Category Archives: mountains
Having picked up some maps at the tourist information by the docks, planned a few desired stop-offs and hired a car for the day, we were ready to drive the coast road that wraps around Tahiti Nui and smaller Tahiti to the south-east. The constructed concrete and development of Papeete slowly faded into the background as we sped south down the smooth roads of the west side of the island into a scene framed by thick, dark green trees and mountains that raised up from the roadside.
Our first stop was at Grotte de Maraa caves barely 30km south of Papeete, a public garden bursting with every tone of lush green imaginable, despite being but a machete strike away from the main road. The detail of fanned leaves, the variation in plant patterns and the odd splash of water and other colour created a world in which I wanted nothing more than to walk alone and once again get lost in the thicket of nature whilst Joel and Matt headed up into the jungle, following an overgrown path.
The caves themselves gave cover to pools of water on which lilies clustered, some white petals on display. To the side of the main cave was a sign hidden behind foliage that stated No lifeguard on duty, surely a joke of sorts. Matt went for a paddle and the water barely reached his knees (although apparently further into the belly of the cave it drops away).
Back behind the wheel and we drove on down to Teahupo’o on Tahiti Iti, Tahit Nui’s little sister joined to the main bulk of the island by a slim stretch of land over which passed two roads. A few young teens body boarded on little waves on the edge of the village whilst the infamous Teahupo’o break smashed about a couple of kilometres out to sea. We walked by empty houses and quiet air, accompanied by a stray dog.
On the way back up north we decided to head to the Taravao Plateau, stopping first at a little spot off the beaten track by a river where we dunked in cool waters and got nibbled by creatures in a murky river bed. At least I did. Joel and Matt, my crew mates from the Pacific crossing, swam against the river flow, then let themselves get carried for a little while. I guess it had been a long time at sea without exercise.
The viewpoint of Taravao Plateau itself took us out of the jungly lowlands, high enough to get a wide look over both parts of the island. A little hut shaded us and the gentle yet constant trickle of tourists who pulled in for a quick glance. Beer tops, a few empty bottles and a smattering of graffiti hinted at a place that went beyond that of a lookout. This place saw it all. Or some variation, at least.
Our last stop-off was driven by the need to get to the water’s edge once again. Whilst the west coast beaches seemed unreachable and – where visible – chunked up with rocky entries, the east coast offered up a good dose of sandy beaches. Finding an unmarked place to pull in, the boys were quick to the water whilst I lay down, full stretch, and the warmth of the sand against the length of my body made me sleepy.
I dozed through all the fun – the body surfing, the local kids playing up to the Go-Pro camera, the refreshing splashing around – and roused only for the homeward stretch, a half hour drive with a red dusk sky backdrop
And we were back. In Papeete, at the pontoon, within the rock of the boat. Home.
‘What are you up to tomorrow?’ asked a friend during a Skype call. ‘Ah, I think I’m going to go and climb a volcano’, I told him, ‘an active volcano’. The island of Isabela is, after all, made up of six volcanoes (five of which are active) and to visit the Galapagos and not take in some volcanic splendour would surely be a half-hearted effort. As with many activities on the islands, local laws require you to be accompanied by a guide so doing it totally off my own back wasn’t going to be an option. I booked in for the $35 tour.
Tomorrow had arrived and here I was with a group of unknowns sheltering from the damp air, drizzle and grey skies, waiting to start the great ascent to Volcán Sierra Negra, one of the largest active volcanos in the world. But with this turn of bad weather and such poor visibility, would the trek go ahead?
It hadn’t started like this. Oh no.
Less than an hour earlier I had ran through sun soaked streets and arrived, in a sweat and seven minutes late, to an empty Tropical Adventures shop. No cars were waiting. No tour guides around to tell me off. They had left without me. Oh, crap.
I started to walk back towards the main square in search of breakfast. A jeep drove by, five, maybe six people crammed inside. Someone waved. Was that one of the guys from yesterday’s Los Tuneles tour? Another car beeped and pulled up alongside me. “Quick! Get in! You’re late!”
No rucksack, no breakfast and late. It was shameful. I made my apologies. People were gracious, on the surface at least, but maybe their tolerance was tested when half an hour later we were still driving through the streets of Puerto Vilamil doing random pick-ups and drop-offs and who-knows-whats.
And so, having driven north east from Puerto Vilamil upwards into an increasingly hostile weather front, here I was standing snuggled in with a bunch of about twenty strangers, and all those efforts to get here seemed to be in vain. It was surely a no go. This weather encouraged thoughts of duvet days and movie sessions, of chatting and playing music by the fireplace with friends.
Stop. Doubt not. This weather was, apparently, totally normal. ‘English speaking with me’, said our young guide who later told me how much he loved doing this job in between surfing the islands various breaks. The variety in landscape and climate, he told me, made Galapagos the best place to live.
And what about city fun? Wild, chaotic moments? Didn’t he crave a bit of breaking loose at times? ‘The mainland’, he said, ‘sometimes’. I found out from a few people that Guayaquil and Quito (on the mainland of Ecuador) offer them an escape at times, but do nothing in trying to tempt them away from the tranquillity of the Galapagos Islands.
For an hour we climbed along muddy, cracked pathways. The drive up must have dealt with a good chunk of the 1,124m altitude because the physical climb was the gentlest I could have imagined. As we ambled along, I chatted with French tourists and a young German couple, with an Argentinian wanderer and a chatty entrepreneur who had left his entire family and cultural sensibilities behind in India for a new life in Australia. As travelling often allows, I saw way beyond what was right in front of me, leant more about the world in a broader sense.
At the main lookout I realised my expectations of what a volcano might look like were limited to glossy photos in magazines that showed spewing lava flow and an excess of red and orange hues tipped with flashes of bright white heat.
This expanse of flat, cracked blackness that stretched off into the far distance was strikingly different to the volcano images in my mind. The drop off into the crater, although steep, was not as dramatic or as deep as I might have imagined, and swaths of clouds were swept along the surface by a moody breeze.
It was, undoubtedly, a unique landscape, all 10 kilometres of parched rockiness. We stood for a little while and looked out over this section of Sierra Negra. As recently as 2005 she had belched up a load of lava, and before that, 1979. There was a good chance that she might erupt again, right now. A sign stated ‘since the magma chambers are approximately two kilometres deep, there are cracks where every so often the fumes vent or lava erupts’. It could happen.
Onwards we walked, skirting along the eastern side of Sierra Negra, our grassy path contrasting with the bleak gravel of her belly spread out below us. The landscape started to change. More rocks, more slip, more hostility.
Those in the group who didn’t have boats to catch back to Santa Cruz continued on over shale and scatter towards Volcán Chico whilst the rest of us turned around and backtracked through ferns and hairy trees, walking and talking and stopping for a quick picnic lunch. Within two hours we were back at a still drizzly starting point, ready to descend back down to Puerto Vilamil.
One of the most active places for volcanic activity? Pah. Really? It all seemed very gentle and relaxed, dreamy even. Today, in any case.
MAYBE I WAS JUST GLAD to be getting out of Pucara and away from the prospect of a marriage of convenience that would have seen me living small, Bolivian village life, running three rental houses and caring for an old husband who would surely be well on his way to incontinence. Maybe my favourable account of the bus journey from Pucara to Villa Serrano and then on to Sucre was therefore skewed.
But hang on. The landscape was beautiful and the variation in terrain as we descended from high altitudes to the warmer climate of Villa Serrano was well worth noting.
Steep, winding mountain roads wound down past cacti the size of trees along rubbly ground where a sparse covering of shrubs with exposed roots clung on to dry, stony earth.
The crowded bus continued on through dusty canyons and alongside wide, dry rivers. Dust swirled through the bus, coating everything. The teenager in the seat in front of me sat hugging an old school ghetto blaster whilst he puked out and down the side of the bus, the warm, sweet fumes filtering back in through my open window.
At parts, the road was really terrible, huge chunks missing. The bus momentarily crawled alongside browny-orange landslides and inched across and around gaping cavities whilst I held my breath. We always made it. Skilled drivers, aided by the sign up front that stated seguir a Cristo. As on most South American public transport, we were being looked after by the total trust in religious iconography. All good.
As dusk set in, mountains silhouetted against a clear sky. The guy next to me got off the bus, no houses in sight, the middle of a dark nothingness. I wondered how far he had to walk still. It was gone 20:00pm.
A little boy jumped into his seat. I dozed a little, waking only when he started to blow raspberries at his friend and screech and clamber over me to look at the moon. ‘¡La luna es aqui!’ he babbled, and his friend joined him by the window, which was also my seat and my lap. Two unknown three year old kids with knees and elbows digging into me? At least I had somewhere to sit.
A little later, having reclaimed some space, I woke up to my hair being stroked. The little boy next to me was now singing gently and playing with my hair, no inhibitions.
Within another hour we arrived into Villa Serrano and I wandered through dark streets with my head torch trying to find somewhere to stay.
Electricity in the town was down. My little venture away from the modern, English speaking world with all its comforts and trappings was set to continue for at least another day, and I certainly wasn’t about to complain.
After a short night’s sleep and a chilly shower, I was back on a bus headed from Villa Serrano to Sucre through a landscape of hills covered in grasses and trees.
It was an early morning start. Wisps of mist hung in the valleys and mountain peaks stayed hidden in the clouds, shadows streaking across their green, grey bodies. The sun shone out gentle, light rays onto little mud brick buildings with grass roofs and red tiles, waking up the folk in the farmsteads that we passed.
It was flatter and greener in the valleys, dry rockiness visible every now and then alongside corn fields. Yellow sunburst flowers on long, leafy stalks sat next to short, fluffy tufts of plants, delicately blowing in the fresh morning breeze.
On board, women sporting plaits and wearing warm, woolly hats carried small children bundled up in blankets. I played peek-a-boo with a little girl in front of me whilst a young boy looked on shyly, smiling when I caught his eye. Again, the only gringo on board. The elders were politer but the children were curious. I tried to remember being that young, but all I could really recall were my mum’s stories about how I chatted away to everyone.
The rest of this journey took us past more cacti; some small and spindly, others still the size of trees. Amazing towers of red rock rose up on the roadside just over an hour into the trip before we finally arrived at flatter farm land and paved, concrete roads. The bus sped up, onwards to Sucre.
So what was so special about this journey?
Predominantly, this was about the amazing, varied scenery but also the experience of being in amongst the locals with not a tourist in sight. It was also a much more interesting way to get to Sucre, and a cheap way to cover some substantial ground.
Pucara to Villa Serrano cost 30Bs. (£2.70/US$4.34) for a six hour journey and Villa Serrano to Sucre cost 25Bs. (£2.25/US$3.62) for a four and a half hour journey. Villa Serrano to Sucre was a much smoother journey with better roads and a comfier bus, although the scenery wasn’t quite as impressive. Apologies for lack of photos for the second day – my camera battery died! Disappointed. From Villa Serrano to Sucre I travelled with Trans Turismo Señor “La Mision”. Buy tickets in the office on the square, which opens at 06:30am. The bus leaves 07:00am.
Taking on many of the characteristics of a Swiss ski mountain village, Campos do Jordão in South East Brazil sounded misplaced and a little bizarre. I had to see it for myself.
This little town with its wooden chalets and quirky independent gift shops and cafés is a popular holiday spot for the wealthy, particularly in the wintertime. Colour is splashed around the place, chocolate shops abound and prices are high. A river runs through the town, brown and chocolatey and I start to imagine Willy Wonka and his oompaloompas working behind the scenes.
Everything feels cute and a little too constructed for my personal preference. It’s probably a lot to do with the fact that I love European winters and log buildings and open fires and, well, this place just confuses the hell out of me.
But I love the chocolate. Stacked high in shop after shop after shop, fat, round lumps of melt-in-your-mouth goodness tempt window shoppers. My friend Glyn insists that we buy some. I take a bite from a dark chocolate crocante truffle and it’s so dense and rich that I’m not sure I can finish it (of course I do).
Post-food and chocolate indulgence we walk around the town. The chair lift (miniférico), the first in Brazil, is closed. It’s been raining and the multi-coloured chairs swing in the breeze, drip drying. A group of guys sit chatting on board a brightly painted, open-sided tourist tram, no takers for the town tour.
The sun breaks through and we sit a while in the park, chatting and eating chocolate truffles and ice-creams, and I realise that Campos do Jordão is a place of indulgence: fancy restaurants, rich chocolate and the high life.
I’ve enjoyed tasting it, but I don’t want to get used to it. For now, I’ll go back to bread and water.
It was when I arrived home from a trip to the Blue Mountains and kicked off my hiking shoes and socks that I noticed trickles of bright red blood dripping down on to the floor. And it wouldn’t stop.
By the awesome power of a borrowed car and a TomTom sat nav, I had cruised along the Great Western Highway, away from Sydney with the radio blasting and the Blue Mountains up ahead.
At Echo Point nearby Katoomba, a thick covering of fog concealed any natural wonders. I sat down and ate a sandwich to the sound of a didgeridoo being played by an Aboriginal guy who had been traditionally painted up, ready to pose for photos with impressed tourists.
Within a little while The Three Sisters revealed themselves, their stony prison smaller than I expected. I joined the crowds on the viewing platforms, got some truly bad pictures taken by a stranger that I had to delete (lots of sky, lots of me, barely anything of the Three Sisters) and then did a short walk over to the Lady Marley lookout where I took in the vast mountainous landscape, wisps of mist still drifting about giving it a mystical edge.
Legs unsatisfied, back at the start and with the Information Centre behind me I took a right and headed over to the start of the Giant Stairway with over 850 narrow steps leading down from the Three Sisters mounting point and into the arboreous gulley below.
The signposted track led me along the Federal Pass on forest pathways, squelchy and covered in leaves. A building purr of thunder rattled the sky as rain drops slapped onto damp leaves, working up to a steady downpour. I hid in a hollow tree trunk until the worst of it passed.
After two hours and a steady pace later, I arrived at the Scenic Railway. Would I cheat and take the train up for an easy wander back to Echo Point? Hell, no!
In fact, on the way back I was on fire, getting to the bottom of the Great Stairway within 40 minutes. Super speedy (wait for the pain tomorrow). ‘Are you really going up?’ asked a Dutch guy raising his eyebrows. He had just made the descent with his friends. ‘Sure’, I said, ‘I came down so now I’ll go back up. It’ll balance things out!’ ‘If we don’t see you back by 6:00pm’, he said, ‘then we’ll send the search parties out to the steps’.
It was unnecessary. Although I took a couple of breaks and nearly puked as my heart battered my rib cage, I was back at the top within twenty minutes, legs fully worked out and shaking.
And then back along the Great Western Highway, back to the house and kicking off my shoes and my socks and spotting the mystery blood dribbling down my ankles. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted my sock moving. I lifted it to reveal a squirming, wet and well-fed leech. Eurgh! How had I managed to miss that?! Thanks very much, Blue Mountains, what a parting gift.
For free parking by Echo Point, drive past the Information Point on your right, continuing along Cliff Drive. You will see a sandy stretch on the right hand side where you can park for free.