Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Set back from down under

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


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.

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?...