Sunday, 16 November 2008

Hasta Luego Sud America

Well I finally managed to leave the wonderful Galapagos Islands after a truly unique experience although the boat journey across the pacific ocean between Isabela and Santa Cruz will surely be remembered as the worst trip of my year. Not only did the tiny boat break down halfway across (in rougher seas then I have ever experienced) but the captain of the rescue boat trapped his hand in between the 2 boats as they were trying to transfer the passengers in incredibly dangerous circumstances and he was unable to take the boat back. I was wondering at one point whether we would ever make it back to dry land so was relieved when we finally arrived.
After my work at the tortoise breeding centre came to an end, I headed towards Santa Cruz to attempt to achieve my advanced diving certificate. I have been fortunate enough to dive in some of the world´s most exotic waters but I think this surpassed anything I have seen before. Visiting North Seymour Island, we were treated to the rare sight of a 10m whale shark on our descent followed by schools of white tip and Galapagos sharks. Together with the eagle rays, turtles and sealions, I was oblivious to the dangerous currents and conditions we were experiencing. Gordon Rocks and Floreana were the next sites we visited and despite the lack of hammerheads, we filmed some great sealife. After qualifying as an advanced diver and spending the best part of a week on a boat and totally overcoming my seasickness I found a local to give me a sailing lesson which has now encouraged me to take a course back in Plymouth (a black tip shark circling the tiny boat as we sailed back into the harbour was a bonus).
With 2 weeks left before my return home and no plans I decided to return to my adopted family on Isabela and spend my last days chilling on the beach. Returning to the capital city has been rather a shock to the system as I´d completely forgotten about traffic and crowds. I am now spending my last day in Quito, packing my rucksack for the final time (which I am convinced is now well over the weight limit) and looking forward to catching up with all my friends and family at home.
So my journey of a lifetime has now come to an end and what a journey it has been. I feel incredibly fortunate to have had such an opportunity with so many highlights and have made some lifelong friends along the way. I will be back in the UK in less than 24 hours and looking forward to my next adventure, whatever that may be. 

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Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Gorgeous Galapagos

Well after finishing my marine conservation work in Puerto Lopez, I headed down the coast to the beautiful laid back beach village of Montañita with Ecuador´s best waves. After a week spent totally chilling out, a 13 hour night bus back to Quito proved an interesting experience and not one I´m keen to repeat. Arriving back in the capital I spent a couple of days checking out the local hotspots including the country´s biggest claim to fame, its location right on the equator. La Mitad del Mundo (the middle of the world) is where Charles-Marie de La Condamine made the measurements in 1736 showing that this was indeed the equatorial line. His measurements proved the that the world is not perfectly round but that it bulges at the equator. However, my main reason for visiting was that I weigh less on the equator! Climbing Volcan Cotopaxi was truly an unforgettable experience and when I reached the snow at 5000m, I was at the highest altitude I have experienced. The country´s second highest peak is an active volcano although no signs of an eruption while we were there thank goodness.
My last stop on this amazing year has been the spectacular Galapagos Islands. Arriving on Isla Baltra I made my way down to Santa Cruz, on the way taking in my first glimpse of the giant tortoises in their natural environment. The beautiful island of Isabella has been my home for the last few weeks, staying with my wonderful host family Adolfo and Perdita. The largest and youngest of the islands (a mere one million years old), it was formed by the merging of six volcanoes, five of which are still active today. A day spent climbing the world´s second largest crater, Sierra Negra, on one of the most volcanically active places on earth, was another highlight of the year with spectacular views of all the other volcanoes at the summit.
The conservation project I am now volunteering with at the Giant Tortoise Breeding Centre is unique in its bid to safeguard the future of one of the planet´s oldest and most magnificent species, hovering on the point of extinction due to human interference. The Giant Galapagos Turtle population stood at 300,000 in 1537 and is now a mere 7% of the original total. This tortoise is on the endangered species list and a number of other tortoise species on other islands are now extinct. The work I have been involved in includes cleaning and feeding both babies and adults plus caring for the unhatched eggs which are placed in incubators for 120-140 days. I was fortunate enough to witness a baby hatching last week but as they live for at least 150 years will never see him as an adult.
During my spare time here I have seen a plethora of wildlife during some amazing snorkelling sessions with sealions, rays and turtles; white-tip sharks were gathered at the bottom of a crevice of clear water on the Islote Tintoreras. The marine iguanas, flamingos, pelicans, frigate birds and penguins surround me but my favourites have to be the blue-footed boobies whose feet are seriously blue!
So my work here is nearly completed and I am looking forward to returning to Santa Cruz to attempt my Advanced Diving Certificate next week before another couple of weeks relaxing in one of the most beautiful places on earth and then back to real life with a bump.......

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Friday, 5 September 2008

Amazing Amazon

After a couple of days relaxing in Peru´s capital city Lima, I headed up the coast to Trujillo and the small coastal town of Huanchaco where the fisherman still ride the surf in reed boats. The seafood here was truly delicious and in particular the local speciality ceviche. From here we visited the largest mud city in the world, Chan Chan, covering 26 square km and built by the Chimu kings then onto the Huaca del Sol and Huaca de le Luna (temples of the sun and moon) which were quite spectacular and the way the images on the walls have been preserved is unbelievable. From here we entered the the Sechura desert and visited possibly my favourite museum of my entire trip - the Lambayeque Museum, displaying more gold than is imaginable, found at the tomb of the lord of Sipan. After all the culture of the last few weeks in Peru, it was good to get to my last stop on the beach at Punta Sol for a few days where I attempted more surf lessons (I´m told surfing originated in Peru) with Robbie the pro who assured me he would get me standing and he did.  My fishing trip there was very successful although I was not happy landing a large eel in the boat and the stone fish, although pretty, was lethal. There really is nothing quite like the taste of fresh fish (dad, one day you`ll understand....) and later that evening we cooked our catch over the campfire and discussed what a fantastic time we´d experienced through Peru. Relaxed and recharged the next morning we continued north until we crossed the border and entered Ecuador where the change in scenery was notable. The old colonial market town of Cuenca was my first stop, famous for the panama hat and I spent an interesting couple of hours in the factory being shown exactly how they are made. The Ecuadorians love their music and dancing as much as their South American neighbours and I spent a wonderful evening listening to a fabulous local band. Moving northward again, I visited the ruins at Ingapirca where the Incas worhsipped the sun then onto Baños, famous for its hot thermal springs. The adrenaline was pumping again as I spent a day canyoning - abseiling down waterfalls and jumping from great heights into small areas of water, I then finished the day by flying down a zipwire over a canyon, a massive rush. A massage was definitely in order when we got back to the hotel in preparation for my trip into the Amazon jungle. From Misahualli I took a motorised canoe downriver to enter the jungle for a couple of days and I learnt how to surivive by finding my own water and food (including pretty tasty ants) and also how to make myself a rather attractive looking hat from plants to protect me from the intense sun. I just about survived the night in my bamboo hut although the monkeys, cockroaches and a whole host of other creepy crawlies did their best to distract me. Tubing down the River Napo will certainly be another of the year´s highlights for me and it took me back to the jungle lodge before I headed towards the capital, Quito, and back into city life again for a few days. Another round of farewells to some great travelling companions and I headed to the coast and the pretty fishing village of Puerto Lopez. So I am now living in a lovely house here with other volunteers and have started work again on a marine conservation project. This week I have been measuring sharks, searching for turtles to tag and watching fabulous displays by the enormous humpback whales. Next week I can expect more of the same and hopefully some diving with manta rays and a chance to educate local school children on the environment.
So my adventure continues and I look forward to flying to Galapagos in a couple of weeks.

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Saturday, 16 August 2008

Goodbye Bolivia, Hello Peru

Well I crossed the border into Peru 3 weeks ago and said ciao to Bolivia for good, what an amazing country. My last few weeks there were spent working at the San Juan de Dios orphanage in Sucre and living in an apartment with other international volunteers. I completely fell in love with 18 month old twin brothers, Michel and Jorge and would love to bring all the children home with me. The twenty five under 2s that I took charge of had mostly been abandoned or maltreated and I found it incredibly rewarding to monitor their progress even over a 4 week period. Despite spending every day working with the children and then taking conversation, cooking and salsa classes most days, I still managed to explore much of this wonderful country. The climatically challenged Uyuni proved to be one of my Bolivian highlights with a visit to the Salar, the world´s largest salt flat, at 3653m and covering an unbelievable 12,000 square metres. South America is home to many ´world´s largest´and Potosi (the world´s highest city at 4060m) was again unforgettable. Famous for its silver mines and the atrocious working conditions where millions have lost their lives, this was probably the most shocking experience for me. 3 hours walking through one of the mines was unbearable, children aged 14 are still working 12 hour shifts with nothing but coca leaves to keep them going, underground temperatures vary from below freezing to 45 degrees celsius and many miners die within ten years of entering the mines. The relief to get out in one piece was immense when all around explosions were taking place.
Sucre really did feel like home to me when I returned and I even managed to get to a local football match which ended in riot police escorting the referee from the pitch, South Americans really do take their football seriously.
So after saying goodbye once again to some great friends, I headed back to La Paz for a couple of nights and prepared for my journey through Peru. The border crossing was pretty easy despite a slight disagreement with the officials regarding my visa (thank goodness I can now converse in their language).  After passing the Gate of the Sun we made our way to Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca and visiting the floating reed islands of the Uros Indians will surely be one of the highlights for me. It´s incredible to think that these tribes live in such primitive conditions but are so content with their lives. We were welcomed with open arms, taken into their homes (one room reed huts) and introduced to their way of life. On to Amantani Island where I had the privilege of staying with such a hospitable local Aymara Indian family. They dressed me in traditional costume and I spent a wonderful evening dancing with the locals. My final stop on Titicaca was Taquile where we witnessed a large fiesta (the Peruvians are up there with the Bolivians for enjoying themselves). So after a fantastic few days on the huge Lake Titicaca, the old Inca capital Cusco, was my next stop. What a beautiful city with so many churches, squares and colourful markets. The increase in tourists was noticeable here as the stop off for visitors on their way to Machu Picchu. My trip to the Sacred Valley of the Incas started with the Pisac ruins and ended with a night in Ollantaytambo staying with another local family. I knew the Inca Trail would be a chellenge for me but after 4 days and 33km of some pretty tough walking, the sight of Machu Picchu from Intipunku as the sun was rising was unforgettable. My hotel back in Cusco was most welcome and a couple of days relaxing was needed before leaving for Chivay and a soak in the thermal springs. I was fortunate to witness a fabulous display from the condors at Colca Canyon, the deepest in the world. On to Arequipa, ´the white city´, perhaps my favourite in Peru to date. Beautiful churches and a lively square, overshadowed by the massive volcano El Misti and surrounded by some of the wildest terrain in the country.
Leaving the foothills of the Andes, we made it down to sea level at Puerta Inca, much appreciated by my body after nearly 3 months at altitude. On the way to Nazca we made a visit to the eerie Chauchilla cemetery with its ancient mummies with skin and hair intact. Despite my fear of flying, I braved a 4-seater plane and a pilot named Angel to take a trip over the unexplained Nazca lines and was amazed at the clarity of the shapes made thousands of years ago. Heading deep into the desert my next stop was the Huacachina oasis where I took the scariest ride of my life in the front of a sand buggy down almost vertical drop sand dunes, the only respite being stops to sand board down the dunes. After a night in Pisco sampling the wonderful seafood, I took a boat trip to the Ballestas Islands to view the colonies of seabirds, a real taste of what I can expect when I get to Galapagos.
So now I find myself in the capital city of Lima and a chance to get my breath back before heading up the coast tomorrow on the way to the Ecuadorian border with many exciting experiences still ahead of me.....

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Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Hola Sud America

After leaving the relative safety of New Zealand and many friends, I knew I was on my way to my most challenging part of the year. Crossing the international date line, gaining 15 hours and taking 4 flights in 4 days certainly took it´s toll on my body and it took me a few days to acclimatise. My Spanish phrasebook proved invaluable for the first few days in Chile and Bolivia as noone speaks English but I have now spent almost a month studying Spanish at a school in Sucre, the judicial capital of Bolivia, and can now understand slightly more than ´what is your name and where do you come from?´. The altitude has also had an effect on my body (La Paz is the highest capital city in the world at 3660m) and although I am far from fit, I´m sure I don´t normally lose my breath so quickly. Apparently one of the remedies here is chewing cocoa leaves but I have yet to sample that delight.
Bolivia is a fascinating country, the hemisphere´s highest and most isolated, the poorest in South America and also the most indigenous with over 60% of the population claiming indigenous heritage. The one thing that Bolivia lacks is beaches, having lost it´s coastline to Chile during the War of the Pacific in 1879-83, leaving the country landlocked. I have spent most of my time here in and around Sucre but am looking forward to exploring more in the coming weeks.
The political situation in Bolivia at present is unstable and I am yet to meet any local who has anything positive to say about their first indigenous president, Evo Morales. Protests and marches are a favourite pastime of the Bolivianos as I discovered on my way from the airport as we dodged fires and debris on the roads. Blockades are a way of life and many travellers find themselves trapped and unable to leave certain areas. The difficult relationship with the Chileans is also evident and a 2-0 defeat in a football match at the weekend only increased the tension. But the locals certainly know how to party, I´ve witnessed numerous fiestas with unbelievable traditional costumes and dances.
I have also been fortunate enough to live with a local family since I arrived here in Sucre and although it was somewhat of a challenge when I first moved in, I have benefited hugely from immersing myself into their culture which is so incredibly different from life in England. The family is terribly important and it´s not unusual to have more than 3 generations living under the same roof. Lunch is the main meal of the day and I enjoy sitting around the table with my family discussing as much as possible to practice my language skills.
After a few months of packing my bag every day and moving fairly quickly through different countries, it´s a luxury to stay in one place for some time and I now feel very at home in Sucre. I start work at the orphanage next Monday and hope to continue with my Spanish classes so I look forward to the next month in Bolivia.

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Saturday, 17 May 2008

Pure New Zealand

Well I left some good friends in Wellington and again remembered the worst side of travelling - saying goodbye, but I knew the South Island was going to live up to my high expectations and it certainly has. The ferry crossing to Picton was incredibly bumpy and after 3 hours we arrived at the ferry terminal. I took the bus down through the Marlborough Valley where we sampled some very agreeable Riesling & Rose wines and it would have been remiss of me not to taste the famous Havelock Greenshell mussels, they were delicious. So a pretty good introduction to the South Island before making our way down to Nelson, gateway to the Abel Tasman National Park. The drop in temperature was noticeable at this stage and I needed to purchase a few extra items of clothing. From here, I worked my way down the West Coast which I can honestly say has some of the most stunning scenery I have seen to date. The Nelson Lakes National Park was breathtaking but even I wasn't brave enough to take a dip in the freezing waters of Lake Rotoiti. Arriving in Westport, I decided to give the quad biking a try at Buller Gorge and wasn't quite sure why when I was psyching myself up to drive down a vertical slope of mud without flipping the bike! On to Tauranga Bay where we witnessed one of New Zealand's largest seal colonies before arriving at the Pancake Rocks & Blowholes (named because the limestone stacks have been eroded over thousands of years to resemble giant piles of neatly stacked pancakes). The noise was deafening when the blowholes exploded and I was glad to be watching from above. Moving down through Greymouth to Lake Mahinapua, we prepared ourselves for one of the legendary 'Poo Parties' - our fancy dress theme was plastic bags & I was obviously with some very creative travellers, the outfits were unbelievable, my attempt to make a dress from a chocolate scented bin liner earned me the prize of a Jagerbomb (I am now hooked) and we also sampled some of the famous West Coast venison (or as they refer to it - bambi). Franz Josef was my next stop and I continued to put myself outside my comfort zone by taking a helicopter ride up to the Fox Glacier (I think I am slowly overcoming my fear of flying) and then hiked through brilliant blue ice caves and pinnacles for a couple of hours, another one of my highlights so far. The  reflection of Mount Cook on Lake Matheson on our way to Wanaka was beautiful, the only regret was that I was a month too early for the ski season. Set on the edge of Lake Wanaka and surrounded by the spectacular scenery of Mount Aspiring National Park, this relaxed small town was somewhere I felt I could settle. Queenstown was the next destination and I knew this was going to be a party town. We stopped at the Kawarau Bungy site for one of our group to throw themselves off the original bungy bridge and I surprised myself at having the urge to jump, but then I remembered my fear when I jumped all those years ago and decided against it. I did, however, manage to throw myself off a platform 109m high and freefall for 60m (reaching 150kph) on the shotover canyon swing. I was terrified and took a while to jump but enjoyed it so much I went straight back up and did another one sitting on a chair and falling backwards - awesome. Luging is another activity you just have to try when you're here, the ride up to the track on the top of the mountain on the gondola is another fantastic experience. Queenstown has been tough on my heart and my credit card so a day cruising on the beautiful Milford Sound was just what I needed yesterday. My last stop will be Christchurch in a couple of days and then I leave NZ to head for South America. My travels in this country have been so enjoyable, I shall never forget the scenery and all the crazy activities I've done but I'm looking forward to the next adventure.

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Monday, 28 April 2008

Kia Ora from NZ

Well my first couple of weeks in the Land of the Long White Cloud have again been action-packed. There's a reason New Zealand is known as the adventure capital of the world, who would have thought I would throw myself out of a plane at 15,000 ft with a complete stranger strapped to my back and a smile on my face.... there must be something in the water. Just to keep the adrenaline pumping I spent five hours black water rafting in the Waitomo Caves, one of NZ's famously invented action sports. The adventure starts with a 35m abseil through a very small hole in the pitch black, a terrifying fly down a zip wire and ends with a jump from a great height into the subterranean river of the aptly-named 'Abyss'. I think this was possibly one of the highlights of my travels so far as I let the water carry me through the caves in total darkness while all around was the amazing twinkling of thousands of glow-worms, a memory that will stay for a long time.
The Tongariro Crossing is supposedly one of the best one day hikes in the world and after 6 hours of pretty tough walking the sense of achievement was huge. I'm not a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings films but it's hard to escape the film locations as you travel around and Ngauruhoe or 'Mount Doom' was quite spectacular. The Emerald Lakes really were emerald and although the weather came in very fast, we had some fabulous views. I've heard the saying of 'four seasons in one day' on many occasions and it is so true. Unfortunately I experienced this on my way to Muriwai Beach on the north west coast, famous for its gannet colony - after driving through torrential rain, a 2 minute walk outside the car proved rather silly and resulted in the drive back to Auckland in underwear! Minutes earlier and I'm sure we would have been a hit by a number of trees that littered the road on our way back. The news that evening reported a number of deaths in the area so I think we were very lucky.
So I have covered most of the North Island now from Auckland up to the beautiful Bay of Islands and then down to Wellington (with its beehive parliamentary building) and seen some spectacular (and very diverse) scenery along the way. From the geo-thermal pools in Rotorua to the world's largest volcanic lake in Taupo. Much of the countryside reminds me of England and in particular Devon but what strikes me about the cities in this country is the lack of people, the population of 4 million seems lost on this amount of land.
I've been lucky enough to be welcomed into a local Marae - a sacred Maori meeting house treated with a huge amount of respect, and I have learned so much about the Maori culture. The welcome ritual (te powhiri) I found extremely intimidating and wondered how Captain Cook must have felt when he took his first steps on the land and experienced the strange looking inhabitants all those years ago. It all ends on a friendly note once the locals have accepted that the visitors pose no threat and the hongi (pressing of noses) is performed. Their traditional method of cooking food in the ground over hot river stones (hangi) results in an absolute feast and it's difficult not to get caught up in the Maori passion for life. I was also fortunate to be taught the poi dance by a local Maori woman which involves swinging balls tied on the end of a cord to the rhythm of music. I didn't master the haka but was surprised at how powerful the dance was when it is right in front of you and I now understand how most rugby teams feel when they play the All Blacks. I haven't caught a rugby match yet but have certainly been involved in lengthy discussions on their national team who have an almost mythical status - it's one of the favourite topics here. 
Tomorrow I catch the ferry across to the South Island which I'm informed is even more spectacular than the North so I look forward to more adventures and especially visiting the Marlborough region to sample some of my favourite Sauvignon Blanc..........

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