Critterwatch! Iguazu

Of course the Iguazu falls are absolutely spectacular. But strangely, half the reason we ended up having such a happy time in the national parks surrounding the falls was as much about the surrounding jungly stuff as it was about the falls themselves. This is the closest we really got in South America to full on Amazon style jungle intrepidness, and we were lucky enough to see all kinds of cool stuff. No, unfortunately no jaguars (though I did do my finest jaguar attracting call several times a day) and not even any tapirs. But we did see pretty much all the other very typically Amazonian forest dwellers: a caiman hanging about conveniently just underneath the bridge we were standing on; a toucan posing nicely in a tree just above us. Also a very Iguazu only sight – an enormous big predatory fish whose name I can’t recall, bit like a catfish but bigger, which only dwell in the river beneath the falls – the falls act as such a massive segregator that essentially there are two entirely different ecosystems above and below.

Then of course there were the park’s resident menaces: monkeys and coatis. Or as I call them, attack coatis. Yep, that branch of animalhood that is sufficiently cute that all the park goers feed them junk food and them wonder why the animals turn vicious and try to bite anyone with food. Or anyone who doesn’t try to feed them. Or basically anyone who comes a bit close and looks at them funny. It’s one of my major pet hates in life (not just because of the time in Gibraltar when the monkey stole my ice cream although that does still rankle. I mean, I was 25!!) and poor old James got treated to extensive discourses on the subject. In between having to protect me from the sharp teeth and ravening claws of the attack coatis, of course. Just because they’re only 12 inches high doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be scared of them.

I think what I’ll remember most about the park though is wandering through the forest’s dappled shade surrounded by butterflies. There were THOUSANDS of butterflies. Butterflies EVERYWHERE, on our clothes, our shoes, our hands…..

Absolutely incredible.

Trip of a Lifetime (yet again!)

So we are getting the hang of this Antarctica lark. Our room is right at the front of the boat, so the routine is to get up after a night of being gently rocked to sleep by the ocean; look bleary eyed out the window at a few passing icebergs; head down for a hearty cooked breakfast; climb into our parkas, waterproof trousers and fluffy hats; hop in a zodiac and off we go. And this morning was like any other, except for the huge protective steel plate the crew put over our window which blocked out the view – apparently this the sort of thing is standard when you are dodging icebergs in the night. Oh well, I guess we can just about cope with that.

But what exactly were we going to do today? We had already ticked off our Antarctica must dos – we had seen penguins, whales, icebergs, seals and glacier covered mountains. We had already toasted each other with mulled wine in a zodiac while being rocked by the heavy swell from gargantuan chunks of ice falling off the side of cliffs hundreds of meters away. We had already tobogganed screaming down the side of a glacier. I mean, what else was left?

Well…

  • Penguins! And not just penguins, but penguin chicks – thaaasands of them. Seriously, the cuteness scale just grew a new 10. And the gentlemen penguins make presents of stones to the lady penguins just like in the David Attenborough documentaries (and yes, they do actually steal them from each others’ nests when the owners aren’t looking)
  • Elephant seals! On holiday from South Georgia! Lying there on the ice looking for all the world like the happy fat couple that they were.
  • Icebergs! You are motoring gently in a little open boat through channels in the ice, gaping awestruck at the blueness, the contorted shapes, the sheer size of these things. And suddenly there is a leopard seal, just sitting there minding its own business. And suddenly a huge chunk falls off an iceberg, rocking the boat and causing the other icebergs to lurch, pitch and roll ever so weightily around us. And suddenly there’s a WHALE! Very, very large, and right in front of us. And it swims right under the boat and you can see the whiteness of the flukes through the blueness of the water. And then another chunk falls off the iceberg. And … you just don’t know where to look!
  • History and passport stamping at the old British base at Port Lockroy. Even better, Lucy has run out of space in her (previously brand new) passport so I now have a stamp she doesn’t have – hah!
  • Watching awestruck as the ship threads its way through narrow channels with high icy cliffs on both sides. Improved (of course!) by a plateful of ribs from the open air lunchtime barbecue on the sun deck.
  • Swimming in the sea (well, you have to really). Lucy is probably best placed to cover this, as the part of my brain that dealt with this is still frozen solid
  • Standing on deck after dinner and a couple of drinks, watching the sun set (extremely slowly, obviously) and reflecting on how amazing the day has been. Oranges and pinks and golds and … but of course … Killer Whales! Ten of them! With little baby killer whales! Swimming alongside the boat for the best part of half an hour as it slowly fades to dark.

I don’t know if the crew choreographed it or whether it was just sheer good luck, but the third and last day of our visit to Antarctica was simply unbelievable.

And now, the photographs…

Day Two: The Antarctic Strikes Back

Apologies for the slight delay in the next installment of our coverage of the Antarctica cruise – we’ve been hiking for the last week and hence rather out of email and web contact.

So. Where were we?

Ah, yes, we’d had day one (of three) of our landings, which had all been in the South Shetland Islands, a hundred miles north or so of the actual Antarctica peninsula. Whilst we’d had a lovely time and seen oodles of penguins we were both, at this point, slightly ambivalent about whether or not the trip was all we’d dreamed of…..

Maybe the expedition team sensed that too. The ship we happened to be on had a very short itinerary – 3 days of landings as opposed to the usual 4 days – and the expedition team had decided during the day that they were going to try to step things up a bit. As we arrived back on ship, they told us that for the next 2 days, we’d be going on 3 landings / zodiac trips per day (usually it’s just two), and that we could sensibly expect to be pretty darn knackered by the end of it all….but also pretty darn happy with all we’d seen.

So we went to bed feeling a little more optimistic….and woke up feeling really a LOT more optimistic. To be precise, what woke us was an announcement over the PA telling us that a humpback whale was close to the ship, and those in cabins on the starboard side (ours) might contemplate looking out their windows. Four bleary eyed footsteps later, we were about 50 foot away when the whale next breached and spent the next 5 minutes generally hanging about the place looking whale-y and waving its fin at us. The best and certainly biggest alarm call I have ever had!

Things were looking up.

As importantly, overnight we’d travelled to the Antarctic peninsula itself, so the scenery now was kind of what you expect: snow; mountains; glaciers; icebergs. Lots of icebergs.

So, off for excursion one: a zodiac cruise in the brilliant sunshine, gliding through fields of icebergs all gleaming blue with the snow-capped mountains sparkling in the background. For company, teams of penguins flying through the water next to the boat and the occasional elephant seal. It was without doubt one of the most beautiful places I have ever been; alone, for me, it would probably have made the entire voyage worthwhile. And that was just half of our first excursion of the day. As we came ashore to Cuverville Island we were greeted by a penguin tobogganing down the snowy slope towards us which, for whatever reason, was one of the things I’d really wanted to see (and it’s just as cute in real life as on TV). The sense that someone, somewhere was coordinating all of this to give us some kind of uber-Antarctic experience was only heightened as we watched a penguin fight off a skua that had just killed its chick (did I mention that the penguins all had chicks? Have you any idea how RIDICULOUSLY adorable a parent and chick penguin are??).

A little time back on board to cruise through the (spectacular) Gerlache straits before we headed off for our next trip, to Neko Harbour. More penguins, of course, and some more chicks, but the main attraction is both the harbour itself – very scenic – and, of course, bareback tobogganing (well, hey, the expedition team didn’t want us getting bored now). And yes, it’s pretty exhilarating to slide down a 100 ft snowy slope ending up close to a beach which is deserted other than for a few penguins and a resting seal.

How do you top all that?

A post dinner zodiac cruise, apparently. Again, this was more about the scenery and the general atmosphere than the wildlife, and so we didn’t take our camera just so that we could both relax and appreciate the view. Sorry about that – it was rather spectacular, particularly the part where a glacier calved a couple of large icebergs, whilst we were quietly resting in our zodiac, engine off, a few hundred metres away, sipping our mugs of warm mulled wine and listening to the icebergs crack. A bit more time to enjoy the sun setting over the ice, then back to ship for a well earned rest before tomorrow’s escapades.

We’d had the most amazing day and any doubts we’d had about the cruise were long gone now. Looking forward to the next day, we kind of figured that anything else from here would just be gravy – I mean, how much more amazing could things get?

An Antarctic Adventure

A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (otherwise known as New York City, c. 2009), James and I met up with an old colleague / friend who was on his way back home from an amazing round the world trip. His personal highlight from the entire period of globetrotting? A voyage to Antarctica. A continent unexplored – we listened, amazed and somewhat saddened by the thought that we were perhaps unlikely ever to make it that far.

Roll the clock forward to 2011 when we were planning our own amazing adventure – scheduled to depart in late February 2011 for 6 months or so. Of course, that put us firmly outside the Antarctic season so, once more, we heaved a small sigh of regret at an opportunity missed.

Then came the slight shift in our plans that resulted in us moving our trip start date to late May. At the time we were pretty devastated and looking everywhere we could for small silver linings to brighten the cloud a little. We also figured out that a RTW ticket is SUBSTANTIALLY cheaper starting and finishing in South America rather than the USA or UK. So much cheaper, in fact, that it might even pay for a trip to – you guessed it – Antarctica. A plan was born.

Of course, at that time we had no real clue how much an Antarctica trip actually cost….

When we found out, after a long and laborious day’s research in Bangkok, we were a bit less certain about this whole affair. Rack rates were pretty pricey – I mean sure, penguins are cute and all, but can anything be THAT cute? We came to the conclusion that we could only really justify this part of the trip if we managed to find ourselves a good deal in some way. Cue many months of finger crossing, followed by some frantic trading of emails with various cruise agents as soon as we arrived in South America.

Result? We got lucky (of course!!), and set sail for the seventh continent. The sun was shining for us, both metaphorically and physically speaking, as we embarked on the first step of our voyage: the Drake Passage, notorious for 15-20 metre swells and the quite spectacular seasickness that accompanies them…. We on the other hand hit a sea high of about 1.5 metres, laughing cheerfully for our entire trip across the Passage, with interruptions only to indulge in our nightly 4 course dinners.

All in all then, we were feeling pretty chipper as we made our first landings of the trip, in Half Moon Island and Deception Bay, in the South Shetland Islands. And there were, indeed, many penguins And some whale bones. And some cool geological stuff that made the beach steam.

Pretty cool.

BUT: On the other hand, just how cute can penguins (even on a steaming beach) be??  I mean, even with a good deal, this trip is pretty darn expensive. And you can see penguins in Chile. And the 4 course dinners were great and all, but…..

Did we make the right call??

The Return of the Anti-Completist (or: Heffalumps!)

OK, so the title may need a little explanation. Heffalumps, of course, require no explanation whatsoever. Assuming, of course, that you are English and have been brought up on a sensible diet of weak tea, buttered crumpets and Winnie the Pooh. If, however, you are deep in the wilds of Myanmar talking to a highly educated local doctor with an inquisitive mind and persistent manner then referring to a passing elephant as a heffalump requires a half hour discourse on A.A. Milne, the beauty and wonder of childhood, the geography of the 100 Acre Wood and the gender of piglets. It also leads to difficult questions like “How can you be sure that the heffalump was an elephant?” and “What is the role of the donkey? And what was he doing in the hole?”.

Hang on, elephants? Anti-completism? What?

We are still in Myanmar, and it is before Christmas. We are on the point of turning for home, and our travel has taken on a certain character. We started the trip many moons ago in May, happily sightseeing everything in our path, making sure that we wrung the very best from each place we saw. It was amazing, it was enlightening, it was deeply satisfying, and it was exhausting. More recently, we have become a little … anti-completist. The mantra of the anti-completist is: “what is it about this specific place that we cannot see anywhere else?” It’s not pure laziness, although this has a little to do with it. It’s more that, having seen thousands of Bhuddas, hundreds of temples, dozens of endangered and endemic species at arms’ length, various tribal gatherings, the world’s highest point, deepest canyon, weirdest industrial accident, fattest tourist and best leaving party, we are becoming – erm – a little harder to impress.

So, heffalumps. Oh yes.

Having shunned a few gold-encrusted temples (blah), the last of the anti-completist must-dos in Myanmar was a trip to a working elephant camp in the teak forests near Taungoo, where we were shown round by the above mentioned local doctor – tour guide by profession, free clinic provider and general all round saint in his spare time. The photographs below will tell the story better (and certainly more succinctly) than I could. Let’s just say that waking in a rangers’ hut on the edges of the jungle, tramping through the bush on the back of a working elephant, cutting down a huge teak tree and hauling the thing back on chains to base camp was a real privilege. Consider us impressed.

Crazy in Kashgar

And so we rolled into Kashgar, where we had a rather nice sounding hotel booked for the night (based on the guidebook: new, own bathrooms, the works!). Unfortunately, the guidebook lied and the place ended up being rather elderly looking (holes in the walls), with dirty laundry lining the corridors and filthy rooms complete with aggressive looking bunches of Chinese men hanging round drinking and smoking. We cracked. We moved. Into a bit of a quirky place, Kashgar’s newest (and second) FIVE STAR establishment…. Still being built and with only one functioning lift, but very smart it was, more marble than you can shake a stick at and hot and cold running receptionists. Also (mercy of mercies) an enormous big fluffy bed and a BATH – haven’t seen one of those in a while. So we felt jolly smug with ourselves and decided that China was obviously going to be an easy ride vs. all those pesky Stans.

Kashgar is a famous market town; both for its daily Sunday market and its Sunday only Livestock market. Yep, we were confused too. Still, off we set for the market and – once again were a tiny bit disappointed in yet a other bright new shiny bazaar, carefully compartmentalized and clean as a whistle. Although the hat section was cool. And we were pretty happy about that whole clean as a whistle bit when we stopped for some noodles for lunch – figured those would be boiled to food hygiene safety – and the noodles actually turned out to be the cold variety. And, as it happens, delicious (no Mum, we weren’t sick. Yes I’ll be more careful from now on). On the walk back we discovered the old town of Kashgar which is where all the trading has moved now the market is so shiny and spent some happy hours there haggling for hats. James bought a rather natty drinking hat made out of GENUINE lynx fur and has been rather too cheerful with life ever since.

Next day was the livestock market where the real action happens. If you’ve never seen a few hundred enormously testicled fat bottomed sheep all lined up together ready for sale, well then….I think I might actually envy you. It’s certainly a sight that’ll stick. Compared to the sheep the enormous and rather moody cattle, braying donkeys, and, yes, I think even the camels (two humped and very very fluffy this time around) paled into insignificance.

Next stop, dinner at a local cafe with no English or picture menu. We’ll have one of what they’re having please (appetites weren’t that high having seen the unconcerned-with-cleanliness open air butchery stalls at the livestock market – right by the animals in fact which seemed a little unnecessarily cruel). As we finished up and moved to settle our bill, a small child sat on the pavement and crapped about a foot away from James shoe, leaving us with some unresolved queries about basic food hygiene in this part of the world…

It was something of a timely reminder actually. China may be many things, but an easy ride it ain’t.

Eagle Hunting

Lucy and I have many “rules” when travelling. There is the “you are never too old to moo at cows” rule, put into devastating and much-admired effect at the various livestock markets we have visited along the Silk Road, and extended with panache to sightings of camels, donkeys, horses, fat-bottomed sheep and various other animals (birds of paradise, anyone?). Another animal-related rule that we created relatively early on in the trip was the Eagle Rule, ergo: any bird of prey sighted out of any moving vehicle anywhere in the world is definitely an eagle. This elegantly dispenses with the boring kestrel / hawk / falcon discussions, and makes any long journey instantly more epic – I mean, you just saw a real life eagle, how excellent is that? (incidentally, the only place where this breaks down is the Colca Canyon in Peru, which is ram packed full of authentic Andean condors).

Having spent the trip happily sighting eagle after eagle all the way across the USA, South America etc. we came to Kyrgyzstan, where they excel at the traditional sport of … eagle hunting. And so Lucy and I found ourselves on horseback under a beautiful clear blue sky walk-trotting up into the eye-bendingly scenic hills around Lake Issyk-Kol in the company of our man Cadr and his pet hunting eagle. And that was when our previously much-loved rule came tumbling down, for when you see a real life eagle up close, you realize how absolutely HUGE these things are. No mice and voles for this puppy – full-sized eagles attack wolves, sheep and other really not very small animals. And we were off hunting.

We didn’t expect to find very much, to be honest. It was still autumn (hence very early in the season) and the animals that eagles typically hunt were still up in the mountains near the snowline. No matter – Cadr had presciently brought along a poor little bunny in a bag to be let loose for the eagle to catch if we couldn’t find any truly wild game. And after an extraordinary ride up in the hills (see photos below) we came down to a convenient hunting ground and Cadr let the bunny out of the bag.

Only it wasn’t a bunny. It was a fox. And it was pissed. And it went for him.

Now, a short animal rights pause here. None of these Kyrgyz guys are going to win any animal rights prizes. The eagles were looked after very well, but this was hunting – things were likely to get hurt and killed. We are not ardent pro or antis, but we do eat meat and wear leather and we do follow this logical thread through to the fact that cute fluffy animals are going to get killed at some point to allow this to happen. And we are in Kyrgyzstan for the only time in our lives, and we were damned if we weren’t going to see a traditional hunting method using eagles, and if we support this hunting method by our presence and our tourist dollars we can get comfortable with that.

I can also get broadly comfortable with the fox attacking me (which it subsequently did). What I was unable to get comfortable with was the fox attacking Lucy. Now, we were taught on a previous trip (to Guatemala, by a Hemingway-esque character called Jim, who applied Neitzchean philosophy to his daily interactions (and that is actually pretty weird when you see it up close)) that if a strange dog or similar attacks you, the thing to do is act natural. And by natural, I mean bare your teeth, shout and attack it back. Dogs are smart, social animals and you are much bigger than they are. A vicious-seeming dog will quite quickly become much less so as soon as it realizes that you are the alpha animal. Fantastic Mr Fox, therefore, decided to stop trying to bite my fiancée after a short conversation with one of my hiking boots, and I can get comfortable with that too.

So, the fox stalked off into the desert. The eagle flew down and sat on him. The man fed the eagle. The fox went back in the bag. The horses ate some grass. And we went home to dinner.

Come on Down, the Price is Right!!

OK, so this is our luxury accommodation in the outskirts of Port Moresby, ugliest and most dangerous city in the South Pacific, for our last night in PNG:

Contents:

  • One bed, double, with sheet (I’ll give it a 5 out of 10 on the cleanness scale)
  • One bed, single (cleanliness of sheets unexamined)
  • One 1970s era TV
  • One desk, chair and shelving unit. All old and frail, none matching
  • One A/C unit, sporadically functioning
  • One cockroach (soon to be ex-cockroach once it met its fate in the shape of James’ boot)
  • Shared bathroom facilities

So – what price this room? Answers through the comment facility, winner gets a FREE NIGHT at this luxurious establishment*.

By the way, the price we’d been quoted was rather less (some confusion as to whether 2 people could fit into a single room…..). That’s the price we paid – so we left PNG with a rather real threat of police action descending on us. My father would be proud ;-)

 

* You’re paying your own airfares though. Cheapskates.

Critterwatch! Tourists

The Mount Hagen Show is a photographer’s dream. Unfortunately, it attracts serious photographers.

We are happy to take a few photos, but we try not to let it become the raison d’etre of our travels. Not so the loathsome critters that flood into Hagen armed with massive telephoto lenses, bulky camera bags, hugely over-engineered camera mounts and deeply offensive attitudes – nothing is allowed to get in the way of their perfect shot. Don’t get me wrong, we met some really lovely and deeply interesting people in Hagen, but we were slightly ashamed of some of the antics of our fellow tourists.

A few guidelines, in case any of them are reading:

  • You have a 300mm zoom lens on your camera. This means you don’t need to stand six inches away from a performer and jam your camera in their face. If someone you are photographing is visibly flinching from the physical intrusion of your huge optics, you are probably a little too close (I got into one or two “little discussions” after jamming my own camera right in the face of someone who had just jammed theirs in the face of a performer)
  • If there is a group of performers dancing in a circle (facing inwards, as many of them do) it is a little rude to push your way into the middle of the circle to take photos outwards
  • Similarly, if a performance includes walking forwards and backwards (which many also do) try not to stand physically in the dancers’ way
  • If you can, avoid physically manipulating someone whose language you do not speak to get them to pose for your best shot. Grabbing someone’s chin and angling it this way and that is a bit obnoxious
  • The people you are photographing are people, not animals. If someone has posed for a photo for you, say thank you. Do not look at the photo you have just taken on your viewfinder, shrug and walk away
  • Please try to be less ugly

We had an amazing time at Hagen. Apologies, therefore, for this little piece of vitriol. However, by carving it out and putting it here we can avoid it impacting our memories of (and posts on) the rest of the show.

[Please note: the last photo above is actually Rolf – a very nice German guy. The photo I took of the obnoxious Australian who had the most intrusive photographic manner got deleted, as I didn't want to remember his face]

Canyons & Condors

Fresh from our success with James’s haircut in Nazca, we wended our way next to Arequipa, a rather lovely colonial city in the south of Peru. Whilst Arequipa is a nice enough place in and of itself, the reason we (and I’m afraid most other people) went there was as a convenient launch point for the Colca Canyon. I’d been to the Colca Canyon on my last visit to South America some 15 years ago, and the memories of condors flying close enough over my head to make me duck (they’re big those condors) remained sufficiently vivid for me to be pretty confident that, yes, this should be included on our whirlwind “Highlights of South America (well, the northern bits anyway)” tour. A chance for a hiking side trip also made perfect sense in the middle of this, one of our heaviest travel weeks (two overnight buses…euurrghh).

After much debate, we decided that our best option for Colca, rather than taking the 3 day tour that’s an almost compulsory feature of this part of the gringo tour, was to get a little bit of our intrepid on and go it solo. What I’d conveniently forgotten / omitted to tell James is that the Colca Canyon is a 6 hour bus ride from Arequipa, in “local” buses. This is definitely a step up from the Bolivian chicken buses (30 year old American school buses, complete with rotund Bolivian ladies taking, yes, you got it, their chickens to market. For the curious, the chickens usually ride on the floor, upside down and tied in pairs. Seems to keep’em happy), but still lacks certain luxuries – seats that stay upright, legroom, that sort of thing. Also they tend to operate as to / from work rides for the locals, meaning that by the end of the journey it’s not uncommon to have 40 or 50 people standing in the aisle. All this I’d expected (James less so), although I have to admit that the shouts of “Ciao” by 50 or so quaintly dressed locals into 50 or so mobile phones was a novel touch to the experience this time around.

This was also our first foray into the world of the Traveler. For the uninitiated, this personage is a rare but friendly beast commonly found in certain unique habitats worldwide; their preferred food includes pizza and banana pancakes, with maybe the occasional touch of granola for the mornings, and they can be easily identified both through their brightly coloured plumage (assembled from a mix of hard core hiking gear and locally bought tat) and their unique braying call, particularly after consumption of one or several of whatever the local brew happens to be. Our hostel in Colca fulfilled both the pizza requirement and was apparently the Lonely Planet’s 7th best “out of the way bar” worldwide. We expected gringo horror – we got a rather lovely little place with an enormous stove (key at 3,000 metres) and friendly owners who quickly helped us work out our best hiking option.

Which was, apparently, to hike 1,200 vertical metres down into the Canyon (the world’s second deepest, some 50 foot less deep than the world’s deepest, Cotohuasi, which is about 40 miles away), admiring the agricultural terracing along the way, lunch and swim at the oasis down there (that much vertical descent = an entirely different and vaguely tropical subclimate at the bottom of the canyon), then hike back up again. Which we duly did. Note cheery looks for both of us on the way down and at the bottom and rather less cheery looks on the way back up! Took 7 hours or so in total and made us feel well’ard (as they say in Scouseland).

Next day was an early rise to see the condors before heading back on the bus to Arequipa. We arrived at the lookout point at about 7.45, and I spent the next hour biting my fingernails as the condors singularly failed to put in an appearance – had I imagined them last time around and is that why they were so vivid in memory??! Fortunately, right on cue at about 8.45 the condors showed up with a leisurely yawn and a stretch of their wings. Circling higher and higher above us with an apparent utter disdain for the hundred or so homosapiens below madly clicking their cameras at them, they absolutely lived up to their billing. Unfortunately we were low on camera battery so not many photos – the ones below are by no means the closest that we saw the condors (which was probably about 10 foot overhead).

Magical. So much so that I think James has forgiven me the bus ride!