Saturday, 6 July 2013

So long, and thanks for all the empanadas

And so at last, I'm home! After a fantastic seven months away I arrived back in the UK at the end of May having had a wonderful, sometimes challenging, but never dull experience.

It's certainly been an adventure - I spent my seven months walking, running, mountain climbing, sandboarding, bungee jumping. sky diving, white water rafting, sea kayaking, mountain biking, abseiling, paragliding, surfing, horseriding, school painting, zip lining, star gazing, swimming, diving, fishing, snorkelling, bakkie riding and even dangling over the edge of a waterfall!

People keep asking me what the highlight of my trip was - a really tough question! There's a few things that stand out, from fleeting moments to days spent in the company of great people, or doing fantastic adrenaline fueled activities. While it's hard to choose any one moment or place I visited, I think the following few photos and memories best encapsulate my trip...

My first real day in Africa was spent visiting the amazing Meru View School just outside Arusha in Tanzania. I'd planned a relaxing day acclimatising to being in Africa, but instead found myself dragged along to the school by some other travellers at my hostel and before I knew it I was painting the school classrooms and meeting some of the lovely kids from the school who gave me a fantastically warm welcome to Africa.

Climbing Mount Meru in Tanzania was another early highlight. Seeing the sun rise over Mount Kilimanjaro as we walked up the snow clad sides of the mountain in the dawn light will stay with me forever - a truly beautiful trek but incredibly physically challenging too. 4500m is very high up! It was also great to share the experience with Wim, Jorge, Steffi, Angie and Laura - a lovely bunch of people to look down on Africa with.

This next photo was taken on a boat with Rachel just off the coast of Zanzibar where we spent a fantastic few days celebrating our two year anniversary. Taking time away from work and travelling over the winter allowed me to spend a lot more time with Rachel while she completes her Phd research than I would have done otherwise, and this photo is just one of many from a great couple of months we were able to spend together firstly in Tanzania and then in South Africa. Honourable mentions must also go to spending Christmas Day on the beach in Cape Town, celebrating our respective 30th birthdays at Bulungula and Lesotho, and a very close encounter with an elephant!

Throughout my trip I took opportunities to push myself to experience new things and this photo probably best encapsulates that. I'd never done a bungee jump before and quite possibly never will again, but it was an amazing, frightening but exhilarating experience. As well as the bungee jump I sought out similar adrenaline rushes by white water rafting on the Zambezi River, sky diving over the Namibian desert, and mountain biking down the world's most dangerous road in Bolivia. Sitting back at a desk at work is certainly a bit of a come down after so much excitement during my time away!

During my four months in South America I was largely travelling on my own, but my brother Alex and sister Rosanna came out to join me for a brilliant two weeks together in Patagonia. For some reason they chose to join me for the potentially coldest, wettest and furthest away point of my trip! However, we were blessed with good weather and had a lot of fun exploring Patagonia. This photo was taken on the W trek, a wonderful five day trek in the Torres del Paine national park in Chile, that we completed together, carrying all our own tents and food and seeing some stunning scenery. I could have happily spent much longer in Patagonia so the two weeks I spent there wasn't quite enough, but with luck I'll be able to return again one day.

Another definite highlight from my time in South America was walking the Inca Trail in Peru. Although the sight of Macchu Picchu at the end was rewarding, I actually enjoyed the trek along the Inca Trail to get there more. Again I was joined by a friendly face from home, my best friend from uni Chris who came out to spend a couple of weeks with me in Peru, and we were joined by a fantastic group of travellers along with a great group of porters to walk the trail with. It's a tough walk in places, but a great way to see a lot more Inca ruins and we had a real laugh along the way.

A slightly unexpected highlight was the Bolivian altiplano which I passed through on a three day trip from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile to Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia with Jake, Tom, Glenn, Colin and Tom. Three solid days in a four wheel drive at very high altitudes was hard going at times, but made more than worth it by the incredible remote scenery, not to mention the opportunities to swim in thermal springs and stand next to some astonishing geysers.

Ending my South American travels in Rio de Janerio was also a real highlight. An incredibly beautiful and vibrant city which has unfortunately been the scene of quite a lot of unrest since I left - which I've not been very surprised by given the high levels of inequality I saw in a city which is spending huge amounts of money on bringing the World Cup and the Olympics to Brazil. Climbing to the iconic Christ the Redeemer Statue, wandering along Copacabana beach and seeing the sunset over Rio from the top of Sugarloaf mountain was a brilliant way to bring that part of my travels to an end.

One of the biggest elements of my time away is hard to show in a single photo, but the insight I gained in to everyday life in Africa and South America was a huge part of my time away. The children walking to school, the bustling markets, the busy road junctions, cramming in to minibus taxis and haggling over souvenirs in sketchy Spanish are all part and parcel of the experience, but easy to forget about as I settle back in to life in the UK and something approaching normality.

Although the big one-off experiences described above were genuine highlights of my time away, perhaps the biggest influence on me will come from the opportunity travelling gave me to see other cultures and ways of life, not least the reminder that it gives you of how fortunate we are in this country. I know all that is something of a cliche but it is true and as much a reason for seeing other parts of the world as the beautiful scenery, historic buildings, and exhilarating activities.

So now that I'm home it just remains for me to thank everyone that's taken time to read this blog (or at least look at the pictures!). It's been good fun to write and it will serve as a great record for me of all the amazing things I did, but it's always nice to hear that people have been reading it and I hope it gave you some insight in to what I've been up to.


Saturday, 15 June 2013

Walking in the Drakensburgs (KwaZulu Natal, South Africa)

After leaving Rio de Janiero, I arrived back in East London in South Africa, after a journey taking in three flights via Sao Paulo and Johannesburg airports with some rather long waits along the way.  However, it was all worth the wait as Rachel met me at East London to begin a great three weeks together back in South Africa.

Fortunately Rachel was able to take a break from her Phd research so that we could spend the next couple of weeks exploring the Drakensburgs, a spectacular and remote mountain range that separates South Africa and Lesotho. The mountains cover a huge area so we divided our time between three places - Amphitheatre in the northern part of the range, Injisuthi in the centre, and the Sani pass in the south - as well as fitting in a four day trek called the Giant's Cup Hiking Trail in the southern Drakensburgs.

The drive up from East London was a long one, so we broke the journey by spending a night in Durban on the way. Durban has a large Indian population, so we decided that a curry was in order, particularly has neither of us had eaten a good curry in months! We found a good restaurant close to our hostel which did huge and very tasty dosas and was also showing the IPL cricket - curry and cricket making for a great night in Durban!

Amazing dosa in Durban
Our first stop in the Drakensburgs was at Amphitheatre Backpackers, a fantastic hostel in the northern Drakensburgs, complete with its own hot tub, sauna and pool table. From here we'd planned to do a hike up to the Amphitheatre escarpment to see the Tugela Falls, the world's second highest waterfall which drops a total of 948m. Unfortunately the tour to the falls wasn't running when we were there because of poor weather, so instead we signed up for a day tour in to Lesotho, the small mountain kingdom which is completely surrounded by South Africa. The trip up to Lesotho was a bit cold and wet (and snowy in places), but we did get to see some San rock paintings, as well as visiting a school and the village sangoma (traditional healer).
Snowy Lesotho
View of the northern drakensburgs from Amphitheatre Backpackers
After leaving Ampitheatre, we headed south to the central Drakensburgs, via a short detour to see the site of the Battle of Spion Kop (the Boer War battleground that gave the 'Kop' at Anfield and many other football grounds its name) and a lovely lunch at a farm shop in Winterton. Our next stop was a national park campsite in Injisuthi, a fantastic little campsite nestled right in the mountains with spectacular views on all sides where we spent three nights. Here we did two full days of walking in the surrounding mountains along trails which we pretty much had to ourselves. We were treated to some brilliant mountain scenery and also some very warm and dry weather considering we were now in to the South African winter, although it did get rather cold in the tent at night!

The mountains above Injisuthi

Shower time!

Our tent at Injisuthi

We then headed further south to stay at the Sani Lodge at the bottom of the Sani Pass (another route up in to Lesotho) from where we set out on a fantastic four day trek along the Giant's Cup Trail, a 60km route through the Southern Drakensburgs. The trail was set out as a five day route, but each day was relatively short, so we chose to condense it down to four days which we managed comfortably, even though we did manage to save the longest day of walking for the wettest day of the four!

Setting off on the Giant's Cup Trail

Along the route we stayed in a series of huts, which though providing welcome shelter were very basic and rather cold at night, particularly as we were the only people staying in them at this time of year. There also wasn't anywhere to buy food along the way so we had to carry all our food and a stove to cook it on, but it was nice to be fully self sufficient with just each other and the mountains for company.

Trying to warm up our hut on the first night
The huts we stayed in on the second night

After completing the Giants Cup Trail, the next leg of our Drakensburg adventure took us up the notorious Sani Pass, a slightly treacherous mountain pass connecting South Africa and Lesotho which can only be negotiated by 4x4. Luckily the Sani Mountain Lodge where we would be staying at the top of the pass was able to send a 4x4 and driver down to pick us up so we didn't have to put our own driving skills to the test! The drive up the pass was spectacular, particularly the final couple of kilometres as the road zig-zagged up a series of sharp hairpin bends along a bumpy gravel road.

Rachel makes a new friend
Sani Pass
Sani Pass

The hostel we would be staying at for the next couple of nights claimed to have the highest pub in Africa at 2874m so the next few days saw a combination of walking and horse-riding in the surrounding mountains, along with making the most of the opportunity to try some Lesothan beer in the bar.

Getting a taste of Lesothan beer
While staying at the top of the pass we hiked up to the top of Hodgson's Peak, a 3250m mountain, from which we got great views down in to South Africa and back in to mountainous Lesotho. We also did a horse ride around the top of the escarpment, although my horse was possibly the slowest horse in the world so what I think was supposed to be quite a short ride took several hours!

Shepherd's hut on the walk up to Hodgson's Peak

The view from the top of Hodgson's Peak
Our final night at the top of the Sani Pass also happened to be the eve of my 30th birthday so we made the most of being at the highest pub in Africa and spent the evening 'celebrating' (if that's the right word!) my big birthday. There weren't many other guests staying at the hotel that night so it was a fairly quiet evening, but Rachel had gone to a lot of effort to decorate my room so that it felt suitably like my birthday.

The next few days were then spent gradually making our way back to the UK, as we first drove back to East London before catching a flight to Johannesburg from where we would be flying back to Heathrow. Although it had been a little hard to leave behind the sunny beaches of Rio for the South African winter, we'd had a fantastic couple of weeks walking in the mountains and largely been blessed with great weather, all of which made for a great conclusion to my travels.

Watch this space for just one last blog about my travels....

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Rio baby! (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)

My final stop on my travels in South America was Rio de Janeiro, the vibrant Brazilian city which is famous for Copacabana beach, Carnaval and the Christ the Redeemer Statue. The world's eyes will be on Rio a lot over the next few years as first the World Cup comes to Brazil in 2014 (with the final to played at the legendary and newly refurbished Maracana Stadium in Rio), followed by the Olympics in Rio itself in 2016. I was perhaps there a year or three early then, but nevertheless had a great few days exploring the city.

My overnight flight from Quito got me to Rio airport at the painfully early time of 4.45am (which felt even earlier as I'd gained two hours in travelling east from Ecuador). Once I'd found my way to my hostel in the Ipanema area of the city and checked-in, I decided I might as well make the most of the four days I had in Rio and get straight on with seeing the city. That morning, I booked on a day tour of the city which would take in some of the main sights straight away, which seemed like a better idea than spending a day in bed recovering from the flight.

Along with Jack, Craig, Andy and Louisa who were also staying at my hostel, we were picked up by our slightly eccentric guide and driven around the city in a minibus with him negotiating traffic and speaking to us through a microphone at the same time. Our first stop was San Corado beach, a little further round the bay from Ipanema, where we were able to see a number of hangliders landing on the beach having descended from the mountains which surround and are scattered amongst Rio.

We then headed to Tijuca National Park, apparently the world's largest urban forest, which gives Rio residents a taste of the countryside right on their doorsteps. Much like Cape Town, Rio is a city where you can go from the beach to the city and then to the mountains in a matter of minutes, something which inevitably encourages a very outdoor lifestyle (and so means its my kind of city!). With a tight schedule for our tour, we only got to drive through the national park and take a short walk up to a waterfall, but with more time in Rio I would definitely have spent more time exploring the park.

Then came one of the most iconic sites in Rio, the Christ the Redeemer statue, the huge statue of Jesus Christ which looms over the city. The statue was commissioned almost a century ago to celebrate the hundred year anniversary of Brazilian independence in 1921 (although it wasn't actually finished until 1931) and is now one of the defining images of Rio de Janeiro and Brazil as a whole. The statue itself is 30m high and sits atop the 700m Corcovado mountain meaning it overlooks the city and can be seen from almost anywhere in Rio. After being driven most of the way up in the minibus, we walked the last few hundred metres up to the steep point upon which the statue sits. From here we had fantastic views across the entire city, despite it being a little hazy.

The afternoon was spent visiting a couple of other Rio barrios (neighbourhoods) - Santa Teresa, a arty, bohemiam neighbourhood served by a creaking old tram system (sadly out of service during my visit) and Lapa, the main centre for nightlife in Rio.

In Lapa, we stopped at the Escadaria Selaron, a straight staircase up the side of a hill which the Chilean artist Jorge Selaron spent many years decorating with over 2000 coloured tiles from around the world. Selaron lived in one of the houses along the stairs and was often seen out and about on the stairs chatting to tourists about his work, but sadly he was rather mysteriously found dead on the stairs in January this year, but the tiles remain and attract hundreds of visitors. The stairs were also heavily featured in the video for 'Beautiful' by Snoop Dogg and Pharrell Williams from 2003, and to a lesser extent in the video for 'Walk On' by U2, which has only added to their attraction to tourists (see the video links below).


After the tour finished, I along with the others from my hostel took the cable car to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain, a mountain which overlooks the city and Guanabara Bay and so also gives fantastic views over the city. We had intended be at the top in time for sunset, but long queues at the cable car station put paid to that. We were however at the summit to see lights come on across the city as the sky grew dark and stayed at the top to have a couple of beers and see Rio by night. This included seeing planes take off from the domestic airport on the very edge of the city which was quite spectacular.

Sugarloaf Mountain

Rio by night
That evening, we all went for dinner together and ate at a traditional Brazilian churrascaria, an amazing restaurant which, after we'd helped ourselves to the extensive salad bar, involved various large cuts of BBQ-ed meat being brought out to us on skewers and sliced on to our plate in all you can eat style eating challenge. Over the course of the evening we were brought sausages, chicken, steak, ham, pork, and chicken hearts meaning we were very full of meat by the end of the night!

Having packed quite a lot in to my first day in Rio, I was able to have a slightly more relaxing few days, having seen many of the main sights already. On my second day I headed to Ipanema beach with the friends  I had made the previous day, and spent an enjoyable day alternating between lying on the beach, swimming in the sea and playing volleyball. Ipanema may not be as famous as the iconic Copacabana beach, but it is considerably less busy and commercial and so made for a nice place to spend the day. Swimming in the sea was good fun although we had to be careful as the waves were very strong and there were some quite strong currents that you had to fight against a little to stay on your feet.

Ipanema Beach

The following day I took a tour to a couple of favelas in Rio, which was a really interesting experience that gave a good insight in to the harder side of life in Brazil. Incredibly there are over 900 favelas in Rio alone, of which 30 have now been 'pacified' by the police, whose efforts seem to be particularly focused on those favelas near the World Cup and Olympic venues! These kind of tours are a slightly odd experience as you can't help feel a little strange effectively paying to gawp at poverty and take pictures of the poorer sections of society going about their day. It helped that some of the money we paid for the tour was going towards youth projects in the community and that our guide for the morning was very good at explaining the history of the favelas and the realities of daily life in them.

Rochina favela

On my final day in Rio, I did finally visit Copacabana beach, which with it being a Sunday was absolutely heaving. On Sundays, the main road along the beach front is closed to traffic allowing it to fill with cyclists, roller bladers, runners and walkers, while the beach itself is packed with sunbathers, endless games of volleyball and foot volley, and on this particular day a triathlon taking place.

Competition is fierce among the Caipirinha sellers...

On my final evening in Rio (and in South America), I went to see a football match between Fluminense and Botafogo, who were playing each other in the final of the Taca Rio, a regional tournament that takes place before the main national league season starts each year. Although there are numerous other teams in Rio, the final is generally contested between two of the four big Rio teams - Fluminense, Flamengo, Botafogo and Vasco de Gama - with this year being no exception.

As with the game I'd been to in Argentina at the beginning of my time in South America, the standard of football was surprisingly poor, but once again the noise and passion of the fans more than made up for it, despite there only being around 15,000 fans in the stadium. There were a few touches of class from Clarence Seedorf, the former Dutch international and multiple Champions League winner, who is now seeing out his career with Botafogo and despite his advancing years was the best player on the pitch, even if he did manage to slam a second half penalty against the bar and away to safety! Deco had been due to line up for Fluminense, but his recent failed drugs test had put paid to that.

In the end Botafogo deservedly won a rather scrappy game 1-0 with a well taken goal by Rafael Marques, which with me stood with the Fluminense fans meant I'd now supported two South American teams at live matches, with neither managing to win or even score a goal!

Seedorf celebrates with his team mates