually, do – try this at home.  Strangely delicious.

La Paz is also another South American city that has embraced cable cars.  One of which took me up to…

3. The biggest flea market in South America!   I didn’t see any fleas – though I suspect they weren’t far away – but you can certainly buy anything and everything else.  Car parts, camera batteries, “genuine” Nike running shoes, your own phone (watch it), enormous plates of pork scratchings, and dragons.

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Potions potions potions

Somewhat stranger, at the bottom of the hill, was the Witches Market.  Dried out llama foetuses hanging above the doorways (?), and a perfect line-up of potions on the shelves offering to aid negotiations, love – and cleaning.  Have I got that in the right order?  Answers on a post card.

4. And so to the most dangerous road.

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Unassuming looking “Death Road”

In reality, the ride is more like a nice day out in the park for anyone with any previous mountain biking experience.  More of a challenge for me though – my lovely light triathlon bike doesn’t really compare.  Alarmingly I discovered that the less I braked, the less I skidded.  Uh oh.  Five hours of freewheeling from 4,500m to 1,200m altitude, from cold, misty, bare mountains to humid, muddy forest. Since the new tarmac road was built on the other side of the valley, there is also very little other traffic – apart from (yes) one ambulance, making it a lot less dangerous than it once was.

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Somewhere under there is the “safe” road

In fact our only real drama on the way down was a road block from villagers demanding bribes to let us past.  Not that I condone bribery in any way, shape or form (oh hello hard-earned professional qualification), but in all honesty I can’t really blame them.  Foreigners pay anywhere from £40-70 each, none of which the villagers see, to trash their road and get in their way without paying the slightest attention to their lives or culture.  An extra £2 each towards the community seems a small price to pay.  Just make it official!

A few hours later, the return journey up the new road provided its own drama.  We were eventually allowed through the latest landslide after an hour of (frustrating) deliberation.  A great melée of vehicles slip sliding over the sand and rock still spilling down from the hillside above, and road workers trying in vain to direct the traffic through a cacophony of pointless horns.

But we eventually made it back in one piece, to the…

5. Loudest/best/most notorious party hostel! Here goes.

The Lonely Planet tells us that “20somethings will love it, 30somethings will loathe it”.

I am delighted to report that plenty other 30somethings chose to ignore the Lonely Planet’s advice too.  (Well I had to join the backpackers’ trail at some point…)

In fact the bar staff were doing more shots than the customers, and the three Australians I met with matching tattoos on their butt cheeks (yes, oh yes) weren’t in Bolivia, but Peru.  And anyway, who wouldn’t want to fall into bed a mere 30 seconds from an Irish pub?

Sorry.  Sorry sorry sorry…

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Deep fried goodness and a glass of api-ness

I was even a little dubious about the alleged police raid.  We were all ushered out of the bar before they “arrived”, and ended up in a nightclub conveniently owned by one of the hostel staff.  For those of you in the know (and for those of you not, be thankful) this was a perfect replica of 151 complete with 18 year old Gap Yah students (Milly, Bunty, Torqs), glass and booze on the dance floor, and Now 56 (or whatever we’ve got to) on the playlist.  The only difference was that the inevitable dance-off, between a Tasmanian and a Swede, was really remarkably impressive.  British men, I’ve said this before (remember salsa in Cali?) – watch and learn…

And then the next day I spent the whole morning in front of the rugby.  Judge me as much as you like (and if you don’t, I will) but it was a pretty great 24 hours…

Time to go dry again though.  And where better than:

6. The Bolivian Salt Flats, morphing into the Siloli Desert – itself part of the larger Atacama across the border in Chile, and hence justifiably included in the “highest/driest” desert tag.

Well what else would you do with an extra day in the year?

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Final resting place…

First to the infamous train graveyard outside Uyuni – its rusting remains as sunburnt as the gringos clambering all over and inside them.  They have now been replaced by newer models which export the astounding richness of minerals from Bolivia – leaving the government in a quandary.  Lithium is the latest “must have”, but how to extract it whilst protecting the equally astounding landscape of the salt flats?  (Some Germans think they know the answer – either watch this space – or visit now before it is all ripped up!)

IMG_8272The Salt Flats feature on most bucket lists, and they didn’t disappoint.  A whole day of driving across a vast plain of white, covered by a shallow layer of water; bubbles and salt crystals catching the sunlight as they floated past; reflections of the clouds and distant mountains; a patchwork of hexagons.  And, ummm, watch out for the yellow snow effect…  Of course multiple salt puns and comedy photos were also involved.  A once-in-a-lifetime day that couldn’t be beaten.IMG_8359_2787

Or could it?

The next day started with endless fields of quinoa (apparently Bolivia’s is the best in the world – can’t dispute that one either), like mini Christmas trees with their tips dipped in pots of red, purple, yellow, and white paint.

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Did you see something move…?

And then a geologist’s playground.  Fossilised coral to go along with the salt (something to do with the crash of the Titanic.  We tried explaining the difference between Titanic and tectonic to our guide, but in vain…) and a line of snow-capped volcanoes extending all the way down into Chile.  Big open skies, stunning blue lakes, pink flamingos, lithe wild llamas, cartoon-like blobby green cactuses, and then mile upon mile of hot, bare sand.  At which point the car broke down.

Truly the most barren yet beautiful landscape I have ever seen though.  I took myself off for a moment of solitude at the end of the day and ran along the lakeshore at sunset, chasing the lengthening shadows; then watched where I trod over bubbling geysers as the sun rose again 10 hours later.

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Paradise (and for the flamingos too)

And pause.  And breathe.

My final farewell to Bolivia was at the most bizarre and remote border crossing I’ve ever experienced.  A small mud hut in the middle of the desert at the foot of an active volcano – with no loos.  My lungs were still burning an hour after my dash across the highest/driest desert in the world to find an appropriate boulder instead.  In hindsight not the best move – but sometimes you have no choice…

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Beautiful desolation

And so to Chile, where I very nearly went skiing.  On sand.  “We only have instructors for boarding though, so do you have experience?”  Well yes, of sorts. On snow.  Mud.  Heather…

Sadly boring and disappointing logistics meant that my sand-skiing debut was abandoned in the end.  I could make up the stories for you, but I may just wait for Australia (?)
Bet I could have done it in Bolivia though…

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Final Bolivian sunrise