Posts Tagged With: round the world over 50s

MARK & SARAH: DEFINITELY THE “MASTERS” NOW! GREY GAP YEAR – THE INSIDE STORY

Well we’re back! Back in good old England!  57,000 miles, 39 planes, lots of stats and more importantly, lots of memories.

We’ve been asked many questions during our Round the World Trip and indeed on our return.  Some by people interested in doing something similar, some by people keen to know what didn’t go well and some by people who were just plain (or should that be plane) nosey!

To-date the MASTERS site has been read in over 84 different countries with in excess of 15,000 separate viewings, not bad for a humble “personal” blog which was never designed to court a widespread following.

Down to Earth

Down to Earth

We learnt a hell of a lot, both in the planning of the trip and of course during our 264 days on the international road.  Indeed we thought long and hard about selling our inside story and all our tips and advice.  However, as the highest bidder was only £2.10 we decided in the spirit of generosity to simply share our knowledge in the hope that someone out there will find it useful – if you do, make our day and let us know by adding your comments at the end of the blog.

Ooh and for people who like a bit of emotion, read to the end and see what we really feel like having been back in the real world for a couple of weeks.

WITH THE BENEFIT OF EIGHT+ MONTHS EXPERIENCE TRAVELLING ON THE ROAD, IF YOU DID THIS AGAIN, WHAT WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY?

THREE MONTH BLOCKS:  In an ideal World (no pun intended), we would probably have broken our RTWT into 3 x 3 month blocks.  You can get blasé when constantly seeing new sites and places.  Top tourist sites, which would have been a big wow earlier in our trip didn’t always have the same effect towards the end, which was a real shame.  You’re nearly immune in your feelings, numb if you like or just plain weary.  All of this sounds really negative, but it is just a true statement of fact from somebody (Mark) who gets bored very easily.  That said, each country gave us hundreds of wows and what we did worked well for us overall.

NOTE: If we had had the time, then extra air fare costs would need to have been factored in which we estimate would have cost £25,000 more had we both simply visited each country/region for a standard holiday (two/three weeks) and then returned home to the UK each time.

TM

TM

LIMIT BACK TO BACK TRIPS: Whist we booked the majority of the tour independently, we did use a Tour Operator for certain legs.  China, Indo-China, Ecuador and across South America – see below for the pros and cons of using a third party to aid your travel plans.

We generally enjoyed the group travel experience, but due to time restraints and the dates when tours ran, it was not possible to build in a “break” between the end of our China trip and the start of the Indo-China tour and similarly the end of Ecuador and the beginning of our 45 day marathon from Peru to Brazil. A break would have given us breathing space, time to compartmentalise what we had seen and what we were about to experience. Plus we would not have compared people, guides and countries so forensically with a few well planned days of separation.  No major drama, but we will do it differently next time.  Gosh, did we really say “next time”?

LEAVE THE MOZZIE NETS AT HOME:  Most places that we needed mozzie nets had them.  Unless you are really travelling on a budget in dodgy hostels, then save the expense and weight of a decent mosquito net.  PS: Anybody want to buy two nets that were used just once?

That’s it!  We have racked our brains, but there is very little we would do differently.

WHAT WORKED WELL?

PRE-PLANNING:  Those 650 hours of pre-planning really paid off in so many ways.  But we have come to the conclusion that we are not the norm.  The vast majority of particularly young RTW travellers/back-packers would rock up and decide as they went.  Good luck we say, but here’s why you might want to follow our lead…

Hours spent planning in advance – This saved hundreds of hours planning on the road.  Why not use your time overseas to visit more sites or drink more at the bar rather than trying to work out where to go, how to get there and where to stay?

Save time and money – We saved thousands of £’s over other people who booked at last minute or as they went.  We got the cheapest hotels and without doubt made massive savings on air fares.  We were also able to negotiate with tour operators to hold their 2014 prices for 2016 plus get a further percentage off for giving them consolidated business.  Just because you are travelling does not mean that you should forget your commercial skills.  But if you like wasting time and money, go for it.  Everyone’s different.

SEASONS WET OR DRY, YOUR CHOICE: We spent many hours working out when the best time to visit a country would be in terms of sun rather than rain and hot rather than cold.  This was not as easy as you might at first think as you have to take in to consideration mountain ranges where the weather is completely different on one side, the top and then on the other-side.  Monsoon rain in one part of the country often means dry weather elsewhere.  And if you go to high altitude even if you are on the equator, be ready for some rain and cold temperatures at night.

I have to say we got it nearly exactly right.  Just 25 days of rain in 264.  But it still wrangles that we went all the way to Ayers Rock in Australia for 24 hours and it was cloudy and 17C.  The day before 45C, the day after 42C. Ah well…

Grey Gap Year

Grey Gap Year

WHAT ARE YOUR TOP TIPS FOR TRAVELLING AROUND THE WORLD?

  1. FACTOR IN BREAKS: Touched on above, but worth reiterating that travelling is not the same as a holiday!  Build in small breaks if you can so you can stay in one place and re-group after physical and mental exertion.
  2. DO IT NOW – GO ON GUT: This always worked for us.  Turning up for a flight over Mount Cook in New Zealand with five minutes to go.  Deciding to go zip-lining in Ecuador when the situation presented itself.  If your gut says do something, whatever that might be, go with your instincts, you will rarely be wrong or disappointed.
  3. GROUP TRAVEL – MORE PROS THAN CONS: We enjoyed travelling by ourselves, but also enjoyed travelling with groups where you could have a laugh, enjoy more meaningful conversations and let somebody else do all the planning and driving – which can be tiring.  That said, you have to be prepared as with any group to encounter people who you “struggle” to find any sort of common ground with.  Fine for a week or two, not the best situation if you have to bite your tongue for six weeks. That happened.
  4. ALWAYS HAVE YOUR CAMERA READY: Sounds an obvious one, but we soon learnt that you never quite knew when a photographic opportunity might present itself.  A dolphin pod in NZ, a child being carried by his mother in Peru.  A chance to shoot the Milky Way.  Our small Canon did an amazing job and we are so pleased we decided to stick with it rather than take a big camera with a big lens.
  5. ONLINE SEATS – GET SMART AND GET MORE ROOM: Be smart when booking airline seats.  Some airlines don’t charge for booking emergency exits.  If you are travelling as a couple, book seats at the back of the aircraft (statistically the safest in the event of a crash) and then book seats either side of a middle seat.  Invariably it does not get used and you get yourself much needed space.  And upgrades are indeed possible.  Thanks to British Airways we travelled back from Rio to London Heathrow in Club Class (Business Class) luxury.  We asked Flight Centre (who had booked our RTW flights) to “mention” on the final flight booking manifest that this was our “last” flight on our round the World journey and this prompted the upgrade.  It was superb and a great way to end our World adventures.  Thanks BA.
  6. FLYING TO CHINA FROM NEPAL? GET A FREE FLIGHT AROUND EVEREST: We booked a scenic flight around Everest BEFORE our night-time China South flight to Beijing was cancelled.  We were forced to re-book with Air China , which left 12 hours earlier, which gave us a free sightseeing tour of Everest from both sides – just 24 hours after we had PAID to see the World’s highest mountain!  Sods law in our case but how many people have seen Everest twice in two days?
  7. TAKE TWO LAPTOPS/COMPUTERS: You can of course operate on smart phones.  But we were so pleased that we took both a laptop and a tablet.  They both “wobbled” in terms of operating from time to time, but you can’t beat having a back-up if something goes wrong. I won’t insult your intelligence by stating the importance of backing up files and photos in to a cloud, on to an encrypted USB and of course onto a second back up computer. Woops, just did.
  8. SORT YOUR PHOTOS AND VIDEOS AS YOU GO: We took 40,000 photos, we kept 9,000. We religiously “culled” daily as we went and of course backed up our most precious files every day.
  9. CONSIDER HAVING A BLOG: We thoroughly enjoyed producing our MASTERS blog.  It was a great way to keep in-touch with family and friends.  But remember it takes time.  Typically our blogs each took seven hours to produce by the time we’d thought of an angle/theme, written the copy, chosen the photos, uploaded the files to the online software (WordPress) and then proofed/edited the finished article.
  10. HAVE A SENSE OF HUMOUR: You will experience a whole range of emotions.  Sadness, elation, you name it.  Keep a sense of humour and all will be well.
Crawler

Crawler

WHAT ESSENTIALS WOULD YOU ALWAYS CARRY IN YOUR BACK-PACK/BUM BAG?

DOOR STOPS:  Random I know, but a little tip I picked up from working in Russia 25 years ago.  A door stop is simple and buys you time if somebody is trying to get in to your room and the locks have failed.

DUCT TAPE:  A must have.  Used by us to repair bags, cover up rips in Mozzie nets and even to strap up a fellow traveller who had broken her arm in the middle of the Andes.

ROPE/CHAINS/LOCKS: Nothing to do with fetishes. Used to secure bags in overnight busses or keep hotel windows firmly secure. Remember there are some bad people out there.

CURRENCY CARDS:  We had two which we used in Australia and New Zealand. They were easy to use and gave us another route to access local currency without relying on debit or credit cards all the time.

TWO CREDIT AND TWO DEBIT CARDS:  You can never be too careful.  We saw what happened to people who came with just one and then had problems when they were lost, stolen or simply did not work.

INTERNATIONAL DRIVING LICENCE: Remember that not every country accepts a UK driving licence so apply for an International Driving License before you leave your home country.

95% DEET:  There are mixed medical views on using deet for prolonged periods.  We used 95% for a few months at a time and had no ill effects.  But our non-medical advice would be to use it unless you have side effects which by all accounts show pretty quickly after use.  The proof was in the pudding. Very few bites, no Dengue Fever and no Zika Virus caught in South America.

MAKE SURE YOUR WALLET AND BUM BAG IS SCAMMER PROOF:  We met people who had been victims of electronic scamming of credit and debit cards.  Our wallets and bum bags were made of scam proof material so bad people could not get up close and steal what was ours.  We also kept in close contact with banks by email so they could be alerted if suddenly our cards were being used in places not on our itinerary.  Finally, don’t forget to check your accounts online every few days.  Scamming in South America is rife. And finally, finally, just be sensible.

A few items to pack!

A few items to pack!

WHAT ARE THE HIDDEN COSTS OF TRAVELLING?

Now this is a good question and one we realised was a key one pretty soon into the planning of our trip.

There are many hidden costs!  For example, visas, insurance, vaccinations and clothes, which added close to £6,000 to our overall budget.

VISAS:  Can be expensive to get – India and China to name but two.  £650 was the final bill for the two of us.  Not a small amount to find if you haven’t budgeted for it.  Also check, check and double check if you need a visa.  One Canadian traveller we met forgot to get her Brazilian visa and incurred big costs getting one whilst in Bolivia.

INSURANCE:  We never needed it.  £1,100 pounds wasted.  No!  You cannot scrimp on insurance.  Use an insurer that specialises in long trips and also read the small print.  For example “trekking” above 2,500m is held to be much more of a risk than say skiing.  So check what you are buying as most policies offer a Bronze/Silver/Gold policy depending on the activities you plan to have a go at.

VACCINATIONS:  The National Health Service (NHS) was pretty good.  But they didn’t offer free vaccinations for say Hepatitis B or Rabies.  We had all the jabs available except Japanese Encephalitis and decided to go for the cheaper Malaria option of Doxycycline.  Again, we were lucky and had very little sickness.  But you can’t in our book play fast and loose with your health so get “jabbed” before you go.

CLOTHES/BAGS/EQUIPMENT:  We were sad arses and watched many You Tube videos on how to pack a back-pack and what to take.  We spent a small fortune – £3,000 – on bags, clothes and equipment.  The Osprey Backpack and Daypacks were excellent and the investment in high-end North Face kit again paid off.  We never once said “oh why did we not bring such and such…” and were proud of our ability to travel the World with no more than 13kg each, start to finish.

CONTINGENCY:  We had a 5% contingency built into our overall budget.  We did not need it and came back 9% under budget having done everything we wanted to do in terms of experiences/excursions etc.

Map it out

Map it out

HOW DID ALL THE FINANCIAL ARRANGEMENTS WORK OUT?

We could go on and on about this subject.  It is arguably the most important thing to consider.  We were anal and recorded every single penny we spent.  This is a very good discipline and ensures you know exactly what you are spending and where you sit financially at any one time.  Remember if, like us you travel with no income coming in, you have to be watchful and sensible.  So some words of MASTERS wisdom.

COUNTRY VARIANCE:  There are two big financial variances when travelling.  The first is the individual country cost eg India (cheap Asia) versus New Zealand (expensive First World). We organised our travel around India for five weeks through detailed research.  Three star hotels, all food – restaurants, excursions, six flights, bus and train travel.  The cost per day when this was all factored in was £79 a day for two people!  New Zealand however cost £150 per day for the two of us.  Car hire bumped up the price quite a bit but we stayed in 2/3* motels mainly so we could eat “in-house” to keep the costs down.  £200+ for the day would have been the price had we eaten out each night.

BANK ACCOUNTS:  We ran two current accounts whilst we were away and like any business needed to be aware of cash flow to ensure we had sufficient funds at any one account thereby maximising saving rates.  The biggest saver was using an N&P current account as they DO NOT charge for ATM cash withdrawal or payment when using Debit Cards overseas – so long as you either have a balance of £5,000 in the account or pay in £500 a month.  This worked fine with just one instance in China when the card did not allow us to withdraw cash and once in Chile.  The rest of the time, happy days.  Our back-up Barclays Current Account worked fine when N&P failed but we did get charged for the privilege!

CREDIT CARDS:  We rarely used them because of charges levied.  But we had a VISA and Mastercard just in case.  They were useful for online purchases because of their financial protection afforded and were always demanded by Car-Hire Companies for deposit authorisation purposes.

EXCHANGE RATES/HEDGING CURRENCY: You win some, you lose some.  We bought some US dollars when we could get 1.55 to the pound before we left, for “emergencies”.  Some currency rates went in our favour 10-20% in India and Malaysia from the time we booked until the time we arrived.  But we lost 10-15% by buying two lots of £5,000 in NZ and AUS currency by guessing that the £ had risen as high as it would, when it actually kept on going up!  That said, by the time we got there, that differential had fallen to more like 7%.  So you literally pays your money and you takes your choice.  In summary:

  • Take emergency US Dollars
  • Use ATMs
  • Take currency cards
  • Most importantly have two or three sources of available funds in case an ATM fails or you lose cash

PERSONA NON GRATA:  We resigned from our jobs to travel.  As soon as we did that, we “dropped off the radar” of financial institutions.  So getting new Bank Accounts is challenging.  And as for getting a credit card, forget it, even if you can prove you have money in the bank.  We also thought it easier – when asked – to put our status down as “retired”.  That way we weren’t asked any difficult questions by Immigration Officers.

Cost it out

Cost it out – where the photo on the card was taken

HOW DID YOU BOOK YOUR HOTELS AND WHAT DID YOU LEARN?

We did not want to do this trip in 5 star luxury.  Even if we could have afforded it, we wouldn’t have done it as we would have been too far removed from the people of the countries we visited.  We pitched it at a 2/3 star level.  All but one hotel/motel/bed and breakfast had private facilities.  95% had wifi.  Most gave us some sort of breakfast.

BOOKING.COM: Got to say as a consumer brand these guys are good.  Just not so sure that they should be getting on average 15% commission from small business owners!  That said, they are easy to use, offer a lot of flexibility and have a snazzy app which contains your booking details and offline maps.  We decided in the main not to approach individual hotels as this was time consuming and you would get sucked into individual booking contracts and having to reconfirm reservations etc.   But you could save a further 5-10% if you were prepared to enter into a detailed exchange of emails.  Instead we stuck with Booking.com.  The vast majority of our hotels were booked this way and we were not let down once.

BANTER EMAIL UPGRADES: Now this is worth doing.  Often, switched on hoteliers after they had received your reservation from Booking.com would then reconfirm directly back.  This is what we would do if we owned a hotel.  It shows interest and professionalism and in all cases where this happened we always had a good room/experience.  It also allowed US to enter in to email banter and develop a relationship via email which invariably lead to a room or apartment upgrade.  It was worth spending time doing this and it really did open doors when we got to our final destination, often a year after booking.

GROUP TRAVEL: We took four tours and it was good in the main to meet new people and for others to organise the experience.  Had we spent another 250 hours planning we could have booked the whole lot ourselves.  My fear of not being able to do a DIY trip in China was ill-founded as everything I saw was in English.  And despite my lack of Spanish, we could with a bit of effort ended up with a trip not dissimilar to the ones offered by the tour operator, G-Adventures, who I have to say in the main were good.  We would also have saved around £3-5k.

Celebrating at 5,000m with a little wee - a record for me except for flying

Not many outside toilets on our trip!

WHAT MONEY SAVING TIPS CAN YOU GIVE?

RTW AND PERSONAL FLIGHTS: We got the best of Worlds.  We booked a Round the World Ticket via Flight Centre (excellent service, IATA bonded for financial security and with an emergency helpline) and then booked ourselves cheap internal flight legs in India, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore.  This combination saved many £’s and was considerably cheaper than trying to book each leg separately.  Just one cancelled flight and no delays – not a bad return when booking 39 flights in total.

FLY OVERNIGHT: If you are on a real budget and don’t mind not sleeping and guaranteed aching joints, then book overnight flights and save the cost of a hotel.

CAR HIRE BOOK OUT OF TOWN: We booked 33 days of car hire in Australia for under £1,000 with East Coast Rentals and 37 days in New Zealand for £1,200 – both cars were Ford Focus size.  This, we thought was a good deal when comparing with the big rental boys.  We worked out that because these companies were “off airport” and you needed to have a shuttle transfer, you could get around 30% cheaper deals compared with major brands.  The cars were good in the main and it was worth a short journey to get a good rate.

HOTELIERS WITH BOOKING AGENCY CAPABILITY: We found that you could get some really good deals if the hotel booked local excursions/local tours – much better than we could get booking ourselves.  It also saved a lot of aggravation, so do look out for this service particularly in India and other parts of Asia.  Our houseboat in Kerala booked by Saj in Kovalam was a classic case in point.

MOTEL/APARTMENT COOKING FACILITIES & SPACE: You do get tired of eating out.  It becomes repetitive and expensive.  So booking apartments and motels in Australia and New Zealand gave us much more flexibility, helping to maximise budgets and often giving us two/three times the amount of space you would get in a hotel bedroom for the same cost.  A no-brainer for us.

SUPERMARKET FUEL DISCOUNT VOUCHERS: Every little helps says Mr Tesco and the same applies when travelling the World.  Most supermarkets in Australia and New Zealand give you a voucher off the cost of fuel.  And so ok, not hundreds of pounds, but enough for us to buy a meal or two on the money we saved.

COOL BAGS: A great way to carry perishables around in a hire car, including your lunchtime sarnies and you save a fortune into the bargain.  Picnics are the way forward.

FILL YOUR OWN WATER BOTTLES:  Again an Aussie and NZ wheeze as we could only safely drink water from the tap in these two countries.  Saved a fortune.

(SOME) STREET FOOD IS SAFE: And cheap and good – FACT.  You hear so many horror stories about people getting “Delhi-belly”, but if you are sensible, eat hot foods prepared in front of your eyes and eaten by locals then there is little problem  The food is really good and very cheap, especially in India and Malaysia.  Go on, you know you want to.

Yes I did eat them all!

Yes I did eat them all!

WHAT DID YOU DO TO KEEP IN TOUCH?

These days you have to be really out in the wild not to have wifi access.  We had wifi for most of the time except in the obvious places like the Amazon Jungle.

Skype, Whats App and Viber became our best friends and worked pretty well for much of the time.  Don’t forget to check with your phone provider and turn services off.  We dispensed with voice mail and data roaming because of cost and in fact rarely used the phone for voice traffic.

DID IT REALLY HAPPEN?

I’m writing (Mark) this final paragraph on an East Midlands train travelling from Nottingham to London, two and a half weeks after getting back to the UK.  And I got to say, it is as if our trip never happened!!

I’ve thrown myself in to an exciting project/contract at the University of Nottingham (UK) where I have been fortunate to land a great job for three months devising a sales and marketing strategy for the new £40 million sports centre that the University is building.  That Skype interview from Bolivia worked!

The fact is, we’ve both been busy and that we have concluded is the best way to get back into the real World.  As for what happens next, watch this space as this little trip around the World is just the start of our next journey – whatever that might be.  And will there will be more blogs in the future?  Maybe!

The end...

The end…

Categories: Countdown Blog | Tags: , , , , ,

Epi-BLOG: So this is it… and that was that

MARK/SARAH:  So this is it.   Or perhaps we should say, “that was that”.  This, our last overseas blog post of our epic MASTERS 2015/2016 Round the World Trip.  What do you say on such an auspicious occasion?  To quote Freddie, our Swiss traveller friend, “it was fine”, which translates from Swiss-German into English as “we had a blast”.

A BLAST

A BLAST

Well we had a blast for most of the time. The last few days here in Brazil have in truth been very hard work.  It’s been a bit like the prelude to your Summer holiday when you are running on empty at work and desperately in need of a break.  We need a break from all this travelling and could do with a good holiday.  Two hundred and sixty four days is a long time in anybody’s money and we can’t wait to get home now.  Brazil and South America in general have been good.  The fact that I’m not saying “fantastic or brilliant” says more about our present state of mind rather than the countries we have visited.  You know you have had enough when you stare at the magnificent Iguassu Falls and think to yourself “they’re nice”.  They’re nice for God’s sake, is that all you can say?

Another Rainbow....

Another Rainbow….

Our thoughts are now very much in the future.  Back in the UK, with family and friends.  Looking forward to the next chapter in our life story which promises to be equally as challenging and exciting as the last nine months.  What does that future looks like? The pieces of the jigsaw are now all turned over on the dining room table.  They are ready to be assembled and the dream will become a reality during the months to come.  That there is no doubt.

Turning our World upside down

Turning our World upside down

But back to the here and now for a minute.  This blog is a bit of a “dog’s dinner” in terms of content.  However the format is clear.

Firstly, over to you our dear readers, and a big thanks to all the many people, who after the last blog, sent in their questions about our trip.  We’ll endeavour to answer them jointly in an open and honest way.  Next up is our TOP 5 (or nearly 5) section where we reveal a range of our TOP likes and dislikes.  Then it’s on to the final stats count where we add up all the various methods of transportation from bus to boat, tuk-tuk to train.  That’s it.  All clear?  Good, let’s begin!

Speed King

Speed King

ANY QUESTIONS?

First up a question from Ian P, who I would like to first of all publicly thank for all his personal support during our trip.  Ian is one of those people you need when you are embarking on a trip like this.  He was extremely wise council before we left with various tips, ideas and suggestions.  Together with Linda, they kindly bought us very useful gifts.  And then most importantly he stayed in touch acting as a father figure/mentor through the ups and downs, the highlights and the low-lights. Thanks mate, so looking forward to seeing you.

IAN ASKS:  I have two challenging questions for you both; Firstly, what do you suppose the true cost of your trip has been? I don’t mean Pounds, shillings and pence either but I think you know that.  Secondly what has been the value of the trip to you both – that might be two different answers?

Thanks Ian.  This one made us think very hard at 0630 in the morning flying from Iguassu Foz to Sao Paulo.  We guess you mean by the word “cost”, the downside to the trip.  Or put another way, the “opportunity cost” – what we’ve missed out on by embarking on a trip like this.  We hope this is what you meant?

Now Sir.....

Now Sir…..

In truth, “not a lot” is the first thought that springs to mind.  Good old Yorkshire tea is a starter for ten. We’ve missed the British seasons – chasing the sun has worked – 25 days rain only in 264.  But there’s a lot to be said by the UK’s changing seasons, the Autumn tints and the first signs of Spring.  We suppose you could bring in here the “true cost of friendship” and people we care about who have been thousands of miles away…. But this has been countered to some extent by the hundreds of people we have met around the World and also the great experience of staying with Sarah’s brother Shane and his family over Christmas in Australia.  I have known Shane as my brother-in-law for over 30 years.  But we have never spent more than a couple of days together.  So having the chance to spend “real quality time” to use that awful expression was a real plus….

Shane and Eddie - lads!

Shane and Eddie – lads!

That last statement makes me think we are moving into Part 2 of your question – the value of the trip to you both…

The value is hard to quantify in terms of pounds shillings and pence.  If we had to guess, it would be like the Mastercard Advertisement – PRICELESS.  Do we regret not buying a couple of BMWs, building an extension or putting a sizeable down payment on a holiday home instead?  NO is the simple two letter answer.  We feel much richer than simple material possessions can bring because of the hundreds of positive experiences we’ve had.

The question really is where on Earth (if you pardon the pun) do you begin to start when reviewing each experience and the value there attached?  We’ve experienced the value of seeing so many different cultures at first hand – from poor Buddhist farmers in Nepal to City Bankers (I said bankers) in Hong Kong.  Different landscapes have amazed us at every turn from the Salt Flats of Bolivia to the snow-capped peaks of Mount Everest and the stunning beauty of the Great Barrier Reef.  One of the reasons we wrote the blog was so that we could look back and remember in months and years to come.  Without this aide-memoire, complete with photos we would struggle to take it all in.

Sarah Attenborough

Sarah Attenborough

The value of having time to think cannot be under-estimated.  We managed a year ago to get off the corporate roundabout where we both latterly never really had time to think. Not having to worry about deadlines and targets has been wonderful and yet we are both now ready to revisit the western World of Work, except this time it will be very much on “our terms”.

Finally, we know exactly who and what we are as people and this trip has been valuable in giving us the time and opportunity to confirm this.  In fairness little has changed, we will not be coming back having “seen the light” or wearing sandals, but we know what we like, what we don’t like and this knowledge and experience will guide us in the future in all that we will do.  It will act as a great strength and future sign-post. We won’t be afraid to follow a life path that is of our own making and nobody else’s.

Does that answer your question?

PS:  The “Thingy Thing” you very kindly gave us has been most helpful!  We’ve had a couple of beers or three (opener) and the “saw” was extremely useful when plastic baggage tags had been applied in Vietnam and the only way to get them off was to use the saw!

Smile please

Smile please

SUE ASKS: “I adore seeing sunsets….The passing of another day. Where has been the best and why?” 

Thanks for this Sue!  A really good question.  The sunsets we have seen, have been amazing.  Amazing because they have been simply beautiful and because of their wonderful, often iconic locations.  Some of our favourites have been…..

just missed the birds..... Chitwan in Nepal

just missed the birds….. Chitwan in Nepal

Laos lights

Laos lights

Perfect Peru

Perfect Peru

But our “bestest” and the one we both agreed on independently was when we had our own house boat in Kerala (Southern India).  It was a unique location, we’d just had an amazing dinner cooked by our own personal chef and the backdrop was beautiful.  It was made even more special because next morning we were perfectly placed to see the sunrise again in spectacular fashion.  Special, very special!

House boat sunset part 1

House boat sunset part 1

House boat sunset part 2

House boat sunset part 2

... and in the morning...

… and in the morning…

MARK’S MUM ASKS:   Which has been your favourite country and what difference has this tour made in both your lives?

Hello Mum!  We’re split on this one and so best to refer to the Top 5 below.  Sarah has gone for Laos and New Zealand.  Laos a surprise package and a truly beautiful unspoilt (except for the UXO/80 million unexploded bombs) country.  New Zealand another scenic sensation where you see different beauty at every turn of the road (or sky).

Lovely Laos

Lovely Laos

Mill pond still

Mill pond still

I agree with Sarah’s choices, but for me India is still the Number 1.  It was a powerful power-keg of emotions as far as I was concerned.  The colour, the contrasts, the smells and above all, the people.  Because we travelled over 12,000 miles from the top to the bottom and planned the entire itinerary ourselves I can still remember every place as if it was yesterday. And I’ll never forget Garima and her family at Delhi station.

A great highlight for us - meeting Garima and her family

A great highlight for us – meeting Garima and her family

The harder question to answer is the difference the trip has made to our lives. We both think that time back in England will give us the answer to this question.  Can we come back to you on this one?

MARY ASKS:  What next – both in terms of travel and choice of future employment? I somehow feel the corporate world will not sit comfortably after all you have both seen and experienced.

Hi Mary, a very perceptive question!  We’ve lots of ideas and indeed plans which unfortunately we cannot reveal just yet!  Neither of us are trying to be evasive, it’s just that there are likely to be a number of exciting choices to make in the weeks to come.  The best analogy we can perhaps use is a series of roads which lie ahead rather than a cross roads as we are well past that point on our metaphorical journey.  The corporate world is one I (Mark) still love and I can’t wait to rejoin it, in whatever form that takes.  Sarah meanwhile has had her social conscience pricked many times during the past few months and could well explore this avenue.

What next in terms of travel is an easy one.  We have drawn up our next list of destinations and we’ll aim to knock these off over the next ten years or so. Returning to the UK will be a first in that for the first time in 30 years we have not got an overseas trip (other than Yorkshire) planned.  The MASTERS BUCKET LIST INCLUDES – not in any particular order except the first destination:

  • Vancouver/Portland/Oregon – September 2017 – Court/Linda are you free to put us up as we have run out of money?
  • Japan
  • Lviv – (Ukraine)
  • South Africa
  • Tanzania/Namibia/Ethiopia
  • Costa Rica/Belize
  • Antarctica
  • Rocky Mountain Express and then cruise to Alaska – likely to be when we are in mid 70s as cruising is for old people (controversial).
Planning our next adventure....

Planning our next adventure….

FRANK ASKS:  Apart from “which bit do you think you enjoyed the most?” I think my other question would be “How do you feel about returning to the UK, to “normality”? I’m sure you will be glad to be home in many ways, but how to focus the mind on the daily tasks, that may seem a bit mundane or tame after such an adventure?

Good to have your two-part question Frank!  Hope Radio Frimley Park is going strong!   In terms of the best bit, I’m going to duck that question and refer you to the Top 5 section below which is all jointly agreed.  But I will answer the question another way.  One of the highlights for me was when the wheels of the giant Emirates A380 took off from Heathrow on 31st August 2015.  It was at that precise moment that I knew all the plans were going to happen and there was no going back….

No going back and no point in feeling blue

No going back and no point in feeling blue

The second part of your question is a really interesting point.  I was chatting on Skype to a close friend who warned of the likely feeling of deflation on our return to Frimley… To be frank (not possible I know) we are really looking forward to a little bit of normality.  There has been only five times in nine months where we have been in the same bed for four days or more.  The average is 2.25 nights!  So to banish any negative thoughts, we have a very full programme planned during the first few days of our return.  We then hope that our future plans will come to fruition so we don’t have to endure “normality” for too long.  Sounds all a bit cryptic, so watch this space Frank.

Normality

Normality

KATY ASKS:   Will your sedulous travels have made a difference to your future plans and dreams?

Firstly thank you for all the references to gin on Facebook.  The thought of a proper G & T has kept me going for nine months.  And secondly thanks for using the word sedulous!  Now, your question.  The trip has crystallised rather than changed our future plans.  The job now is to convert the dreams into reality which we both feel better equipped to do having spent so much time away.  What we have learnt, is that if you have a vision/goal and you then commit to it (in writing or publicly), things happen.  We’ve learnt that “us oldies” can still give the younger generation a run for their money and in some ways I am now feeling more competitive and focussed than I did in my mid-20s.  There is only a finite amount of time we are on this mortal coil and experiences such as zip-lining, abseiling and walking the Inca Trail have reinforced the fact that you can do anything you want – if you want to.  People we have met on this trip and indeed people we know in the UK, have said “we couldn’t do that”.  The reality though is somewhat different in our opinion.  If they really wanted to travel the World most of them could – it’s just that they have other priorities, goals and objectives which is fair enough.  Now, where’s that gin before I get too philosophical.

Climb every mountain

Climb every mountain

LINDA ASKS: From all the places you have ticked on your bucket list for this trip, were there any surprises? May be somewhere that has given you a different memory to the one anticipated.

Thanks for this excellent question Linda.  Sarah first: I had two surprises…. The first was Laos, as it was so beautiful and unspoilt and I never realised what a sad history it had and still has. I don’t want to go back again though as I know that in 10 years’ time it will be completely different as mass tourism takes over.

The second is Australia. Having spent time in Australia over 35 years’ ago, I was looking forward to re-visiting old stomping grounds and re-living those 12 months of my life “down under.” However, the highlight for me was spending time with my brother, Shane and his family over Christmas and New Year. With only 13 month’s between us, Shane and I were never really close and growing up, we did everything possible to annoy each other! Maybe at last, maturity has kicked in and we are now able to enjoy each other’s company. (Note; I wrote this (re Shane) independently having not read Mark’s earlier response to Ian!!)

Talking to the 'roo

Talking to the ‘roo – Nephew Eddie

Mark’s turn:  I was surprised and somewhat disappointed at the poor quality of food and service in South America, with one noteable exception.  Having had culinary feasts in China, Indo-China and Malaysia, we assumed Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil would deliver.  Alas no.  Complete lack of customer service in most of Peru and all of Bolivia and a diet of fried meat and not much else everywhere.  The one beacon of excellence was the Inca Trail.  How the hell the porters and chef’s served up such high quality food I will never know and all this on two gas burners.  It just shows what can be achieved.

More tea vicar?

More tea vicar? Harry Porter and the Inca Boys..

MASTERS TOP 5/TOP 10/TOP 15

This took forever to agree, but agree we did.

So, the TOP 5/TOP 10/TOP 15 answers below are not ranked with the exception of the airlines.

TOP COUNTRIES

  • India
  • Laos
  • New Zealand
  • Ecuador
  • Nepal

TOP PEOPLE

  • Indians
  • Nepalese
  • Cambodians
  • Australians
  • Laotians

TOP FOOD

  • India
  • China
  • Vietnam
  • Australia
  • Thailand

TOP EXPERIENCES – MARK

  • Zip lining/Canyonning – Ecuador
  • Train and people spotting – CST – Mumbai – India
  • Flight over Great Barrier Reef – Australia
  • Abseiling -Vietnam
  • Flight x 2 around Mt Everest, Nepal and China

TOP EXPERIENCES – SARAH

  • Snorkelling – Great Barrier Reef
  • Walking the Inca Trail – Peru
  • Flight over Mt Cook and Fox Glacier – New Zealand
  • Riding on a motorbike – Vietnam
  • Floating down the Mekong – Laos

TOP SIGHTS x 15 as could not narrow down

  • Great Barrier Reef, above and on – Australia
  • Mount Cook from above – New Zealand
  • The Great Wall of China
  • Terracotta Warriors – China
  • Golden Temple, Amritsar – India
  • Machu Piccu – Peru
  • Salt Flats, Bolivia
  • Iguassu Falls, Argentina
  • 12 Apostles, Great Ocean Road – Australia
  • Dolphins – New Zealand
  • The Killing Fields – Cambodia
  • Ku Chi Tunnels – Vietnam
  • Mount Everest – Nepal
  • Pantanal – Brazil
  • Where the Daintree Rainforest and Great Barrier Reef meet

TOP DISAPPOINTMENTS

  • Ankor Wat – Cambodia
  • Nazca Lines – Peru
  • Ayers Rock – Australia
  • Anybody in Bolivia who claims to work in hospitality
  • Food in South America

TOP 5 PHOTOS

NUMBER 1: The bras hit the fan - great drier, but only on slow spin speed!

NUMBER 1: The bras hit the fan – great drier, but only on slow spin speed!

Number 2: Fishing for compliments – nice line Mark!

Number 2: Fishing for compliments – nice line Mark!  Kerala House Boat – sunset – see Sue’s question above

NUMBER 3: The 12 Apostles

NUMBER 3: The 12 Apostles

Great Barrier Reef

NUMBER 4:  Whitsunday Islands, Australia

Made it

NUMBER 5:  Machu Picchu

TOP AIRLINES

  1. Emirates
  2. Air China
  3. LAN
  4. Qantas
  5. Air Asia

 

TRAINS, BOATS AND PLANES –  The Scores on the Doors

Yes we did try to get all the numbers in a straight line below, but failed miserably.  Sorry.  ED.

Bus                                      103

Car/Taxi                                60

Plane                                    39

Metro                                    35

Tuk-tuk                                 28

Ferry                                    26

Boat                                     25

Train                                    19

Rickshaw                               9

Truck                                     8

Cable-car                               6

Tram                                      6

Hire Car                                 5

Bike                                       3

Kayak                                    2

Rib-boat                                 2

4WD                                       2

Monorail                                2

Rowing boat                          1

Tub(ing)                                 1

Motor-bike                             1

Cyclo                                      1

Quad Bike                              1

Golf cart                                 1

Chair-lift                                 1

Toboggan                               1

Horse                                     1

Elephant                                1

Jet Boat                                 1

Jet ski                                    1

Helicopter                             1

Hummer                                1

Funicular                               1

Swing                                    1

Dune Buggy                         1

 

AND SO THE END IS NIGH

MARK:  And so if you have read down to this final paragraph, you must be a true MASTERS follower.  And for that we thank you.  I know we have said it before, but thank you for taking the trouble to keep in touch.  For those that couldn’t or didn’t or wouldn’t, thank you for helping us re-shape our Christmas card list for 2016!  LOL.

Travelling is a strange thing.  You meet many friends, but at the same time it can be very lonely.  Just like the many mountains and valleys, there are highs and there are lows.  For richer for poorer, for better for worse.  The good thing is we will be coming back on the same British Airways plane together and that is probably our biggest highlight and achievement.  Two hundred and sixty four days together, 24 hours a day is a hell of a long time.  Try it for yourself, if you don’t believe me!

However, we don’t want you to think we’ve ended on a downer.  No, we prefer to look at the many hundreds of things we have achieved.

Look at the transport stats (above) for one!  We had just one plane that was cancelled resulting in a 12 hour change of plan.  The rest was spot on.  Not one delay on 39 flights.  Every single hotel booking happened as planned.  There were no mistakes, no cock-ups.  Nothing, zilch.  The many hours of planning paid off big time and the contingency plans and back-ups were never used – a pity that as it would have been good in some ways to have been really put to the test.

So the last word goes to me (Mark).  I have, as you have probably gathered written all but one of these blogs.  Sarah’s “The bra hits the fan…..” however, still goes down as one of the most popular, particularly the photo of that dingy little room in Amritsar.  I may have written many of these words and re-kindled my enjoyment for writing, but Sarah has read and edited every single blog. It has been she that re-works my bad English and grammatical mistakes.  It has been Sarah that tweaks and amends and is the “line in the sand when I go too far…..” and to quote MB further;   “You’re every line, you’re every word, you’re everything…..”   Mx

SARAH:  Remember that I’m still the Editor and of course it’s me that has THE LAST WORD!  T’was ever thus.

THAT’S IT.  Thanks for reading, supporting and commenting.  It was a blast!

THE END!!

THE END!!

MARK AND SARAH – THE MASTERS

 

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

Any Questions So Far?????

MARK: The Brazilian Pantanal is big.  No really, it is!

The World’s largest tropical wetland area is the size of the UK and sits “slap bang” in the heart of South America.  A haven for wildlife and blessed with the largest concentration of different bird species anywhere on the planet, it is an amazing, magical place.

The stats are impressive:  The Pantanal is home to 1000 different varieties of bird, 400 different fish, 300 mammals and 480 unique reptiles.

A yellow bird

A yellow bird

Not much for supper

Not much for supper

Forgotten the name of this fella

Forgotten the name of this fella

Steady boy!

Steady boy!

To get there though is far from easy, as we found out, finally arriving at our South American Ranch after a long, tortuous, 19 hour overland journey!  In fairness, the initial 11 hour overnight bus from Santa Cruz (Bolivia) to the Brazilian border was pretty painless.  We managed some sleep curled up in our front seats of the double decker bus aided by extra space as there was just three, rather than the normal four seats across the interior cabin.  Furthermore, the broken upper front windscreen was hidden from our initial view behind the obligatory grubby orange bus curtain and the unsubstantiated stains on the seats remained hidden until we got off.

However, when we did manage to stumble down the bus stairs at 0726 and into the cold morning air, our ordeal was far from over.  Ahead of us was a long windy queue of dishevelled, weary bodies, Adidas and Puma tracksuits predominating. We joined this human line and queued for two hours to clear Bolivian customs. Exit stamp obtained in passport, a short 300m walk through “no mans land”. And then, guess what?  Yep another two hours queue, this time to navigate Brazilian customs.  All sorts of confusion prevailed as fellow travellers exited the dingy customs office.  Some people had entry stamps in their passport, some were without and some lucky blighters had a passport stamp and white paper exit form. This was the longest ever immigration/border crossing of my 52 years. I only had a stamp – so at time of writing, am still not sure whether the rest of my life means I will be incarcerated for time immemorial in some Brazilian hell hole.

In and out stamp

In and out stamp

Planning our next adventure....

Planning our next adventure….

Fortunately, there was a Mercedes Mini-Bus on the “other side”.  Unfortunately, its presence heralded a further three hour trip through the Brazilian countryside.  It was cold.  It was wet. It should have been 30C+.  It wasn’t.  It was more like 16C.  What is happening to the World weather????

All went reasonably well until the van pulled off the main road and then the bumping associated with a mud road started.  It continued for twenty minutes.  A sharp right turn on to a small track really did start to shake our bodies to the core, but fortunately this lasted for just a few minutes as we drew up alongside a “safari type” truck.  Just one more leg through the wetlands.  “Forty minutes and we’ll be there….”  came the cry from Isaac our guide.

On safari

On safari

He was right.  In 42 minutes, 30 seconds we arrived at Passo de Lontra.  A few buildings in the middle of a raised green area, surrounded by water.  We’d arrived in the Pantanal proper, a friendly Caiman smiled at the group as we grabbed our bags.

Caiman/alligator - either way they still bite

Caiman/alligator – either way they still bite

Sarah was pretty cold by this stage, not helped by a really bad head cold. So we took one look at the row of hammocks in the windswept communal dormitory and decided we’d prefer the relative comfort of our own room for two days.  The upgrade fee of £50 was quickly paid, guaranteeing us a breeze block built “cell” with convector heated shower and 25 year old TV.

Next day the weather was better and surprisingly few degrees warmer.  It was therefore time, after watching a beautiful sunrise, to saddle up and head through the marshland on horseback.

Sunrise

Sunrise

Invaded by goats outside our luxury pent-house

Invaded by goats outside our luxury pent-house

I felt sure the cowboys wouldn’t find a horse big enough for a 100kg super heavyweight – but they did.  And do you know what, I’m glad they did.  The experience of being on a horse for the first time in 40 years was great fun especially as the procession of nags waded through murky water up to five feet deep, wildlife all around.

Off we went... I managed a trot and got wet

Off we went… I managed a trot and got wet

Beautiful countryside

Beautiful countryside

The final furlong....

The final furlong….

My “Uncle Crisp” – who is actually Uncle Chris but the name stuck thanks to Joe – visited the Pantanal area recently and as an avid bird enthusiast came back very excited.  We could see why as there were so many different varieties of feathered friends ranging from stunning kingfishers and brightly coloured woodpeckers through to unbelievable Guinness toucans and pairs of brilliant blue macaws.

Friendly

Friendly

Very friendly

Very friendly

A member of the woodpecker family

A member of the woodpecker family

Little red chap

Little red chap

Toucan play at that game!

Toucan play at that game!

One of five different kingfishers seen

One of five different kingfishers seen

This one chirped a lot

This one chirped a lot

Tall

Tall

Yellow eyed woodpecker

Yellow eyed woodpecker

A robin?

A robin?

But birds also share this amazing landscape with over 40,000,000 predatory caiman.  Yes you did read right – 40 million of the alligator snappers, the biggest of which we saw was in excess of three metres. I was particularly thrilled to discover quite by chance when reviewing various shots, that one of the caiman had a large dragon fly perched right on the end of its nose.  One of my better shots…..

We encountered many of these fascinating creatures who in the main were more frightened of us than we were of them….

Perfectly formed

Perfectly formed

Love the dragon fly on this boys nose

Love the dragon fly on this boy’s nose

Curious - this taken from 3 metres away

Curious – this taken from 3 metres away

Indeed we saw a lot of different animals on our three day expedition including anteaters, capybara (the largest rhodent in the World), marsh deer and peccaries (wild pigs).

Capybara on the move

Capybara on the move

Wonderful creature - the giant ant-eater

Wonderful creature – the giant ant-eater

We also caught some fish!  About 12 of us, complete with bamboo canes, fishing wire and hooks, attempted to land some piranhas for tea, hanging off a bridge some 15 miles from our ranch base.  The piranhas didn’t play ball, but some snake fish did and I’m pleased to say that yours truly caught three of the five fish the group landed!

Like kids - great fun

Like kids – great fun

Look at the size of that..

Look at the size of that..

Talking of water, a couple of days after we left the Pantanal, and en-route to the Iguassu Falls (Brazil/Argentina/Paraguay border), we had a most enjoyable experience, snorkelling in some of the clearest water anywhere in the World at a place called Bonito.  Limestone filtered water surges from a spring at a rate of 10,000 litres a minute.  You jump in complete with wet suit, snorkel and mask and then serenely float down the river marvelling at the clarity of vision – 60 metres no less – and the myriad of fish that are happy to share their natural aquarium.

Relaxing

Relaxing

Beautifully clear

Beautifully clear

Not sure what sort of fish this is...

Not sure what sort of fish this is…

and relax....

and relax….

That was pretty special, but nothing compared to the Iguassu Falls which border Brazil and Argentina.  We’ll gloss over the awful 14 hour bus ride to get there which was truly horrendous.  Instead, I’ll focus on the fantastic helicopter ride and walk down by these amazing waterfalls – in pictures only.

Up, up and away

Up, up and away

Within ten minutes we were there..

Within ten minutes we were there..

One of my better attempts

One of my better attempts

Argentina on the right and Brazil nearside

Argentina on the right and Brazil nearside

And down on the ground the shots views were good as well

And down on the ground the views were just as good

Another Rainbow....

Another Rainbow….

And that’s really just about it, for this blog and MASTERS20152016.COM.  We may have time for another Blog before we return on 10 May – just not sure how the time will pan out between now and then.  We do also have a mega blog that needs to be completed, which shares many tips, thoughts and views about our 9 months on the road, but I am not sure quite when and where this will be published….

In the meantime one final idea.  If you would like to ask Sarah and me any questions about our Round the World Trip, add them to the comments section on this blog and we will endeavour to weave them in to our final posting.

Stay safe and see you very, very soon.

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

“ASALT” on the SENSES!!!!

WARNING:  THIS IS OUR LONGEST BLOG YET.  SO…. IF YOU CANNOT SLEEP AT NIGHT AND DON’T WANT TO TAKE SLEEPING PILLS, READ IT AS IT’S A GUARANTEED SURE FIRE WAY OF FALLING ASLEEP FAST!

MARK:  Less than three weeks to go on our epic MASTERS20152016 Round the World Trip.  The reality of normality now very much just around the corner! The EU debate, queues of traffic on the M25, the start of the cricket season and hopefully, confirmation that Middlesbrough FC make it back to the Premiership after a nine year absence.  So many things to look forward to.  And ooooh yes, we will see our little Joey when we get back at 1300 on Tuesday May 10, @T5 London Heathrow Airport.  Bunting out in Regent Way Frimley, I can see it now.

Flying!

Flying!

We’re still living in the moment and my goodness me, what a few moments we’ve had in Bolivia over the past few days!  It’s been full on ever since we left the capital La Paz – a fairly interesting, if somewhat boring place.  The highlight for us of this administrative capital was quite literally the fantastic cable car system which transports upwards of 70,000 people a day across the city, at heights of up to 4,000m.

The high life

The high life

We left La Paz after a couple of days at 9.00pm at night, from a dirty smelly street, half a mile from our hotel, on yet another overnight bus.  There was no tread on the tyres.  The bus itself looked 20 years old. And when you got inside, you wondered how you would survive the ten hour, 500km ride to the deep south.  Worse was to follow.  The on-board information leaflet confirmed that 185km would be on “dirt roads”.  Deep joy!  The only thing keeping us going was the knowledge that we were heading to another Geographical Wonder of the World, namely the Bolivian Salt flats!

Time to go - I think????

Time to go – I think????

Sarah was not happy – her knee was still hurting.  Mark was not happy – his shoulder was still hurting.  The bus trundled relentlessly on occasionally hitting an incredibly high top speed of 80kph (49.7mph)!   At 1.00am we shuddered to a halt in some deserted back street. “Banos” was the cry from the driver.  Fellow travellers rushed out obviously feeling the effects of the in-bus served fried cheese balls, rice, cold carrots and beans.  We were hanging on with no ill-effects.  Eight months travelling and no need for Imodium.  Is that a record??  I suppose 28 years of Sarah’s cooking had helped prepare my stomach for this RTW eating extravaganza….

Bacon anyone?

Bacon anyone?

At 0300 the bumping, shaking, rattling and bouncing started.  A glance through the window behind the dirty orange bus curtain, revealed a lunar landscape lit coincidentally by a full moon.  We were in the Bolivian desert and boy did our poor bodies know it.  We had reached the end of the metaled road and the bus’s shock absorbers simply could not cope. But as in all cases, there was light at the end of this mammoth trip when at about 6.00am, rays of blue/orange light pierced the mountains in the distance to reveal a stunning backdrop of nothingness.  We were in an amazing wilderness, with the occasional tuft of tumbleweed blowing through small green bushes that managed to survive in what was a harsh high landscape at an altitude of 3,700m.

Lunar landscape

Lunar landscape

After a delicious (NOT) on-board breakfast of biscuits, cake and yoghurt we arrived in Uyuni, a two-horse town at the head of the Salt Flats.  Miraculously our bags on the public bus had not been stolen thanks to our metal chains and two combination locks, so we disembarked, jumped into a taxi complete with furry dashboard and were transported five minutes later through deserted streets to our hotel.  It was Sunday morning.  Nobody was up except for a scraggy looking black cat that had obviously returned late from a heavy night out on the tiles.

Sunday, sunday

Sunday, Sunday

Line up

Line up

Not expecting much, we were amazed that we had arrived at a reasonable hotel in this Bolivian back water.  We made full use of the warm shower and greedily helped ourselves to scrambled eggs, sugar puffs, vanilla yoghurt and a bread roll.  Yum!

A short time later we were told to be in the hotel reception ready to leave on our three day, 4 Wheel Drive (4WD) trip to the Salt Flats.  Just before we left, a short itinerary was thrust into our hands and it soon became clear that our 4WD adventure was going to be just that, a hard core trip into the unknown.  Both of us had not really studied the main itinerary.  We knew when we booked our trip 18 months ago that we would be in the Bolivian outback but little more than that.  So glancing at the A4 sheets we were surprised and delighted to see that we would be visiting a cemetery for trains, the oldest cemetery in South America (1200AD) for humans, as well as staying in an Eco-hotel made out of salt bricks.  Add on a drive through the mountains visiting geysers and the chance to spot flamingos and there you had it, an action packed 60 hour voyage of discovery.

Driving round town and beyond

Driving round town and beyond

Four 4×4 vehicles were patiently waiting just outside of the hotel.  Two Toyota Land Cruisers (the oldest built in 1995) and two Nissan Patrol vehicles.  Sarah and I were in the lead Land Cruiser together with a 30 year old Aussie called Dayne from Sydney and our inexperienced tour guide, a pleasant 26 year old guy called Nico, who was born in Argentina and whose Dad 25 years ago used to be Uruguay’s International Goal Keeper.  We were in safe hands!

Lead vehicle

Lead vehicle

Our “caravan” of 4x4s eventually set off, with one of the vehicles looking as if it would not make the first corner of the street, never mind a 500+ mile trip through the mountains.

First stop, a visit to the “Train Cemetery” just outside of town.  I was expecting a graveyard full of people who had died building the line through Bolivia to neighbouring Chile.  WRONG with a capital W.  This was a graveyard of old British, French and American steam trains, rusting slightly in the arid desert.  Train buffs – Scott Ford, Ian Jones, James Duckworth, David Parker, Stuart Bailey, Ian Prescott – will have fond memories of Barry Island where old de-commissioned British Rail Steam Engines went to be sold or die/cut up into scrap.  It was just like that, but much, much bigger, plus you could climb all over these giant iron hulks, which had been brought here after the railways closed.  There was even talk that one of the engines was riddled with bullet holes as this was the area of Bolivia where Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid were eventually killed.

Casey Bailey

Casey Bailey

We discovered a 1914 engine built by Vickers and two engines built by a firm called Taylors in the mid 1950s.  One even looked like part of the shell of a Mallard locomotive.  Surely it can’t have been?  I look forward to any comments that can help me identify the steam engines from the shots below.  No prizes for guessing the name of the “old boiler”.

Going loco

Going loco

Sarah had to guard against falling off...

Sarah had to guard against falling off…

End of the line

End of the line

Sad end..

Sad end..

Is this a "Mallard"????

Is this a “Mallard”????

Our “dead good” visit to the cemetery ended all too soon…..

Did not want to leave

Did not want to leave

…and we quickly made our way along well tarmacked roads to a village called Colchani at the edge of the Salt Flats, known for making cooking salt.  We were not particularly enamoured with what we saw.  A small oven heated by wood collected from the local area which in turn dried the salt and hey presto, it was bagged and sold to local shops.  Wow!  What was though much more interesting were the strange assortment of toys and other “bric a brac” which could be purchased outside.  It was just like the car boot sale held in Farnborough on a Sunday morning.  Amongst the wackier items up for sale were green, red and grey dinosaurs ranging from the ferocious ‘T’ Rex to the heavy weight Diplodocus.  Stranger still, our fellow traveller, Col’ Jim, our 73 year old former head of the Canadian Airborne Division in Europe purchased a green ‘T’ Rex.  “You’ll see” he said with a glint in his eye….

Back on board and with thoughts of Jurassic Park flashing through my mind we soon entered a white wonderland.  We were on the World famous Bolivian salt flats and as far as the eye could see stretched a dazzling white carpet of sparkling hexagonal shaped salt crystals.  The only thing I’ve ever seen which remotely comes close was the frozen lake at Zell am Zee in Austria, when it had been covered in six inches of snow back in 1989.  Or put it another way, the perspective views were like a TV studio with white floor and white backing curtains creating that wonderful thing called infinity.

Unbelievable

Unbelievable

Our 4WD caravan did not hang around.  At speeds of around 100kph (62mph) we hammered across the white desert landscape.

Burning up the salt

Burning up the salt

Heading south

Heading south

First stop on our journey was the chance to see a former salt hotel and salt monument dedicated to the Paris-Dhakar rally.

A block of salt

A block of salt

And then, photos snapped we were back in our seats for a 30 minute drive to the centre of the Flats and a chance to take perspective photos.  The Col’s Green 8 inch high ‘T’ Rex suddenly made an appearance and then it dawned on me.  If you took any object (I managed to find a peanut, a bottle of Bolivian red wine and a full bottle of Sprite), you could make all sorts of weird and wonderful photos.  Take a look for yourself…

Pea-nut

Pea-nut

Sarah on top of my sunnies

Sarah on top of my sunnies

Sarah liked dancing on a bottle of sprite

Sarah liked dancing on a bottle of Sprite

A vintage balancing act by MSTJB

A vintage balancing act by MSTJB

We were just like kids.  What a laugh.  What fun!

Suddenly, the light began to fade, the temperature dropped close to zero and it was time to reach our resting place for the night, the interestingly named Ecolodge Tambo Coquesa.  This quite simply was a half-finished series of bedroom units and a central “restaurant area” made from blocks of salt.  Our group on arrival was split up and we shared a room with two 23 year old Belgians – Diet and El’ plus boy wonder Matt, my Inca Trail walking buddy.  It was like we had three new surrogate children as we were affectionately referred to as “Mum and Dad”.

The children ready for bed

The children ready for bed

The room was very warm as the salt blocks had heated up during the day and slowly let out their warmth overnight.  That was all fine, but the toilets were something else! The bowl was divided into two compartments.  Compartment One at the front was for “Number One’s” whilst the hole at the back of the bowl was for “Number Two’s” which if got your aim right fell into a black hole of smelly compost type material some three metres below.  Ummm.  It’s really interesting from a marketing point of view what you can get away with if you include the word “Eco”…. Must remember that sometime.

The restaurant was a simple seating area made out of salt, with salt stools.  And the floor, yes you’ve guessed it, was a carpet of crystallised rock salt.  The food was sadly not much to write home about and Sarah found it mildly amusing that all the dishes served “needed some salt”!! But the bedrooms were warm and cosy as the rain came down.

Pass the salt please

Pass the salt please – the restaurant

Next morning, we had the chance to run down to the edge of the salt flats which were by now partly covered in water from the overnight storm.  There we spotted numerous pink flamingos – officially called “James” Flamingos!!  It was a chance to get some photos and admire Mother Nature yet again:

Near the salt hotel

Near the salt hotel

Flamingoland, North Yorkshire

Flamingoland, North Yorkshire

The group was due to set off at 8.00am on Day 2 and just in the nick of time I made it back to the bedroom block, quickly stuffed my back-pack with my belongings and ran to the idling Land Cruiser which was still freezing cold inside after its’ nightly sleep.

We headed back on to the Salt “Lake” and were told that in parts, the water underneath the salt crust was some 25m deep and it was not uncommon for heavily laden 4×4’s to get stuck and sink.  But before that happened, we arrived at Incahausi Island a small rocky outcrop, 150m high, covered in cacti and offering a great view of the surrounding area despite the grey conditions.  Back down to the salt flats and I “borrowed” what looked like a Union Jack and promptly “claimed” the island for Britain.  Not sure if this jingoistic act was lost on our young Argentinian Guide!

Now British

Now British

Island of pricks

Island of pricks

Island in the salt centre

Island in the salt centre

So you can guess the next bit.  Yes, back in to the vehicles.  Two and a half hours later we arrived in San Juan having seen en-route what appeared to be half of the Bolivian Army training in really harsh terrain.

Left, right left

Left, right left

Tummy’s rumbling and just before lunch, we had the chance to see what was a real highlight for me, the World famous San Juan Cemetery.  We walked through an area of high ground where we could see “bee-hive shaped” tombs dating back to 1200AD and made out of volcanic rock.  The route through the graveyard was clearly marked by white arrows and they directed us to the first tomb which had a 1m square hole in the front.  We peeked in, not quite sure what we might find and boy were we shocked!  Inside was a human skeleton “sat” against the back wall still clothed!  Other tombs revealed foetal positioned skeletons and bodies “stuffed” in clay pots.  It was macabre, fascinating and quite unbelievable.  We made our way to different tombs and were amazed at what we saw…The dry desert like conditions had preserved the mummified bodies so well that you wondered if you might have a conversation with these people from yesteryear.  Take a look for yourself.

The cemetery

The cemetery

A tomb

A tomb

Grave 1

Grave 1

Grave 2

Grave 2

Grave 3

Grave 3

Grave 4

Grave 4

Grave 5

Grave 5

Grave 6

Grave 6

The afternoon journey through the mountains was equally interesting but this time because of the stunning scenery.  The beauty was there for all to behold.  Enough of my words – look at these shots….

Stunner

Stunner

Hello James Flamingo

Hello James Flamingo

The red algae gives the pin to the flamingos

The red algae gives the pink to the flamingos

End of the day

End of the day

That night we stayed in a terrible “hotel” where bread buns were rationed to one each.  I could tell you a whole new story about what happened next, but perhaps that story would be best told over a pint of beer back in the UK… what stays on tour and all that.

It rained all night and the next morning we got up at 0500 in the pitch black to be greeted by now full buckets of water strategically placed along the hall way underneath the dodgy leaking roof. One bread bun later, we clambered slowly back into the lead Land Cruiser, bumped along for 15 minutes and then the lights behind us went out.  We turned round and discovered one of the Nissan’s with its bonnet up.  The alternator had failed.

Not well

Not well

One hour later, the only solution was to “swap out” a battery from the second Nissan – something which they had to do every couple of hours for the next two days.  Not an ideal solution, but at least one that worked.

The remainder of our 4WD tour centred largely around Bolivia’s natural beauty – welcome to Day 3. To our right, about five miles away over the mountain range was Chile.  To our left and 20 miles away was Argentina.  We were at the southerly most point of Bolivia.  We were also very high – above 5,000m and it was cold with plenty of snow.

Snow!!!!!! Coldest we have been in 15 months

Snow!!!!!! Coldest we have been in 15 months

At times we could only travel at a few miles per hour.  Then suddenly we would scream along deserted volcanic plains at high speed.  The rock formations were fascinating.

A rock tree - ok so you have to use your imagination...

A rock tree – ok so you have to use your imagination…

Lakes, like the one below had a myriad of beautiful colours.

Colourful

Colourful

Flamingos were everywhere.

Turning away

Turning away

Even geysers and hot springs made an appearance.

yes, tis I

yes, tis I

It was a fascinating few days and even the five hour journey back to our base hotel in Uyuni near the salt flats wasn’t too bad – just two breakdowns to contend with.

Not well

Not well

So onward now to the city where Silver is King (Potosi), then another bus to Sucre and then over the border to Brazil, Argentina and finally back in to Brazil again.

For those that are interested in reading more about what we have been up to, check out my latest TRIP ADVISOR REVIEWS by going to https://www.tripadvisor.co.nz/members/MStJB/.  I am thrilled and delighted to say (sarcasm) that I am still Camberley’s Number #1 contributor a position I would gladly swap for guaranteed promotion to the Premiership.

Stay safe, see you soon and of course #UTB

Where next?

Where next?

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

Peruvian People Postcards

MARK:  The sun is going down in Bolivia.  Late evening rays hit the red houses that adorn the mountainside as I look out from our hotel window, here in La Paz.

Peru has been and gone.  A country of highs and lows for us, literally and metaphorically.  After the highs of Machu Piccu we got even higher at Lake Titicaca where we had another really interesting home stay and I met a little friend called Aldo.

We then travelled to the Bolivian Border and subsequently endured the worst bus journey of our lives, as we were bumped and shaken for three hours on roads that really shouldn’t have been called roads.

But this short Photo-Blog is not about Bolivia, more about this fascinating country another day.  No, this missive from Mark focusses on the People of Peru.  You don’t need many words, when you look at the pictures of their etched faces, old and new.  So as we say goodbye to the Land of Paddington Bear, we leave you with some lasting memories from us in the form of a few photo postcards.  Have a good weekend.  Three and a bit weeks to go.  Eeeeeekkkkkkk.

Life's a beach.... full of litter

Life’s a beach…. full of litter

Beatification beckons... Saint Sarah deserves it after eight months!

Beatification beckons… Saint Sarah deserves it after eight months!

The dead centre of Peru

The dead centre of Peru

Baby on tour 1

Baby on tour 1

Baby on Tour 2

Baby on Tour 2

Baby on Tour 3

Baby on Tour 3

Nursery school

Nursery school

Tally ho

Tally ho

Reed Island Dwellers

Reed Island Dwellers

Holding on for dear life

Holding on for dear life with a reed lady

Kiss me quick

Kiss me quick

Happy Days

Happy Days

Nimble mover... why is that I always get picked?

Nimble mover… why is it that I always get picked?

Down town

Down town

Frogs legs anyone?

Frogs legs anyone?

The excitement was intents during the Inca Trail

The excitement was “intents” during the Inca Trail

Fruity

Fruity

A wonderful way of life

A wonderful way of life

Ladies rule where-ever you are in the World

Ladies rule where-ever you are in the World

Found this girl in tears...

Found this girl in tears…

Me and my mate Aldo. He spoke for an hour to me in Spannish - I just said "Si Si Aldo" and he seemed to be happy with that!

Me and my mate Aldo. He spoke for an hour to me in Spanish – I just said “Si Si Aldo” and he seemed to be happy with that!

Group Peru

Group Peru

And it's goodbye to Peru from them

And it’s goodbye to Peru from them

THANKS FOR ALL YOUR BEST WISHES AND COMMENTS ON SOCIAL MEDIA AND INDEED ON THE MASTERS SITE.  THE GOOD NEWS IS YOU ONLY HAVE TO ENDURE A FEW MORE POSTINGS….

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

Chasing the Pink Umbrella to Machu Picchu

MARK:  Straight to the point and no suspense.  We did it! No, we smashed it!  Two middle-aged people walked, climbed and ran the Inca Trail, seeing Machu Picchu at dawn through the Sun Gate – or should I say Cloud Gate?

Yes, we did it!

Yes, we did it!

Surprisingly, we found the challenge hard but not nearly as hard as we had anticipated.  The 45km, four day, 12,000 stair hike was without doubt one of our Round the World highlights and if you ever get the chance, DO IT as you won’t be disappointed!

Our GOAL - reaching Machu Picchu in three days

Our GOAL – reaching Machu Picchu in four days

Where to start?  Well the beginning I guess and a 45 minute mini-bus ride took us to the start of the Trail, from our overnight stay in Ollantaytambo.  On arrival, purple shirted porters were busy preparing their bags.  They had everything you could think of including the kitchen sink.  And boy, were they fit. Carrying in excess of 50lbs they literally ran everywhere…

Running like the wind

Running like the wind

A gentle amble down the valley for 10 minutes brought us to the start of the Trail.  Cue tourist picture.

Classic shot with our guide Jay and a porter!

Classic shot with our guide J and a porter!

Another five minutes and we were at the first check point.  Two hundred people a day get passes to walk the Inca Trail, the Bailey’s had their paperwork reviewed, including passport and we were off!

Cleared to go

Cleared to go

The first morning was a pleasant walk at relatively low altitude – 2,650m along the banks of the river.  Views were stunning, spirits were high, the sun was shining.

Gentle pace

Gentle pace

Every so often, a train would blow its horn, lamas and other animals would run quickly away.  Randomly, in the distance, a man with a pink umbrella was setting a very fast pace.

The first Inca settlement – there would be 10 to see – was reached at around 1100 after two hours steady walking, with little incline.

First Inca Site

First Inca Site

Little friend

Little friend

The views over the site were spectacular, but lunch beckoned and so we flew over the ridge and up towards the camp where we enjoyed a hearty lunch including soup and chicken, all prepared from two gas burners.  Excellent.

Lunch is served

Lunch is served

Great service

Great service

Our Porters having lunch

Our porters having lunch

The afternoon was more challenging with some steep hills, but we took them in our stride and as the sun began to set behind some striking mountains we saw our little red tents all lined up.  Time to wash our feet and to sink a quick beer that somebody had kindly brought! Tomorrow we all knew was going to be a different ball game….

Beer and water

Beer and water

At 0500 we awoke from our semi-sleep.  Fitful would be a better word for it as the air mattresses supplied ensured we felt every bump of the hard ground.

But outside, the sun was coming up and we were ready for the big one.

Sun rise

Sun rise

Day 2 is the day people dread on the Inca Trail.  A four/five hour trek from 2,700m to 4,200m to reach Dead Woman’s Pass and then a steep climb down the other side to 3,600m.  Our Group of 11 quickly split into two.  I was setting the pace with Matt, Sarah just behind with Hannah.  But then Matt (29) and just 60kg, took off like a mountain goat and showed why he was an expert climber.  God, the boy flew. Three hours later, I caught him up, smiling!  He had arrived ten minutes earlier.  But I felt better when I realised that our back marker was over an hour behind us.  It wasn’t a race, but it was a personal test of stamina and fitness.

Matt - boy wonder

Matt – boy wonder

Duck on tour...

Duck on tour…

Half way up towards Dead Woman's Pass

Half way up towards Dead Woman’s Pass

At 1000 we set off again to reach the summit, this time working as a team to keep each other going.  It was hard, very hard.  Calves hurting, the pink umbrella could clearly be seen half a mile ahead.  Heart racing, the last 250m was really tough, but as the cloud closed in we reached the summit in just over an hour.  The view down the valley spectacular, which prompted a short “live” video report.  Click on the link/arrow/photo below to play the video:

This shot from distance - 4km away and 500m higher

This shot from distance – 4km away and 500m higher – Dead Woman’s Pass

At the top - 4,200m

At the top – 4,200m, Matt stripping off

Sarah wasn’t far behind.  All that training had paid off and even though her knee was hurting from the Ecuadorian Volcano fall, she still managed a smile!

Sarah nearly there

Sarah nearly there

Team MASTERS

Team MASTERS

Group photo done, we were off down the other side, a steep track with hundreds of stairs.  It was now that M Bailey Esq came into his own as he sped downhill with poles providing an all important support. It was great fun, music loud on I-pod.  Happy Days.

Camp that night was great fun, superb views and wonderful food.

Sarah and Hannah - from Milford

Sarah and Hannah – from Milford

Great views

Great views even though it was grey!

DAY 3:  This was billed as a “gentle walk”, with the chance to see numerous Inca settlements.  The day though was far from easy.  16km of ascent and descent, with heavy rain during the middle part of the day. Throw in to the mix paths which were a metre wide with 500m drops and you get the rather soggy picture.  Matt though, got me through my bouts of vertigo by walking on the edge acting as a human shield.  Hero.

Grey start

Grey start

Trees are us

Trees are us

Kept going

Kept going

A flower

A flower

Lads

Lads!

It certainly wasn’t plain sailing as during the late morning, Dieter, a lovely 23 year old guy from Belgium, really wasn’t very well and had to be helped down to the last camp by our Number 2 Guide and two porters.  This was getting hard!

Dieter when fit... if you know what I mean

Dieter when fit… if you know what I mean

The descent continued.  This time from 3,600m to 2,600m.  Walking down thousands of stairs is arguably harder than going up.  It really plays on your knees, but we kept on going through caves and along the side of steep gorges until we found the last but one Inca settlement.  This was stunning despite the fact that it was now 6.00pm with the light rapidly fading….

Stunning

Stunning

Going down hill

Going down hill

Treemendous

Treemendous

A quiet group ate dinner that night.  Thoughts were with Dieter in his tent and two other members of the group who were beginning to struggle.  Our Guide, J then hit us with the bombshell that our wake up call was going to be 3.30am next morning, we would clear camp by 4.30am ready for the final 6kms of the trek.  The aim was to be at the Sun Gate that overlooks Machu Picchu by sunrise.

It was cold and wet and miserable, when we woke up.  But who managed to crawl out of his tent? Dieter!!  “I’ve not come all this bloody way not to do this…”  Fair Play.

0430 - pissing down

0430 – pissing down

The final push in low cloud and mist, where was the sun?  A bit of a bun fight developed as 200 people walked at quick speed along narrow ledges and up the flight of monkey stairs – 75 rock steps.  We hung back aware that a tourist had recently been accidentally “knocked” over the cliff face to her death 300m below. We’d come so far and weren’t going to not get there.

Nearly there

Nearly there

Duck getting excited

Duck getting excited

And then we arrived at the Sun Gate, which I renamed Cloud Gate…. But the mist lifted and wow what a view… take a look at the shots below.  They speak for themselves.  Oh yes and I finally met Mr Pink Umbrella – a Doctor from Delhi!

Wow what a view

Wow what a view

Cloud lift

Cloud lift

Nice views

Nice views

Duck made it

Duck made it

Wow!

Wow!

And another

And another

He made it.... Diet' left

He made it…. Dieter right

The Man with the Pink Umbrella

The Man with the Pink Umbrella

We then headed down to MP.  Another 45 minutes!  And wow what a place.  Quite amazing.

Stunning!

Stunning!

Stunning!!

Stunning!!

Lama meets drone

Lama meets drone

We loved walking around all smelly and looking a mess as all the “rich tourists” in their designer gear walked past.  They knew what we’d done.  We knew what we’d done.

As we sign off, heading south now to Lake Titicaca and on to Bolivia, we are into our final month away. May 10th and LHR T5 gets ever closer.  But we live in the moment. If we don’t then we will never appreciate fully just what we are doing and what we have achieved.

Good bye from MP and SB

Good bye from MP and SB

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

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

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