Sunday, October 2, 2011

The end


First a word of warning, this will be the last blog, perhaps forever, so get some tissues at the ready, there won't be a dry eye in the house.

We left Africa on 15th October. And after a year of travelling the breadth of the earth, we flew back to England and then on to the wilds of Bovey Tracey, Devon. If Bovey Tracey sounds a little less exotic  than say, Dar Es Salaam or Gabarone, that's because it is. In fact, it is almost certainly the least exotic place there is, and it was the perfect cushion to ease our fall back into everyday life and help us adjust. I should define what I mean by 'adjust', and in Bovey Tracey it meant to eat cake or pie or crumble or a heady mixture of all three. Fay's dad, now my father in law, has an obsession with collecting wild blackberries and baking pies. Delicious pies that are kept in huge numbers in the fridge and are available on demand. They should be called Pie+. So 'adjust' we did and 10 days later we squeezed ourselves into our new car and set off on the last leg of our world tour, from Bovey Tracey to ... Portslade, the town famous for coming second only to Port Talbot in the 2011 crap town awards.

And now it's a week later and it's Sunday evening. Worthing is the new Nairobi, Bognor Regis the new Sao Paulo. I've just ironed the same work shirts I was wearing before I left and packed my work satchel containing the same half used notebook. 'Tomorrow' is no longer an intriguing, enigmatic, unknown quantity. Tomorrow is Monday, and worse Monday morning, and I'll be back at work.

Friday, August 26, 2011

You... shall... not... PASS!




In the spirit of simplicity, transparency and efficiency, all African countries have come together and adopted a unified border control policy. Streamlined and orderly, the process is an example of African co-operation and organisation. NOT.
Our first real experience of border 'control' was across the Zambezi river from Botswana to Zambia. We crossed close at a place called Kazungula, not too far from Victoria Falls. As we approached the riverbank, the scene that revealed itself to us did not fill us with much hope that we would make it across the river alive, much less negotiate our way off the 'ferry' and through the chaotic scene on the other side. I just used the word ferry, but only in the very loosest sense. If you can imagine a mid size raft, made by a madman, with the skill of a child and a very real desire that anyone who sets foot upon it should instantly sink and drown, then you'll be close. Then imagine seeing a lorry crawl down the muddy bank and wobble it's way forward towards it's inevitable watery demise. Then imagine, in amongst some crazed rantings about money and documents and who (it was clearly no-one) was in charge, being told to follow on behind the lorry. For want of anywhere else to go and infected by the noisy madness of the situation, we did just that and found ourselves balancing on the end of the raft, bumper to bumper with the lorry in front, our rear bumper overhanging the water. The journey was short and we stood outside our car, opting to take our chances out swimming the crocs rather than going down with our very negatively buoyant car. On every third world public transport there are chickens and this was no exception. The chickens and locals smelt potently, but the smell was masked by the noxious soot that was unrelentingly billowing from the motor, a contraption faintly attached to the raft that, with every stuttering vibration, shook the lorry and our car ever closer to the hungry Zambezi.





But we arrived, so ladies and gentlemen, start your engines. We did, the lorry did, and then started to reverse. The continuous blast from my horn wasn't having the desired effect and so Fay leapt from the car and danced her way between the chickens and locals to protest. Frantic waving of arms, gesturing and 'STOP STOP CAR CAR WATER WATER DROWN DROWN!!', was enough to persuade him to make use of his forward gears. A narrow escape from the drink.
Having no idea if we were still in Botswana or had crossed into Zambia, we parked our car and then found we couldn't open our doors. The reason? Every Zambian (or were they Botswanan?) within a 10 mile radius had descended upon our car and were waving bank notes, insurance papers, mobile phones, chickens, bananas or assorted unidentified foodstuffs in a desperate attempt to relieve us of our burdensome cash. We tried to look like we'd done this a million times before. When we finally managed to get enough bodyweight behind the door and wedge it open so we could slide out, we strode off purposefully, in, much to the locals delight, completely the wrong direction. Eventually, after a mind boggling number of repeat journeys between unsigned offices, we emerged and passed through the final control post. We were a few hundred dollars lighter, but we had our road tax, our third party insurance, our visas, our carbon tax and a whole variety of other amusingly named documents designed with the sole purpose of maintaining the world class Zambian roads network. Er, NOT, of course.
After a similar (if dryer) experience at the Tundama border between Zambia and Tanzania, we had a sequence of much more pleasant experiences (although all equally as financially punishing), until we reached the border between Malawi and Mozambique at a town called Mwanza. At all other crossings we had bought our visas at the border without too much aggravation, but as we passed through Malawi we heard an accumulating array of stories about officious Mozambican border staff turning back tourists who hadn't arranged visas in advance. Arranging one in advance would not have been a problem but for two factors. The first was that there was no fuel in Malawi. None at all. The second was that we'd learned that there had been public protests a couple of weeks earlier. A protest during which the police were said to have opened fire and killed 18 people. Another was now scheduled for 18th August and some of the army would be protesting too. If the police opened fire on the army then some feared that there could be violent repercussions across the country. So for those two not unreasonable er.. reasons, we didn't have the time or means to get a ruddy visa. Which is what we should have eloquently explained to the female customs official at the border, but we couldn't, for two other not unreasonable er, reasons. The first was that she was THE most MISERABLE woman I have EVER encountered in my entire life. Her personality was so devoid of any redeeming features, that is she had smiled, the laws of physics would have self imploded. The second was that this was now Mozambique, and, oh yep, they speak Portuguese here, and we, well, don't.
So we waited. And waited. And when that didn't work we tried a bit more waiting. We stood at the desk beside the endless queue of victims as each in turn handed her their papers. Without exception she would pick up the document, flick to the photo page, look up at her customer and snarl. She would then bring down her mighty stamp with enough force to fell a tree and literally fling the passport bouncing back across the desk. Should anyone dare to approach out of line they would be met my a stern rebuke and be sent to the back of the line. Should anyone have failed to fill in the exit/entry form correctly they would be sent to the back of the line, sometimes time and time again. Should anyone smile, they would be sent to the back of the line.  The woman, in short, was born to be a border official.
But in the end we did get our visa, and we did cross into Mozambique where we have spent the last couple of weeks on idyllic beaches diving azure blue seas with turtles and stingrays. We have just one border left to go in Africa, before selling our car in Cape Town and taking that long flight, with heavy heavy hearts back to London Heathrow and to border control at terminal 5. Maybe they won't let us pass? Here's to hoping.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

So-fari, so good.

 

As we drove further north the weather changed from hot, to baking hot. And as the temperature rose, my temper boiled and my tolerance plummeted. We were ever thankful when the sun dropped below the horizon. The cooler evening also meant only one thing, a thing that we'd travelled the entire world before finding it. That thing was 'The Fringe', an American sci-fi TV series that someone had copied 3 series (or seasons as they like to say in the US) of to our computer a few months before. It had lain there dormant, like a sleeping behemoth, before being unleashed with a mighty fury that had Fay and I watching like two junkies for hour upon glorious hour, evening upon guilty evening. It is, like this blog, both wildly inaccurate and at best only mildly entertaining, but it must have sated some unmet desires in both Fay and I and whilst at the end of every evening I sincerely promised myself that 'that was it' and 'no more, this time was really the last', we couldn't help ourselves and when Fay or I started watching again, the other would, as sure as night follows steaming hot day, be lured in.

It got hotter. We took a passenger ferry from Dar Es Salaam for a mini holiday within a holiday.  Zanzibar gave some temporary, windy reprieve. Not just from the heat but also from the car which had been our home, and increasingly an albatross around our necks for the last two months. Especially in the early stages, we were reluctant to leave the car unattended, and this meant many a time when I would go and buy another new sim card or negotiate the price of some market tomatoes and Fay (poor Fay) would be left to swelter in the hot tin can. As time has gone on, and we've discovered that Africans are generally more honest and trustworthy (if much more chaotically unorganised) than Westerners, we've managed to let go and leave 'Rhino' to her own devices whilst we go about our business.

One of the foremost reasons we left on our travels was Fay's desire, seeded when she was in her early teens, to see Africa, and more specifically, the Serengeti and the Masai Mara. Arusha is the main base town for both trips into the Serengeti and also to climb Kilimanjaro. Not having the time, money or inclination to climb Kili, I did manage to persuade Fay that climbing Mount Meru would be a good idea. Often used as an acclimatisation climb prior to attempting Kili, it is a great mountain in it's own right. At 4500 metres it's difficult enough, and the route is varied and at times spectacular. You are obliged to take an armed ranger/guide should the resident buffalo or mountain elephants take a dislike to you. We found a ranger at the gate called Jeffrey and he arranged for his friend with an unpronounceable name (whom I re-named 'Pen') to carry some of our equipment and food. The climb takes three days and on the third morning we set off at 1am and arrived at the summit to see the sun rise from behind Kili and cast it's imposing shadow over the clouds beneath us. What I won't say here is that despite my having to encourage Fay to attempt the mountain, it was her who had the much easier time getting to the top, my routine bouts of altitide sickness making life pretty tricksy 'up, up in the atmosphere' as they say in Mary Poppins. Jeffrey and Pen, were very patient as I had to take things very 'Pol-e Pol-e' (slowly slowly). We reached the bottom the following day and flicking through the comments book, I found the entry which best summed up the experience. Carlo d'amato thought the mountain was 'frickin' sweet'. How had he recorded his nationality? 'Eggplant' of course.

 

IMG_1058

After Mount Meru we made our way to the Serengeti Plains and from there into Kenya and the Masai Mara. There are a million hoofed beasts that roam the plains in search of fresh grass. We were in the Tanzanian part of the park and with luck on our side we managed to view thousands of them crossing the Mara river. The power of ants comes from their working as a seamless organisation. To look at them as if to watch a single entity, each constituent part instinctively knowing it's job and performing it without question. The wildebeest seem to work in almost exactly the opposite way. So whilst we watched one group brave the currents and the crocs of the Mara River, we were simultaneously able to watch another, crossing at the same point, in the opposite direction.  The spectacle was fascinating to watch. The Wildebeest gather in ever greater numbers on the banks of the river. Time after time you think they are about to GO, but time after time they DON'T, and slowly disperse before gathering again. It's only occasionally, when one specifically suicidal beast makes the initial dash that it begins and thousands plummet   

frantically into the water, jumping over or standing on each other in their bid to get safely to the other side.

IMG_1160

From the Kenyan side we had a different experience. We arrived at a point famous for Wildebeest crossings, and there were hundreds there. Although present, they were also very much dead, bloated and stinking of death and decaying flesh. They had attracted the morbid attention of an equal number of vultures and other scavenging birds to this corpse banquet and the sight was as harrowing as it was unexpected. We later found out that the unfortunate dead had either drowned or been stampeded to death. I can't imagine there's a better advertisement that the 'grass is not always greener' anywhere in the world.

IMG_1135

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Walk the Line

We met a man named Mario in Cape Town. He's not a pizza addicted plumber like his namesake, but a mechanic. He's also someone that has helped us more than any other person on our travels so far. He fixed our car. Trained us how to drive a 4x4 (where we learned how to drive through sand, mud and water (when driving through water, ALWAYS pull up your trousers and walk through the tracks where your tyres will drive and do NOT start your engine whilst under water) and luckily took pity on us and became our friend.

Mario on left with luminescent legs

His tuition has proved invaluable so far, but in the Okavango Delta, we nearly came unstuck, hence the full title of this next chapter:

10 things not to do in a national park where the animals (mostly, but not limited to, lions, leopards, elephants, hippos, snakes and spiders) want to kill and/or eat you but not necessarily in that order.
The man eaters of Tsavo


1. Start off the day arguing with your wife

2. Get out of your car to take photos

3. Get a flat tyre in lion country

4. Find out that your no1 spare tyre doesn't fit your car

5. Find out that you don't know how to release your no2 spare tyre from it's bracket

6. Arm your wife with a machete and can of pepper spray for protection from lions

7. Drive around with a wobbly wheel loosely attached to your car

8. Mistake Africa's largest snake (the African Rock Python*) for a log, just as you're about to step on it.
Er.. that's not a log.


9. Wallow in glory as a man wearing a pink shirt, chinos and cravat has trouble starting his very expensive Landrover.

10. Fail to properly wade through and check the water you're about to drive through to avoid stepping on more Pythons that might be lurking in the muddy deep.

11. Get the car stuck, waist deep in water, in deep holes that were in the murky muddy deep.

12. Try to start the car with the exhaust under water.

13. Swim around in the Croc and Python infested water in an attempt to get the car out.

14. Walk 1km with a machete, can of pepper spray and wife for protection to an empty campsite deviod of help.

15. Mix up pepper spray with insect repellant.

16. Have to ask the very same man in pink shirt, chinos and cravat for a rescue.

*The  African Rock Python:
An enormous stout snake, with small smooth scales. Triangular head has many teeth for holding prey. Up to 7metres in length. Usually attacks by biting first, hanging on with it's many teeth, and then coiling around the victim. The African Rock Python usually prefers small antelopes, jackals, monkeys, monitor lizards and crocodiles.

The eye of the tiger.

Being a vegetarian and going fishing don't usually go hand in hand. But I'm not a vegetarian, I'm a pescatarian and I eat fish. I've been known to say that one of the reasons for my fish but not animals policy is that I could bring myself to kill a fish, but not, for instance, a defenceless baby cow. I suppose the reason might also be that I don't like fish, the slippery little buggers.

So, on the edge of the Caprivi Strip (a little rectangle that belongs to Namibia and is bordered by Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana), my new wife and I made camp and arranged to go out with a local big game hunter, Anders. We were going onto the Okavango river in search of our lunch, what the locals call Nwembe, but known to you and I as Bream, and what Anders enthused was the tastiest fish in the world (and this from a man who has eaten elephant).

What people really come to the area for though is the Tiger Fish. Said to hit the lure at 60kmh and have teeth like a shark, they are on many peoples fish hit list, if such a thing exists (and if it doesn't, it should).

Anders probably hadn't taken many pescatarians out fishing before, and it goes without saying that he hadn't taken any on big game hunts (there being not much point in not eating meat if you're going to kill it in the name of fun). But he was open to talking about his way of making a living and Fay and I learned a great deal. We learned that nearly all his customers are American. That the rights to hunt animals are strictly controlled. That the government allocates to tribes different quotas of animals depending on how endangered the various species are. The tribes will then sell some or all of those quotas for a considerable sum to companies and then individuals pay for the privilege to hunt and kill the animal. An elephant sets you back a mere 50,000 USD. But if you want that extra special something hanging above your fireplace, above, presumably, your polar bear skin rug, something that just NONE of your neighbours will have, then why not go the whole hog and bag yourself the very endangered black rhino? A snip at a quarter of a million US dollars. Their eyesight is so poor that they can barely see. But don't let anyone tell you that shooting the thing from 50 metres away, from an armoured jeep, with an elephant gun, makes it an unfair fight. If you tell yourself you're a hero enough times, then it must be true, heh?

Anders hadn't killed a rhino, and said he probably never would. He also said that one of the biggest subjects he had to study at animal killing school was how to kill as humanely and quickly as possible. He seemed to mean it too. He said that when his clients insisted on trying to kill an elephant with a head shot, they would invariably miss the brain, so he insisted that as soon as they took their shot, he would shoot the elephant in the heart at the same time. It's probably a given that he's not going to win the Greenpeace 'Man of the Year Award', but he had his morals and he stuck by them, which is more than can be said for me as far as this story goes.

We fished by 'trawling' with rod and reel. This meant we let our artificial lures out about 30 metres behind the boat and then the boat chugged along and the artificial lures get towed along and act like little fish that the bigger fish want to eat (from that sentence you can probably gauge what an experienced fisherman I am). After a blissfully happy unsuccessful hour or so of fishing, I felt a tug on the line. I reeled in my prey to find that I had caught a Tiger Fish, but caught it through the eye, and not unsurprisingly it hadn't put up much of the fight it's famous for. I grabbed hold of the fish and with a handful of fishy goo, tried to disgorge the hook. I managed it, but disgorged the fish's eye along with the hook. I'm not sure who disliked the experience more, me or the fish (but accepted, probably the one eyed fish). Tiger Fish aren't really for eating so I threw him back and with the eye still attached to my hook, I cast back into the river and over the next couple of hours caught two more unfortunate beasts. But alas no Nwembe, no lunch and my pesky-tarian moral high ground sunk and drifting between the murky reeds, looked down upon by my cycloptic victim.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Heal the world

At a certain point in Northern Namibia you pass through what is known as the red line. It marks the transition from mostly white owned farm estates to black communities living in rural, basic, accomodation. The contrast is immediate and stark and feels like literally crossing from the the first world to the third. We crossed the line and were so engrossed in the traditional dress, mud huts, people selling earthen wares, that we had become unaware of the song that had been chosen by the ipod shuffle. We were also unaware that we had started singing the song and waving our hands back and forth. The song was Heal the World by Michael Jackson and for two white people to drive along in a relatively expensive car, waving at the locals whilst singing 'Heal the world, make it a better place, for you and for me and the entire human race' must surely be in breach of the Geneva Convention. In fact there should probably be a clause specifically prohibiting it. Once I'd realised what was happening, I wouldn't have been suprised if dry ice had started to pump out from our car and we'd donned white robes and started to place hands on some of the children. If Jarvis Cocker was there he would have punhced both of us in the face, and rightly so.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Africahhh

Most every evening we camp in our rooftop tent. Many farms have campsites attached although some are pretty basic. At one, en route from the Sousslevei dunes to Windhoek, we set up camp and were given wood to make a fire in a makeshift boiler to heat our shower water, which at that stage was a novelty. At this same campsite I found myself, in an all too Ollie way, 'having' to make many requests of the campsite manager. "Can i charge my lap top in the office?" "Yes." "Can i have some more wood?" "Ok." "Can I collect my lap top?"  "Mmm." "Can I..." And then for the first time in my 32 long years, he responded by exclaiming "Zut alors!". I thought they only did that in films.

African GPS

Springbok

Warthog for dinner

Further up the road we stayed at a campsite in Okahandja. Here Fay and I befriended the 2 campsite cats. The campsite owner was wrinkled and smiley. Are the lions yours joked Fay? "Neh, they just live here. I've tried to shoot em a few times but they keep the mice away and that keeps the snkaes down" It wasn't quite the answer she'd expected, but she carried on. "Erm.. ok. What snakes are around here?" "Puff adder, black mamba, zebra snake." "How dangerous?" "Let me put it this way, you've got a few days if you get bitten by a puff adder, but if you get bitten by a black mamba then they say it's best to lie down in the shade so your body don't rot too fast." "Ahhhhh, and spiders?" "Yep, they're all dangerous, but it's the scoriopns that scare me." "Scorpions?" "Uchkk yea, you're in Africahhh."

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Zut alors! We're on our way.



Over the moon about the 2 grand we spent on a new engine part, we set off. The first part of our route would take us north from Cape Town and continue north through Namibia, taking in the Ai Ais hot springs, Kolmanskopp Ghost Town, the sand dunes at Sousslevei and Etosha National Park.
Namibia is one dusty country. It permeates everything. You brush your teeth in dust, shower in dust, you even sweat dust. Like, it's really really dusty. So dusty that, oh.. ok, you get the point.

Kolmanskopp ghost town is a relic from the German colonial era. It used to be a diamond mine in an area once so prolific with diamonds that they could literally be scooped up off the ground. Now, most of the inshore diamonds have been mined and exported and offshore exploration heads the way. The town is now a pseudo museum, but today it was also being used for a different purpose. In the gymkhana I made my way upstairs and came across two women. The older one was a make up artist and the younger one her mdoel. Rather than leave them to it, I asked what they were doing and found out that it was a photo shoot. Rather than leave it there I asked what the photo shoot was for. "It's a nude calender shoot". I tried hard to act cool and respond as if I heard that all the time, but being cool doesn't come naturally to me, and so instead I went red and stood there for too long a time before making my inglorious exit.
The shoot was taking place in and amongst the windowless buildings half filled with sand. Kolmanskopp is a desert town and the town is slowly but surely sinking beneath the sand. Which for me begged the obvious question, for a calendar, which shots would they use for winter? I for one did not see any santa hats in the mark up artists wardrobe. In fact I didn't see any clothes at all. Which made for a unique scene when an elderly German tourist, with some expensive looking binoculars, walked ahead of his wife and (not having knowledge of the shoot) got a view that wasn't expressly included in his entrance fee.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Set back from down under

<-'Rhino'
In amongst getting married we bought a 4x4, that would be our transport and our home for the next 4 months. It was not an altogether easy process, here's an example of why. "Hi, do you sell car radios?" "What's that?" "er.. a radio you put in your car?" "Ahhh yes, this way please sir." For those that might be interested, (i.e. no one) the car we bought was a Mitsubishi Colt, 2.8TDi and we paid about £8000 for it in the hope that we would recoup most if not all of that when we came to sell it later. We were lucky enough to find an Australian couple selling the car who had just done an oddly similar trip to ours. The car was fully kitted out, right down to a kettle and adapter plugs for all the countries we were going to visit. The one thing it wasn't fitted with though was a fully functioning engine. The new cyclinder head we needed cost us close to £2000, 10 days delay and a good dose of despondency. When the automobile was first sold in the US, it was so unreliable that people used to shout 'get a horse!'  to anyone driving by. I started to wish we had, and not for the last time.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Africa


First, we got married. We arrived in Cape Town on 26th April. On 9th May, at 6 in the evening, we collapsed into our rented sofa, having hastily prepared everything for the wedding the following day. I took out the list of wedding jobs to marvel at what we'd accomplished. Family, check. Flowers, check. Pastor, check. Photographers, check. Rings, check. Vows, check. Venue, check. Car, check. Catering, check. Wedding permit, che ... oh dear. An hour later I staggered back through the door, sweaty and exhausted but with crumpled wedding permit held defiantly aloft. It had cost me some groveling and a crate of beer but it was on, we were getting married in the morning.

And we did. On Windmill Beach just next to Simons Town. We made our vows and Fay took particular and not altogether unsinister delight in the 'for the reeeest of your liiiife' line. We were banned from going onto Boulders Beach, home of a huge Jackass penguin colony, presumably for being too underdressed for the penguins, but apart from that the day was mostly seamless. Things could of gone awry when we took everyone for fish and chips for lunch at Kalk Bay. One of the waitresses took a shine to the new groom, that being me. The waitress in question was about 60, very short, with few teeth, the calves of Jonah Lomo and was utterly, and undeniably insane. There was talk of a second wife and of knives but it was all in reasonably, if slightly tense, good humour, and we all got out alive and I managed to avoid two weddings in one day. And that was it! We were married, for the reeeesssst of our liiiiiiives.




my nearly second wife

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Not the motorcycle diaries


 Lake Hawea, South Island

Panning for gold

Start of the Routeburn Trek



New Zealand is the land of the public toilet. Never in the history of the world have public toilets been prioritised in the way they have in New Zealand. There are a staggering amount. So much so that McDonalds don't even need to put up a 'customer only' notice on their toilet doors. There's no need. Some toilets, like the one in Picton, have robotic voices that greet you, play classical music whilst you go about your business, and then bid you a tearful farewell. Every time I went in Picton I felt like I'd made a new friend.

If New Zealand's toilets are its international showpiece, then it's gardeners are it's embarrassing illness. In Queenstown, Fay and I stayed at a campsite that had a much needed washing machine. After washing our clothes, I erected a clothesline, not more than 4 feet across, and hung our washing on it. One of the campsite gardeners approached and I suspected that there might be some trouble, so in an effort to pre-empt and appease the situation I offered to help move some debris out the way of his lawnmower. I had misjudged the situation entirely, this character was the lowest form of our species I have yet encountered. 'No washing lines allowed here' he responded, barely acknowledging my gracious offer of peace. 'Why's that?' I asked, eminently reasonably. 'Because someone might walk into it'. It was only then I realised  that I wasn't actually dealing with a member of the same species at all, but a moronic impersonator of a human being, sent from some evil alien race in order to breed with humans, and reduce the average IQ level to such a minuscule number that before we know it we'll be growing gills and splashing around in the mud soup from which we originated. I tried to reason with him 'The clothes line is covered in clothes, you won't walk into it'. 'You've got to move it.' 'But why?'. 'Because someone might walk into it.' In order to avoid this roundabout of logic, I tried a different tack. 'So do you want me to move the van too? In case someone walks into that.' And with that, Fay sensibly intervened and pulled me away, and I went and sat on a toilet friend to calm down.

A couple of weeks later I had calmed down enough for Fay and I to start the three day Tuatapere Hump Ridge Track at the very South West of the South Island. Each day is about 18km and the route follows coastline, alpine scenery and forest, and is tough but entirely worthwhile. At the end of the first day Fay and I climbed a hill and broke out from the forest into an area of some remarkable views. Some of the flora there is fragile and a long wooden boardwalk has been built to protect it, a boardwalk that is covered in chicken wire to assist those who are balance challenged. At the summit of this hill (hill because Fay made me promise never to do it on top of a mountain), I got down on one knee and (whilst grimacing from the pain of the chicken wire) asked Fay to marry me. I had cleverly plied her with mouthfuls of chocolate first and was pleased when she clarified that her initial 'yggghhmmmpphhh' was actually a yes. Fiance that.


The chickenwire proposal



Sliding doors


I ended my travels of South America with a series of mammoth bus journeys. From Bariloche to Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires to Iguazu Falls and from there to Sao Paulo. The Brazillian side of the Iguazu Falls was so spectuclar I found it hard to not to scream. The Argentinian side, for a grumpy old git like me, was entirely ruined by having people everywhere.
I then found myself with two options. Stay in Brazil for the Rio Carnival, or go to Scotland with Flem and Bertie. I barely had to think about it.


Thursday, June 16, 2011

Why climb?



<- The view from Aguja Guillmet
                                                Fitzroy at sunrise ->

The climbing chapter of my gap year (yah?) took place in Argentina and began, as so many things tend to, on the internet. Having no climbing partners this side of the Atlantic, I took out some lonely hearts ads on as many climbing web sites as I could and within not too long a time, the itinerary for the next two months had unfurled itself. And so it was that just after the new year, near Mendoza, I met up with Erik and Bill, two New Yorkers who work in film, and then a couple of weeks later to Buenos Aries to meet Alex, a... geography teacher from... Sheffield.

The climbing split into three parts, the first was with Bill and Erik in a place called Los Aranales, near Tunujan. The area is not that well known outside of South America, but offers some great adventure climbing in a valley on the border of Argentina and Chile. The refugio we stayed next to was guarded by two kittens, who had been introduced to deal with the mouse infestation but were so successful that they had now moved on to the unfortunate bird population. All climbers food was also considered fur game.





<- Charles Daniels route



The second part was in El Chalten, Patagonia, with Alex and later Bill. An intimidating and upside down world where waterfalls fall upwards, snow follows you up the mountains and the wind blows so strongly that tying your shoelaces becomes a major ordeal.

video


Lastly Bill and I headed up to The Frey, near Bariloche. The walk in is long, about 5 hours uphill with a 25kg backpack in the hot hot sun. But it's entirely worth it. A beautiful place with equally great climbing. There is a refugio set on a lake and many climbers camp nearby. The refugio sells delicious, wholesome food and plays reggae music to those climbers and walkers taking a lazy day by the lake. The bohemian atmosphere is encapsulated in the hippies walking the slack lines over the lake.



<-Tomas Pecman (right), Bill (middle) and me





One of the climbers I met there and climbed with was the least likely Doctor in the world. A crazy, hard drinking Czech guy called Fred. His equipment looked like it was made during  WW2 (in some of it fact it was made by his brother who is a 'blacksmith' as a hobby). I climbed with him one day on a difficult route near the refugio. Half way up the final pitch (a long crack on an otherwise blank face) I was running out of steam and shouted down to him to ask if his gear was safe? 'Yep. Don't worry!' came his response. After I'd finished leading this crack, a couple of hundred metres in air and he had climbed up to meet me, I thanked him for his reassuring words, his response? 'Well, I don't trust it but telling you that wouldn't have helped you climb the route'

<-Tomas Pecman, the crack and some dodgy gear



<- Armonica
Armonica is the route in Los Aranales I remember most fondly.  In the Frey there are endless lines to choose from, but Principale is pretty special and we Bill and I were serenaded by condors at the summit .


In Patagonia the highlight was climbing the Amy Coulouir route to reach the summit of Aguja Guillemet.
 <-Aguja Guillemt

 <- The Amy Coulouir




Climbing's a strange fish. You spend thousands of pounds on equipment to save your life. But to save your life in situations that you intentionally and unnecessarily put yourself in, despite common sense screaming at you not to. You lug equipment across continents and up mountains, and then down again, through hour after hour of tortuous moraine fields. You eat rehydrated food that you wish tasted as good as cardboard, 'food' that is only given any texture by the grit that inevitably sneaks its way in. You 'sleep' in a tent not big enough for one, with complete strangers, battered by the wind and rain. You have blisters on your blisters, aching knees and arms and pain just about anywhere you can think of. Every trip is a mix of frustration, elation, terror, panic, boredom, ecstasy and panic. When you think you're about to die for the umpteenth time that day, you promise yourself NEVER AGAIN.
Then you get back, you shower, have a cup of tea and before it's had time to cool, you're planning the next outing, oblivious to pain you've just put yourself through, recalling only those isolated moments of unbridled peace at the belay and the astounding beauty of the mountains... Come to think of it, those blisters weren't that bad were they?...

Sunday, May 29, 2011

18 to 30s (to 18)


After departing from Fay, I found myself fending for myself for a while. No longer being able to afford the luxury of double rooms, I had to make use of the only financially viable alternative, the hostel dorm room. I would arrive at these establishments and more often than not, find to my horror that the average age is 18, everybody was inflecting the ends of their sentenCES, and that the name of the game was to party. With trepidation I would choose my bed, carefully and strategically lay out my eye blankets and ear plugs on my bedside table, fearful of all night dorm room parties. Then 4am comes round, and the inevitable rattling of the wrong key in the lock, followed by the other wrong key, followed by slamming of door against wall, a drunken, shouted, giggly whisper of 'SHORRY', trying to get into the wrong bed, missing the toilet bowl, turning on the main light, eating crisps... Eventually though, through my drunken haze, I do usually identify my own bed and clamber into it and then annoy my 'roomies' all the more by getting up early doors and moaning about my poor head. Poor Ollie.

Mingle Bells


Xmas itself took place at a hostel in Valparaiso. A city full of life. Imagine Brighton, with a similar percentage of real hippies, but replace the Londoners and trustafarians with criminals (and obviously greatly improve the quality of the citizens), add in a whole lot of hills and replace the pebbles with sand.

Hostel life is strange. A convergence of all kinds of people from all parts of the world. The chances of all the people we spent Xmas with being in the same place at the same time were infinite, or definite, or somewhere in between depending on your take on things. We arrived at Lunar Sonrisa on Xmas Eve and were fortunate enough (whether it was  predestined or not) that the 10 or so people staying there got on magically well and we spent a very happy Xmas together drinking and eating and beaching and swimming in the very cold Pacific Ocean, my first dip in that not insubstantial pool of water.

Skip forward to New years Eve and to Mendoza, Argentina. At midnight you may well imagine fireworks, champagne and merriment. You'd be close, but not very. Replace all that with me stuck on the toilet, thunderstorms and torrential rain outside, a brief foray onto the empty streets accompanied by the obligatory stray dog, playing the 'Yani' card game, stuck in our hostel room as the bell struck 12, and in a state of mild hallucination me confusedly pouring our one bottle of champagne down the sink. Happy new year!

But not so happy as Fay and I parted ways for the next two months. Me to head off climbing in Argentina and Chile and Fay to travel down from Puerto Mont to Puerto Natales by boat. A boat which had such a bad track record that they renamed it, and it's apparently been much better since.

A long time ago, in a continent far far away...

Even before Xmas, THAT long ago. Fay and I went to an astronomical observatory in Mamaluca, Chile. We were introduced to the amazing Stellarium (google it). A free computer program which lets you pick any point on the globe, and look thousands of years into the past or future at the night's sky. Fascinating stuff. The stargazing itself was hampered by the sky being lit up by a full moon and it being the longest day of the year. But we did learn things. One of those things is that we are all stardust. All of us are made up of matter that has been there from the beginning of time. When the big bang happened, we were all there, with ringside seats. BOOOOOOOOOOOM. It's a difficult thought to contemplate, like trying to stop the room from spinning when you lie down to sleep after a night drinking Vermouth. Science can explain many things. There is a huge telescope in Chile, imaginatively named the 'Very Large Telescope' which is run by the European Space Agency. In order to keep up with the Jones', the USA are developng a new larger, 'Very Very Extraordinarily Large Telescope' that we were told will be able to see so far, and hence so far into the past, that we will be able to look at the dawn of the universe. But there remain many things science can't explain. Like frappucinos, goatee beards and Simon Cowell. That what is essentially stardust can evolve to be a goatee wearing, frappucino drinking, sentient being is, well, a bit nuts isn't it? Whilst I remain FIERCELY agnostic (?), if there is a god, then one thing is for certain, she's not normal.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Bound to the hound

Bound to the hound

Between Bahia Ingles and Santiago is La Serena. Very much a part travelling as a couple is spending some quality apart, and so it was that I was sitting alone on a bench in the central plaza. My few items of clothing had the benefit of a washing machine for a considerable time and shaving hadn't been high on my list of priorities of late. A bloody scar still marked my forehead and for all intents and purposes I looked somewhere between a traveller and a vagrant. That seesaw was tipped firmly into the vagrant position when a stray dog approached and i was foolish enough to make the slightest eye contact with him. The game was up, in that instant he knew he'd found his rightful master and he knew we would be inseparable from here out, man and dog, dog and man. I left the the square and headed towards town and as I had expected, he followed. I went into banks, he waited outside, undeterred by the physical attempts of security guards to move him on. I went into shopping malls, libraries, cafes and each time upon my exit, was met with a wagging tail. If, for the slightest moment, he thought he'd lost me, there was instant panic on his little doggy face and a desperate search to find me followed. The thought then occurred to me, how was it all going to end? I couldn't think of a happy ending. So I told him in firm tones that he was unwanted and shooed him away. I told him he was a bad dog and he crept away with tail between his legs and the most hurt look in face. I had to be hard nosed and hold back the tears until he was out of sight.
In fact thats what I should have done, but I'm far too much of a coward. What I actually did was this. Whilst walking along the high street, Sandy happily trotted ahead a few paces, I saw my opportunity, noticed an alley to my left, and before I knew what I was doing, I darted inside. Through the shop window I could see his frantic searching but to my eternal shame I hid in the alley until he continued his search further up the street and then sloped off back the way I came, tail very much between my own legs.

Sent from my iPawd

Friday, February 11, 2011

The incident

The incident
Things didn't begin well in Bahia Ingles, we arrived in the small holiday beach town just before Xmas. A fruitless search for a cheap and friendly hostel meant spending a few nights in a not cheap and (it turns out) not friendly apartment. But an apartment nonetheless close to the beach and with some good views, both in and out. A morning's snoozing on the beach was followed by a well earned siesta for me whilst fay got on with some washing in the bathroom. I quickly fell into a deep slumber, so deep, and fay so engrossed in the washing, that we were entirely unaware of some scally enjoying the view into the apartment too much, hopping a gate, through an open window and helping themselves to Fay's not inexpensive camera. Judging by the (non) response of the police, crime in Bahia Ingles is not normally on the menu, but they provided us with a certificate for insurance and to ensure there were no problems with the claim, Fay took a statement, in Spanish, from the apparently enthusiastically helpful apartment owner. A statement that was promptly submitted to the insurance company in the UK, and which was later translated as saying 'due to their own negligence in leaving a window open the burglary took place'. Grrrrrrr, some people.

There followed a couple of days on the beach, interspersed with calls to insurance companies and seafood that for Fay carried a fishy taste of resentment. The camera had been her constant companion and she took it's loss hard. Not too soon it became time to move on and so we headed to the nearby town to buy some bus tickets to Santiago. I found the Turbus office and left Fay in the library where we had been stealing some free wifi.

I had spent some time, albeit not enough, learning Spanish before I left and in Bolivia and Peru it had been steadily improving and my confidence with it. As soon as we crossed the border into Chile, I may as well have been learning Welsh. With this is mind I wanted to start somewhere easy and buying bus tickets seemed the perfect opportunity. "A que hora la ultimo bus a Santiago?" which, whilst undoubtedly not perfect Spanish, was understood and from there on the conversation went well and I was feeling pretty happy and pleased not to have made a fool out of myself in front of the queue. I paid the lady, flashed her a satisfied smile, picked up my tickets with an exaggerated flourish, then turned and walked out at full pelt, face first into the column that stood in the middle of the office. The sound was huge and I didn't realise straight away (being concust) but I had blood pouring from the gash across my forehead. There was a moment of confusion, everyone stunned, and I did the only thing any right minded man could do, and that was to run, head down, stumbling in a fog of embarrassment back to the library to greet Fay and the library staff with a manic grin and blood soaked face.

The scar is still there, like half a ligtning strike across my forehead, a constant reminder, not that I'm a gifted (if annoying) young wizard who will save the earth many times over, but that I'm a man who walks head first into brick pillars.


Sent from my iPod

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Draking

Draking

'Who here's BRITISH?' a voice bellowed and startled myself and the only other two people, a German couple, sitting at the other table in the cafe. The idyllic setting for this next mini saga is Pan de Azucar, on the coast in middle Chile. It is a remote and deserted but beautiful area of coastline. It has dangerous seas, high winds and long, white, sandy beaches, interrupted by jagged hills protruding into the sea. There is a camp site on the beach and at the end of the dirt road a tiny fishing village, made up of about 5 shacks and a makeshift cafe, at which the Germans and I had until very recently been enjoying a relaxing moment of calm. Little did any of us know that this very place, the Pan de Azucar or 'Sugar Loaf' had once been the setting for a wholly forgettable and insignificant event in the life of Sir Francis Drake which, if he were still alive, no doubt even he would have entirely forgotten about. But one man hasn't, and that man is Michael Turner, inventor of that unstoppable feast of a new craze, Draking ( www.indrakeswake.co.uk ). Ruddy faced, sunburnt and mostly naked, he is the epitome of and eccentric Englishman. As far as i could see it, there was only one option in response to his question of nationality and that was to keep very very quiet, still, and try and look as non English as possible. I opted for a permanent gallic shrug and sneer in the hope he would think me French. At first my ploy appeared to have worked, maybe my tranquil cove would stay just that for some time more. He struck up a conversation with the German couple, and I was more than happy to let them struggle on, my Englishness a well hidden secret. But it couldn't last. Before I knew it I had fetched Fay, donned a life jacket and was thigh deep in treacherous sea with a naked Draker, two Germans and Fay, boarding a little motor boat. We were in search of the anchorage at which Drake had moored his boat during his voyage of piracy around South America. The story of Drake's piracy and daring at Pan de Azucar went like this:
Drake moored there many sugar loafs ago. One of his most pressing concerns was the need for fresh water. With that in mind he stopped at Pan de Azucur. He took a small boat ashore, spoke (and presumably gestured wildly) to some natives indicating his need for water. In my mind's eye the natives had a sense of humour and pointed to the sea repeatedly, enraging Drake. But the upshot of it all was that there was no fresh water, and Drake continued on his way, his appetite for risk and high sea adventures no doubt satiated. And as they would say in Private Eye, er.... that's it.