A Travellerspoint blog

Peru

On the Inca trail

We finish off in Quito with a night on the town with Jasen and one too many pisco sours, hangovers in altitude really are the pits!

We´ve decided to get to Cusco a couple of days early to acclimatise before we start the Inca trek. Cusco is a very charming city and we make the most of the fine weather by visiting a few places, our favourite being Pisac. It is in the foothills of the mountains and is truly stunning with an old world vibe. Later on as part of the Inca trail we also visit the ruins at Pisac which again blows us away. Its not just the stunning scenary but the history and the people who live in and around Cusco which we absoutely love.

One the eve of our trek we meet up with the rest of our group as well as our guide Jose. Gavin and I have been dreading this for ages, it is by far our most difficult physical challenge to date and exercise really is not our thing. As we size up the people in our group - made up of fitness and yoga instructors as well as young people and outdoorsey types we get a sinking feeling in our stomachs. What on earth are we doing? We support and encourage each other, there´s no backing now so we get with packing our bags for the next five days...

Day 1 as with all days begins super early as we have to leave by 7am. We get to our first destination a very small village that still uses some of the old weaving methods. The women of the village show us how they use plants and insects to dye the wool into various colours before its made into hats, scarves, blankets etc.

Next we stop at the Sacred Valley, named so because of the ecosystem that allows the locals to grow crops all year round which are supplied to Cusco and surrounding areas. I know we keep saying it, but the valley is beautiful, so serene and peaceful that one could easily spend quite a bit of time sitting on a rock and watching the wonder of nature in front of you. We however have to get to Pisac so its back on the bus and onwards to the next destination.

Jose leads the trek at Pisac showing us around stopping every so often for us to take pictures. Someone makes a comment about the many steep steps and Jose informs us that there are 5000 of them to get through on the Inca trail. Joy. Our education about the Incas begins with the architecture and how the Sun Temple is the focal point at every site. We soak up the stories like sponges and ask many many questions to try and understand the ancient civilisation. The one thing that amazes everyone though is how they managed to build so high up in the mountains without any machinery. Every building block is the same size and completely smooth. Everyone is tired and ready for a nap after the short trek in sweltering heat so save for the growing stomaches the journey to lunch is very quiet. I think everyone is a little worried about what is to come ahead...

After lunch we head to the village of Ollyantambo where we will be spending the night before starting the trek the following morning. We check into our hostel and Jose rounds us up to take us to the ruins in the village. We all clamber up the steps and once again Jose rewards us with story time about the Incas. We get a chance to explore the ruins before going back down for last preparations and an early night before the trek begins.

Posted by Gavness 15:09 Comments (0)

ENTER THE GALAPAGOS!!!!

A week of living in a BBC documentary...

Oh man I'm so excited I may vomit. I've got Neeta and Jasen with me, and we're about to get on a boat where we'll be sailing for 8 days around the Galapagos Islands, a place that I've been longing to visit ever since my mum bought me a David Attenborough book called The Living Planet when I was 10 years old. It's taken me 21 years to get here, but I'm here! To make it even better, Neet and Jase are here to share the experience.

The first day we are on Baltra Island and we are greeted at the harbour by some friends who we will be meeting pretty much every day on our trip, the Galapagos Sea Lions, Marine Iguanas and high above us, the gigantic frigate birds. The shock is both immediate and jaw dropping. We haven't even stepped onto the boat yet and already there's enough wildlife here on the jetty to keep me interested for hours. Its amazing and a great taster of what's to come.

Pablo our Ecuadorian guide has lived on Galapagos since he was 3 years old and seems to know his stuff, his speciality is marine life which is great as we'll be doing deep sea snorkelling twice a day. We are taken swiftly through the safety procedures of our boat and given a little tour. It's a nice little vessel, the cabins are cute, very small but cute and its got a bar and a dining area, everything you need really. This trip is not about the accomodation though, we have to accept that it will be a little less comfortable than we are used to, we are here to get a brief glimpse into the lives of animals in a way that cannot be acheived anywhere else in the world. When Charles Darwin arrived here on the Beagle in 1832 he had no idea what was waiting for him. I kind of feel the same excitement building...

As the boat makes it`s slow departure across the water we get our first of many Jurrassic Park moments to come, the prehistoric Frigate birds. These birds are an endemic species to the Galapagos and take great pleasure in following the tour boats wherever they go. To say these birds are huge is a horrible understatement. With an average wingspan of 2 meters and a body length of about the same there`s nothing to prepare you fully for the sight of these birds riding the updrafts from the boat, a mere couple of feet from you. You could literally reach out and touch them. A couple of huge pelicans also decide to hitch a ride and perch themselves on the railings alongside the boat. This is amazing. 20 minutes into the trip and I already feel like this is something that could never be recreated anywhere in the world. It is truly awe-inspiring.

So the trip itself will involve a total of 8 days sailing amongst the islands, snorkelling twice a day in deep water interspersed with dry landings to observe the island wildlife. Our trip will take us to North Symore, Baltra, Rabida, Santiago, Bartolome, Chinese Hat, Islas Plazas, Santa Fe and the Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz, Santa Maria and finally Espanola. In short we will be seeing the very best of the Islands on Galapagos and hopefully the very best of the animals.

To go into immense detail would take far too long but I'd like to give everyone at home a glimpse of how spectacular this place really is. Our first activity is snorkelling and my, Neeta and Jasen's first time in a wetsuit. We look ridiculous, like giant penguins. We jump onto the dinghy and sail out to the dive spot, no sooner than we are on the boat a huge manta ray swims right past us, I'm gobsmaked! Manta is spanish for Blanket, and I finally understand why they're called Manta Rays. It's like huge blanket floating in the water. The snorkelling goes well, the shock of the freezing water soon subsides after you stick your head under for the first time and see the amazing schools of fish, thousands of them, huge parrot fish, angel fish and scorpion fish. We catch a bit of bad luck and get caught in a jelly fish swarm, quite a few people, including Jasen, get stung but they are very small Jellies so the damage is not overly serious, extremely painful for them though. All in all, the first look under water was amazing but not even a scratch on what's to come later. During our trip we encounter sea turtles, sharks, sting rays and sea lions, all eager to swim with us. Today was just a taster.

Our landing today is on North Seymore and we are greeted by the ubiquitous sea lions who rule the islands around Galapagos. The uniqueness of Galapagos is not necessarily in the amount of animals here or the type even, its more in the way they react to humans that is the most interesting aspect. Galapagos is unique in that the ecosystem and food chain allows for most land mammals and reptiles to thrive without threat from any natural predators. These animals have nothing to fear on land, in the sea, the sea lions are at threat from the sharks but that's about it. On land, they couldn't care less how close you get to them, and that's true of the iguanas, lizards, birds, everything on these islands lives a relatively hassle free lifestyle. They dont have to worry about lions and tigers and birds of prey swooping down to eat them every other minute. They laze about, relaxing and are as curious about us as we are about them. We've had many a staring contest with the sea lions. This, for me at least, is the whole reason for visiting the Galapagos, the beauty of this place is certainly in the landscape, but more in the relationship and connection you can forge with these animals. It makes you realise that we share this planet with so many other amazing creatures, and they are not so different from us. Watching a sea lion mother with her newborn pup demonstrates the similarities between us clearly, the nurturing, the guidance, the correction, the teaching. We are all mammals after all, and our differences lie primarily in the development of our brains, at our most basic and instinctive however, we are all pretty much the same. We just want to be happy and look after our friends and family. These animals are no different.

As we trek across North Seymore we come accross the beautiful frigate birds who are in nesting season at the moment. The frigates are often referred to as the "pirates of the sky", and for good reason. These birds lack a certain gland that produces the oil that makes their feathers waterproof, as such they cant dive into the water like the other sea birds to catch fish. As a result they've basically learnt how to steal food from everyone else. They glide and patrol the sky waiting for a Gull or a Boobie to catch a fish, they will then swoop down and poach it right out of their beaks, or alternatively force them to drop it and then collect the spoils. Ingenious birds, they work in packs (or gangs) and do pretty well. I've renamed them "the theiving bastards of the sky" as a more appropriate description. The other interesting activity we managed to see with the frigates was the nesting. The males build the nests in this species and their job is to find and use the best materials and select the best location to build a nest. Once it's built they sit in it and puff out the bright red pouches under their necks to attract the female. If she likes the size of his pouch and the quality of the home he's built she mates with him. A lot like humans really.

Next we observe the famous blue footed boobies (or BFB's). These are sea birds and have, well, blue feet as the name suggests. I really loved them, especially their mating dance and calls. They make a sound like a whistle going off and their mating ritual sees the male walking slowly and purposefully towards a female, lifting his blue feet high and gracefully to show the female how cool his shoes are. The nicer the shoes, the more chance he has, again not too different from a night out in Croydon.

The next spot to note is the beautiful Rabida Island, a red sand beach was our first stop where we could sit in the water with gigantic pelicans bombing into the water all around us catching fish. That was for me a unique experience, a feeling of truly being amongst the daily routine of these animals, observing from the inside out. Something I dont think you could ever experience anywhere else in the world. Rabida was the first island where we came accross the male sea lions, these guys are seriously territorial and we learnt that first hand when one particularly large and surly fellow decides to block our path on our way up a hill. He was not budging, sitting with his head high and proud, making his body as big as he could to let us know who this patch of land belonged to. We Just had to wait until he felt the threat to his manhood was not at risk, that was of course not before he decided to do a massive sneeze erupting gallons of snot everywhere! Gross!

The snorkelling off Rabida was just amazing and Jase and I snorkelled together for a while and caught a glimpse of a white tipped reef shark. The feeling was undescribable. You feel fear but also amazement and you just want to go deeper to swim with them.

After lunch we sail to Puerto Egas on Santiago Island and this is one of the most incredible snorkelling spots. The rock formations under the water are incredible, the reefs are stunning and because of the amount of sea vegetation we are suddenly surrounded by sea turtles feeding and gliding along the warm currents. Some are juveniles, some are huge adults, one in particular, who I call Patch, has a white mark on his back, a parasite that is common in sea turtles, I break off from the group and follow Patch around for a good 15 minutes. He's totally unphased by me and I get really close, watching him munch on the plants and just marvelling at how he seems to float along, flying in the water with his huge flippers. I can't describe how beautiful these animals are and seeing them in their natural environment less than a meter away from your face is a truly spiritual experience. It was another one of those moments for me where I realised how sheltered and enclosed a life I'd been living, with all this beauty in the world I was more concerned with buying a TV or a playstation or an iphone, but seeing this with my own eyes I realised how much I had been missing. This is what life should be about, discovery.

On land in Puerto Egas was where we got our first taste of the reptilian army that the Galapagos is known for. The Marine iguanas, these black and red lizards are frankly monstrous looking but are in fact harmless vegetarians and totally uninterested in humans or much else. There are literally hundreds of these guys, all clustered in groups lazing in the sun for their daily dose of blood-warming. Some of them are at least a meter long, some bigger, but there's something cute about them, even though your first reaction would be to run screaming uncontrollably that dinosaurs were still alive. We have dubbed the iguanas on Galapagos as the "land monsters" and we have yet to encounter the biggest land monsters yet, the trully jurrasic land Iguanas of the Plaza Islands. Puerto Egas also houses some incredible landscape, Lava Rock formations on this island are amongst the most unique in the world. They are incredibily complex and intricate, dotted with the bright orange and red of the Sally Lightfoot Crabs that swarm the lava, picking fights with the baby sea lions, the grumpy old gits that they are. :)

The night on the boat tonight is a killer, the sea is so rough that we just get thrown from end to end, praying for some relief. The nausea pills only work if you take them an hour before you set off, which I unfortunately did not do, so the 12 hours of sailing through the night was unpleasant to say the least. Eventually though we arrive in the morning at Chinese Hat, an island that looks unsurprisingly like a big chinese hat. Essentially a volcano it is one of many on the islands, Galapagos being a collection of active and dead volcanoes, the last eruption having occurred only 8 months ago. The beauty of this place is that it is always changing. These islands were not formed, like Mauritius for example which is also a volcanic island, by lava flowing from a volcano on land, they sprouted straight from under the sea and as the volcanoes continue to erupt, the islands will eventually change shape and may possibly even merge in some areas. Chinese Hat gives us our first look at a lava tube, a formation created when a lava flow develops a crust, which thickens and forms a roof above the still-flowing lava from a volcanic eruption.

As we walk towards the beach we meet a new born sea lion, maybe a week old, playing on the rocks. He's a curious chap, obviously learning about his environment and wondering what the hell these hairless apes are doing gawping at him. The remains of his mothers placenta can still be seen a few feet away, Pablo, our guide explains that it will have been eaten by the Galapagos hawks. Yum. Soon after, we jump into the ocean for snorkelling and today is our first swim with the sea lions, three adults to be precise who dart and twirl and jet past us like torpedoes. They are so fast, I cant quite get my head around how they can propel themselves through the water so quickly. They are so close they brush past me and Jasen, unfortunately Neeta missed them today, they swim like rockets up to our faces then dart off just before colliding with us, obviously a little game they like to play to try and scare us! My god these things are amazing, this could well be the best experience of my life. As an added treat I also spot a marine iguana paddling through the water like a dog, its so funny to just see their head above the water swimming like a child wearing arm floats!

Today is a dream, one of the best experiences ever, and it's not over yet as we head to Bartolome to marvel at the geological wonders of the islands, the amazing pinacle rock and the double beach. I wont bother explainig, I'll just show you these pictures for you to understand how incredible this landscape is.

After the walk we jump onto the dinghy and spot three little Galapagos penguins standing deep in thought on a nearby rock, they are really cute, the smallest breed of penguin in the world and quite fat :)

The Plaza Islands are our next stop where we see the giant cactus trees and the land iguanas munching on their leaves, scratching away to remove the spines. Santa Fe is next where the beach landing brings us face to face with an immense sea lion colony, at least 40 of them sleeping, playing and generally lazing about. They are so funny, trying to get comfortable on top of each other, using each other as pillows. After the excursion we have some free time on the boat, its a beautiful day and Neet, Jase and the girls lounge about in front while I take a nap. Neet wakes me up to the sight of 2 sea lion babies swimming around the boat, I decide to make the most of the opportunity and dive into the water... without a wetsuit. The cold cuts me like a knife but the seals are worth it, they are cheeky little things! Later on we go out on a proper snorkel, spotting sting rays, eagle rays and then a couple of juvenile sea lions. I'm off swimming with a couple of adults when suddenly I hear screams. It seems that one of the sea lions is getting over excited and starts to bite our group, only playfully but they dont like it. Everyone scrambles onto the boat, Jasen gets a mouthful of seal on his arm and I decide to get a bit closer to see what's going on. Sure enough, the little blighter is very curious and he starts desperately trying to pull my flippers off with his teeth! It's pretty funny actually, basically you have to think about them like puppies, they just want to play with you, but when you're in the middle of the ocean with sharks swimming under you, any kind of unusual activity is a little scary! :)

The next day is Darwin Research Station and something I've been waiting for for a while now. The word Galapagos means "saddle" and the island is named after the giant galapagos or "saddle backed" tortoise. Santa Cruz is home to these giant reptiles and also home to the sad old "Lonesome George", a tortoise whose life story is as sad as it is frankly hilarious. George was part of a species endemic to Pinta island whose brothers and sisters were completely wiped out by pirates in the 19th Century. Pirates used the Galapagos islands frequently as a place to escape the authorities, bury treasure and stock up on food, that food being the Giant Tortoise. Much like they did in Mauritius and the Seychelles, these guys would collect as many of these huge animals as they could and stack them, one on top of the other, on their ships for the long voyage ahead. You see, without refrigeration fresh meat was scarce and the pirates soon discovered that these tortoises could survive for up to 1 year without food or water. That meant that they could store them alive for long periods of time as a source of fresh meat. The practice became so widespread that soon the populace of over 150,000 adult giant tortoises became less than 10,000 and now a serious breeding program is in process to repopulate the original inhabitants of these islands. Santa Cruz is the home of the breeding program and George's story flows from the early history of the Pinta pirates. Basically the pirates stole every single tortoise from Pinta except for George who was still in an egg at the time. He managed to hatch and survive and soon found himself as the only tortoise on the whole island. George is the very last of his species and the program has been trying for the last 50 years to get him to breed. The problem? He doesn't know he's a tortoise. Having lived in solitude for so long on Pinta, George didn't have the same education as a normal tortoise, he was never able to observe other tortoises and so simply didn't learn how to do the business. He's totally uninterested in sexy female tortoises, no matter how many they doll up and put in his enclosure with him. Neeta finds George's story very sad and asks the boys to have a quiet word with George to offer words of encouragement. Poor thing! I have hope George will learn how to do the tortoise tango one day! Until then, keep on eating George, you'll need your strength when the time comes :)

We walk around the sanctuary for a bit until we come to the big boys, a group of adult Galapagos Tortoises. Now I've seen giant tortoises before, but nothing like the size of these things. It's actually quite unsettling to see something which is normally so small, SO BIG! They are dinosaurs, there is no other way to put it. The guys from our boat are leaving us today as they are only on the 5 day trip but we get to visit these tortoises in the wild later in the afternoon. I cant wait!

One of the main highlights of the whole trip happened the next day on Floreana Island. We arrive at Green sand beach, which from afar doesn't really look green but when you pick up a handfull you see the tiny flecks of olivine crystals, like tiny emeralds. Amazing. After passing a dead pelican, this is the wild after all and you do see a LOT of dead animals, we head to flour beach, named for its INCREDIBLE sand. There would be no way to distinguish this sand from white plain flour unless you tasted it, it really is that amazing. Flour beach however houses one of the most unbelievable things I've ever seen in my life. The shore of the beach is full of microscopic organisms that are a buffet for stingrays. The result is that hundreds of rays sit right on the shore in the lap of the waves feeding on them, we walked into the water and suddenly you have a load of stingrays swimming around your feet. Every now and again you feel their waxy, slimy skin against your feet and you have to resist the urge to make a sudden movement, its like a big tongue!:) The danger is that if you jump or run, they could sting, and well, that would be the end of you... luckily we didn't. Experiencing something like that is one of those moments that you make a conscious note that you will never, ever, as long as you live, forget this moment on this day, the 14th of July 2010 when I stood in a pile of ravenous stingrays :)

Our last full day on Galapagos follows, today we visit the oldest island in the archipeligo, Espanola. Having had the longest time to develop from an evolutionary perspective the animals are bigger. A LOT bigger. The Land Iguanas are like small dogs, the lava lizards which were normally the size of a finger are now a foot long. The real draw of this place though is the famed Waved Albatross, the largest sea bird in the world, which breeds every year here, and only here. We'll get to that treat later, but first the snorkelling, in fact our last snorkel of the trip. I'm over the moon that as cold as it is Neet joins us on this one, as its the very best yet. The water is clear as evian and the landscape under the sea in this spot is just like swimming in a giant aquarium. The rock formations, plant life and swarms of fish light up the ocean floor like a neon light show. It's achingly beautiful. The best part though is swimming into a half submerged cave where we swam for ages with the best bunch of sea lions ever. They were brilliant, really playful and friendly, totally unafraid and we really connected with them. Thanks for the best time ever guys...

So onto, for me, probably the best wildlife experience of the trip, the Waved Albatross. Absolutely stunning birds, wingspans of around 2.5 meters and having such a stunning grace about them. I feel so privileged to have seen them here because the story of how they get here is so amazing and the rarity of seeing what we saw is so great. These birds mate for life, they choose one partner and stay with them for ever. Wherever they are born, in the exact spot that they hatch, they return there to breed themselves. No one knows how they do it or how they find the spot, they fly for thousands of miles to return and they do it every single year. I just cant begin to explain how amazing that is to me. The most incredible thing however was that we happened to be there during the best time possible, when they begin the courtship rituals to find their life partners. They select a potential mate and then begin to dance, performing complex movements and sounds with the aim of creating perfect synchronisation with the partner opposite. If they feel the synchronisation is good, then they know they've found the right mate. We sat for a good half hour watching one pair perform this mesmerising ritual. The unique thing about this moment was that you can never see it anywhere else in the world, and you would never see it here unless you came at the right time of year and even then there's no guarantee you'll get to witness it.

The last day arrives all too quickly but is no less eventfull than any other. We visit an area close to Baltra that is similar to the Amazon, very still water and mangroves creating canals in the open water. This place is special because you can sea a lot of sharks and other activity right on the surface of the water without having to snorkel. The first hit of wild life is a hoard of BFB's and pelicans perched on a lava rock. This is a prime fishing spot for the birds and they circle the water and then dive head-first into it after spotting the fish. It's like watching a missile being fired into the sea, amazing. As we head deeper into the mangrove we start to see the sharks, first one, then two, then the count is at 10 then 15. They are everywhere. We aren't justed treated to hoards of sharks either, a little family of about 4 or 5 eagle rays swims right past us, they have such beautiful colourations, brown with white spots. This was a really relaxed and beautiful way to spend the last day, just sitting on the dinghy watching the wildlife go past.

The albatrosses and the sharks...what a privilege, what a way to end this incredible, mind-boggling, fantastical adventure of a lifetime. All my life I wanted to see this place. I dreamed about it as a child, I sat glued to BBC documentaries, I read the books cover to cover. It exceeded every expectation I had. I'm convinced there's nowhere else on this planet like it. Jasen and Neet will agree, it is something that you are likely to do only once in your life but when all is said and done, when you're old and grey and thinking about what you've done and where you've been and what you've seen, you can say... I've been to Galapagos.

Posted by Gavness 15:09 Comments (0)

Ecuador!!!!!!!

JASEN ARRIVES IN QUITO!!!!!!!!

sunny 19 °C

Howdy blog readers! Hope you are all well. This is the part of the trip that I´ve been looking forward to the most. Firstly because Jasen is due to arrive tomorrow and secondly we are going to see the Galapàgos Islands in the next couple of days.

Quito is at an altitude of about 3000 meters and coming from sea-level it has had an effect on both Neeta and I. The immediate feeling is dizziness, then nausea, then complete exhaustion after taking just a few steps. It takes a little getting used to but after a day it seems to subside.

Jasen´s had a hell of a time trying to get here, his flight was cancelled out of Houston due to bad weather so he wont be here until tomorrow morning now. As long as he gets here though, that´s all that counts. So what to say about Ecuador on first impressions? Nothing to scream home about really, Quito is a big city and like all big city´s has its nice parts and bad parts. We´re in the new town, but it´s the old town of Quito that is the main attraction. We probably wont get a chance to visit however until after we return from the Galapagos.

So morning arrives and I run up to Jasen´s room! It´s so weird seeing him after so long. He looks pretty much the same but is a bit chubbier :) It´s like we never left. It´s really weird, it doesn´t feel like we´ve been apart for over 3 months. Anyway, once all the hugs and chat is over we head down to breakfast where we meet our new best buddies, Camilla and Sara from Denmark. They´re going to be on our Galapagos trip with us for 5 days. Camilla and Sara have had a spot of bother with their luggage. It never arrived. We hope it gets to the airport before we leave for Galapagos. We have the briefing from our tour operator, Gap Adventures at 5pm so until then we decide to go into town to do a few chores, make telephone calls, do laundry etc. After the mundane stuff is done we all decide to get the cable car up to the mountain heights to get some good aerial views oif Quito. It´s a pretty clear day so there´s a lot of people waiting to get on the cable cars. Once we finally get on though the views are spectacular. I´ve never been on a cable car that goes so high before, by the end of the trip we´re at 4000 meters. We can really feel the altitude here, a few steps and you´re gasping for breath.

After we´ve had our fill of high altitude sightseeing we head back to the hotel and Jase and I indulge in one of our old traditions of KFC! We have a bite to eat, chat about the trip ahead then before you know it it´s time to be briefed on the timetable for the next 10 days. We´ll be starting by getting a flight from Quito to Baltra on the Galapagos where we´ll then meet our guide then be bussed over to our boat where we´ll be living for the next week. Should be fun, not looking forward to the rough sea though. Our Galapagos adventure is about to begin....

Posted by Gavness 07:56 Archived in Ecuador Tagged events Comments (1)

South America

A few days in Chile where we felt like we belonged...

sunny 22 °C

We land in Santiago, tired and miserable from a mammoth flight from Auckland which was delayed by almost 4 hours. Nonetheless, we are here and we make our way to our home for the next few days the Ventana Sur Hostel. Coming in to land at Santiago the first thing you notice, beside the thick cloud of smog, are the amazing Andes that surround the city. Driving from the airport to the hostel is a bit of a flashback from India, they drive like lunatics here too, but we finally arrive in one piece and are glad to find that the hostel is really nice and comfortable.

Whilst Santiago is a beautiful city we didn´t have much time here and we were so run down from the previous 3 and a half months of non-stop travelling that we used this short break to just relax. We did the usual exploring of the city of course which is sprawling and metropolitan but with an amazing backdrop of snow-capped Andes. You are reminded of their constant presence as you peek in between the buildings and see snowy peaks in the distance. I liked the city, I found it relaxed and well-catered for travellers. The markets are great and the churros are delicious! Above all there´s just no hassle. You take it as easy as you like...

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For us though, this hostel proved to be the highlight of Chile. We just love it here. Ivan, you are an absolute star and you are running what must be the best accomodation in all of Chile. Everyone here feels at home and like a big family. We have made so many friends here just in the space of a few days. On our penultimate day at the hostel Ivan threw a barbecue where I had the best steak ever and the red wine flowed like water. We had planned to do some wine tasting but we decide that the bottle a night probably equates to the same thing, Chile has the best and cheapest red wine I´ve ever had! So this blog entry is just a big thank you really to Ivan and the staff at Ventana Sur for making us feel like we never wanted to leave Santiago. To the residents:- Graham, I hope you make it to India mate. Anthony, best of luck with the teaching and your new life in South America. Patricio, you´re the man, thanks for the Salsa lessons! Ivan (from spain) thanks for all the advice on travel through Peru and Bolivia. Alvaro, keep on singing those Arctic Monkey songs!

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We love you guys, we´ll be back Ventana Sur and you have a home in the UK, but for now, we´re off to Ecuador. Next stop Quito and the Galapagos Islands...

Posted by Gavness 12:25 Archived in Chile Tagged events Comments (0)

Rest of New Zealand

Quick round up

rain 18 °C

OK... so we are so far behind on our blog that in order to catch up a bit we´ve decided to do a quick round up with highlights. Here goes...

Introducing new pals - Baz and Ali

So the night of Neets birthday is just as good as the day, we find a little place where we have pizza, wine and apple pie. Whilst there we meet our soon to be new friends Baz and Ali. We get talking and soon enough they help us plan the rest of our route through the South Island and into the North Island. We will meet again along the way but we would never have imagined that it would be in the amazingly coincidental way that it did...

On the way out from Fox Glacier we pass through Greymouth and Park along the way next to a beach for the night. In the morning I noticed that we were really close to some amazing rock formations that jutt right out of the sea. It blew me away. Greymouth was the area where my second hitchhiker pick-up occurred. This time we collect a couple of guys making their way up the west coast. It`s a good laugh and we stop along the way at a spot called Hoikitiki where Baz and Ali have advised us we can pick up some good Jade. True to their word, the place is awash with Jade factories. This stuff is expensive but we find a place that has bucket loads of off-cuts that they dont want and are selling at crazy prices. We sort through the boxes finding some ridiculously large peices that are maybe just a little too rough or unpolished for the store but will make great gifts. We buy quite a few stones and decide to make them into necklaces ourselves. The only problem is, how do you put a hole into a lump of jade? The question is answered soon enough as we pass a workshop and chat up the owner who eventuallyallows me to use his equipment and drill the holes into my stones! How about that, a totally unexpected experience has presented itself and I jump at it. All said and done, I am very pleased with my first attempt behind the stone carver`s drill, without any instruction, I managed to punch perfect holes into all our peices of Jade, Neet then made the necklaces out of braided peices of string. The result! A peice of jewellery that normally would cost upwards of 150 quid, for about 25 quid! Bargain!

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On the subject of rocks in general, we also stopped along the way at a place called Punakaiki where the rocks have formed for reasons unknown to science, in pancake like stacks. It`s truly bizzarre but spectacular...

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Worth a mention is also the amazing Takaka, which was every bit as secial as everyone had been telling us. Quiet, serene, historical and religiously and culturally of enormous significance to the Maori, this place basically rocked! (Sorry for mentioning rocks so much...). Takaka is like a place where you would expect fairies and pixies and elves to live. These pics will show you what I mean...

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Marlborough Wine Tasting

We decide to spend a couple of days in the South Island in the Marlborough region where we are forced (err hmm) to go wine tasting. By now there is a bit of a pattern emerging which is that as soon as we decide to do something outdoorsy - kayaking, trekking, wine tasting the weather just turns and quite literally as soon as we set foot outside it pelts it down like there is no tomorrow. We had decided to take some bikes out for the wine tour but of course the weather has other plans and instead we take Wilma (try as we might we can´t seem to get away). We get to our first winery and meet a couple of northern lads - Liam and Karl who seem to be on the same circuit as us. We decide to meet for lunch later. Neither of us are big white wine drinkers but we change our minds as we learn a bit more. Liam and Karl give us a tip for the Forrest winery which is just closing when we arrive but as we get chatting to the manager Jim we are convinced we should return the following day. With full stomachs and buzzing heads we head back via a chocolate factory where we manage to snaffle quiet a few freebies before returning home. What a perfect day...wine, fine food and chocolate!!!

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The Queen Charlotte Track

We spend our final days in the South Island with a trek along the Charlotte track, the trek is about 4 hours for the unexperienced walker (which we are) and is awesome even though we finish well after dark and are a bit scared as we only have a small torch and mobile phone for light. Nonetheless we make it and pick yet another beautiful spot to free camp right on the pin-head of an amazing view of the Queen Charlotte Sounds. The next morning we wake up to an amazing sun rise and in honour of an amazing time in the South Island, we have a party after breakfast, Gav opens up the back doors and we blast out Michael Jackson and Drum and Bass loud enough to shake the mountains. It has to be said the sense of freedom and soaring spirit with all windows and doors open and dancing to Michael Jackson whilst overlooking a beautiful lake is undescribable. Maybe its the hippy in me or maybe I am just feeling very lucky to be feeling on top of the world.

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We set off feeling as high as kites and make our way into Picton to catch the ferry. Since we are early we stop off in town to explore and end up stumbling into a Fair Trade shop where we meet Margaret, the greatest old dear we´ve met on our travels. We talk for ages about Margaret´s amazing life, NZ and UK politics and she told us about some of the social problems in New Zealand. New Zealand´s beauty is perhaps its downfall to a certain degree to as there is a high level of alcholism and of course all the problems that go with that. There are two sides to everything and New Zealand is no different to anywhere else.

With a heavy heart we leave the South Island, I love the South Island so much that I secretly pledge my heart to it and promise it that I won´t like the North Island. Gav`s not sure why I would make such a statement but I`m convinced all the same.

South to North

So you remember we were telling you about Baz and Ali who we met at Fox Glacier. Guess what, we bump into them on the ferry crossing from Picton to Wellington! Baz and Ali run a Harley Davidson Tour company and were taking some bikes from the South Island back to their home in Waihi in the Coromandel. We all get on like a house on fire and they kindly invite us to stay with them when we get to the Coromandel. Who are we to refuse such an amazingly kind offer!

North Island Adventures

We arrive in Wellington and see more cars and people than we have seen in the last two weeks. After spending a couple of days in Wellington we begin the drive up North. The drive to the first stop Mount Tongariro is breath taking. The North Island is so different to the South Island, it is welcoming with the rolling green hills. It feels like the North Island welcomes you with open arms whereas the ruggedness of the South Island commands respect. Of course I feel guilty about breaking my promise but I am captivated by the North Island in a totally different way to the way I was with the South Island.

We had planned to do the Mount Tongariro trek but of course the weather has other plans... We go to book our spot and we are told that all treks are cancelled due to the heavy snow that has been forecast. With dampened spirits, we go forth to Lake Taupo and decide to check out Craters of the Moon as well as the Hukka Falls walk which ends with a dip in the Hot Water spring. Just five words for Hot Water Spring....best jacuzzi in the WORLD!!!

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After our first taste of geo-thermal activiti in the natural Jacuzzi, we head to the real deal, a geothermal reserve between Taupo and Rotorua called Orakeikorako. There are no words to describe this place except weird. Having never seen landscape like this the experience is somewhat like landing on the moon. WTF keeps repeating in my head. How amazing is this planet? Very.

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After a night time drive through Rotorua, we manage to find ourselves camping at a town which is a ´Haven for the over 55s´ Very surreal...it is very quiet and exceptionally clean. If it wasn´t for the few old ladies sitting outisde their front yards catching a few rays while selling the produce from their orchards, it would for sure feel like a bit of a ghost town.

Up and Round the Coromandel

We make our way to the Coromandel region and once again the weather has it in for us as just as Gav puts the shovel to the sand there is an almighty shower combined with gigantic waves which scupper our plans for a dip at the hot water beach. With soggy spirits we make our way back to the van totally convinced that we are everything is conspiring against us to spend the next two weeks together inside the tiny van. No offence to Wilma, but we need space and we need to get out and about. We try and cheer ourselves up and think of a plan B...we make our way to Catherderal Cove for a long walk. Luckily, the weather clears and we manage to go there and back without any problems.

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We decide to loop back along the west coast of the Coromandel, the only way to do this stunning drive is windows down, music blaring and not a single care in the world. As you go down the small mountain road with mountain on oneside and sea on the other it is very difficult not to let the beauty consume you. We felt a sense of freedom and abandon that we hadn´t anywhere else on our travels.

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There is a great sense of relief when we take Baz and Ali up on their offer and spend a night out of the van. Our hosts welcome us with wine and we spend some time in their hot tub before dinner. We also meet the apple of Baz´s eye in their beloved dog Buller who is as soppy as they come, a real sad face which comes to light when he gets a bit of attention. We have dinner and an early night as England is playing Germany in the world cup so we plan to get up at 1.30am to watch it. Its the first world cup game that we are watching and well the less said about the result the better.

The next morning Baz takes us through our route again so that we make the best of the next week or so. After breakkie we head down to the giant hole which is the gold mine in their town. It is surreal sight, a gigantic hole and inside you can see what look like tonka trucks going back and forth. After, I get a real treat as Baz offers me a ride on his Harley!!!!!! I get kitted out in Ali´s gear and off we go for a spin. I´m pretty sure I don´t look as cool as biker chick Ali but it is truly super cool and I am so grateful to have been on the back of a Harley. Why do Baz and Ali have super cool Harleys I hear you ask? Well, if you want to discover New Zealand by Harley, Baz and Ali are the people to go to, they will organise everything for you. Baz has an incredible amount of knowledge on all the cool places and for sure you won´t be disappointed. Baz and Ali, thank you so much for welcoming us into your home, giving us a load of information and helping us to have an amazing trip, we love you guys, you really are the best:)

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Te Matua Ngahere and Tane Mahuta

Our trek up North continues with a trip to the Trounson Kauri Park where we bow before the giant Kauri trees. We see both the oldest and tallest and are stunned by their presence. There is Te Matua Ngahere – 'Father of the Forest' rumoured to be over 2000 years old and 1200 year old Tane Mahuta which is 'The Lord of the Forest'. We are not allowed to hug them due to there delicate root systems, nonetheless, they look so wise and beautiful and if it wasn´t for the weather having it for us again we feel we could just sit, admire and talk to them for ages.

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Rainbows and Dolphins at the Bay of Islands

After a trip around the grounds where the Treaty of Waitangi is signed we book ourselves on a tour of the Bay of Islands. Despite the dark clouds we have an excellent time, the trip to the hole in the rock is a little choppy but we enjoy. The journey back is one we will probably never forget...as the boat is making its way back we see no less than 6 rainbows just one after the other. Soon after the captian notices a few dolphins by the rocks and we make our way to them. Gav and I count about 12 dolphins but we are told that there are actually about 30 altogether in the pod it just that we can only see the few that are close to the surface. We follow the dolphins for a good half and hour and its a real treat as they some and play beside the boat showing off with their belly rolls and flips. In the distance we can see how the pod is circling the fish under the water for feeding. It feels so special to see them so close up that maybe there is a glimer of hope that not eveything is against us...

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Au revouir New Zealand, Catch you later friends, Good bye Wilma

We make our way back to Auckland with a stay at my cousin Amu´s place. It feels so good to have some home- cooked food, clean clothes and a fresh bed. Also on the way back we visit my friend Nadia from college whom I haven´t seen in 15 years. It is a touching moment as old friends catch up and look at how far the other has come, we have Wilma and she has three stunning boys who we both instantly fall in love with. Gav shows then around Wilma and they absolutely love her begging their mum to let them come with us. With heavy hearts we say goodbye hoping its not another 15 years until we see each other again.

Our journey back to the airport if fraught as we get lost, we have to give Wilma back and check in for an international flight. With a tense and heavy atmosphere we make our way towards the airport and are hopelessly lost as we see the minutes ticking by. Eventually John from the rental company agrees to meet us at the airport for the handover. It all feels very rushed but we manage to give Wilma a good pat on the back, she´s been great but we are in no hurry to see her again! We make a quick dash to check in for our flight only to find out that it has been delayed for four hours. Maybe New Zealand doesn´t want us to leave after all... With bags checked in we make our way to the lounge for a big fat chill out before the long flight to Santiago.

Posted by Gavness 12:10 Archived in New Zealand Tagged events Comments (0)

Queenstown to Glacier Country

Total civilisation to nothingness...

Worth a little mention, before we got to Queenstown we stopped off at a spot called the Chasm, a huge cavernous network of caves and blowholes which was quite something. The car park believe it or not though was the real highlight, offering the best views of the snow capped mountains yet.

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Queenstown was a blast I must say. It was great to geat out of the van and the endless empty roads into some hustle and bustle. I loved Queenstown. We wandered the city eating good food, drinking loads of beer, shopping and generally lapping up the backpacker atmosphere. There's so much to do. One of the highlights for me was the luge from the top of the cable car drop off. Its a wild ride down some crazy bends at crazy speeds. The little go kart like luges are great fun. Definitely worth a try if you ever visit QT.

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What else to note... oh yes, if you're a burger fan (which I am) Fergburger is without a shadow of a doubt the best burger bar in the world. The only other thing worth a mention was that we had planned to do a tandem hang-glide from the Remarkables. We got in a bus to the mountain top but unfortunately the wind was too strong and the instructor cancelled. Shame (but I was rejoicing inside :))

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From Queenstown we made our way to the Haast region where our destination is to be Fox Glacier. If all goes to plan, we should be standing on the glacier for Neeta's birthday. On the way to Haast we need to pass through Wanaka and I decide (much to the initial dismay of Neet) that I will pick up a hitchiker who is trying to get to Wanaka. He looks harmless, his name is Damien from Holland. He's been working at farms to pay his way around Nz. Sounds like a crazy way to travel but he swears by it saying its the only way to see the real Nz. Seems to me it's the only way to see thousands of sheep, but what do I know. I found it a rewarding experience picking up a hitcher. I did a good deed for the day, met a new friend and learnt a bit about other ways people choose to travel. I'm determined to do it again somewhere along the way. Neet is not convinced... :)

We get to Wanaka and the lake is simply stunnig. One of my absolute favourites so far.

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It's short lived though as we need to hot foot it towards the Haast pass before it gets dark. The pass while short is known to be particularly treacherous in bad weather and after the gut wrenching fear of Milford, I would like to avoid any more trouser browning. There's not much you can say about the Haast region except that it is the most beautiful place in the world. Every corner turned reveals another jaw dropping vista. A stop along the way at Thundercreek falls is a treat, I am amazed at how close you can get to the waterfall. If it wasn't so cold I would have jumped right under it.

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After a long but fantastically scenic drive we finally arrive at Fox Glacier, a tiny stretch of road dotted with cafes and bars and of course the tour operators is our first stop. We enquire about getting on a tour tomorrow for Neets birthday. We have decided that we are very unlikely ever to see a Glacier again so we will splash out on this experience. We get the super duper package which gives us a private guide and all day on the Glacier, Ice Climbing and two helicopter rides including a snow landing near the top of Mount Cook. We get some much needed rest then begin our icy adventure early the next day.

So first of all a very happy birthday to Neet! :) This I imagine will be one she wont soon forget. We get introduced to our guide James in the morning who will be instructing us on the Ice Climbing side and making sure we dont die. He'll also be guiding us around the Glacier. Because we are taking a helicopter up we get to spend the day on a part of the Glacier that people dont normally see. Hikers have to walk 6 hours before spending a couple of hours near the base of the glacier. We get to zoom straight up and spend all day enjoying this amazing natural wonder.

We get kitted out first with our humoungous ice boots, crampons and ice axes for climbing. We then jump intoa bus that takes us to the helicopter. It's our first time in a helicopter and I quite like it despite my general distaste for flying. It's a much more comfortable experience going straight up as opposed to a long running take-off. The views are breathtaking. I am so overwhelmed by this place I can feel the lump in my throat fighting to jump out, my eyes are welling. This is unlike anything I've ever seen in my life. The feeling when you first catch a glimpse of fox is undescribable, and to think, we'll be landing on it any minute! The helicopter touches down, and all of a sudden it hits us. We're on a Glacier! A massive body of ice that is moving at a blinding rate of 1 meter per day, carving ino the rocky mountains either side of it. the Ice is over 200 meters deep and a fresh batch of snow last night has made it all the more beautiful. I just cant believe that this is our life, I look up and say a quick thanks to mum, without her we'd never have got here... :)

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The day is awesome, actually awesome is a ridiculous understatement. It seems weird to say but this is actually the best day of our lives. Nothing could ever come close to this. James takes us on a little hike first, we marvel at the alien landscape, the need to dig the crampons into the ice to be able to walk. We pass amazing little caves of ice, a brilliant shade of ice-blue on the inside. We have to have a go so we slide through it giggling and shrieking like school children in a park! Soon we get to the first ice wall where James teaches us the basics of ice-climbing. It's a tiny wall, no more than 10 meters to get us started. Neet goes first and she does amazingly well, picking up the tricky technique almost instantly. It takes me a little longer to get used to but after a while I'm away and feel a sense of accomplishment having made it to the top of an albeit comically short wall.

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A bit more walking and its time for lunch. We made some sandwiches, but not enough, nevertheless it is a picnic to remember. Sitting on a Glacier in the middle of a towering valley, the Tasman Sea in the distance. James has been a star and has called in for a helicopter to drop off a couple of beers for us! What an amazing thing to do! We drink helicopter beers in the ice, I dig a little hole with my pick and hey presto! Instant Glacier refrigeration!:) This is the life!

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After Lunch we tackle an altogether bigger wall! A monster for us at 50 meters, but James has confidence in our ability, why exactly I am unsure :) In all fairness to Neet, she is phenomenal. She has some difficult parts but makes it up to the top with grace and poise. I on the other hand scramble up, slipping off several times and in other moments, find myself hanging limp by my axes like a drunk spiderman. I do however make it to the top but it takes me about twice as long as Neet. Whilst I may not be the best ice climber out there I am so proud of myself, taking on something completely unknown and giving it my best shot.

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As for Neeta, she totally blew me away today. She could be described as a bit of a scaredy cat at times, a delicate flower perhaps a better way of phrasing it, but today all her fears seemed to dissolve in a pool of determination and force. Well done sweetheart, and Happy Birthday!!!!

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Posted by Gavness 14:51 Archived in New Zealand Tagged events Comments (0)

The Milford Track

Battling against the elements...

overcast 7 °C

The next trip is one that I have been waiting for a while...it is the legendery Milford Track. We set of from Te Anau with map in hand. Our first stop is Mistletoe Lake which is so quiet and peaceful that we could easily spend the day there with a picnic. The drive is scenic and of course we stop frequently to take in the beautiful scenery which is only disturbed by the dreaded Sandflies. It is so quiet on the road it feels like we have the whole of the Milford Track to ourselves.

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We stop along the way to do the many walks and catch the many sights. Gav's particular favourite is the Mirror Lakes, I personally think every lake we've seen is a mirror lake. Our training for Machu Picchu takes a serious turn when we decide to hike The Divide. Training is really not going well as I am ready to go back after half an hour. GAv encourages me to go on and we get a fair way up. The weather isn't great, there is a lot of low cloud so we are basically hiking in the rain but it doesn't dampen our spirits as we take in the rock formations, the rain forest and waterfalls.

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We sing our way to the half way point where we bump into a couple going the other way. A brief chat revels the cloud is so low that there isn't a reward of a beautiful view once we get to the top. We carry on a little bit further but decide to turn back after hearing that visibility is very poor.

We get Wilma going and continue up the track. We are only a little way in when all of a sudden the scenery changes completely. The flat plateaus, the rain forests and small hills are all but disappeared and instead there are menacing mountains covered in snow. Gav and I look at each other, both completely scared. We are too far gone to turn back and reckon there is just enough day light left to make it to the other end. We're not sure what is more scary...the weather conditions, the road conditions or the mountains. Even as we continue at approx 20k/h we want to stop and take it all in but the fading light commands us to go forth. We are in awe as we go through the Homer tunnel which takes us through the mountain and onto the other side. And somehow the weather has worsened by the time we are on the other side. We slow down further still and by now we are not anywhere near where we should be and the daylight has gone. The drive to the end of the track is eerrie, both of us adding to the the tension with utter silence inside the van.

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As we get to the end of the track we have no idea of what to expect, we know that there is a body of water but we have no idea where and how far we are from it. We had planned on free camping but the weather has other plans and we decide to get into the one and only campsite at Milford. I am pleased to see the number of people in the lodge especially since I am convinced the Orks are coming and we have no chance in hell. To make matters worse we decide to watch Lord of the Rings...

As scared as I am we manage to get an early night only to be woken up a few hours later as the weather takes a turn for the worst. The wind is so strong thhat Wilma is rocking from side to side. Gav and I are so scared we have no idea about what we should do, do we stay in the van? Do we make a run for it and get inside? Should we try and move the van? Its rocking so hard I am convinced that the van is going to be blown into the body of water directly in front of us and that we are goners. There is only one other van at the campsite and it would seem they are in the same quandry by the way their lights are turning on and off. Knowing nothing about camping we try and signal with our torches but its to no avail as all their curtains are drawn.

We are so scared that all we can do is hold each other, none of us are saying anything but we both know the thoughts in the others head. We haven't spoken with our families in days and no one knows where we are. We eventually fall asleep only to be awakened a few hours later with an almighty hail storm, Wilma is being pelletted from all sides and we are helpless to do anything. Once again we manage to fall asleep.

The next morning is pretty weird, we open the door and the first thing to great us is a Kea. It provides some light relief after the events from the night before. We take a look around and there are branches everywhere and the camp furniture which was nailed down has been blown to the other side of the campsite. There is a stillness that is best described as Mother Nature telling us who is boss.

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We are told that the Track is closed until further notice so we have to sit and wait it out. We make our way to Milford Sound but decide not to take a boat based on our experience at Doubtful as well as the heavy and dark clouds that seem to be looming above us. Feeling utterly shattered and worn down by the weather, we force ourselves to walk around and take some pictures since there is nothing else we can do until there is further notice about the pass. Turns out Milford sound is ASTONISHINGLY beautiful when the weather is like this. The eerie, misty atmosphere makes it seem almost surreal. You see mountains behind mountains making you think your vision has blurred. Nothing short of phenomenal...

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At midday we are told the pass has re-opened and just as we get ready to leave a beautiful rainbow revels itself at the same time as the sun. There you go, you can't have it all...

We make our escape while the going is good and decide we are going to do a long drive to Queenstown where we'll stay for a couple of days to get over our Milford experience. We reflect on our night as we drive through the menacing mountains we both realise just how small we are in comparison to the forces of nature.

Posted by Gavness 10:56 Archived in New Zealand Tagged events Comments (1)

Central Otago to Fjordland

overcast 5 °C

We drive through the central Otago region with stunning scenery especially around Lake Dunstan. We have lunch in Cromwell which is famous for a (crappy) giant fruit salad at the entrance to the town. It is very small but it doesn´t really matter since we are only stopping for lunch in the old town. We´ve noticed that we seem to have quite a special atlas which sometimes includes/discludes/incorrectly charts places, this is not too bad as it has a special feature of including Lord of The Rings filming locations. At first we are very excited by this since we will get to see of all Frodo´s special places, this turns to disappointment as we realise we probably won´t recognise most locations due to the amount of CGI in the movie. How wrong could we have been? The movie comes to life as we drive past various locations and recognise them from the movie.
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We decide to make the most of the fine weather and by-pass Queenstown for the time being to head out to Fjiordland. The road from Queenstown to Doubtful Sound is truly amazing, we pass the Remarkables (opening scene of LOTR) mountain range and what an apt name since they are truly remarkable. With the Remarkables on one side and Lake Wakatipu on the other we begin our drive to Te Anua just as the sun is beggining to set behind us. I know we keep going on about how beautiful and stunning everything is but that is the only way to describe it. It reminds us of Wast Water, a region in the Lake District which looks a little out of place with all its ruggedness. The other thing is that you do feel very small with the majesty of the mountains on one side and the serenity of the lake on the other. We stop frequently to take picutures especially as the scenery becomes more dramatic as the light changes.

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The rest of the drive is a lot longer than we anticipated as we decide to keep going all the way to Lake Manapouri so we don´t have to drive in the morning for our Doubtful Sound cruise. We are up at the crack of dawn and it is truly freezing. The good weather spell unfortunately doesn´t seem to have lasted and after the long drive yesterday we are more than a little disappointed. Nonetheless we unwillingly book ourselves on a tour and set sail across New Zealand´s second largest lake - Lake Manapouri for Doubtful Sound. A little note about Lake Manapouri, there are absolutely no free-camping areas. We drive from spot to spot faced with signs saying no camping, after an eternity looking for a space we say f-it to the Nz rules and camp right under a no camping sign. A little naughty, sure, but we're tired and doing no harm to the environment. In the morning, the second showerless day, we feel thoroughly un-rested and icky. We end up using the public toilets in the harbour car-park. Ahhhhh, the traveller's life eh? Full of wonder, adventure and dubious personal hygiene!

The doubtful sound journey takes approximately 45 mins and we are determined to spend most of it outside to admire the views. The wind is so bitter and cold it feels like it is cutting through our faces and after a while we are forced to stay inside.

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Once we get to the other side of the lake we board a bus to take us over the sub-alpine Wilmot Pass. We ohh and ahh as we go through the pass which has stunning flora at every corner - rainforest packed with ferns, palms, various beech forests and my favourite is the amazing carpets of moss in every colour imagineable. Add to that the waterfalls and slowly drifting low clouds and it is absolutely beautiful. We catch our first glimpse of Doubtful Sound and are stunned into silence by its beauty.

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We board another boat on the other side of the pass to explore the sound. As we make our way it is impossible to ignore just how silent and peaceful the sound is. We are told that Doubtful is not really a sound but a fjord and the difference between the two lies in their origin. A sound is a river valley flooded by the sea following a rise in sea levels or depression of land, or a combination of both and a fjord is a glaciated valley which is typically narrow and steep-sided that has been flooded by the sea after the glacier´s retreat. Both of the most popular sounds in this area - Doubtful and Milford are fjords.

We try and spend as much outdoors as is possible with the biting wind as we are told that there is a possibility of seeing some superb wildlife - penguins, dolphins, fur seals and sea lions. The sound is so vast that on one hand you want to shout to break the silence and on the other hand you are facinated and want to take it all in - the waterfalls cascading down the rock faces, trees coming down in landslides, trees growing from rock faces and generally trying to get your head round how amazing nature truly is. Everyone on the boat is disappointed that we don´t spot any wildlife on the way to the mouth of the sound and further disappointment follows as the wind has really picked up stopping us short of the mouth and into the Tasman Sea. The view is amazing and it makes me think about how lucky Captain James Cook was to discover this amazing place. Captain James Cook named it Doubtful after his ship sailed past the sound without entering as he had doubts about whether the winds in the sound would be able to carry his ship back to the sea. I reckon he must have gone past on a quiet day as the wind is well and truly in charge today! Despite it being a miserable day there is a certain wow factor to the sounds, an eerie, stillness that is captivating...but that quickly dissipates as soon as a minus 15 wind chill punches you square in the gob.

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Try as we might the spirits are well and truly low despite the Captain's effort to pep us up with some possibilities of seeing wildlife. Alas, it wasn't our day and we return to Deep Cove with dampened spirits. We continue onwards to the Manapouri Power Station, which we are reliably informed is the largest hydro-electric power station in the southern hemisphere. Not really sure what to say about a power station except it was very noisy and hot but Gav is fascinated by it, the tunnel was dug out through solid mountain by hand in the 1940s and a new tunnel dug out by the channel tunnel boring machine (I sound like a boring machine right now I know...). We head back to our starting point at Lake Manapouri, get Wilma going and head on down to Te Anau from where we'll do the Milford Track.

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Thanks for reading loyal followers, we'll try to complete Nz asap for you all :)

Posted by Gavness 17:09 Archived in New Zealand Tagged events Comments (0)

Introducing Wilma...

Frodo, don't wear the ring...

semi-overcast 8 °C

The first thing to note upon landing in Christchurch is the temperature...it is FREEZING!!!! Its snowed a few days before and the view from the plane as we land is completely stunning. We are picked up from the airport by Matt our campervan guy. Matt takes us to his office where we go through the paperwork before being introduced to Wilma, our transport and home for the next month or so. I have never been into the camping thing so am a little bit stunned as Matt goes through everything in the campervan which comes with the essentials - beers, pineapple lumps and some OJ. How cute is a campervan?? Everything has a place and it is all just so. We set off on the road with the first stop at a supermarket to stock up on some provisions.
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For the first leg Gav is driver and I am navigator on our New Zealand adventure to find Frodo and his ring... We get some breakkie, do the shopping and head of to Akaroa which was a French settlement on the Banks Pennisula. It takes us a while to get used to both driving and navigating the NZ roads but we are soon on our way and within half an hour into the drive we are stunned by the change in landscape and scenery. We have a leisurely two and a half hour drive into Akaroa which seems to be a sleepy little town. We check into a campsite, crack open the wine and beers and do something we've been longing to do for nearly three months - cook our own meal! It is super delicious and as we head to bed (which is the dining and living area) we are pretty pleased with our first day on the road.

Our second day in Akaroa is spent walking and exploring the little town which is quaint and sleepy and also very friendly.

After a day of chilling we begin the long drive south towards Queenstown. The next stop is Lake Tekapo which is approx 150km away and is beautiful as we pass farmland through scenic highways and onto the national highways. Having Wilma is great, it means we can stop whenever we want to take pictures (of which we do quite freqently), pick a gorgeous spot (and there are so many to choose from) and fix lunch and when the fancy takes us, park her up and stay for the night. A bit like them Ikea gypsies only our resting spots are a lot more scenic than the Ikea car park (of all the places in all the world why would you pick the Ikea in Croydon car park??). Along with the snow there is a noticeable difference in the temperature as we get closer to Lake Tekapo. It looks absolutely beautiful and we can´t wait to explore a bit more. This is very short-lived however, as the snow is pretty bad in the caravan park. It takes us approximately 45mins - 1 hour to get Wilma into a spot. She´s just slipping and sliding all over the place and because of the amount of snow, it is impossible to put the snow chains on. Nonetheless with the help of a neighbour, we persevere and manage to get there in the end. The next day happens to be a beautiful and clear sunny day perfect for seeing the green and blue of Lake Tekapo. It is breath taking especially as you move closer to the lake and see how clear the water is, truly stunning.

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All the camper-vanners help each other out of their spots in order to make tracks, it requires quite a bit of patience as it takes all of us ages to get out of the park. We are not in any rush as the road for the route we want to take is closed due to the snow. We finally make tracks after calling the highways people who tell us the road has been re-opened.

Our next stop is a deviation from the planned route. We drive past Lake Pukaki and fall in love instantaneously after stopping off at Peter´s lookout. It is gorgeous especially against the backdrop of Mount Cook and we decide we have to park here tonight to see the view tomorrow morning. We head towards the Mount Cook visitors centre to explore a bit further but the low cloud makes it impossible to see the peak. So it´s back to Peter´s lookout with high hopes of the weather being better the next morning for us to catch a glimpse of the peak.

The following morning we awaken to the beautiful sight of the sun coming up over Lake Pukaki. WOW!!! What a sight! As we watch for a little bit longer we are rewarded by the beautiful backdrop of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman peaks! We could sit and watch this all day long but we have to make tracks while our route is still clear and open. This is the joy of campervanning in Nz, you stop wherever you like and wake up to a view that the best hotels in the world could only dream of.

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Shortly after waking we start driving again, today going through Lindis Pass which was closed the day before due to snow. This was special, the snow was at least two feet and it looked like a proper winter wonderland, it was just stunning with the sunlight causing the snow to sparkle like diamonds.

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Our next stops are Cromwell heading towards Te Anau and the dreaded Milford Track, stay tuned...

Posted by Gavness 09:03 Archived in New Zealand Tagged events Comments (0)

Talofa Samoa!!!!

Sea, Sun, Sand and ... err... Samoans.

Howdy! Wow, it's been a while since I've been behind the old keyboard again! :) Feels like an eternity since I did that last blog entry in India, but here we are again. Today's topic, Samoa.

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Wow, what a country this place is. I'm so glad we didn't opt for Fiji now that we're here. This place is an unspoilt paradise island, full of fantastic smiling Samoans, some of the most welcoming people I've met around the world. Our arrival at Samoa airport says it all about this cute little island, we walk off the plane right onto the only runway, and see arrivals and departures about 5 meters from each other! :) This place is tiny. I thought Mauritius was small but with a population of only 180,000, Mauritius' 1.2 million seems positively humoungous!

We are met by Richard, our driver who takes us on the 1 hour drive from the airport in Apia to Sinalei Reef Resort, a beautiful hotel plopped right in the middle of some lovely gardens and the cutest most perfect little beach you've ever seen. Richard is a wealth of information on all things Samoan and we get the reality of the small population in our minds when Richard tells us he was part of the 2006 Samoan World Cup team. He further impresses us when he tells us his talents extend to music. Richard's story seems to have a familiar ring with other sporting celebrities in Samoa which we discover when we hear that one of the players on the (winning) national rugby team will be coming back from Scotland to resume his job as a taxi driver!

Our room is a self contained Fale, complete with a living room and monstrously large verandah that looks right onto the ocean. Bliss! After the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong, which I must confess I didn't like very much at all, this place is heaven. I'm determined to do as little as humanly possible while we're here, we're going to need the rest before our monster road trip through New Zealand and 4 day hike up to Machu Pichu in Peru in July.

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Our first day is spent in Apia town, milling about the market, buying beers to take back to our room (Samoa makes a mean brew called Vailima which easily rivals Mauritius' Phoenix) and chatting to locals. Samoans are really friendly, laid back people. They dont seem to have a care in the world and you'd never know the country has just begun to recover from a devastating Tsunami that destroyed most of the coastal villages in Upolu. Speaking of the Tsunami, you wont meet a single Samoan that doesn't know someone who was taken by the ocean that day. Even the manager of our hotel, Sosin, tells us the sad story of how she lost her sister in law and almost two guests from New Zealand. The devastation took most of the resort we are staying at in its wake and they've only just managed to get things back up and running.

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The next few days are spent doing what we planned to do all along on this island... relax. And boy do we relax in style here! Travelling from our balcony to the pool to the beach to the restaurant to the bar, it's a hard life I must say, but someone's got to do it :) The weather is a little unpredicatable, but that doesn't dampen our spirits, I like to think that being in the water when its raining is like having a bath and shower at the same time! We take little walks around the resort, the tide gets so low here you can literally take a walk into the ocean, little fish swimming around your ankles. Unfortunately the Tsunami killed almost all of the coral here so it's a bit sad when you look at all the grey sticks, wondering how amazingly colourful it must have been once.

We've taken to snorkelling and kayaking here quite a bit, the sea is a little tricky to negotiate both with or without a boat as there are very strong rip tides about, but as long as you're careful you wont get swept out. Despite the lack of living coral remaining in the sea there are loads of fish about, I spot some lovely little angel fish and a few ugly sea snakes. The one fear I have here is the stone fish. They are reportedly around the area and are easily mistaken for dead coral or stones. If you tread on one, their sting is deadly and gives you a very short timeframe to get to a hospital. We get chatting to a couple of Kiwis, Jo and Mel, who've just been out with the Lifeguard and they saw two of the little buggers swim right past them. The danger is real, but as long as we're careful we are assured that we will be fine by the hotel staff. Speaking of kiwis, there are loads of them staying at the resort which is handy for us as we get some good tips for our road trip coming up next week.

One thing about Samoa that isn't so convenient for Neet is the lack of vegetarian catering. The chef at the restaurant, Ernest, has been flown in from Holland to set it up (its only been open a week) and he is an absolute star, sorting out lovely meals for Neet. He's a michelin star trained chef, he was sous-chef at Le Gavroche for a while, and travels from country to country with his wife Pim working in restaurants and trying to elevate their standards. The food here is certainly good but he's having trouble with the Samoan staff pilfering all the food all the time! :) So funny!

The next day we hook up with our new friends Daniel and Nicole who have come here from Oz to get married. We drive out to a couple of beaches, including the amazing Paradise beach where the water is so clear you would swear it was an illusion. The sand is like powder and you sink into it satisfyingly as you walk along the beach. I love this place, it's the most beautiful beach I've ever seen, and an added surprise is a Reef Shark that we spot not more than 20 meters away prowling the shallow waters for an easy meal! Amazing!

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After the beaches we stop at a little pond reputed to have a family of turtles living in it. As soon as we arrive we spot them, there are loads of them, bobbing their heads up every now and again to take a breath. I love turtles, they're like the old grumpy men of the sea! Such a shame that they are still being poached for their shells. Stay strong fellas and keep laying them eggs!

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On the drive back to the hotel we spot all the locals dressed up in white going to and from church. The british missionaries must hold Samoa as one of their most successful endeavours because religion is absolutely EVERYTHING here. I am shocked at how everything in Samoan life revolves around the church and saddened when I hear that it is compulsory for village dwellers to pay 65% of their salary to the local church. When you consider that the average samoan earns 2 Tala per hour (about 1 US dollar) it seems criminal that the church makes this requirement of them. Nonetheless they are devout people and have no ill-will towards the tax-collectors. They see it as their duty, even going to the extremes of taking out loans to make donations to the church! Madness in my eyes, but again another great experience of life outside the western world. This is why we are travelling after all.

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The hotel organises a tour of the Island for us one day and it's really cool. We visit some villages and see how they make coconut milk and use the fruit for almost everything. It's so important to them and you can see why, it provides water, protein, fat and wood. Our driver, Sam, takes us to an amazing spot next. A lagoon with a little waterfall pouring into it where you can swim. Sam, the nutter, jumps in from the top of the cliff face, me and Neet walk in like sensible people. It's my first time swimming in fresh water and I love it! Bloody freezing though! :)

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Lalomanu beach is the next stop and the most eye opening as to get there you have to pass through the spots most badly hit by the tsunami. I couldn't believe my eyes, it looked like these places just got hit yesterday. Cars upside down, houses squashed flat like they'd been stepped on by a giant. Unbelievable. Out of respect I decided not to take any photos but it will be hard to forget anyway. Samoans bury their family members outside their homes, there are no graveyards here, and the amount of graves we passed on the way to this beach was just shocking. I pray that they never get struck by something like that ever again...

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Our last night in Samoa is the cultural night at the resort and we get a somewhat cheesy but all the same, fun demonstration of traditional Samoan dance and fire-eating. It's a nice way to finish off the trip and we can't say we're not rested up for our big trip to New Zealand. I'll really miss Samoa, the beautiful beaches, the wonderful people and the quality beer! It's just a warm and fuzzy place through and through, we love you mate... Alofa Samoa

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Posted by Gavness 22:49 Archived in Samoa Tagged events Comments (2)

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