Monthly Archives: March 2016

Saved from death by bush – Sarah rocks and then rolls

MARK: For a few awful seconds I thought “Oh my God, I’ve lost Sarah.”  It was a surreal moment.

Doubtless you’ve heard the expression, “it was just like watching in slow motion”. It’s the hackneyed phrase often reported when someone witnesses a road accident or some other terrible event. And for me, it was just like that!

I was following Sarah, a few steps behind her green and white Osprey day pack down a steep ledge on the side of a dormant volcano.  It was Maundy Thursday and we were both high in the Ecuadorian Andes close to the Colombian Border, when suddenly she slipped….

Close to the fall site - 3,900m

Close to the fall site – 3,900m

It was all so different the day before, when we had arrived at our wonderful homestay to be greeted by our hosts Teresa and Luis. The backdrop to their rustic house in San Clemente was the formidable Imbabura Mountain which loomed ominously behind, like a watchful giant. I was glad to hear its last eruption had been some 500 years before as I didn’t particularly like the thought of a Vesuvian style destruction of Pompeii on my doorstep.

Mount Imbabura - 4,600m high

Mount Imbabura – 4,600m high

It was clear from the start that this was going to be nothing like our “disappointing” homestay visit in Laos:

https://masters20152016.com/2015/11/13/exploitation-or-salvation-the-jurys-still-out-on-this-one/

This was the real thing!  Ecuadorian hospitality first hand.

Our group was split into three, Sarah and I, together with our travelling companions Rita and Cheryl were the guests of the Tuquerres Family.  We “bagged” the back bedroom which was accessed by the dining room and began to explore our fascinating surroundings.  Outside the front door, chickens chased, turkeys gobbled, pigs snorted, dogs yapped and I got my shoes covered in what looked like duck poo.  It was quite a menagerie.

Gobble - gobble

Gobble – gobble

All friends

All friends

Tired

Tired

ahh

Ahh…

All around the house, which can be best described as a small holding, crops including corn and beans grew, whilst elsewhere, delicious blackberries were ready for picking and limes hung with droplets of water on their bright green skin.  The only thing missing was the bottle of Gordon’s.

Self-sufficient

Self-sufficient

Ice and a slice...

Ice and a slice…

The house itself was a strange mix of buildings which had been added to over a period of a few years.  The extreme right of the house, featured a joiners workshop, with a decidedly dodgy roof.  Through the courtyard, you came in to a semi-closed off area in the shape of an L.  At one end was a wood fire which doubled sometimes as a stove.  Because we were on the Equator, the temperature at night only fluctuates from 12-15C throughout the year.  However, it was the coldest we had been since leaving the UK and we were glad of the heat.  A “westernised” kitchen looked really out of place, particularly when you saw micro-waves and blenders which were at odds with the simply furnished bedrooms, dining room and “washing” area – the latter looking more like something from the Middle-Ages than anything out of the 21st Century.  They did however have to our surprise an inside toilet and indeed a shower. But it was home and we were made to feel so very welcome.

A bit wooden

A bit wooden

The courtyard entrance

The courtyard entrance

Cheryl, Rita and Sarah keeping warm

Cheryl, Rita and Sarah keeping warm

Inside out

Inside out

Dining room

Dining room

And yes I did do some washing

And yes I did do some washing

Though none of us spoke each other’s respective language, we managed to have great fun at meal times through a mixture of sign language, experimenting with French and German to see if their vocabulary was vaguely similar to our Spanish friends and occasionally using Google Translate when the wifi decided to work.

Meal times - special times

Meal times – special times

Our Group of 14 came together for various joint activities and it was during one of these sessions that Nathalie our Guide offered the wider group the opportunity to climb the forbidding peak Imbabura!

There was some interest, but most people sensibly decided to opt for ploughing the fields with Oxen or cooking dinner with their respective hosts. But Sarah and I had different ideas.  This would be the perfect test of our fitness.  More than that, we would be climbing at high altitude with only two days of acclimatisation since our stay at sea level in the “olde-worlde” Pacific resort of Puerto Lopez. Not the smartest of ideas perhaps, but hey, if we were going to show signs of altitude sickness, then this would be it. If we survived this then the Inca Trail should be a doddle!

Nathalie gave more information. Our homestay was 2,700m (8,900 ft).  At 0500 we would be taken by 4WD truck to the base of Mount Imbabura at 3,100m (10,170ft) with a Guide.  The ascent would start at 0530 and last for four/five hours until we reached the summit of 4,600m (15,100ft).

We said yes. And as the sun went down, we both kept looking at the mountain mesmorised by its size and height and wondering what the hell we had let ourselves in for the next day….

Mean and Moody - the Mountain, not Marco

Mean and Moody – the Mountain, not Marco

We then had one of those nights sleep which is fitful to say the least.  The night you barely sleep, glancing every 15 minutes at the alarm clock to see if it was time to get up.  At 0430 it was, the alarm never went off.  We’d both been awake since 0300.

We packed our bags with all we needed.  Phone for emergencies.  Three litres of water for me, two for Sarah.  Thinking we would have to skip breakfast, we were thrilled and delighted to see the sight of Teresa cooking “bread cakes” over the dying embers of the fire as we came out of our bedroom, the cock crowing just outside our window.  How’s that for hospitality!

The warm bread was packed in our day packs, together with bananas and a coffee flask.  We were ready.

Teresa making us breakfast

Teresa making us breakfast

Lovely bread cakes - made in the open fire

Lovely bread cakes – made in the open fire

It was not long before we picked up our guide, Tupac who we were relieved to hear spoke English.  I’m sure he was thinking that these two old farts wouldn’t make it… But before I had chance to speak, two bright shining eyes stared directly at me as I sat in the front of the 4WD.  It was a Honey Bear, who soon ran away at the throbbing sound of the 3.5 litre Chevrolet engine.  Fifteen minutes and what felt like hundred jolts later, the road petered out into a rough track and the base of the Mountain began to appear into view like the unveiling of a black cape. Dawn was breaking.  It was time for the start of our morning stroll….

It wasn’t long before we were both breathing heavily, the lack of oxygen in the atmosphere making us pant for air.  Heart rates rose.  We’d walked less than half a mile of the seven mile return trip.  God it was hard!  But bit by bit and with regular stops at around 100m of elevation we made our way slowly up the side of what was mainly scrub grass with occasional rocks.  Marvellous views kept us going and after about two hours we were sort of into a rhythm.  Advice given has always been to go at your own pace when climbing mountains and we did just that, stopping to take photos of beautiful scenery and wonderfully small Alpine type plants.

0500 - time to go

0500 – time to go

Sun coming up...

Sun coming up…

and up

and up

Beautiful plants

Beautiful plants

Just as we were getting the hang of this high walking lark, the weather changed.  Within five minutes we were enveloped in mist.  We had got to 3,600m, the next 1,000m we realised would be walking in a permanent drizzle, with visibility down to a 100m.  Suddenly the wind got up, the temperature dropped. We could have been on the Yorkshire Moors, it looked the same.  North Face coats on, we trudged higher, the pathway now rocks and steep terrain which rose at an angle of close to 60 degrees.  This was not what we had signed up for.

Mist moving in - our goal top left

Mist moving in – our goal top left

Miserable

Miserable

Hard to see Tupac on right

Hard to see Tupac on right

And then we hit the 4000m mark.  “Come on, we can do this” I shouted to Sarah, who looked quite forlorn with her little hood up.

Getting there

Getting there

Head for heights

Head for heights

We carried on, but by this time the weather had closed right in, we could see 10m ahead and it was raining.  It was also blowing a gale as we rounded a corner, the wind whistling over the ridge.  The path was narrow rocks, there were steep drops.  Bang!  Vertigo set in.  I inched myself over a large rock that ordinarily I would have climbed with ease.  But with a drop of 500m and stories of the death of a German guy at the same point ringing in my ears, I decided enough was enough.  We were at 4,300m, there was no way I was going any higher, with even greater drops.  We could see nothing, I bottled it.  Sarah meanwhile, was happy to continue, but in true team spirit decided to support her old man and come back down.  I was not ashamed or disappointed because we had got to over 4,300m and this was higher than any point on the Inca-trail. I might have got vertigo, but at least I had no altitude sickness and we had climbed over 1300m straight up with no ill effects.

High enough

High enough

4260 - we went 50m higher and then called it a day

4260m – we went 50m higher and then called it a day

We trudged down, much quicker, but mindful of the extremely slippery rocks, mud and grass.  We both soon realised that going down was going to be arguably even harder, but this time in a different way.

And then it happened.  Sarah slipped and somersaulted twice over the edge of the narrow track.  The angle of the slope here was 70 degrees, the fall down the mountain on rocks and scree some 500 metres.

The slow motion video in my mind kicked in as I saw the whole episode play out in front of me. There was nothing I could do.  In what seemed an age, but was no more than four or five seconds, Sarah managed to break her fall in what appeared to be a Gorse type bush, some three metres across.  To the left, a horrifying drop.

There was no sound, but I quickly realised she was alive and kicking as we managed to pull her out!

Her knee hurt – it had twisted – but apart from that, she was ok!!!!!!!!!!!!

Alive...

Alive…

...and kicking

…and kicking

We continued our descent in a watchful way.  Each step we took gingerly.  I fell twice.  But Tupac our guide fell three times.  Ha, even professionals can get caught out.  In two hours we were down, safe and sound.

That afternoon and evening we shared our experience with the rest of the group as we danced the night away with the friends from the village community.  But I had to do a double take as guess who was the Leader of the Band?  Tupac.  From guide one minute to impresario the next.

Rocking

Rocking

The lovely Meyer

The lovely Meyer

Chezza's birthday

Chezza’s birthday

Cardiff girl cuts her cake

Cardiff girl cuts cake

Temptation

Temptation

Boogey on down

Boogey on down

In serious mode - Marco

In serious mode – Marco – note NOT my hands!

Tupac - Leader of the Band

Tupac – Leader of the Band

The next morning, after a good night’s sleep we got out of bed, only for Sarah to realise that her knee was still causing quite severe pain.  But trooper that she is, she got moving and found that if she walked a bit, ironically the pain eased.

But the smell of breakfast raised our spirits and even Teresa let me make a “Marco,” her name for my cheese and banana deep fried empanada.  Lovely coffee, a blackberry drink, and a bowl of strawberries, mangos and kiwi fruit completed the offering.  What a way to finish our homestay and what a way to end our trip to Ecuador.

Making empanadas

Making empanadas

Beautiful breakfast

Beautiful breakfast

We have sadly left our lovely group – 2 nights early, as we have to fly to Lima to start our 45 day marathon across South America with our next tour group.  Unfortunately, the departure dates did not work in our favour and hence we had to cut short our Ecuadorian experience.

But we leave with many memories.  Our jungle experience, two amazing adrenalin filled days in the Andes, visiting the coast and the “Poor Man’s” Galapagos – another blog in itself, our fantastic homestay and last but not least our superb travelling companions – you know who you are…!

Lovely people

Lovely people

Ecuador – we can both recommend this fascinating country.  Just don’t attempt walks up/down volcanoes!

The End

The End

Categories: South America Blog | Tags: , , , , , ,

Train spotting nerd turns Superman in high octane 48 hours

MARK: Ah yes! Diesel fumes from old diesel trains.  One of the nicest smells in the World. A bit like aviation fuel – a whiff always means you are travelling somewhere. It doesn’t matter where.

Darlington Bank Top Station, the Mecca of rail that is York and of course Kings Cross, the end of the East Coast Mainline.  These and other stations still create passionate emotions for me 30 + years down the line.

The magnificent Deltic Diesels (Class 55s) that plied the 393 mile route from London to Edinburgh in the 1970’s and 80’s were my favourite locomotives, racing thoroughbreds no less.  Indeed some were even named after racehorses.  Meld, Alycidon and Ballymoss, each travelled at speeds in excess of 100mph.

Alycidon powering her way north of Hartfield

Alycidon powering her way north of Hatfield

They flew like the wind, their throaty roar from their throbbing Napier 1450 horse power engines created an amazing noise as they pulled their rake of twelve carriages away from the platform.  It was like the finest symphony orchestra to me as an 11 year old who collected train numbers – I had seen and ridden on 22 of the 22 that were built.

So now you know my secret. I was/am a train spotter. Please don’t laugh.  It’s no different from collecting dolls or playing with Action Men – is it…?

Today took me right back to those halcyon days.  I wasn’t at Peterborough, Stevenage or Doncaster but in a small Ecuadorian town called Alausi – 9,000ft up in the Andes and my head was craned out of the small wooden framed 1950’s carriage as the big red diesel loco (that sounded like a Class 33 for those that know what I mean), pulled the five carriages down the middle of the high street!

Trains in the high street

Trains in the high street

Ready to go

Ready to go

Last coach

Last coach

My fav' position on a train

My fav’ position on a train

A plume of fumes that got up my nostrils took me right back.  Except this was no standard rail journey!  Nope, this was the Devil’s Nose Railway, one of the Great Railway Journeys of the World as we raced along at speeds of 20mph down the side of the mountainside, plunging nearly 3,000ft in just eight miles. Two thousand five hundred mainly Caribbean workers perished in the nearly three years it took to build this section from Alausi to Sibambe – one of the steepest sections of standard gauge rail lines anywhere in the World.

Sadly, grey cloud enveloped much of the view going down to the bottom of the valley, but once there we had a great time meeting new friends and wandering around what once had been a major rail hub.

Grey start

Grey start

Love the sign

Love the sign

New friend

New friend

No need for water

No need for water

Very funny

Very funny

Two locals out for a walk

Two locals out for a walk

On the way back

On the way back

The horn of the engine sounded after about an hour and we clambered back aboard our Casey Jones style carriage.  The return weather was clear and you couldn’t help but marvel at the amazing engineering including the switchback track change, which enabled the train to shunt zig-zag style back up the hillside.  Impressive.

Sun came out

Sun came out

Switchback push-pull

Switchback push-pull

Switchback

Switchback

Devil's Nose

Devil’s Nose

The journey back was a time to reflect as the train and all its sounds and smells took me back like some sort of instant, regressive time machine.  I gazed through the window out on to dramatic scenery, or rather looked, but did not see.  My mind was reflecting on the previous two adrenalin filled days and the fact we only had 55 days left before who knows what in the UK.

I posed on the way back for Gabby who gave me the inspiration for this blog

I posed on the way back for Gabby who gave me the inspiration for this blog

Thoughts came thick and fast.  About our group, people at home, the craziness of this once in a life time trip.  For one of the few times in the last seven months, I allowed myself to look backwards and also forwards, NOT really taking in the here and now.  My mindfulness button was switched off and you know what, I was damned if I cared, because I knew sooner or later a slight reality check was bound to kick in.

However, the previous two days I’d definitely been in the here and now.  Indeed I have always known that when you put your neck on the line, you have to be clearly focussed on the present to ensure you survive.  All other thoughts are quickly banished.

As I was pushed off the side of the mountain, suspended by two ropes on a 700 metre long zip-line, arms facing forward, all I was thinking about was how the hell does Superman” fly like that every day? “Uno, duo tres” we were off.

Getting kitted out

Getting kitted out

Jump off point

Jump off point

Team Jump

Team Jump

My group travelling colleague “Curly B” on my right hand side was shrieking with a mixture of terror and excitement.  Strangely though I had no nerves as we travelled in excess of 50mph.  I started to look down at the 900ft drop beneath me.  I spotted a couple of giant brown eagles and could hear children play in the rocks far below.  All too soon the “ride” ended as the green landing area came in to view.  A massive jolt slowed us both down to 0mph in less than twenty yards.  We had made it.

Take off

Take off

Half way across - 950ft beneath us

Half way across – 950ft beneath us

Flying

Flying

Landing site, complete with part of somebody's cupboard to get us down

Landing site, complete with part of somebody’s cupboard to get us down

High fives all round, we waited for the other mad people to land and off we went, climbing up the side of another steep mountain to Zipline 2.  Now this was a different ball game.  The initial jump off point had been a bit dodgy like an old Municipal swimming pool’s diving board from the 1960’s.  But over on the other side of the valley all we had now was a few wooden planks, with the steel zip wire precariously balanced on the top of four rocks and a large piece of black rubber.  In England, you would have freaked.  Here you just accepted the risk and got on with it.  This, a baby single 300m leap of faith across a forest and deep ravine.  Doddle.  Landed safely with yet another jolt as the line screamed in agony as the brake tightened.

Jump 2.... barely visible from the other side

Jump 2…. barely visible from the other side

One to go.  The big one.  ONE THOUSAND METRES a kilometre, a bloody long way.  I could not see Sarah at the other side close to where we started.  We’d climbed up still further to get the elevation for the crossing.  And yes, you guessed it, my turn to go first.  A shove of my backside and I was underway, going like the clappers as the zip wire nearly started smoking due to the friction half way across, the rocks 1,000ft below looking bigger than my first zip.  I started flapping my wings like a giant bird coming in to land hoping Sarah would capture the moment as I came in to view.  Damn, she didn’t, thinking I was somebody else instead.  So the one of the shots below are of Chris and Curly B, but hopefully you get the idea……….

Off I go...

Off I go…line on right

The journey back 1,000m - Chris on his way

The journey back 1,000m – Chris on his way

Lady B flying over

Curly B flying over

Sarah gets the camera out - better ate than never

Sarah gets the camera out – better late than never

Next day in Banos – which really is like Queenstown, New Zealand in terms of outdoor activities, I was up for more excitement.  This time canyoning was the source of the adrenalin fix – abseiling and lugeing down waterfalls… as you do.

Picked up by mini-bus we first found ourselves in a falling down shed, trying to fit into wet suits, harnesses and helmets that still smelt of the previous user.  Plimsole style shoes allocated, they didn’t really fit. Ah well, what do you expect for US $35 all in?  But thanks to Chris, a really nice guy in our group from Little Rock, Arkansaw, who was a climber and confirmed the Austrian kit was “good”, so that was that, we headed off on a 20 minute drive to the waterfalls.

After a twenty minute walk we arrived at our first waterfall – nothing too difficult.

The start a quick shower

The start, a quick shower

The second and third falls were more challenging – 75ft with overhang and a guaranteed soaking on the way down.  Nailed it.

Fall 2

Fall 2

Fall 2

Fall 2

Fall 3

Fall 3

Bottom of Fall 3

Bottom of Fall 3

The final descent and I nearly lost my nerve.  “Curly B” my German co-zipline buddy had made her way down to the edge of the waterfall, with safety line on she reached the instructor.  The Instructor, took off her safety line, but Curly B took her hands off the descent rope as well before being reattached to the second safety line and the main abseil rope down the waterfall.  She was literally on the edge, not realising she had no support.  I could see it and shouted to hold the rope, which she did, closely followed by the security afforded by the second safety line that was soon attached.  Phew.

I could see why she had had difficulty.  The crawl across slippery rocks to the descent point was challenging to say the least.  And when it came to my turn, all I could think of was what might have happened a few moments earlier, my head fuddled and not thinking clearly.  After what seemed an age, I managed to scrabble to a wooden ladder and start my descent.  Once over the edge, no problem, getting to that point though had been a completely different matter.

Fall 4

Fall 4

Fall 4

Fall 4

Allowing myself a moment of personal congratulation, I honestly thought that was it for the day.  Wrong! We discovered there was one final bit of fun.

Celebrating - premature

Celebrating – premature

Yours truly was told to go first as I had been at the back of the group of 6 for most of the time.  I thought it would be another abseil. Er no!  My harness was attached to the instructor who told me to sit on the top of a large slippery rock in the middle of the flowing water.  This was no abseil but a “luge” down the sheer rock face straight into a pool.  Woosh, part one complete.  Out of the pool I sat on the next ledge ready to go the bottom when “funny boy” instructor, yanked the line and I was submerged backwards in to the pool I had just climbed out of.  Out again and this time at the bottom.  Yes, did it.

Ready...

Ready…

weeeee

weeeee

splash

splash

With a jolt the train brought my reflective journey to a halt back in the town of Alausi, our original start point as perfume in the form of diesel fumes wafted through the open window. No more time to reflect. We needed to pack, grab some food and rush to catch the local bus for a four hour journey down to sea level and Ecuador’s second city Guayaquil.  33C and 98% humidity beckoned.

Categories: South America Blog | Tags: , , , ,

I’m NOT a celebrity, let me stay in here cos the Jungle ROCKS!

MARK:  The deafening sound of the torrential rain made it virtually impossible to talk and be heard.  The corrugated metal sheets that made up most of the roof, amplified the sound to such an extent that you’d have thought the Amazon Rain Forest God’s had decided to dump their entire bath water over the top of our small group.

Rain, rain go away...

Rain, rain go away…

The “warm” rain had been pouring incessantly since the early hours of the morning.  The locals estimated that over three inches had fallen, pretty standard for the heart of the Ecuadorian jungle at this time of year.  But even the clucking clutch of chickens, that had been strutting about earlier with an air of arrogance had taken refuge underneath the wooden floor boards of our bedroom, occasionally dipping their beaks in to the muddy puddles for a sip of water.

Bedraggled

Bedraggled

I’d just had a paddy and decided it was easy to write a blog than take part further in trying to create a friendship bracelet….  I literally got tied up in knots and did not have the patience to “plait” together three stupid pieces of gold braid attached to a three inch nail on the makeshift veranda.  It was a daft game.  I wanted to go out to play instead!

Did not nail it

Did not nail it

All that was left after half an hours work

All that was left after half an hours work

Sarah though was much happier.  It probably reminded her of the needlework part of her Domestic Science ‘O’ level.  And then result.  She announced that HER bracelet, complete with red and black seed was for me, to add to my right wrist collection.  I was well chuffed.

Chuffed

Chuffed

Meanwhile the rain continued to fall, the drops now cascading torrents. The occasional flash of lightening and rumble of thunder created an eerie atmosphere. The mountain to my right was shrouded in low cloud, before momentarily clearing as the sun threatened to show before, quickly disappearing again. Tease.

Grey - cloud closing in

Grey – cloud closing in

The day before had been a completely different story.  Our group travelled from Tena (150 miles south west of Quito) in to the steamy jungle to stay with a local family for 2 days.  The old white battered Hyundai van, complete with bags on roof, had started off on metalled roads before soon having to bounce over stones and mud as the green foliage became more dense and civilisation disappeared.

Brakes squealing, gears crunching, the end of the road.  Back packs on, we walked along single file tracks, by the side of three merging streams.

A small clearing revealed a straw building with eight black hammocks gently swaying in the breeze.  Straight ahead, a kitchen and an eating area, to the left a bedroom block.  A quick check confirmed that the “simple” bedrooms did have mozzy nets, much needed as I was soon bitten.  Immediately out came the last of our 90% DEET which was plastered everywhere, irrespective of any potential long term side effects.  No Zika virus for me thank you.

Main play area

Main play area

Had a good time in here

Had a good time in here

Heading to the loos

Heading to the loos

Our host was “Delfin” (Spanish for Dolphin) and his family of 5 children and 7 grandchildren.  They soon made us welcome with a lunch of potato soup and lentils.  An hour later and with welly boots allocated, we marched along a 4m wide clearing.  Then suddenly and without warning “Rolando” our guide veered off in to the jungle proper, machete in hand making swift scything actions as he went.

Now we were talking. Beautiful orchids, giant ants, tarantula spiders, little brown birds, circling black vultures, stunning red heliconia.  Putrid smelling pools of water, dense foliage.

Heliconia can you see the giant ant?

Heliconia – can you see the giant ant?

Circling overhead just in case one of group did not make it

Circling overhead just in case one of group did not make it

Stunning orchid complete with beautiful insect

Stunning orchid complete with beautiful insect

Smelt awful

Smelt awful

And then in a scene from a Bear Grylls documentary we reached the top of a 300ft high cliff overlooking the Jatunyacu River, a main tributary of the Amazon.  I could not help but think of a film – I sadly can’t remember the name of it – where an aircraft crash landed and just four people survived.  The survivors managed over many days to walk through the jungle when they euphorically came across a river for the first time.  They built a raft and escaped!

We found water....

We found water….

.... uilt a raft and made our escape

…. built a raft and made our escape

We retraced our steps before heading off in another direction where Rolando found a small, crystal clear stream.  Grabbing at the bank with his bare hands, he scraped a pile of grey clay from underneath the decaying foliage.  “Who wants some?” he said smiling in his broken English.  It was a natural face pack guaranteed to knock 10 years off your age in just over an hour.  I was first up for it, whilst checking that he had enough left for Sarah as she was going to need “quite a lot” of the polyfilla type gloop – if you know what I mean.  EDITOR:  He was duly slapped for this last comment.

Rolando and a monster

Rolando and a monster

We all looked like creatures from the black lagoon as we headed back to camp, by which time our faces had dried and it was difficult to move our facial muscles.

Difficult to smile

Difficult to smile

How to get it off?  Simple.  You find a stream with a waterfall, get your kit off and get in.  I was joined by a lovely German lady called Curly B who was also up for the natural shower.  And it worked!  We both looked 42 and 40 respectively as the photos show.

And relax

And relax

Me and B'

Me and Curly B

But that was yesterday.  The rain today, Sunday, continued to fall.  This blog got longer.  I put my iPod on.  “It’s raining men” was ironically the first tune that randomly shuffled onto the playlist from my list of 1,902 different tracks.  There was not time for “Bridge over Troubled Water” or “Raindrops keep falling on my head”, because after 30 minutes there was a break in the clouds.  The volume level on the tin roof dropped from 9 out of 10 on the deafenometer to just 3.  The rain WAS stopping!

So lunch was brought slightly forward and after our soup and chicken, jungle activities were resumed.  The afternoon was a hike to discover native plants and to be told by Rolando their use in holistic, natural and homeopathic treatments for various illnesses, ailments and food sources.  A few surprises were also promised along the way.

Happy faces we could go out to play

Happy faces we could go out to play

First up we encountered a wild garlic tree, ideal for stomach problems, quickly followed by a tree whose leaves could be stripped, dried and woven into fine braid.  Ah, so that’s where the bracelet started life.  And then boyish sniggers amongst the men and “secret smiles” from the ladies of the group broke out – we had come across a Red Walking Tree.

Ummmm

Ummmm

The tree we were told does actually walk up to 30cms a year as the roots die on one side of its trunk and then grow on the other, pushing the 75ft high tree across the forest floor at a snails pace.  Enough said!

We walked further, through streams which were now much higher because of the recent rain and stopping periodically to admire weird forms of fungus and other plants.

Fungus

Fungus

Wanted to try but did not

Wanted to try but did not

An occasional bright turquoise Morph butterfly wafted past, too quick to photograph, but worth $500 on the black market if captured for a sick western collector.  Brightly coloured plants adhorned the side of the river. Rubber trees exposed their white sap, a revisited source of revenue once more for Ecuador in light of the oil price collapse, which has been a key component of their current economy.

Not sure what this was

Not sure what this was

Another saviour might be the re-establishment of old gold mines!  Rolando demonstrated perfectly the art of panning. Very hard work for a small return. But he did get a few specs of gold.  Just a few hundred more and he would have a gram worth US$40 in the local market

All that glitters is gold

All that glitters is gold

Back on dry land we headed back passing more amazing insects, plants and trees that housed “witchetty type” grubs.

Nice

Close up with nature

The grubs were about an inch long.  Giant maggots with a dark head that wriggled and squirmed when squeezed.  Duly captured it was dare time.  Nobody would eat them whilst alive and kicking, but after being fried in garlic butter they were truly delicious after you got over the shock of their rubbery skin. In fact I would go so far as to say they were really quite tasty, a unique flavour a cross between bacon and stilton cheese.

Ummmmmmm

Ummmmmmm

Really liked these grubs - honest

Really liked these grubs – honest

Not everybody’s favourite food I grant you, but everyone was quite happy to try another fruit of the forest, this time dark chocolate.  We picked out the small almond sized seeds from within the cocoa plant and left them to dry and ferment.  Then, grabbing a tray of “here’s some we prepared earlier” beans, their fermenting wine smell confirmed they were ready to be placed in a large wok like pan and heated over a wood burning fire. Just ten minutes and the beans were ready to be peeled and crushed to form the cocoa powder.  Three pints of sugary milk was added and then back on the fire until the sickly smelling brown bubbling liquid began to thicken.  Our treat was ready, a chocolate fondue with fresh local bananas.  Happy days.

First take your cocoa bean.....

First take your cocoa bean…..

.... after the beans ferment, heat for five minutes

…. after the beans ferment, heat for five minutes…

... then crush the beans to make powder before adding milk and sugar. Voila!

… then crush the beans to make powder before adding milk and sugar. Voila!

The rain now a distant memory as we were all up for a cultural evening lead by Head of the Family Delfin. Sitting in candlelight as the mozzys began to bite we learnt about the importance of music, Ecuadorian marriage ceremonies and the key role played by local Shamans (doctors) in rural communities.

As the evening progressed various members of the group took part, I had not been chosen, feeling a little like the last kid to be chosen for a kick about game of football in the school playground.  So when a further opportunity came to volunteer I put my hand up.

Delfin who had studied to be a Shaman, told me to sit in front of him, legs stretched out facing my fellow travellers who were sitting round in a “U” shape.  Chanting started, drums banged, incense/perfume filled the air and suddenly what can be best described as a bouquet of tree leaves started hitting my head, neck, arms and face.  I was being cleansed, part of the process of diagnosing major illness. With gradually louder chanting, Delfin started sweeping my body from head to foot as all nasties were banished out of my body through my feet.

A special experience

A special experience

It was a really strange experience but one that at the end of the ten minutes felt strangely relaxing.  I was at peace as if I had been put under a trance or had drunk half a bottle of gin.  I thanked my host, got back on my wooden bench and let my mind float.  In terms of what had happened I am not sure, but I was glad to have done it.  Glad that I wasn’t a celebrity and left with the wish that I wouldn’t be evicted from the jungle in the public vote.  After all I had done the Bush Tucker Trial.

Delfin, the head of the household - very nice man

Delfin, the head of the household – very nice man

 

Alas our two days in the Amazon Jungle came to a far too quick end as the Toyota Land Cruiser pipped its horn signalling our departure – it was Monday morning, 6,000 miles from home.

Categories: South America Blog | Tags: , , , ,

Life is never black or white – or even 50 shades of grey for that matter

I half expected the Pearl and Dean music to start as the lights dimmed and changed colour.  We’d just taken off from Auckland in our brand new LAN Airlines Boeing 787-9 “Dreamliner”, the plane seemingly taking an age to get off the ground.

Dream on

Dream on

I’m not a nervous flyer, well not now after 31 flights.  However, the thought of flying 6,000 miles across the South Pacific on two engines to Santiago, Chile with no land in between, did make me briefly think I might not see my beloved Middlesbrough play in the Premiership next season. EDITOR:  Mr B not a happy Blogger after the away defeat at Rotherham United!

But it was a fantastic ambient light show in the plane’s cabin that distracted me from thoughts of death.  We’ve been in a couple of the giant A380 Airbuses on our RTW travels and they have had different lighting states. However our first ever flight in the Dreamliner topped that by some distance.  Firstly, as we boarded, a nice pinky/rose colour helped passengers de-stress as seatbelts were tightened.  Then as we hurtled down the runway, it changed to a bluey crimson colour – which must mean something, although I know not what.

At 34,000 feet, as we flew over the International Dateline, the lights took on an orange glow as dinner was served – in-lieu of candles perhaps?  Then, with people wanting to sleep, the purple hue around the cabin ceiling gradually became a silver/yellow moonlike shimmer, gradually fading to black as the cabin lights dimmed.

Hats off to manufacturer Boeing who are being really clever here as they try to trick our mind and circadian (body) clock through different shades of light.  I think it worked in fairness, particularly as the onboard computer also controlled the 40% larger than normal ‘portal’ windows by dimming and brightening when necessary.  For example, we set off at 1830 for an 11 hour flight, went over the dateline and arrived at 1400 the same day. But despite the sun having “been up” for the last 7 hours of the flight, the windows pretended that it was still night.  Clever.  So we were up for 31 hours and had no jet lag the next day despite very little sleep due to the excessive turbulence.  Maybe that’s the downside of these flexible light-weight carbon fibre planes.

Just wished I had taken some photos – but hey, for once, hope the above prose gives you an idea.

So, Santiago, Chile.  A new country and our first time in South America.  Excited.

Well we were for five minutes as we got in to the taxi, but suddenly we both thought it all looked a bit grey as we sped in to the centre of town.  Situated in a “bowl” haze not heavy smog, enveloped the City.  Something akin to Beijing was in the air, but we could breath.

Not a good start

Not a good start

We quickly dumped our bags in our 1970s throwback hotel, interestingly called The Vegas and headed out to explore, our legs still seized up thanks to the not so generous 30” legroom afforded in LAN Cattle Class. Dream on Dreamliner.

But what was this?  Nobody around. Shutters shut, grey coloured streets with nobody in them. Lots of concrete, randomly mixed with the odd Cubanesque colourful style building. We headed for the central plaza, graffiti everywhere.  The city increasingly looked like a cross between Romania in the height of the cold-war mixed with a down-at-heel part of Birmingham.  More graffiti.  It was sprayed everywhere.  Still nobody around as a piece of “Donald Trump” hair, sorry tumbleweed, blew across the street in-front of us as if we were in some sort of spaghetti western.

Translation please

Translation please

"Back end of beyond perhaps.....?"

“Back end of beyond perhaps…..?”  Look closely

Not open

Not open

Ah yes a BT phone

Ah yes a BT phone and a few more people

Baching Mad

Locals thought I was “Baching Mad” taking a shot of this

Shutter up

Shutter up

No escape from the spray.... not even trees

No escape from the spray…. not even trees

From the beauty of New Zealand to this in the blink of an eye.

We looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders and headed to a rather poor Italian restaurant for a bowl of pasta and a pizza.  It was the only thing we could find open within a half mile walk of the hotel.  In a corner, a hunched up old lady who must have been in her 90s, kept shouting out to her 65+ year old daughter over Sunday/ “Mother’s Day” lunch?  Back to the care home for her, time for bed for us after being up for 31 hours.

Next day, Monday, a different day and a good day.  The sun was shining, an excellent start.  The grey had changed to blue and suddenly there were people everywhere.  The place was alive, nay bustling, a veritable hive of activity in the street surrounding our hotel.  Streets and areas that yesterday had appeared to be reminiscent of a former 1980s Soviet State suddenly looked amazingly capitalist.  With the sun now out to play, temperatures quickly rose into the late 20s.

That's better, old and new

That’s better, old and new in the blue

Flag greets MASTERS arrival

Flag greets MASTERS arrival

Life and soul of the street

Life and sole of the street party

Coffee - ah yes coffee! More of that in a moment

Coffee – ah yes coffee! More of that in a moment

Fidel sadly could not make the free tour

Fidel sadly could not make it in person

Welcome to Santiago proper!

We decided to join the 1000 Free Walking Tour which started in the main Piazza. No hills, but still good exercise and the chance to find out more about the city we were in for 72 hours.

Franco (or El Presidente as I dubbed him), our late 20s tour guide was a real pro’ – he should have been after six years.  But as I said to him, his passion and enthusiasm were infectious.  It was as if this was his first, not 1400th tour.  Fair play and you could see why he lives off tips, he was that good.

Make Franco President

Start point of our tour

Start point of our tour – The Cathedral

Franco's followers, Mrs B at the back

Franco’s followers, Mrs B at the back

So our four hour tour started, taking in at first the historic bits of the central area as one would expect.  But I am delighted to say there was loads of social commentary and background on modern day Santiago and the people of Chile.  It was all fascinating.  So please, let me share some small vignettes from our walk to give you a flavour of this interesting capital.

MORE COFFEE VICAR?

Thirty minutes after we started, Franco stopped the group in the street and began talking about coffee houses… I was so glad he did!  Earlier that morning, I had stumbled in to what I thought was a café selling coffee, only to be met by a couple of men and a rather well-endowed young lady who asked me with a twinkle in her glass eye what I wanted!!!  Franco’s explanation was interesting.  Chile, he explained is not known for its quality of coffee so in the 1980s some bright spark had the notion of selling coffee in cafes with no chairs (just poser tables) served by ladies in short skirts.  The idea was a simple one. Men would be distracted from the poor treacle/stewed coffee by the beauty of the ladies and everybody would be happy. It summed up for me typical male crass thinking.  The irony, that this was International Women’s Day not lost on me or Sarah. We squinted through partially covered frosted window pains and both got eye fulls!  Libidos in check, we continued as history beckoned.

Distracted

Distracted

... It's not difficult to be distracted

… It’s not difficult to be distracted in Santiago

MAGGIE THATCHER’S MATE…. “The Party of Pinochet” – Blair 1999

We stopped, overlooking the Presidential Palace – not particularly ornate or grand as the photo shows.  But interesting because on the 9th September 1973 there was a coup and Margaret Thatcher’s friend General Pinochet strangely came to power after two President’s died in the space of a week. He was third in line. I personally remember Pinochet for a couple of reasons.

The first was his support of the British when we took back the Falklands.  Pinochet had no love for the Argentinians although officially neutral.  But when Margaret needed assistance to bomb the Falkland Islands, General P offered radar support in exchange for some Hawker fighters….  The “friendship” continued into the late 1980’s and early 1990’s and coincided with the second reason I remember this rather nasty Dictator.  Joe, our son once went to a birthday party when he was 3 on the Wentworth Estate.  Not any old party, but the leaving party for the Sultan of Brunei’s two sons who went to the same nursery – Happy Days (yes the real name of the nursery).  It was quite literally a palace, but interestingly close by was General P’s UK residence where he was holed up after being ousted from power in 1990 to evade possible arrest for nasties carried out under his watch.

Presidential Palace, the scene of the coup in 9/11/1973

Presidential Palace, the scene of the coup on the 11/9/1973 – Pinochet died in 2006

POLICE STATE?

Pinochet is long since dead, but one lasting memory I do have of Santiago is the Police presence on the streets.  Those of you who are Facebook friends will have seen a tongue in cheek posting I made a couple of days ago showing water canon units, armed personnel carriers and military police in full riot gear.  This heavy police presence was not as first reports claimed, needed to quell the disquiet of Middlesbrough FC fans in Santiago (me) after their diabolical performance against Rotherham, but was to “observe” what appeared to be a perfectly quiet demonstration involving around 10,000 mainly women who were campaigning for a range of women’s rights, including abortion.

You are conscious of the police

You are conscious of the police

Not always smiling

Not always smiling

COLOURFUL GRAFITI

Pity the police don’t earn their money by nailing people with spray cans in their hands.  I mentioned earlier that graffiti was everywhere and wasn’t a pretty sight.  However on our walking tour we saw examples of much better, even semi-professional “street art” which was actually quite good….

Good G

Good G

Better but not right

Better but not right

ART FOR ARTSAKE?

… but better still were the many artists who worked in the historic streets in the old quarter and in the student side of town close to a myriad of bars and clubs – the latter where a more “free” or should I say “drunk” style of painting prevailed .  I really liked their work, bright vivid colours reminding me in some cases of the great work of Steve Eker and Cate Field, who I hasten to add are both teetotal.

A chap called Bills

A chap called Bills

No pictures of Trump thank goodness

No pictures of Trump thank goodness

View from the top - better than my grey image

View from the top of the big hill – better than my grey image

ARCHITECTURALLY VERY GOOD

The Santiagan artists had some lovely backdrops to paint in-front of and Franco showed us many fine sights, the old buildings mixing with the new quite well except in the case of the Telefonica Tower, which looked like the stupid “brick” that it was in terms of a poor copy of a mobile phone circa 1995.  Judge for yourself.

Side by side

Side by side

The opera house

The opera house

Telefonica Brick circa 1995

Telefonica Brick circa 1995

BAILEY’S POLICE HIT LIKED BY LOCALS

Just round the corner from the Tower, I could hear the clear sounds of a rock band.  Listening to the music I was astounded to see a guy on drums and another on bass guitar “busking” in front of four lanes of cars waiting at traffic lights.  With full amplification, they started each time the traffic stopped giving them around 35 seconds to belt out various tracks before rushing down the sides of the vehicles to receive cash.  I watched these guys completely  fascinated, having broken away  from the walking tour party who were now busy looking at some really, really boring statue of a bloke from 1756.  The drummer stayed with his kit on the pavement whilst the guitarist gyrated big time as the lights turned to red.  Two performances later I heard the Police Number 1 “Don’t stand so close to me” from 1980.  I could not resist singing along from the centre of the dual carriageway much to the pleasure of the band and it would appear cars alike.  Tune over, we nipped down the cars and collected about 500 pesos – around 50P – which my fellow band members seemed pleased with.  I tried to explain that I was from “near Newcastle where Sting comes from” but my Spanish Geordie accent was not good and I think the message (in a bottle) was lost in translation.

No police, just Sting

No police, just Sting

Back to the group, the rest of the international walking tour members just never knew what they missed…

So, next up, Ecuador and our trip to the Amazon Basin and the “Poor Man’s” Galapagos.  Our LAN Airbus 320 has just pulled up on the stand beneath where I am sitting.  The white and blue fuselage shining in the late afternoon sun. We’ve had a really colourful last three days, just wish it had been longer really.

Categories: South America Blog | Tags: , , , , , , ,

A TIDE of SALTY emotion as we WAVE goodbye to the country of….

MARK: If you ask me what the TWO things are that I will remember most from our five weeks in New Zealand, it might surprise you.  What do you reckon?

Beautiful scenery, aqua-marine glacial lakes or incised ‘V’ shaped valleys? Snow-capped mountains, speeding jet boats or little planes affording brilliant views? Wine, wine and more wine?  The un-PC “classless” people, superb weather – only two grey days in 32 – or single lane roads where Chinese drivers cause mayhem?

Just some of the experiences that readily spring to mind. But just what will stay with me forever?

Ladies and Gentlemen, the masters20152016.com Award for Remembrance goes to…….. drum roll Oscar style……..

Big Blue Sky

Big blue sky and bright blue water

… the Sky and the Sea!

Yep I know, that may be a bit random, but let me explain.

The sky here seems so much”bigger” and bluer than any other country in the world we have ever been to.  Quick research on the web suggests this is possibly due to the lack of pollution, reduced ozone in the atmosphere and is linked to the angle of New Zealand in relation to the Sun’s UV rays.  Whatever it is, we have been sooooooo privileged to see so many amazing blue skies each day. And even on the few days it has been grey, the fascinating cloud formations have been just as dramatic.

OK that’s the sky bit over with, so what about the sea?  Good question Mark.

We’ve seen a lot of it during our 4,163 mile road journey around the two islands. From Bluff at the bottom of South Island to near the Cape Reinga Peninsula in the North.  Benign one minute, a tumultuous cauldron the next, it makes you realise just how insignificant you are in the scheme of things.  It is mesmerizing just watching the surf break. The noise can be deafening close up.  I certainly have great respect for those early explorers including Captain Cook who took on the might of the oceans and not always with positive outcomes.

A grain of sand

A grain of sand

The sky and the sea, literally came together during one of our last adventures, when we bounced along on an ex New Zealand Royal Navy rescue boat, owned and run by local Whitianga legend Steve Miller – The Cave Cruzer.  Steve and his lovely wife Vicki also own the bed and breakfast accommodation we stayed in – Absolute Beachview – a great place if you are ever in this neck of the woods.

But back to the legend for a minute who, by the way, drives an aqua-marine 1974 Mustang convertible…

Steve has saved the lives of TWO people in the past few months due to his fantastic CPR skills.  His latest heroics just over a month ago, got a lot of media attention as he saved a lady’s life on Monday, who then married on Friday of that same week. Read all about it for yourselves by clicking on the links below to access the online reports:

http://www.stuff.co.nz/life-style/weddings/76594618/Nearly-drowned-on-Monday-married-on-Friday

http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11585911

The God that is Steve at Cathedral Cove.

The God that is Steve, at Cathedral Cove.

Heading off on Sunday morning the sun decided to come out and what a 3 hour trip we had!

The sun will come out

The sun will come out

The Rib was able to get really close to so many rock and cliff formations…and wildlife you could literally touch!

Hungry birds

Hungry birds

Tree-mendous stacks

Tree-mendous stacks

S and S

Big sky meets big sea

The Champagne glass

“The Champagne Glass” – sadly upside down and empty

Largest sea cave in the southern hemisphere

The largest sea cave in the southern hemisphere

Inside the cave the fish came out to play

Inside the cave, the fish came out to play

It was such a fun trip….

Smile please

Smile please as we pass through what is known as the “washing machine”

Captain Cook - you know, the bloke from Middlesbrough - named this Cathedral Cove

Captain Cook – the bloke from Middlesbrough – named this Cathedral Cove – Sarah impressed as you can see!

Leaning

Get a shave

And then WOW. Steve got a call to say there was a pod of Bottlenose dolphins in the Bay around the corner.  We sped off.  The first sight we had, came when one of these amazing creatures started jumping over a chap on a kayak nearby. Within minutes there were dolphins everywhere around our boat, heading towards the centre of the main estuary channel.  I decided to get in amongst them as you do – and they decided to move on, so that was the end of my swimming with dolphins bit.  No wet suit Phil W in the north!

Look at the size of the white bull (bottom)

Look at the size of the white bull (bottom)

Everywhere you looked

Everywhere you looked

Side by side

Side by side – two mates out for a swim

Out of focus, but you get the sort of idea

Out of focus, but you get the sort of idea

I frightened them off

I frightened them off – so I hung on the back of the rib as it headed off at speeds of 30 mph, my hair blowing in the wind from the big inboard motors

The two videos I took on my 35mm camera perhaps give a better idea – sorry about the shakes and the poor quality… Click on the link or the video arrow and have a look…

And so we say good-bye to New Zealand.  Only two days in Auckland before we fly over the international date-line to Chile on Sunday.  A few days in Santiago and then another couple of flights up to Ecuador for the start of our tour to the Amazon Jungle and beyond.  Wifi is doubtless going to be harder to access, so we will post when we can. In the meantime, a massive thank you to all those who continue to email, phone, text, Skype, WhatsApp, Viber and post comments on the site.  We are getting on average 200+ unique views from around the World per blog from over 58 countries, excluding the rest of the site.  So a big thank you from us for following us and thanks for the amazing comments – we really appreciate it.

We "wave" goodbye to New Zealand

We “wave” goodbye to New Zealand… next stop somehere that sounds colder but is actually warmer – Chile – another wine producing country.  Get the real reason for this trip?

BIG THANKS TO THE EXCELLENT ALOA SEAVIEW RESORT MOTEL IN PAIHIA WHO HAVE KINDLY HELPED WITH THE UPLOAD OF THESE VIDEOS.  AN EXCELLENT MOTEL IN THE BAY OF ISLANDS – http://www.aloha.co.nz – SPEAK TO JASON AND SAY HI FROM ME FOR A MASSIVE DISCOUNT OR NOT.

Categories: New Zealand Blog | Tags: , , , , ,

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