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We wanted to celebrate our 10 year anniversary with a holiday we'd never forget - we reckon 6 months of travelling the world (from trekking on the Inca Trail and through the Amazon to riding an elephant in Thailand) should just about cover it!

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Christmas in Sydney

As we drove into Sydney we both felt the frisson of excitement that tends to accompany a trip to a big city - the sense that anything can happen...and probably will.
The only thorn in our side was the flower-power campervan, which was, quite literally, cramping our style.
We also hadn't taken into account the fact that the nearest campsite was about 13km's from the city - I don't know what we'd expected..a trailer park nestled conveniently alongside the Opera House perhaps?
It took us a while to ascertain that the campsite was in fact INSIDE the Lane Cove National Park, which was a huge forest full of wildlife. A novelty for ooh, about 10 minutes, until you start getting eaten alive by mozzies and the cockatoos and parrots start squawking at the top of their little lungs. Strange and exotic birds were dive-bombing the van and a couple of turkeys gobbled around the wheels.
To be honest we were fed up with staying on a campsite after 2 weeks in the midi-van, it was all a bit Britney by this point and we were in desperate need of some luxury. I was beginning to resemble Courtney Love after a bender - all smudged lipstick and matted hair. We checked online and managed to find a gorgeous 4 star hotel in Darling Harbour for only 80 bucks (40 quid) a night from 24th-28th December so booked it up and decided to ditch the van a few days early.What a relief! This saved our backs, as well as our marriage. A 3ft square box is no place to spend your holidays, let me tell you.I've seen coffins bigger than that campervan.We still had a week until we could check into the hotel though...
The thought of the luxury hotel to come cheered us up considerably so we didn't complain too much about the planes, trains and automobiles we had to take to get into the city later that night to meet up with Tariq, who we hadn't seen since Patagonia in Argentina.
Meeting in King's Cross several hours of grooming and preening later, we decided to check out The Ivy, one of the coolest bars in town. A converted hotel, it's now a 3-floor chic bar, complete with rooftop pool for VIP's. Tariq managed to blag his way up there and came back raving about how it was like something out of "MTV Cribs man", all perma-tanned waifs and their stockbroker boyfriends.
We drank mojito's, champagne and vodka redbulls as we people-watched and danced to the ever-so-slightly-off-key pop music.
It was like being back in London(only hotter and the crowd may have been a teensy bit better-dressed here) ..it felt like coming home.
We slipped into life in Sydney like a duck to water - this is the first place in Oz I can actually imagine myself living. Melbourne may have also been a close contender, had it not been for the never-ending torrential rain.
At 4am we decided to call it a day and Liam and I traipsed back to the trailer park on the other side of town.
When we awoke the next morning the campervan smelt like a brewery, as all the toxins from the previous night escaped from our pores but could not escape the confines of the tiny van.
Fumigating the place, we attempted to focus,gave up, had a shower and decided that that was quite enough activity for one day. We then spent the rest of the day by the pool (this is the only pool that I've been to where there's more ducks than people in it) and allowed our bodies to recover sufficiently from the previous night's antics so that we could do it all again the following night...
On Saturday morning we got ourselves spruced up for a big night, having decided that it was far too much hassle to go all the way into the city to shop and then come all the way back later to get ready to go out. "I'll just put another layer of make-up on and take a spare top", I shrugged. Anyone who knows us well knows that Saturday nights often last until Sunday anyway, so I'm no stranger to stamina.
Having been knocked back from a swanky bar called The Establishment the previous evening as Liam was wearing trainers, our first stop was to the Queen Victoria Building for the shops to buy Liam some shoes. In London only the most pretentious bars make you wear shoes but over here there's a door-whore everywhere you go, checking that your face fits. "Face police" holding clipboards eye you up and down before flicking you in as if they were swatting a fly.
Luckily, our faces were ok, it was just the footwear that was the problem. And not just for Liam...to my horror and amazement we were told that girls cannot wear sandals or high-heeled open-toed shoes into the clubs. My patent leather platforms! What a ridiculous rule. No-one can believe it when the girls are all turned away, put on their boyfriends trainers and then swan in. I kid you not!! Girls everywhere turn up dressed up to the nines, only to be told their Gucci heels won't cut it. The smarmy smile is soon wiped from their faces as they hurry home to put closed-in shoes on, or the most resourceful/desperate ones wait for their boyfriends to walk in, then get them to "borrow" a pair of shoes from friends inside and sneak them out for their girlfriend to put on and get past the fag-hag on the door. Then said girlfriend will slyly change back into her shoes once safely in the darkness of the club.We even saw girls putting their boyfriend's black socks on over their sandals to try and conceal their toes. Ludicrous.
There are soo many English and Irish here and a real sense of camaraderie, so when we were chatting about our plight to the English shopworker selling the shoes to Liam he gave us a hefty discount and sent us happily on our way.
Later, we took a ferry from Circular Quay to Manly to meet up with yet another of Liam's ex-workmates. Again, that British friendliness came into play and we met a Scottish girl called Briony on the ferry who overheard our phonecall and offered to take us to the Harbard Hotel where we were due to meet Anthony and Virginia (or Pants and Vag as I drunkenly called them later, the first time I'd ever met them..hmm). Briony was so sweet that she even took our number and later texted us all the ferry times back into the city. Would that REALLY happen in London? Maybe..
After an afternoon and evening on the sauce with Anthony and Virginia and their mates we headed back into town to meet Tariq and hit the clubs.
That's when the serious partying began..The Ivy, The Columbian, so many bars and so little time..the onto a club called Arq. Ok, so it was a gay club with a few too many lasers but the music was rocking and so were we so it seemed like the obvious thing to do.
8am came and went..another bar..we met so many cool people. One of the guys we met was an English ex-boyband star called Scott Bradley, a good-looking dude from Hertford who emigrated 6 years ago once he'd finished his contract touring around Europe.
He lived with his flatmate Steve and they invited some of us back to their apartment, a lovely flat in Double Bay, overlooking the harbour.
He was such a lovely guy and said we could stay at their place for the rest of our time in Sydney. "Don't go back to that horrible caravan park," he said with disdain as he tucked me into his bed, which had gorgeous linen, naturally. (Well, he's gay so I'd expect nothing less).
His neighbours were using the communal barbie area for a christmas barbeque.."I've got a demon guacamole in the fridge", he trilled. What a gay. What a guy.
As it happened, we took Scott up on his offer and ended up staying at his place until Tuesday afternoon. We didn'ty even go back to the van to get changed, he was the perfect host, providing us with board shorts and t-shirts and cooking us breakfast on the barbie.
Having given up on all that boyband stuff (he also sang backing vocals for Take That), he is now a writer and editor for Men's Health magazine. If you're bored google Scott Bradley on YouTube and you can catch his version of "Zoom". Camp but cool, we love him.
We could have stayed all week, but by Tuesday I felt we'd milked it a little and should go back to the dreaded van.
By Wednesday morning we'd had enough of it again but by now it was time to check and hit our 4-star badboy anyway.
We'd been craving the luxury of a private shower for weeks now..on the campsite there are at least 10 other people taking a shower at the same time and I was sick of gagging whilst listening to other women hawking up greenies on the other side of a flimsy division.
Checking into the Great Southern Hotel in Darling Harbour was bliss - an air-conditioned, bright room with a sleek bathroom and huge plasma screen. Yippeee!! We bounced on the bed with delight before looking out at the breathtaking views of the city.
That day (Christmas Eve), we wandered around the city before checking out Sydney Aquarium and Sydney Wildlife World. The koalas were my absolute favourites, I could have watched them for hours as they munched their eucalyptus leaves, which take them so much effort to digest that they are drowsy and sleep for 20 hours per day.Such cute little darlings!
That evening Scott and Steve had invited us to a dinner party at their place, and we all ate a delicious meal of roast lamb with all the trimmings and drank copious amounts of wine whilst we watched the lights from the yachts glittering in the reflection of the water. Such a fantastic location, so relaxing with the sound of the water lapping in the harbour. A perfect evening. BUT..you know us, we couldn't leave it there, and Scott, Liam and I met up with Tariq and we hit the clubs again, after a few drinks at The Argyll in the Rocks.
Christmas morning and we've acquired some more friends and are in yet another club, this one called Taxi. We should have been the ones calling a taxi, but hey, it's Christmas, we said as we ordered another round of drinks.
So far we'd seen a lot of Sydney..well, a lot of clubs anyway. Our tans had faded a bit from the lack of sunlight and we were in serious need of some vitamin D..can't you get rickets from lack of daylight??
So we headed to a barbie at one of Scott's friend's house and actually saw the sun for the first time in days. After sucking up our quota of sunshine we continued onto Bondi..along with a few million other Brits...
All that sunshine was going to our heads so we decided we needed another nightclub. Bondi didn't disappoint and soon we were dancing away again in a little club called Sahnia along the promenade of Bondi beach. This place was absolutely going off, with a lively DJ and a pumping house beat.
Dragging ourselves home at the end of the night we concluded that it hadn't felt like Chrsitmas at all. What it HAD felt like was a fantastic party, however, so we certainly couldn't complain. We'd been partying for days on end and it wasn't over yet...
Well, there's no rest for the wicked and we were up bright and early on Boxing Day to meet Tariq and some of the guys from his hostel to go to the races. International Racing Day is an annual event where everyone gets dressed up and goes to the horse racing and anyone with an international passport gets in for free. Being travellers, we sniffed out this bargain and were there like a shot, dressed in our Sunday best and ready to win a buck or two. And that's what we did. We won 4 out of 6 races, which kept us in champers and food all day so wasn't half bad. The sun shone and it was a really great day. We had a nightcap at a bar in the Rocks afterwards and went to bed, ready for another party the next day.
Unfortunately the barbie was rained off the next day but perhaps that was a good thing as our livers really needed a break. Instead, we dosed up on milk thistle to regenerate our liver cells and went to the cinema to see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, in which Brad Pitt plays a baby born aged 80 who then goes backwards, ending life as a child.
It's a poignant film about the speed with which time passes, how we cannot escape the inevitable ageing process. "Nothing lasts", peruses Pitt. How true. Even more reason to enjoy every minute. We left the cinema knowing that this trip is the best possible thing we could be doing.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008


Back in Melbourne after our great ocean road debacle, we decided to cheer ourselves up with a night out. It was still raining (naturally) so we got a taxi into town. After a few wines in a nice little bar we decided to go for a nice Ruby Murray, seeing as there was an Indian just down the road and it was still tipping it down. The various e-numbers in the brightly-coloured madras sauces perked us up and we were back on form again in no time, ready to tackle what evil weather conditions Mother Nature could throw at us.
Melbourne is a fantastic city and we'd had a great time, it was just a shame the weather was so appalling whilst we were there.
Back in the van the next morning, we took out our maps and planned our route to Sydney.The original plan had been to drive along the Pacific highway around the coastline, but seeing at it wasn't exactly beach weather we decided to go inland instead.
After a nighttime stopover in Lake's Entrance we decided to continue on to Canberra and see what was going down. One good thing about having the campervan is that you get to really see the country and all the wildlife in it's natural habitat. So far we've seen loads of kangaroos springing about, as well as a huge wombat (ok so it was dead by the roadside but I still got to take a look at it) and even a weird-looking porcupine thing with a long snout. I chucked it a carrot but it wasn't up for it. Funny that, seeing as there's carrots all over the place in the outback.Duh.
And the birds...they are beautiful. (The feathered variety - I haven't changed orientation, yet). Cockatiels, parrots, galahs, to name but a few of the magnificent creatures we've seen on our travels in Oz.
Arriving in Canberra, the sun was shining brightly...hallelujah! We decided to stay a few days for that reason alone. There's also plenty to see here, and we whiled away half a day at the Darwin Exhibition,finding out about the theory of evolution. Growing up in Bexley, I'd already figured we were all descended from apes anyway, but it was good to finally get clarification.
We've also visited the NASA Deep Space Station and various other interesting sites. At the moment I'm sitting in the National Library, having had a tip-off that you can use the internet for free here. We'd been paying a skanking 10 bucks an hour in some places so we're lapping up the free access. It's amazing what little things give you pleasure when you're a traveller!
This afternoon we'll set off for the bit I've been looking forward to for ages now...SYDNEY...Yay!!!

Monday, 15 December 2008

The Cramper-van

Arriving at Hippie Camper's HQ, we were shocked to discover that all their campervans were built for Lilliputions.They were tiny matchboxes on wheels painted with lairy graphics all over the exterior. Ours had huge daisies painted onto a multi-coloured background with peace signs on it.
"Are they having a laugh", we asked each other nervously as we inspected the cramped interior. After parting with 800 pounds for the privilege of driving around in a bright orange sardine tin, we set off on the next part of our journey. We had 3 weeks left in Australia so had planned to drive from Melbourne around the coast via The Great Ocean Road, before heading back to Melbourne in time for the weekend. Then we would drive from Melbourne to Sydney and possibly up to Queensland, time-permitting.
Our van is a tiny Mitsubishi, comprising a bed which is supposed to come apart and become a table and seating area. One problem - you can't actually sit up in it. That's how small it is. We tried, and found we had to tilt our heads at right angles to be able to get our bums on the seat.Not the best position for eating your dinner, seeing as you can't actually swallow with your head bent at that angle. Unless you're a snake or something.To cook, you have to open the tailgate and there is a little cool-box style fridge and a single-ring portable gas stove.This is all good if the weather is fine as you have to cook outside. We hadn't banked on the mother of all rainstorms wreaking her vengeance on us for the next 3 days and nights...

Obviously, the first thing I insisted on doing once we had transport was to drive down to Ramsay Street, of Neighbours fame, to check out Harold Bishop's house,seeing as it is filmed just down the road in a Melbourne suburb. The street is actually called Pin Oak Rd, and to my dismay it was blocked off as they were filming.Liam was appalled that I wanted to stake out the Neighbours set so waited at a safe distance in the campervan, although seeing as it's bright orange with flowers all over it he was hardly incognito.There were another couple of English girls hovering around nearby also hoping for a glimpse of Dr Karl so I had a chat with them and we managed to take a few pics of "the street" using our zoom lenses. Saddos!
The first evening with the crampervan we found a campsite near to Melbourne city centre and managed to cobble together a meal of sorts, which was some fresh pasta and a jar of Dolmio.
The next day we went into the city and wandered around the funky, boho region of Brunswick. This area had loads of cool little boutiques selling unusual items and I had a field day rummaging around all the vintage shops. I thought I showed great restraint in not buying every darling pair of brightly-coloured stillies (buying impractical shoes is a dirty little habit of mine), and after ferreting around in the bargain bins hoping for a reduced pair of designer trotters I appeased my appetite with a cute little pair of earrings with swarovski crystals instead.Ahh, there's nothing like a bit of retail therapy.
We walked around the city, taking in the sights and stopping for the odd beer, before visiting an art gallery and a few museums.
A nice day, but that evening all our problems began when it started to rain. No, that's an understatement (and we all know I don't like THOSE)..it absolutely poured down. We hid in the van, horizontally of course, seeing as we couldn't actually fit in upright and waited for it to ease off so we could cook our dinner. And waited. And waited. The rain continued to hammer down all through the night and into the next day. Did I mention that I've also got the haircut from hell? After having it cut short in New Zealand I found it hard to get it to stay like the hairdresser had done and got impatient with it one day for sticking up. I know it's hard to imagine me being impatient ;-) , but I literally went berserk with a pair of nail scissors and chopped the offending chunk of hair clean off. Some of you may remember a similar incident several years ago when I got angry with my hair and cut myself a ridiculous fringe, approximately 2cm long. I'd had a few drinks and wondered what a fringe would look like, but then cut it wonky so had to tidy it up.It got shorter and shorter...
So my hair is now a "choppy" bob to say the least.To add insult to injury I then got Liam (!) to cut the back of it and it's just gone downhill from there really.
Anyway, I digress.So torrential rain, coupled with the frizzy haircut from hell, meant that I was not the happiest of bunnies, and Liam wasn't too impressed being cooped up in a confined space whilst the heavens opened outside either.
When we awoke the rain hadn't relented one little bit, but we'd planned to drive along the Great Ocean Rd, which was built by returning soldiers after WW2 in memory of their fallen comrades. This road is carved out of the rock and runs alongside some achingly beautiful beaches, which we'd been told we mustn't miss.
Determined, we set off, hoping that the weather would improve by the time we got there. It didn't. Liam could hardly see out of the windscreen to drive, the visibility was that bad. The next few days were spent driving along this great stretch of coastal road looking at the lovely beaches through our steamed-up van windows in the pouring rain. I kid ye not, this rainstorm was of biblical proportions. Even Noah would have been bricking it over what to do on this one. We needed a friggin' reinforced ark, not a tiny campervan. Have I mentioned how small it was??
Needless to say, those few days were not good.We got soaked even trying to run to the shower block at the campsite, pack-a-mac on and flip-flops sinking into the mud. Not a good look. My hair stuck up at right angles and we were wearing our fleeces 24/7 cos it was cold too. I'm actually mentally scarred from the experience, and doubt I'll be camping too often after this trip. In total, we'd have lived out of a caravan for almost 6 weeks, and we're beginning to feel the strain. I honestly don't know how pikeys cope.


After leaving tranquil Alice Springs, quite possibly one of the hottest places on Earth - well definitely the hottest place I've ever been to in my life, we were eager for a bit of cool club action, so were chomping at the bit to get to Melbourne. Alice had been lovely and relaxing for a few days, but as everyone tends to use it as a base for their outback tours there is a constant stream of tourists passing through and we didn't really have a chance to meet anyone after the end of our tour so were keen to meet some new faces and have a bit of a party.
Our hostel was right in the centre of the city and our first impressions were all good - buzzing atmosphere, swanky bars and clubs - a clean,cool nerve centre of activity.
We hurridly changed into our best togs (it was only 5pm but like I said, we were up for a big one) and went down to the hostel bar for a warm-up drink. After sinking a couple of cheap vinos we headed to Chapel Street, where we'd been reliably informed it was "all going to go off." Our spirits were dampened down slightly by the astronomical price of a couple of Mojitos (40 bucks,the equivalent of twenty quid), and we were sharply reminded that although we wanted to party like we would in London, we were a couple of travellers who are essentially unemployed until next March. Downer. Pushing that thought aside, we ploughed into the bevvies and found ourselves at The Social, a cool pre-club bar down the road. Chatting to a camp Scottish expat called Jason and his Aussie female friend, we soon got the party started and before we knew it we were winding and grinding on the dancefloor, limbs akimbo. The girl (can't remember her name) soon excused herself, realising it was about to get messy, yet Jason couldn't get enough of it. It's funny how when you're a bit worse for wear you just seem to be transported from bar to bar to club, without having actually physically moved anywhere, but that's exactly what happened and we were mysteriously teleported to a club called Revolver. Madness ensued. An English DJ called Greg Wilson (no I'd never heard of him either but the Aussies worshipped the ground he stomped on) was mixing up the tunes to a raucous crowd and before we knew it it was 8am.The party was showing no sign of stopping but I was feeling a little jaded by this point and in need of a powernap, so a lovely English guy called Adam suggested a few of us go back to his pad down the road. I'm not sure if the offer extended until Sunday night, but that's how long we stayed for anyway, sinking beers and talking nonsense.
Suddenly, at about 5.30pm. Liam and I remembered that we'd booked tickets to a show and dinner combo thingy at the Dracula comedy theatre in the city.A night of scary, spooky fun, it had promised. Hmmm, well we did resemble a couple of zombies after our 24hr bender, so we should fit right in, we reasoned as we hurridly jumped into a taxi, holding our breath so the taxi driver wouldn't be over the legal driving limit from the alcohol fumes. Smelling like we'd been drinking meths, we rocked up at the theatre doors, to be greeted by a guy dressed up as Dracula. I think he thought we were taking the piss, seeing as the dark circles under our eyes made it look like we'd dressed up just like him for the occasion.
Once inside we were taken on a ghost train ride (just what you need, being jolted about and covered in fake cobwebs after a full night's session on the vodka) and then shown to our seats. Unfortunately for them, a young Aussie couple had chosen the exact same night and table for a romantic night out, the first since the birth of their young son.God knows what they thought when they were greeted by a couple of partied-out Brits,still wearing the clothes from the previous night.Seriously though, I don't think they cottoned on and probably just thought we were a couple of narcoleptics. The "comedy" show was pretty lame, all black lipstick and unfunny vampire jokes - we took it in turns to have little microsleeps between sketches. I dozed off against the wall a few times between courses, almost falling akip into my steak at one point. Well, it was dark in there and I don't think anyone noticed, except perhaps the Aussie girl I was mid-conversation with at the time.
Back at the ranch we slept like babies after our mammoth night-day-night session, but had to be up bright and early to pick up the campervan the next morning. That's when our problems REALLY began...

Alice, Alice, who the *%!? is Alice?

It seems there is a lot of rivalry between the various states in Australia - the people of western Australia were most derogatory about the Northern Territory:
" Alice Springs - why on Earth would ya wanna go there?" they asked. "It's all just red dirt." We have encountered similar hostilities from the people of the Northern Territory towards those of say Sydney, who said things like, "Sydney, it's awful. Just like London - overpopulated and overrated. Now, where are you two from...?" Hmmm, London actually. Awkward silences all round...
To be honest, they weren't far wrong. Alice Springs IS surrounded by red dirt. Wolf Creek is just down the road. Proper outback. It's also home to the Macdonnell Ranges (mountains), is the springboard for tours to Uluru and King's Canyon and is home to a large population of Aboriginal people.Oh, and it's pretty dangerous, with a high crime rate, especially at night, when you are advised to take a taxi everywhere. It was a tad unnerving to see uniformed police taking crime reports at our hostel most evenings.
Our hostel wasn't luxurious, but it was functional, with 2 swimming pools and air-con in the room which was an absolute neccessity in the 40-plus degree heat. It turned out there had been a mistake with our booking,so the receptionist gave us a toothy grin and said she'd upgrade us to the Deluxe Suite. There we were, thinking Lady Luck was on our side, until she gave us the key and we let ourselves into the "suite", which turned out to be a normal room but with a set of bunkbeds in the corner, presumably for when the honeymooners visiting Alice Springs want to bring their 2 kids along??
We spent a few days lying by the pool, our retinas burning as we attempted to read our books in the dazzling sunshine and having to cool off in the pool every 20 minutes or so. Even the breeze was boiling - it felt like someone was blasting you with the hottest setting on a hairdryer about an inch away from your body. However our 30+ sunscreen was a force to be reckoned with and we managed to escape with only minor burns. By the time we get home we're gonna look like the old bird in "There's something about Mary". You know the one, skin like an old handbag and a puckered mouth like a cat's arse.
After a few days chillaxing we started to get antsy, so did what anyone would do when it's 45 degrees outside...we visited the Desert National Park. After only an hour or two of exploring we were literally crawling through the desert towards the cafe, hoping it wasn't just a mirage.It was an interesting day, talking to Aboriginal guides about their traditions and ancestors, but the heat meant we had the attention span of a goldfish and were itching to get back by the pool.
There wasn't much else going on in Alice, apart from being accosted by Aborigines hanging off the security gates of the hostel trying to cadge cigarettes and alcohol (I swear they could hear a ring pull on a can of beer from a few kilometres away..must be all that hunting and stuff..) so by the time it was the day of our flight to Melbourne we were going stir-crazy, desperate for a big night out...

Monday, 1 December 2008

The Outback, King's Canyon and Ayers Rock

The flight to Alice Springs passed without event (which for Qantus seems to be a major achievement and blog-worthy if not newspaper-worthy), with us arriving at our hostel late afternoon. Having had only the briefest of catnaps the previous night due to a great clubscene in Perth we crashed out immediately, ready for our 4am alarm the next morning, when we would be collected by Adventure Tours for our 2-day camping trip to the Outback.
Annoyingly we were sharing a bathroom with 2 hyperactive German birds who ensured that we only got 20 winks (as opposed to our usual 40) each all night, before we then woke them up through the wafer thin walls with the shrill ringing of our alarm.
We were collected at 4.45am by our tour guide Ben and driven for 5 hours deep into the outback to King's Canyon. There were 15 in our group, comprising several Northeners, a few Swiss girls, an American guy, a Thai guy and a few Japanese. We hadn't been expecting to have to make our own food (the tour wasn't cheap at 400 bucks each), but it quickly became clear that "interactive" meant "cook your own bloody meals" and we were left to reheat some manky chicken burgers and make a salad at a campsite en-route. This task was made harder for the fact that there were a million flies on us (think Ethiopian TV appeals) plus several hundred long-legged beetles all vying for our attention. This, coupled with the fact that most of the boys had never even opened a tin before, let alone cooked a meal (those northern mums have got a lot to answer for, pampering their boys like that)meant that this wasn't as much fun as it sounds.
After an early lunch our tour guide did what any sane tour guide would have done at midday...he took us on a 3.5hr hike up to King's Canyon. Well, it was only 38 degrees. No problem, eh? The walk was pretty strenuous and we were all panting like bull mastifs after about 2 minutes. The only reason I was hot-footing it (literally) uphill was that the Japanese guy behind me was wretching violently, threatening to projectile vomit his greasy chicken burger at the back of my head.
He soon had to turn back, and it wasn't long before we were all dropping like flies. Unfortunately the flies were the only things NOT dropping, and we were all going crazy with the effort of swatting them away from our faces.
The King's Canyon was well worthe all the effort and the views were amazing...red earth for as far as the eye can see, contrasted with the bluest sky imaginable. I tried to burn the image of that sky onto my memory, to be conjured up on a grey, drizzly day back in London when we get home.
We cooled off at a watering hole - amazingly there are quite a few of these, even though there is hardly any rain in the Northern Territory. The porous rock sucks up the water from underground and stores it in veins inside the rock, hence there are never any water restrictions in this dry, arid part of the world, yet in Melbourne for example hosepipe bans are commonplace. Weirdly the rivers here are all underground yet in Alice Springs they have an annual boatrace. It's the only boatrace in the world conducted on a dry river bed - entrants have to run along the river bed carrying their boat, with the winner being the one who runs fastest to the finish line!
That evening we arrived hot and exhausted at camp, covered in the red dust from the earth which had mingled with our factor 30.
But there was no rest for the wicked as we had to prepare our dinner whilst the guide conveniently slipped off to get fuel for the bus. This became a common practise of his at mealtimes. Liam and Tom ended up taking control of the food, and we emptied various boxes of unidentified meats onto the barbie which later turned out to be kangeroo and very tasty at that.
After dinner and a few Tooheys we all settled down into our "swags" (canvas sleeping bags) and slept under the stars. Well, that was the plan but there was not much sleeping going on for quite some time as we all struggled to get used to the sound of the dingoes howling and various rustling noises coming from nearby bushes. We were warned that there may be snakes and given instructions on what to do if we saw any, and after the many species of insects that we'd seen that day we were all to aware that a whole range of critters were only inches away from our heads that rested on the red ground. One guy called Richard didn't have a torch, so resorted to taking pictures in the darkness using the flash as a light source, swivelling from side to side as he attempted to capture a shot of whatever it was that was buzzing nearby, taking more snaps than your average Jap. The poor guy was absolutely terrified but I had to laugh as he kept jumping and the flash kept going off on his camera. Steve came back from the toilets absolutely freaking out that he'd just watched a huge spider munching a massive beatle as he went for a wee...and so the hysteria continued.
After about 4 hours sleep we were woken up to a breakfast of soggy cornflakes at 3.45am, before setting off to watch the sun rise over Ayers Rock.
As we approached Uluru (aboriginal name for Ayers Rock) we were all amazed by the sight...no not the luminosity of the sun rising over this massive sandstone monolith, but the hundreds of other sightseers who had beaten us to it.Damn those Japanese tourists!
It was really good to watch the sun come up and change the rock through various shades of orange and red. The rock has been given back to the indigenous people as part of the reassimilation programme by the government to build bridges between the whites and aborigines, so the rightful owners now get 25% of all revenue from the rock. The rock is sacred and the Anangu people ask that tourists do not climb the rock, since it is only permitted for elders and initiated men of a certain status. Most tourists ignore this though and there are ropes for climbing, although it is often forbidden to climb anyway due to safety reasons (if it is above 36 degrees or too windy). This day was one of the rare days that it was open for climbing, so 6 of us from the group set off to attempt the climb. I am sorry to say that I got about 15foot up the vertical face of Uluru before sliding around in my gripless Adidas and going back down. Liam and a few others did manage it however, before the entrance was closed due to the temperature reaching 36 degrees at only 8am!!
Having lost the rest of the group I walked around part of the base of the rock before meeting the others after their 350 metre climb to the top.
At this point we were all flagging despite it only being around 11am, so we visited Kata Tjuta in a daze, all attempting to focus on the tour guide but struggling due to the 40 degree heat and multitude of flies.By this point I had been flapping my Space fan so furiously for the past 2 days that it actually broke!!
It had been an amazing few days, but by now the heat was taking it's toll so Ben took us to a nearby swimming pool where we plunged our sizzling bodies into the water to cool down, before climbing back into the bus for the gruelling 5hr journey back to Alice Springs, made worse by Ben's terrible taste in music. When the birdie song came on Liam finally snapped and went up the front of the bus to have a serious word. He then got dragged into compiling a quiz for the happy campers, and ended up on the mic as the new quizmaster general.
The quiz passed the time nicely as the barren land of the outback whizzed past, and we all had a quick shower back at our hostels before agreeing to meet up at the infamous Bojangles in the centre of town for a kangaroo burger to celebrate getting another great experience under our belts. After dinner and a few drinks we were done-in, plus the DJ at the bar/club didn't have much better taste in music than our dear old tour guide (old being the operative word, hence the lack of electro on his playlist) so we headed back to Toddy's for a much-needed sleep, this time in a bed rather than on the ground in the Outback....


Arriving in Perth after a record 3 flights and 30 hours just from Christchurch, we were more than a little jaded. We headed to our hostel and immediately discovered just how costly Oz was going to be...it was 60 dollars (30 quid) in a taxi, and not that far...yikes. This place is as expensive as London, if not more so in some areas.Apparently Western Australia is even more expensive than Sydney, but we shall see. Not good for a couple of cheapskate backpackers on a budget. The hostel was pretty grotty - ironically it wasn't a patch on the ones in Bolivia and at 100 dollars a night for a double room with paint peeling off the walls and filthy communal showers it was around 5 times more expensive.
After unpacking (by this I mean emptying the contents of our backpacks onto the bed and sifting through until we found a few garments that passed the sniff test) we decided to check out Scarborough Beach, which was just a stone's throw away. well, a stone's throw if you happen to be Fatima Whitbread, that is.
Luckily Scarborough in Perth is nothing like Scarborough in the UK, with rolling waves and lovely soft yellow sand. After walking up and down the beach a few times, all the while bemoaning our lack of funds due to the pants exchange rate and the rip-off bank charges that are rapidly accruing, we spotted an English pub on the beachfront and decided to drown our sorrows with a quick pint (Liam) and wine (me). As is usually the case they slipped down just a little too easily and before we knew it we were downing shots with 3 Aussie miners who were on their week off, as they worked in 2-week shift patterns.
As the afternoon wore on and the Tooheys flowed as freely as the conversation we were joined by a couple of German girls and before we knew it a full-blown party was in full swing. We were feeling a little peckish so the boys invited us all to a barbie at their mates house.
We all bundled into the back of their Ute (a "yoot" as it's pronounced, is a little truck - remember the references to these in Neighbours?!). It was set up as a bed in the back complete with duvet and pillows, but we didn't ask too many questions and all piled in and sped off (overlooking the fact that the driver had had a skinfull) to the offie (or "liquor store" as it's known here) to pick up a few "tinnies".
The host of the house party seemed a little surprised to see their mates rocking up with the whole pub's worth of tourists in tow but with typical Aussie hospitality just said "nah, you're right", when I timidly (ok so it may not have been that timid seeing as I'd just sunk my weight in vino) asked if they minded us crashing their party.
After a few steaks and yet more wine all our money worries dissipated and we had a great night, before being dropped off back at our hostel by the same driver, this time barely able to walk, which only bothered me when I thought about it the next day.As it was a Monday night there was noone on the roads so luckily we made it back unscathed.
The next morning we awoke fuzzy-headed and I reached for my rucksack for the Nurofen. But where was my rucksack? Oh, never mind, it only contains beach stuff I thought as I began looking for it and realising I may have left it somewhere the previous night. Then, in a moment of horror, it dawned on me that I had actually been carrying our passports, phones, driving license, camera etc as I hadn't emptied the daysack since we got off the plane that morning. Cue several hours of panic until we managed to get hold of the Aussie guys (thank God we exchanged numbers to arrange another night out) who kindly reunited us with the bag, which I'd left in the back of the ute as we all scrambled out of it the night before. Phew! Note to self..don't take out all your worldy goods when about to drink aforementioned self into a stupor with a bunch of complete strangers.Duh! Anyone would think I was a real blonde or something...
We spent some time sunbathing in Scarborough before checking out and moving to another hostel, this time in the centre of Perth. We decided to take in some culture, so walked around the city and checked out a few museums and exhibitions.
The Museum of Western Australia was so interesting that we ended up spending most of the day there, reading about the history and culture of WA, from the wildlife (lots more stuffed animal pics to come folks) to the Aboriginal people.
Having seen lots of Aborigines wandering around the city barefoot and dishevelled, drinking bottles of whisky and begging, we had taken all that we heard about them as gospel. Only when we visited the museum and read about the true story of their history and the appalling way that they had been treated by the white Australians and the government did we begin to comprehend the real history.
From the arrival of the first white man in Australia, when they used the Aborigines to help them find water etc before taking over their land, to the present day, the Aborigines have been badly mistreated. One of the most shocking aspects is from 1910 onwards, the government would routinely and systematically remove the Aboriginal children from their families and place them in missions or homes, in order to try to remove all traces of their culture and to westernize them. As they were seen as an inferior race, the idea was to educate them and bring them up as white Australians, often by having them adopted by white aussies. The parents were not given any say in the matter and the government even went so far as to say that as they felt that as Aborigines were less civilised people, " the mothers will quickly forget the child." Obviously this was not the case, yet they were never allowed to return to their families and were segregated and mistreated in care. This "cleansing" of the race was tantamount to genocide, and amazingly this practise continued for at least 60 years, well into the 1970's. These children became known as the "Stolen Generation", and we have met lots of indigenous people in the last week or so who told us that they were children of this time and the same happened to them, and that by the time they found out the true identities of their real parents they were long since dead, particularly as Aboriginals have a life expectancy of only 60 years, even today.
Upon finding out all this information it seemed hardly surprising to us that there is an alcohol and unemployment problem amongst these people, and that they often find it hard to integrate into society. However, many local aussies that we have spoken to say that the goevernment has now apologised to the Aboriginals and set up an official public holiday called a Sorry Day, and that they are giving compensation to those affected. We have come across animosity from white australians towards the indigenous people, who say that they get handouts, are lazy, and that the racism works the other way, in that Aboriginals are now given better opportunites and are selected for jobs, uni's etc over the whites as the government is scared to be seen as descriminating as they attempt to rebuild the relationship between them. It's hard to know exactly what the truth is, but has been a real eye-opener so far.

In the evening we went out to The Flying Scotsman with a girl called Sam who lives in Perth who had worked at Addison Lee with Liam. A crazy gay guy called Simon took a liking to me and proceded to entertain us for the rest of the night with his camp manner and funny stories. We later found out that he was high on speed, which is probably why he was firing off jokes like a rattle-gun and babbling incessantly. Amusing anyway.I did wonder as to why he was foaming at the mouth like a rabid dog but turned a blind eye to his "clubber's crust" as he was pure comedy gold.
As we were due to fly out erly on Saturday morning we decided not to go crazy on Friday night, so that day we took a riverboat cruise down the Swan river to Fremantle and wandered around the markets and had a relaxed pub lunch.We visited Fremantle Prison, our second prison visit on this trip (bit weird we know), although unlike San Pedro in Bolivia this one was no longer in use. It is, however, supposed to be haunted, as lots of prisoners (mostly British convicts) were executed there. I must admit it did feel a little creepy as we went into the room where they were hung,and it was very cold in there for a boiling summer's day.
As the evening rolled around we felt like going out after all(quelle surprise), so donned our gladrags and partied the night away at Geisha Club, rolling in at 5am for a quick catnap before our flight to Alice Springs...

Monday, 24 November 2008

The South Island

Getting to Wellington took far longer than we thought, about 5 hours in the end, and we made the ferry with minutes to spare. I was fretting that we'd miss it and have to pay another 300 dollars to book another one, so Liam floored it and we white-knuckled it all the way, pots and pans sliding around in the back of the van, curtains flapping in the wind. This was to be the theme of the rest of our time in NZ, as we tried to race around the entire South Island in only 1 week.When I suggested we try to get about pretty quickly I think Liam took it a little too far and did about 120k's an hour around hairpin bends, up mountains and down valleys, with me clinging to the dashboard with my cheeks wobbling with the g-force, just like they had done on the skydive.
Extreme tourism was the name of the game - we'd mark our next destination on the map, race there, take a look and a few pics, then dive back in the van to get to the next town. We really needed another week to do it properly, but at the same time there's only so many hills, sheep and cows you can look at without losing the will to live. It's a beautiful country don't get me wrong, it reminded us of Wales only with sunshine - very green, well kept, but lacking a certain je ne sais quoi, dare I say... character. Every town looked brand new, as though it had been knocked up out of MDF a few year's ago. There were hardly any people about as the population is only about 5 million tops, so some of the smaller townships looked like ghosttowns, even on a Saturday afternoon. A few towns we drove through without even realising that was it as they were so tiny.
A brilliant place for relaxed sightseeing, but we actually preferred the buzz and excitement of South America. I can imagine New Zealand would be a great place to visit when you're a bit older - we saw loads of fifty-somethings rambling about to their heart's content.
Instead of hanging around the local park swigging strongbow, all the kids are playing tennis, kite-surfing and generally doing more wholesome persuits than in England, and we agreed it would be a good place to bring up children.
We went to the Malborough Sounds and ate some giant green-lipped mussels, as mussel-fishing is the main local industry.We were really looking forward to them, but when they arrived they were just a little too big and rubbery for our liking, as they squelched and slid their way down our throats.I'm actually gagging at the memory of Liam dissecting one of them, he was tearing the lips off the little blighters as they were too chewy..gross. The wine was good though, and the more we drank the less we minded their less-than-attractive appearance.
We visited a few other places on our journey south, before heading to the glaciers. There are 2 major glaciers in the South island, Fox and Franz Josef. We were doing our usual daily hack at break-neck speeds round winding mountain roads when we came across two sad-looking Dutch fellas sitting in a smashed-up Mitsubishi that they had just totalled taking the bends too fast. There but for the grace of God go I we thought so spun the van around and went to their rescue.
The driver was a cute young guy called Terry who had only recently passed his driving test, and a hitchiker he'd picked up called Tim. Terry and Tim, nice but dim,I said as we inspected the damage.
They said they'd been sitting there for over an hour, listening to Bob Marley on the cd player and tying to work out what to do as there was no phone signals up there in the mountains and hardly any passing traffic - well, none that had stopped to help anyway.We had to feel sorry for them as even their cd player had then broken as a result of the accident, and the hitchhiker probably wasn't feeling quite as grateful anymore.
When Liam announced he was a mechanic their little Dutch eyes lit up, and before they knew it he was getting their scissor-jack out of the boot and using it to prise the crumpled wing out of their nearside front wheel, which had been stopping the wheel from moving. My only contribution was to remove the mounds of grass and mud that were wedged in the front grill. Liam then got out his swiss army knife (knew that'd come in handy one day) to cut off part of the bumper and plastic wheel arch covers. A quick jump on the bonnet to straighten it out a bit and they were good to go, beaming from ear to ear as they thought it was a right-off. (To be fair, it probably should've been, but it would at least get them to where they were going).
Liam even fixed their stereo and Bob's dulcit tones filled the air one more.
We followed them to the next town where Liam then did a few more alterations involving some making tape and wires whilst I made them a cuppa in the back of our camper. Good service, eh?
Well, one good turn deserves another...beer, so they offered to buy us some drinks that night at Franz glacier.The glaciers are a pretty impressive sight,but it was absolutely freezing at night as we shivered in the back of our Toyota. At one point I think I woke up with my tongue stuck to the frozen metal of the back of the van.I don't know what we expected, sleeping in a camper at the foot of a humungous block of ice, and we both woke up with stiff necks and sore muscles. (not mussels, thank God).
Unfortunately the boys got a little cocky with their newly-repaired wagon and attempted to then drive it to the next glacier, where it protested by conking out. Cue another phonecall to Liam. They're taking the piss a bit now, but Liam the good shepherd once again comes to their rescue. Oh well, it's good karma, we thought as we wasted the entire day fixing them up, but unfortunately the karma fairy wasn't playing ball and just as we were pulling into Christchurch to drop the campervan off at the hire place, a stone sprang up from the road, putting a nice 20cm crack across our windscreen. Great.We then spent our lat day in NZ frantically trying to find a windscreen fitter who would replace the screen so that we wouldn't lose our 1500 dollar bond. Luckily we managed to get some old dude to sort it out for us in the nick of time, and it cost us 430 dollars. An exercise in damage limitation I guess so we were happy with that.
We just had time for a quick bender in Christchurch with some Maori guys before downing a kebab in the back of the van (classy) and catching a quick 3 hours shut-eye before going to the airport to catch our flight to Perth.
Unfortunately all did not go smoothly, as our flight was delayed which meant we then missed our connecting flight from Sydney to Perth. Qantus put us all up in a hotel overnight before putting us on a flight to Melbourne, then another flight to Perth. Ridiculously, it took us about 30 hours in the end to get from NZ to Oz, but we're finally here.Ding-ding,let the next round commence...

Hawkes Bay

We arrived in Hawke's Bay on Friday evening and headed to Jarrod and Talia's house in Napier. We spent the evening chatting about what we'd all been doing since we last saw each other in London 4 years ago and comparing our respective lives on opposite sides of the world. The houses in New Zealand cost much less than the same house would do in England, although the mortgage interest rates are double what ours are. The houses are pretty big, mostly with a deck (or dick as they pronounce it) with the obligatory gas barbie on it which gets regular use, not like the once yearly event in the UK, when you excitedly trundle the rusty, cobweb-strewn kettle barbeque out of the shed for the one sunny, rain-free day of the year that can accomodate such charcoal-fests.
We went out to a local restaurant for some dinner and wine and left the campervan on their driveway whilst we slept in their spare room. You really appreciate a bed after dossing down in the back of a Toyota Hiace for a few weeks.
The next day we were shown the sights of Napier, which is a famous wine region so the day mostly consisted of visiting various vineyards before doing some wine-tasting at a particularly scenic winery, which involved lots of tasting and not much spitting out. We decided to have lunch here, and had a delicious platter of cheeses, breads, pickles and chutneys, washed down with plenty of Napier's finest.What better way to spend the day than stilton and chardonnay on a picnic blanket in the sunshine in the middle of a vineyard? Heaven, especially to an old wino like me.
In the evening we went to a barbie with Jarrod and Talia's buddies and stayed the night at their place again, before setting off bright and early for Wellington, where we were booked onto the ferry with the campervan to check out what the South Island had to offer...

Monday, 17 November 2008

Jetboating and Skydive

As New Zealand is not as adventure-filled a travellers' destination as South America, we felt we needed to inject a bit of excitement into the proceedings in the form of a few adrenaline sports, so we booked up a couple of action-packed days, including jetboating and a skydive.
Having just had my hair cut into a Sarah Harding-style bob (well I like to think it makes me look like Sarah Harding, but I fear it may be a bit more Sarah Goudie..sorry Sarah if you're reading), what better way to completely wreck it than to book in for a white-knuckle ride under some waterfalls on a speedboat.
Not being much of a swimmer, Liam was a little apprenhensive as we strapped on our lifejackets, but I had to get revenge for his little Bolivian bike-riding expedition so I gleefully asked the driver/captain/whatever he's called, to go extra-fast on the 360 degree spins.
We all piled into the boat and clung on for dear life as we were thrown from side to side as the kiwi guide performed all sorts of water-acrobatics with the boat, often sending us flying into the air before narrowly missing various ducks and swans as they scattered trying to avoid the giant speedboat full of screaming tourists charging towards them.
It ws absolutely exhilirating - the kind of buzz that is pure fun rather than the terror I felt on the bikeride..a different kind of thrill altogether. Liam loved it too, and as we got used to it we even managed to film a couple of mini video clips on our camera as we spun around in the swirl at the base of the waterfalls.

Our next little outing was a skydive..Liam had been going on about how much he wanted to do one since we left the UK (funny, he'd never mentioned it before, but now he's a regular daredevil, always wanting to try some new adventurous persuit - it's amazing what a bit of freedom can do - we can barely muster the energy to get of the sofa and make a cup of tea at home.)
The next morning we were collected from our campsite bright and early along with a few other English guys called Adam and Rob and taken to the TT Skydive centre next to Lake Taupo. On the drive there we chatted to these guys and it transpired that it was Rob's birthday so we agreed to go for a drink after the jump, if we all survived that was. They collected us at 10.30, it was half an hour to the site and they told us that the actual jump would be all over in less than 5 minutes (45 seconds for the skydive part until the chute opened..yikes) so we figured we could be safely in the pub by lunchtime..happy days!
The preparation seemed a little brief - choose how high you want to jump from, get your gear on and then watch a 1 minute safety video.1 minute..surely that wasn't long enough to explain how to do everything?!
I was a bit concerned by the clothing we were given to wear - a thin jumpsuit made of cotton (I was expecting something a little more..padded?), a hat rather than a helmet (a flimsy skullcap made of leather of all things - how was that supposed to stop your head from splitting open?) and a harness to attach you to your instructor (well you didn't think I was gonna jump on my own did you?)
We were then shown the safety clip (basic rules, head back when you jump, put your arms out when the instructor taps you on the shoulder, and keep your legs bent out front so you resemble a banana on landing). Let's hope we don't split like a banana on landing, I thought morbidly...
Once we were all ready we were led out to the plane. I was told that my tandem jumper was famous, but that they wouldn't tell me why until afterwards. I was pretty scared so didn't push the issue.
Luckily I was last out to the aircraft (a tiny thing) which meant I was last in, so first out. At least I'd get it over with first, I figured.
Once airborne, the noise was deafening as we climbed to 12000ft, our chosen altitude. I was more scared in the plane than during the jump, particularly as I couldn't hear a word my instructor was saying and I assumed he wasn't just making smalltalk...
Once we got to the right altitude the dude opened the door of the plane and told me to edge myself onto the ledge. This was the most terrifying part of the jump, as we sat on the edge for what seemed like ages as the photographer (who jumps out with you as well as the guy strapped to you) takes a few snaps. Smiling for a picture was the last thing I felt like doing, but I gritted my teeth and gave a beamer that would have shown up Wallace and Gromit.
Then it was time to jump - the instructor had to give me more than a gentle shove to get me out, but before I knew it we were hurtling towards Earth at over 200kph, my cheeks were wobbling uncontrollably and I had a permanent rat-face cos my lips had dried out with the sheer g-force.
I didn't know whether to laugh or cry and tried to scream but we were spinning so fast I couldn't make a sound, so contented myself with trying to hold hands with the photographer who was doing all sorts of crazy moves in front of me. A thought suddenly occured to me..what would happen if my instructor passed out or had a heart attack or something? noone had shown us how to deploy the parachute, and even if they had, how would I get to it? I pushed all rational thoughts from my mind and tried to relax and enjoy the moment, then before I knew it..whoosh! the parachute came out (at 4500ft apparantly, so you fall for around 8000ft) and we were suddenly yanked back up heavenwards, before, by complete contrast, experiencing the most peaceful sensation ever..no I hadn't died, it was just the gentle downward drifting that occurs once the wind is filling the parachute. My instructor even started chatting to me about our trip, then showed me how to steer us by holding onto the straps and pulling left or right. He even let me have a go, but quickly took control again as I sent us spiralling towards the Earth. The views were amazing, it was a brilliant feeling surveying the lake and greenery from such a great height, bit before I knew it it was time to land and I assumed the banana position obediantly. The landing was so smooth and controlled that I just stood up and walked slowely forwards, none of the crash-landing and broken limbs that I had been anticipating. All in all, a great experience, and another thing to tick off our list of sporting achievements whilst on this trip.
Oh, and I found out why my instructor was so famous..appparantly he'd done a jump a few years earlier and his parachute hadn't opened, he'd then tried to deploy the reserve one but that got tangled in the first one (doh!) so he was plummeting towards the earth with no chute. He actually said goodbye into the camera on his wrist, but luckily his fall was broken by a blackberry bush of all things and he escaped unscathed with no more than a punctured lung and a broken ankle. Glad they told me that AFTER I'd just jumped out of a plane at 12000ft feet with him strapped on my back...
To celebrate, we had a few bevvies with the two lads I mentioned earlier, then it was back on the road to drive to Hawke's Bay in order to visit Jarrod and Talia, some Kiwis we'd met whilst they were working in London several years ago.

Mount Manganui and Waitomo Caves

After their heavy night, Guido and Liam were having second thoughts about our arranged climb up Mount Manganui in the Bay of Plenty the following morning, but me, Suzie and the kids were all up for it having had a good night's sleep, so dragged their pasty butts up the mountain in the red-hot morning sun. It was hard not to be a bit smug as we rambled up with ease carrying 2 kids whilst the men staggered up behind us, dehydrated and suffering with the mother of all hangovers.
The views from the top of the mountain made it all worthwhile - bright turquoise sea and clear blue skies contrasted with the brilliant golden sands. In the afternoon we went for a drive, had fish and chips and Guido took Liam and I to the local hot pools, where we soaked in the hot water under the stars and palm trees.
We said our goodbyes to the kiwis and the next morning set off for Waitomo Caves,which are full of stalactites and stalagmites.The tour of the caves culminates with a boat trip deep into the darkness of the caves where there are thousands of glowworms hanging from the ceiling. Although it's not actually the glowworms hanging from the ceiling but their waste product, a goo which dangles down and attracts insects which are drawn to the light. The glowworms stay in this larvae state for 9 months catching their prey, and I was just pondering how clever Mother Nature is to create such clever creatures when the guide went on to explain that they then evolve into flying bugs, but that they then only live for 3 days because...wait for it...they have no mouth so they cannot eat. What a ridiculous design fault.
We then went for a hike around the Waitomo area before getting back into the van to head for Taupo. Unfortunately my navigation skills aren't that great and despite there only being about 4 main roads in the whole country I managed to take us about an hour in the wrong direction around weaving roads on the hillside.Oops.
Finally arriving at Taupo we cooked our dinner (there's something quite cosy about cooking on a little hob in the back of the campervan) and had a glass of vino, along with several other identikit couples in their campervans all in a row doing the same. It seems we weren't the only ones with the roadtrip idea, as every day we pass countless other travellers in their campervans clutching their lonely planet guides and maps in hand.
It's not original, but it is fun, and we're really enjoying the ease of being able to jump in the van and go wherever our hearts desire, then park up for snacks or a cuppa or to have a little kip in the back.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Zorbing in Rotorua

The next day we set off for Rotorua, home of "Zorbing", which we were advised we just had to do whilst visiting the area.
Zorbing is an fun activity whereby you climb into a giant clear rubber ball and roll head over heels down a steep hill.
There were 2 options available - wet, where warm water is added to the ball and you slip and slide your way down on your backside, or dry, where you are strapped into the Zorb and spin head over heels. The hyperactive, "wacky" (I hate that word but they were) inmstructors explained that the wet option was more fun, but being the vain old bird that I am I didn't want to get my hair wet so opted for the dry version instead, whilst Liam took the wet n wild approach.
Well, having watched Liam laughing and slipping his way downhill in a giant zigzag groove in the hillside it was my turn. At the point where I was being strapped into the ball by my wrists and ankles (or cankles as I should call them cos the heat had swollen my ankles and calves until they merged into one), I realised why they had told me to do the wet option.
Liam hadn't had to be strapped in as the water would cushion the ball, but as I later realised, without the water to cushion you the ride was much more white-knuckle, particularly as the zany (another appropriate word I'm afraid) instructor gave my ball an extra-hard push as he set me off rolling head first down the steep grassy mountainside. I'd like to say i enjoyed it, but all I can recall is hurtling headfirst downhill, a blur of grass-sky-grass-sky as the ball gathered speed before coming a dizzying halt at the bottom. If that wasn't enough to make me feel sick, Rotorua is also home to hot bubbling sulphur pools, which give off a powerful eggy stench.
That evening, Liam and Guido went out for "a quick beer" whilst I recovered with a headache in the back of the campervan reading my book at the campsite by flashlight. There were hardly any other vans on the site and I kept hearing odd noises outside in the forest, making me have horrible visions of some crazy nutbag coming to drag me off, Wolf Creek-style. Of course, the boys' quick beer turned into an all-night bender and Liam finally returned to fill our little van with his toxic alcohol fumes at 4am.

The Campervan Diaries

All set for the next chapter of our round-the-world adventure, we set off on the open road in our little campervan, a Toyota Hiace. This badboy is equipped with all the mod cons ie bed,windows,curtains and even though the facilites are the size of those you'd find in a dolls' house we were excited to be entirely self-sufficient in our little mobile home. Opting out of the insurance protection (at 500 dollars we decided to give it a miss) we set off to Foodtown to stock up on supplies, and were met by the local police, who politely advised us not to leave anything of value in the van and warned us that the driving age in New Zealand is only 15, and that insurance is optional here. Great, maybe we should have taken that no-claims protection after all. Well, we figured, there are only about 5 million people inhabiting the entire country so if we can drive around London in the rush hour without coming unstuck then we should be fine.
Having loaded up the wagon with enough food to feed an army we headed North from Auckland to Waiwera, for no other reason than the fact that the Lonely Planet raved about it's hot springs and naturally-heated outdoor pool with cinema screens you can watch while you have a hot soak. To people who hadn't washed for 3 days, this was music to our ears and we set off over hill and dale, singing along to the old tunes on the radio, thoroughly enjoying the fresh air and green, lush countryside.
Arriving in Waiwera several hours later, we found a campsite, paid for our pitch and got into our swimsuits. The hot springs were only a few minutes along the beachfront, and we luxuriated in the 40 degree pool, as steam rose from the surface and watched a film on the big screen. Unfortunately our skin was prune-like long before Ewan McGregor and Nicole kidman had finished high-kicking their way through Moulin Rouge, so we dried off and headed back to the van to catch some zeds, tired from the many flights we'd taken over the last few days.
Jet lag meant we awoke at the same time at around 4am, and we had a sleepy chat whilst listening to the ocean outside, before Liam lifted the curtain over the rear window to reveal a gorgeous view of the moonlit beach with gentle waves rolling softly up onto the sand. The idyllic scene was short-lived however as Liam soon drifted back into a deep sleep, the thunderous roar of his earth-shattering snores filling the air, completely blocking out the peaceful sound of the waves.
The next morning we washed and dressed (thank God I had just about had enough coins for the shower, I wasn't used to this campsite living lark with rationed water supplies) and I painstakingly dried and straightened my hair and applied my make-up. Well, we were visiting Liam's friends who had worked with him at AddisonLee several years ago before returning to their home town of Tauranga and I didn't want to look like a traveller did I? All the locals we had met had been really friendly towards us, including the campsite maintenance man, a really funny old expat called Harry, who I befriended to help fix my hairdryer and who then spent the best part of an hour telling me his life story. He looked like a cross between Crocodile Dundee and Hulk Hogan with long wispy yellow hair and was clearly partial to a morning whisky. He cracked me up as he regaled me with tales of his youth growing up in Belfast before moving to New Zealand in his teens.
We drove through Auckland, stopping in the city centre to go to the viewing platform of the Skytower building, the highest in the Southern hemisphere, to take in the sights of the city. We toyed with the idea of doing a bungee jump from here, but figured if we were going to do a jump it'd be better to do it over water rather than concrete.
The main thing that struck us about the landscape of New Zealand was that everywhere is immaculately groomed and maintained. A bit like the opening credits of Desperate Housewives, it's all perfectly manicured lawns and oiled decks, with not a chip in the paintwork or a single piece of litter. It is, quite simply, perfect. This was a refreshing change from South America for about a day or two, but then it began to feel a little characterless and samey, and we almost longed for a bit of chaos again.
Don't get me wrong, the scenery is breathtaking, but in a safe, green way,with none of the gritty, edgy excitement we had come to love about South America.
We continued on our way to Tauranga, which is on the north coast of the North Island in the Bay of Plenty and dropped in to visit our friends Guido and Suzie, who since we last saw them out clubbing in London, had had two adorable children called Blake and Ella. They kindly cooked us dinner on the barbie whilst we caught up on what we'd all been upto since we last saw each other, sitting out on the deck (getting eaten alive by bugs) with a glass of wine.
We didn't go to bed too late though, as we had an action-packed day of Zorbing ahead of us....

Mammoth journey to New Zealand

The journey to new Zealand ended up taking as along as the Inca Trail, and by the time we arrived we probably looked and smelt like we'd just completed another Inca Trail too. The reason for this is that we were really enjoying Arequipa in Peru and didn't want to leave there, so decided to take a cheap flight from Arequipa airport to Lima rather than the 24hr bus, in order to make our connecting flight from Lima to Chile. We looked into flying direct from Arequipa to Santiago, but the cost was astronomical. Therefore, we left Arequipa on Wednesday lunchtime, landed in Lima an hour later, then waited a few hours at Lima before boarding the flight to Santiago, then we had 16 hours in Chile before we could catch our flight to Auckland, which took 14 hours.
When we arrived at Chile at 6am we were all set to get washed and changed in the airport toilets and spend the day exploring Santiago. Unfortunately the staff at LAN airlines had other ideas....I went into the toilets at Santiago as I was feeling a tad rough, leaving Liam to collect our bags from the carousel. When I emerged about 10 minutes later and half a stone lighter, he was standing at the deserted carousel as it went round and round with no sign of our poor battered rucksacks.
It seems the bags had been checked in as a connecting flight only, meaning that they were all set to go to Auckland and were being held until the flight so we couldn't get them, which wouldn't have been too much of a problem had it not been for the fact that we'd now been in transit for alomst 24hrs in intense heat and were beginning to beef up somewhat.
Our relaxed sightseeing day of Chile then became a sweaty slog of stomping around the city of Santiago in 30 degree heat feeling hot and in danger of becoming a health hazard for our fellow passengers innocently bound for Auckland who would have to sit next to us that evening.
Considering Chile is the one of the wealthiest countries of south America there wasn't a great deal of fun to be had and the buildings and sights were less impressive than many others we'd seen in poorer areas of the continent. We bumped into a couple we'd met a few months earlier in Brazil and had a chat - it's funny how many fellow travellers you keep bumping into again as you work your way from country to country - then went for some lunch and a well-earned ice-cold beer.
One benefit of our early check-in was that we got to choose emergency-exit seats with tons of legroom. Finally boarding our plane to New Zealand at 11.30 that night we already felt absolutely exhausted as we'd not been to bed at all the previous night, and were consequently both out cold even before take-off. The flight was relatively enjoyable (afetr all these 24hr bus journeys the 14hr flight was a breeze), and we finally touched down at Auckland airport at 6am on Saturday morning, a whole 3 days after we'd left Arequipa!!

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Copacabana and the Isla Del Sol

After a hair-raising few days we decided a bit of R&R was in order, so we booked some tickets from La Paz to Copacabana, which is on the shores of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world and the biggest in South America. Nestled in the Andes on the border between Bolivia and Peru, it is 3800m above sea level, so the views are, quite literally, breathtaking.

We were due to travel with our new mates Mike and Lynsey, but unfortunately both of them were too sick to travel (gringos are dropping like flies here, what with the food and dodgy parasite-ridden water supply), so we ended up going it alone.
After a few hours on the bus we were transferred to a little boat to continue the journey, then back on the bus again.The bus containing everyones belongings was balanced precariously on a makeshift raft and a few Bolivians used long poles to transport the bus to the other side.We watched with bated breath as it was listing and tilting at various angles but luckily made it without any dramas.
It was the next boat that was to prove a problem - having made it to Copacabana safely we had to catch another boat to the Isla Del Sol, a little island on Lake Titicaca which has interesting hikes and ruins to visit.
The boat wasn´t looking too hopeful from the start - the owner climbed on board clutching screwdrivers and various other old and oily-looking tools and lo and behold, within 10 minutes the engine packed up. Thus, what should´ve been an hour and a half became nearly 3 hours, as he kept yanking the chord trying to get it fired up, followed by much head-scratching, taking the cover off the engine and generally faffing about.
We eventually arrived at the island and climbed the 240 steep steps (as a little local boy informed me as he carried my 20kg rucksack for a 25 boliviano fee) to our hostel. Lots of the buildings here are mad from mud bricks and the cement is a kind of clay mixed with cactus juice which gives it extra strength. We ate a traditional dinner of quinoa, vegetables and some local wine and went to bed exhausted and feeling the altitude.
The next day we set off early for a 4hr hike from one end of the island to the other. When we left it was freezing but it soon got absolutely boiling - duh, there was a clue in the name of the island - but we gringos took no notice and fried ourselves alive as we trekked up and down the mountains.
By the time we boarded the boat back to Copacabana there were more than a few lobster-faced Brits frantically applying sunscreen in a vain attempt to ward off the potential skin cancer, which was probably already forming invisible melanomas on our pasty complexions.
Back in Copacabana, we realised we hadn´t done much relaxing after all, but there was no time to waste as we had to be on a bus to Arequipa in Peru, via Puno.
At the border crossing the customs officals barely glanced at our passports and all our luggage was left on the bus and not even checked, which was the complete opposite to when we left Peru for Bolivia, where our bags were completely taken apart and we were given a lengthy grilling. We found this strange, seeing as most drugs etc come from Bolivia, but were grateful not to have to go through that again.
After a painful 8hr bus journey in tiny seats with zero legroom (I told you, these locals are miniscule) and a load of chickens angrily protesting at being cooped up (geddit?)in a confined space, we finally arrived at Arequipa.
Our hostel here is lovely, more like a hotel, and the sun is shining brightly. We visited a museum in honour of Juanita,The Ice Maiden, a 12 year old Inca child who had been sacrificed to the Gods on a mountain top 500yrs ago and her perfectly preserved body can be viewed here. Unfortunately, Liam has been a bit poorly, and just as the guide did the crucial unveilling of the body he had to run off to the toilet, clutching his stomach. I think the other memebrs of our tour thought he was overcome by the sight of the rotting corpse, but I knew it was more to do with last night´s dinner, so carried on gawping at the body and left him to it.
Now we are about to leave Peru for Chile, just for a day trip, then we head to New Zealand. We are a third of our way through our trip already, bring on the next chapter of our great adventure.

Monday, 3 November 2008

The notorious San Pedro Prison, La Paz

As if the previous day´s bike ride wasn´t frightening enough, the very next day we rocked up at San pedro jail, of the book "Marching Powder" fame, hoping for a tour.
Yes, that´s right, we wanted to enter one of South America´s most dangerous prisons to chat to the inmates about their lives and find out more about this corrupt, unbelievable system.
We had been told by other travellers to ring an inmate called Stuart, A South African drug smuggler, on his mobile (yes, these inmates have their own cellphones) and that he would come and meet us at the gates. We were told to bring sweets for the kids (several hundred wives and children of the inmates actually live inside the jail) and 300 Bolivianos (around 25 quid) each for the tour.
We arranged to meet a couple of English guys (toffs from the bike ride who´d probably never set foot outside Chelsea before this trip) in San Pedro square so that we were more likely to be let in, as we figured 1200 Bolivianos would be preferable to mine and Liam´s 600.
Liam and I arrived first, and staked out the prison from a safe distance in the square. It is a large imposing building, painted incongruously in pale pink flaking paint, with several guards in toad-green uniforms standing stiffly outside the entrance.
Just when we thought the public-schoolboys had bottled it, up they trotted looking nervously from side to side. It all felt rather clandestine, as we fumbled for our entrance fee and sidled up to the entrance.
Just as we were about to walk past, a little Bolivian fellow scurried up to us and asked if we were looking for a tour, which are conducted only on Thursdays and Sundays, and only when the guards feel like it, or if they are bribed. When we mentioned the name Stuart he ushered us past the unamused guards to the gate and told us to wait there.
One of the guards sternly asked for our cameras, mobile phones etc and asked us to write down all our details, before stamping our wrists and loudly clanking open the padlocks and pushing us throught the huge steel gates into the courtyard of the prison.
Inmates looked down at us curiously from the balcony which ran around the building above as we shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot in the bright sunshine waiting for Stuart, who appeared a few minutes later being led by the messenger.
He explained that we must stay close to him, that this part of the prison was relatively safe as it was the 4 star section, but still to be cautious.
He then led us up some narrow wooden steps to his cell. I noticed he had a fresh wound on his head, but he later said this came from bumping his head on the low ceiling as he came up the staircase, rather than anything more sinister.
I was yet to read the book Marching Powder, a true account of life in the jail, and had I read it I may not have entered.
Stuart is a convicted drug smuggler, around 55 years old, with long flame-red hair and a nose to match from all the whisky he drinks in the prison. Having narrowly missed dying by hanging after years on Death Row in Pakistan, he hadn´t heeded the warning and was here for a similar offence in Bolivia. Despite having been at San Pedro for 3 years without charge, he is hopeful that he will be released soon on a technicality - he only ever speaks Africaans in front of the guards and claims not to speak English or Spanish, so as he cannot understand the charges against him and Bolivia is too poor to get an Africaans-speaking translator he may be able to avoid conviction.
He explained to us how the prison system works - this will come as no surprise to thsoe of you who have read the book (we have now, having bought a signed copy after the tour), but we were sitting there open-mouthed as the details emerged.
Prisoners in San Pedro have to buy their cell. That´s right, they have to pay to be incarcerated by the government. Each cell costs around US$400, although some go for as much as US$25000. These ones are purchased by the highest level of criminals, such as corrupt judges, although there are some as cheap as US$100, which are awful, crowded filthy spaces.
There are also 8 restaurants in the jail, which are prvately run by inmates who have purchased them - no meals are free so each prisoner must have the money to buy his meals and accomodation.
Cocaine factories abound - inmates work throughout the night to produce the world´s purest drugs, which sell inside the prison for less than 2 pounds a gram.One can also buy whisky, vodka and rum, so parties are a frequent occurance, with civilians bribing the guards to be allowed in to party, and with some even allowed to stay the weekend if the price is right.
Stuart fascinated us with tales such as this, although he kept getting disturbed by a drug-addled young guy called Jack who kept wandering into the cell to put his two-penneth in. I noticed a large kitchen knife on a shelf, and although Stuart kept assuring us it was safe he still jumped whenever the door opened.
He said that we were ok as the guards took a large chunk of the entrance fee so it was in their interests to keep curious tourists safe whilst entering the jail.
After answering our questions Stuart took us on a tour of the jail, pointing out the isoaltion rooms where the most dangerous criminals are kept, or where they are sent for punishment. He had spent a month there for drinking whisky and has the stab-wounds to prove it.We peered through a slit in the metal door and two young men with innocent faces thrust their hancuffed arms through for us to touch knuckles in a gangster-style greeting with them. As we walked away I asked Stuart what they had done.
"Oh, they are the first-degree murderers who have just got 30 years apiece," he calmly replied. Great, we´d just shaken hands with a couple of homicidal maniacs.
After a few hours we started to feel the fresh air of freedom beckoning and made a move to leave.
I think Stuart was actually grateful of our company and seemed reluctant for us to go. As we walked back across the courtyard some prisoners from the balcony above threw some ominous-looking liquid down at us, narrowly missing our heads. Did I mention that the inmates are allowed to roam free from their cells by day, as most of the fights occur at night?
Some prisoners are serving the maximum sentence of 30yrs and a loophole in the law means that even if they were to kill other people in jail they would not recieve any further punishment.This detail is important as lifers have nothing to lose by killing other prisoners (or guards, or even tourists for that matter). After Stuart divulged this little detail we decided it was time for a speedy exit and left the prison, taking a deep breath of fresh air as we stepped out into the bright sunlight.....

The World´s Most Dangerous Road

Mike and Liam were chatting about an excursion they had heard about, whereby you can hire mountain bikes and cycle 40 miles down steep gravel paths on what is statistically the most dangerous road in the world.
"Why on earth would anyone want to do that!!" I exclaimed, little knowing that 24hrs later I would be one of those mentallists.
I relied on the fact that Lynsey wasn´t up for it to save me from having to partake in the aforementioned crazy capers, but unfortunately my plan collapsed when Lynsey did an about-turn and said she wanted to do the bike ride.
Shaking, I went with the others to the office of Gravity (the bike company) to book my one-way ticket to a certain death. Once there, they assured us that their bikes were top quality and that they only had one hospitalisation per week, and one fatality since the company started ten years ago.
Obviously I homed in on the fatality and started asking questions, but they just shrugged and said that as there were over 100 fatalities per year, or one every 3 days,on this road (from La Paz to Caroica) that their record was the best. Put like that, I guess they were right, so with trembling hands I signed my life away.They even got me to sign an extra disclaimer (which noone else had to sign) as I was classed as a Nervous Beginner. Cheek! OK, so I hadn´t ridden a bike since primary school, but I wouldn´t exactly say the others were Tour De France standard either.
The rest of the day passed in a haze, as I cacked my pants in anticiption of the following day´s bike ride.
The next morning I woke with a start at 5.20am when the shrill tones of the alarm rang out like a death knell in the dark.
Struggling into our hiking gear, we peered out of the window at the driving rain, mist and fog - "excellent conditions for a downhill bike ride on a cliff face", I said moodily to Liam, whose fault it would´ve been if I´d been the next fatality, naturally.
We knocked for Mike and Lynsey and set off to meet the other mugs who´d agreed to the challenge.
Arriving in a minibus at the startpoint, our guide, a Scott called Matt, showed us how to operate our bikes. I took mine for a wobbly run around the flat area of gravel at the top of the mountain, cursing under my breath as it skidded on the rocks underfoot when I applied my brakes too quickly.
After a short safety speech we were off. We had been told to stand up on the bikes and lean over the front wheel(roughrider position it is called) to avoid being bumped around so much, lift our right foot if rounding a bend to the right and vice versa for left.
The altitude took our breath away, it was torrential rain, and my contact lens popped out on my cheek due to the high winds. Matt called it "extreme biking" due to the conditions, which terrified me even more.
I almost burst into tears when, after about an hour of biking on tarmac down sharp winding bends, Matt announced that we were now ready to START the ride down the World´s Most Dangerous Road. "What the hell was that then?", I cried. "Oh, that´s just the warm-up," he replied with a hint of a smile on his face.
Little did I know that it was about to get MUCH worse - the WMDR(worlds most dangerous road) is 40 miles of gravel, which when combined with rain turns to marbles, sending your bike, car, whatever, careering around just inches from a sheer1000m drop.
We were told to stick to ther left-hand tyre track indentation (the side closest to the drop might I add) on the narrow path to avoid falling off. Matt recounted tales of accidents people had had when failing to follow this advice - just a week before an Irish girl had gone flying over the edge when she left the track by mistake. Luckily she got caught in a bush just several metres down, otherwise she would have died for sure.
These stories, combined with the weather conditions, made my knuckles go white as I clung to the bike for dear life, applying the brakes at every bend and screaming my head off. Liam had agreed to follow me the whole way, shouting advice, such as when to start leaning in for an upcoming bend etc. Very sweet, you might think, but it was his big idea to subject me to this in the first place!
After a few hours, disaster struck!! I lifted my right leg too slowly for a bend and it hit the floor, sending me crashing down onto the rocks. Luckily I escaped with only a few cuts and bruises. In fact, there were only 3 girls out of our team of 13 and we all fell off. Actually, a few of the guys took a tumble too.
It´s hard to explain just how scary it was (check out Gravitybolivia.com if you don´t believe me), yet when we had finished the ride in one piece (just about) , we all felt really proud of ourselves and I even grudgingly admitted to being pleased that I´d done it. Hell, I even bought the DVD of our day, for all your viewing pleasure when we return. (laugh and I´ll have to kill you).
We showered as we were covered in mud, had lunch, and were taken back to our hostels by minibus back up the WMDR to the top, which was arguably more scary than the ride itself, as we teetered over the edge with Matt pointing out wreckages along the way, along with shrines and crosses for those that had died, that we had whizzed past minutes before.
The driver stopped to throw scraps to several sad-looking dogs that we passed wandering the highway, as these are said to be the lost souls of those poor people who have lost their lives on this most dangerous road...

A Brucie bonus....Bolivia

Bolivia was never part of our itinerary - I don´t know why, but when we were deciding on our route around South America we hadn´t planned to include Bolivia.However, when we went to book our bus tickets to Puno,Lake Titicaca after completing the Inca Trail and discovered that it was not possible to access the area by road due to protests and roadblocks, we had to change our plans.
Looking at a map of South America, Liam suggested we catch a flight to Bolivia, take a look around La Paz for a few days, then head to Lake Titicaca from the Bolivian side instead. After a bit of research it turned out we could fly to La Paz in under an hour for US$100 each, not much more than the long-distance bus. As there were only 2 seats left on the flight leaving at 8.45am the next morning, and there were only 2 flights to La Paz from Cusco each week, we took it as an omen and snapped them up.
"How exhilarating to be able to just fly to another country on a whim with just a few hours´ notice, " said Liam. "Yeah, it´s amazing what you can do with one of these badboys,eh?" I replied, flexing the Barclaycard.(Not quite so exhilarating slaving in a stuffy office for the next 4 years to pay it all off, but hey, we´ll worry about that later.)
The next morning we were up bright and early (no mean feat after drinking in the Irish Bar in Cusco for most of the afternoon and evening) for our flight, only to find it had been delayed for several hours due to poor weather conditions. Apparantly this is common as there have been several accidents and near-misses on this route, as the altitude means that both airports are often foggy and the runways require accuracy as they are short and there are mountains surrounding them.
Luckily the flight was uneventful and we arrived in La Paz in the afternoon and located our hostel.
La Paz is ther highest city in the world at around 3700m, which takes some getting used to as even the slightest exertion leaves you gasping. Our room at the hostel was on the 4th floor,which meant that getting upstairs left us doubled over in an effort to catch our breath, something I think the receptionist anticipated and so gave us gringos the highest room in the block just for a laugh.
It was worth the effort though, as this hostel was one of the best we´ve stayed in on the entire trip so far, despite Bolivia being the poorest country on the continent. (We think that booking the hostels through Hostelworld.com may influence the quality of the room you get, as they ask you to review the hostel by email afterwards..I don´t know, but the mention of Hostelworld seems to have some of the proprieters quaking in their flip-flops to give you good service, just in case you slate the place on the website or something afterwards.)
We dumped our bags and set off to explore the city, which is surrounded by picturesque mountain ranges and is built on a series of very steep hills, so much so that taxis even charge you extra if your journey includes several inclines. On the way downhill, they simply turn their engines off.
We had heard several stories about how dangerous Bolivia was, and some of the many scams that are in operation at the moment, so set off with caution.
Some of the scams include a local chatting to you whilst a "policeman" in uniform comes over and asks to check both your ID´s. They hand over theirs and encourage you to do the same, then when you take our your passport they grab it and anything else they can get their hands on and leg it.
Another involves someone spitting on you without your knowledge, then hurrying over to "help" you clean it up with a tissue, then again relieving you of your belongings whilst you are distracted by the green gunk dripping from your top. Gross!
However, after walking around for a few hours, feeling like giants surrounded by oompah-loompahs (sorry if that´s a little coarse, but the average height is around 5 foot nothing in Peru and Bolivia) our fears began to disspate and we allowed ourselves to relax.
Bolivia is perhaps the biggest culture-shock city we have been to so far..we both agreed that had we come here first we may have been a little freaked out by it, but as we are now seasoned travellers (yeah, right) we allowed ourselves to be swallowed up by the crowds and just soak it all up.
For a start, it´s cheap. And I mean, REALLY cheap. A meal for the two of us including drinks is around a fiver,as there are about 12 Bolivianos to the pound. Brazil has been the most expensive country, with around 2.5 Reals to the pound, then argentina with 5 Pesos to the pound, then Peru with around 6 Soles to the pound.
To get 12 Bolivianos for one pound was a novelty that we never tired of - every time we looked at a menu, phone tariff etc we couldn´t help exclaiming how cheap it all was, a bit like when you go into Primark and get an entire winter wardrobe for 20 quid.
The city of La Paz was buzzing - hundreds of micros (little buses which people hop on and off of) and tiny cars (remember the people here are tiny too) honking their horns and driving in all directions, smog filling your lungs, and most of the locals running everywhere dressed in full traditional garb, such as full frilly skirts and bowler hats (and that´s just the women).
Street markets are everywhere - we were told that as Bolivia is so poor the government doesn´t have the money (or is too corrupt to distibute it), for social security handouts, so everyone does whatever they can to raise to funds to live.
All kinds of weird and wonderful things can be bought at market, such as dried llama foetuses (honestly, I have photographic evidence), dried frogs, armadilloes and even dried cats (sorry Karen, I know how much you love animals - this stuff would´ve had you balling your eyes out in the street).
The next morning we met two couples who we then arranged to meet for drinks that night.Unfortunately, one of the girls got really sick and cancelled the drinks, then Liam felt rough, so didn´t end up going out at all, but arranged to meet Lynsey and Mike, a cool couple from Manchester for breakfast the following morning, where a terrible plan was hatched....

Monday, 27 October 2008

Lima,Cusco and the Inca Trail

We arrived in Lima in the dead of night -luckily the hostel had agreed to pick us up from the airport for a few dollars and our taxi driver was waiting for us. We clambered into the back of his beaten-up old banger (the cars in Argentina were barely road-worthy so we didn´t bat an eyelid when the door nearly fell off) and took in the sights as he took us to the hostel. The sights consisted mainly of fried chicken restaurants and casinos, brightly illuminated against the black night sky.
When he stopped the car and announced that we had arrived, we both did a double-take and thought there must be some misunderstanding. We were parked outside a huge colonial-style old building, which was detached and had a big manicured front garden. It was so different from our previous hostels, so we walked gingerly up the long driveway and rang the bell. The big wooden door eventually creaked open and we were let in, passing several high ceilinged rooms full of antiques and old tea chests,we were led across a courtyard and shown to our room. It was around 2am so we just crashed out. In the morning we headed across the courtyard to the breakfast area which was completely deserted. There was a little bell, faulty-towers style, that you had to ring, then a member of staff would bring some tea and rolls with jam.
The whole atmosphere was a bit eerie - very quiet, still, and very old and in slight disrepair. It felt as though it were once a childrens home as there were huge washrooms with rows of communal showers and big dorms.
We explored the local area, Miraflores,which is an upmarket area of Lima and were amazed at the architecture and bright colours of the houses and buildings: each one was quite large and had a completely different structure to the next, making for an interesting and colourful neighbourhood.
The roads are chaotic in Peru, with crazy driving and horns beeping continuously. There are thousands of "micros",which are old Bedford midi vans used as buses, customised with destinations, ribbons and logos hand-painted on the sides. People are literally spilling out of them and a "conductor" hangs onto the side, pulling passengers on and shouting out the destinations trying to get you on board. The smog and pollution are terrible, I don´t think the term green or eco-friendly applies over here.

This district had some lovely restaurants and a few large shopping malls,where I couldn´t resist buying an utterly impractical pair of 4 inch heels, that I now have trouble fitting into my rucksack and haven´t even had the opportunity to wear yet. I´m not sure the Peruvians are ready for a 6ft blonde stumbling around on the cobbled street in a pair of virtiginous stillies - they´d probably mistake me for one of the blokes in drag, only they have better legs.

Atfter a few days it was time to check into the Hotel Exclusive for the start of our Inca Trail trip with Gap Adventures.
After a stressful morning in the bank, when the bank staff had incorrectly filled the dollars ATM dispenser with Sols (which are worth considerably less) and then took away our card and held us in a side room for 2 hours arguing when we tried to explain their error and get the currency that we´d actually been charged for, we were ready for a bit of luxury. And we weren´t disappointed: the hotel was 4 star with cable tv, comfy beds and a huge bath (a bath! hadn´t had one of those for 7 weeks!).
We met the rest of the group who we would be doing the Inca Trail with and were told everything we needed to know in preparation. The group were a cool bunch of people: 4 Americans, 1 Canadian, an Aussie couple on their honeymoon, 2 Belgians and 3 other English.
We took a flight to Cusco the next morning and spent the day getting our bearings, acclimatizing to the altitude and preparing ourselves mentally for the hike ahead. Well, I did apply some self-tan and dye my eyebrows whilst everyone else probably did more cultural stuff.And OK, so we may have had a few Caipirinhas, fags and burgers as well. We had agreed not to smoke/drink/eat junk for a few weeks before the Trail to prepare ourselves but alas,we are weak and the call of the nightlife was too strong. OK, so we won´t drink ON the trail,we said, but even that wasn´t to be as there were little stalls along the way selling Cusquena, the local beer, and Marlboro Lights, so even on the side of the mountain there was no escape from our evil vices!
We spent a day hiking around the Sacred Valley, an old Inca site, with our guide Marco, which he said would be a warm-up for the Inca Trail. This site had many terraces, carved into the mountains,which were used to grow crops such as potatoes and corn. It was amazing how they had managed to create these terraces on such a steep incline. The buildings themselves that were used for adminstration, astronomy and as religious temples were built from huge rocks, which had been transported by the Inca people from another mountain 8km away and then split by boring holes into the rock, introducing wooden rods then adding water which expands the wood and cracks the white granite rock along the vein so that it can be broken and carved into a brick. The craftsmanship was amazing: each rock had been perfectly carved and slotted together seamlessly with the surrounding rocks,making a perfect wall which would be admired for it´s intricacy even today,and these buildings were over 500 years old.
We spent a day marvelling at this great achievement and the patience required to create such a work of art - apparently these small Inca habitations took about 50 years to complete.
The next day was the first day of the Trail - we had an allowance of 6kgs each for essential clothing such as hiking boots, warm fleeces, hats,gloves,hiking poles, snacks etc in duffel bags which the porters would carry and any other items over the 6kgs allowance we could carry in our daysacks.
Obviously mine was full of make-up and wetwipes - I don´t care if I´m up a 4000m mountain, I´m not going without my mascara and Juicy Tubes lipgloss for anybody.
The first day´s hiking was not too difficult - we climbed up and down but there we no passes (peaks) on this day and we were all in high spirits, chatting to the group and our guides Marco, Rosa and Uber and marvelling at the strength of the porters. The porters are absolutely amazing: these little guys are around 5ft tall and carry 3 peoples duffle bags each, plus all the cooking equipment, tents etc for the entire group. At each stop, they erect tents, the cooks prepare delicious 3-course meals then they take it all down again and literally run up the mountain to the next stop where they do it all again,so that when you arrive at the camp puffing and panting several hours later they have put the tents up and prepared dinner and are standing around waiting for the group to arrive. They wear sandals made from old tyres and their little legs are bulging with varicose veins, yet they greeted us with applause at each stop and were really sweet and friendly, although I tried to avoid bumping into them in the toilets,where the noises and stench they made was ungodly.
The "toilets" were just holes in the ground, with a basic chain that rarely worked and rationed toilet paper. With several hundred people trekking the Inca Trail at any one time, they quickly became filthy, and you had to roll your trousers up before entering.Breathtaking is a word I would have preferred to use to describe the scenery, not the toilets. Not very glamorous, especially at 3am when I woke up with my bladder bursting. When it became impossible to ignore it any longer I woke Liam up (well,someone had to hold the torch!) and we crawled out of our sleeping bags to make the treacherous journey across rocks and around other tents in the pitch black to the baƱos (loos). I regularly tripped over tent pegs and almost landed on people snoring loudly in their tents, or stumbled down the bank alongside a sheer 12000ft drop half-asleep on my toilet runs. (Runs being the operative word, since most of us had upset stomachs at one time or another).
The hardest day was the second day, which was mostly uphill at what seemed like a 90 degree angle, which combined with the altitude and plenty of rain made for a tough hike. The awesome views made up for the difficulty of the climb, although when we tackled the notorious Dead Woman´s Pass, which is ther highest point of the trail at 14000ft above sea level I must admit I was flaking slightly. Liam seemed to find it easier than me and shouted encouraging (annoying?) comments to try to help me. I was purple in the face, munching my coca leaves (our guide insisted we all chew them to prevent altitude sickness and to give us strength) and felt as though my legs were made of jelly. In a strategic move to keep me going, he ran ahead a few steps with the water bottle. As I choked on my coca leaves and begged for the water I had no choice but to keep up with him, and finally collapsed at the top of the mountain, exhilarated at having completed the toughest part. A few members of the group were suffering from altitude sickness and arrived white-faced at the top quite a while later. Actually, we were some of the first to arrive so didn´t do too badly at all.
The third day should not have been quite so tough, yet the torrential rain and hail made this day just as difficult: part of the trail was steep downhill steps,which had been turned into a river by the rain. As we clung to the side of the mountain slipping on the rocks and mud and trying not to look down at the sheer drop on one side I think most people were a bit scared. I know I was - what if my mascara ran?
Along the way we passed several Inca towns, which were amazing in their craftsmanship and our guides told us of their history. When the Spanish invaded and took control of the country they destroyed many buildings and took the bricks from them to make their own houses, and as they didn´t believe in the Incas tradition of worshipping various Gods (such as Sun God, Moon God etc) they destroyed all the temples. The reason the Incas built their cities high on the mountains was because they belived they would be closer to their Gods,they were safer from attack from enemies and also because the conditions for farming were better.
On the 4th and final day of the trek we were awoken at 3.45am to make the final stretch to arrive at Macchu Picchu (translated as old mountain) by sunrise. I did my usual routine of a full wash using wetwipes, applied my make-up by torchlight and I was ready. We were finally going to see the lost city, which had been deserted after the invasion of the Spanish and had been covered by undergrowth for years before being rediscovered by an American called Highram Bingham in 1911.Even today, only 40 percent of the entire city is visible, with the remaining 60% being covered with dense undergrowth. It cannot be uncovered as it may cause the buildings to collapse, and the city is already slipping by 1cm per month.
As we reached the Sun Gate and gazed out over the ancient ruins of this new 7th wonder of the world, all the efforts of the last 4 days became worthwhile. Watching the sun rise over the mountain and taking in the awe-inspiring scenery was truly magical,and something I will never forget.
We spent part of the day exploring the ruins where around 2000 people had once lived, worked and worshipped, which took 100 years to build and were not even completed, before going to Aguas Calientes for lunch and to take the train back to Cusco.
Although it had been wet for most of the trail (making parts of it treacherous),the weather on the morning that we arrived at Macchu Picchu was perfect,with blue skies and bright sun.
Liam even climbed another mountain (whilst the rest of the group declined and recovered),which he managed to climb up and down in around an hour. When you see the pics of this beast you´ll appreciate this acheivement, as he had to complete the hike by running up the mountain as we had to catch the bus down to Aguas Calientes in less than an hour and a half. Extreme Tourism,Liam called it.
Having completed such a challenge, we all agreed a night out to celebrate was in order, and although we were absolutely shattered we all took a much-needed shower and headed out in Cusco. After a drink in the Irish Bar and a lovely meal in the main square we went to Mama Afrika to dance the night away. It was a miracle we could even move as our knees and ankles were all busted, but it´s amazing what a few pisco sours and mojitos can do when combined with a pumping house beat.
We had done it..completed the Inca Trail. Our smokers lungs and 30plus bodies had not let us down and we were all on a high. The old Shaman tune "I can move, move, move any mountain" was going round in my head as I drifted into my first decent sleep (in a bed instead of a sleeping bag on some stones) in a week....