Sunday, February 24, 2008

the two-and-a-half mile high club ...

It's been a while since the last update, so I'll let you know what we've been up to.

Our next stop was the worlds highest city of Potosi, a mere 4060m above sea level - the lack of oxygen had us gasping for breath just walking to the taxi rank at the bus station with our luggage.

In the days when much of South America belonged to Spain, Potosi's silver mine reputedly bankrolled their empire for almost two hundred years. Although much of the silver reserves are now exhausted the cities economy still thrives on mining, exploiting the areas rich mineral deposits.

Our main reason for coming here was to take a trip down a working mine. It promised medieval conditions - dust, intolerable heat, toxic gases, back breaking tunnels and climbing down crude stone shafts running with water in the pitch black. Not only that, but the opportunity to blow something up with dynamite sounded very cool indeed.

Talking over breakfast with some of the residents of our hostel about our intended trip we started hearing ominous phrases like "horrible", "couldn't breathe" and "glad to get out of there". It brought us swiftly to the conclusion that it probably wasn't going to a fun day out, so we decided to pass on it.

So, although Potosi is a pleasant enough city, we were left without much else to detain us so we decided to skip town a day earlier than planned to head for La Paz.

Our visit wasn't completely without reward though. Just before we left I noticed a surprising sight in the main plaza.

Looks like my old employer has started an exciting new venture in Bolivia ...

Sunday, February 17, 2008

on the trail of butch and sundance ...

5.15am on Monday morning and I found myself queuing in the freezing cold, dying for the toilet, stood on a bridge in no-mans-land, waiting for the Bolivian immigration office to open.

As I idly checked the UK time I realised that people back home would be just arriving at their warm desks to a fresh cup of coffee, ready for a chat about their weekend exploits. And getting paid for it. I was having one of those "why the hell are we doing this?" moments.

No sooner than the immigration office opened and the mood lightened as I read the incredibly ardous list of immigration requirements for US citizens. Bolivia might be South America's poorest country, but I found it heartening to see that at least they seem to be making some kind of statement about their pretty despicable treatment at the hands of US foreign policy.
They didn't even appear to check the photo page in our passports before stamping us in.

It makes me wonder how destroying the agricultural livelihood of some of the poorest people in South America can possibly be a justifiable solution to the problem of US citizens wanting to shove increasing amounts of white powder up their hooters. Decide for yourself, but if you want to read more then you could do worse than starting here.

The bus station in Villazon on the Bolivian side of the border couldn't have been more different from their more prosperous neighbours to the South as I was greeted by a toilet experience that reminded me so much of the opening scenes to Trainspotting. True our tickets for the 3 hour journey to Tupiza may have only cost 95p each, but one look at the queuing buses outside the station told us that we may well end up paying in other ways.

The ride along unsealed roads to Tupiza was dusty and uncomfortable beyond belief - as we progressed the rear axle complained in unnatural tones that seemed to increase in volume with every bump in the road. Still, it didn't appear to bother the traditionally attired lady absently breastfeeding in the seat next to me, so why should it bother us? And where else in the world will you find a bus conductor who sings you as song before departure?

Welcome to Bolivia.

Ask anyone to conjour up an image of the wild west and I bet you'd come up with something close to the area around Tupiza. Villages of mud-brick houses set amid spectacular canyons, locals on horseback and a cactus every couple of yards. It was no suprise to learn that this is where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid finally ended their days as their luck ran out after one final payroll robbery nearby.

The 3000m altitude of the altiplano left us gasping for breath on arrival as we spent 2 nights aclimitising here before moving on to greater heights. It left us time for an excellent day discovering the local area on horseback, 4WD but most significantly mountain bikes.
The day concluded with us driving to 3700m and stunning views of Camino El Sillar (above) before letting gravity take over as we biked the return course involving 17km of precipitous hairpin bends (below).

One of our group put it perfectly when he said "This is like a mountain bikers wet dream".

Personally I managed to avoid getting quite that excited as we spent an hour hurtling back to town - in fact the actual sensation was rather closer to pain than pleasure as it felt at times that the vibrations were trying to shake the very flesh from my bones.

The main challenge in our descent lay in the continual application of brakes to moderate our speed just enough to keep us on the road and at the same time the vibrations from the unsealed surface below the pain threshold. By the time we'd reached the bottom I found my hands had cramped into permanent claws, but with an equally permanent grin on my face. It was great fun.

Tupiza was great interlude and we were dissapointed to leave so soon, but like the legendary Bolivian powders time marches on. At least we hoped to have found a more comfortable bus for the 8 hour journey to our next destination ...

Once again apologies to my US readers ...

One of the curiosities of altitude is it's effect on beer drinking. It is most definitely not recommended during the aclimitisation process, and even afterwards the altitude is rumoured to magnify the effects of any alcohol significantly. Thus I have been abstaining.

OK, not quite. I have managed to sampled one local brew - purely for scientific research of course. It was pretty average, but after the equivalent of 3 pints although a little merrier than usual I am pleased to report no serious adverse effects. Other that is than the other effect of altitude on beer - a seriously frothy head taking up about 90% of the glass when first poured!

winos of mendoza ...

I wouldn't have thought it possible to drink more than we had over the previous 3 weeks of our overlanding trip. How wrong I was.

Arriving in Argentina's wine producing capital of Mendoza with aspirations of taking it easy just wasn't going to happen. With our pals Vanessa & (that lying b*****d) Rhys heading the same direction we spent most of our time taking tours to sample the local produce. Here we are above on the "wines & bikes tour" - not two things which usually mix well - but we managed to only drop the bottle once.

Isn't it funny how it sometimes takes a photograpah for you to tune in to lifes little details? In almost four weeks of travelling with Vanessa I'd never noticed her Minnie Mouse ears before. I've also managed to find an unexpected Killer Whale in one of my photos from the Navimag - I really must start paying more attention ...

Thursday, February 14, 2008

volcanoes and vertigo ...

I was still slightly wary after last years experience on Mt. Fuji in Japan, so I found myself in two minds when the opportunity to climb another active volcano presented itself.

Here is Mt. Villarrica in all it's 2840m high glory.

Of course I couldn't resist the challenge.

As you can see, the upper reaches are (just like Fuji) covered in snow and ice, so this time I set off fully kitted out with crampons, ice axe and a bag containing a thick Kevlar suit and a strange looking red plastic disk with a saucepan looking handle. More on those items later.

Physically the 950m climb of the upper section to the cone was a relative cinch compared to our recent efforts on the W Trek, but the addition of vertigo inducing exposure and steep icy slopes made it an altogher different sort of challenge as we inched our way to the top over four hours, kicking steps in the snow and ice as we went.

As if that wasn't exciting enough the occasional piece of volcanic rock would come tumbling down the slop at high speed to much blowing of whistles and frenzied cries of "rocka, rocka, rocka !!". So I'd learnt another word in Spanish too.

By the time we reached the crater rim my rented boots had rendered me virtually lame, so I was especially grateful that our guides for the day had come up with a more innovative way of getting back to the car park than simply retracing our steps.

Dressed in the Kevlar suits that we had carried to the top, we retreated to the top of the snow line and tucking the red plastic disk under our bums we launched ourselves down the side of the volcano, using our ice-axes to moderate our speed. Or at least that was the plan.

As some proved more succesful at moderating their speed than others, what actually happened was collisions, wipe outs and general hilarity - but thankfully no serious bodily injuries. It was the longest (and best) sledge ride of my life as we skimmed down the side of the volcano for over an hour to reach our starting point.

The day didn't just provide the opportunity to settle the score after failing to conquer Fuji last year, but the hired equipment also provided the perfect opportunity to settle another more recent "score" with our driver Rhys; Leon Trotsky style.

Not really. We needed him to drive the truck to Santiago later in the week.

As if my poor head for heights hadn't been challenged enough that week I somehow found myself booked onto a trip which took us ziplining high up in the forest canopy. I'll never learn.

The fear kicked in at around 3 metres, as we started climbing to the top of an enormous tree. The state of the ladders and platforms (no barriers) held together by little more than a few rusty nails was more terrifying for me than any of the ziplines. In fact I was actually relieved when the time came to "clip on" and let gravity take over.

I've made a mental note not to sign up for any more vertigo inducing activities soon. And yes, I am as terrified as I look.

The last day of the tour saw us finally reach Santiago after 3 weeks, and we had one final party-to-end-all-parties before heading our separate ways.

Heights, you just can't get away from them can you? After deciding to head back into Argentina for a few days in the wine mecca of Mendoza we set out for the border crossing.

At the top of a 3000m pass high in the Andes. Just my luck.

Monday, February 04, 2008

life on the ocean wave ...

The Navimag is a very strange boat indeed; it's almost as though it can't decide whether it is a cargo ship or a ferry. I couldn't either.

Once the 200 or so passengers had boarded the upper decks in various categories of berths; A, AA or C (why no B?), the next 5 hours were spent loading shipping containers and cargo of all descriptions before sailing at 5am the next morning as we were safely tucked up in our bunks.

Anyone travelling in Cabin 101 (most definitely C category, but suprisingly comfy) will appreciate the irony of that last comment. Just before 3am that first night and before we were even moving, I somehow managed to pitch headfirst out of my top bunk and land my head on the lower rung of the ladder opposite. I have a rather fetching 2-inch long scab across the top of my head to prove it.

Our four night journey took us the length of the Chilean Fijords amid untamed islands that in the first 48 hours of our journey yielded just one settlement, our only official "stop" of the journey as we transferred a handful of passengers into a motor launch that came to meet us.

When we weren't sharpening our card skills in the bar (with its refreshing BYO drinks policy) there were opportunities on deck to spot dolphins, whales, glaciers and volcanoes. And lots of fog, about 24 hours worth in total I reckon.

On the final evening the crew provided us with the opportunity to enjoy Famous Patagonian Bingo in the bar. Not heard of it? Basically it's like normal Bingo, but instead of "winners" receiving a prize you are required to make an idiot of yourself dancing in front of the whole bar. We abstained.

The prospect of getting packed ready and breakfasted for an 8am disembarkation had most of us scurrying to our bunks for a relatively early finish, although after a relatively quiet spell our old pal Enda was up to his usual tricks. Last sighted in the bar at 4.30am. Or 1pm this afternoon. Redecorating the baños at a service station as we made a brief stop en-route to our next destination of Pucon. Some things never change.

As I prepared my luggage this morning I heard that most unexpected of maritme sounds, the distinct sound of cows mooing, accompanied by a faint whiff of silage permeating through our cabin. Closer inspection from the outside deck revealed a herd of cows poking their noses out from the deck below.

At least I know what C class stands for now.


I bet the Editor of Conde Naste doesn't have to put up with this sort of thing.

I've just updated the beer league with the latest from Chile.

Quantity rather than quality seems to be order of the day. In fact if I wasn't doing just that then I'd be tempted to say "nothing to write home about".