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Letters from the road
Monday, 2 July 2018
Casey 88
Topic: Antarctica

Helecopter photo Hele.jpg

 

     As the chopper winds down and a toyota hilux pulls up, we jump in the back with our gear.  500 meters over the snow to my new home. A twenty foot meat container fitted out with two bunks and four little windows. Someone has done a large drawing on the door titled "The Asylum". It's not too bad, there is a curtain to cut the space in half, and  I'm only sharing it with one other bloke named Reggie, of course that's not his real name, just a nickname like everyone seems to have acquired during our training time. Trainings over Kiddies, this is home for the next five months. Most of us are summerer's, and as they say here for a good time not a long time. The real people the winterers live in "the Tunnel' a 500M long  line of Squat gray boxes raised above the snow on scaffold tube. A semicircular un insulated corrugated iron  walkway connects them facing east, that's the direction the blizzards come from. The boxes are separated so if one of them burns down in theory the rest won't. When it gets windy the snow goes over or under, and piles up on my donga on the west side. The top of the tunnel's all business, Coms, OIC, Met, Doc Science, the bottoms where the action is, 2 Living Dongas , Mess and the all important Bar. When we have  all arrived we assemble in the mess and the OIC Tom reads us the riot act. What not  to do, and where not to go. That over we all head to the bar to get to know each other. The winters look a bit shell shocked having their numbers  doubled overnight. As well as that a few of their friends are RTA ing back to OZ. Their quiet life is over. Some are happy to see some new faces. Being locked up with a bunch of people for a long time involves a lot of group dynamics, quite often the result is not good. NASA actually studies Antarctic bases for tips on long term space flights. Casey 88 seems to have done pretty well, and they are a tight group, it will take them a while to warm to us. The boat leaves and were on our own.
         Living on an Antarctic base is a bit like living in a little country town. everyone knows everyone , and nobody new ever drives into town. Money is worthless, gossip is gold, it's the ultimate socialist state. Food, clothing, and beer are provided. Everyone has a job. We have a Station Leader whose job is to keep the outside world happy. Moss and Erica a couple of Boffins who are doing research on slime, and everyone else who basically keeps the place running. The whole body count runs to about 50 people. We communicate to the outside world through wizzas (telex's) sent by HF radio, which may or may not work. The order of business is Met readings, Ant Div business, then personal communications are on the bottom of the list. The mail service runs once every boat.. Once you're here you're stuck here, if we can't fix it ourselves it ain't gunna get fixed.
         I work for Australian Construction Services (ACS), there are 20 of us and our job is to get the new base, which we have been building over the last 8 years ready for next year's winterers who will turn up in a couple of months time. Its about a 1KM away from the old base and a completely different design. No tunnels, each building is its own square little coloured lego block set on a white background. They are positioned so the snow from one doesn't pile up on any of the others, and the wind keeps the entries on the side of the buildings clear. The buildings all have different colours, red is accomodation, blue is services, green stores, Yellow coms and admin. The new workers are called buttercups, their recognisable by their bright yellow clean overalls, and their bewildered look. We can't find any thing, everything, is stored somewhere in one of hundreds of boxes or containers. The old hands don't seem to do much but get lots done, we spend all day wandering around, and get nothing done. I cut the sleeves off my issue overalls with a stanley knife, a bit of dirt, and all of a sudden I don't look like a buttercup. Our two main jobs over the summer are to get the aptly named RED SHED, ready for the winters to move into, and build a fire station. The red shed is like a luxury hotel compared to the tunnel. Two stories high, with huge open common areas, a mess, cinema, library, dark room, brew/smokers room, surgery and a bar. Being new it has the feeling of an empty box. Like any building job we are going to have to rush to finish it for it's new residents. I'm a sparkie, one of five here, so for the next two months I do any thing but. I paint, lay carpet, vinyl, assemble furniture, hang curtains, stack stores.
    When I'm not in the red shed, I'm batching concrete, driving a rock crusher, fixing steel, or assembling formwork, to get the fire station out of the ground. Batching concrete consists of standing on top of a hopper with three other blokes slashing at 20kg bags of premix in the wind for eight hours straight. It's the worst job in the place, cold, hard and dirty. They soon discover that having grown up on a farm I'm a pretty good loader driver, which suits me fine as it's clean, easy, and warm. My tape player even fits nicely in the Cat 950's cab. We have a quarry where we turn big rocks into little rocks. The rock crusher has a little cab, and I find with the addition of a fan heater, I can sit down, read a book, and keep it crushing by just listening to the sound it makes to turn the rock feed on and off. On a cold day I can pretty much spend the day going from crusher cab to loader cab, and read a hundred pages at the same time. Our one Mack dump truck has no brakes, so only a few of us are happy to drive it, I don't care, the heater works. Eventually I have to do some electrical work. The cable trays that connect the buildings have finally melted out of the snow. We have to extend them and run new cables to the buildings. Running the cables is quick, tying them to the tray with stainless steel cable ties take forever. The best part is when you look up, you are surrounded by ice, icebergs, and hills, with a view that stretches forever.
    At the end of December the resupply voyage arrives. This is the major event for the year, most the old winterers leave, the new ones arrive. We get a years worth of everything off the boat and stack it in the stores, then we load all the busted gear and rubbish back on the boat. The boat doesn't pull up at the wharf it stays a km out in the bay. A million liters of diesel, gets pumped ashore through a long black pipe. Containers, trucks, buildings and everything else are loaded on to a barge, floated across to shore and the craned onto a log skidder to be hauled up a hill. On top of this we have to move a lot of stuff from one base to the other.  First off the boat is the mail. A whole new bunch of buttercups arrive, looking bewildered. That was me just three months ago.The round trippers, and staff going to other bases get off too, they are the lowest form of base life being here for just a short time. We entertain them "especially the girls" at the bar with heroic stories. If they wander off to the loo and leave their camera a quick few dick photos are taken. There are more than a few young ladies who have had interesting conversations with their parents after they have sent a unprocessed roll of film back home to be developed.  We move them into their new quarters and have a huge Xmas lunch together. Most of them I have meet before in Hobart. After four days the job is done and the boat leaves with a third of the people we have got to know well in the last month. We shoot off rockets and flare pistols as they sail away.The old winterers wander around looking a bit lost, but eventually decide to have a wake at the bar. There isn't room for us all in the red shed, and the tunnel feels more homely any way so I move into a vacated doonga. I am to be one of the last Tunnel Rats as they are known. There is always a bit of a rift after changeover, but this is exacerbated by the fact that we are now two crews living on two separate stations. When we have a blizzard we are completely separated. The new guys are now in charge, and want to do things their way which is quite often different to the old way. Sometimes it's better, but sometimes they just haven't had time to figure out the way things work here. We all work, and eat together but the split is there till we leave at the end of summer.
    It's not all work. New years eve is second only to midwinter in antarctic celebrations. It's the only day we get off over the summer.  The bar in the red shed is a bit soulless so we have it in the club at the tunnel. A beach party complete with polystyrene palm trees and hula skirts. Fort Knox is raided and the club is stacked with booze. It's now light 24 hours a day so you can't tell when it's time to call it quits. Crazy drinking, Phil's Guitar, and the record player gets a pounding. Budgie comes as a beach front developer, and jumps into the bar at 2am with a revving chainsaw cutting one of the palm trees down. Thank God he's a teetotaler. 2 bottles of Ouzo later I bail at 7am leaving Orby and Slippery holding up the bar. I wake up the next morning at feeling like the chainsaw is still going in my head. Ouzo, what was I thinking, I don't even like the stuff. It's Australia day so we have a cricket match, and some a swim.
    Everyone here is a joker. If you fall asleep outside your bed you will wake up covered in marker pen. The abutions has toothpaste and shaving cream sitting on the bench below the mirrors, put the two ends together, squeeze the shaving cream and, the next person to brush their teeth looks like a rabid dog. Billy the chef, spends his days making crumbed tea towel schnitzels, and foam rubber lamingtons. We spend our days blowing up met balloons full of talcum powder in his room, and rewiring his light switches, of course we lock the door on the way out. No one here has a key. Birthday cakes explode, Overalls get mysteriously sewn up., the strawberry topping is actually chilli sauce.
    The fire station slowly rises from the dirt. Our working day consists of 7.am Breakfast( Cereal,toast), ute to the Red Shed,10.am Smoko (Toasties, cake), 12.am Lunch  (full cooked meal with 2 choices, desert) 4.pm Afternoon tea (pack of mint slices each) 5.00 Shower and beer at the club, 6.pm Dinner, (same as lunch), back to the club. No one loses weight here. After work time is spent watching videos, reading in the library, or developing film in the dark room. Ian and I play billiards. We walk to Shirley Is to check out the penguins. Spend time building stuff as a hobby, playing darts, or putting down a batch of hommers (home brew). It's light all night, so sometimes a couple of us get on some trikes (motorized three wheel death machines), and go hooning over to Wilkes an abandoned American base,go cravace slotting, or up to the aeroplane tail, the only bit that  sticks out of ice from a 60's plane crash. We have Sunday off and get three "Jolly" days where we can go out on field trips. There are a couple of field huts where you can escape the base, and enjoy the silence.  Grab a couple of steaks, a slab from Fort Knox, and head off to Wilkes,Jack's, or Browning to do heroic stuff.
    The big jolly is the dome, a hundred clicks inland, there is a team drilling down 1000 meters into the ice. Getting there involves a bit of wheeling and dealing and three days off. Five of us head off through the pass and up to SI, a pile of 44 gallon drums welded together that marks the start of the inland trail. Our vehicle is a haglund, a bit like two corn flakes boxes tied together with tracks. A $250,000 dollar vehicle designed to glide through the soft snow of Sweden. Unfortunately Antarctica has no soft snow , only hard ice, and a seat made from plywood with a millimeter of vinyl over it doesn't help. Riding any distance in one is like being beaten with a cricket bat. After a couple of hours the coast disappears and we are surrounded by white in every direction. Our only reference is a line of bamboo canes with flags and beer cans on them heading north south. Blyth Junction, Lanyon Junction, The Antarctic circle. Every now and again we stop to take photos of the odd sign marking nowhere in particular. After five hours at S2 we hang a left, but not before crawling down to the old glacio station, hidden 30 meters below the ice. This is not for the claustrophobic as the floor is slowly rising up crushing the old huts into the ceiling. A couple of hours later we arrive at Law Dome camp. It's a few traverse vans, kitchen,and a pile of 44 gallon drums in the middle of nowhere. A few random vehicles complete the scene. Accomodation is limited so we set up our tents, then head to the mess. Glacio's have a reputation for liking a drink, and it's nice to have some new people in town. Sometime later I stumble off to my tent bed and my two polar sleeping bags on a camp mat. It's a retaviatly balmy -29 deg c. Important. Stuff your socks n jocks in between the bags, that way they will be warm when you go to put them back on. The next day we head three meters below ground level to check out the ice drill. It's a 7meter long computerised marvel, that extracts ice cores, then tilts sideways to regurgitate them. It even has its own NASA style control room. That night over a few frosties Vin keeps us amused with stories of drinking drillers (drilling alcohol put down the bore hole to stop it closing in) while crossing Antarctica on a dozer with a bunch of Russians. The next day Russ wants me to drive D5 dozer back to Casey. The sun's out, and it's a balmy -20 so I pop the roof hatch and sit on it steering with my feet. At 12kmh it's a slow journey, but the ice plateau stretches to the horizon in every direction, only disturbed by the odd cane. Wow.
    As we get into Autumn the snow returns. It snows, it melts,it snows, it melts, it snows, then it doesn't. The sun doesn't set in January, by April it sets at 4.30 in the afternoon and sticks it head back up sixteen hours later. Our little red fire station looks finished on the outside, but it isn't. The  wintering guy's will fit out the rest. We box things up to RTA, clean up the sites for winter, and chill out. The boat arrives at the beginning of May, time to go home, but before then we have a few other tasks. We load the boat with cranes, dozers and trucks. Containers, boxes, and rubbish. We say our goodbyes to the twenty five winterer's, and a couple of Larcs head out to the boat with most of the crew. Only the loading guy's are left, I chuck my wanted on voyage gear in a container, and jump on the Larc. There are fifteen of us, one small container, and two larcs left to load. The crane lifts the container, and a sudden strong gust of wind pushes it around. The operator dumps it on the barge, but we delay our departure for five minutes waiting for the wind to die down. Half an hour later it's blowing 55 knots (100 kmh). The boat takes off and does laps behind a local island. We hide in the Red Shed, my only problem is that all my personal gear is in a container. No toothbrush, towel, runners or clothes. The wind hits 150 Knots, and it Blizzes for two days straight. During a small break Ned and I head to the green store. We have evil in mind. We box up all the spare toilet paper, nail a lid on it, write plastic sheeting on the outside, and take it down to the rack  with 300 other boxes on it. The weather breaks, as i climb up the cargo net on the side of the boat I see the WOV container on a half sunk barge. I stand on the deck as the base recedes into the distance. I'm looking back back thinking to myself I may never be here again.
    Our boat is the Lady Franklin, an old car ferry out of Newfoundland, crewed by a bunch of crazy canucks. We are headed to Macca, then Hobart. Our accommodation is uninsulated tin boxes welded to the car deck, the big box in the center is the engine. The loading door at the front is welded and chained shut. You get a beer for lunch and a beer for dinner, extras cost a dollar, you mark you tab on the fridge with a pen. Slippery wins with a $248 bill not including freebies. We steam north until we are past the icebergs, then the captain throws a party. The one non drinker on the crew stands watch, it's going to be a long watch. The Captain is not bad with a guitar, his one aussie song, "Poor Ned" gets played 30 times in between "The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald". We drink a lot of Canadian Club. Otherwise we watch videos and read. The place is like a casino, there are no windows, or clocks, and the lights are on 24 hours a day. Everyone goes onto their own time schedule. On night at 3.am I wake up and head up to the bridge,someone else is heading to bed. After three flights of stairs I get on deck. The other blokes there tell me I just missed an Aurora. Then it fires up again. Colours, curtains, radiating spirals, for three hours. The old timers tell me that's as good as they get. We hit Macca, do penguin porn, and hit the club. Hobart is two days away. I walk down the ramp and when I hit the pier, I'm unemployed. Gee there are a lot of people here.

 
    `Ok so I have been to Antarctica four times. Not all of the above happened in the one trip, but it did happen. A lot more crazy stuff happened in between as well. For the guys who spent a whole year looking for loo paper, I'm sorry. I told the division guys where it was, they just thought it was a good joke and didn't tell you.  For 4 years of my life I spent more time in Antarctica than anywhere else in the world. On my last trip out I stood on the deck and thought I don't care if I'm ever here again, yet the place still haunts me. Thanks for all the good times   cheers  007.
 
 
Click the pic above for more

Posted by bondrj at 1:43 AM NZT
Updated: Tuesday, 3 July 2018 5:57 AM NZT
Monday, 4 June 2018
Limeing
Topic: The Caribbean

  Liming is Caribbean slang for laying around doing nothing. It's one of my specialty subjects, so when my cousin needed a liming expert to accompany him to the caribbean how could I refuse. He was going there to run a Sustainable Farming Workshop. Me, it's winter in Melbourne, it has to be warmer than here. Quick trip to the travel agent, Thommo the global chef needs a crash pad for a couple of weeks, that's the dog sitter taken care of. I'm out'a here.
    Saint Kitts and Nevis is only slightly further away from Australia than the moon, and the flight takes a similar amount of time. We have an overnight break in LA, then somehow mysteriously after arriving together at LAX in the same car, my companions missed their flight. I arrive in St Kitts three hours late because my flight was delayed in Miami, with no idea of what's happening. The others have all the arrangements, I'm just along for the ride. I rock up at their villa in a taxi, but their names aren't on the guest list. Well off to a hotel. Only problem, the plane was late. apparently the plane is never late here because all the staff knock off at 11PM. We try 3 different hotels before I get to the Marriott Hotel Casino. The should have we never close out the front. For the bargain price of $250 USD I get a room. The bar is even open so I get a beer and a feed too. The next day, my companions are still on route so I check out the pool,the bar, the girls around the pool, and the beach. I could get used to this. Later on that day the group is finally all in one place.
     They have a villa that overlooks the Strip, a group of beach bars that provides night life for the island.The next couple of days vanish in a blur of activity. Well for the conference goers at least, you can read about it here if you really want to. I spend my days reading, liming, and enjoying the full cooked breakfast at the B n B  I have moved into. Nights involve a swim and a bit of rum therapy on the Strip, generally followed buy a home cooked meal at the villa. One night our Saint Kitts local cooks us a traditional feed of chicken, beans, rice, slaw and mac. My cuz does some interesting concoctions mostly involving the load of eggplant that he scored  from a farmer on his first day here. I'm thepâtissier, with staples like chocolate self saucing pudding, peach crumble, and muffins. I also provide technical support to the conference boffins showing them how to use complicated technical equipment like the oven, dryer, dishwasher ect. This generally involves finding the "on" button and making sure the door is closed. 
    When the guys are doing field trips I accompany them. We visit farms, and forest to check out some of the local land problems. Pretty much everything here is imported, except for some local veggies There are as many monkeys here as there are people, and the little buggers eat everything. Electric fences and dogs are deployed to try and keep them away  from crops. My seventy year old landlady throws rocks at them to stop them eating her flowers. Nothing besides the rocks seems to be totally effective. The country has two main islands which run fairly independently from each other. One day we catch the ferry across to Nevis, the smaller of the two. The whole country was a giant sugar mill until 2005 when years of losses finally forced the industry to close. Their now pinning their hopes on tourism. The Chinese are building two huge new resort hotels here, and cruise ships bring in thousands of visitors on day trips. They love the monkeys.
    Our last night is a bang up conference dinner in a local restaurant overlooking Basseterre harbor. I have the conch chowder, sea bass, and key lime pie. The Australian government has sponsored part of the event, and the ambassador has brought a pile of Aussie wine for promotional purposes. I finally feel like I'm getting some of those tax dollars back. Everyone seems happy with what they have achieved. My work here is done. 
    
    Australian Land Care International Is a tax deductible charity run by volunteers. You can check out their work,  and maybe even give them some cash at https://alci.com.au/ if you like. Otherwise click the picabove for some more photos of the trip.

Posted by bondrj at 12:59 AM NZT
Updated: Monday, 4 June 2018 1:03 AM NZT
Tuesday, 29 May 2018
Calle Ocho, South Beach,Coconut Grove,Coral Gables,Miami
Topic: North America

 

  


  A plane flight from the Caribbean to Australia takes forty two hours with transfers. That's way longer than anyone should spend bottled up in what is really a large coke can. I've got a few days before I have to get home and the can stops in Miami. I get off, while my friends scramble for their bags to make their next connection. Last time I was here Scarface had just been filmed, both the Space Shuttle, and the Apple Mac had just been launched, Miami was the coke capital of the world, which gave Don Johnson a hit TV show.

    I get some local advice from some friends, and end up staying in the Ponce de Leon Hotel in Coral Gables. It's a original art deco 1920's hotel with no lift but a great location. I start checking in in English but by the end it's in Spanish. Easier for both of us. This is pretty much the theme for the next couple of days. There is a huge Latino population here, so talking to the bus driver, or asking directions is easier even in my bad Spanish. I head out to "the bar" for a quick wings and basket ball lunch, and get home 7 hours later.

     Miami itself has changed greatly. There are huge condos everywhere, and they have a great public transport system. There are trolley buses, and a futuristic elevated tram  called Metromover here.  Two little driverless cars do 3 loops around the central downtown area. Best part, they are free to use. There is also a train, and bus system for longer distances. $ 5.25 buys you an all day ticket, and even gets you to the airport.
    Unfortunately It's not really beach weather, so I take my brolly and head off for a day of sightseeing. Little Havana, South Beach, Downtown, and Coconut Grove. "Tick". Ribs, corn, and beer for dinner, my favorite American meal. Next day, a diner breakfast, with a cortado, and the airport. L.A here we come.

Thanks to Caroline and Lauren for the tips, click the pic for more.

Posted by bondrj at 4:36 PM NZT
Updated: Tuesday, 29 May 2018 4:42 PM NZT
Sunday, 22 April 2018
The Showdown in Queenstown
Topic: Oceania

  I'm not a natural golfer. The thought of playing golf five times in six days sounds like torture to me. The trip was organized, paid for, and unfortunately someone had to drop out. Duty called, what could I do. 

Still beats working. Queenstown here we come.

Click the Pic for the full Story


Posted by bondrj at 10:50 PM NZT
Updated: Wednesday, 23 May 2018 11:07 AM NZT
Thursday, 7 September 2017
Ten things I like about South America
Topic: South America

 

Endless Beaches

The whole of South America seems like one big beach.There is always somewhere else to go, and another resort to descover.

 

Two Dollar Lunches

Chicken Soup or Ceviche,  Main, and a drink. A cheap lunch is the national pass time here.

 

Hospedajes

There everywhere offering good cheap places to stay

 

Salchipapas

Need a snack, chips with a sav on top, not health food, but for a dollar who cares.

 

Juice carts

Freshly squeezed juice right in front of you. Go to the market for some of the more exotic varieties. Less than a buck.

 

Piles of Rocks. 

There everywhere, Machu Picchu, Pisac, Ollayantatambo, built in the spectacular Andes, commonly known as Inca Ruins , what you come here for, apart from the beaches

 

Wild Life

Whales, Seals, Funny looking birds, Exotic animals

Plenty of them to see and get up close to here.

 

Language

Lots of countrys with a common language. Helps if you speak a bit of it.

 

Asado

Barbecue is the other national sport here, besides football, and Fiesta.

 

Cheap Beer, and Cute Girls

What more can I say.


Posted by bondrj at 12:01 AM NZT
Updated: Saturday, 2 September 2017 1:22 PM NZT
Sunday, 27 August 2017
¿ Dónde está el sol ?
Topic: South America

 
    When I first thought about coming to South America, it was February. I had to get someone to mind the dog. That took a while. When I got here it was July. Started in Argentina cold, Uruguay cold, Quito Ecuador cold, Lima cold, Cusco cold, La Paz cold, Southern Bolivia very cold, Southern Peru Beaches cold covered in sea fog. Right lets find somewhere warm. Columbia, unfortunately not only is it hot in September but it rains every day, likewise for Costa Rica, Salvador, Honduras ect also.  There must be a sweet spot somewhere. With a couple of weeks left to kill I hop on a plane north. Puira is not the most scenic city in Peru, but when I arrive its hot, and the suns out. Auspecious start, and it's near a beach. Peru for some reason doesn't seem to do central bus stations, every company has their own. Lima has about 40 spread around town. It of makes it hard because you have to find the right bus station first. Third out of six isn't to bad, problem the only bus leaves at six am. Now I probably could just wander out to the highway and catch a colectivo ( 12 seat Mini Bus with no brakes and 25 people on board), or take a taxi ($20/100km), but whats the fun in that. Six dollars  later 6am start it is. 
        Next morning it's cold, and nothings open. Even had to wake the night clerk  up to get out the front door no fire regs here. Twenty minutes later I'm at the terminal terrestrial, but no bus. Buses here tend to leave on time because 20% of them break down, and 30% of them get stuck in teachers strikes. Bus rocks up, backs in to terminal, well half way into terminal, and stalls blocking the main road. It's gonna be one of those day's. Bus starts after a few goes but reverse gear is shot. This takes about 20 minutes of repeated stalling to figure  out. Buy this time honking traffic pilling up on the main road. Only the rickshaws can drive past by using the small bit of footpath left open. Bus gives up and leaves, empty. New bus with functioning reverse gear turns up after some time. I dump my gear in the luggage hold beside the live chicken with the luggage tag on its leg. I'm going to Los Organos, a surf beach about 160 clicks up the road. Peru has 3000, km of surf beaches, Ecuador about 1500, got to be able to find something here. Organos looks hopeful but I decide to stay on the bus till Mancora, another 20 km. The tee shirts say "Mancora es de puta madre", and it is. The place is packed out with celbs in summer, in winter its just relaxed. Good weather, $5 hotels, Doof Doof clubs, and lots of restaurants. After a couple of hectic do nothing days, I head to Los Organos. Enough budgeting, for $30 I get a beach front room that looks straight at the surf. It's a bit like your southern Peru town, a lot of things are shut for winter, and I have to walk 15 minutes into town for dinner at night. Get up, breakfast, swim, creviche  on the beach, sleep, beers with the neighbours, pasta in town, sleep, repeat, for as long as you like. Beach fix done, I'm going to jump the boarder check out southern Ecuador.
        The bus leaves late, and Ecuadorian customs must be on strike, because we had to stand in a line for two and a half hours to get into the country. The Peru side twenty minutes. Consequently we missed our connection to Cuenca, this meant another dogey connection further up the road. The best bit was a meal with my fellow passengers while we were waiting. Standard meals here run between $2 and $5 bucks. One am arrival, but the old get the taxi driver to find a hotel worked a treat. Three buck cab fare, and a nice $15 hotel with a good breakfast. Cuenca nice old Spanish style town, central square, lots of churches. tick. The trip down to the coast first heads up through a high pass, that reminds me a lot of Switzerland. The place looks like it would have some great walks, but I haven't heard any thing about it. Guayaquil is the second biggest town in Ecuador and doesn't come with a great reputation so I just want to get in and out. I want to head up north to the beach towns so I can get a boat out to Isla de la Plata. Montanita  sounds like fun, but it could be a bit far so I punt for Selenas the gold coast of Ecuador complete with high rise towers. The bus station a Guayaquil is huge,  3 stories, 100 offices but at least unlike Peru the are all in one suburb. Eventually I find a bus to Santa Ellana next to Selenas, and it's going now. Right now. Race up 2 floors and jump on. A couple of hours later in the bus station in Santa Ellanas, I take the nature break I wanted In Guayaquil. On the way out a bloke is yelling Montanita, Motanita, that's where I wanted to go, so I jump on the bus, funny how some times things just work out.
  Montanita is the Ecuadorian party town, Hostels, Discos, and Restaurants. Unfortunately no sun. I book in for a couple of nights, and while looking for dinner book a boat trip to the Isla. Isla de la Plata ( Island of Silver) is known as the poor man's Galapagos, because for $35 you can see many of the things you can see there. The Silver bit either comes from pirates  treasure there or the colour of the bird droppings, no one seems to know which. Eight O'clock start, though we wait around 15 min for the gringa, who doesn't show in the end. "Chicas siempre tarde" says the guide. Mini van to Purto Lopez, we all get dropped at different places. Then on to the boat.
         I will declare here  that I'm not a big fan of whale watching. I have seen a fair few of them over the years and I am generally underwhelmed. It takes a hour  flat out to get to the island, we had a couple of breaks to watch the whales do their thing. There were lots of them, and they were very active, for whales. The island is covered in birds, we spend a couple of hours walking around with a guide. There are Patas Azule ( blue footed boobies ), Patas Nazca, Frigates, Patas roja, pelicans, and albatross for you twitches. Some of them have chicks, and you can get close enough to them that they peck you on the way past.  Back on the boat we have Lunch then go straight for a swim with the Turtles. Not what I was told to do when I was young but when in Rome. No one died of cramp. We see lots of reef fish and coral, a bit more bird watching and its time for home. Another hour of getting the kidneys bashed.
       When I get back I find the driver but she can't find anyone else. No one got instructions where to meet, and as we all got dropped off in different places, South American organisation  ensues. After an hour of driving around town we are all reunited. Back at Mountania, I make a decision I'm going back south, It seems to be the only place that has decent weather. Two days later I'm Back to the Future in Mancora. A special thanks to Ecuadorian customs for making me and a couple of hundred of my new friends stand in a non moving line for four hours. All up that's a day of my life I will never get back waiting for some useless pricks to do their jobs. The Peruvian side took 20 minutes with half as many people. The only plus was the ride back in the doggy colectivo with the other people I met in the line. Highlight buying black market petrol form Ecuador on the Peru side for 30 cent a litre while the cops watched on. From here it's south with a few more beach stops, till I hit Lima. Hasta Luego.

Posted by bondrj at 12:01 AM NZT
Updated: Monday, 28 August 2017 4:07 PM NZT
Wednesday, 16 August 2017
Salar de Uyuni
Topic: South America
 photo WP_20170622_14_44_05_Pro.jpg

 

 

    We got to La Paz which is a experience in Its self, so why not go all the way. Down in the south of Bolivia is arid area of mountain and lakes that's meant to be pretty interesting. Whats another night on a Bus anyhow. We leave our poky hotel and lug our packs half an hour to the bus station. Normally I would catch a taxi but there is a parade on that has basically cut La Paz in half. As we cross the walkway above it we see, marching bands, giant bleeding Jesus's, acrobats, and fire breathers for as far as the eye can see. Looks like a good show but we have a bus to catch. Now I must say, I hate night busses. Unfortunately if you want to go to Uyuni there is no other option. This one is known as a full cama, which means bed, I hope it's not a marketing gimmick. The bus station is kaos which is pretty much situation normal in La Paz, I grab some drinks, pay the bus terminal tax, and wave my tickets in front of someone who looks vaguely interested. He grunts so I assume we must be in the right place. Buses come and go at our allotted time, none of them say Uyuni. There are a lot of people standing around including some other gringos, like Panteene, it won't happen straight away, but it will happen. Eventually our bus turns up, dump the bags, and get on board. The beds aren't flat, but there a bit like a business class airline seat, that's almost flat. Before the bus is out of La Paz I'm out of it.

         The lights come on and it's the morning, well sort of. Uyuni is located on a plane 3700 meters asl, and at 5.30 am in the morning it's cold, the only thing missing are tumble weeds rolling down the main street. This pretty much set the tone for the rest of the trip. Morning expect ice and sub zero temps.  The bus dumps us in the middle of the main street, there is not much open but there are plenty of touts about. I have actually done a bit of research on trips, and the 3 day one seems the go. They recommend checking out the vehicle, driver, getting a English speaking guide, and several other thing I have forgotten. Of course we did none of this, we found some one who looked as cold as we did and asked where the nearest coffee shop was. Turns out she was another tout but she took us a couple of blocks to the main square. Over coffee we had a look at her brochure, which basically said we can do any thing you want, warmed up we piled in to  a 4wd back to the dodgy office to check things out. A quick trip description in Spanish, sounded good to me , but what would I know. A question about accommodation, no tents. Price Haggle, about $120US . Off to the ATM for some Bol's. Listo. Trip Starts at 11AM.

    Into the Nissan Patrol, it's in reasonable nick, about 15 years old. Off to the train grave yard which is just out of town. Here we pick up another couple, so the count is 6 Spanish speakers, and Ted. Our driver, a bloke in his 30's, A young couple from Barcelona, and another young couple from Argentina. Ted and I go close to doubling the average age. The trains are left over from the mining bust in the 40's, lots of turistas, and old steam trains that have been stripped for scrap. It's then off to the Salt flats. The Salar de Uyuni is one of the flattest bit of land in the world, 10,000 kms2 and so flat they use it to calibrate satellite altimeters. It's a weird place, no animals, and white in every direction. There is the odd mountain top that pokes through covered with cactus every 30,km or so. It's not actually dry, It has a wet season in summer, and in places their is water on top of the salt, or just below. We do all the usual things. take selfies, get out the Godzilla models an use the perspective to make it look huge, head to the salt hotel for lunch. Our Driver is also our chef, and he brings a packed lunch for us every day. We take off across the flat and eventually come to one of the islands. It's very different to the salt flats, and covered in cactus. From the top you can get a perspective how big the place actually is.Our guide is great giving us all the stories, and history of the place. I generally condense this down to a couple of words and pass it on to Ted, if I think its relevant. Ted doesn't get much. Another couple of hours till our night spot across the lake.

      I do remember our first night is Luxury and our second night is Basic. We have our own Yert, complete with hot shower, and beds with extra thick blankets on them. Dinner is the Bolivian favourite chicken and rice, in the comunal hall. Even better still it comes with a bottle of red, I order another, and Ted gets a beer. Our companions aren't big drinkers so I have to drink most of the other. Our Catalan couple have quite good English so even Ted feels included.

         The next morning early start, freezing cold. We have finished the salt flat so from here on in I don't really know what to expect. From here we head into the mountains. Ted wants to see the flamingos, but he doesn't want to see the american tourists who keep on chasing them off before he can get a good photo.We stop at an Inca grave yard, then on to some lakes where we have lunch. Ted gets his photos. We are high here, somewhere between 4200 an 5000 meters. The white stuff in the pics is not salt it's ice. Other stuff is the Árbol de Piedra (Tree of Stone) which has been carved out of a boulder by the frigid wind. The scenery is wild and barren, great unending vistas of planes, lakes, and mountains. We get a flat tyre, and pitch in to change it as it's getting cold. By the time we get to our basic camp it's dark. The temp is way below zero. We eat a basic dinner of spag and retire to our dorm beds, lights out by 8.30.

          Minus 6 on the car dash. No breakfast, and no daylight. We are off to the hottest joint around. First stop the geysers, nothing like a bit of steam to warm you up then on to the hot springs and breakfast. I have a bit of a love hate relationship with hot springs here. All the ones I have been to so far aren't really hot. It's still freezing but I get changed and jump in. It's hot, now all I have to do is get out. Thankfully breakfast is hot too and in a cafe. We stop by another couple of coloured lakes, get another flat, and stop for lunch below the tree line. We spend the rest of the day driving back to Uyuini. Somewhere along the line we stop at a church a mining company have moved brick by brick from the old town site. I've seen better and it's closed. I get phone reception and footy results. We have dinner with our new friends, and discuss the revolution. Back on to the Cama bus, for an overnighter to La Paz, followed buy an all day trip to Arequipa Peru. We get in at midnight after another two hour detour around another teachers strike  No rest for the wicked.


Posted by bondrj at 12:01 AM NZT
Updated: Sunday, 20 August 2017 3:34 AM NZT
Saturday, 5 August 2017
La Carretera de Muerte
Topic: South America
 photo WP_20170622_14_44_05_Pro.jpg

 

The Death Road 

                 When I die I want to die peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather. I don't want to die like his passengers, screaming as they went over the cliff. No buses on Sunday, so a bunch of Irish girls found a simple solution. Hitch a lift with a local veggie truck driver returning from the market. The driver had only been on the road for 14 hours straight. He fell asleep and took the express route 300 meters to the bottom of the canyon. In 1983 a bus crash got more than 100 in one go. The death road as it is known, is estimated to have killed more than 20,000 people in its lifetime. It has now been bypassed by a safer route but still remains in use, and is a favourite destination of mountain bikers because of it's 60km of steep downhill. Though much less fatal now it still gets a few every year. An Israeli tourist was GoProing her boyfriend racing down the hill when she decided that corners were for beginners, she didn't stick the landing. And so with these stories Ted and I headed off for our day of biking.

 

           Early start, a couple of hours up the hill to a cold 4600 meter pass, stack hat, gloves, and a well used mountain bike. As they say it's all down hill from here. Just as well as I wouldn't like to try an ride this bike up hill anywhere. The first bit plunges off the pass about 30 km down a relatively modern sealed highway. Even the old mountain bike boogies down this, as we pass the odd truck creeping down the hillside. We stop every now and again to keep the group together and take a couple of photos. Snacks and drinks are handed out, our guide tells us stories. Eventually we get to the old road. This part was bypassed in mid 90's after the world bank christened it the most dangerous road in the world. It's the only road in Bolivia that they drive on the left so the driver can see how close his wheels are to the edge. It's dirt, and is carved to the cliff side like a scar. We spend a few hours riding under waterfalls, looking down bottomless chasms, and avoiding the odd road washout. Every hundred meters is another pile of crosses, on the edge of the emptiness. The landscape quickly changes from high mountain pass to rain forest, and we shed another layer of clothing every 15 minutes. We start to get closer to the bottom of the valley and , I have to peddle to keep the old girl moving even though it's still down hill. Hard to believe I was struggling to keep it under 60 km/h on the earlier bit. Someone in another group loses it in the dirt, bit of bark off but seems like nothing mejor. They strap her to the stretcher and take her off to get checked out. We hit the bottom, only 1200 meters above sea level, high fives all around.

     Off to lunch, and a swim, pollo e arroz, just for a change. Hate to be a chicken here. A few beers chatting with the other's, and it's back on the rickety bus. We crawl the 80km back up the hill. How ironic I never felt scared on the way down but on each outward corner I hope the groaning steering holds. We make the pass, and the "I survived the death road tee shirts" are handed out. We only slightly winged one, all in all not a bad result.

 

Click the pic for more


Posted by bondrj at 4:08 PM NZT
Updated: Sunday, 20 August 2017 3:29 AM NZT
Friday, 28 July 2017
Macchu Picchu
Topic: South America
 photo WP_20170622_14_44_05_Pro.jpg           We have just had a couple of days in the solitude of the mountains, now its time to get back on the beast. Machu  Picchu is one of the most famous sites in the world, and I'm sure it is not without good reason. It makes the Peruvian government a 7.8 billion dollars a year in GDP. The sacred valley trek is booked up more than six months in advance. I'm sorta looking forward to it, but my heart  really wants to be here in 1912 when the Bingham dude was one the first Europeans to see it. That's not an option so its off to the circus. We have finished walking. There is a Train line up the sacred valley, it comes in a couple of flavors, Tourist and Luxury. Even Tourist is pretty nice. The train leaves Ollantaytambo and takes a couple of hours winding down the river valley. The start is high and dry but the other end is in the rain forest. Ted and I booked late for even the late group so we are even in a different carriage from the rest of our group. Our companions are a nice Peruvian family who now live in the U.S. We get silver service, a drink, bit of cake, and a running commentary of the local history and fauna. We can see bits of the Valley trek every now and again.  Eventually we arrive in Aguas Callients (Hot waters) perfect name for the place.

        There are three trains here, It's a one lane track and a train seems to arrive depart about every 20 minutes. Across the road is the Belmond-Hiram-Hingham Service, Linen Table cloths, Silver service, 5 star luxury all for $447 us, that's only $5 per minute. There are people every where, guides running around caring little flags leading los turistas off to their hotels. The valley here is so tight that the river, train line and main street all share the same bit of turf. Lucy finds us and we march out through the cramped market, 500 stalls selling your gringo favorites. We  pound up the hill take a left and get to our hotel. The hot springs are an option, but I haven't found any really hot, hot springs in South America yet. I wimp it and decide on the shower. It's been a long day, and we have an early start. Refreshed, It' dinner time. Lucy leads us through the maze of restaurants and sprukers, offering Cuey ( Guinea Pig) Pizza, as well as the more normal fair. We get our briefing over a couple of beers and a meal, Ted and I choose Pizza, though not the Cuey. Should have gone Cuey. Instructions for meeting points, etc are given, none of which we take notice of. We hustle off back to the hotel, It's a 4 AM start, I try to crash while Ted reads Emails from work for what seems like hours.

      BUZZZZZZZZZZZZ, wasn't that restful, not. Quick shower, chuck the stuff in our G Adventures duffle bags. Then down to breaky. Ted and I even beat the hotel staff by ten minutes. Eventually hot coffee, and rolls appear, I'm not much of an early  morning eater. We head off to the famous Queue. The bus ride up to MP takes about 45 minutes on a one lane track. God knows how many people want to get up there for sunrise, but the government have just introduced a quota system that allocates two sessions a day. One early and one after lunch. At five the queue is already 4 wide, 800 meters long , and growing buy the second. We settle into our position and wait. Buy Six we are a lot closer to the front. We haven't moved but the back is a lot further away. Finally about Six thirty we start to move. Lucy gives us our tickets, we show our passports and get a stamp. Almost there. Buy seven we are on the bus. The ride up the switchbacks, over the cobbled road is pretty rough but the views are spectacular. The mountains soar out of the valleys through the early morning gloom. Now and again we have to stop and back up to let another bus pass. Every one holds their breath, while we peer out of the window at the 1000 meter drop over the edge.

       Finally we get to the top. More tickets, more showing passports, Queue, I get to the gate. Beep, computer says "NO". Some one Stuffed up, I have an afternoon ticket. There is another gringo trying to bluff his way in, jumping up and down, and getting nowhere. I'm lucky, I have a secret weapon. "LUCY" time to earn your money girl. I chill, I'm expecting the circus. Ted and I are on an earlier train, due to our late booking, it's not even possible for me to get back in the afternoon, and catch my train. The trains are booked out in advance too. Ten minuets later Lucy reappears looking stressed. A bit more negotiation goes on, She cruses off to see the head Honcho. Finally they take my ticket and I head in the back way. Typical, they will let me in once but I'm not allowed to return. Story of my life. We run up the hill, not easy at altitude with a cold, and there it is. The tick photo at golden hour. It's all worth it. Spectacular does not go close. These Kings certainly know how to build a holiday resort. We spend half an hour, just staring and giving the place a good dose of Kodak poisoning, before Lucy leads us off to a quite spot for a bit of history about the place. We check out the Sun temple, The Condor Temple, The concubines houses, gotta have plenty of them if your a King. Have a bit more of a wander around, then head back down for our early train. There were a few more walks we could have done, but we don't have time, and to tell  you the truth I'm walked, out and stuffed from the early start. More queuing but not quite as bad, then we are back in town. That rendezvous stuff could have been important.

    We wander up and down the street looking for our easy to find Hot Springs 1 restaurant. Eventually we bump into one of the organized group, they know where it is. Lunch, we catch up with Lucy, I have very average nachos, shoulda gone the cuey. She escorts us to our train, we get a fashion show on the way back. The train is full of older women, and the shy male conductor is the model. They cheer every time he loosens his shirt. The things a guy has to do to make a living. We sit with a English family with three kids under six. The dad is in his mid 40's,and its their fourth day in a six week trip. Ted tells him he should just kill himself now. Back at the station we have a couple of hours to kill so we wander into town for a beer. We get back just as the others train is arriving, jump on the bus and wait. Then at the last minute we have to change buses, we are on the organized bus, it's ruining their karma. A three hour trip back to Cusco, our last night together. We arrive at the hotel and say a sad goodby to Lucy with a gift. It takes a while for every one to shower. So we meet an hour later. Some sections take longer than others. Ted and I lead them to the Norton Pub, on the square. Good Grub, beer and enough space for all of us. I'm over being lead, time to take my life back. After dinner the younger cohort head off to go clubbing. I'm stuffed, three hours sleep in 36 hours, a killer cold, full of antihistamines. I look at Ted, he starts off towards the hotel. Who want to bounce around in a hot crowded club full of smelly people, listening to music in another language, sculling shots of rocket fuel. "FUCK YER ME". The place is full, happy hour goes from 7.30 till 11 then it starts again. The crowd goes nuts for Despacito, and Ed Sheeran. "Mañana no siento bien!".

 

Click the pic for more. I phone people go here.


Posted by bondrj at 12:01 AM NZT
Updated: Wednesday, 26 July 2017 3:19 AM NZT
Sunday, 23 July 2017
Los desorganizados
Topic: South America
 photo WP_20170622_14_44_05_Pro.jpg          The Lares Trek should really be called the hike for the disorganized. I'd come to South America for a trip, and my mate Ted said he wouldn't mind getting out of town for a while, instead of watching the Bombers miss the finals again. I got an arrival date for him in Peru. I sent him a list of stuff we could do. He sent me a bill, I paid. I still had no idea what I was doing but we were organized.  This was good because that's all I got. Did I mention Ted communicates for a living, something Vague about Machu Picchu might have been mentioned.

 

           No hordes of Gringos queuing up in front of us, the Lars valley is a ancient pathway over a 4800 meter mountain pass. Untouched by time it is still home to the local Quechua people living their mountain lifestyle, barley touched by the odd group of trekkers passing through. It involves lots of walking, a bit of camping, and I suspect a bit of pain.  I get a sleeping bag and a mat issued to me. Ted must have missed the bit about nothing below five star.

    Very early the next morning we pile on to three buses. The first day both groups are headed to the same place so we get mixed up with the organized people. They tend to be Scandinavians, or people in upper management. Our trip is going to take most of the day, with a few stops to look at some ruinas (Pisac), a local community run market, and a posh lunch. Our last stop Ollantaytambo, is a great little trekking town that reminds me a lot of a few places in Nepal. Last stop for espresso coffee, and a good nights sleep. It's also the main place to start the Inca Trail.

    Next morning we divide again. Los desorganizados are finally together. Most of our group is in their 20's to 30's, then there is Ted and I, along with Jacqui who is traveling with her daughter. We are a bit of a "UN'. Aussie's, Kiwi's, Swiss, Canadian, Welsh, and a Yank. Into the bus we head for the hills. First stop is the market to buy some stuff to give to the kids we see in the villages on the trek.  I take a photo of one of the fruit stalls then everyone else wants one too. Finally we arrive in Lares, to our ensemble. Eight horses, Ten Lamas, 2 Chefs, 5 caballistas, and 2 Guides, Lucy and Pamela. The guy's load up our stuff, tents, food, etc, a quick group chat and we head up the hill. The start  winds up along a valley, passing little farms, and houses. The teachers are on strike at the moment, so the little kids are all out to ambush us. They all have guilty smiles. We stop and ask them their names in Quechua the local lingo. They giggle at the Gringos and for their trouble get a bread roll, toy , bit of fruit, or all of the above. Life looks pretty hard here, and food is appreciated. There a not a lot of trips through here and we provide a bit of work, and currency for the locals. We are pretty high here (3800m) and a few of us are starting to feel the effects, did i mention it was cold. After a couple more hours we get to our camp. Here the guides have done a wonderful job. Tents set up, Hot water, cups of coca tea, ( good for the altitude sickness), and a bowl of hot water each to have a wash in. There are three local women selling locally made gloves, scarfs and other handicrafts for a couple of bucks each, unfortunately they are not big sellers, their beer is a winner, and gives them a couple of sales for their trouble. Dinner is a produced, Cake and jam, honey, more drinks, main chicken rice, veggies. Afterwards the group sit around playing some sort of drinking game. It's to much for me, there is an early start I go to bed looking at the southern sky.

    Up before dawn, who organized this again. Long day to day over the Huacawasi pass, (4800m). Coca tea in the tent with another washing bowl to help us wake up. Porridge and bread for breaky we are "listo" for a long day. Lucy gives us our itinerary for the day and a snack pack each. The local dogs trot along beside us knowing they will get something eventually when we take a break. They seem to hang around about an hour then wander back home. Lunch is on the other side of the pass about seven hours away. Unfortunately our Mother and Daughter team are non starters, they are down with existing illnesses they had before they started. Pamela our other guide takes them down the hill to see a doc and spend a couple of nights in a warm hotel. We look on enviously.  We walk and rest, walk and rest. We see, Llamas, Chinchillas, and Hawks. Lucy tells us about the locals and their lives up here in the hills. Fortunately the weather is great, no wind and lots of sun. As we advance up the valley the views just get better. There are still snow covered peaks way above us.  Lucy urges us on, after about 5 hours we can see the pass, only another hour to go. Most of us are suffering from the altitude now. We have our emergency horse following us just in case any one can't make it, lead by one of the guides 14 year old sons. He's romping it in, and probably wishing the teachers would stay on strike a bit longer. Lauren say her lungs feel like they're on fire. I'm feeling pretty good, I shouldn't be. I've got the worst chest cold I've had for ten years, lungs full of crap, but my big advantage is I have been above 3000m for 4 weeks. I'm acclimatized. As we get to the pass I have a little bit of a headache but it goes away when I stop for 30 seconds. High fives we all make it. Photo stop, after all it didn't happen if you don't have the picture, from here It's all down hill. A lot of down hill. Two hours, and a couple of hundred meters lower, we can see our lunch stop. Just  five exactly minutes more say's Lucy, of course she lied. The guys have set up the lunch tent, the sun is out, people pass out for a power nap on a couple of tarps. Whats not to love. Lunch is chicken, rice, pasta, cakes, coffee and more. The altitude has killed Teds hunger. Just as well he's got me as backup. Lucy  herds us off telling us it's not far to the camp, I feel a bit skeptical.

     We get there at five, to find the the usual setup. How easy is this camping. It's been a long day, and the down hill has taken it's toll on some feet and knees. Paola has found a sick puppy and has it wrapped up in a towel, feeding it biscuits, and snacks. It spends all night in the mess tent with us, then gets snuck back into her tent that night without the knowledge of her friend. All's fine till it throws up in the middle of the night, one too many biscuits. It looked much happier at breakfast. After breakfast the chefs presented us with a cake with icing congratulating us on our walk. These guys where great. We only have a couple more hours to walk till the bus. Paola hands the puppy back complete with new towel to the next family down the hill. Puppy smiles like its done it's job. Meanwhile while we get rid of the last of our stuff we bought for the kids from the market. The track gets less steep, then it's a road, then there is a bus parked on the side. The end is a bit anticlimactic really. We go to our lunch Spot and meetup with Jacqui, and her daughter. They look much better after a couple of nights in a hotel. Los desorganizados are reunited. Here we have to say goodby to our local  porters chefs and second guide Pamela. The guys did a great job. We give them a tip and our thanks. But It's not the end for us. Tomorrow Lucy leads us to a much bigger challenge. Battling the hordes to Machu Picchu.

 Thanks to G Adventures, the guys did a great job. The also work hard to help the communties they pass through. Keep it up Guys.

Click the big pic above for more Pics, if you use an I phone you may have to click Here to get the photos 


Posted by bondrj at 12:01 AM NZT
Updated: Tuesday, 25 July 2017 2:53 AM NZT

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