Articles tagged with "bus journey"
The journey back to Santiago started badly. It seemed that the heating was on on the bus, and it was a warm day anyway, so before long everyone on the top deck was slumping and sweating and beginning to suffer from heatstroke. But no-one seemed to complain, so we poor foreigners were not sure whether this was normal or not. As the other passengers slipped into comas, Amy finally decided to go and ask the driver about air conditioning. Seconds later an icy gale tore through the upper deck, waking everyone from their near death experience.
With breathable air now flowing we could appreciate the scenery. It had been dark when we were coming down from the pass into Argentina and we’d missed all of this.
We crossed the snow line and then went through the border formalities again. If you’re a tourist in Chile, they give you a bit of paper when you enter the country, and take it off you again when you leave. But if you’re a resident, they give you a bit of paper when you leave the country and expect it back again when you return. I hadn’t really understood this when we’d crossed into Argentina, and I’d thrown away the bit of paper they’d given me because I didn’t know what it was for. Luckily no-one really cares too much about this bit of paper, and after a few minutes of confusion they gave me another bit to fill in, and we all made it back into Chile.
To my mind, the bus journey between Calama and San Pedro is one of the most spectacular there is. This time I had the seat at the front of the bus, and I spent the whole hour and a half just staring out and enjoying the views of the driest place on Earth.
With a couple of other ESO people, I made a plan to explore the Cajón del Maipo. It’s a famous Andean valley, just outside Santiago, and I’d heard many good things about it. We didn’t have a car so we decided to tackle the valley by public transport.
Being lazy types, we arranged to meet in the early afternoon, and got a metro to Bellavista de la Florida. From here we could get a bus into the valley, and we bought a ticket to San José de Maipo. The bus rumbled off into the suburbs of Santiago, travelling extraordinarily slowly for a very long time. In the end its route took us not far from where we’d got onto the metro, hours earlier.
The bus chugged and rumbled and clattered along, eventually leaving the city and winding its way up the valley of the Maipo river. Before very long at all we were in San José, but before we could work that out, we were out the other side and off up the valley. So we decided we’d get off at the next interesting-looking place. On we went, and each settlement we got to never quite looked promising enough to be worth getting off. Eventually we’d stayed on miles and miles past our destination, and we randomly got off at San Gabriel.
The bus driver had noticed our transgression, and told us we’d have to pay the extra. We said that would be fine, and he said he would be coming back through San Gabriel in half an hour. We decided we’d get back on the bus then. In the meantime, we found that San Gabriel was a very small, very quiet village, but it was surrounded by impressive mountains, and it did have an awesomely local bar. We went in to have some drinks, and people stopped what they were doing to give us suspicious looks. But really they were very friendly and we enjoyed the vibe of the place. The bus did pass through, but he must have forgotten about us because he sailed past without stopping, and so we hung around in San Gabriel for another hour before the next bus to Santiago came by.
The valley is a very popular place, and the bus back down was overcrowded. It was a long journey, standing up while the bus moved in the slow flow of the heavy traffic going back to Santiago.
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.
I got a bus to Gjirokastra. This first involved finding my way to the right bus station. My first guess was wrong, and I had to take a taxi to the right one. The driver was very friendly and told me long rambling anecdotes in Albanian. I didn’t understand a word but laughed with him as he seemed to be enjoying the stories. On his radio, incredible atmospheric Albanian electro-folk music was playing. Just as his story ended, with him saying “(something in Albanian)…Deutschland….(something else in Albanian)… Holland!!” and roaring with laughter, we pulled up at the bus station.
It was a hot morning and nothing much was happening. The bus was supposed to leave at 10, and at 9.30am I was the only person on it. I had visions of Zambia, and wondered if the bus would leave before noon, but it left at five past ten. Before long, we were in hilly bunker-strewn countryside.
At a rest stop somewhere in rural Albania, one of the other passengers said to me “You’re not from around here, are you?” He spoke excellent English, having lived in London for many years. We chatted for a while and he said that if I needed anything at all I should just ask him. He, meanwhile, had just been bitten by a spider on the bus, and his hand was starting to swell up. I’d been worried by a giant wasp which was buzzing around during the journey but I hadn’t seen any spiders. I kept an eye out for the rest of the way.
We arrived at Gjirokastra in the mid-afternoon. The new city was nestled in a steep-sided valley; the old town climbed the hillsides, and a huge atmospheric crumbling castle loomed over it all. I headed up there.
I didn’t have too long to spend in Prizren. The last bus back to Priština left at 6pm, and I didn’t want to get stranded. So I hurried into town, not knowing where I was going because the map in the guidebook didn’t say where the bus station was. But I found my way, and before too long I was in the historic centre of the town.
It was the usual Kosovan mixture of upbeat and depressing. The town centre was busy and lively, and cafes overflowed with people. Old buildings lined the streets. But right in the centre there were burned-out buildings, and up on the hillside an ugly scar of abandoned houses showed the ethnic conflict that still existed. Kosovo had been overtaken by violence in 2004, and Prizren had suffered. The remaining Serbs had more or less all abandoned the place, and their empty houses remained.
I sat by the almost-dry riverbank for a while in the warm sun, but soon my time was up. I got a bus back to Priština as the sun was setting over the hills of southern Kosovo. Free sweets were handed out again. I got back to the capital just as it was getting dark, and walked from the bus station up to Velania.
I got a bus to Peja. It was not a long run through the Kosovan countryside. We passed a lot of memorials to fallen KLA fighters on the way, all with the Albanian flag flying over them. Half-built houses seemed to be everywhere. It was hard to tell if they were ruins being rebuilt, or just haphazard new construction. As we headed towards Peja, someone came around the bus to collect tickets, and also to hand out sweets, which I thought was very cool.
In Peja I had thought I might go to see the Patriarchate of Peć, an orthodox monastery outside town which is supposed to be very impressive. I walked through the city, along Tony Blair Street, and out towards the monastery. Ahead of me, the fantastically named Accursed Mountains looked gloomy and forbidding, their peaks wreathed in cloud. I reached the Italian KFOR post which protects the monastery from Albanian harassment. They asked to see my passport, then searched my bag. They said they’d have to take my camera, and apologetically removed it. Then they decided that actually they’d have to take my whole bag. Even if I just wanted to walk up the road a bit, I couldn’t take anything with me. And according to my book it was far from certain that I’d be able to get into the monastery anyway. So I decided to abandon the plan.
I got the impression that my visit was one of the more exciting things that the Italian KFOR guys had had to deal with. They had to be here to stop the monastery getting attacked, but I supposed that their presence put off most would-be attackers and that they probably didn’t have a whole lot to do most days.
I walked back to Peja, and got a bus to Prizren.
I wanted to get to Sarajevo at a reasonable time. This meant leaving Belgrade at an unreasonable time. It was already hot when I got up at 6.30am, so it was very nice to be staying right across the road from the bus station. Four of my room mates from the hostel were getting an early train to Novi Sad for the EXIT festival, and we all headed across to the station. As we crossed the road, one of them, Will, spontaneously decided that with the festival not starting for a couple of days, he might as well visit Bosnia too.
After a couple of hours we reached the border and we were through quickly. We stopped at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere, and it was a relief to get off the roasting bus for a bit.
After a couple more hours, we rolled into Istočno Sarajevo bus station. We were in the Republika Srpska, one of the two entities which make up Bosnia. A few years ago, travel across the internal border was not possible but now it was straightforward, our only problem being finding the cash for a taxi into central Sarajevo. The cash machine at the bus station didn’t work, so we walked under the blazing sun to a nearby shopping centre which had a big sign on saying “Shoping Centar”, and exchanged some Euros for Bosnian Convertible Marks. We hailed a passing taxi and headed into Sarajevo.
At the town of Bendery, just before the border with Moldova, two young Transdnistrians had got on the bus and sat next to me and Carlos. We spoke to them in a strange mixture of English and French, not finding much common language in either but still having a friendly conversation. When we got into Chişinău they showed us to a currency exchange booth so we could get some Moldovan Lei, and called a taxi for us to get to a hostel. A short drive through the dark and potholed streets of the city took us to a place near the centre.
That night a huge thunderstorm rocked the city. I lay awake listening to the rain lashing down, and got up late the next day as a result. Having gone for a short walk through the city centre in the dark when I arrived, I set out for a longer explore, through the city centre parks and past the plain-looking cathedral. Carlos had gone to find a different place to stay, not being much impressed with the hostel, but I soon bumped into him in town. We were both taking a photo of the presidential palace on the main street when a young police officer came up and asked us what we were doing.
One of the consequences of travelling through Transdnistria was that I had no Moldovan entry stamp in my passport, so technically I was illegally in the country. The police officer introduced himself by name and asked to see our passports. I thought this could be a problem, but fortunately, his phone rang before he could look through them. He gave us a quick salute and strode off.
One of my main aims on this trip was to visit the breakaway Republic of Transdnistria. I can’t even remember how I first heard of this place but I think I chanced across it on the web pages of Tan Wee Cheng. It’s a place which I think most Europeans would be surprised to realised they share a continent with, and I was sure that going there would be interesting. The country declared independence from Moldova in the aftermath of the revolutions of 1989, but was not internationally recognised. Today it remains a country that doesn’t really exist.
Information for travellers to the region was scarce but rumour had it that the state was a Stalinist nightmare, with officials watching the every move of outsiders, extracting bribes wherever possible, and arresting people on a whim. Following Foreign Office advice, I’d contacted the British Embassy in Bucharest to ask about the latest situation. They said that right now things were calm and travelling through should be fine, but that it could change literally overnight.
In Odesa I’d met a traveller from Spain called Carlos who also wanted to visit the country, so early one morning we both headed up to the bus station to get a bus to Tiraspol, the capital of Transdnistria. It took us a little while to find the right bus station, but with the help of several friendly Ukrainians, we got there and bought a ticket for a 2.30pm marshrutka minibus to Tiraspol. We drove out of Odesa, through gently rolling hills, and after about an hour we were at the border. This was where I expected things could get interesting. I was not wrong.
Leaving Ukraine was fine. We stopped for twenty minutes or so while passports were checked, got our exit stamps and drove on. A few minutes later we passed a flag and sign declaring that we were now entering what was formally called the Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic, and our passports checked. Carlos and I were ushered off the minibus at this point and led into a small building by the road. Here we had a few minutes of friendly banter with the guards there about football, then an awkward few minutes in which they just ignored us totally. Finally they cut to the chase and started discussing ‘entry fees’. They told us they could only give us a transit visa, valid for three hours, and that it would cost 30 Euros.
I was happy to see that the Euro has now replaced the US dollar as the hard currency of choice for corrupt officials. I offered 20 Euros, and they accepted that. Carlos offered 10 Euros, five pounds sterling and 40 Ukrainian hryvnia. They looked pretty disgusted by the hryvnia, but took them anyway. They gave our passports to another official, and after a bit more friendly banter we got them back, each with a hand-written entry permit on a torn scrap of paper. It was 4pm and we were in Transdnistria.
The road to Tiraspol was tree-lined and pleasant-looking, but extremely bumpy. Traffic was light except for a big convoy of military vehicles. We arrived in Tiraspol at about 5pm. The bus stopped at the now-disused train station, where we found a currency exchange bureau. Having read in my Lonely Planet guide that we should expect all the locals to be deeply suspicious of outsiders and likely to report us to the secret police if we spoke English, I was a bit concerned when Carlos strode up without any hesitation and said “Hello! Do you speak English?”. Bracing myself for instant arrest, I was surprised when the girl behind the counter said “Yes I do! Where are you from? How can I help you?” She was called Yulia, and she was so nice and friendly that we spent half our time in Tiraspol talking to her. She gave us some Transdnistrian roubles in exchange for hryvnia, dollars, pounds and euros, and then found a policeman to try to help us stay longer than the three hours we’d apparently been given. This proved impossible, as new regulations required an invite from a citizen of Transdnistria to get anything other than a transit visa. Yulia was apologetic. We asked if there were many tourists in the country these days. “Oh yes”, she said. “Two days ago there was a German!”. Tiraspol will not become the new Prague any time soon. We also asked if taking photos would cause any problems, and Yulia said she couldn’t imagine why it would.
Having seen Kuelap, we decided it was time to head for Ecuador. To do this we could either retrace our steps back to Chiclayo and then get a bus along the coast road, or take an extremely off-the-beaten-track route through the mountains. We decided we were in the mood for beating new tracks, and so the next day we set off on a multi-stage odyssey. The day saw us getting collectivos from Chachapoyas to the villages of Pedro Ruiz and Bagua Grande, and then from Bagua Grande we got a lift in a combi van heading for Jaén. Jaén was quite a large place but it clearly doesn’t see many foreigners. We were besieged at the bus station by moto-taxi drivers and felt a certain unfriendly vibe about the place. It was late when we arrived, so we stayed the night.
In the morning we got a collectivo to San Ignacio, close to the Ecuadorian border. We had planned a brief stop, but we proved to be a huge attraction for the kids here, and we ended up spending a couple of hours being the centre of attention, a situation which Dave exacerbated hugely by letting the children use his digital camera. I thought I might as well hand mine out as well, and the kids raced off around the village taking random pictures. Eventually we decided it was time to go, and we got our cameras back. In this muddy village in the middle of nowhere in rural Peru, it came as quite a surprise when the kids gave us their e-mail addresses, and asked us to send them the photos.
We got another collectivo to La Balsa, the border post. Our driver on this leg was a bit over-enthusiastic on the rough roads and picked up a puncture, which delayed us for a while. His spare tyre was also punctured, so in the end we walked to the next village while he gently free-wheeled, and by the time we got there after half an hour or so, he’d found another tyre and was ready to go again. We got to the border shortly before it closed for the day, and crossed a bridge over the river to Ecuador. On the other side we got a fantastic open-sided wooden bus to Zumba, which took us through some incredible scenery and bounced around so much I had to hold on tightly to avoid being thrown out the side. From Zumba we got on the final stage of the journey with an overnight bus to Loja.
We were heading for Chachapoyas, in the mountains of the north, but we stopped at Chiclayo because there were some pre-Inca ruins at Túcume nearby that we thought we might as well have a look at. We got a colectivo to the ruins. It was about a half hour drive and I slept much of the way, wedged comfortably in amongst a lot of locals carrying a lot of produce. We walked the mile or so from where we got dropped off to the ruins, but once we arrived we weren’t too impressed. It took us a while to work out what were ruins and what were just hills. The guide book claimed that there were 28 pyramids, but only with a lot of imagination could we even see two. But a hill in the middle of the site gave some good views over the plains, and it was a nice hot day. After doing as much looking around as we could, we got a moto-taxi back to the main road and then a colectivo back into the centre of town. A huge meal at a restaurant by the Plaza de Armas prepared us for a second consecutive night on a bus, and as night fell we were on our way inland and upwards into the mountains.
We got to Chachapoyas at 4.30am, and slept on the bus until 7am. When buses arrived ridiculously early in Peru, people often stayed on board until sensible times, and it was always fantastic to be able to get a couple of hours more sleep, without the engine noise and bumpy roads to contend with. After a night of clubbing in Lima followed by two nights on buses, we were pretty wrecked and spent the day ambling around town and drinking coffees. We were about 2500m above sea level, and my previous month of acclimatisation had all but disappeared in three days at sea level.
The next morning we were up at 6.45am, and went for breakfast at the hotel from which a trip to the ruins of Kuelap was leaving. When we booked this, the manager had specifically promised us good coffee for the morning, so we were more disappointed than usual to find that as so often in Peru, the coffee was disgusting. In most places, ‘coffee’ came as some kind of cold concentrate which you add hot water to, and it was vile. But we were still looking forward to seeing the ruins, and although we set off a bit late (“Sorry about this”, said the hotel manager; “There’s a few Peruvians going with you today, so we won’t be leaving on time”), the journey there was spectacular, along a winding track through the mountains. It was a cool and cloudy day, and it began to rain as we arrived at the site.
Straight away I was impressed by Kuelap. The ruins seemed much more impressive to me than Machu Picchu had, the setting in the mountains was almost as amazing, and there were only eight of us here. A huge defensive wall around the site looked incredible in the mist and rain. A pack of llamas was wandering around the ruins, occasionally blocking paths and looking surly, but fortunately they didn’t spit at us. Briefly the rain became torrential, and we took shelter with some archaeologists who were working on restoring a building and had a tarpaulin shelter. Once it eased off again, we explored a bit more. The site covered a huge area, and we probably didn’t even see half of it before it was time to go. On our way back to Chachapoyas, we stopped at a restaurant for a late lunch. I ordered guinea pig, an essential Andean cultural experience even for an aspiring vegetarian. I was glad I had tried it, but once is really enough. There wasn’t much meat on my guinea pig, and what there was was a bit rubbery.
The journey to Peru was easy, with the border being just a few miles from Copacabana. I got another stamp in my passport, filled my wallet with more new currency, and got a bus to Puno. I killed a few hours there sheltering from heavy rain in cafes and restaurants, and then got an overnight bus to Cuzco, for just 25 soles. And it was an extremely comfortable bus, with the fantastic Cruz del Sur company. The strangest part of the journey was the game of bingo which happened just after dinner. Everyone on the bus was given a card, and the stewardess started reading out numbers. The prize, apparently, was two free return tickets on any Cruz del Sur route, which sounded very useful to me. Not entirely understanding whether I needed just a row, a column or everything to win, I came dangerously close to making a fool of myself, but luckily managed to avoid it. But I didn’t win.
We arrived at Cuzco at 3am, and I slept on the bus until 6am. The city has a reputation for sometimes violent robbery so on the whole I was a bit nervous when I got a taxi into the centre. But the taxi driver didn’t rob me, and I made it unscathed to the hostel I wanted to stay at. My whole Cuzco experience was pretty much trouble free, except for the extraordinary difficulty I had trying to get to Machu Picchu without going on a tour. After a day and a half of trying to buy just a train ticket and nothing else, I finally discovered the train ticket office opening times – 5am to 9am. Exasperated and pressured for time, I was forced to buy a train/hostel/entry ticket combination from a tour operator.
The train journey to Aguas Calientes was very impressive, along the valley of the raging Urubamba river and surrounded by towering mountains. Aguas Calientes is a pure tourist town, but not as much of a rip-off as I’d expected, and quite relaxed. After a couple of hours, though, it gets boring, and I killed an afternoon by walking down the river valley for a while.
The following morning I caught the first bus to the ruins, at 5.30am. It was still dark, and I was pleased to see that the bus was not full. It’s only a short drive to Machu Picchu, up a dramatic switchback road, and so before 6am we were at the site. I hurried up to the Caretaker’s Hut, which gives the classic view of the ruins with Huayna Picchu rising behind, and watched as mist drifted over the ruins while the sun rose. It was a beautiful sunrise, and there were only a couple of other people around.
I wandered down to the main ruins. They are spectacularly well preserved, and it’s incredible to think that they were completely unknown less than a hundred years before I was there. But I thought that actually, they were nothing like as spectacular as the temples at Tikal, which I’d visited five years previously. One of Tikal’s pyramids was the tallest building in the Americas when Columbus landed; Machu Picchu’s buildings are far more modest, albeit much more spectacularly situated. Tikal is in the jungle, while Machu Picchu is sat on a narrow ridge, surrounded by a bend in the Urubamba river, and with beautiful Andean peaks stretching away into the distance.
I walked through the main square, and then to the base of Huayna Picchu, the dramatic hill which towers over the site. It’s a tough and very steep climb, especially if you got up at 5am, but I made it to the top without too many rest breaks, only to find myself deep in cloud. I waited around for a long while, and eventually the clouds started to break up and move away, and I was rewarded with breathtaking views of the ruins and the mountains. To top it all off, a single condor flew by, just inches above my head, showing off his huge wingspan before flying around over the ruins for a while.
At midday, I came back down, and found the ruins far busier than they had been. I decided I’d seen enough here and it was time to move on again. I was thirsty enough to pay an outrageous price for a drink at the entrance to the ruins, but still tight enough to deeply resent the commercialism of it all. Back at Aguas Calientes I got on the train again, had another magnificent journey up the river valley in blazing evening sunshine, and then after another night in Cuzco I got a bus to Arequipa.
On the bus to Copacabana I met Victoria, a traveller from Alaska who I’d previously met in Potosí, and her friend Amanda from Vermont. None of us had booked a place to stay, but luckily things didn’t seem too busy and we got rooms at the second place we asked at. It was overcast and cool here, and it didn’t seem very christmassy. We were going to climb Cerro Calvario, a large hill overlooking town, but it was beginning to rain so we decided to save that until later. So we spent the afternoon looking around town, buying the occasional bag of giant popcorn which is a local speciality, and relaxing.
On Christmas Day I got up at 5am to see if the weather was nice enough to make a climb of the hill worthwhile, but it was raining so I went back to bed. Eventually I got up at 9am, and we went out to a cafe with a lake view for breakfast. After a morning drinking coffees and relaxing, I went to call home. If I’d been anywhere else in Bolivia it would have been very cheap, but for some reason, all communications in Copacabana are about ten times the price they are elsewhere. I spent 122 Bolivianos on a twenty minute phone call, which was a whole day’s budget at normal times, but was still less than ten pounds. And it was great to speak to my family for the first time in more than two months. I could see the lake out of the window of the call centre, and it was very strange to think that back in the UK it was dark and cold and wintry.
After phoning home I went for a walk along the beach. Families were out on the lake in pedalos and canoes, and the public table football tables were doing great business. I don’t think I’d ever previously wondered what people do on the Altiplano for Christmas, but if I had I doubt I would have thought it would be boating and table football.
At 4pm I met up with Victoria and Amanda and we climbed Cerro Calvario. The skies were heavy, in the distance we could see rain over the lake, and a thunderstorm was raging several miles away inland. We watched the spectacular lightning until the edge of the storm reached us. As the rain got heavier we hurried back to the hostel, and then for the rest of the afternoon we played cards while the rain battered down outside.
Later, in a brief pause in the rain, we headed out for an evening meal. I had a very Andean meal of cheese and potatoes, and we had a fun evening meeting travellers from all over the world. I thought there was a hint of sadness in it all, though, that all of us had decided to spend Christmas so far away from our friends and families, and spend it instead with a bunch of travellers who in all likelihood we would never see again. As we walked back to the hostel at midnight the rain was torrential again. The hostel owners had gone to bed, and we had to bang on the door to wake them up. Luckily they didn’t seem at all angry when they let us in.
The next morning I decided to head back to La Paz – there was a cycle ride in the mountains that I wanted to do. I bought a couple of bags of giant popcorn, got on a bus and headed back south. The sun came out on the way and we had a great crossing of the Straits of Tiquina. In La Paz it was a hot afternoon. I booked myself onto a mountain biking trip for the following day, and then went out for a meal with some travellers I met in my hostel. Christmas already seemed like a distant memory.
I got a bus from Santiago to Antofagasta, 1100km north and sandwiched between the Atacama Desert and the Pacific Ocean. During the evening, at a stop somewhere in Chile’s wine-growing country, a man got on the bus selling small cakes, and I tried to buy a couple, but I didn’t quite catch what the price was and tried to pay with a note that was ridiculously too large for the transaction. He didn’t even try to explain – he just snatched back his cakes, threw my note back at me and stormed off the bus. Luckily, a friendly girl sat across the aisle from me shared her cakes with me, and told me that trying to pay for 50 peso cakes with a 5,000 peso note was not a good thing to do.
We stopped at La Serena at midnight, and then I slept until dawn. When I woke, it was like I was in a bus on the surface of the moon – we were in the Atacama. Not a single living thing could be seen in the harsh grey rocky desert, and we were surrounded by brown hills which looked like lumps of plasticine dropped from a great height. I thought I was dreaming when I saw a giant hand reaching up from the desert, a little way away from the road, but it turned out to be La Mano del Desierto, a sculpture by Mario Irarrázabal. We continued up the Inter-American Highway to Antofagasta, and it seemed crazy to me that, nominally at least, this was the same road I’d travelled on five years ago in Central America. A road connecting this place to the misty mountains of Guatemala seemed impossible.
By 10am we were in Antofagasta, and my first mission was to get coffee. Inexplicably for a South American bus, they’d only served tea for breakfast, and so I set off under the tropical sun to the nearest cafe. Unfortunately, they served me a cup of undrinkable filth, so I went to the next cafe where I got a better one. A third cup at the next cafe along was better still, and now I was ready to look around. I spent a few hours in the city before getting a bus deep into the desert to Calama, a spectacular journey in the late evening sun. I arrived in Calama at 10pm, and set off for the centre of town, which was about a mile from the bus station. I started off walking quickly, but soon realised that I was now 2,400m above sea level and walking quickly was suddenly quite tiring. Gasping for breath, I walked slowly into town.
Calama is a mining town and not particularly nice. Apparently since the Spanish colonisation, 400 years ago, it has rained once, and that was in 1972. I’d wanted to go and see the copper mine at Chuquicamata, where Che Guevara and Alberto Granado had seen the foreign exploitation of Chile’s natural resources in 1952, but I’d arrived on a Friday and there were no tours over the weekend. So I just spent a day relaxing in the unforgiving sunshine, watching life on the main drag and buying occasional viciously cold cokes and amazing cakes from a friendly cafe over the road from my hotel.
I spent a couple of relaxed days in Coyhaique, always intending to go walking in the surrounding hills but somehow never quite getting there. The town was laid back and seemed quite bourgeois, with a well-to-do atmosphere and nice cafes on pedestrianised shopping streets. It also had the biggest supermarket I had seen in South America, with all sorts of produce that you wouldn’t expect to find in a small rainy town in Patagonia.
I had wanted to get a ferry up the coast from Puerto Chacabuco, not far from Coyhaique, but it appeared that boats only go from there at random irregular intervals. A company which used to do the run had gone bust due to rising fuel prices, and it seemed I would have to go north by bus. This was no disaster though, because the road north is no ordinary road, but the legendary Carretera Austral, which runs through the wild temperate rainforests of seldom-visited central Patagonia. Early on a Sunday morning I walked through the rain-soaked streets to the bus station and caught a minibus to Chaitén, a few hundred miles further up the country.
There were about 12 of us on the bus, all locals apart from me and two Italians. We drove out of Coyhaique under heavy skies, and before long rain was falling. Gloomy mountains covered in dense forest rose all around. I hadn’t been able to get a coffee before leaving Coyhaique so I was relieved when we stopped after a couple of hours at Villa Mañihuales, a tiny village with a warm cafe where I got my coffee and a nasty empanada containing some kind of gritty meat.
A bit further north we stopped for a while in a deep valley with a wild river rushing through it. I wasn’t sure why we’d stopped but it turned out that a new bridge was being built here and they were about to dynamite the rock face. I took photos in the drizzle, and stretched my legs. A colossal explosion rocked the valley, followed quickly by two smaller ones, and with that we all got back into the minibus and drove on.
In the afternoon the road took us through Parque Nacional Queulat, which was stunning. Impossibly steep mountainsides were covered in lush forest, with mist draped over everything and snatches of cloud hanging on the mountaintops like candyfloss. Wild rivers and towering waterfalls plunged into the valleys. North of Queulat we reached the town of La Junta, which had a giant statue of General Pinochet on its main street. Some locals got on, others got off, and the journey continued. The road, previously potholed and bumpy, became smooth, and we soon reached Chaitén, 12 hours after we’d left Coyhaique. For the first time on the journey it wasn’t raining.
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.
I had an awesome day’s travelling. I was up at 4.30am, and after a quick bowl of porridge I set out into the cold morning to catch the bus to Río Grande. Various other backpacked figures were emerging into the semi-darkness from hostels along the road, and we all trooped in tired silence towards the bus stop. A blazing sunrise was starting by the time we left for Ushuaia at 5.30am, and no clouds troubled the clear blue skies until the sun was setting 16 hours later.
We stopped for breakfast at Tolhuin, on the eastern side of Tierra del Fuego, and I got a coffee and a couple of empanadas. I watched the empty plains drift by as we rolled on towards Río Grande, spotting just the occasional guanaco or two. We arrived at about 9am, and caught a bus to Punta Arenas, across the Straits of Magellan in Chile. This bus was largely occupied by a depressing group of about 20 fussy women and henpecked husbands, and as I was in a travel-snobbish mood I avoided letting any of them know I was English lest they talk to me.
As we boarded the boat to cross the straits, I realised there were two depressed young people who’d somehow ended up on the same tour as the awful group, and I chatted to them as we crossed. Their relief at a temporary escape from their nightmare travelling companions was palpable. As on the previous crossing, small black-and-white dolphins accompanied us across, leaping from the waves in groups of two or three. It was a beautiful sight in the warm sunshine.
A few hours later we were at Punta Arenas. On the way I’d had an excellent Spanish-learning experience – a bad film played too quietly for me to hear the words, but subtitled in Spanish. The outrageous predictability of the dialogue meant the subtitles were easy to get the gist of, and I learned loads. Finally, one more bus journey in the late evening brought me to Puerto Natales, access town for the Torres del Paine.
In Puerto Natales I spent a day buying up supplies for trekking. My plan was to spend six days hiking in the national park, doing the trek known as the W. An early morning bus took me from Puerto Natales to the park administration centre, passing extensive minefields along the way – a legacy of border disputes between Chile and Argentina. I was in a great mood as I left the administration centre in hot sunshine, with six days of hiking and climbing ahead of me.
My first day of trekking took me to Lago Pehoé. The walk there turned out to be probably the hardest of all that I did, as I was carrying all my food, and the scenery on the way was not particularly remarkable. A strong headwind also dampened my morale, and the hike took a lot longer than I’d hoped. Towards the end there were a number of rises, and over each one I expected to see the campsite, but each time I was disappointed. I finally got there at 5.30pm, just over six hours after I’d set off. I set up my tent for the first time on South American soil, cooked myself some dinner, and prepared myself for a hike to a glacier the following day.
On my journey to Vilnius, the skies had been grey, and when we stopped at a small roadside cafe just inside Lithuania, snow was falling. On the way back, the skies were blue, and the endless expanse of snow shone brightly under the wintry sun. We stopped at the same cafe, and this time I had Lithuanian currency and so I could eat, which was nice. As I walked back to the bus I slipped on some ice and skated along for a metre or two, arms flailing, but luckily I held it together and survived without falling and only feeling slightly ridiculous.
We saw in 2003 in Sturecompagniet. It was a pretty awesome club, if a little bit more pretentious than my normal sort of place. But at some point in the small hours they played some ABBA, and everyone forgot just how cool they were trying to appear and went crazy for them.
For some kind of licensing reason, many Swedish bars had casinos in them. Sturecompagniet was one, and when we finally decided to leave at about 4am, Dan was at the poker table. “You coming?” we asked. “I’m just going to win back what I’ve lost”, he said, angrily, and we left him to it. I wondered if we would ever see him again, but he appeared back at the hostel the next morning. He didn’t want to talk about winnings though.
It was only -6°C on new year’s day, and it felt warm. With all the soon-to-be-destroyed hope and optimism that a new year brings, we headed back to Västerås to fly home.
The second day of the trip was quiet. We stopped at some OK places, but probably the best thing about the day was that it finished in Port Fairy, where we had a great night out in a pub in the town, and where in the morning I went for a dawn run along the beach and around the marina, where colourful boats bobbed about in the quiet morning sunshine.
The third day was epic. The scenery was amazing from the start, and it just got more and more spectacular. We made stops at the Bay of Islands, the Bay of Martyrs, London Bridge, the Grotto, Loch Ard Gorge and the Razorbacks, and visiting even one of them would have been impressive. I burned up film, and was amazed that places like this existed. The turquoise sea crashing against the wild yellow rocks looked otherworldly.
In the evening we stopped at Apollo Bay. It was our last night, and it turned into a very late night. At the start of the trip I had had major reservations about doing this tour, but by now I knew I’d have seriously missed out if I had done the trip on my own.
From Adelaide I headed towards Melbourne. I wanted to travel along the Great Ocean Road, and it seemed like this was only feasible with an organised tour. There was little public transport, and I didn’t fancy hitch-hiking, so I booked a trip with the Wayward Bus Company. I wasn’t too much looking forward to it, as I’d never really been on any kind of tour before. Three days with a bunch of people I’d never met before was an uncertain prospect.
Things started OK. The trip would last four days, and we’d only get to the Great Ocean Road proper on the third day. We drove through the suburbs of Adelaide, passing through the German town of Hahndorf, and crossing the Murray River on a pontoon that reminded me of criss-crossing the Zambezi on my journey from Mongu to Livingstone four months earlier.
Eventually we reached the Coorong, a long thin peninsula separating the Murray River from the Southern Ocean. In the imaginative style typical of the early settlers, the ocean-side beach which stretched away out of sight in both directions was called Ninety Mile Beach. We stopped here to walk along the shore, and to jump off giant sand dunes.
In the evening we reached Beachport and stopped for the night. Already between Robe and Beachport the ocean scenery was pretty impressive, with jagged cliffs rising out of the turquoise sea. If we were not even on the actual Great Ocean Road yet, then I was definitely looking forward to that.
Progress was quite slow on the way down: it seemed much harder to see the red marks in many places. Whenever I had to stop and look around for the next mark I was startled by the absolute stillness and quiet all around. But I made it to the bottom with (I thought) plenty of time to get back to Chambe, and walked quickly to where I had left Stern. There was no sign of him or anyone else, and I shouted his name a couple of times, but heard no reply. I thought perhaps he’d moved down the path to somewhere with more shelter, and walked on, occasionally shouting, but never hearing any reply. After a while I decided he must have abandoned me, and I began walking as fast as I could for the hut.
For a while I thought I was making good progress, and though I sometimes didn’t know if I was on the right path or not, I kept coming to familiar places. I walked on, and I could see Chambe peak getting closer and closer. The sun set, but I thought I was near enough to make it back to the hut in the last of the daylight. As the stars were coming out I was still optimistic. In a fit of well-preparedness I had actually brought a torch along with me, though I had thought I couldn’t possible need it, so I picked my way on by torchlight.
Somewhere along the way I managed to take a wrong turn. It was amazingly difficult to follow the path by torchlight, and at one place where the path split I took the wrong branch. This became clear when the path stopped in the middle of the forest. It was pitch black now, and my mood changed instantly from optimistic to grave concern. I thought about the options, which really came down to blindly walking about in the dark in the hope that I’d find the hut, or stopping where I was for the night. In the end I decided it would be better to stay still than wander hopelessly, and I decided to see what kind of shelter I could rig up. I found two large rocks with a narrow gap between them, and decided to make something of that. For an hour or so I ripped branches and leaves off the nearby trees, to sleep on and under, and then I spent some time photographing the stunningly clear skies. If I was going to have to spend a night out in the middle of absolutely nowhere I could at least get some good night photographs out of it. I’d run out of water now, and all I had to eat was about eight small chunks of chocolate. I ate four of them now, and saved the rest until the morning. Then I spent a while blowing my whistle and flashing my torch in case anyone was looking for me, but to no avail. After an hour or so I decided to try and get some sleep. I tried not to think about the possibility of leopards and hyenas being around.
For a while I was not too uncomfortable, squeezed into that little space between the rocks. I had a jumper and a coat, and the leaves and branches seemed to have some kind of insulating effect. As the night wore on, though, it got colder and colder, and for who knows how long I was awake, shivering, and only occasionally sleeping for very short moments. Animal noises in the forest frequently made me jump up and look around. The stars slowly turned across the sky, and I watched their progress. When Mars set I knew the dawn could not be too far away, and sure enough the sky began to lighten. I’ve never been so relieved to see the dawn. By the time the sun actually rose I had packed up my stuff, tried to get all the undergrowth out of my clothes, and set off walking back up the path. It was my last day in Malawi, I was currently lost on a mountain and I needed to be in Lilongwe by the evening, so I didn’t want to hang around.
After about twenty minutes I came to a small stream, from which I tried to fill up my water bottle. It was a tiny stream and probably not the best drinking water, but I was very thirsty, and a couple of sips made me feel an awful lot better. I ate my last chocolate and walked on. Briefly I wondered what would happen if I didn’t find anyone or get found that day; I didn’t want to think about another night out in the open. But after only about another 10 minutes, I heard a shout from behind me and turned to see Stern coming over a small rise. He’d abandoned me on the mountain and not sent anyone else to meet me, and he clearly had not been out looking for me when I failed to make it back to the hut, and really I think I should have had a proper go at him. But I was so relieved to see someone that I shook his hand. He said he had waited where I left him for a long while, but left before the sun set, because he ‘didn’t want to be alone on the mountain at night’. Neither did I, pal, neither did I.
We were about an hour’s walk from the hut, and I saw now what a stupid mistake I’d made. I’d had to climb over quite a large fallen tree to take the wrong path, and in the darkness I’d not seen the right path leading off unobstructed to the left. My feet were aching terribly, I was extremely hungry and thirsty, and I was pretty cold as well, so to say I was pleased when I saw the hut again is an understatement. When I arrived I found that all the people staying at the hut that night had heard there was someone lost on the mountain, and had all been very worried. They all showered me with sympathy, and gave me fruit, soup, tea, coffee, porridge and bread. I was overwhelmed with it all and I really thought I might cry. I restored myself with all the hot food and drinks I was offered, and drank the most satisfying water I’ve ever tasted.
Gradually everyone left for their hikes, and eventually I was the last one in the hut. I spent a while tending to my battered feet (when I took my boots off, they were actually steaming) before wearily setting off, still with a three hour hike to do to get down the mountain. I don’t really know how I made it but I did, and I felt another flood of relief when I got back to the Forestry Station. I got the best cold Coke I’ve ever tasted at a bottle shop, then started to make my way back to Blantyre. I got a truck to Chitakali, then a bus to Limbe, on which I fell absolutely fast asleep. I woke to find myself slumped embarrassingly against the woman next to me. Then it was just a quick minibus to Blantyre. Back at Doogle’s, where I was staying, I had a more refreshing hot shower than I’ve ever had before.
Then I walked into town to buy a bus ticket to Lilongwe and some food. I spent lavishly on the bus but when I saw it I couldn’t have been more pleased. I think it was the most comfortable bus I’ve been on anywhere in the world. In my wrecked state I took a taxi from Doogle’s to the bus depot, got on board and fell asleep. I slept right through until Lilongwe four hours later, and got a cab to a hostel, where in a hopelessly vague arrangement me and John had said we’d probably try and end up at. As I paid the taxi driver I heard a familiar voice behind me and remarkably enough it turned out we had both made it there. There was one bed spare at the hostel and once again greatly relieved I checked in.
And that was all the adventure over, really. I spent the evening explaining my wild and dishevelled appearance to John and Jessica, who I had met on Likoma Island and was now here, and raging at John because he’d flown here from Mzuzu, before passing out. In the morning we made our way to the airport for the weekly flight back to London. Ten hours later we arrived at Gatwick and headed off into the night.
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.
It was now time to complete our loop around western Zambia by returning to Lusaka. We had hoped to get the train, but it had a reputation for woeful reliability which it certainly deserved. It turned out to have an unspecified mechanical problem and would not be leaving until the next day. So we went to the bus station and found a ‘Super Luxury’ bus leaving for Lusaka at 1pm. We had about an hour so we did a rapid shop before grabbing our stuff and rushing back to the bus station for quarter to, only to find that the Super Luxury bus was full. We watched helplessly as luxury rolled off into the distance, and with great regret spoke to the grinning minibus tout who we’d earlier spurned. We waited on board the minibus for an hour and a half before we set off for Lusaka.
It was a long slow journey, frequently interrupted by diversions for roadworks, and we closed our loop and arrived in Lusaka at 11.30pm. We got a taxi to the backpackers hostel and set up camp. We were going to leave very early the next morning, and for the sake of three hours sleep I couldn’t be bothered to get my sleeping bag out. It was a very chilly night and I regretted this by the morning.
Fearsomely early the next morning we were up and away. I was heading north for Mpulungu while John was heading east for Chipata, so we parted ways in the dark at one of Lusaka’s many bus stations. We were to meet again in Malawi in three weeks time.
I found out that the 6.30am bus I had been hoping to get no longer ran on Mondays, and I would have to get another bus to Kapiri Mposhi at 7.30am. No worries, I thought, we’ll be on the way by 9am. But sadly the Zambian hour and a half was to be painfully protracted this time – I’d not realised it was Heroes Day, a national holiday, until someone told me, and my heart sank when I saw a sign at the bus station, reading ‘To our esteemed customers, please note that Sundays and public holidays being slow days, We Do Not Observe Time’.
The next four hours passed very slowly but I could at least catch up on some sleep before the bus finally left just after 11am. It was a very comfortable bus, and we arrived at Kapiri at 1pm. Here I found my way onto a minibus going to Serenje, about half as far from Lusaka as I’d hoped to get, but as far as I could possibly get that day. I arrived at Serenje at 5.30pm, and walked to the Mapontela guest house to check in. It was colossally expensive by my standards, but I was knackered and I just wanted to lie down. When I got there I did just that, closed my eyes for a second and woke up the next morning.
Half way. 19 days done, 19 days still to go. I hoped I would get to Mpulungu by the end of the day. I left Serenje at 7.30am and walked two miles to the main road, from where northbound buses leave. All was quiet, and I waited on my own for a while, before a Zambian guy called Kevin joined me. A little while later, a Peace Corps volunteer called Bridget also joined us, and the three of us waited for a northbound lift. Kevin was heading for Mansa and soon got a lift, but sadly for me and Bridget there was nothing heading for Mpulungu (she was going to Kasama, which is on the way). Usually, apparently, there would be loads of stuff going, but this was Unity Day, another public holiday. If yesterday had been slow, it was bustling compared to the fourth day of a four day weekend.
So we sat by the roadside, eating chicken and sugar cane, and I managed to stab myself quite horribly in the hand cutting the cane. After three hours, we were really on the point of giving up totally and staying in Serenje again when a truck turned up that was going to Kasama. It was a good road for much of the way north from Kasama and we covered the ground quickly. We stopped briefly in Mpika on the way, before heading on towards Kasama as night fell. By great good fortune as I was telling Bridget about what I do as an astronomer, the International Space Station sailed overhead.
We arrived in Kasama at about 8pm, and I discovered that there was no budget accommodation there. The choice was between a couple of really nice but expensive places, or a couple of shockingly grotty and depressing dives, cheap but very bad value indeed. After a quick taxi tour around the options with a taxi driver who had darkened windows and a nodding dog on the dashboard, I opted for the oddly named ‘Despot B&B’. It was a worrying place – I was showed to a room which had no lock on the door. If it had had a lock, the big hole in the door raised further questions about security. I pointed this out to the owner. ‘Don’t worry!’, he said, ‘I’m the security guard as well!’, but I wasn’t altogether reassured. But jamming some pieces of sugar cane in the hole and moving the bed up against the door I managed to convince myself it was an alright place to stay.
Tired but happy, we rose early the next morning to make our exit from Zambezi and get on with the trip. We walked to the bus station and found the Solwezi bus loading up. We planned to get this bus to a town called Mumbeji, from where we would hitch a lift to Lukulu, further downriver, but the bus looked like it was going nowhere fast. We asked the driver when it would be leaving. “Oh, about 10.30 I think”, he replied. It was nearly 11am already. We gave up on the bus and decided to start hitching, asking the bus to pick us up if we hadn’t got a lift when it passed by. To our shame it passed by only about 20 minutes later, and we were off.
I was thankful, so thankful that unlike Martin and many others on the bus, we had only two hours until Mumbeji. The journey went OK, with a minor interruption when a goat which had been on the roof fell off and ran into the bush. John was particularly startled by this as it fell past his window. All the passengers trooped off to search for the hapless creature, recovering it before very long and securing it once more to its rooftop spot.
As we got off the bus in Mumbeji, we found ourselves waist-high in enthusiastic food sellers, thrusting eggs, fruit, drinks and chickens at us. We waded through them to a spot by the Lukulu road, and settled down to hitch. There’s not a lot of entertainment to be had in Lukulu, and for these thirty-odd kids, a couple of white guys with backpacks were worth a look. They gathered around in a semi-circle and watched. And watched. After a while, I laid back on my pack and put my hat over my face. The kids found this side-splittingly funny, and more kids raced up to have a look at us. After an hour or so in which no traffic passed by, we thought we might be the Mumbeji freakshow overnight, but fortunately at that point, a big 4WD truck with space in the back passed by, and we negotiated a price for Lukulu. We waved goodbye to the kids of Mumbeji, and drove off, sharing the truck with, among others, a soldier on leave heading home and a fish trader heading to the river for a catch.
We crossed the Kabompo river on a pontoon, and then drove off down the deep sandy road to Lukulu. Here we provided more quality entertainment for the local kids. The truck alone was quite exciting on a road which saw very little traffic, but a couple of white guys in the back was an added bonus. Each village poured forth a stream of kids who shouted and waved at us, delighted when we reciprocated. One kid raced out from his hut with an armful of oranges and hurled them vigorously at us. People who travelled the route regularly said that he always did this.
Frequently the truck got bogged down in the sand and had to be dug out. Like almost every vehicle in Zambia it had a duff starter motor, and required a push start every time. Pushing a heavy 4WD truck through sand was extremely good exercise. We stopped off on the way to help the truck driver gather some firewood, which was another workout. Then we drove on, watching the sun set, spectacularly as ever, behind the trees of the endless forest. We also saw an incredibly thin crescent moon, 28 hours past new, setting with the last of the day. Then the stars came out, and we arrived in Lukulu at about 8pm. We said goodbye to our travelling companions and set off in search of the Government Resthouse.
We didn’t find it, instead chancing upon a friendly preacher who offered to drive us to different accommodation, saying the Government resthouse was probably full. And so we ended up at the Washala Washala restaurant and hotel, where we booked a room for the night and got a meal of nshima and bream from the river.
The semi-mythical bus from here to Zambezi turned out to be a real thing, which left at 9am on Monday morning, so we spent the weekend in Solwezi. On Friday night we went into town, and discovered nshima, the staple food of Southern Africa. It’s a kind of maize porridge, served with either meat, chicken or fish, and you eat it with your fingers. We also discovered how overwhelmingly friendly Zambians are, and being typically restrained Englishmen, I think we came across as slightly unfriendly. ‘Are you scared of me?’ asked one very drunk guy in the bar.
During the weekend we met many local people. Joe and Chris, who owned the motel we were staying in, turned out to be grandsons of the local chief. We met many members of their family, and we were invited to go to visit the chief with them. But sadly their Saturday evening lasted most of Sunday as well, and they were in no fit state to visit royalty, so we had to give it a miss. We also met Daniel and Clifford, two eccentric characters with a hand puppet, who demanded that we take photographs of them, before accompanying us into town for a drink or two. And we met Martin, an interesting guy who had worked all over southern Africa, and casually mentioned that he’d once spent a year in prison in Angola. Somehow, (it’s still not quite clear how we managed it) we ended up agreeing to pay him to come with us to Zambezi.
When Monday morning came we had to make a quick trip to the bank when it opened to get ourselves a couple of million Kwacha, forced to get huge wads of money by the outrageous minimum commission on traveller’s cheques. And then we went to the bus station and boarded the bus to Zambezi. It was supposed to leave at 9am, and arrive at 6pm, but like all Zambian buses it left the regulation hour and a half late. It was crammed full of people and luggage, with a vast array of possessions piled high on the roof as well. The chaotic process of loading up the bus seemed to have exhausted everyone, for within half an hour as we rolled west, everyone on the bus was asleep, and a peaceful atmosphere prevailed.
For the first couple of hours, the road was smooth tar, but not long after midday the good surface ran out, and we were onto gravel. The bus had no suspension to speak of, and the seats had no padding to speak of either, so very quickly the journey became uncomfortable. We bounced along for a couple of hours before suddenly stopping in the middle of nowhere. Everyone got off the bus to stretch legs and massage weary buttocks, while some urgent bush mechanics got underway. Fortunately the engine was going again within half an hour and we were back on the way.
The mesmerising monotony of the Zambian landscape was beginning to rob me of my sense of time, but I snapped out of it and stopped dribbling as the sun set magnificently, and for a couple of hours I stared delightedly out the window as the twilight colours gave way to inky black darkness, splattered with the breathtakingly bright Milky Way, and interrupted occasionally by the light of fires in and around the villages. Around 8pm I foolishly began to think ‘Well, we must almost be there by now…’
But we rumbled on, slowly and increasingly painfully. Every couple of hours we would stop, and everyone would fall over everyone else as they all tried to get off the bus at the same time. Then the last people off would fall over the first people off as they got back on again. Then as the bus driver revved up, everyone still outside would fall over themselves in their haste to get back on board. I joined in the whole process each time, just for a chance to restore circulation to my legs and get a glimpse of the starry, starry sky.
By two in the morning I was beginning to wonder if the journey would ever end. By wrapping my head in several jumpers and resting it on the back of the seat in front of me, I could attempt to sleep without risk of brain damage, but this was a tougher journey than I had ever anticipated. It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that Western Zambia is way off the beaten tracks.
I was really expecting to watch the sun rise from the bus, but at four in the morning, battered and bruised, we finally arrived. The bus stopped by the government resthouse, but that turned out to be full. Luckily there were some people from the Zambezi Motel looking for customers off the bus, so we followed them. It was quite a walk from the bus stop, especially after 20 hours of getting smacked about on bumpy roads, and as we staggered along one of them warned me not to expect too much from the Motel. ‘You know the saying, when in Rome do as the Romans do?’, she asked. ‘Well, just remember you’re in Zambezi…this is the bush!’.
The story of this trip really begins on August 11th 1999. There was a total solar eclipse of the sun happening, and the track was to cross the United Kingdom. I’d been looking forward to this for years, and on the morning of the eclipse I was in position to see it. The weather was clear and sunny, and anticipation was high. Sadly, though, as the morning progressed, the cloud thickened, and the sun slowly disappeared from view. When totality began the much-hyped wonders of the Bailie’s Beads, diamond ring and corona came and went unseen.
Later that evening, I got very drunk to console myself, and as the world began to wobble a bit, I said to those around me ‘Well, I’m just going to have to go to Africa for the next one’. At least, I tried to say that. I may not have succeeded.
But the fact remained that the next chance I would have to see a total solar eclipse would be in southern Africa on June 21st, 2001. Some research revealed that west was best, with a longer eclipse and better weather, but west meant war as well, as the eclipse touched Africa first in conflict-ridden Angola. But next in line was much safer Zambia. A look at the map revealed a town called Zambezi right in the middle of the eclipse path. I decided that this sounded ideal, and the plans were laid. And thus I found myself, on June 14th 2001, flying towards Lusaka.
At this stage of the trip I was still not at all sure it was possible to reach Zambezi. I’d heard vague word of the legendary ‘Time Bus’ between Solwezi and Zambezi, but whether I’d get there with days to spare, or find myself sat on my rucksack in the bush watching a partial eclipse, I wasn’t sure. I was travelling with my friend John for the first two weeks, and we’d arranged to stay at a backpacker’s place in Lusaka. Wade, the owner, picked us up at the airport, and as we drove into Lusaka, we told him of our plans. Half-expecting him to say “Are you insane? Do you have any idea where you are?”, we were relieved when he told us they sounded good.
When we arrived at the Chachacha backpackers, we found it disturbingly full of neo-hippies, who were flooding into Zambia for a festival. They were all looking forward to 10 days of banging trance, and most had no intention of seeing anything of Zambia other than the festival site. I found them all a bit depressing, and we were keen to get out into the real Zambia, so we made plans to leave early the next morning for Solwezi, on the way to Zambezi.
The bus was supposed to be leaving at 9.30am, and by 8.30am we had bought our tickets and were on board. At 9am the engine started and we were ready to go. At 9.20am the engine stalled. It turned out we needed more petrol, and after getting the bus to a petrol station and filling up, we got on the way at 11am. Quite quickly we were out of Lusaka and into the endless Zambian bush. After a brief stop in the copper-mining town of Kabwe, we were out of the eclipse path and into risky territory. If we got stuck somewhere now, there was a big chance of missing the eclipse altogether.
The bush rolled by, mesmerically, and I slept for a lot of the journey. Zambia is a huge country, three times the size of the UK, and yet has a population smaller than London’s. For mile upon eye-popping mile, the countryside was absolutely flat, with featureless scrubby forest growing in red sandy soil.
Mid-afternoon, I was woken very suddenly when the bus encountered a bridge with a ramp leading onto it, at some speed. The bus leapt into the air, action movie style, crashing down a couple of seconds later, shedding bits of bodywork as we careered to a halt a few hundred metres down the road. Some police happened to have been around and gave the bus driver a fine. The guys from the bus spent a few minutes collecting the bits of bodywork from the road and the bush, and we drove on. About 20 minutes later a window fell out, and we thought the bus might crumble and collapse before we got to Solwezi, but nothing else broke. A few windy hours later we arrived in Solwezi, just after sunset. With a Norwegian guy called Rune who we’d met on the bus, we found our way to a hotel.
It was a very pleasant bus ride up there. A few years ago the road to Flores was notorious for (guess what?) armed robberies, but the road has recently been paved, which speeds up the journey enormously and has cut incidences of robbery to zero. I arrived in Flores safe and well after a nine-hour journey. Flores is about an hour’s drive from Tikal itself, and I got the earliest bus to the ruins. It was a bit slower than it should have been, because the driver got into some kind of fight with a passer-by. I didn’t have a clue what was going on and so I kept myself to myself as blows were exchanged, bloody noses given, and clothes ripped. Eventually the business sorted itself out, and our flustered driver drove on to the ruins.
What makes Tikal so spectacular is the fact that it is deep in the jungle. Every other major Mayan site has had its plazas and temples cleared of vegetation, but at Tikal the forest still covers much of the site. Also amazing are Tikal’s enormous temples, the biggest of which, at 64m tall, was the tallest structure in the Americas until the Spanish arrived. I spent a day climbing all the temples and pyramids I could, and enjoying the awesome views over the jungle canopy from the top. The jungles of the Petén stretch for hundreds of miles around, covering the whole of the Yucatán peninsula, and from up the top of the 64m Temple IV the views were astonishing.
It was also nice to be back in fearsome heat. It was at least 30°, and this was some relief after two weeks of chilly weather in the highlands. I spent some time pondering the fact that I was going to return to England in just four days time, and came to the conclusion that I would die of flu within a month.
As well as the ruins, the jungle was impressive. Many times during the trip I had heard monkeys, but had never seen them until now. They weren’t exactly shy here, and the first one I saw was shamelessly throwing bits of twig at me. As well as the monkeys, there were raccoons and foxes, parrots and toucans, and the huge, colourful Petén turkey, found only in this part of the world. All in all it was a fantastic day. I slept well on my overnight journey back to Guatemala City.
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.
All our travel up until now had been on local buses. We were a little daunted at the thought of the Guatemalan bus system, having been advised by the Foreign Office that fatal crashes are frequent, and by other travellers that the buses are unbelievably crowded. We were also not too keen on negotiating our way across Guatemala City, about which we’d heard more horror stories than Managua. So when we discovered that you can get a minibus all the way from Copán to Antigua in Guatemala, our next destination, we decided that we would cop out and take it. It’s a service used solely by tourists, and I certainly felt like a cheat as we got aboard. We crossed the border at a very quiet border post, and no-one tried to rip us off. It was boring.
On the whole, though, it was probably a safer and more sensible option that the five-leg journey we would have had if we had got the local buses. It wasn’t all plain sailing, though – we had a marvellous run for the first four hours, through beautiful mountainous Guatemalan scenery, but during our slow, traffic-jammed crossing of grim-looking Guatemala City, we were hit by a bus. It was a low-speed impact, so no-one was hurt, though it took some time to get my backpack out from the crumpled boot.
Our driver got out to discuss things with the other driver, and I fully expected punches to be thrown, but fortunately everything was calm and sensible. After a short discussion we drove on to a petrol station nearby, taking the conductor of the bus that had hit us along with us. I wasn’t sure why this was – perhaps the minibus firm were keeping him as security? We then stopped and waited for a replacement minibus to arrive. When it came it had three armed guards with it, but we completed the final leg of the journey safely.
We arrived in Antigua late that evening. It was hard to shake the odd feeling that the trip was nearly over, as here we were in our final country with Costa Rica already a distant memory. But we still had nearly three weeks to go, and much to see and do.
We left before the sun was up the next morning, and thus failed to see Tegucigalpa in the daylight. I am told this is not a great loss. We were headed for Copán Ruinas, some 500km away, and we needed to get a bus first to Santa Rosa de Copán, 400km up the road. We were pleased to find that, for our fare of L90 (about £4.50), we had a luxuriously comfortable bus for the six hour journey. We wished we were spending longer in Honduras as we passed through its beautiful mountainous forested scenery.
After two further short bus journeys, back in the yellow school buses, we arrived in the town of Copán Ruinas, which is right next to the Mayan ruins of the same name. We booked into a very cheap hotel, at only £2 each per night, which had a rooftop terrace with fantastic views over the Valle de Copán. We’d forgotten that it was the weekend, and we wouldn’t be able to get money for two days, so we were too skint to pay up front, but fortunately the friendly family said we could pay up on Monday.
The main purpose of coming to Central America had been to see volcanoes. Honduras has none, so we were originally going to pass right through without stopping. However, right on the border between Honduras and Guatemala lies the huge Mayan site of Copán. It would have been silly to pass by without seeing it, so the next morning we left early to walk the 2km down the road to the ruins.
The next day it was time to brave our second border crossing. While we were in Granada, the news had been that a bridge on the road to the border at Guasaule had been washed away. This was indeed the case, and the bridge was still down, but by now the flood waters had subsided, and the bus was able to ford the river. It was a very slow journey, road conditions being pretty bad after the rains, but we made it to the border in reasonable time.
Here we did not have a fun time. We were only going to be in Honduras for a short time, and we knew what border banks were like, so we decided to brave the money-changers. Unfortunately, they had a habit of quoting a good rate, then counting out money at a bad rate. You can then argue all you like, but they’ll deny ever having said ’14 Lempiras per dollar’, and we had to settle for 13, which was at least still better than the bank rate.
Then we got a lift across the border in some bicycle/rickshaw type of things. As we got in, I asked how much it would be, and the driver said a dollar. However, by the time we reached the other side, this had gone up to ten dollars. This was clearly ridiculous, but unfortunately, the driver had a large group of friends on his side. In the face of this there was little we could do but hand over some money and get on the way.
I had a pretty low opinion of Hondurans at this point, but things soon got better as we got on a bus to Choluteca. It was fast and large, and infinitely more comfortable than Nicaraguan buses, which are exclusively old yellow American schoolbuses. The bus from Choluteca to the capital, Tegucigalpa, was equally luxurious, and though we once again arrived in a big city after dark, we got a taxi to hotel and again avoided mishap.
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.