Welcome to the home of the official Vegemite Ambassador travel blog. A chronicle of mildly amusing journeys.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Gone With the Wind

At the very farthest south of the Americas, where the seemingly endless Andes meet three oceans, lies a magical area of land known as Patagonia. An anomaly in this continent, perhaps having more in common with New Zealand or Tasmania than the rest of the Americas, Patagonia is absolutely nothing short of a natural wonderland to explore. Visiting here had long been a goal after so much hiking in Australia over the years and it was also the perfect excuse to finally get that tent out of the backpack which had been gathering cobwebs for a time now.

The thing about Patagonia is that there is just too much to see, so there is a real danger you could die from scenery overload. It's filled to the brim with the kinds of vistas that due to their their scale, aesthetic and tranquility can't really translate to a frame on a wall. There are dagger-like mountains of granite and slate that soar into the misty sky, rolling hills of green edged by cliffs of exposed swirling sedimentary layers of rock, incredible gnarled Nothofagus forests that resemble a gigantic bonsai garden, beautiful streams and rivers of crystal clear pure water, a sky resembling a science text book page on all the many cloud types, and snow melt lakes of the deepest aqua.

And this is just at the edges, in the centre lies the vast Patagonian ice field: the worlds third largest ice cap after Antarctica and Tibet. This ice is compacted deep and heavy here over the Andes here before it begins to slide inexorably down one of the many stunning glaciers throughout the region where you can hear the rifle-like sounds of them cracking before your very eyes. Patagonia is home to some of the world's very few advancing glaciers (most are melting and receding) and from time to time these glaciers can go a bit too far and collapse in spectacular fashion every few years or so.

Just Google Patagonia already if you've heard of it but never seen it, you'll get the idea of just how stunning this place is. You'll get the itch.

Coupled with all this scenery, the days are long here in Summer. When it gets light at 3am and gets dark at 11am it means you will invariably walk a lot more than you plan to, which in turn means you will see a lot more. All of the above just leads to all sorts of logistical issues with camera batteries and SD cards. You can take an embarassingly awful amount of photos of this place.

Trekking in Patagonia is also a survivalist's dream. The water is as fresh as it can be, meaning you can fill up your water bottle almost anywhere while hiking and there is an abundance of wild foods. While hiking in the warmer months there are wild currants and delicious Calafate berries in plentiful supply for a sweet hit, many types of dandelions and cats ears for salad greens, edible radioactive-orange fungi growing on trees everywhere, mussels along the shoreline and some rather plump European rabbits hopping around and juicy Canadian beavers who have been rather busy modifying ecosystems. You would be doing the region and immense favour to eat your fill of the latter two.

There is only one thing standing between you and the enjoyment of all this wonder. The weather. Forget what the forecasts say, they are wrong the moment they go to press. You can expect all weather conditions in one day, many times over.

And above all else you can expect wind.

Oh my lord, the wind.

The first clue you get as to how things blow here is when entering the rangers office at the national parks. When quizzed about the windy spots the ranger will point to a map and indicate that the wind is really strong "here, here, here, here, here" *pause* "here, here, here" *long pause* "and here, here here and here". At this moment you realise that the ranger has more or less pointed to the entire map except the ranger hut.

Another subtle clue is the fact that all rangers seem to be using broken tent poles as map pointing devices.

I think it is fair to say you just haven't truly experienced wind until you have been to Patagonia. It is ridiculous, relentless, ferocious and honestly drives people to mental breaking point. There are many times where you will simply be held up leaning in place against it, other times you will be thrown to the ground as if some invisible assailant had just pushed you over.

Sure, it can be fun at times to play with it, but it can be heart-stoppingly terrifying at others. There was certainly a genuine near death experience on one narrow, rocky scree mountain pass where the wind (which was howling at 100kph and gusting double that), required crawling on all fours to negotiate. It was an absolute do-or-die moment and the most dangerous part of this entire American adventure. It begs the question of what kind of conditions are actually worthy of track closure here. It is hard to imagine it being worse than that.

Besides being physically thrown around and being beaten to death by flying debris, the wind is capable of other fantastic effects upon you. Even though there are no clouds above you, it can drive so hard across such massive distances that you can still be rained upon if it is occurring anywhere upwind into the horizon. At other times, the gusts of wind can fill your lungs with air even if you don't inhale and you must constantly 'pop' your ears due to the pressure changes on your ear drums. I just never believed wind could do any of these things until Patagonia came along.

Needless to say, trying to sleep in a tent at night is not a comfortable experience either. At least when you are hiking you can duck down where you hear the gusts roaring towards you, but in your tent you are a sitting duck. Your tent has to be pegged down and then covered in rocks for it to stand any hope of survival and many tents never live beyond this place. The wind gusts during the night is like someone kicking your tent in, over and over again, all night. In between the big gusts you just sit there waiting for the next one, as the tent comfortingly whips into your head and body twenty times a second, wondering if changing from your dry clothes into your wet weather gear 'just in case' is a prudent precaution.

If you are planning to visit this place, be ready for one other thing in Patagonia: the number of tourists. Patagonia is relatively simple to fly directly into (if you like flights where the engines scream and the passengers pray during landing attempts), and lies within Chile and Argentina, two of the safest countries of South America. This level of accessibility opens the region up to the unwashed masses more than anywhere on the continent, making it a bucketlist item for people who otherwise normally probably don't give a toss about hiking or nature much in general. The biggest example is probably the famous Torres del Paine hike. The moment you enter Patagonia you are bombarded with phrases like "you have to 'do' Torres del Paine" or "you haven't seen Patagonia until you have seen Torres del Paine". Consequently (and excepting that one tourist who was eaten by a Puma), you can give up any pretense of being alone and personal with nature here on the main tracks, they crawl with people wearing conspicuously brand new hiking boots and equipment. These folk sadly have some lofty expectations and are often complaining how the views aren't quite stacking up to what they were promised off post cards.

Damn you nature and your inconsistency. These people paid good money for those North Face jackets, where is the return on that investment?

The other frustrating reality is that with so many non-hikers hiking a multi-day hike in one of the most wild and sensitive parts of the world, the effects on the environment become evident. There is little or no respect for any facilities or tracks provided, rubbish is left on the ground and at campsites all too often, people contaminate water and only a few years ago some idiots accidentally set fire to almost half of the park, the damage from which is irreversible - the unique and amazing forests have been replaced with burnt out husks and invasive grasses instead.

Despite being a victim of its own fame to a certain extent, Patagonia IS remarkably beautiful with an attraction unquestionably undeniable. It's hard not to be blown away by it all, one way or another. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The End of the World

Where can I even begin to describe this next part of the journey just undertaken. A trip to a place perhaps more extreme, more isolated, more inhospitable than anywhere on Earth. A place where you can eat and drink the very ground you walk on. The absolute end of the world: Antarctica.

The thought of penning this entry has been somewhat overwhelming. There has been a sensation that no superlatives can suffice, that no ramblings would be effective, that no words would be able to truly convey just how fantastical, how dreamlike this leg of the trip was. Antarctica is the lost continent and, even to this day, only the most committed and wanderlust-infatuated travellers will ever desire to go here or understand the desire to go here.

And certainly only the most foolhardy as the way there is not simple.

You can take a plane if you have bottomless pockets, but for most mortals the only option is via boat and even then the southern polar region may only be visited in between November and March; the hottest months of the southern hemisphere where the temperatures at the edge of Antarctica finally and lazily creep above zero. For the rest of the year the weather is brutally cold and consequently the land is surrounded by a seething and grinding sheet of heavy pack ice that extends far beyond the actual shore. Ships cannot penetrate this barrier and those that try are doomed to become stuck for a long time at the mercy of the ice floes, to which many an early (and absolutely crazy) Antarctic explorer can attest.

Boats can leave from but a very small number of locations. From South America this normally means Ushuaia in Argentina, the southernmost city in the world. A little ex-Argentine penal colony that is now nothing more than a launchpad for tourist activity with a few quirky museums, odd souvenir shops, an insanely windy airport and probably the worst fresh produce you are likely to ever see.

After setting sail from Ushuaia and kissing the last vestiges of a normal day night cycle goodbye, our little ship, the plucky little "Ocean Nova" left the relative calm of the Beagle Channel and crossed around the tip of Cape Horn. From there things escalated fast. This boat trip is perhaps one of the most dangerous on Earth, crossing the infamous Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula. Trailed deftly by numerous diving seabirds (that even for all their amazing aerial grace, still get occasionally dunked into the ocean by pitiless and thundering winds), the boat must pass for two days through the circum-polar currents of the Southern Ocean that swirl continuously around Antarctica like a giant whirlpool. It is impossible to turn the ship into the waves as you will never reach the destination - instead the boat is relentlessly slammed and rolled from side to side in a tumultuous voyage that more or less consigned nearly four fifths of the passengers to their beds and toilets, irrespective of seasickness medication.

If you are able, during this time you are free to move around the boat and beat yourself to death on door handles and walls, eat buffet meals that you may never keep down or go to watch expedition staff give information seminars where occasionally members of the audience will be thrown clean from their chairs or presenters will randomly regurgitate mid Powerpoint slide.

It's all rather exciting at first but a complete lack of meaningful sleep for two nights isn't. At the end of that second night of hell, just when we were all at our wits end, the winds abated and the waves just disappeared. We awoke to an unnerving but absolutely welcome calm and the divine sight of land.

And what land it was ...

There were islands of snow covered mountains all around with small trails of clouds leading from their peaks. They descended down to icy ledges over rocky shores where waves of clear blue water lapped gently. The islands were surrounded by glacial ice bergs, some clear as crystal, others the the deepest cyan, and the sky was of a blue so vivid that it could only be caused by a hole in the ozone layer. And this opening scene was just a glimpse of things to come.

In the following days our boat would navigate further and further south along the Antarctic coastline where the mountains on the continent proper extended even higher and then were lost in the light haze as they melded with the Antarctic Plateau. Amidst peaks and ridges there were massive ice shelves, calving prodigious blocks of ice down into the ocean to form massive new bergs and small tsunamis. The sounds of the Antarctic thaw echoed all around and punctuated the great white silence.

Being one of the first ships of the season we were likely to encounter heavy sea ice remnants from the winter, and that we certainly did. As we passed through the Lemaire Channel the ocean gradually became a mass of icebergs as far as the eye could see. The Ocean Nova pushed her way through the ice pack, parting a small channel very slowly with the odd more-ominous-than-usual thud or two. The air was completely still and the horizon became a mirage of reflections where the ice and clouds became one.

Eventually our ship hit its southern most limit at an area classed as an 'ice berg graveyard'. Here, enormous blocks of ice, too big to flow to the ocean, thaw and topple over one another forming absolutely unbelievable shapes. They push into a dense mess of cliffs, arches, caves and ridges with massive forces behind them as more ice crashes into the area from the continent. Ernest Shackleton sums up travel through the ice well in his excellent book 'South':

"The ice moves majestically, irresistibly. Human effort is not futile, but one fights against the giant forces of nature with humility."

You would think in the world's highest, driest, coldest, darkest continent that life would never be able to thrive at all. But indeed it does.

Humans have established but a few small science stations on Antarctica but wherever mankind builds, another inhabitant quickly assumes tenancy: Penguins, the undisputed bosses of these lands. There are penguin colonies everywhere, especially in the nooks and crannies of human structures, and you will hear and smell them long before you see them. These little funny birds exude personality and they will just happily waddle past right in front of you while looking at you as if to say 'you are a rather odd looking penguin'.

There are many kinds of penguins to be easily seen, Gentoo's, Chin Strap's, Adelie's. But all of them have one thing in common at this time of year, their quest for pebbles. It is one of the most hilarious spectacles of nature to see these birds attempting to build their nests with the finite amount of pebbles available until the snow fully melts. This leads to a never ending cycle of communal rock pilfering from others' nests. It's all done in a rather sneaky but gentlemanly way that results in no net gain or loss to each nest overall. Apparently one scientist performed an experiment once where a pile of red 'marked' rocks was left next to a colony. The rocks were uniformly distributed throughout the entire colony within two days and several of the key marker rocks with radio tags indicated that each rock moved from one next to another at least twice a day. The male seems to do most of the rock work but every now and then returns empty beaked, at which point he will just pretend to put a rock down anyway which the female will look around and wonder where he just put it while he seems to look around nonchalantly as if whistling. It's overly cute and captivating to watch and to think this dance goes on every summer.

The penguin mating process is also a spot of solid entertainment. When partners greet one another they typically do a little bow and a yawn at the same time. If the male is feeling something in his plums he will let her know by giving her a light paddling on her back with his flipper, followed by a neck massage by vibrating his head. If she will oblige him she then lies down belly first on the ground, which is typically covered in penguin shit. He will then proceed to get on her back and stomp around, giving her a more intense back massage. After a little flurry of tail to tail action he will get off, have a stretch and then begin his quest for pebbles. It is largely due to this process that you can tell the males and the females apart: the females have shit all up their stomach and back.

Beside the penguins sleep the odd seal or two, which have been known to rest for days at a time after long fishing trips. Every now and then you will see a seal sleeping on an ice sheet in the water but this is not without its risks. We saw many killer whales scouting the ice fields, performing a technique know as 'spyhopping' where they will poke their heads out perpendicular to the water to look for said resting seals. The killer whales will then sometimes attempt to bump them off the ice and have been known on occasion to 'rush the ice' and create a wave that washes the seal off. It's a good life being an apex predator.

Arguably the biggest 'wow' moment with a whale however was in a zodiac landing boat, when two Minke whales went directly underneath the boat only a metre or two below us. We could see them so clearly through those crystal blue waters and it will be one of those moments in life permanently etched into the mind's eye.

Perhaps even more incredibly, there is also vegetation here that has adapted to produce anti-freeze like chemicals and expel water rapidly to avoid freezing and the rocks are covered with all manner of lichen that break the sea of white and blue with oranges, reds and yellows. As C. Schroeter wrote so eloquently:

“It is a marvelous chapter of life, the fight that these little organisms wage against the formidable power of the high mountains, allowing us to find their colorful crusts even on the highest rocks. With bright colors, they paint the dead rock and rise up as the first and last sentries of life, awakening our passionate interest.”

Antarctica is not all ice. Unbelievably, there is fire too. Antarctica has volcanoes and our ship navigated into the crater of an active one and supposedly one of the safest harbours here: Deception Island. It is a truly odd sight to see steam coming from geologically active waters in this part of the world and it makes you realise that even under all that ice, Antarctica has a lot more to see that cannot be reached.

It would not have been a true Antarctic experience however without a blizzard and the final day delivered a somewhat epic one. Crystals of ice were hurled at us like little razor blades, slicing into any exposed piece of skin painfully, curtailing our landing times somewhat and giving a small taste of why winter here isn't very nice. The blizzard grew into a full storm within a few hours of having to leave for home again meaning that if the voyage down through the Drake was not adventurous enough, the voyage back most certainly was going to be. That return trip is one to which all boat trips will now be compared. The ship was battered endlessly by 12 metre swells which means the boat was essentially rising up and down a height equivalent to a three or four story building every wave. The ship was being covered in water and spray which, due to the freezing 100 kph winds, was solidifying on every surface. This was adding significantly to the weight of the boat. For each centimetre of ice we gained a tonne in weight, causing the boat to plunge even more into the waves. At one point the safety railing across the bough of the ship, weakened by so much ice covering it, was completely bent in and destroyed by a massive wave that slammed across the boat.

Needless to say the upper deck was closed for visits.

It was a hell of a ride, but fulfilling too, in some masochistic way. We were all told that this storm wasn't a big one either, there were far worse. So much so they confine all passengers to quarters, give you straps for your bed and throw sandwiches to you like a prison inmate. In this storm, we were apparently listing "only" 15 to 20 degrees. Our fearless Panamanian captain said to me quite confidently "This ship can handle 30 degrees, no problem. I have been in this before. The Ocean Nova is a little ship, she does not fall over, she surfs like professional surfer.". I could only admire the simplicity of his English as I was hanging on to what ever things I could in the bridge that didn't look important to our chances of survival.

Ever since I was a child I have dreamed of coming to this place. I remember in school there was always a game where you would spin a globe of the world and then plant your finger on a random location and that would be where you have to 'go one day'. I could always guarantee to people that I knew where I was going and I wound be able to pinpoint it every time, after which I would drag the spinning globe to a halt with my finger on the bottom in Antarctica. Antarctica is Australia's last minute Gondwana buddy, only separating at the very last stages of super continent break up and it would have been called Australia had the name not already been taken! To come here is a child hood dream now realised and no less diminished by being so, it will always be an amazing and wondrous terra incognita.

Sunday, November 9, 2014


After a trek down to the Amazon basin there was an unfortunate reality to face: what goes down must come back up. Unless you feel like a really, really long boat ride to the Brazil coast. The Andes loomed and beckoned once more, but this time the sky was to be the limit, literally and figuratively.

Progressing not only back up into the mountains but south along increasingly decrepit roads into the middle of the South American continent, the Andes now began to truly soar to staggering heights, culminating in an amazing region known only as "The Altiplano". This area is an enormous, windy plateau sitting predominantly in the middle of Bolivia and is sometimes referred to as the Tibet of the southern hemisphere.

The Altiplano is an absolutely otherworldly realm, devoid of all but the most slow growing and hardy of vegetation and home to nought but a few special animals including Flamingos, Andean Foxes, Vicunyas and the ridiculously cute Viscachas. The landscape is as close as one could get to experiencing life on another planet: there are small lagoons where the water takes on incredible colours due to combinations of minerals and plankton, there are furious geysers spewing sulphurous steam into the sky, there are both sleeping and angry volcanos with marvellous striations of metallic oxides throughout and amongst it all there are fossils and calcified remains of ancient coral reefs dessicated long ago when the whole area was thrust out of the ocean.

If you are not interested in geology before you visit the Altiplano, you will be after. It's irresistibly fascinating and such a stark contrast to the jungles of the Amazon just a few hundred kilometres away.

Visiting such a place however comes at the cost of something very precious to you: Oxygen. This rather important gas is in scarce supply in the Altiplano and it's absence is very much noticed. The disappearance of air first became really noticeable at La Paz, the inglorious and polluted capital of Bolivia, perched on a gaping chasm resting at 3,500 metres high. It is here that the true fitness level of many a tourist is very quickly exposed.

From La Paz the altitude extends to the magnificent Salar de Uyuni salt flats, a bizarre region of endless white, perfectly flat terrain that extends as far as the eye can see, creating the perfect environment for all number of "wanky" perception of depth photos. These flats mark the beginning of the upper Altiplano where the salt flats begin to ascend into truly dizzying heights, culminating at a pass of 5,000 metres. This is Everest base camp territory and officially in the "now it's serious" category of altitudes.

Strange things begin to happen up here. Firstly anything pressurised or sealed will pretty much explode when opened, be they drinks or toiletries. Secondly, computer equipment can start to fail randomly, normally at the border control office. Lastly, Oxygen completely packs up its bags and goes down to sea level.

No matter what you do, you will be out of breath doing it. Stretching? Out of breath. Getting up too quickly to go to the bathroom? Out of breath. Drinking too big a gulp of water? Out of breath. Thinking too hard about something other than breathing? Definitely out of breath.

There are even higher places in the world sure, but compared to somewhere like Nepal, the ascent here is just so damned rapid. You can easily climb to 5,000 metres in just a few days and as a result people can get seriously ill, sometimes leading to death. Guides for trips into the Altiplano are well aware of the dangers and are trained to look for the symptoms but this is a very remote place and help can be very far away. It seems so odd that such a seemingly easy to overlook problem was actually one of the most difficult and perilous parts of this entire journey.

The ancient and traditional local solution to dealing with altitude sickness is through liberal consumption of coca leaves: the same variety used to make cocaine. You can buy cocaine 'energy bars' here too, but they still aren't legal: even in Bolivia, so coca leaves will have to do.

You can drink the leaves in tea, but this is small fry. The real method is to gradually add more and more leaves to your mouth, between your teeth and gum until you have a soggy green mass sitting in your mouth. To this you then add a strange type of rock made from a cross between mineral lime and ash of potatoes that brings the true alkaloid potential of the coca leaf out. The ash is best wrapped deep in the leaf ball as it has a tendency to anaesthetise any part of your mouth it makes contact with, giving you a speech capability varying somewhere between Sly Stallone and root canal recipient. This ball of coca leaves sits in your mouth for an hour or so, releasing it's altitude fighting happy chemicals, at the end of which you begin to see the Matrix and your breath smells similar to a pet store.

The coca leaves work pretty well overall but unfortunately the problem is you can't eat and sleep at the same time. I can't impress upon you how scarily horrible the feeling of trying to breathe here in your sleep really is. In the middle of the night you regularly wake from your sleep with a strange feeling of suffocating, from which recovery is difficult. No matter how deep the breaths you take are, the Oxygen just won't come and people can very easily have panic attacks making it even worse.

Of a night, the Altiplano also becomes deathly cold so wrapping up is essential but there is something very special about the night here. Due to the altitude and the fact there is never any clouds here, it is one of the best places on the planet to stargaze. In one night, away from the lights of the camp I personally saw 14 shooting stars in one night, more than I think I have ever seen in my life in total. The sky is so luminescent that the stars alone light up the ground and the Milky Way becomes a deep blue line across the sky. There are numerous observatories throughout the region for this reason and it is a prime location to find intact meteorites. The peace and solitude that can be found in the stars in such a place is worth the trip here alone.

On the opposite side of the Altiplano, towards the Pacific Ocean, the mountain ranges plunge down into Chile and into another equally incredible area of the world: the Atacama desert. This is the driest place on Earth, with some areas never recording a single drop of rain. The landscape here is an absolutely alien one, a barren skeleton of what once was a thriving environment. It's a desolate and unforgivingly harsh place that, even in spring, you can only explore in the cool of the afternoon or early morning. Come the middle of the day the sun scorches everything in this place to a cinder. It's no country for crazy tourists.

The journey through these deserts both high and low was definitely something else. Something out of this world. There is scenery here that cannot be compared to anything and it's bewildering to explore, like so much of the South American continent. But the altitude is really is a killer and it's not something any sane person would want to experience twice I would think. It's nice to have gone, but it's important to know when to leave and return to that sweet, sweet, thick and lovely mantle of Oxygen we all know and love.

Oxygen, you're the best! Let us never part ways again.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

It's a Jungle Out There

On the eastern flank of the Andes, the massive mountains lower and gradually fade away, with brown-grassed highlands yielding to cloud forest and then eventually to thick, inpenetrable jungle. A wall of clouds are pinned at this frontier, precipitating perpetually into a myriad of small streams that form into rivers that soon become raging torrents of water. With all this water and constant sun all year round something big is bound to grow. This is the beginning of the largest forest in the world, the Amazon Basin, the next leg of the Vegemite Ambassador American adventure.

I have to say with all honesty that the decision to take a backpacker budget-friendly trip into the Amazon is not one to be taken too lightly. There are no creature comforts here; it is wilderness; remote and untamed. Herein still lie tribes of people that even to this day have had no contact with the rest of the world. Any chance encounters with such peoples have usually not been great and sometimes have ended with the sharing of poison blow darts. The interior of the Amazon is as raw as it comes and just tapping the very edge of it inevitably fills you with a sense of trepidation and definite feelings of biological insignificance.

Once you descend into this soggy morass you most certainly can't see the forest from the trees. There are no vantage points and you are flanked on all sides by a wall of green. The heat is continual and oppressive and the humidity taxing. There never seems to be any breeze to speak of and litre upon litre of sweat is taxed from you every day. Sometimes the only thing that cleans the sweat out of your clothes is more sweat. The Amazon is uncomfortable and you will be pushed to the limits of acceptance as to what constitutes a normal holiday.

To put it simply, the Amazon is out to get you the moment you dare enter her alluring but carnivorous embrace.

Any track into the jungle that has not been used in a week or so will have been closed over with rampant undergrowth. Hacking and slashing paths back to life with a machete makes for slow going and is hot, hard work but the only way forwards in most cases. Sunlight is very much in demand in the Amazon and any cleared path will be reclaimed very quickly again after passage through. Some vines grow so fast that tendrils will wrap around you if you sit down too long for lunch near them. Life is voracious and consuming in the jungle.

Many of the plants here don't like you. They have barbs, stinging hairs or drip irritating sap, making the machete work even more eventful up front. After any hike through the Amazon, even if for only a day, you will covered in scratches, lesions and otherwise unexplainable blemishes that invariably get worse in days to come. Every night is a constant battle to ensure your body will recover and be able to function normally the next day.

The jungle is filled to the brim with insects who also don't really like you. There are fire beetles that, when touched, mix a combination of chemicals together in their bodies that produce quite prodigious amounts of heat. Touching one is more or less equivalent in sensation to touching a lit match and you'll know when it happens.

There are ants over one inch long that seem to always be walking towards you with their mouth open ready to strike. There are the normal army of leeches and ticks to be expected of such a place, dark clouds of mosquitoes that descend upon anything without a DEET barrier and the wonderful sensation of waking up to a wasp sting is something I hope you never have to experience.

Undoubtedly the most dubiously insidious insect of all is a small beetle that has a venomous bite so powerful that local tribes people say you will die in 30 minutes of a bite. There is only one cure for this bite: to have sex within the window of death. This is probably the most awesome cure in the world ever diagnosed and in all honesty seems like a fantastic excuse to get people in the sack with you. The dialogue would be much like this ...

SUFFERING VICTIM: "I got bitten by a beetle again baby!"

CONVENIENTLY CLOSE OBJECT OF DESIRE: "What? Again? That's the third time today! Ok then ..."

*jungle drums begin*


Jungle accommodation on a budget adventure is pretty bare bones. You are essentially provided with a simple A-Frame hut on stilt poles, in which sit some rough mattresses with mosquito nets. The shady spot underneath the huts is a prime location for giant tarantulas to set up shop and of a night time it is relatively common for very old Jaguars, looking for an easy snack, to prowl between the huts. A sobering thought when you wake up at night and need to desperately go to the toilets across the camp.

There are many animals to be seen when hiking through the jungle of a day time, but the night is definitely when the action really kicks off. The stars are vivid, legions of insects begin their various chants and fireflies weave their magic through the undergrowth. The scene is surreal and at night the reflections of animal eyes give away their positions more readily and allow you to see so much more than you realise.

A night time jungle walk is definitely not a sedate affair however, especially when it comes to stalking aquatic animals; in this case the elusive Caymans. Our guide, a gregarious cowboy guide from the Steve Irwin school of subtlety in animal appreciation, was determined to help us see a Cayman up close and for this he told us we'd have to turn our lights off and follow him into the river. Walking knee deep in man-eating reptile infested waters by the sense of touch alone definitely rates as one of the most questionable activities performed on this voyage. Each false foot fall, each splash of water near you, each muted yelp from another member of the party invites an automatic and depressing reality check. We did see Caymans in the end and they were very cool, but it was pretty damned awesome to get out of the water.

Another night expedition involved hiking to a wooden jungle platform perched five or so metres off the ground overlooking a clay-lick where animals normally come to get their midnight munchies salt fix. The platform was an exposed hut with a couple of shabby, parasite-ridden mattresses on it. Once mosquito nets had been erected, we were to remain silent and take shifts through the night at monitoring the clay-lick. It was an admirable idea, doomed to failure. The first problem was that the chef had fed us all a dinner comprised of many beans earlier, so even though there was no speaking, there was still plenty of sound coming from our look out. The second problem was a distinct lack of useful torches that could actually illuminate the observation area. And thirdly, the jungle is really noisy of a night. I mean REALLY noisy. It is very difficult to get any sleep and therefore very easy to accidentally sleep through your shift just through desperation to rest.

Needless to say, no animals were spotted at the clay-lick that night. One of the very few let downs of our animal spotting.

Really, the only other time the jungle interaction stopped was in the mosquito net sanctuary of the bed. At all other times you are generally open for business for all the animal life of the Amazon. Even in your most private moments in the shower you will have a plethora of spiders watching you, grasshoppers slamming into the wall beside you, bats fluttering in and out and frogs using you as a springboard to greater heights. At first it is easy to be horribly averted to it all, but over days comes acceptance and soon you'll appreciate the show.

And you just have to get used to the water in the shower occasionally looking more dirty than you are too.

Actually, for a place so laden with water it seems so strange to think that there is practically no fresh potable water anywhere here. For survival there is only one option; native Bamboo. The shoots of this tree hold substantial fresh water and slashing a vine to have a drink is a potential life saver. Furthermore, it actually has a rather pleasant Bamboo flavour and apparently doubles as a cure for a broken heart. Yes, a broken heart is a medical condition. Maybe it can thus help sooth your last dying moments if you happen to get bitten by the sex beetle with no one around.

An Amazon experience is life sapping but fulfilling, testing but rewarding, brutal but beautiful. This is the lungs of the world, unequalled in size, unparalleled in biodiversity. Full to the brim with quirky monkeys and overly colourful birds, the bizarre and the fantastical, the deadly and downright unfriendly, the Amazon was a true adventure into one of the last places on Earth where nature truly holds lease.

The only real regret was not staying longer.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Children of the Sun

After an overload of natural wonder in the Galapagos there was a longing to get in amongst the ancient history of South America and for this there can be no greater place than the Andes - home of the ancient and once powerful Incan empire. In this mountain chain lies the capital of the Incan lands, Cuzco, and further beyond this beautiful city lies the true archeological gem of the Americas - Machu Picchu.

Cue the music.

Unfortunately, the Spanish conquistadors did a very thorough job destroying most of the Incan ruins in their thirst for gold, a demand for convenient building supplies and in the name of God (but mainly for the gold), which makes the almost completely intact ruins of Machu Picchu something very special to see.

Getting there for the sunrise and before thousands of rabid tour groups swarm the city is a logistical challenge, but absolutely worth every effort. At the dawn in this otherwordly city, the clouds swirl and twist around you, allowing brief sunbeams to pierce through and bring sections of the city to life one at a time. From the lookout further atop Mount Machu Picchu you can very clearly see the condor-shape of the city with the main temple as the head. Incans were big on designing their cities based on animal shapes and the head of the animal design normally incorporated pretty darned cool astronomical features.

Machu Picchu is one of the seven wonders of the world for good reason; it's amazingly preserved, perched atop a stunning cliff and surrounded by a sublime 360 degree view of jungled Andean mountains. Everyone wants to see Machu Picchu and it is easy to understand why; it's absolutely astounding and truly unique.

Cuzco, the gateway to Machu Picchu is also worthy of praise in its own right. This city is a beautiful collection of Spanish style colonial buildings and cathedrals, intersected by dangerously well-polished cobblestone streets radiating out from a central plaza. In this centre sits a beautiful fountain surrounded by manicured gardens not normally found in this neck of the woods and lush grass protected by dedicated and armed garden police. From this square European style spires and domes dominate the old town skyline, however to see the true original identity of the city you need to lower your gaze. At the foundations of each city block sit the original Incan walls, made from irregularly shaped stones cut so perfectly as to not need any mortar between them. It's the blend of two different antiquities that makes this city so interesting and notably worthy of its World Heritage status.

Beyond Cuzco and Machu Picchu lies the Sacred Valley, in which sits a plethora of other amazing Incan sites. The whole area lends itself very well to setting up camp in a small town and just wandering into the hills to see what you can find. There are numerous goat trails winding up the side of imposing mountains and many of them lead to the remains of partial Incan ruins. Hiking up to these kinds of structures requires traversing some fairly dubious terrain with the odd instant death ledge, but they are most fantastic to explore and help you gain a real sense of the history here.

Point to point travel around most of these parts is by collectivo, which is normally a circa-1980's mini-van that has no real schedule - it only leaves when it is full. The price you pay is more or less dependent on who needs who more. If you are first on board you pay full price but as the driver starts seeking to fill the last few seats the price drops quickly. For a good price you can therefore play the game and wait, aiming to get in last. For an even better price you can negotiate with the driver as the car starts moving and hop in as it moves past like a stunt man.

Collectivo drivers seem to be strangely cheerful and, like most of the population here, seem to be big on only three types of music in their vehicles: western 80's hits (especially those of Dire Straits, Sting and Madonna); Andean pop music, which consists of random people yelling "arriba!" and "vamos!" at each other over an annoying and unpredictable assortment of beeps and whistles; and finally a nigh endless collection of Peruvian pan pipe music, often covering western hits. You've not experienced Abba until you have heard the pan pipe version.

In the Andes, most roads naturally follow the valleys as much as possible but sooner or later the roads must go over the top of a mountain. When they do, such roads are barely carved into the side of ludicrous precipices and are in a perpetual state of roadworks due to daily landslides. Furthermore, these roads are typically only 1.95 car-widths wide, making for endless awkward passing manoeuvres when two vehicles meet. It is not uncommon to see traffic completely grind to a halt so two trucks can slide past one another with only an inch to spare, dislodging a few chunks of the outer road edge in the process. It's quite entertaining to watch for everyone except those in the vehicles in question whose thoughts are undoubtedly turning to the meaning of life and death.

The traditional descendants of the Incans, the so called 'Quechuan' peoples, now live in small remote communities in these mountains and lead a very different way of life from those of suburbia. They live in quite basic mud brick homes with minimal amenities. The women and children are easily identifiable by their very brightly coloured, traditional hand woven clothes. Pockets in clothes are universally shunned so the women will normally always be sporting a traditional hat with a bowl shape in the top used to carry valuables. On occasion you will see the odd bola hat instead of the normal hat. These were apparently made popular by British railway labourers. Sometimes tradition can be forgoed if a hat is quite dapper.

Regardless of the fact that the Andes are covered in snow in winter and generally cold most of the year round, the Quechua women and children seem quite content with walking around in sandals made from old tyres. How the hell they do not get frostbite in their feet is a legitimate mystery. Perhaps the most hilarious thing is that they knit little shoes for their chickens and other livestock that look quite warm. But not for themselves. Nope, Yokohama sandals all the way.

The Quechua men however seem to have more or less abandoned all pretenses of clothing tradition and normally wear a modern jacket, jeans and (unbelievably) business shoes for their farm work. These people speak indigenous languages and normally only the men will speak enough Spanish to be able to trade their goods with those in the city.

In the Sacred Valley towns there are many markets pedalling Incan wares and trinkets. Although most indigenous folk say they are Catholic, pre-Christian beliefs still weigh in pretty heavily here and there are numerous Harry Potter style witchcraft markets where all sorts of items can be purchased for tributes to old gods. Tributes are often comprised of candy, fruit, tea, soap, US dollar notes, small toys, stone idols, beads and the odd dessicated baby Llama.

Making such offerings helps boost luck, success and happiness for longer periods, but on a day to day basis it is normally enough to tip some of your food and drink on the ground to give something back to Pachamama, who symbolises the Earth; the place from which we all come and return to.

At these markets you can also acquire a range of beautifully made clothes at reasonable prices. Baby Alpaca is the thread of choice for the nicer garments as it is incredibly soft and very, very warm. The use of this thread is usually reinforced by weaving numerous Alpaca patterns into the clothes just to make it clear what it is made of. The number of tourists wearing outrageously bad animal patterned clothes is legendary here.

More expensive clothing is weaved from Vicunya hair. Vicunyas are a more rare type of mountain animal that cannot be held captive by law. To get this hair, a small army of people must find a Vicunya, form a circle around it over a large distance and then gradually close the circle around the Vicunya. When the circle is small enough, they will jump on the Vicunya, shear it and then let it run away. The whole process is long, difficult and sounds quite traumatising for the Vicunya.

The temptation to buy so many cool clothes is great, but tempered by the fact that this entire region has a ludicrous shortage of small change for day to day business. If something costs three pesos/soles/dollars for example and you hand over a ten, you are often greeted with looks of glum confusion from the shop assistant. There will be some desperate pleas for the correct money at which point you imply that if they don't have change then you can't buy it. They will usually raid the coffers of any friends or family close by. If no one else is available they will then join the crowd of other shopkeepers going from shop to shop around them until they can get some change.

Food-wise, potatoes weigh in heavily in local cuisine here. There is probably more varieties of potato in these parts than all other types of food combined and pretty much every meal will come with come with some spuds for good measure. Many meals will also come with rice and bread too, completing the triumverate of carbohydrate overload. If it wasn't for the fact you are generally climbing mountains and walking everyday it would be very easy to stack the kilograms on.

Wait, what? "Rice" you say? What about the Andean superfood Quinoa? Ahh, this once was a staple but now it is an oddly inaccessible and controversial one for local people here now. People in foreign countries are prepared to pay rather silly prices for Quinoa and consequently local people would rather sell it than eat it. Unfortunately, Quinoa was a significant and important part of their diet and, for the majority of the indigenous people, their only source of protein. Instead it has been substituted with the aforementioned white rice which is truly a terrible swap out. As a result of this, the majority of low to middle class children are now malnourished and not developing properly here. It's an innocuous but devastating change to their way of life and certainly worth thinking about the next time you pay big money for this new and fantastic superfood. It's only super for some.

Carbs aside, the true delicacy of this region is Guinea Pig. For thousands of years these little critters have been a firm and furry favourite of the Incan lands and still are to this day. Guinea Pigs, or Cuy as they are known here, are normally kept in kitchens as little vacuum cleaners. They hop around, munching on whatever little morsels drop down as well as some bits of grass. At some point in the year, the fattest looking one (who for this exercise we shall name 'Fluffy'), will be picked up and thrown in the pot as newer model vacuum cleaners arrive. Cuy is normally only eaten for special events by the locals but is served up regularly to intrepid tourists in restaurants called Cuyerias. These often have pictures of Guinea Pigs on their sign, normally wearing little chef hats or other cute but disturbing ceremonial death costumes. As guilt-ridden as it is to try one, I have to say Cuy is quite delicious actually, similar to duck and rabbit, and not a particularly challenging meal compared to most of the things you can eat in China. The presentation of the Cuy fresh from the oven, with a habanero in it's mouth and half a tomato for a hat might put a few folk off but I like to think it's how Fluffy would have wanted it.

Perhaps the most pervasive and ubiquitous snack food here is corn. It's grown everywhere and it's used in a massive variety of ways. It is ground up for the bread, mashed up for cakes, fried whole on the side of the street, boiled then chilled and served with chocolate, plucked and fried with salt, turned into pop-corn, blended and turned into sauce and even brewed into the local alcoholic drop of choice - Chicha. They have beer here too, but Chicha seems to be far more popular and traditional. The traditional Incan bottles for pouring it are pretty darned cool too, they are normally in the shape of animals like birds and monkeys and make appropriate chirping or hooting squeaks as you pour liquid out of them. It's corny, but that's the point.

For non-alcoholic drinks, lemonade is pretty big here and it is the norm for it to be proper, homemade lemonade instead of the ultra-sweet soft drink the rest of the world knows. It's super refreshing and usually super cheap which is a nice thing. They also prefer the local Inca Cola instead of Coca Cola here too, even though Inca Cola tastes nothing like a cola should, it is more like creaming soda.

As you might know if you are a fan of coffee, this area of the world produces a lot of it and if you are an aficionado it seems like it would be a wonderful place to visit for that express purpose. But seemingly, despite this abundance of raw product, finding a cafe with a decent barrista is extremely difficult and frustrating. It seems almost criminal that somewhere so blessed with fresh coffee beans should have such sub-standard coffee so proliferate.

Another odd thing about food service, or any service in general here, is that just because something is free or included, it doesn't mean you will automatically get it. You will probably have to ask. Even then, just because you have asked for something, that doesn't mean they will go through with it. Sure you will receive plenty of "Si's" and understanding nods, but afterwards follows a weird silence and absence of any action that would result in the desired item or service being delivered. Asking if an establishment "has" napkins is treated as an inventory check on your behalf, they will confirm the presence of napkins but won't assume the reason you are asking is that you are interested in using one. It's a bizarre and common aspect of travelling here, perhaps a result of gaining tourism without even trying. It's the Paris school of tourism appreciation.

The north west of South America is certainly not well to do. There is some harsh poverty here and many legitimate doubts that the quite substantial fees for visiting the big ticket items isn't really being channelled to the people, but more to the kleptocracies that be. Those on organised tours will never see the plight of the indigenous nor the general crappiness of the shanty towns off the tourist path so I can only suggest that should you come to visit the remains of the Incas, take the time to visit the unvisited, buy some street food off a struggling vendor, eat at a small hole in the wall a few times, hire a local guide if you need one and spend your money on people that really need and appreciate it. There are fantastic things to see here and it would be nice to see tourism become a very positive thing for the people in this much visited part of the continent, rather than some mysterious process they see no real benefits from.

Actually, that logic can be applied to any part of the developing world that houses a wonder of the world; Mexico, Jordan, Egypt etc. It's a shame for the people that live there to see such wealth pass them by and detest their homes being on that haughty list.