Category Archives: south america

And then it was over

australian-flag-mapAs I sat on the flat, spongy mattress of a cobbled together dorm room near the airport on the island of Tahiti listening to the woes of an eighteen year old French lad who’d had his money and laptop stolen whilst on a cruise out to the Tuamotus and now didn’t have any other option but to wait for a flight home, I realised that this too was the end of my journey.

Well, not really. If Stage 1 had been my initial South American adventures within Ecuador and Peru, and Stage 2 my previous time in Australia and New Zealand, then this travel through Brazil, Bolivia and Ecuador followed by a delivery sail from the Galapagos Islands to Tahiti could be deemed Stage 3.

So Stage 3 was drawing to a close. There would still be more adventures up ahead, surely?

One of my favourite modern-day philosophers, Alain de Botton, says: ‘We’re getting better at learning how to structure journeys so that they can assuage what we’re lacking within us.’ And when I looked inside myself and questioned what was lacking (and causing a bit of concern), it was simple: health, familiarity, money. And a big, fat cuddle.

The biggest issue was my health, and my body was begging me to settle for a while. In the last few months, Bolivia had physically punished me and although I’d felt fairly healthy – inactive but healthy – during the Pacific crossing, now Tahiti had delivered up a fever thanks to some tropical sores, sores that stretched the skin on my left leg so tight that touch shot sharp tingles right down to my foot and up to my thigh. My immune system was shot. (I think if you’d told me then that I’d still have another two loads of antibiotics coming up once I was back in Australia, I would have cried. Seven lots of antibiotics within six months? Sorry body. Some people deal better with South America.)

I booked the cheapest flight back to Australia that I could find. But where to? Melbourne had been my original choice destination, a cultural city with opportunities for work and an agreeable cost of living, but Sydney was starting to appeal to me with its sailing scene. So why was I descending into a peachy, sunset Brisbane in mid-June?

I thought back to my French friend and hoped that his misfortunes hadn’t overly soured his impressions of paradise or deterred him from the wonders of travel. Life without travel, without adventure? Unimaginable.

I got off the plane, cursed the fact I’d worn flip-flops and a vest top as I shivered into an Aussie winter, and paused for a moment before I stepped through the Arrivals doors. My heart beating faster and a smile twitching on my lips, I pushed my airport trolley into a politely crowded Arrivals lounge. Still far from my UK home, Australia would be home for now.

Stage 4 starts. An empty page. Some good ideas, hopes and needs, but no plans or expectations. But definitely adventures. Always.

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Filed under australia, bolivia, brazil, ecuador, moorea, new zealand, oceania, pacific, peru, solo travel, south america, tahiti, travel

A day in the life of a crew member crossing the Pacific Ocean

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Anything up ahead?

My home is currently a fifty foot carbon fibre box rigged up with sails that are helping me and a crew of three to cross the mass of the South Pacific Ocean from Galapagos to Tahiti.

What I’ve come to realise is that long distance cruising is as much about adapting to life at sea as it is about the sailing itself. Compared to coastal sailing where you’re frequently making quick decisions and pulling ropes and following carefully constructed sail plans that take into account regular waypoints, out on the great ocean the same awareness of weather systems and sail trim and all that stuff still needs to be in place, but everything is at a different pace. Our first waypoint was over 3,o00nm away. When I’d done coastal sailing back in the UK, waypoints were usually plotted every few miles.

So how does an average day pan out? What does one actually do without going crazy inside this confined space on a vast ocean of no escape? Although different for everyone, here are extracts from a day in my life at sea.

12:30am
I finally get to bed after a two hour watch and hand over to Matt, one of the other crew members. Brush teeth and all that stuff. Then sleep, delicious sleep.

5:45am
My alarm goes off. I push snooze. Twice. But it’s time to pull on some clothes and splash my face with water. My next watch is coming right up.

It takes a few minutes to get into it. I catch up with Alan, the skipper, who is on watch before me and I check over the log book. I notice one of the guys has made an entry about a great dinner the previous night. Always nice to know that my cooking hits the spot.

In amongst all the usual watch stuff, I grab some breakfast and a cup of tea and go to sit up top to watch the sunrise. How did I land this shift?! Mornings are difficult for me but I love this time of the day. Other than the sunrise, there’s nothing to report; no dodgy sounds, no boats on the horizon, no shifty winds.

8:30am
I go back to bed for another two hours sleep. I drop back off fairly easily. It’s taken a while to adjust to these strange sleeping patterns but by having set watches, it’s possible to have some sort of a structured day that your body clock can understand.

10:30am
Up and about. Time to do any small jobs on board, plan the evening meal, take meat/food out of freezer, or read/write/watch movies/listen to music if there are no chores to do. If I’ve had a rough night, I might just grab a few more zeds.

Midday
Log book round up where we find out the miles and average speed for the last 24 hours. Anything below 180nm and a speed of 7.5 feels disappointing because we’ve had some great days doing way above that. Need to keep it all in perspective. It’s funny how little moments become such a focus in this environment.

One of the guys puts together something to eat for lunch, a concoction of yesterday’s leftovers. We’re eating well at sea, even if the chocolates and sweeties have all but run out.

2:00pm
It’s my second watch of the day. In between checking out the numbers on the captain’s computer below deck, I head up to the helm and chill there for a while, watching the sails and the clouds in relation to the numbers on the instruments. I love standing on the upper deck, holding on to the rails of the helm cover and letting the wind mess my hair as I scan the horizon and cloud patterns. I feel invincible and in control of my own destiny: me, a sailing boat and a world of blue. Anything is possible. Maybe a pirate ship of olden times will appear? Maybe a giant whale will rise from the depths and swallow us whole? Maybe I’m having some quality time to let my imagination run free. Yes. Definitely.

4:00pm 
I make an entry in the log book and start to get ingredients out of the fridge for dinner. Right now we’re still eating fresh vegetables but within a couple of days it will be on to frozen and finally tinned. At least we’re not going hungry. I’m so excited to be cooking again after months on the road where few hostels had a kitchen. Here we have spices and utensils and all the things I need to cook up some loveliness. I can enjoy getting food creative again.

6:00pm
We all sit down to eat together and catch up. Because everyone is on different watches there is usually always someone sleeping or having some time out, so its great when twice a day we all gather together. After food I get to sit back and relax whilst the guys sort out the washing up.

And then I try to sleep for an hour or two, although often I’m not tired enough until 21:30, which is just about when my alarm goes off for my final watch.

10:00pm
Final watch of the day. To start with I’m usually pretty groggy and tired. I check in with Alan, look over the previous log entries to see how we’re going followed by a natter about everything and anything, night time reflections on life. Often I head up top for a while where it’s easier to feel in tune with the boat as she glides through a night-time ocean.

Regularly there’s a change in wind around this time so I might help to reef in the mainsail or collapse the spinnaker, depending on what the weather is doing and promising. In all fairness though, the boys seem to do most the laborious stuff. How this sail has ended up being gendered is anyone’s guess! They’re going easy on me, for sure.

Once again it’s a clear night. I love looking out at the blanket of stars that reaches horizon to horizon, a density of sparkling spots in an immense sky. I search for streaks of light, hoping to spot a dying star in its swan song fall towards the earth.

And so the days roll by – sail by – each day not so different to the previous. In a strange way, the monotony is a welcome change from constant on the road movement and daily exposure to new sensory experiences that I’ve become accustomed to in the last year of travel.

I realise I am a bit tired. This time at sea is healthy for me. It’s giving me routine again, space to catch-up on writing and reading. And a chance to rest. I don’t have to plan my next day, my next couple of weeks. My body and mind can relax into this different way of life.

Who knows what will happen when I get to Tahiti. For another two weeks, I won’t find out whether I’m staying on board this boat to Tonga and then Australia, whether I can and should find a new boat to crew on, whether I decide to settle in Tahiti with a stocky, local lad. Or whether I just want to find the cheapest, quickest flight out of there, back to Australia.

For now I have no choice but to stick with this schedule. And you know what? I’m enjoying it.

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Filed under activity & sport, ecuador, nature, pacific, sailing, sea, south america

Sleeping my way through the first day at sea

My skipper, Alan, let me off watches and cooking for the first day to allow me to find my sea legs and adjust to life on the ocean. I needed it.

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Hasta luego, Puerto Ayora. Until next time.

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A big grin as we set off… will it still be there in three weeks?

I popped a travel sickness pill just before we set off from Galapagos as dusk set in on May 13, 2012. ‘I take pills for the first couple of days’, said Joel, a young American crew member ‘and then after that I’m good’. I followed suit. Slight nerves about the upcoming journey together with a bit of boat rock were giving my stomach that sickness potential.

Matt, another crew member, cooked dinner first night. Spaghetti with a vegetable sauce. Perfect. No wine. A sober boat. I fell asleep shortly after food, swayed to sleep as the 50 foot catamaran climbed and descended gentle nighttime waves. It wasn’t even 9:00 p.m.

I woke up every few hours and finally decided to get up at 7:00 a.m. The sun was shining; a beautiful first day at sea. A fat tuna jumped out of the water; a seal swam close to the boat. We were making good speeds – over 8kn an hour – and already it felt a long way from shore, over 100 miles at this point. I went out on deck and stumbled around a bit and looked out at the views: 360° of nothing but a vast, composed ocean and a 180° sky speckled with the odd fluffy cloud.

I checked out the route progress and boat speed. Our estimated time of arrival for Tahiti fluctuated between 2nd June and 5th June in the morning. We were looking at spending at least three full weeks at sea. Repairs and victualing had been done back in Galapagos. Hopefully all would be well for what is one of the longest crossings out there.

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Over 3,000nm to go… wish me luck

During the day I learnt how to put up the spinnaker on this boat, switching over from the genoa, and I held a few ropes and did what little things I could, but mostly I observed. And made tea.

And then I lay on the hammocks up front, face down, watching the hulls slice through clean, clear water. Up close, against the white plastic, the water was a brilliant blue. Hypnotic. I fell asleep and woke up a few minutes later in a bit of a panic. What if I rolled off? I guess that would be me done, finito. I felt less worried when I gave up the panic, but decided that I’d quite like to get to Oz and see friends and a certain someone, so I moved back indoors.

I tried to write a diary but was too dozy and ended up asleep in my cabin for a few hours. Drug induced or my body trying to figure out what the hell was going on? I’m not sure. I’d only taken half a travel sickness tablet this day, surely it wouldn’t have the power to knock me out?

Washing up after a lunchtime bite, I looked up to see a fishing boat heading straight for us. 60ft of bulky metal towing four smaller fishing boats, this wouldn’t be a pleasant encounter. I alerted the others. Matt jumped up top, switched onto manual and steered us off course. A vast ocean with nothing and now a potential collision. Why they chose to head straight for us, who knows. A game of chicken? They won.

That would be the last boat that I’d see for twenty days.

Late afternoon, I woke up from another state of doziness to discover that Matt had got a bite on the hook he’d been fixing up for a couple of hours. He pulled her in, a skipjack tuna. The boys spilt her blood and guts and prepared her for the evening meal. I couldn’t watch. The blood bothered me less than the fact the boys were so close to falling into the ocean. No lifejackets.

And then after a tasty fish and rice feed, my eyelids grew heavy and an early night beckoned once again. This tiredness was a symptom of sea sickness that would take a couple of days to straighten out. Ah, sleep. My own cabin. Wonderful.

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Filed under activity & sport, ecuador, nature, pacific, sailing, sea, south america, tahiti

Sail me to the coconuts

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The time arrived. I was really going to do this: sail across the Pacific Ocean from Galapagos, Ecuador to Tahiti in the Society Islands of French Polynesia with a crew I’d barely met and a captain who sounded experienced and sensible on paper but where I had no real certainty of the weighting of his reputation.

Trust your gut instinct’, a friend told me, ‘if it doesn’t feel right, don’t get on the boat’.

Another friend told me a horrific story about a guy who had spent a two week ocean crossing being raped by the skipper so as not to be thrown overboard. It seemed like the worst scaremongering story out there, surely something so sick couldn’t be true?

Rather than making me fearful of life, travelling has taught me that with a bit of savvy and a good dose of openness and interest in the world, the chances are that good people will enter your life. Call me naïve, if you like, but the people whom I’ve met and the experiences that I’ve had have helped me to re-trust life. At some point you have to trust, I think.

So here I was, keen for a sailing adventure, excited to be doing something so spontaneous and random. Of course, if it felt even a bit dodgy, I wouldn’t step on board.

Once again though, life threw me a trump card. The captain and crew, on early impressions, seemed pretty sound. All men, I had to feel okay about spending at least three weeks non-stop with this little clan who had already established themselves on the sail over from Panama.

I decided to go with it.

Although I was only guaranteed a ride to Tahiti (mainly because there were no stops between Galapagos and Tahiti), I was hopeful that if I pulled my weight they’d keep me on as crew for the next leg to Tonga and then Coff’s Harbour, Australia.

But no plans. Go with the randomness and see where I end up.

So, sail me – no, sail with me – to the coconuts, to the exotic paradise of Tahiti where the beautiful, world-class surfing wave of Teahupoo peels a couple of kilometres out to sea, where the award winning tribal tattoo artist Mana Farrons makes his home in Papeete, where wild pigs roam the forests and where palm trees fringe beaches of white sands and fallen husks.

And where my fantasies of tropical life will meet with their reality. How can I be disappointed?

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Filed under activity & sport, australia, beaches, ecuador, nature, oceania, pacific, sailing, sea, south america, tahiti, travel

When travel and terror collide

www.travelola.orgBack in October 2002, two bombs went off in the midst of Kuta nightlife, killing 202 people, many of whome were travellers enjoying a bit of social time in Bali. Ten years on, survivors have returned to Indonesia to remember those who died in the blast.

I’ve met a few people on my travels who document their journeys, but often, like me, their writing focuses on foreign intrigue, on misunderstandings, on the quirks of being out of your comfort zone. Some travel writing goes deep and addresses the big ones, but so much stuff out there seems to only skim the surface of cultures and countries that would more than likely require a lifetime to properly understand.

And now as my own written journey looks to leave South America once again, I can’t help but think how fortunate I was during my travels throughout Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil. No muggings, no violence, no hold-ups. South America, many people warned me, was still a highly dangerous place to visit, particularly as a solo female traveller. For some reason, I was undeterred, and I refused to buy into the scaremongering.

And South America showed me her beautiful sides, her warmth, generosity and a little dash of chaos. People opened their doors to me, invited me to socials, looked after me when I was sick and alone. And they encouraged me to keep an open mind and heart. I did at times feel uneasy, there were a few moments of military interrogation that shook me up, and in some places there were guys in the street shadows bearing batons. But no dramas for me, thankfully.

But of course not everyone is so lucky, I appreciate that. When I heard about the recent kidnapping of two tourists on the Ecuador-Colombia border, I stopped in my tracks. One of the captured women was my age. The girls were doing the same Cuyabeno jungle tour that I had done back in October 2011. And they described wading through the same mud that I vividly recall.

It could easily have been me. Not that that’s the point, but rather it made me reflect on travelling and timing, on coincidence and luck. These girls did nothing different to what I would have done. It’s not as though they could have been more savvy about the situation, unless you suggest that they should never have visited Ecuador in the first place (and the idea of never leaving ones home comforts out of fear would surely only serve to narrow our views on the world, to close off to different cultures and people? No, please don’t go there.). The girls were released, evidently traumatised, but alive.

Ecuador with its varied terrain and climate and wildlife remains my favourite South American country to travel in. This news won’t discourage me from going back, but it might make me more aware, more alert. Not that that would necessarily make a difference, though. The girls, having been through such an ordeal, may well feel very differently. I’d be curious to know whether it has affected their entire perception of the country.

Because how can such an event not impact on your entire psyche? On your attitude? Different people, I guess, will find different coping mechanisms for traumatic travel stories, ones that hopefully won’t quash their zest for adventure.

Returning to Bali in 2012, one girl who has worked towards finding some solace in the aftermath of the bombings is Hanabeth Luke.

In January 2012 I temporarily put down my backpack in New South Wales, Australia where I met Hanabeth, – a surf chick tomboy mixed with a good dash of feminine quirk and a twist of British. During chats I discovered that she was writing a book, something to do with the upcoming ten year anniversary of the Bali attacks, but I didn’t pry. It seemed too sensitive a subject for strangers.

As time has passed I’ve learnt more, although I’ve undoubtedly learnt more about the spirit of Hanabeth than the event itself. Being in the now is where we’ve been at, in some way as important as remembering. But I will read her book, and I will try to understand what surviving the Bali bomb feels like, what losing a love actually means. Right now it is beyond my comprehension.

The people returning to the place of the 2002 Bali bombings have had ten years now to try to make sense of what happened, ten years to grieve and reach some level of acceptance. I can’t imagine the process ever stops, and that for different people there will be different ways of working through the pain. Writing one’s journey, for example.

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Filed under activity & sport, culture, dancing, ecuador, health, indonesia, random, solo travel, south america, south east asia, surf

Diving the Galapagos

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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.

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Some of the dive team ready for action (*)

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Before the dive at Plazas

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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.

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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.

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Approaching the calm side of Gordon Rocks

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Overboard at Gordon Rocks

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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Losing the plot (and everything else)

I’d been on the road for nearly a year and should know better, but somehow Galapagos was giving me a little test. This was the third example of stupidity since I’d arrived. First, I’d left my bank card at El Chato and had to pay for a taxi to take me back for it, completely cancelling out any financial benefits of sharing a ride there in the first place. Secondly, the whole ATM, no-money fiasco once I arrived at Isla Isabela.

And now this. I’d had this horrible feeling that I’d forgotten something, but then I often have that worry. Only this time it felt real.

Sure enough, once I got back to Puerto Ayora and unpacked my bags I realised I’d left my hard drive and banking key hidden under the mattress in the hotel on Isla Isabela. A two hour boat ride away. How silly.

Time to pull myself out of my drifty traveller dreamspace and tune back into reality, switch back on.

Dejo mi disco duro bajo el cochón en Hotel Sandrita en Isabela’. I was back on Isla Santa Cruz in the Galapagos trying my best to explain to Maria who ran Los Amigos in Puerto Ayora that I’d left my hard drive behind on Isla Isabela, trying to ask her for some help.

She got the phone books out, made a few enquiries and dialled me through to Señora America at Hotel Sandrita, the place I’d stayed over in Puerto Vilamil on Isla Isabella. ‘Ah yes’, said America, ‘I’ll send it through on a boat tomorrow. Be there at 0800’.

After barely four hours sleep I was up and standing bleary-eyed at the water’s edge trying to decide which boat was my boat. I hadn’t fully understood America’s instructions. My Spanish failed me. So I did the rounds and chatted to captains and crew, but no one had a parcel for me.

After some minutes a guy who had been skulking around (and also looked like it was too early for him to be up and about) approached me. ‘Are you looking for a parcel from Isabela? Are you Finola?’ he asked.

He directed me to a little office and sure enough, there was a small package. For me.

Oh happy day.

Privileged worries and a shallow blog posting ? Yes, maybe. But, a reality of backpacking nonetheless, and another story from the road.

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Baby, can I drive your boat?

I’d climbed Volcán Sierra Negra in the morning and was now back in the middle of Puerto Vilamil on the island of Isabela trying to figure out how to get back to Isla Santa Cruz where I was hoping to meet the captain of a catamaran bound for French Polynesia.

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Boat building in Puerto Vilamil marina

A hitch later and I arrived at the marina where I asked a couple of guys perched on some railings about boat times. ‘That man there’, one said, gesturing towards a guy walking towards us, ‘he’ll take you for $30’.

Half an hour later I found myself riding up top in the captain’s cab – up on the flybridge – whilst twenty nine kids and their teacher snuggled in downstairs under the sun protection of a tarp and the safety of a burly deckhand.

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Leaving Isla Isabela behind, Galapagos

We bounced along, away from a sunny Isabela and towards an increasingly greying sky. Rain started to patter down.

‘Can you…?’ asked the skipper, pointing to the wheel and the captain’s seat, having clearly remembered my earlier jests about being able to captain his boat. My friend Ollie had pulled a similar trick back in 2011 during a trip between Koh Tao and the mainland in Thailand. Whilst he may have got away with dishing out a bit of bullshit in order to convince the crew that he could captain the small ferry, why did I think I could pull the same cheek?

‘I can drive it, you know’, I’d told him, ‘can I drive it?’ It had been a mischievous ask, and now he was off of his pew and I had to deliver. I jumped over into the hot seat whilst he pulled across the rain screen and secured things up top.

And in those few minutes that I turned the wheel the wrong way and in the moments that I tried to steer us on the least choppy path possible, all my Galapagos photos went sliding down the tarpaulin. My little camera made a secret escape attempt. Oblivious, I continued taking my steering seriously until captain finished up his rain mission and returned to his rightful duties.

I sat back in my co-pilot seat and pondered what lay ahead in my adventures beyond this Galapagos trip. This little moment at sea and at the helm had got me thinking: how would it feel to do three weeks without stopping? The stretch from Galapagos to Tahiti could either destroy me or cure me of my ocean fears, I figured.

And then, finally, I realised that my camera was missing. I did a panicked scout about, and the captain killed the engines. Because there she was, nestled on the edge of the tarpaulin, waiting for a big wave to give her enough lift to fly off into the sea. Burly deckhand reached up as we held our breaths; he would either knock her into the ocean depths or save her from a watery death.

Thankfully it was the latter and the remainder of the trip, although wet and stomach lurchingly rough, was accompanied by a little bit of fuzziness. My Galapagos photos may be poor compared to what other people manage to capture, but they’re still my photos, some of my memories.

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Puerto Ayora on Isla Santa Cruz comes into view

Ah, another little adventure with a happy ending. (And I meant the fact we got the school group across from Isla Isabela to Isla Santa Cruz safe and sound. Of course. What were you thinking?!)

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I’m just off to climb a volcano

‘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.

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Running through the streets of Puerto Vilamil on Isabela, Galapagos

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.

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The starting point

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Some of the group before the hike began

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.

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Grassy, gentle paths

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.

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Sierra Negra to my left…

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…and to my right

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.

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Landscape change

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North east side of Sierra Negra crater, heading towards Chico

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.

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Ferns and hairy trees

One of the most active places for volcanic activity? Pah. Really? It all seemed very gentle and relaxed, dreamy even. Today, in any case.

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Filed under activity & sport, ecuador, hikes, mountains, natural wonders, nature, south america, surf

A little slice of paradise

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Some of the iguanas having a lazy social

I’m sitting on a little stretch of beach in  Puerto Villamil near to a hotel whose outdoor areas are covered in a blanket of sunbathing iguanas. I think back over what has been an interesting year full of big decisions, of solo traveling, of various dramas that have been emotionally consuming but far from unique in the bigger human picture. It has, undoubtedly, been full-on.

But now, I realise, I’m peaceful and content and grateful. I feel so, so lucky. The people I’ve met, the struggles I’ve overcome, the guidance, the goodness, the inspiration I’ve found at home and along my way. My eyes have been opened, my heart healed.

And then bang! – in a moment of stillness this great wave of love for life hits me. (Reading this may make some of you squirm and look away, but most of you will get it. At least I hope you will.)

And I’m feeling this all in paradise. Alone. On a beach.

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Empty beach at Puerto Vilamil,

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Before anyone turned up

A warm salty breeze dries my hair as I sit shading from a strong sun. I look around.

In the distance, boats and liveaboards bob about on a turquoise sea with a bit of chop. White seahorses ride messy waves that splash over black lava rocks and break onto a stretch of damp, golden sand. I can hear the light sound of laughter as a girl and boy scramble around on sharp stones and dip into a nearby rock pool.

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Isla Isaebla, Galapagos by boat

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Children playing in the rock pools

Spiky, foot-long iguanas amble away from the water’s edge, back to their basking point on the wall of the deserted beach front hotel. A man wanders down and climbs into a hammock, rocking to the sound of small crashing waves and music that is spilling out of an empty, rundown bar.

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Sunbathing iguanas

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Daytime bar desertion

For a moment, before the shrill whistle of a father calling his kids pierces the air and before an approaching tour group encroaches my space, I have my little slice of paradise.

La Isla Isabela, tu es bella.

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