Articles tagged with "boat journey"
Another short boat journey took us across Lago Frías. After that, we crossed back into Chile, and got a boat across Lago Todos los Santos. A cloudy day was turning into a sunny one as we headed towards Volcán Osorno.
I travelled on to Bariloche, where it seemed to be ultra-low season and I had a hostel to myself for three days. After Bariloche, I travelled back to Chile, going via three lakes in the Andes. The first step of the journey was across Lago Nahuel Huapi to Puerto Blest.
We went on a road trip around the North Island, and spent a few days in Rotorua. While we were there we took a trip out to White Island, New Zealand’s most active volcano.
I headed back across the bay. The game finished too late to get any fast boats so the chunderfest wasn’t even an option. I got the slow boat back over to Bom Despacho, a beautiful journey as the sun set. From there I got a bus to Valença, on a bus so air-conditioned that I was suffering with the cold. We got to Valença after the last boat had left for Morro. I found a place to stay, and got the boat back out to the island early the next morning.
We passed glacier after glacier as we sailed down the Beagle Channel. This was wild uninhabitable land and it was amazing to see it. We stopped briefly at Yendegaia, an incredibly remote place supposedly being developed as a national park but currently just a ranger station in the middle of nowhere on Tierra del Fuego. I immediately put it on my list of places I want to go.
A few hours after Yendegaia, we passed Ushaia. This was my previous furthest south, on my first trip to South America back in 2005. It looked pretty awesome from out in the straits, surrounded by mountains. After Ushuaia it was only a couple more hours to Puerto Williams.
The boat journey had been incredible but also long and tiring. We’d been quite lucky with the weather with only one epically rough patch in the night, and a bit of rain during the second day. But we hadn’t appreciated what the food and drink situation on board would be like. The drink situation was that they would give you one cup of orange squash at each mealtime. The food situation was a tray of pretty nice food for everyone except me and my dad; neither of us eat meat, which is something that often bewilders people in this part of the world. Our meals consisted of cold vegetables, mostly peas. Dad doesn’t much like peas. So we were a bit thirsty and bit hungry by the time we got to Puerto Williams at about 11pm, 31 hours after we’d set off from Punta Arenas.
My mum and dad and aunt came to visit me in Chile, and we planned an epic journey around the whole country. We’d been planning the trip for a long time, and one of the things we really wanted to do was the four day boat journey from Puerto Natales to Puerto Montt, so when they booked their flights the first thing I went to do was book tho boat journey. Unbelievably, Navimag had cancelled the route just a few days before, running it for freight only. A vague notice on their website said that they hoped to be open to passengers again “at some point”.
But there was an alternative. For a long time I’d been reading about Isla Navarino and Puerto Williams, the southernmost town in the world. There was a boat that went there, too, from Punta Arenas. So we decided to head south, really south, and see what there was at this frontier of human existence, where the only human beings further south than us would be the 1,000 or so living through the winter on Antarctica.
We set off from Punta Arenas on a beautiful calm evening, and stood on deck as it got dark and the lights of the town disappeared behind us. During the night, the weather got rougher and for a while the boat was rolling and riding some huge waves, but by the morning it was pretty calm again. When I woke up around sunrise, we were in utter wilderness. Sombre snow-capped mountains all around, wild forested islands which probably no-one ever sets foot on, and our little boat chugging through it all.
On an epic four month voyage around South America in 2005, one of the most awesome things had been a week-long trek in Torres del Paine. Until now that had been my one and only trip to Patagonia; after 18 months of living on the same continent as this fabled wilderness it was time to put that right.
Last time I’d hiked from the park administration to Lago Pehoé. It was a long trudge, carrying the full weight of a week’s provisions, and the views weren’t that spectacular. So this time, with a friend from London who was in Chile, I took a different approach and got a boat across the lake. We set off in heavy drizzle, and all of the outrageous peaks were hidden in thick cloud. I was wondering if we were in for a miserable few days in the park. But then suddenly the clouds began to part, and the Cuernos del Paine began to appear.
I walked down Bay Street and found my way to the ferry terminal. The boat shuttled across to the islands in a few minutes, and in hot sunshine I went walking. I didn’t get very far before I reached a small cafe, so I bought a coffee and sat on a nearby rocky beach, watching high clouds drift over Toronto. I wanted to walk out onto a small headland for a better view, but as I did, a giant Canada Goose suddenly reared up in front of me, flapped his wings and hissed. I backed off, a bit surprised. I waited until he’d calmed down and then tried again, skirting the edge of what I thought might be his territory. But he jumped up again. I thought about braving it and pushing on, but had visions of “Traveller killed in freak goose incident” headlines and decided the views from the beach were OK.
I walked over to the far shore of the islands, and it felt like a very peaceful place compared to the city. It was still early season and most things were closed, so all I could do was relax and watch the green waters of Lake Ontario churning in the wind. On a pier on the outer shore was a sign like you often find in touristy places, indicating the distances from here to various places. It was a bit sparse, though. The only places indicated were Niagara Falls and the North Pole.
I wandered through the islands back to the main ferry terminal and found that the queues for the return boats were immense. It looked like it would take hours to get on board, so I headed to a quieter ferry terminal, two miles away at the other end of the island. It was a long walk and I got there just after a ferry had left. It was an hour until the next one, and there was nothing to do but watch sunbeams over the city until the boat came in.
Every day of the year, eleven boats are somewhere out at sea along the coast of Norway, on an epic voyage from Bergen to Kirkenes and back. For a long time I’d thought I would like to make a journey along the coast of Norway, and today I could sample a small part of the route.
The boat that pulled into Skjervøy’s small harbour was the MS Nordstjernen, the oldest ship in the Hurtigruten fleet. I was lucky to have a trip on a boat like this. I’d seen massive and new Hurtigruten ships in Tromsø harbour, but the Nordstjernen was small, old and weatherbeaten. We chugged out of Skjervøy into a heavenly summer evening.
The deck was full of people enjoying the warm sun. I watched the coast slip by slowly. Gradually it started to cloud over, and as it cooled, the deck emptied. It was just a four hour run back to Tromsø and some of the people on board were no doubt in for a much longer haul than I was. I stayed out, listening to music and enjoying the ride.
After a couple of hours, another boat appeared on the horizon and closed rapidly. An announcement over the tannoy said that this was the MS Lofoten, another member of the Hurtigruten fleet. The crew of both boats appeared on deck, waving flags and cheering, and both boats sprayed fountains of water as they passed.
We carried on down the coast. Here and there, tiny villages dotted the shore. As we slowly approached Tromsø the signs of human habitation got more frequent, and eventually I saw the distant buildings of the city. We pulled into the harbour just before midnight.
After Olderdalen the bus continued to Skjervøy. Somewhere along the way, it crossed the 70th line of latitude, an arbitrary, meaningless, imaginary line on the Earth’s surface, but one I still thought it was awesome to be north of.
All was quiet in Skjervøy. The skies were blue and the sun shone. I wandered through the empty streets for a bit, stopped in a Narvesen and bought a coffee and an ice cream, and then sat outside in the sun, enjoying being way up here, 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
The peace was disrupted only when the Hurtigruten appeared. With a blast of its horn, it alerted the town that now was the time to head for the harbour if anyone wanted to catch it. I headed down and boarded.
My day in Tromsø started badly. Somehow I’d imagined there would be breakfast at the hostel, and with breakfast one normally gets coffee. But there wasn’t, and I had no supplies. I was a long way from town, and for a moment the day looked bleak. But then I found out that they sold bad coffee in the reception, at outrageous prices. I happily handed over a wodge of kroner, drank the mediocre brew, and then headed out into a bright warm day.
I had no plans, except a vague thought that I’d like to get a boat somewhere. I walked into the city, and down to the quay, but I couldn’t find any useful-looking information about what was going where. Then by chance I wandered into the tourist information office, and by chance I picked up a leaflet about Skjervøy, a village to the north of Tromsø. It turned out I could travel there by bus, and then catch the Hurtigruten back down the coast. The bus was leaving in half an hour; I bought a ticket and headed north.
The best plans are those that are never made. Nothing is better than the spontaneous, and I knew straight away this was going to be an awesome journey. The bus left Tromsø and headed inland, first of all stopping at Breivikeidet where a ferry ran across the narrow fjord to Svensby under an incongruously hot Arctic sun.
Then from Svensby the bus carried on to Lyngseidet, rounding the fearsome looking Lyngen alps, snow covered and jagged. At Lyngseidet we boarded another ferry to Olderdalen. The first ferry had been cool; this one was awesome. Crossing a deep blue fjord surrounded by towering snowy mountains on a hot day in the Arctic Circle could not be anything else.
The day after our hike we headed back to the mainland. I had a night train to catch back to London, and the last time I’d wanted to get the night train I’d missed it. I hate waiting around but this time I got to the station ridiculously early.
Last time I’d got the Caledonian Sleeper I was the only person in the carriage. This time it was very different. The volcano I’d seen erupting just a few days earlier had now gone crazy, spewing out such a vast ash cloud that huge swathes of European airspace were closed. The night train was full of volcano refugees. It was not a particularly relaxing journey, but at least I was on it this time. I got back to London at 6.45am, tired from an intense week of travel. I was supposed to be flying to Frankfurt later the same day for work, and I was pretty relieved when the epic eruption meant my flight was cancelled. I went home and slept.
My time on Ammassalik was over. Before I’d left London I’d booked a ticket for the ferry back to Kulusuk. The helicopter ride over had been fun but I really fancied a little sea voyage off East Greenland. It was the first scheduled ferry journey of the year – the sea ice had only recently melted enough to allow easy sailing. I packed up my things and wandered down to the port under gloomy skies.
The boat was supposed to leave at 9am, but there was little sign of any activity. I hung around on the dock until 9.30 and then vaguely wandered on board. I showed someone my ticket, and then watched dark shoals of large fish speeding around in the water. At 11.15, we chugged away from the dock, and set off for Kulusuk. The only passengers were me and five Danes. I stood on deck in the chilly breeze, swaying with the boat and watching icebergs drift by. The seas were mostly clear. The boat didn’t even need to avoid most of the icebergs – it was quite happy to ride over them.
After a couple of hours I imagined we were not too far from Kulusuk, and I started to think about what I would do there for two days. Suddenly, a crew member asked to see my ticket again. He looked a bit worried and I wondered why. I soon found out. The boat was not two hours late but two days late. Its weekly run took it all around the settlements of Ammassalik district, and today it was not actually going to Kulusuk, but to Sermiligaaq, the most remote village on the schedule. My journey was not nearly over – it had barely begun.
I sometimes have crazy dreams about accidentally getting boats or trains to completely the wrong place. This was the first time it had ever happened to me. I felt a slight sense of panic for about 10 seconds, and then realised that this was in no way a bad thing. I would have to spend another 90 pounds on a helicopter back to Kulusuk in the morning, but on the plus side I was in for a 12 hour round trip up the savage coast of East Greenland, to a remote village that I wouldn’t have otherwise gone to. The crew and the Danes couldn’t understand why I was smiling so much.
We sailed up Ammassalik Fjord. It was nothing like as ice-choked as Sermilik Fjord. It was a dull grey day and the seas and mountains looked gloomy. I lost track of time as we gently rolled along, rising and falling with the swell. I chatted to the Danes, who had travelled a lot in Nordic parts, and I chatted to one of the crew who could speak English. A couple of the other crew had simply said “Kulusuk!” and laughed as I passed them on the deck. It was all meant in a good spirit.
After almost six hours we reached Sermiligaaq. It was a slice of Greenland life that I was incredibly happy to have had this chance to see. The tiny ragged village was the first sign of human life that there had been in all the miles of fjord since Tasiilaq. It seemed unbelievable that people could live here. The arrival of the boat was quite an event – our main mission here was to deliver supplies. The Danes and I left the boat crew to their work. We had an hour to kill before heading back and I wandered around the village. The only activity was at the dock – everywhere else was deserted. In the cold drizzle it didn’t look like a very inviting place.
The boat finished its delivery, and we headed back. I watched Sermiligaaq recede into the forbidding mountains, and we sailed back into the endlessness. It was 5pm, and it was getting colder. I spent most of the return journey indoors, sheltering from icy winds. I’d brought no food with me, naturally, having expected to be on Kulusuk by lunchtime. But the Danes took pity on me, sharing biscuits and sandwiches, and the crew even offered me a share of their cooked dinner. It was very kind but I had to refuse on the grounds of vegetarianism. I probably offended them greatly. I felt bad.
Eventually, at 11pm, we chugged back into Kong Oskars Havn, and the familiar sights of Tasiilaq drifted back into view. The heavy cloud made the Greenlandic evening almost feel like it might turn into a night. I got off the boat and walked unsteadily back up to the Red House, where luckily they had room to put me up again. That night, and for days after, I felt the rocking of the boat as I lay in bed, and I saw icebergs and mountains and stern grey seas when I closed my eyes.
The next day when I got up at 7am, the village was covered in a bright white fog. I was imagining that I might be forced to have a very boring day not doing much, but quite suddenly the fog disappeared, and I decided to go on a boat trip with six other people who were staying at the hostel.
The plan was to circumnavigate Ammassalik island. This 70 mile trip would take us to a couple of the remote settlements in the district as well, and hopefully down Sermilik Fjord. This bit depended on the ice having broken up enough for our little boat to get through. Ably piloted by our boatman, Tobias, we set off.
It was still a bit cloudy as we sailed away from Tasiilaq. Our little motor boat was pretty fast and as soon as Tobias put the power down we all had to huddle down to avoid some serious wind chill. We headed anticlockwise, and once we were in the open seas we passed some huge icebergs.
The sun was beginning to come out. We sailed for a couple of hours, stopping on an island with some ancient Inuit ruins before we reached the village of Tiniteqilaaq. I’d thought the scenery up until now had been pretty amazing but here it blew my mind. We docked in the village, climbed a small hill and suddenly had the unbelievable Sermilik Fjord in front of us.
I headed back across the Irish Sea. The ferry journey went quickly at first, and we had great views of the islands up the Scottish Coast. After about an hour we turned into Loch Ryan, and I presumed that we’d dock at Stranraer within a few minutes. But instead we began an unexplained tour around the loch, rotating around and around in the evening sun, within sight of the port. Eventually an announcement was made that due to tidal conditions we couldn’t dock yet, and we’d be hanging around for about half an hour. An hour later we had still not docked, and Stena had not seen fit to make any more announcements. Finally, an hour and a half late, we docked.
The train to Glasgow had long since left, but Stena had organised a bus to Ayr. I had no idea where Ayr was but presumed this would be useful. At Ayr I got a train to Glasgow, and now it was looking pretty touch and go as to whether I would get to Glasgow in time for the sleeper train to London. We got to Glasgow Central with about a minute to spare, and I sprinted around the station looking for the right platform. When I got there, the train was still there, but the doors had just been locked. A conductor was standing by the back of the train, and I asked him if I couldn’t get on. He said the doors could not be unlocked now they were closed. I stood there in disbelief as the train began to pull away.
I was furious with Stena. Tidal conditions? You’d think they’d know these things in advance. And not keeping passengers informed is just incredibly stupid. No way am I travelling with Stena again. Angrily I walked to a nearby hostel and booked in for a night. Then I had to pay a hundred pounds the next morning to get a new train ticket back to London. Possibly the worst thing about this journey was that all my friends had told me that it was crazy not to fly. I knew I could expect no sympathy, only intense mockery, when I finally made it back.
By the time we docked in Dublin it was cold and raining. There was snow on the hills along the Irish coast. I got a bus to the centre of town, where I had a couple of hours to kill before the Belfast train. I walked along by the Liffey, took a few photos and felt like I’d seen pretty much all there is to see in Dublin on my previous two trips here. I walked up to Connolly station and got on the train heading north.
The annual National Astronomy Meeting was being held in Belfast. Having never been to Northern Ireland, I thought I would go, and feeling environmentally conscientious I decided to travel overland. My train/boat ticket from London to Belfast and back was the same price as a flight, and I’d see all the nations in the British Isles on the way. My journey started with a train from Euston to Holyhead. It was raining when I left London, but sunny in Wales, as I got on the ferry for the three hour journey across the Irish Sea to Dublin.
When we got to the station, we found that the next train to Halmstad wasn’t for another hour and a half. We decided that as it was only a couple of miles away, we might as well pop over to Denmark while we were here, and so we got on a ferry heading across the sound in the howling gales. Once we’d docked, we had about twenty minutes to spare for a quick walk around town, before we had to get on the ferry back over to Sweden.
Fearsomely early the next morning we headed to the port of Santa Cruz to get a boat back to Los Cristianos. Sunbeams lit the town as we approached.
At the airport we found that Thomas Cook could also be added to the Canary Islands transport blacklist, as they were running an extortionate excess luggage scam. Somehow their scales suggested that we’d acquired more than ten kilos of luggage since we had left London, and we had to pay some ridiculous fee. Next time I come to La Palma I’m getting the boat from Cádiz.
Astronomers often need to go to La Palma, because it’s the nearest world class observatory to the UK. This was my fourth trip, but for once it was not to use the telescope. There was a conference being held and I was going to give a talk.
I’m finding it increasingly difficult to get to La Palma. I now boycott Iberia, who provide the most convenient flights but who charge for food and drinks and apparently find it difficult to imagine that there’d be more than one vegetarian on board. For this trip I decided to fly to Tenerife with someone called Globespan Airlines, and get a boat from there to La Palma. My flight was delayed six hours and now Globespan Airlines are also on the list of airlines I’ll never fly with if I can possibly help it, but the boat was a fantastic journey. The sun was setting as we left the port of Los Cristianos in southern Tenerife. We watched the sun set and the moon rise, with Tenerife receding behind us, La Palma approaching, and the smaller islands of La Gomera and El Hierro to the left. I stood on deck listening to Hand Across the Ocean by the Mission and it was a great soundtrack.
I spent a few days in La Paz recovering from my ride. The weather was pretty miserable, with frequent heavy thunderstorms. I took refuge from one in a cafe, where I met an extremely drunk Bolivian businessman who turned out to have gone to the same university in London as I had. But conversation was difficult – half the time I was not sure whether he was speaking english or spanish.
As the end of December neared, I had less than five weeks left before my flight home, and I still had two countries left to see. So I headed north again, back to Lake Titicaca. It was quite strange to arrive at Copacabana again – I normally try to avoid backtracking while travelling. But I wasn’t staying here this time – I jumped straight on a boat to Isla del Sol. It was a sunny day, for once, and the boat journey across the lake was a lot of fun.
Isla del Sol is, according to Inca legend, where the world began. The Sun formed right here, and the Inca people followed. Ancient Inca sights dot the island, and it has an atmosphere of mystery about it. Getting off the boat, I met Lisa and Ryan, who I’d previously met 2000 miles further south at Chile Chico on the shores of Lago General Carrera, the second-largest lake in South America after the one we were now standing on an island in the middle of. They were heading back from the island to the mainland. After saying goodbye to them, a young boy convinced me to stay in his parents’ hostel, and we set off up the hill to the village of Yumani, on top of the island. Despite my acclimatisation I was still destroyed by the time we reached the top of the spectacular Inca staircase that leads from the shore to Yumani, and the barefooted child was perplexed every time I asked him to wait a few seconds.
The island proved to be far quieter than I had expected it to be, and my new year was a quiet one. After recovering from my exertions I went for a walk along the spine of the island, and then as night fell I watched some thunderstorms brewing. When I went out for my evening meal, everywhere was almost empty, apart from one restaurant in which I met a French couple, who apparently recognised me from San Pedro. We seemed to be the only people out, and I got the feeling they’d had an argument, because they were definitely not in a jovial mood. After a meal in which there were many awkward pauses in the conversation, they left, and I went to a nearby bar. But that was empty as well, so I walked back along the dark track to the place I was staying.
The thunderstorms were now spectacular, and I watched them from my balcony. Midnight came and went with a couple of small firecrackers let off nearby but no great celebration. Great flashes of forked lightning lit up the clouds, and as it began to rain I decided to head for bed. It was 12.15am, and the new year had begun.
The next day I did more walking around the island. I wrote some postcards while sat on the very peak of the island, just under 4000m above sea level. It was a grey day, but warm enough that it didn’t feel like it could be January. I tried to think of some worthy new years resolutions but my main aspiration was to spend as much of the year as possible travelling.
During the afternoon I got a boat back to Copacabana, which strangely was incredibly busy. I had extreme trouble finding a room for the night, with everywhere being completely full. I had one insulting offer of a filthy mattress in a store room, another more friendly offer of a sofa if I couldn’t find anywhere else, and then finally after some negotiation I got a triple room to myself, for which I paid the price of a double room. Much relieved, I slept well, and in the morning I got up early to go to Peru.
The boat north was supposed to be going at 11pm but when I bought a ticket I found out it was running late and would not be leaving until 3am. I had many hours to kill but luckily Carlito, the owner of the place I was staying, said I could wait in the hotel even though I wasn’t paying for an extra night. He was waiting up for the ferry as well, as his daughter was on board, and I spent a lot of the evening trying to improve my Spanish by talking to him. He turned out to be an ardent Pinochet supporter, and was quite aggrieved that after years of legal wranglings, the ex-dictator had just been stripped of his immunity from prosecution and put under house arrest.
Carlito’s view was that the general was 90 years old and should be enjoying a quiet life instead of facing jail, and that although lots of bad things happened during the dictatorship, the responsibility for them lay not with Pinochet but with other senior government people. Carlito was not just a fan, he’d actually met Pinochet on several occasions and had had dinner with him when he visited Chaitén. “A lovely man”, he said earnestly. He asked me what I thought, and I tried to explain my feelings on the situation while avoiding getting kicked out and having to spend the small hours on the streets. In the end my Spanish wasn’t really up to making complex political arguments, and we talked of simpler things until 2.30am. Then he drove me to the ferry terminal and I got on the boat, looking forward to a long journey up the Pacific coast.
We pulled out into the ocean at about 4am, and I watched the lights recede until we were in inky blackness, then slept uncomfortably on a reclining chair. I had wanted to get up and watch the sunrise, but in the end I slept through it and by the time I awoke it was broad daylight. A small serving hatch opened and I got a slightly oily-tasting coffee and a sandwich, and went up on deck to watch the mountains on the shore slowly drift by. We were sailing through the straits between the island of Chiloé and the mainland, and the waters were calm. I found a ladder up to the top of the boat, which had a sign saying ‘crew only’, but two old men climbed up it and told me no-one would mind, so I went up as well and enjoyed the panoramic views of islands and boats dotted across the sea.
We arrived at Puerto Montt at 3.30pm, almost seven hours late, and I hurried to the bus station to get a bus to Pucón, a couple of hours further north and situated at the base of the constantly erupting Volcán Villarrica. I got there at about 11pm, checked into a hostel and headed straight for the shower, finally getting out of my shoes which were still damp from Pumalín.
It seemed like it might be quite difficult to head north from El Chaltén except by travelling right back over to the east side of the continent where the endless plains allow good roads. Luckily, though, there are occasional buses which use Ruta 40 to get from El Chaltén to Los Antiguos. My guidebook described Ruta 40 as ‘one of the world’s worst roads, passing through some of its most boring scenery’, but I’ve been on that road, it’s in Zambia. So I headed north on this road, and actually I found some of the scenery pretty spectacular. We passed through some astonishingly remote places, tiny villages with just a house or two and a cafe which must get no business at all except when buses pass through. The sun shone and I dozed a lot of the way. Late in the afternoon we stopped at Perito Moreno, where a lot of passengers got off, before turning east along the shores of Lago Buenos Aires, South America’s second-largest lake. Snowy mountains lined the shores of the deep blue lake.
Late in the evening we arrived at Los Antiguos, a small town by the border with Chile. I tried to find a camp site but discovered that the municipal site was three miles out of town. I didn’t feel like walking several miles along an unlit road in the dark, but the hostel in town was full. However, the woman at the hostel phoned her friend Gladys, who appeared to operate some kind of overspill accommodation in her house. I ended up in Gladys’s spare room, feeling slightly ill-at-ease in her very large but very quiet house with no other travellers around. I was having a bad Spanish day and failed totally to make any conversation throughout my stay. I was glad to leave early the next morning.
I headed back into Chile. Chile has very strict regulations about bringing fresh produce into the country, which promise vast fines and possible jail terms for those surreptitiously importing evil substances like cheese. At previous border crossings checks had been cursory, but here the seven of us on the minibus were very thoroughly searched. As my bag was being emptied I heard another passenger being asked “Who sold you this orange?”. I had bought a sandwich that morning and had failed to declare it on the form, but luckily the border guard believed me when I said I’d forgotten I had it. Eventually, after a lengthy investigation, we were all allowed to pack up and get on the way into Chile.
I spent a quiet day in Chile Chico, a small town on the shores of Lago General Carrera. Apparently the town is a major fruit-growing centre because it has a very sunny microclimate. I spent the night at a slightly odd ‘hostel’ that was just some spare rooms in somebody’s house, along with five other travellers who had also arrived from Argentina. We all chipped in to cook a feast of a dinner, and stayed up very late, eating, drinking and talking.
The next day we all got a boat across the lake to Puerto Ibáñez, a beautiful few hours on the waves with towering snowy peaks all around. The lake was pretty choppy and everything outdoors quickly got pretty soaked with spray, but there was not nearly enough space in the small covered area for everyone. But along the way I got talking to a girl from Finland, and she managed somehow to find us two spare seats in the covered area. As we approached Puerto Ibáñez, the waters calmed and I went outside again to watch the beautiful mountains gliding past. When we docked I got a bus to Coyhaique, at the south end of the Carretera Austral.
The journey to Río Gallegos was great. It seemed amazing to be getting a bus such a long way through such wild country. After a brief stop in Trelew the endless featureless plains began and few signs of human influence could be seen. Occasional decaying car bodies by the roadside indicated what a bad place this would be to get a puncture. The only major negative was that The Motorcycle Diaries came on the bus TV, and it would have been perfect viewing, but inexplicably they turned it off after a few seconds and put on a film so dire it makes me cringe to think of it.
But the film aside, all was good. I read Ernest Shackleton’s Heart of the Antarctic, watched the bleak scenery go by, and as night fell I watched the sky fill with stars. In the morning things looked a bit colder and a bit harsher than they had the night before, and at 8.15am we arrived at Río Gallegos under heavy grey skies. I bought a ticket for the bus to Ushuaia, and left for the southern-most city in the world a few minutes later.
A strip of Chile lies between Río Gallegos and Ushuaia, and it wasn’t long until we reached the border. I accidentally broke the law here by having cheese sandwiches with me – Chile strictly prohibits ingress of dairy products, and garish notices threatened enormous fines. I’d forgotten I had the sandwiches until I was safely through, which was lucky – I’m sure I’d have given myself away had I known I was being a cheese mule. Soon we reached Punta Delgado on the Straits of Magellan, where we took a ferry to Tierra del Fuego. The deep green waters of the straits were filled with small black-and-white dolphins, which followed us across, leaping from the waves.
Half an hour later we were on Tierra del Fuego – the wild end of a wild region. We drove on to Río Grande, where we had to get off the bus for a while. The wait there was enlivened when two alsations stole a Frenchman’s waterproof coat and ran off with it. And then it was the final leg to Ushuaia, which took us from the flat plains of eastern Tierra del Fuego into the mountainous western half. The change was abrupt – suddenly the horizon was full of Andean peaks. The grey skies got thicker and gloomier, and as we approached the mountains rain was hammering down. We arrived at Ushuaia at about 8.30pm, and in fading daylight and heavy rain I walked to the youth hostel.
The Norwegians were going to get a boat from Hvannasund on the island of Viðoy, out past the island of Svinoy to the eastern-most island of Fugloy. I’d thought about doing that, and so I joined them for the trip. We drove from Klaksvík to Hvannasund, with a little look around some of the north-eastern islands on the way.
At Hvannasund we got on the boat. The passengers looked to be about half locals and half travellers just out for the ride. For a mere 30 kronur, we could all spend a few hours chugging along through the islands, amongst some amazing north Atlantic scenery. The sun shone, the weather was calm and warm, and puffins dotted the waters.
I watched the islands drift by. We stopped at Hattarvík, and I considered getting off and walking over the island to Kirkja, where the boat was going to call on its way back. But I wasn’t sure how long the walk would take, and getting stranded on Fugloy would be pretty inconvenient. So I stayed on the boat for the return journey.
We stopped at Kirkja, and then at Svínoy. The incredible weather was slowly giving way to clouds as we chugged back to Hvannasund.
I’d travelled from China to Paris without a hitch, and I imagined that Paris to London would be the easiest part of the journey. Sadly I was mistaken. I headed to Gare du Nord at about midday and found that there was a train to Calais leaving in a few minutes. So I bought a ticket and headed to the platform. But the train was a Eurostar train, and you have to check in twenty minutes before departure. They had sold me the ticket too late to make the cut, and so I missed my first train back home.
I went back to the ticket desk and explained the situation. Luckily they could change my ticket without charge, but unluckily they said there was not another train to Calais until 5pm. I really didn’t want to spend another four hours in Paris and felt annoyed that I wasn’t already half way to Calais. As I walked away with my second ticket, I found a timetable which said there was a train at 3pm to Calais, so I queued again and asked. It turned out that all the standard class seats were full on the 3pm train, but as I was a student I could get a first class seat for only one euro more. Fantastic, I thought – I’ll travel back in comfort. I gladly exchanged my second ticket and a euro for my third ticket, and felt happy again to be nearly home.
With an hour to kill, I went to a cafe on the station and got some lunch and a coffee. I couldn’t wait to get back home now. At quarter to three I picked up my bags, started walking towards the platform, reached into my pocket to get my ticket, and found that it wasn’t there.
Shocked, I hurried back to the cafe, thinking I might have left it on the table. But it wasn’t there. I looked around and saw no sign of it. I walked back and forth between the cafe and where I realised I’d lost it. It was nowhere to be seen. I couldn’t believe it – had it been stolen? Had I just lost it? To this day I’ve got no idea what happened to it. Now I was furious, and once I’d given it up for lost I rushed to the ticket offices. But the queues were far too long for me to have a hope of reaching the front before the train left. I went to some automatic ticket machines, but for some reason none of them would accept my bank card. 3pm came, and I could only watch in despair as a train with an empty first class seat on it rolled out of the station.
Dejectedly I joined the queue for the ticket offices, and bought my fourth Paris-Calais ticket of the day, for the 5pm train I’d wanted to avoid. If all had gone to plan I’d have been on the train from Dover to London by 5pm. In the end, I reached Calais with only minutes to spare before the last ferry of the day.
As we crossed the channel I looked at the lights of France receding, and the lights of England approaching. The last time I’d seen the sea was at Qinhuangdao almost two months previously, and now I was on the other side of the Eurasian landmass. Night was falling as we pulled out of Calais, and we got to Dover in darkness. I hurried off the ferry to the train station, and got the last train to Charing Cross. I finally got back home at 1am, staggered at what a farce the last step had been, happy to be home, and slightly unable to believe that I’d just travelled a third of the way around the world by train.
We had a fun night out in Bergen. The streets were full of students wearing red trousers, in some kind of post-exam celebration. Everything was lively and we didn’t get back to the hostel until after 4am. We’d booked ourselves tickets on a train to Voss, leaving at 7.50am, and when we got up at 7, I was not filled with enthusiasm for the day’s sightseeing.
I dozed on the train. The skies were dark and I thought we were finally going to have some famous Bergen rain, but it held off, and at Voss the sun began to break through. We then got a bus to Gudvangen, and by the time we got there the skies were clear.
From here, we got a boat to Flåm. It was a stunning ride down the Nærøyfjord, hemmed in on either side by towering cliffs, with waterfalls plunging from the heights. All was still except for the hum of the boat, and the waters were like glass.
We chugged along, and very occasionally there was an isolated house perched on the edge of a cliff. If I ever become spectacularly rich, I’m going to buy one of them. Eventually we reached the end of Nærøyfjord and turned into the Aurlandsfjord. I didn’t want to trip to end but after two hours we were approaching Flåm.
But we had made it to shore, and we spent a little while standing around and chatting before we set off to look for accommodation, and we found ourselves as so often the source of amusement for the local kids. We left the beach for what proved to be a long walk to where we stayed, and soon discovered an endearing Likoma habit: the kids, on seeing white people, would shout ‘HELLO! HELLO! HELLO!’ repeatedly and at the top of their voice, even if they were standing only inches away from us. Then as soon as we had passed them they’d shout ‘GOODBYE! GOODBYE! GOODBYE!’ with undimmed enthusiasm until we had disappeared over the horizon. We had many of these enjoyable encounters along the way.
We walked to the main settlement on the island, which contains a huge stone cathedral. It looked wildly incongruous among the thatched huts and baobab trees, and really quite impressive. It was built by Scottish missionaries, whose presence was really the reason these islands just off the coast of Mozambique ended up in Malawi’s hands. We wandered around it for a little while before setting off on our trek once more.
This final leg was most impressive. Baobab trees are an instantly recognisable symbol of Southern Africa, with their massive trunk and tiny branches. Especially now in the middle of winter, they were an arresting sight. These islands are known for their large numbers of baobab, and I’d seen a few on Chizumulu, but here there were lots, with almost no other vegetation around except for grass. Under the deep blue skies it was a remarkable sight. We crossed this field and found on the other side the steep walk down to the beach where we were going to stay.
Here, more relaxation was the order of the day. There really was nothing to do except make occasional forays up the steep hill to look around the island. I had to spend two days here before the steamer arrived for the return leg to the mainland, and saw quite a lot of Likoma island. I took possibly too many photos of the remarkable field of baobab trees. I plucked up enough courage to brave the crocodiles and go for a swim in the lake. I saw stunning sunsets every night. After three days I was ready to move on, and on the morning the boat was supposed to be coming I (and almost everyone else there) packed up my bags and hiked up the hill to head for the dock.
The boat was supposed to be leaving at 10am, but was seen still crossing the straits at 9.30am. I knew that the unloading and loading was going to be a protracted procedure: when we arrived at Chizumulu at 3am four days previously, the boat had not left for Likoma until 9am. So I visited the market near the dock, bought some deep-fried doughballs and peanut butter, and settled in for a long wait. I slept for a while, then had a drink at the fantastic ‘Hot Coconut Bar’, then had a long conversation with a beggar, who left me an address and a demand for size 9 shoes.
The boat is in dock for a long time mainly because there’s no proper harbour on either of the islands. The boat has to wait out in the deep water while its lifeboat is used to ferry people, livestock, sacks of maize and everything else between boat and shore. It took about 10 return journeys just to get the people on board, which made me wonder how useful the lifeboat would actually be in an emergency. Eventually everything was on board except the last boatful of people, so we got in the lifeboat and motored across to the MV Nkhwazi.
Once we were on board we had a little bit more waiting around before finally, at 4.30pm, some six and a half hours late, we set off for Nkhata Bay. For the first hour and a half we were in the choppy seas between Likoma and Chizumulu, and even in the relative comfort of ‘first class’ at the back of the boat things were quite lively. I dreaded to think what it was like for those at the front. At 6pm we docked at Chizumulu, but because the boat had only come from there that morning there was not a lot of stuff to transfer between boat and shore. We were there for a couple of hours, during which time the sun set and the stars came out, and then we were off to Nkhata Bay.
The lake was calm away from the islands and the run back to the mainland was again a good one. I slept for much of the way, waking to find the strings of fishing boat lights approaching, and shortly after we arrived at Nkhata Bay. It was 1.30am but thankfully I found a place to stay that was open.
It was a half hour walk to the bay the boat was going from. When we arrived we found a ramshackle looking vessel, from which copious amounts of water were being bailed. Huge buckets were filled with water and poured over the side. But it was the only means of getting between the islands so along with three other travellers and two locals I jumped in. The boat was not a huge thing and once we were out of the sheltered cove the swell moved us up and down a quite unpleasant amount. Rapidly I began to feel that it was just a matter of time before I threw up, and for half an hour I concentrated intently on the mast and breathed deeply. Then suddenly proceedings were livened up when the sail ripped. The skipper gave it a weary glance and decided it didn’t look to bad, so we carried on. All the way buckets and buckets of water were being bailed out, and if I hadn’t felt so ill I think I’d have been quite worried.
But the next hour passed uneventfully – the boat stayed intact and I held on to my stomach contents. I was very glad to be approaching a beach on Likoma Island, firstly because I thought I wouldn’t last much longer, and secondly because the mast at this point snapped in two. We were close enough to coast the rest of the way onto the beach, but as I got off I couldn’t help but wonder what would have become of us if that had happened out at sea.
The next day I decided to go across the lake to Chizumulu and Likoma Islands, close to the Mozambican shore and actually an enclave of Malawi surrounded by Mozambican territorial waters. Tom was heading to Mzuzu, the main town in the north of Malawi, from where I could travel on to Nkhata Bay, the port for the lake ferry. The drive to Mzuzu was pretty incredible, up and down dramatic hillsides with the deep blue lake on the left and forested mountains to the right. After a couple of hours hanging around in Mzuzu I got a minibus down to Nkhata Bay.
Everything I’d heard before I arrived in southern Africa suggested that bus journeys would invariably involve considerable terror and fear for one’s life. Up until now, I’d really not found that, perhaps partly because the roads were often so bad that speeds above about 40mph were impossible. But here the road was smooth tarmac, downhill and had lots of sharp bends, and I did indeed think it was all over several times as we careered around the corners at speeds that just weren’t sensible. All the while a very friendly guy called John was chatting to me about various things, smiling and laughing, apparently oblivious to the fearsome danger we were in. Between gasps and whimpers I tried to chat back.
We made it alive to Nkhata Bay. I didn’t have any idea when the boat was actually leaving for Chizumulu Island, but it turned out to be going in just an hour’s time. Having just put my bags down at a hotel I grabbed them and set off for the dock. I bought my ticket and some fruit from some dockside vendors and got on board. To my amazement the boat left exactly on time, and the run across the lake was one of the most memorable journeys I’ve made. The lake was as smooth as glass and the air was warm for the duration of the five hour crossing. I lay flat out on the upper deck, under an inky black sky split from horizon to horizon with the Milky Way. The lights of fishing boats were strung out in a line extending many miles from Nkhata Bay, but once we were clear of them the only man made things in sight were the boat and the occasional light on the distant shore. It was sad to have to disembark when we arrived at Chizumulu Island at three in the morning.
On Chizumulu island I sat back and relaxed; there really wasn’t any other choice. The island is small enough that you can walk around it in about three hours, and once you’ve done that you’ve seen it all. Because of the steamer schedule I had five days to kill between here and Likoma Island, and I killed them very slowly. This first day on Chizumulu I got up at 11am to find the day cloudy. For some hours I sat around and read, in the hope that things would look better later on, but nothing changed. In the mid-afternoon I roused myself from my hammock and set off to walk around the island, which was very pleasant. There were no roads, no cars and no electricity on the island, just a beautifully made footpath around the edge, which I followed until I was on roughly the other side of the island from where I started.
From there I decided to make a detour inland over the two low hills which dominate the island. It looked like a simple job to walk up to the top, but actually I was soon picking my way slowly and carefully through cassava plantations, taking a surprisingly long time to make any headway. And at the top there was dense woodland, so I actually didn’t get any good views at all. Disappointed, I walked down the other side back to my tent, and once again took up my position in the hammock. After it got dark the insect nightlife got going in a big way, so at 8pm I went to bed.
The next morning, appalled by my sloth-like activity the day before, I got up at 5am, and set off anticlockwise around the main path. The sky was clear and blue and the sun was about to rise. I set a blistering pace and got to the easternmost point of the island just in time for the sunrise, which was glorious. Then as the red morning light turned into yellow daytime light I circuited the island completely, stopping to sit and watch the sea at deserted beaches, chatting to local people and enjoying the scenery. When I got back to where I was staying I found a couple of other travellers about to set off to get a boat to Likoma Island, and feeling that I’d seen all there was to see on Chizumulu, I decided to go with them.
In the morning a boat passed by, and I negotiated a fare back to Mpulungu. No disasters this time and I arrived without incident two hours later. From here I needed urgently to get to the border with Malawi, because I’d recently noticed that when I’d entered Zambia, I’d stated that I would be in the country for ‘about three weeks’, but my visa had been stamped valid for exactly three weeks. I needed to get out of Zambia by sunset if I didn’t want to outstay my visa. I wasn’t to make it, though – all the buses to the border leave early in the morning, and it was already 10am by the time I reached Mpulungu. Disconsolately I got a bus to Mbala, just to feel that I’d at least made an effort. There was not much happening in Mbala, but I was most impressed to find that the New Grasshopper Inn had a huge bathtub and plenty of hot water. A long, long bath and a good night’s sleep left me prepared to face the border guards with an expired visa stamp the next day.
The first thing to do was work out which border I actually needed to go to. I wanted to be heading for Chitipa, on the border with Malawi, but the word was the road was completely impassable, and people recommended that I head for Nakonde, on the border with Tanzania. Like many Zambian towns, Mbala is a few miles from the main road and most buses don’t bother to actually come into town, so I got a lift out to the junction with a Zimbabwean construction worker who was upgrading gravel roads in the area. From there a bus took me to Nakonde.
After waving aside the scrum of people who tried to carry, cycle or otherwise transport my luggage to the border, I asked around about getting to Chitipa. No joy to be had was the unanimous verdict, so after much consideration and trepidation I decided I’d have to go through Tanzania to get to Malawi, despite having no guidebook, map, or knowledge of Swahili. But to get to Tanzania I’d first have to get out of Zambia.
At the time it didn’t seem too traumatic. I’d just read ‘North of South’ by Shiva Naipaul, in which he finds himself in exactly the same situation. He’d ended up bribing the border guard to get his exit stamp. So when I was threatened with a massive fine, I pleaded my innocence. I’d certainly not intended to stay beyond my stamp. Then they threatened me with prison. I was pretty sure a bribe would sort it out but I wanted to wait until that was made totally clear. In the meantime I had to let the guard enjoy his power trip. After a few minutes they told me to go and speak to the head immigration officer. He lectured me for a while about not outstaying welcomes and being a good traveller, and I nodded and agreed contritely. And then he said that in the interests of good relations between Zambia and Britain, he wouldn’t take any action. Very grateful, I picked up my bags and wandered over to Tanzania. It was only much later that I noticed my spare camera was no longer in my pack.
Tanzania! A country I’d dreamed of. Kilimanjaro, the Crater Highlands, Zanzibar. And now I was here, feeling disorientated and clueless. The flat Zambian plateau which had made me thirst for the sight of a hill these last three weeks gave way at the border to stunning rolling hills and mountains, lush and green in amazing contrast to the dusty red soil of Zambia. The change was so sudden it almost looked fake. There can’t be many countries in the world with such a striking change of geography between them.
I wandered up the hill, not really knowing where I was heading. I knew there was a town called Mbeya not far from here, from where I thought I could get a bus to the Malawian border. I soon found a minibus to Mbeya, and squashed myself in. Tanzanian buses were somehow even more packed than Zambian ones, but I could see out the window at least, and appreciate the dramatic scenery. Perhaps it was just because I’d only seen about three hills in the whole of Zambia, but the undulating landscape here seemed quite breathtaking.
After a little while I arrived in Mbeya, still a little bit startled to find myself in a country I’d had no intention of visiting just yet. It was a nightmarish scrum at the bus station, but fortunately I met a very friendly guy called Frederick, who showed me where the bus to Tukuyu was leaving from. He said it was too late to be going to the border, but that Tukuyu was well on the way and it would be easy to get from there to Malawi the next day. So off we went to Tukuyu and on the way I learnt a few useful words in Swahili.
I found my way to the Langiboss Motel in Tukuyu, where I found hot showers and cold cokes, and also an Englishman called Tom. We chatted for a while, and it turned out that he was driving from Arusha down to Malawi, and would be crossing the border the next day. He offered me a lift, on the condition that I helped him change a wheel on his Land Rover the following morning.
I got out of the Despot B&B as quickly as I could the next morning and headed north. After their four day weekend it seemed that everyone was easing back into things gently, and though I got on a bus to Mpulungu straight away, the Zambian hour and a half lasted three hours and included a trip to the shops. But wow, what a journey once we were underway. It was a fairly nondescript run to Mbala, with the usual Zambian scenery, but after Mbala we left the high plateau which makes up almost all of Zambia and dropped down into the East African Rift Valley to Mpulungu. Lake Tanganyika, Africa’s second biggest lake, was glittering beneath us in the hot sun, and it was extremely beautiful. And it was hot down there, steamy and sweaty. Up on the plateau it had been very chilly at night and in the mornings, and got to the high twenties at best by the mid afternoon, but down here in the valley it must have been well into the thirties. I wandered around trying to find where I could get a boat out onto the lake from, and a very friendly guy wandered around with me and helped me to find the next boat leaving. He dropped me off at the beach where it was going from and left me with a friendly wave and a warning that all those around me were criminals.
And so I set about negotiating a fare. I wanted to go to a place called Mishembe Bay, right next to the border with Tanzania, and after a few attempts to get me to pay hundreds of pounds for a three hour boat journey, I settled on an agreeable fare with the owner of a boat. We left within half an hour of when he’d said we would, and it was a fantastic journey across the lake in the late evening sun. I was trying to believe that this lake is the longest in the world, stretching from down here in the south all the way up to Burundi at the northern end, squeezed between Tanzania and the Congo on its way. It’s also one of the deepest lakes in the world, and the majority of the fish living in it are of species found nowhere else.
The journey continued as the sun set. As we stopped at successive villages along the shore the boat gradually emptied, until by the time we got about three-quarters of the way to Mishembe Bay, I was one of only two passengers left on the boat. The boat’s owner had got out a little while before, leaving his brother to drive on, but his brother at this point told us he’d run out of fuel and couldn’t go on. A long and detailed argument followed, and he told me that he’d known from the start he didn’t have enough fuel to go all the way along to Mishembe, but hadn’t told me because I was dealing with his brother. After about half an hour he decided the solution was to get some guys from the village to get me to Mishembe in a canoe. It was a wildly unstable craft, and it was now night, but thankfully there was a full moon so we could see where we were going.
After half an hour or so, we got to the village just before Mishembe Bay, and they told me it was just a short walk on to there. Luckily the other remaining passenger said he’d show me the way – it turned out to be nearly half an hour’s walk. And now I discovered that where my guidebook had said there was accommodation here, what it meant to say was that accommodation was being built here. It wasn’t finished, but I had my tent and the builders who were living there were very friendly and sorted me out with some hot coals and water to cook with. They helped me to set up my tent and then I sat with them on the beach talking and eating dinner until it got late.
After two days we had recovered enough to leave the hammocks and get on our way again. Our next point of call was to be Santiago Atitlán, another lakeside town.
Our main reason for coming here was to visit the shrine of Maximón. Maximón is a Mayan saint, revered in Santiago but reviled in other lakeside villages. He wears western clothes, drinks whiskey and smokes cigars, and grants prayers for revenge. He is believed to be a fusion of ancient Mayan deities, Judas Iscariot, and Pedro de Alvarado, the conquistador of Guatemala. He is represented in his shrine by an intricately carved wooden effigy, and moves to a different house every year. Finding him was simple – we said ‘Maximón?’ to a passing child and straight away he set off through the back streets to the shrine of Maximón. We followed, paid the small toll required to see him, and went inside.
Having visited Maximón, we were done with Lago de Atitlán. It was time to head off to our next objective, the city of Quezaltenango. We had an awesome boat ride back across the lake, sitting on the roof of the boat, basking in the sunshine and surroundings, before once again braving the bus system. After four separate bus journeys and a narrow escape from getting a bus to Guatemala City (the passengers were more honest than the touts, thankfully), we arrived in Quezaltenango, known to its Mayan inhabitants as Xela.
When we woke, though, we found it was really not a nice day. We decided not to climb that day, but we didn’t want to hang around in Antigua any longer. We decided to leave for our next destination, and hope to return to Antigua with a couple of days to spare at the end of the trip to have another crack at Acatenango.
So we headed for our next point of call, Lago de Atitlán. Many thousands of years ago, a cataclysmic volcanic eruption in the Guatemalan highlands left behind a crater hundreds of meters deep and several miles across. Over hundreds of years, the crater filled up with water, forming the beautiful Lago de Atitlán. Renewed volcanic activity then began, and over time three new volcanoes formed around the lake shore. Today it is one of the most famous places in Central America, and we had been looking forward to it.
Having been in Guatemala nearly a week, we decided to brave the bus system for this journey, and we were glad we did. The buses were not crowded, they were driven safely, and the atmosphere good as we chatted to locals. The only bad point was that each time we needed to change buses, the bus touts were so keen for our business that they would tell us that their bus was going where we wanted to go, even if it was actually going in the opposite direction.
But it was worth the wait. Our first sight of the deep blue waters of the lake surrounded by towering volcanoes was breathtaking, and we had a long and incredible descent in the bus from the hills to the lake shore. We arrived in the lakeside town of Panajachel at about 3pm. Panajachel is probably Guatemala’s most touristy town, so we made a rapid exit, jumping on a boat across the lake to the town of San Pedro la Laguna.
Every afternoon a wind known as the Xocomil rises to churn up the normally placid surface of the lake into large swells, so our boat ride was bouncy , and occasionally I wondered how strong the hull was, but we made it to the other side OK. As soon as we got off the boat, we were engulfed by people offering to guide us if we wanted to climb Volcán San Pedro, which looms behind the village. This was the main reason we had come here, so we shopped around for a good rate. The more people in the group, the cheaper the cost, so we decided to try and recruit some other people for the climb.
We checked into a hotel right on the lake shore, with hammocks on the balconies and hot showers, all for £1.50 a night. We were surprised when Ashley, who we’d met in Nicaragua, emerged from a room near ours. Having been with us when we were defeated by Volcán Masaya, Ashley didn’t hesitate to join us on our quest for the top. There were several other travellers staying at the hotel, and within half an hour, we’d managed to assemble a group of 11 people. We negotiated a rate for a guide, and arranged to leave at 5am the next day.
The next day we headed out of Costa Rica. Our next stop was to be Ometepe Island, in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. It’s the largest island in a freshwater lake in the world, and Lake Nicaragua is the largest lake in Central America. The island itself is made up of two volcanoes, one active, joined together by ancient lava flows. It can be seen from far away, the twin peaks rising from the waters of the lake. Before the Spanish arrived, the area was inhabited by the Nicarao tribe, who spoke Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. After a civil war in Mexico, the Nicarao people had fled south, and, on consulting their idols, were told that they should continue until they came to a huge expanse of fresh water with two mountains in the middle. Thus they settled on Ometepe and around the shores of the lake. The name Ometepe comes from the words Ome Tepetl, meaning ‘two hills’ in Nahuatl.
Latin American border officials have never had the best reputation in the world, so we were a little daunted as we got the bus to Peñas Blancas for our first border of the journey. However, in the event the border officials weren’t a problem. We crossed without paying bribes or having drugs planted on us. The main problem was the bank, who spent a good half hour stamping, scratching, marking and variously defiling our travellers cheques, before giving us Nicaraguan córdobas at an abysmal rate, counting them out four times.
But soon enough we were across the border. Some taxi drivers told us there were no buses onwards from the border and we’d have to take their taxi if we wanted to get anywhere. We were too streetwise for them, though, and hopped aboard a nearby bus, which was going to Rivas, from where we would continue our journey. As we drove off, we could see Lago de Nicaragua and the towering peaks of Ometepe Island on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other.
The first thing we noticed when we entered Nicaragua was that the people looked very different to Costa Ricans. Straight away we could see that the people are mestizo, a mix of Spanish and indigenous. In Costa Rica, disease and cruelty very nearly wiped out the indigenous people within about 50 years of the Spanish arriving, so no intermixing took place. But in Nicaragua, the Spanish were a little bit less brutal in their treatment of the natives, and the mixed descent is clear to see.
As we arrived in Rivas, we found that despite 10 days of learning, our Spanish still wasn’t very good. We never worked out what the old man was trying to tell us when we asked him where the San Jorge bus stop was. We wandered off up the road trying not to look abysmally stupid, and down the deserted street towards us came a battered old taxi. It said ‘Pablo Garcia’ in the window, and Señor Garcia leaped out when we glanced in his direction, cheerfully hustled us in and drove us to San Jorge, from where we were going to get a ferry to Ometepe Island.
On arrival at San Jorge, we bought tickets for the Señora del Lago, a beaten up old ferry which plieD the waters between San Jorge and the island. The sun was setting over the lake as we crossed, and we arrived at the village of Moyogalpa just after dark. Here we got another bus, to Altagracia, where we would stay. This was a great ride, on an absolutely packed bus, with loud music on the radio, fireflies flickering outside the window, and people carrying chickens and fruit and vegetables home from the market. It was almost disappointing to arrive at Altagracia just after 7pm.
My plan had been to go to Budapest after my exams had finished. It started out as nothing more than a vague idea, but gradually I began to think I would actually go, and finally, the day the exams finished, I packed my bags and decided to have a crack at it.
In the morning, I headed for town. For probably the first time in my life, I arrived there before anything was open. I really wanted to get on the way, and so I decided to skip buying a few essential things and head for Victoria. There, I found that the international ticket office had been closed down. Apparently, there are other branches at Euston and King’s Cross, but given that the only place you can go from those stations which can remotely be called ‘abroad’ is Scotland, their use there is limited. So I bought a ticket to Dover instead, and got on the ferry to France. The weather was great and the boat was almost empty, so I spread my things out over several tables, and enjoyed the ride.
Calais looked grim, and when I got to the station, I found that there was a train to Paris going in 10 minutes. I bought a ticket and headed east. Despite the train being almost empty, the conductor moved me on when he checked my ticket, as I was sitting in a reserved seat. He sent me off down the train, but there seemed to be no way of telling which seats were reserved and which weren’t. He had to move me on twice more before I got it right. He then stamped my ticket seven times, muttered something in French which I assume was something like “idiot foreigner”, and stomped off.
At Boulogne, the train filled up with loud and obnoxious schoolkids. As they raced up and down the carriages, throwing things, picking their noses and burping, I found myself talking to a Pakistani bloke. He seemed to have been a refugee in most western European countries, and from what I could gather, he’d just been deported from Britain, and was going to try his luck in France. He’d already had experience of French bureaucracy – “Government write very much paper” – and didn’t hold out too much hope of getting very far.
We arrive in Paris at 9pm. I walked from Gare du Nord to Gare de l’Est, and tried to buy a ticket to Budapest. But I was too poor and my card was rejected. So I revised my plans, and, seeing as there was a train to Munich leaving in 20 minutes, I bought a ticket and went there instead.
After the beautiful day we had had for the Surtsey flight, the weather got rapidly worse, and the next day it was violently windy, and rain was moving horizontally across the island. There was nothing to do but pack up our things, and get ready to leave the next day. This we did, although we had to struggle with our packs against violent winds to get to the ferry on time. The journey home promised to live up to its reputation as a vomit run, and as we left the harbour, the boat was rolling and pitching in a big way. However, it calmed down after half an hour, and we all survived intact. Once back on the mainland, we headed back to Reykjavík.
And so, on day 18, we arrived back in Reykjavík, and our full circle was complete. It was quite a sad moment, and it really felt like the holiday was over. However, we still had the Vestmannaeyjar islands to go to, so after a night at the Reykjavík campground, we took a bus to þorlákshöfn, from where we got a ferry to Vestmannaeyjar, the Westman Islands. It’s a notoriously queasy three hour run to Heimaey, the largest and only inhabited Westman Island, but on the day we went, it was calm, sunny and warm. After a pleasant crossing, we entered the spectacular harbour of Heimaey. Huge cliffs rise on one side of the harbour, while two volcanoes dominate the other side. We headed to the campground, situated impressively inside the crater of an ancient volcano.
The Westman Islands have a fascinating and chequered history. The first people to arrive were some Irish slaves who had murdered their owner on the mainland, and escaped to here. They were soon tracked down, and killed. The islands were named after them (Ireland being west of mainland Scandinavia). The first permanent settlers arrived on Heimaey in the ninth century, and despite droughts, drownings, pirate raids and volcanic eruptions the island has been inhabited since then.
On 23 January 1973 a mile-long fissure opened up across the island, spouting huge lava fountains and spraying ash over the town. Luckily, the fishing fleet was in the harbour that night, and so the town was quickly evacuated. The eruption continued until July of that year, by which time one-third of the village had been covered by lava. The rest was thickly coated in ash. The harbour had almost been closed off, saved only by pumping millions of gallons of water daily onto the advancing lava flows to slow them down. It was uncertain whether anyone would go back.
But people did. The fishing fleet began again to use the harbour, which had actually been improved, and they used the warmth of the cooling lava to heat the town. These days, it’s hard to believe how touch and go the situation was for a while, although the eastern side of town backs right onto the 1973 lava, and the new volcano, now named Eldfell (Fire Mountain), dominates the landscape.
So we set up camp in Herjólfsdalur on the west side of the island, and made plans to explore. We saw the aurorae on our first night there, for the first time since Mývatn, which we were pleased about. We hoped that the skies would stay clear for the next day.