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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!

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....