Category Archives: tours

Top 5: Natural Queensland, Australia

www.travelola.org5. Camp outs within the National Parks and State Forests, such as Brooyar State Forest and Cape Hillsborough National Park offered peaceful, beautiful stop offs that were affordable (starting at $6). Granted, there was a lack of facilities (and people) but what more do you need beyond fire pits and  ‘pit dunnies’?!

www.travelola.org4. For a Brit like me, Aussie beaches and rainforests are full of exotic appeal. Digging my toes into the sands at Smalleys’ Beach in Cape Hillsborough National Park was a great, calming way to end a day of driving whilst a hasty dip in the river at Mossman Gorge  whetted my appetite for future wanderings through strangler figs and soul-stirring greens.

Queensland Low Isles Great Barrier Reef3. Although I may have been somewhat spoilt by documentaries and coffee table books full of intensely coloured imagery, the Great Barrier Reef was still, undeniably, stunning. With only a half day to spare, I took the shorter trip out to the Low Isles where I snorkelled and splashed about, circumnavigated the island on foot (okay, it took all of fifteen minutes) and feasted on a smorgasbord of seafood delights. Literally.

Queensland desolate landscapes2. My first taste of desolate landscapes was on the drive out of Cairns towards the Eclipse 2012 festival in Far North Queensland. It intrigued me that anyone would live up tracks that disappeared away from dusty roadsides, further into environments where only the odd spindly bush and termite mounds survived.

www.travelola.org1. After days of driving through inland Queensland, particularly around Charters Towersbig skies have to come top of the crop. I felt fully surrounded, 360° around me, 180° over me – by a spread of resplendent blue skies, of fluffy, bouncy clouds, of stars piercing a blanket of blackness. I felt  my place in the universe: alive and conscious enough to observe it but little, tiny, insignificant overall.

To read my Queensland road trip in its entirety, join the journey here.

To readers who’ve joined me from Cruising Helmsman (and anyone else interested in reading my sailing adventures), click here to rewind to my time in the Galapagos islands and the beginning of a South Pacific adventure.

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under activity & sport, australia, beaches, camping, culture, forests, national parks, nature, oceania, sea, snorkelling, tours, travel, wildlife

Day trippin’ Tahiti

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.

Enter the lushness

Enter the lushness

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.

Plants and water and happiness

Plants and water and happiness

...and more...

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Beautiful, right?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Yep.

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).

Really?

Lost girl? Nah, not really.

Lost girl? Nah, not really.

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.

Arriving to the village of Teahupo'o

Arriving to the village of Teahupo’o

Hanging out on the wire looking out towards the famous break

Hanging out on the wire looking out towards the famous break

Shall we just borrow it?

Shall we just borrow it?

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.

Taking a river rest

Taking a river rest

Capturing the creature who had a good nibble on my toes

Capturing the creature who had a good nibble on my toes

The boys think about stretching their legs again

The boys think about stretching their legs again

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.

Views one way... down to Tahiti Nui

Views one way… down to Tahiti Nui

Views from the same spot

Views from the same spot

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.

Getting drowsy

Getting drowsy

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

Nearly there

Nearly there

And we were back. In Papeete, at the pontoon, within the rock of the boat. Home.

1 Comment

Filed under activity & sport, beaches, mountains, nature, pacific, sea, surf, tahiti, tours

Diving the Galapagos

http://www.galapagosdestiny.com/images/mapas/galapagos-dive-map.jpg

Dive spots in the Galapagos islands (map from http://www.galapagosdestiny.com)

I needed a gentle re-introduction to the undersea world, not an adventure that would see me hanging on to tough, solidified lava for fear of getting swept away into the mouth of a hammerhead shark.

I decided pretty much last minute that I really should dive whilst in the Galapagos. When would I be back?

But I did wonder: was it really worth paying over $150 for two dives in waters that I’d been warned had low visibility and strong currents? It definitely sounded beyond my diving ability.

Ah well. So long as I stayed within my 18 metre limit, I was insured. Galapagos had thus far been good to me and I decided to place my trust in the hands of people who dive these spots on a daily basis.

It was on a Friday evening in May that I excused myself from a social meet-up with a delivery skipper who I’d be crewing for across the Pacific Ocean, and headed off into a dusky Puerto Ayora in search of an open dive shop.

A woman turned the key to her shop door as I approached. ‘‘Everywhere is shut now. But maybe René has space for you’, she said, “I show you.’ Within twenty minutes I was signing paperwork and trying on dive gear behind re-opened shutters.

It was going to happen.

Saturday morning. A sleepy-eyed start for us all, bouncing over dawn waves to the north-east coast of Santa Cruz island.

Dive one at Plazas started off hesitantly. An old boy, a man with sailing skin, natural highlights and a grey tuft of a beard helped me step into my buoyancy aid and tighten up my weight belt. I was a bit nervous. Would I instinctively remember everything? Maybe I should have done a refresher course first. Hmmm.

www.travelola.org

Some of the dive team ready for action (*)

www.travelola.org

Before the dive at Plazas

www.travelola.org

King angelfish tempting us into the water at Plazas

Hands on regulator and back of the head, backward rolls, splash, splash, hitting the water one after the other. Apart from I stayed put. I couldn’t do it.

Second countdown, just for me this time, and pride pushed me overboard.

But I wasn’t the first to panic. A girl with a face full of makeup about to be melted by the lick of the sea started to hyperventilate once she hit the water. She lasted a few minutes. ‘No’, she said, ‘No’, and got back on the boat.

I struggled to submerge. Again and again I hit the surface to reach for air and calm my beating heart to a steady pace.

Eventually I descended, found my buoyancy and balance, and I eased into it, finning gently along a sandy bottom past curious king angel fish and a shoal of yellow tailed surgeon fish, floating along with golden Mexican goatfish, shimmery blackspot porgy – unique to the Galapagos – and grey mickey with delicate trailing tails and fins. And some stingrays. I kept my distance.

www.travelola.org

Finally checking out the ocean floor *

It was all fairly relaxed. After twenty minutes two of the boys surfaced, out of air, whilst the rest of us continued cruising around. We were deeper than I should have gone – 23m – and whilst visibility wasn’t great, the grey waters still had enough clarity to keep this underworld from becoming too freaky.

Dive two at Gordon Rocks was a different ball game. The boat rocked heavily. ‘This section is calmer’, René assured us. But the entry was a little hectic and once in the water, my breathing was instantly panicked.

‘Behind you!’ shouted the driver, ‘Look, look! A hammerhead!’ I couldn’t look. A little apart from the rest of the group, the shark was close to me. If I didn’t look, it didn’t exist, and if I pretended that all the fins we’d seen from the boat were imaginary, all was good.

www.travelola.org

Approaching the calm side of Gordon Rocks

www.travelola.org

Overboard at Gordon Rocks

www.travelola.org

My group… left to the sharks

We started the dive, submerging to 18m, down the crater wall. For forty minutes we drifted around the rock, currents spurring us on.

This dive gave me my shark sighting, finally. I’d done my best to avoid them until now, but a couple of whitetip reef sharks were insistent on being seen from a comfortable distance. More Mexican goat fish and blackspot porgy, some blue striped snapper, some surgeon fish. And two turtles. Ah, my beautiful friends.

www.travelola.org

A shoal of yellow-tailed mullet, unique to the Galapagos islands *

www.travelola.org

Galapagos fish

The safety stop showed me why Gordon Rocks is considered an intermediate to advanced dive site, with currents in the shallows threatening to rip us away from our handholds. My legs splayed out to the side as water surged past and I gripped on tightly, thrilled and scared and a little sad that it was nearly all over.

And the hammerhead story from the start of this blog post? Yeah, my imagination got the better of me. It could have happened, I guess, but I held on tightly, did my five-minute safety stop and finned up to the choppy surface fully unchomped.

 ————————————————————————————————————

The reputation of the Galapagos means that they can demand fairly high prices and people will pay. There’s little room for bargaining and you can expect to pay upwards of US$170 for two dives. I paid $135 for two dives as a last minute special deal through Galapagos People Shalom Dive Centre. Carol – my fun, expressive yet calm dive buddy – and René kept a close eye on me throughout the two dives. Thanks guys! Thanks also for permitting use of some of the GoPro images (*) and  stingray footage.

2 Comments

Filed under activity & sport, costs/money, diving, ecuador, nature, south america, tours, wildlife

Sharks? Nah, I’m off to find me some turtles

www.travelola.org

Settling for a snorkeling spot

I didn’t want to go searching for the sharks let alone swim with them, so when the rest of my group jumped in to the water and quickly disappeared off leaving little old me way behind, I didn’t mind too much.

What I did mind, a bit, was being alone in unknown waters full of strange sea creatures.

I adjusted my mask, took a big breath and put my snorkel in my mouth. My heart beat faster as I submerged my head and I took little gasps of air as I tried to flipper with some gentle rhythm and grace. I don’t take like a fish to water. I panic, a little, every time I look beneath the surface and see the ocean world spread out beneath me.

I tried to see the flipper trails of my team, but they were long gone. What to do? Head off in a similar direction and possibly get lost, or stay closer to the boat? Sometimes I throw caution to the wind, sometimes I’m just silly, but this time I played it safe.

I surfaced for a moment and returned to the boat, head above water. ‘What happened?’ asked Fabricio, my tour guide. I shrugged. ‘I lost them. They went’. ‘You might see some turtles over there’, he said, pointing to the edge of the reef breakwater that was giving us some relief from the ocean chop. ‘Will you keep an eye on me?’ I asked before submerging again, still fighting some anxiety.

Cornetfish (© Matthew Meier 2006)

And then I relaxed into it and I swam along with rainbow wrasse, bluechin parrotfish and various jacks and snappers, and loads of cornetfish –  these thin and crazy looking things that you almost can’t see. A stingray (Raya Sartén) gently flapped by and I gave it a wide berth. Something about stingrays scares the shit out of me. Maybe it’s the Steve Irwin thing? I don’t know.

A stingray slides and glides through Galapagos waters (members.ziggo.nl/mauricef/index.htm)

But my real search was for turtles so I swam away from the colourful charm of these tropical schools, onwards and over towards the far corner of the little lagoon. I spotted the first about four metres down, chomping away on plantlife. Fish darted around her mouth as the ripped off chunks of seaweed in a manner not too dissimilar to the tortoise I’d seen a few days earlier, only here the water gave the feeding process some slow-mo, drifty chic.

Another two turtles coasted around the area, one so huge that it was well on its way to being the size of a Smart car. Closer to me, I swam a few feet above it, tempted like no other time to hold on and go for a ride. But out of respect, and fear, I didn’t’. I like to think that I’m unlikely to cause any nuisance or harm, but who knows what impact a clumsy human might have? And who knows when a turtle might turn on you? Or three against one, in this case.

Not my photo… no underwater camera for me… pity (www.lifesorigin.com)

How long I spent observing the turtles, I’m unsure, but for a good while I bobbed face down and forgot all about short breaths and fast heartbeats, lost in the magic of a private moment with these creatures. A few others from my group started to arrive so I made my way back over to the boat.

‘Did you see the turtles?’ asked a French tourist as we both sat out on deck warming ourselves in the afternoon sun. ‘And the sharks! You missed the sharks. There were many.’

‘Yes’, I told her, ‘I saw the turtles’. But, I realised, I didn’t just see the turtles, I actually had some precious time with them. And I’d sure as anything trade some shark spotting for that, any day.

7 Comments

Filed under activity & sport, diving, ecuador, nature, snorkelling, south america, tours, wildlife

Why didn’t I think this through? Reality kicks in

www.travelola.org

Something to get excited about, or at least be grateful for

What would you do if you rocked up to this tropical slice of Galapagos paradise with enough cash for a hotel room, a drink and absolutely nothing else? Panic? Or trust life?

I bought my ticket for the boat that would ferry me from Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz to Isla Isabela at 13:55PM, ran to the marina and made it with a minute to spare. We should have left at 14:00PM, but time ticked by and my breathing returned to normal as we sat bobbing around watching boats load up for inter-island trips.

At this point I should have gone to the cashpoint. I didn’t. But not to worry. There was an ATM on the island of Isabela, supposedly. All good. I could get some out when I got there.

This is where fancy free travel, last minute decisions and lack of research come undone. Of course there wasn’t an ATM.

You don’t take cards?’ I ask Fabricio at Tropical Adventures when I went to book a US$60 tour to visit some volcanic tunnels and craters, ‘Oh, okay… where is the cashpoint’. He looked at me and smiled. ‘No ATMs. There is no a way to get out money in the town. Well, maybe it’s possible’.

Together with an older couple I took to the streets of Puerto Villamil, the main habitation on Isla Isabela. They needed money too, and they needed me. Their Spanish was terrible. I should have charged for my time, been entrepreneurial. I needed the money.

Our first stop at a minimarket proved fruitless, only accepting cards from Banco de Guayaquil or American Express. They sent us on to Hotel Albermarle. Why? Who knows. Maybe because the woman there spoke English.

There is no ATM on Isabela, no way to get cash out ‘, she said, ‘but you could try MoneyGram or Western Union’. Both instant money transfers carried hefty fees but to regain my independence and address my complete helplessness it was going to have to happen.

I tried to do a money transfer but it was declined, possibly because I tried to send money to myself. Maybe, however, it was because a few days earlier the fraud squad at my bank picked up that my card may have been copied in Bolivia and had since placed restrictions on my account. Oh travelling, oh South America. Either way, it wasn’t happening.

I stopped for a moment and thought about my options. I didn’t even have enough cash to leave the island the following day, let alone stay another night, take tours and see the place. How totally silly.

I did what I never wanted to do. I emailed my dad to bail me out. Oh, the shame.

Next I went to cancel my place on the tour before joining a Swede and a French guy for dinner. ‘What would you like?’ asked the waiter. I’d studied the menu and my mind. ‘Just a small beer’, I told him. It was cheaper than a juice and would leave me with 20 cents. Let the alcohol numb my frustration. I watched the other guys tuck into seafood feasts.

Back in my hotel room I was so glad I’d brought along yesterday’s leftover pasta. With no cutlery I squeeze-ate it out of its plastic storage bag. The height of glamour. Dessert was a packet of Oreos that had been squished in my bag for a week or so, but let’s keep things in perspective, at least I had dessert. A little bit of luxury.

I spent a restless night wondering how I was going to get out of this mess, whether the transfer would work, and the next morning I Skyped with my family. After an extended process including phone calls to India and the US, £300 with a £25 fee was transferred to Ecuador. But I still didn’t physically have the money and I wasn’t confident that I’d get my hands on it.

MoneyGram in Puerto Villamil was situated in a convenience store where, typically, the cashier was out on business when I showed up. I’d have to return in an hour or come back later in the day.

But wait a minute! Fabricio at Tropical Adventures had done me a huge favour when I’d tried to scrub my name off the tour list the previous night. ‘Don’t cancel’, he said, ‘I’ll see you at 08:30AM, okay?

I had a few minutes to make up my mind. In a predicament where I wasn’t confident that I could get the money but where there was definite potential for a withdrawal later in the day, would I gamble and go on the trip?

Hell yeah! Trust life, trust it will work out.

It did.

8 Comments

Filed under activity & sport, costs/money, ecuador, nature, random, sailing, south america, tours, travel

Spending the day at Tortuga Bay

Ah, Galapagos! That place of mystery through which Charles Darwin journeyed back in the autumn of 1835; those islands chock full of natural wonders, of  unusual birdlife and iguana-like creatures, of volcanic formations and varied landscapes. The Galapagos archipelago, Darwin said, is quite simply ‘a little world within itself’. Time to get in amongst it and find out for myself.

So here I am, in Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz having spent my first night crashed out in a simple yet immaculate room. I’m wondering where to go, how to start on my independent Galapagos adventure. Most visitors to the Galapagos jump on board a week-long cruise around the islands. It sounds nice, I guess, providing you get on with everyone and get lucky with a good guide. But avoiding luxury and high costs is my thing, my necessary thing, so it’s a matter of keeping it local. And keeping it real. Surely this way I can get a better idea of the place? I’m going to chat to people in the town, talk to the woman who runs the residence where I’m staying. She’ll point me in the right direction.

And she does. In fact many people do. Today, I decide, will be the day to check out Tortuga Bay. It’s close, it looks beautiful, and it’s an ideal way to taste what the Galapagos islands are about.

www.travelola.org

The pathway to Tortuga Bay

Clutching a map of the island I walk out west and it’s not long before I’m  ambling along a fine, white sand beach a few of kilometres from the town.

www.travelola.org

Arriving at Tortuga Bay

www.travelola.org

Tortuga Bay minus the tortugas (turtles)

I had anticipated crossing paths with a few more folk, but maybe I’ve hit the low season? It certainly doesn’t feel like I’m going to experience anything close to the three hundred visitors per day that this reserve typically expects. A lone surfer tries to carve up rippy waves to the left of Tortuga Bay and I see two people to the right in the far distance, the only other signs of human life.

As I get closer to the couple I see the girl crouch down, posing whilst her partner takes photos of her next to some… hang on… something moves. I squint and see that she is edging in as close as she dare to some chunky, four foot lizards oozing island laziness but whose spiky mohawks and slow, flickering tongues hint at a potential to turn nasty. In Th e Voyage of the Beagle (1836) Darwin describes this type of lizard (A. cristatus) as a ‘hideous looking creature of a dirty black colour, stupid, and sluggish in its movements’. A little harsh, maybe, but I hear him.

www.travelola.org

Lazy lizard

Around the corner I find the crowds. All fifty of them, if that. A young couple play in the sea, mouths teasing and eventually giving in to the kiss. The first kiss? A holiday romance? Families shade beneath mangrove trees and kids paddle in the calm shallows.  Here in this little lagoon it is sheltered and perfect for a relaxing afternoon dip, a significant contrast to the rougher waters around the corner.

www.travelola.org

Shallow water play in the bay

I sit down on a slither of sand and watch birds swooping and boobing, sorry, bobbing about in the water. (The boobing comes later. No blue-footed boobies for me today. Let the anticipation build.) My picnic lunch creates some curiosity and a Straited Heron moves in on my personal space. Feeding the animals and birds on the islands is, however, banned so sorry, matey, today I’m going to be selfish and enjoy my avocado, tomato and bread feast alone.

www.travelola.org

My picnic companion

As I start to make my way back through a scattering of trees and shrubs and a speckling of deserted beach towels, a guy shouts over from a small boat in amongst the mangroves. ’Puerto Ayora?’ he asks. Nah, I think I’ll walk.

www.travelola.org

Lagoon calm at home time

www.travelola.org

Perching pelicans

www.travelola.org

Looking back up Tortuga Bay towards Puerto Ayora

And I retrace my steps, back along Bahía Tortuga and past perching pelicans, back along the pristine, cacti edged pathway, back to the wardens’ hut. I sign out and sit down to pause and look down over a dusky Puerto Ayora and the visiting yachts rising and falling in the gentle swell of Academy Bay. Soon, I hope, I will make my home on one of those yachts and embark on the most daring adventure of my travels thus far: a South Pacific crossing, back towards Australia via the tropical magic of French Polynesia. Am I really going to do this?

One of the wardens comes out and perches on the wall a few metres away. I’m crucially aware of his presence, a quiet, strong guardian of this beauty spot, and I wonder whether to continue sitting in silence or to strike up a conversation.

Of course I go for the latter, studying his face as I nosy in on island life. He has kind eyes. ‘Do you ever think about working somewhere else? Going somewhere a bit busier?’ I ask him, trying to not show that I’ve noticed his visibly beating heart. A stress condition? Surely not, not in this lovely, serene environment. He fixes his gaze on the village below. No, he tells me, he can’t imagine leaving this place, not for more than a few days.

And why would he want to? Fair enough.

1 Comment

Filed under activity & sport, beaches, ecuador, hikes, nature, sailing, south america, surf, tours, wildlife

Rock my world

I can never fully get my head around the connotations of ‘being someone’s rock’, whether it is a good thing or not. It sounds, to me, like it should be a compliment (‘he’s my rock’, ‘solid as a rock’), signifying security, sturdiness, strength.

But, I do wonder would I really want a rock in my life? Wouldn’t a bird be more fun and free? Or a grain of sand that drifts along on a burst of wind, forms new landscapes but is then blasted off again before any permanence can take place? Wouldn’t it stop me feeling weighted down?

Maybe it’s my own restless nature that drives these thoughts, my own inability to feel grounded and solid like a rock. But whilst strength is an attribute I can relate to, security and sturdiness smack of a bit of boringness to me.

On Day 3 of the Uyuni tour, however, I would encounter rocks that would make me rethink by being anything but boring. I love being challenged.

Bring it on.

It was gone 09:00am on a brisk April day when we stopped off at a collection of rocks jutting out awkwardly and obviously on an otherwise flat desert landscape. A few jeeps clustered at one end but the main rush of tourists had long left to do border drop-offs.

Not having any of our tour group transiting on to Chile bought us a couple of hours sleep-in, something my altitude tired body was seriously grateful for. The double beauty of this situation was that we also now didn’t have to share this rock garden with anyone else. Nearly.

www.travelola.org

Still busy despite rush hour being over

We climbed and clambered, photographed and peered through corroded spy holes. Shapes had emerged from these hunks of rocks, delicate curves and smooth edges, precipices of chiselled stone, all created by nature’s craftsmanship.

www.travelola.org

The rock garden

www.travelola.org

Framed

www.travelola.org

Guys go for the climb

www.travelola.org

Girls on top

www.travelola.org

A rock tree

These soft stones, I realised, were in a constant state of change and would keep adapting until the last formation gave way to a crumbly disintegration, the final fragments joining other grains of sand in a desert sea, free to go with the flow of the whispering wind.

Who knows what timescale we’re talking about, but these ‘solid’ rocks were creating beauty, movement and stories; changing and adapting. They certainly weren’t ‘stuck’. They were, I realised, just stopping momentarily on a much bigger journey.

Later in the day the desert roadsides became increasingly strewn with sharp-edged rocks, density increasing until we finally stopped by the Valley of the Rocks.

www.travelola.org

Walking in to Valley of the Rocks

Created by volcano lava flow, the rocks here are tougher – individually and as a group – chunked together, stocky things with the odd touch of elegance thrown in to soften the overall visual impact.

www.travelola.org

Entering the Valley of the Rocks

www.travelola.org

Rock waves

www.travelola.org

Valley of the Rocks

www.travelola.org

Hanging out at Valley of the Rocks

www.travelola.org

Beautiful, crazy rock formations

And then I encountered the stone that sealed the deal.

Just before we left the Valley of the Rocks, Gonzalo, our guide, showed the group a rock on which grew yalreita*, a fuzzy, dry growth of green with a mossy appearance. Yalreita, Gonzalo told us, grew over years and decades until it died off. In death it became drier still. Locals sought it out, carried home hunks of the flammable cast-off and used it to fuel fires and keep some Bolivian cold at bay.

www.travelola.org

I love this rock!

www.travelola.org

Yalreita growth giving warmth to the masses

So a stone that provides an environment that gives life to a plant that gives warmth to humans? Rocks are far more complex than I first thought.

Maybe being called ‘solid as a rock’ or someone’s rock isn’t so bad after all (not that I can claim to ever having had those comments directed at me). For the time being, I’ll be my own rock. I feel pretty grounded in myself, just not settled in a certain place. As it turns out, complexity and solidity don’t have to be exclusive and being a rock, I realise, definitely doesn’t have to mean stuck and boring.

And when I’m ready to be rock steady, I’m sure I’ll be able to be solid and settled for someone else too.

————————————————————————————————————-

*I’ve tried to research yalreita but with no success. If anyone has any further insight or an alternative plant name, I’d love to hear from you and correct this post.

7 Comments

Filed under activity & sport, bolivia, nature, south america, tours

Driving with the dust devils

www.travelola.org

Driving into the desert

Whilst Day 1 of the Uyuni tour had given us vast salt landscapes with little in the sense of navigation markers, Day 2 started the journey into dust, desert flats and gentle, sandy hills that rolled away into a far distance of snow capped mountains.

www.travelola.org

Desert dust and moodiness

www.travelola.org

Cloud and snow cover

As with the infinite whiteness of the salt flats, drivers steered a confident course through a drifting landscape. In sheltered places, tracks from earlier jeeps showed us the way.

We stopped briefly in what has been dubbed the Salvador Dali desert due to its surreal make-up and surroundings. A calm, settled desertscape, on this day the sunshine mimicked visual expectations of warmth that one would typically expect in such sandy, desert settings.

www.travelola.org

Surreal Dali-esque desertscapes

But these Bolivian deserts were cold.Day and night. Each trip out of the car required us to wrap up, scarf up, hat up.

On Day 3 we arrived at yet another lake amidst flat dusty ground, mountain chains and a heavily pregnant sky. Clothes hugged in closely to our bodies, the wind sought out gaps, licking us with an icy tongue.

www.travelola.org

The sky about to give birth

I ran away from the lake and my group, out into the emptiness of a drawn out desert: I wanted to feel the impact of this place, to momentarily measure my human insignificance against the magnificence of nature. The wind joined me in my desert dance, and we spun around together. But eventually, Wind drove me back to the crew, blasting sand in my face and forcing the clouds to drop a hailstorm bomb.

www.travelola.org

Dancing in the desert

www.travelola.org

Sandstorm and hailstone pain

Driving, dancing and a bit of drama in the desert. Why would you want it any other way?

www.travelola.org

Ghost town for food before the home run

And then after a last lunch in the ghost town of San Cristobel, a dust storm kicked up. Inside the vehicle the air became stale and temperatures rose as the sun cooked the car. But opening a window and inviting in the dust devils for a goodbye drive? That would have just been silly.

www.travelola.org

Last stretch dust storm

7 Comments

Filed under activity & sport, bolivia, desert, nature, south america, tours

Lakes, llamas and flamin’ flamingos

www.travelola.org

Exploring the lakes on the Uyuni tour in Bolivia

Imagine days chock-full of reds and greens and some of the highest lakes in the world. Throw in a few llama sightings to keep the cute factor high and some pale pink flamingos for the bird spotters. Drive between places through desolate desert landscapes. And there you have it. A tour for those who want to see loads of spectacular nature with minimum personal input required. Food and accommodation sorted. Pay your money, off you go. Enjoy the ride.

www.travelola.org

Curious roadside llamas

www.travelola.org

Anyone fancy a llama cuddle? Although, on second thoughts, she looks a little stern

No wonder my guide Gonzalo sometimes wished he could take a longer tour, say maybe ten days, to really allow time to soak up some of the beauty. But who would want to spend out on such a long tour when you can do the lot, get your pictures and move on for half the price? Ah, the pity and absurdity of our busy, self-inflicted schedules.

So on Day 2 of the tour south west of Uyuni in Bolivia we started off with a teaser of lesser lakes before we drove onwards towards the two most significant ones: Laguna Colorada and Laguna Verde.

Laguna Colorada sits at 4,500m and even on this slightly dull day, she greeted us with a spectacular show of red tinted waters and shores freckled with flamingos and white borax deposits.

www.travelola.org

Laguna Colorada quite convincingly showing us her colours

www.travelola.org

Flamingos

No other humans were present. It was just us, thin air and some hungry birds chomping on colour altering algae. And a dusty surround with makeshift roads along which two other tour jeeps sped off into the distance, their bellies full of tourists in a rush.

www.travelola.org

Dust trails

‘Time to go!’ shouted Gonzalo. Quick, quick. Everyone back in the cars. Off we went.

Give me another lake!

Okay. Laguna Verde. Laguna Verde sits ‘at the base of the Lincancabor volcano’ at an estimated altitude of between 4,300 and 6,390m. I had no idea we were heading that high. No wonder the altitude got me. Overcast skies didn’t give us the copper green waters that one can expect to see on a sunny day so those hoping for a winning photo were a little disappointed. We did a group photo instead. One, two, three, jump.

www.travelola.org

Group shot at Laguna Verde (me third from the left)

I like to spend a few moments by myself to take in the stillness of lakes. Unlike my first love, the sea which feels alive with movement and constant change and turmoil, lakes instil that sense of deep calm that can occasionally spill over into eeriness. Not here though. Nothing to fear, no weird vibes, no danger alerts. Just lonesome lakes, visited every now and then by groups of creatures sporting compact cameras.

But on the morning of Day 3, I can’t say that I was overly excited about getting up early to visit yet MORE lakes. My preference would have been to go slower and enjoy the views of the early ones, stop for a picnic, that kind of thing.

The weather turned cold. Icy blasts whipped us as we jumped out of the jeeps to gather around the various lakesides. Lauguna Kata, Laguna Kachi, Laguna Churungkani. Pretty lakes. Lakes surrounded by grey, brown landscapes and snow-capped mountains and piles of rockiness. It’s difficult to know what else to say. I became a bit lake-blinded, lake-spoilt.

It started to snow and with hats and scarves we enjoyed the falling flakes before retreating to the warmth of the vehicles. The short stops soon became a blessing.

www.travelola.org

Grass tufts and cloud covered snow caps

www.travelola.org

Moodiness as the weather closes in

www.travelola.org

The crew just before the snow came down

www.travelola.org

A bit of cloud cover

1 Comment

Filed under activity & sport, bolivia, lakes, nature, south america, tours

How do you know that you’re altitude sick?

Whilst doing the Uyuni tour, Dan, 18 from Scotland puked every day of the four day trip. His head pounded, he struggled to see straight and he missed some pretty special moments on the journey from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile over to Uyuni in Bolivia whilst he lay in the dark wishing that his breathing was less panicky so that he could sleep.

It is pretty much the worst I’ve ever felt’, he said, ‘back home I’m never unwell really, but this was killer’.

Of course it wasn’t a killer, although altitude and its effects shouldn’t be taken too lightly. People can and do die from acute mountain sickness but for most of us who get a good shooing by high altitudes, we just feel nauseous and may actually vomit, the pressure in our heads builds to unbearable levels, our breathing gets shallow and we can struggle to focus.

On Day 2 of my Uyuni tour I started to feel rough. The visit to the Train Graveyard and the salar on Day 1 had been fine, but today we were visiting some geysers and gurgling mud pools.  And it wasn’t the smell that sent me into a spin, it was the 5,200m altitude that did it.

We drove over to a little place for food and I just about managed to force some down my gullet. The rest of my group lounged around in hot pools, laughing, flirting, toasting the landscape with a bit of beer or wine or whatever they had. I, quite frankly, couldn’t muster up the energy to care what they were drinking or doing. I wished that I was well enough to be with them but instead I was curled up in the back of our jeep. Any movement was a bad idea. My head pounded and my lunch threatened to throw up.

The rest of my crew hang out in the hot pool whilst I curl up across the backseat of the jeep

By the evening I was even less sociable and in quite a mess. Sick and tears and what felt like a fever were confining me to my bed or the bathroom. Every last bit of goodness exited my body, leaving me a miserable, retching wreck. A friend held my hair whilst I chucked. Oh, the small blessings in life.

You’re meant to care for me, not kill me! (in all seriousness, thanks so much Nathalie and Carl)

You must tell me if you have chest pain’, said my guide Gonzalo after he’d brought a bucket and a mug of hot, sugary chacuma and coca leaf tea to my bedside. He wasn’t worried about my perpetual puking, and he didn’t seem particularly sympathetic to the cold concrete toilet floor that had become a close up familiarity as I paid my dues to the altitude demons. But chest pains? Different story.

Drink this. All of it’, he instructed. I sipped at it. It was sickly sweet. My stomach cramped. I wondered what if I’ve just been trying to ignore the signs and I’m actually one of the few people that gets seriously ill and dies from high altitude? I wonder if my travel insurance covers me to this altitude? I hope my family and friends know how much I love them.

Okay, I’m overdramatising somewhat, but I was zoning out into a world of temperature and delirium. Gonzalo seemed pretty unfazed by what felt like my bodies last attempt to demonstrate to me how crap it could be. He’d seen this so many times before, I guess. But why me? Why Dan?

I’d spent three weeks in Sucre at 2,750m, and then one night in Uyuni, which sits at 3,669m. Surely it was time enough to acclimatise? I even passed through Potosi – the highest city in the world at 4,070m – and felt nothing other than a slight daze. But because I was finishing yet another dose of antibiotics and codeine and whatever else, there is a small chance the medication enhanced my natural sensitivity to the altitude. Or maybe, altitude and me just aren’t a good partnership.

And Dan? I’ve heard from guides and other travellers that the route from San Pedro to Uyuni is tougher on the body, accelerating in altitude much quicker meaning there is little chance to adjust and higher chance of suffering the negative effects. In Dan’s group of ten people, three people felt terrible and went down the puking route. On my tour, I was the only one out of twelve of us that really had a bad time. Another girl struggled on and off with a bad head but seemed able to shake it off in between.

Statistics show that its highly unlikely you’ll actually die from altitude sickness but many backpackers I’ve talked to in Bolivia at least feel the effect of the lack of oxygen. Climbing stairs in Bolivia’s capital of La Paz, for example, leaves even the young fitties huffing and wheezing like ex-smoker OAPs.

But there is something undeniably cruel about being in such a beautiful place in the world and not being able to feel alive enough to run around and kiss the earth and shout at the sky. Or get in the hot springs with new friends.

That second night where we stayed at 4,200m, Gonzalo let me get on with emptying my stomach whilst being nursed by two wonderful beings. I finally fell into a drug induced sleep and awoke the following day to a calmer response; less intense symptoms. I could continue. No dramas.

Luxury accommodation in the guise of a simple stone building

The stuff I gave you works’, said Gonzalo, ‘every time’. Local knowledge and local herbs rule. Who knows what I really took. I’ve stopped asking when travelling. Take it and shut up and hope you get better. When you’re feverish and shaking and hurt to hell, you just want out. Quickly.

So you’re pretty used to dealing with this stuff then?’ I asked Gonzalo as I hungrily ate a pancake breakfast. ‘Yep. I knew you’d be okay. People are often ill.’  ‘Every trip?’ I asked him. ‘Pretty much’, he said.

So enjoy Uyuni, enjoy Bolivia but beware the altitude demons are waiting for someone. And maybe, for the first time in your life, you probably don’t want it could be you* to ring true.

————————————————————————————————————————-

*It could be you is the UK National Lottery’s tagline

5 Comments

Filed under activity & sport, bolivia, health, south america, tours