Articles tagged with "nature"

Zhuilu Old Trail

Zhuilu Old Trail

There were buses every hour or so down the gorge, and I made my way downstream. At the first couple of stops there weren’t many people, but lower down it got busier. At Swallow Gorge it was quiet for a few minutes when I arrived, but then a bunch of tour buses arrived, and suddenly the trail along the Liwu River was swarming. A suspension bridge led to the other side, the start of the Zhuilu Old Trail which is supposed to be vertiginous and spectacular, but if you want to hike it you need a permit. Apparently you need to apply for them a week in advance, and planning things a week in advance is not really my travel style. I think the only way I’ll ever hike the Zhuilu Old Trail is if I move to Taiwan so that I can apply for a permit at my leisure.

I walked to the end of the Swallow Gorge trail and back, and apart from the bits where I had to push through crowds of tourists, it was pretty amazing. But it was starting to rain heavily. I headed back to Hualien in a downpour.


Tianxiang

Tianxiang

I liked Penghu before it went mainstream. With the arrival of two other tourists I felt it was no longer cool to be there. So I headed back to Taipei and got a train to Hualien. The target here was to visit Taroko Gorge, definitely a much more mainstream destination but from what I’d heard, worth braving the crowds to see.

It had been hot and sunny when I arrived but the next morning when I got a bus to Tianxiang it was cloudy and spotting with rain. The bus was full when I got on it but there were only about five people on it by the time we arrived at Tianxiang, the last stop way up in the gorge.

The tiny village was quiet and damp. Nearby there was a temple on a hillside, so I walked up to that. Tianxiang was definitely not the most beautiful part of the gorge, but it looked pretty atmospheric under the heavy skies.


El Tatio again

El Tatio again

We went to see the geysers at El Tatio. I’d been there three times already and although it’s a pretty awesome place, I was thinking that maybe four visits is a bit excessive. And seeing as you have to get up at 4am to go there, and it’s brutally cold when you get there, and it’s 4300m above sea level, I was wondering if my mum and dad and aunt would actually get any enjoyment from this at all.

But we got lucky with the tour we went with. Everyone, everyone who visits San Pedro will go to El Tatio, so agencies really don’t have to work very hard to earn their custom. But the trip we went on was one of the few that actually makes an effort. The driver advised us not to sleep on the way up, telling us that you adjust more easily to high altitude if you’re awake. We thought this sounded like it would be worth a try so we stayed awake all the way up. The Italians, Brazilians and Chileans who were also on the trip ignored it and were soon fast asleep.

But it was good advice. I felt better when we got to El Tatio than I’d done on any of my previous visits, and as well as that, the place looked more incredible than ever before. It was brutally, savagely cold, 15 degrees below freezing, and in those conditions huge steam pillars rise from even the tiniest geothermal hole in the ground. It was stunning.

We had plenty of time at the geysers. On previous trips I’d always felt a bit rushed, but we hung around until pretty much all of the other minibuses had left. Once the sun came up, the savage temperatures got a tiny bit more agreeable.

All the tours start in the main geyser field and then drive over to a geothermal pool that you can swim in. I’d swum in it on my last trip. It was horrific. It’s like getting into a bath that you ran nice and hot and then forgot about for a bit, and then you have to get out into sub-zero air. So we passed on a swim this time.

I was in a great mood as we headed away from El Tatio. This had been the best of my four trips here without a doubt. So, my advice for having a great trip to El Tatio is 1. go with the Maxim tour agency, they are really good; 2. stay awake on the way up; and 3. don’t swim in the pool unless you like disappointment and misery.


Morning hike back to Pehoé

Morning hike back to Pehoé

The schedule for today was tight. We had to get to Pehoé in time for a ferry to be in time for a bus to be in time for another bus to be in time for our flight back to Santiago. Any missed step would be disastrous. So we packed up and left Campamento Italiano before dawn and headed off down the trail. It was a beautiful morning, clear and calm, and bitterly cold.

We made it back to Pehoé in plenty of time for the boat back. And all the other steps worked out as well, until we got to the airport to find that our 11pm flight was delayed by four hours. After four days of hiking we were not in the mood for this. There was another flight leaving at 1.30am, but LAN were very reluctant to let us onto it, so it looked like we would be getting home at about 8am. As I argued with the LAN people, ex-president Michelle Bachelet walked by. She was on the 1.30am flight, and eventually LAN decided that we could be, too. We trudged wearily onto the plane, brushed off some Torres del Paine twigs and dirt, collapsed into our seats and headed out of Patagonia.


Valle Frances

Valle Frances

We hiked back to Pehoé the next morning, and headed on to Campamento Italiano. The wind had dropped, the skies had cleared and we had two stunning days of sunshine and autumn colours. We hiked up the Valle Frances and watched avalanches roaring down the slopes of Paine Grande.

From the campsite, sometimes, you could hear the roar of the avalanches. They normally lasted 10 or 20 seconds On our first night there, we heard a roar but this was something different. It got louder and louder, much louder than the noisy river that we were camped by, and it just kept on going. I knew that there was no chance of any avalanche reaching the campsite. But did I really know that? As the roar kept on going, and getting louder and louder, I began to wonder. It was dark and there was no point getting up to see what was going on. So we sat in the tent, listened, and waited. Finally the roar died away.


Niagara

Niagara

The next morning I managed to get to Union station in time for the train to Niagara Falls. I still almost got into trouble with a streetcar that stopped short of its normal destination and left me a few minutes away, but I got on the train with a couple of minutes to spare.

The train was going to New York. Ontario sped past outside the window, as the bright blue sunshine that had started the day ebbed away and left behind high grey cloud. We passed through towns called Aldershot and Grimsby, and eventually we pulled into Niagara Falls station.

The grey clouds were descending. I walked out of the station, into an empty town. I was coming to one of the most touristy places in the world, but it looked like not many people arrive by train and walk two and a half miles down to the falls. I reached the cliffs above the wide green Niagara River and walked south. Small icebergs in the river floated north.

I didn’t expect much of the falls. I wasn’t even sure why I was going there. I’ve seen some of the biggest and widest falls the world has to offer, and these ones would surely pale in comparison. But then I walked round a corned, and in the distance saw a wall of water thundering over a cliff, and it was breathtaking. I walked on down the road. Spots of rain were starting to fall. I passed the international bridge and wondered if I should pop over to the US while I was here, but I thought that my battered and frayed passport might make it much more hassle than it was worth. I decided to stay in Canada.

The rain got heavier. By the time I reached the falls it was utterly grim, and at the lip of the falls it was even more grim as the spray competed with the rain and made everything twice as wet. I briefly retreated inside a ghastly tourist complex, had a nauseating Tim Hortons doughnut and a coffee, and then decided that whether it was raining or not, I had to get out of there. I walked up into Niagara Falls town. Giant hotels and casinos lined the streets. I was thinking of going up an observation tower, but the top of it was in the clouds. I walked randomly until I got to a place downstream of the falls where I could look over the rushing river with the massive horseshoe bite taken out of it.

The rain eased off and I walked back to the falls. In spite of the horrible commercialisation and the horrible numbers of tourists, they were impressive. I watched the water powering over the precipice for a while, wondering why humans like waterfalls enough to build grotesque tourist empires next to them.

Then the rain started falling again, and I headed back up to the station. Clouds clung to the sides of the river valley, and icebergs drifted by. The bus back to Toronto fought its way through the downpour and at one point the driver had to ask a passenger to wipe the condensation off his front window. Wet to the skin, I trudged back to where I was staying.


Río Ulla

Río Ulla

We went white-water rafting while we were in Galicia. I’d never done it before so I was really looking forward to it. We got a train to Padrón, from where trips down the Río Ulla start.

The seven of us took a boat and a guide, and headed downstream. Four other boats were on the river, and pretty much the first thing all the guides did was to try and get us to fall out. I was very reluctant, but I guess it’s better to fall out first in the calm water before the inevitable spills in the rapids. So we all got soaking wet in the chilly waters, and then went paddling downstream for some rapid action.

The Ulla is not such a wild river, but the scenery was awesome and we had great fun. After the first couple of rapids, our guide got us to try them out with variations like going backwards, standing up, trying to paddle up one we’d just come down, and things like that. At the final rapids, he said “You don’t really need the boat for this one. Just jump out and swim.” I thought he was joking but he really meant it, so we all jumped out and swam over the rapids. Then we swam downstream all the way to the pick-up point. I’d never swum down a river before and I thought it was awesome.

We all agreed that the Ulla had been a little bit tame and it would be nice to try something a bit wilder. But none the less, we were all shattered, and our plans for a big night out clubbing fell flat as we were all too destroyed to stay out beyond 2am.


Millau

Millau

We drove from Durban-Corbières back to the UK, stopping off in Orléans on the way. I was happy that our route would take us over the Millau viaduct. I’d seen plenty of pictures of the bridge but it was still incredible to cross it. When we saw the tops of the pylons poking above the horizon from some distance away we could really appreciate how huge it is. We soared over the Tarn valley, and then stopped on the other side to have a look. We were there at the wrong time of day for good photographs, though, with the sun shining more or less directly at us from over the bridge.


Down the valley

Down the valley

We followed the river back towards Brodick. The walk in the valley was not as interesting as the hiking in the fells had been, but the scenery was still impressive. The interior of the island was impressively wild, with no significant signs of human habitation to be seen. It always surprises me, a world traveller but an insular London resident, that there are places like this in the UK. I should go to them more often.


Icing on the cake

Icing on the cake

The orange glow receded. Árni reckoned the eruption was much smaller now than when he’d last seen it a week ago, but it had been awesome to see it nonetheless.

Our return journey was much slower than the outward leg. The trail had got icier, and the gale was getting stronger. We bounced around so much that I felt seasick, climbing back up to the heights of the Mýrdalsjökull. At one point, another car in the convoy got stuck, and Árni had to jump out to attach a towrope. The icy blast as he opened the door was breathtaking. It took a little while to extricate the other car, and I wondered if we would need to get out and push. I didn’t much fancy that.

Luckily we got going again, and pushed on. As we descended, I started to become sure that I could see the northern lights. When we reached the edge of the glacier, we stopped to reinflate the tyres, and here there was no doubt. The wind was whipping up a fog of blown snow, but through that I could see that the sky was full of dancing green lights. We carried on down, the wind began to drop and the lights got brighter.

We reached sea level at about 3am. I was beginning to get a tiny bit worried – my flight was leaving Keflavík at 8am and it was going to take a few more hours yet to reach Reykjavík. But if I missed my flight, then so be it. Right now I was just concerned with feeling awestruck. We stopped at Skógafoss, reinflated the tyres a bit more, and here the lights were stunning, flying overhead like curtains billowing in a colossal breeze.

We drove on, stopping in the middle of nowhere briefly to pick up some people whose car had broken down as they were trying to get to the volcano. The lights seemed brighter than I ever remembered them and at the end of a spectacular day of travelling, this was almost too much to take in. I was having a natural wonder overdose.

We headed on. The small hours grew larger, and I fell fast asleep. I woke as we approached Reykjavík, where we arrived at 5am. I had just enough time to brew a painfully strong coffee before heading back to the airport as the sun was rising. My weekend had been perilously close to turning into an appalling waste of time and money but we’d snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. I could not have been happier as I headed back to the UK. Later it turned out that just a few hours after I’d been there, the Fimmvörðuháls eruption stopped. After a day of calm, a new and much bigger eruption started a few miles away, causing massive disruption to European air travel as a huge ash cloud drifted over the continent. Much as I’d have loved to see that, my timing was pretty good. If I hadn’t left when I did I might still be there now.

Snæfell is still calling me. I’ll be going back to Iceland before too long.


El Tatio

El Tatio

I’d liked El Tatio the last time I was here, four years earlier. This time I didn’t like it so much. The weather was pretty bad, with thick clouds drifting over the place when we arrived. On my first trip it had been savagely cold; it wasn’t so bad this time, but the clouds really made it look much less impressive.

So I walked around the geysers, thinking I should probably have gone somewhere else instead of returning here. The 4,300m altitude and a lack of caffeine worsened my mood. But suddenly, just as we were leaving, the clouds dispersed. Within a couple of minutes, the Altiplano had emerged from the gloom, and the sun shone on the wisps of steam from the declining geysers, which only erupt for a couple of hours after sunrise.

We drove back to San Pedro via Machuca. Last time I’d been here, we’d had a puncture on the way, and a long wait to change the tyre. I’d been suffering with the altitude and had not felt good. This time the van survived and I avoided altitude sickness.


Þingvellir

Þingvellir

I got a bus to Þingvellir. I’d wanted to go here last time but we hadn’t had time. I’d always thought it sounded like a pretty awesome place so I was looking forward to finally seeing it. It was a hot sunny day again, and Iceland was in a fantastic summery mood. We stopped in Laugarvatn and I bought an ice cream.

At Þingvellir the bus normally stops at the Hotel Valhöll, but startlingly the Hotel Valhöll had burned down the previous night. Emergency service cordons blocked the road. We took a detour and stopped at the national park service centre.

I went for a walk. The summery weather had changed a bit, and it was overcast. This was good. I’d always imagined that Þingvellir would be forbidding and atmospheric, and the hot sun didn’t really work for me. Under grey skies I liked the place a lot. I walked down huge chasms, finally reaching the site of the Alþingi. There was a sense of history. Here was where Iceland defined its nationality. Here was where the first settlers met each year to pass laws. And here was where two continents drifting apart were slowly tearing the country into two. Great chasms flanked either side of the sunken plain, across which a river flowed calmly.

The next day it was blazing sunshine again. I hiked back down the chasms but it wasn’t quite the same. I scaled a large rock face to get up onto the North American plate, and I looked across to Europe on the other side of the plains. The Öxará river fell into the gap, diverted into the plains by the early Norse to provide water for their assemblies. I relaxed in the sun until it was time to head, for the last time, back to Reykjavík.


Nearing Þórsmörk

Nearing Þórsmörk

I didn’t go back for it. On the other side of the river was something strange and astonishing, an Icelandic forest. I’d never seen one of these before and I felt like I was in a different country as I walked through the woods. An hour or so later I reached a sign saying Þórsmörk and I was nearly done.

I walked to Langidalur. My guide book said there was a shop here. There was but it was closed, and the place was more or less deserted. A vehicle had got stuck in one of the massive glacial rivers here and was being pulled out by a tractor, but otherwise nothing much was happening. I walked to Húsadalur, home valley, and it turned out this was where everything happens at Þórsmörk. I pitched my tent and rested my weary feet. I was done.

Landmannalaugar’s hot pool is one of my favourite places on the planet, and my guide book said there was a geothermal hot pool here as well. I’d been looking forward to it. In the end, it was massively disappointing – it was hardly warm at all and far from spending hours in there recovering, I spent about five minutes in there shivering before I could take no more.

Instead, I went for a walk. In the late evening, when all was quiet, I walked to the Krossá. I sat and watched the raging glacial torrent carving its way through the Icelandic landscape. It was cloudy and gloomy and atmospheric. I’d finally made it to Þórsmörk. I’d considered pushing on over the Fimmvörðuháls pass to Skógar, another day or two’s walking, but my time was not unlimited and there were other places I wanted to see. I decided my hike was over, and in the morning I headed back to Reykjavík.


On the trail

On the trail

I left Emstrur early. I had just a few hours to go to finish the job I’d started ten years before, and I was in a good mood. The trail started with a steep descent, so steep that it required a little bit of abseiling, using a handily-placed rope. A bridge crossed the Ytri-Emstruá river, and then the trail reached the point where that and the Markarfljót joined. One was dark grey and the other was light grey, and the different shades flowed side by side.

I followed the course of the Markarfljót. The trail was flat, it was warm and sunny, and I made fast progress. Then the trail turned steeply upwards for a while, and the views got more and more amazing the higher I got. I reached a ridge, and far below I could see what looked like a modest river. The path dropped down towards it, and the closer I got, the more I could see how much I’d underestimated it. By the time I got to its banks I could see it was not going to be easy.

I was glad to meet a couple of Dutch hikers who had just crossed. If I fell and was swept away to a grim death, at least someone would know. They had found a decent place to cross, and they shouted back across the raging torrent to direct me. They also threw me a pair of flip-flops – until now I’d just crossed all the rivers barefoot. I tied everything to my pack and ploughed into the waters.

The rivers until now had been ankle-deep at worst but this one was over my knees straight away. In the middle it was up to my hips and the current was pushing me downstream. A slip would have been disastrous but luckily I made it across. I thanked the Dutch couple and gave them back their flip-flops. Then I realised I’d left one of my socks on the other side of the river.


Wild parts

Wild parts

When I got up the next morning it was raining hard. I spoke to the warden at the hut, and he reckoned it would start to clear in a couple of hours. So I waited before setting off. I tried to write my journal but my hands were too cold, so I wandered along the lake as the drizzle eased off.

The warden was right. After a couple of hours it was no longer raining, so I set off. The going was much easier than yesterday, and I set a furious pace again. Having started late, I found there were quite a few people on the trail in front of me. After a steep climb down to a bridge over a wild river, I found a huge dusty expanse in front of me, with five or six groups of hikers strung out across it. I like targets when I’m doing things like this, and I chased them down during the day.

The trail crossed a few more rivers. They were all brutally cold but not too difficult to cross. They were quite welcome, amid the desert-like scenery. Grey dust blew about, and there was hardly any vegetation or colour to be seen. The skies matched the ground, a uniform slate grey as far as I could see.

Later on it got less forbidding. A vivid green mountain came into view, looking to me like it could be the crazy home of some Norse god. On this part of the trek I could easily see why Icelandic folk tales have it that every other rock in the highlands is home to a spirit or goblin of some sort.

Eventually I crested a rise and found the Emstrur hut beneath me. I was two thirds of the way to the end.


Over the pass

Over the pass

I cooked up some lunch on the veranda of the hut. As I ate, the clouds suddenly parted, revealing a couple of hikers heading out across a huge snowy expanse, ringed by mountains. A roar away to my right turned out to be coming from a huge steam plume jetting straight out of the ground. I finished my food, grabbed my pack and headed out.

Hiking across the snow was fairly tough going but I knew the hardest bit of the day was already behind me. I’d climbed 500 metres and now I would drop 500 metres to Álftavatn. The weather was beautiful here, and I was alone on the trail pretty much the whole way. I was in an Icelandic dream but I did not let up my pace for a second. I marched pretty much as fast as I could, somehow fearing that if I slowed down I might not make it to Þórsmörk.

Later the weather turned. I descended into a verdant gorge, and crossed my first river. It was only ankle-deep but bitingly cold, and I walked gingerly for a mile or so afterwards until my feet started to feel again. The cloud was thickening and eventually I could only see the trail and a few feet either side of it. Sometimes in the murk I could hear volcanic springs rumbling and bubbling but I couldn’t see anything. It began to rain.

Finally I reached a flat grassy plain where I could see that vehicles sometimes drove. A few minutes more walking brought me to the shores of Álftavatn. I set up camp and then walked along the shore in the midsummer gloom, listening to music. I was a third of the way to the end.


Better already

Better already

Early the next morning I got up and left. The word yesterday had been the the wardens would try to stop anyone setting off who didn’t have a GPS system, the weather was that bad. I didn’t have a GPS; I just had a map, a compass, three days of supplies and a wild desire to trek. So I looked shiftily about, saw no wardens, and hurried onto the trail.

I set a blazing pace. The early part of the trail was extremely familiar and I felt like I remembered every footstep as I crossed an old lava flow, to a heavenly meadow on the other side where I remembered thinking it would be awesome to camp. In 40 minutes, I was at the ignominious spot. I passed the spirits of three defeated youths, reluctantly picking up their too-heavy packs to trudge back to the hut. I gave a thought to my younger self and pushed on into unknown parts.

The trail climbed. Soon I had incredible views over ancient lava fields and hills coloured red and green and all sorts of colours that rocks normally aren’t. I passed Stórihver, a hole in the rocks which belched out jets of steaming water, and soon reached places where snow lay on the ground. Higher and higher the trail went, and eventually I reached the clouds. Cairns marked the route but occasionally I had to wait for a few minutes for a break in the thick fog to show me the way ahead. I slogged across what seemed like a huge snowy plateau, cairn by cairn, and the cloud was so thick that I almost walked into the Hrafntinnusker hut before I saw it.


Unfinished business

Unfinished business

I’d been here before. Ten years ago, we planned to hike the legendary Laugavegur, a three day crossing of some of Iceland’s wildest scenery. We’d given up after a matter of a couple of hours, not through any desire of mine but because my two travelling companions didn’t fancy it. In retrospect I could see we would have had a miserable time if we’d carried on but still I left with a powerful sense of unfinished business. If there was one thing I wanted to do on this trip, it was to finish the job.

So I got an early morning bus to Landmannalaugar. Even if the hike had been a failure, Landmannalaugar had been one of my favourite places in Iceland. The weather was unremittingly foul and bleak and that only made me like it more. The sombre mountains just seemed so atmospheric and wild to me then. Wallowing in nostalgia, I listened to 7:30 by the Frank and Walters as we rumbled along the Fjallabak road to the back of beyond.

It was almost like I’d just rewound ten years. Rain was battering down on Landmannalaugar, which looked as familiar as if I’d been there yesterday. I really, really didn’t fancy camping – our night here on the gravelly campground had been horrible. So I went to see if I could get into the warm dry hut. By great good fortune I happened to reach the warden’s hut at the same time as some people who had one more reservation than they needed. I gladly took it off their hands. And then I made straight for the most heavenly location on Earth, the hot pool. Bathing in hot volcanic waters in the remote hinterlands of Iceland while it rains steadily is just too awesome to describe.


Chiricahua

Chiricahua

After the conference I had two days to spare in southern Arizona. You can’t do much there without a car, but luckily a friend had been observing at the nearby Kitt Peak National Observatory and had a motor. He’d just finished his observing run, and we headed out into the desert.

Our destination was Chiricahua National Monument. It was a little bit cooler in the hills there than it had been back in Tucson. Near to the car park there were quite a few people on the trails, many of whom did not look very much like hikers at all and occupied most of the width of the narrow paths. As we got further away, there were fewer and fewer people, and the wilderness was spectacular.

After a few hours we reached a turnoff for ‘Inspiration Point’. I was initially not too fussed, as we’d already covered a lot of ground and seen some pretty inspiring things. Luckily we decided to check it out, and soon reached the most impressive viewpoint of the day.


Grenoble

Grenoble

I went to Grenoble with five friends to go skiing. A few of them were experts but this was my first time. We went to Chamrouse where I learned the basics and fell over lots, and eventually destroyed the camera I’d bought in Paraguay. The next day we went to Prapoutel, where I fell over a bit less. Skiing was fun and even if it hadn’t been, it would have been worth going just to be out in the mountains.


Pindus

Pindus

On the last day of my trip, we went for a drive in the mountains. We headed out towards Metsovo, to the Pindus National Park. We had wanted to go hiking, but it turned out the national park office was closed for the week and we couldn’t get any information about the trails. So we decided to just drive up interesting trails and see where we got to, and found ourselves going through some seriously remote forest. Eventually we reached a clearing where a lone shepherd was tending his flock. The track after here became impassable, so we turned around and headed back.

We took another road into a different part of the forest. We wound up in another clearing near a river, where we stopped and hiked downstream a bit. There was no-one else around and the woods were calm and peaceful, except for the distant bark of sheepdogs.

It was getting late and we had to head off. Back where the car was parked, some shepherds were working and their dogs were pretty aggressive. They chased the car, barking furiously as we drove, and followed us for quite a while. Eventually we shook them off. Then, we rounded a corner and saw a large animal sitting in the road. For a second I thought it was another dog, but we’d hardly seen it when it got up and shambled off into the forest. It was a bear; I didn’t even know there were bears in these forests so I definitely didn’t expect to see one.


Vikos gorge

Vikos gorge

I got a shared taxi to the Greek border. I asked how much it would be in hacky Albanian, and understood that it would be either 500 or 5000 lekë. 5000 would have been about 30 pounds so I assumed it was 500. I did slightly fear an ugly situation at the border when I handed over my 500 lek note, but luckily I’d assumed correctly.

I walked across the border. Waiting for me on the other side was my friend Iraklis, who was from these parts and was here over the summer. It was strange to see a familiar face from London here at the border with Albania. My trip would finish with three days in north-western Greece, staying with him in Ioannina.

We drove from the border straight up to the village of Monodendri, where legend had it we could obtain the best pie in Greece. But when we got there, the famous pie restaurant was closed and we had to make do with the second best. From there we hiked a bit of a way down the Vikos Gorge, supposedly the deepest in the world relative to its width. We hiked until we got to a point where insanity would have been required to carry on, and then turned round and headed back to Monodendri.


Ohrid

Ohrid

Macedonian buses were very organised compared to the others I’d been travelling on. My ticket had a seat number, which I didn’t notice until a girl evicted me. She was very helpful, pointed me to the right place, and helped me to evict the guy who was in my place. After that it was plain sailing across the rugged Balkan scenery to Lake Ohrid.

Ohrid town was roasting. Some people I’d met in Bosnia were at the hostel I went to, and it was fun to see them again. We relaxed on the balcony overlooking the lake until the air cooled enough to move, and then we went out for fun times in the town.

The next day I did some sightseeing. I wandered the narrow streets, winding up to the castle where there were views over the lake to the misty hills of Albania on the opposite shore.


Black Lake

Black Lake

I had a choice when I got to Podgorica – head into the mountains of Montenegro, or move on to Kosovo. I had a brief look outside the bus station, and immediately decided to wait one hour here for the bus to Žabljak, rather than wait six hours for the bus to Priština.

It was a good decision. The journey into the hinterlands of Montenegro was amazing. Before very long we were in rugged and remote scenery, wild mountains with waterfalls and streams, all covered in lush green forests. Between tiny settlements where people got on and off, there was little sign of human habitation.

We arrived in Žabljak just after sunset. I wondered if it would turn out to have been a bad idea to arrive in a popular mountain town late on a weekend evening in the summer, but I found a room easily enough, in a house owned by a woman called Dragana.

In the morning I went for a walk to Crno Jezero, Black Lake. It was not far out of town and it was a nice walk through the forest. The lake was surrounded by towering rocky peaks and dense forest.

All was silent as I walked around the lake. Then suddenly I heard a ‘plop’, and saw ripples of water spreading out. I was mystified at first. Had someone thrown a stone at me from somewhere nearby? I walked on a few metres, and there was another ‘plop’, but this time I saw the culprit – a large frog who had been relaxing in the sun before I passed by. There were frogs all along the shore, and I set off a wave of jumps into the lake as I walked. In the forest, squirrels ran about; in the lake, a large black fish circled and occasionally grabbed a fly from near the surface.

Once I’d walked all around, I headed back to Žabljak to get a bus back to Podgorica, and found myself there with six hours to kill before the Kosovo bus would leave.


Dingli Cliffs

Dingli Cliffs

The next day I breakfasted again on espresso and kinnie, and then headed out for a look at the south of the island. My first target was the Dingli Cliffs, and I got a ferry to Valletta and then a bus to Dingli. I walked in hot sun down to the south coast of Malta, where I found a fairly big drop into the sea, but not the 300m sheer drop that my guide book spoke about. Still, I walked east, enjoying being in the middle of the Mediterranean. And as I went east, the cliffs grew higher. Eventually they were actually almost as impressive as my guide book had said they would be. From where I was, it was a long way down to the water.


Down south

Down south

I had a weekend to spare after my observing run, and I had thought I might drive around the island. But I hadn’t got to Santa Cruz until late on the Saturday afternoon, so that just left Sunday. I set off south and thought I would see how far I got.

It was sunny when I left Santa Cruz, and for the first twenty minutes the drive was great. But then suddenly I was in thick cloud and more or less zero visibility. I had to drive at about 15 miles an hour for a lot of the way to Fuencaliente at the south end of the island.

I parked up near Volcán San Antonio, one of the two recently active volcanoes at this end of the island. For half an hour I could do nothing but sit in the car as the rain lashed down. It stopped, eventually, and I rushed out to do a quick walk around the crater. Then I drove on to the other volcano, Teneguía, and climbed over scenery that emerged from the ground in 1971. Through brief breaks in the cloud, I looked up the west coast of La Palma.


Pamukkale

Pamukkale

From Denizli I could see a bright patch of white on a distant hillside, and this turned out to be Pamukkale. A spring here spouts amazingly mineral-rich waters, and over thousands of years a huge terrace of limestone has built up. The Greeks built the city of Heirapolis here 2200 years ago, and it was a kind of health resort, with ill people hoping the chalky waters would cure them.

We walked up, ditching our shoes and padding barefoot across the soft white ground. Apparently until recently, there were hotels right next to the terraces, and water from the springs had been diverted to fill swimming pools. Without water flowing over them, some of the white cliffs turned brown, and a road was carved across part of the terrace. Recently, many hotels had been demolished, and water flowed over the cliffs again.

We paddled our way to the top of the terraces. Distant mountains towered over the ruins of Heirapolis. In the valley below, Denizli sprawled and gave off a distant roar of traffic. John had decided to stay a night in Denizli, but I felt like getting back to Istanbul, so after a look around Heirapolis I headed back down the terraces, got on the first dolmuş that passed by, and went back to Denizli to catch the Pamukkale Ekspresi back to Istanbul.


Trapped in Loja

Trapped in Loja

Loja seemed quite nice when we first arrived. We were tired after an overnight bus ride and so spent our first day not doing very much. In hindsight this was a mistake. On our second day we went to Parque Nacional Podocarpus, not far outside Loja to the south. When I planned my South American travels this was not even close to being one of my most anticipated destinations but it turned out to be one of the most memorable places I visited.

We got a bus heading for Vilcabamba, and got off at a road junction more or less in the middle of nowhere. We set off walking to the national park, a five mile uphill walk, hoping we might be able to hitchhike up. A couple of cars passed us leaving the park but nothing seemed to be going up. After three quarters of an hour we were beginning to resign ourselves to walking all the way when suddenly a truck appeared, carrying three park rangers. They told us to jump on the back, and we drove up to the park. The scenery which had seemed OK while walking looked spectacular from the back of the truck with the wind whistling by, and after half an hour of chugging up the track with stunning views over the green rugged mountains we were grinning like fools.

Under threatening skies, we set off for a bit of hiking, which began with a gentle ascent up through the forest from about 2500m to over 3000m above sea level. We walked through the dripping cool humid jungle, and as we got higher, the mist became fog and the air became cooler, and by the time we reached the tree line the fog had become cloud and it began to rain. We were now pretty exposed, and the hike became a bit of an ordeal as the rain began to lash down. The trail took us along a narrow ridge, and the visibility was so low that the ridge looked to us like a sort of elevated walkway in the clouds.

Eventually we reached a turn-off in the trail that would lead us back off the ridge and into the forest. As we got there, the cloud seemed to be thinning, and in just a few minutes the rain had stopped and it looked like the sun might come out. The cloud was lifting, and far below we could see the hut at the start of the trail, and the road in the valley. As a few sunbeams broke through the cloud, we got astonishing views of the Andes beneath the clouds.

The day was wearing on, and we headed back down the trail to the hut. We’d taken a stove and some food with us, but the weather had been so vile on the trail that we hadn’t been able to use it, so we were starving. As the sun neared the horizon we cooked up some soup and pasta and restored ourselves. The park rangers had gone back down to the park entrance, so we had to walk the five miles back down to the main road, and by the time we had eaten it was almost dark. Luckily we had torches, and we had a great walk down the track, with some good views of the lights of towns and villages in the valley. We got to the road at eight o’clock and jumped on a bus heading back to Loja.

After a great day in the national park, we were ready to get back on the road. But we’d made a huge tactical error by dropping some clothes off at a launderette before we went hiking. We didn’t make it back in time to collect them, and the next day the launderette was closed. It was a Sunday, and in a pious mountain town where there’s not a huge amount to do during the rest of the week, Sunday is a very slow day indeed. Every shop and almost every cafe was closed, except for one that was over-priced and unfriendly. Luckily, the town museum, situated in the old town gates, was open, and we spent as long as we could there, enjoying a small art exhibition and some views of the town from the clock tower. I was beginning to feel slightly claustrophobic in Loja, and was reminded of a similar experience in a town by the Zambezi called Lukulu, which had also been much easier to arrive at than to leave.

The next day we got up early, finally collected our laundry, jumped in a taxi and headed for the bus station and more exciting places than Loja. But what a disaster doing laundry in Loja was turning out to be – as we arrived at the bus station there was a lively picket line across the entrance, and it was clear that no buses were leaving. “Ah! I forgot!”, said the despicable taxi driver. “There’s a bus strike today!”. Unfortunately there were no other taxi drivers around and we didn’t feel like walking for three miles so we were forced to get the man to drive us back into town. Here we received the shattering news that there was an indefinite bus strike on, but the word was that ‘indefinite’ in this case would probably mean ‘until some time tomorrow’. We fervently hoped that this was right.

The next morning we were up before dawn in our eagerness to get the hell out of Loja. As soon as it opened we asked at the tourist information office and almost wept with relief when they told us the strike was indeed over. We made great haste for the bus station, only to find that in a brief show of solidarity with the drivers, the ticket sellers had had a quick walkout. Luckily they came back before too long, and just after midday we found ourselves on a bus heading north to Cuenca. I now had only five days left to see the rest of Ecuador but happy that I would at least not have to spend them in Loja.


Ruins of the north

Ruins of the north

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.


Days of salt

Days of salt

I got up at 5am the next day to watch a beautiful sunrise over the Salar. Then, after a quick breakfast we got onto the highlight of the journey which was seeing the Salar itself close up. We drove straight out onto it, which was oddly disconcerting, and followed vague trails marked on it. It struck me that it would be extremely easy to get lost if the weather wasn’t ideal, but today it was and the Sun beat down. After an hour or so we stopped in the middle of nowhere, to have a look. Having learnt my lesson at Villarrica, I put plenty of sunblock everywhere, including underneath my nose, and got out into the the shining white. The surface was just slightly crunchy to walk on, and for my own satisfaction I verified by taste that it really was salt. I thought of taking a lump home as some kind of souvenir but imagined it would soon crumble into a really lame souvenir.

Further across the Salar we came to Isla Incahuasi, rising weirdly from the salt ocean and covered in cactuses. We climbed up to the top of the island, and also walked out a little way from the island into the Salar. The endless salt on all sides made me feel very thirsty just looking at it, and I was glad we were carrying huge amounts of water. After taking some panoramic shots of the island, we drove on, and after a brief commercial stop at a hotel made out of blocks of salt, we came to the end of our journey at Uyuni.


Altiplano crossing

Altiplano crossing

The early start was not too brutal – I slept well even in the thin air, and woke feeling fine at 5.30am. The others felt better too, and more up for a day of sightseeing than they had been yesterday. The lake, so red the previous day, was now more or less all blue. We breakfasted on mate de coca, crusty bread and scrambled flamingo eggs and left Laguna Colorada at 7am.

Our first stop was a group of stones sculpted into weird and wonderful shapes by the winds of the high Altiplano. The centrepiece is the Arbol de Piedra, a stone ‘tree’ which stands on an implausibly thin base and looks as if it could be toppled with a light push. A few other vehicles were there, and a few people were trying to topple it, but all found it impossible. We spent half an hour or so scrambling over the rocks, looking around at the desert and the mountains and the wilderness, before setting off. There were no roads here, just dusty tracks which we almost seemed to glide along in the 4WD. Victor had a CD of reggaeton music, and was becoming worryingly fond of one particular track as we ploughed through the thick sand. It was beginning to drive us slightly mad, but would become the almost constant soundtrack to our Altiplano journey.

We stopped at Villa Alota for lunch. It was a strange place, just a few dozen houses in the middle of nowhere and more or less deserted. Victor left us eating lunch while he gave someone a lift somewhere, which took an hour or so, and then for reasons we couldn’t work out he drained all the fuel from the car into a large tub, before refilling it. Then we had a pretty boring afternoon of driving through the desert to the village of Chuvica, which sits right on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni. The Salar looked strange in the evening light as we arrived, glistening in the sun and stretching away as far as the eye could see.


Breathless heights

Breathless heights

We headed on to Laguna Colorada. We arrived in the mid-afternoon and the lake was bright red, with flamingoes dotted all across the waters. What looked like steam rising from the lake in the distance was apparently salt water whirlwinds, a common site here. We were staying here for the night, at Campamento Ende, a meteorological station on the south-western shore of the lake, and we were all now feeling the altitude. My trip to El Tatio had definitely done me some good, acclimatisation-wise, as had the trip up to Sol de Mañana and back down to here, and I went for a walk while the others rested, but I was still totally exhausted if I walked even a few metres uphill. I took a lot of photos of the lake, which was getting redder and redder due to mineral reactions in the sunlight, and the thousands of flamingoes strutting about in the shallow waters.

Night fell not long after 6pm, and the temperature plummeted. I stood on the shores of the lake, breathing the thin cold air and watching a thunderstorm in the distance, until 9pm when the generator at Campamento Ende was shut off, and the only light was coming from the moon. I went to bed exhausted by the altitude and slightly dreading the 6am start we were apparently planning for the morning.


Desert heat

Desert heat

I stocked up on more cakes from the cafe across the road before leaving Calama to go to San Pedro de Atacama. The bus journey took us through some forbidding Atacama scenery, rocky canyons and exposed plains and barely a speck of green in sight, and it seemed amazing to me that people could make a journey like this, through some of the harshest terrain in the world, by bus. My fellow passengers were mostly locals and I looked around at them, feeling some kind of envy that they lived in this remarkable place.

I arrived in San Pedro in the early afternoon, and the sun beat down on the low whitewashed buildings which glared fiercely. I found a hostel and checked in, and wandered around the tiny village, quickly exploring more or less all of it. It was clearly a town that lived off tourism, but it didn’t seem as in-your-face about it as El Calafate or Pucón had been. El Calafate seemed to be built with wealthy visitors in mind, while Pucón was a middle-class Chilean sort of place, but San Pedro was definitely about backpackers. It made for a sociable time but I never much like places where local culture has been overwhelmed by outsiders. It’s the central problem of travel really – I want to visit amazing places and see spectacular things, but I don’t really want anyone else to.

I hired a bike in San Pedro, and spent a day exploring the surrounding desert. Fortunately I got a sensible machine, far more realistic a proposition than the contraption I’d hired in Puerto Madryn and definitely up to the task of cycling in the driest place on the planet. I started by heading north to the Pukará de Quitor, a hilltop fort which was the site of a last stand during the Spanish conquest. The views from here over the desert showed what an anomaly San Pedro is, with trees and vegetation in an otherwise unremitting sea of light brown.

Further north, I spent a while in the Quebrada del Diablo, a twisting narrow canyon that cuts deep into the hills. I don’t know how far I went down it – I started by cycling but before too long the floor of the canyon was too rough to make that worthwhile, so I left the bike and went on by foot. It was an amazing place – just hot sand, orange rocks and blue skies, and if I stood still and held my breath the silence was total. It was obvious that water had rushed violently through here at some point, but extremely hard to believe that could ever happen in the arid heat of the middle of the day.

After the Quebrada, I headed a little bit further down the road to what was allegedly the Inca ruins of Catarpe. But either I didn’t go to the right place, or Catarpe is really rubbish – there seemed to be nothing at all to see except a stone wall which could have been built yesterday. It was now far too hot to realistically explore any more, so I headed back to San Pedro for lunch. I’d taken plenty of water and drunk pints and pints, but still I’d almost lost my voice thanks to the extreme dryness. I found a shop selling ice cream in San Pedro and decided that for health reasons I should buy some. One portion left me feeling only partially restored, but a second had me feeling like doing more cycling, and as the afternoon heat gradually receded, I set out for the Valle de la Luna, an area of rock formations 17km south of San Pedro, to catch the sunset there.

This was far less fun than the morning’s cycling had been. Earlier, there hadn’t been even a breath to disturb the hot stillness, but now in the late afternoon a wind had sprung up from the west, and it was getting stronger by the second. Although it was much cooler than it had been, the wind was hot, and it felt like I was cycling into a hairdryer as I slowly pedalled down the tarmac toward the valley. The scenery was stunning, barren beyond belief and with towering volcanoes fringing the horizon, but I was beginning to get angry with the wind. After a few kilometres the tarmac stopped and I was on a sandy track, with the wind still blowing right at me, and every time I stopped for a second to catch my breath, the wind seemed to drop to nothing, only to start up again when I pushed off. At times I even struggled to cycle downhill. I cycled on in a furious rage, cursing the desert and the wind and thinking I could have been sat on an air-conditioned tour bus which would have cost me less than my bike hire had.

But eventually the valley appeared, and as soon as I wasn’t cycling any more I enjoyed the cycling I’d just done. The valley looked alive in the blazing evening light, and I scrambled up the sides to get stunning views over the surroundings, with Volcán Licancábur standing solemnly over everything. After the Sun had set the light quickly began to fade, and I set off for the return cycle. This was massively more fun, and with the wind behind me it took me barely half an hour to get back to San Pedro. By the end of the journey it was almost dark except for the light of the full moon, and I felt pretty pleased with 50 kilometres of cycling in the world’s driest desert.


Pumalín

Pumalín

There was a boat from Chaitén to Puerto Montt leaving the evening after I arrived. I spent my spare day exploring the nearby Parque Pumalín, with the two Italian girls who had arrived with me from Coyhaique. The park had been controversial in Chile, being private land, owned by a non-Chilean, and stretching from the coast to the Argentinian border, apart from a narrow strip in the middle. People were sceptical of the owner’s motives.

Ignoring the politics of the situation, we asked around Chaitén and found a friendly guy called Juan who had a 4WD and was willing to drive us up to the park for the day. As it had been ever since Coyhaique, the weather was not great, although the rain had eased off from being torrential to just being quite heavy. Most of Pumalín is inaccessible without serious preparation, but we drove for about an hour north of Chaitén, to a place where a couple of trails run a short way into the park. The first took us to some waterfalls, and the second through a grove of alerce trees. Alerces are the largest tree in South America, and are related to the Giant Redwood. They take hundreds of years to grow to their full size but they are now endangered due to centuries of exploitation. It’s illegal to cut down living alerces, but apparently it’s very common for people to strip them of their bark or set fire to forests so they can harvest the dead trees which are not covered by the law.

The massive sombre trees dripped on us as we walked through the grove. By this time all four of us had slipped at various points on the trail – two of us had a left leg covered in mud while the other two had the right leg. We decided it was time to head back to Chaitén, and I was looking forward to going further north where the weather might be drier.


Laguna Torre

Laguna Torre

Later in the morning I set off to walk up to Laguna de los Tres, at the base of Cerro Fitz Roy. I was cold and tired and I walked slowly. The trail wound gently up to the tree line, at which point it became much steeper and I walked even more slowly. Before long the path was winding through thick snow. Suddenly, just as at Torres del Paine, I crested a rise and there was the mountain right in front of me. A few minutes more to cross a rocky outcrop and I was by Laguna de los Tres, frozen and covered in snow. Far below to the left was Laguna Sucia, liquid and deep green. While I was there several avalanches raced down the steep slopes into Laguna Sucia.

There had been no-one else up at Laguna de los Tres when I arrived, but now lots of people were appearing over the ridge. A haze was thickening over the clear blue skies so I headed back down. Still tired out from the cold and my early start, I trudged wearily back down to Campamento Poincenot to grab my tent, and then right back down to El Chaltén again. The next day I set off for more hiking, this time to a lagoon at the base of Cerro Torre.

I walked very quickly and shook the tiredness out of my legs with a half hour speed-walk up a steep hill just outside El Chaltén. For the most part the walk was not very interesting, but when I finally got to Laguna Torre I found myself surrounded by snowy mountains with a close-up view of Glaciar Grande across the water. Heavy clouds over the glacier hid Cerro Torre from view, but the views were none the less impressive. What was also impressive was the strength of the wind blowing down the valley, which as I stood on the lake shore actually made it impossible to stand up when it gusted. I sheltered behind a rocky ridge, popping up occasionally to take photos of the lake, the glacier, and the streams of snow being whipped off the mountains by the wind.

I could see a huge bank of heavy black cloud heading my way, and thought it would be prudent to head back to El Chaltén. I walked as fast as I could, with the black cloud gaining on me slowly. Luckily I’d just got to some forest after a long stretch in the open when the weather finally caught up with me, and was somewhat sheltered from the heavy snow which began falling.


El Chaltén

El Chaltén

From El Calafate I got a bus to El Chaltén, a great journey around the shores of Lago Argentino, stopping at a remote estancia for a coffee, then along the shores of the other big lake of the region, Lago Viedma. Heavy clouds and fading light made the glaciers bearing down into the lake look very threatening. We arrived in El Chaltén in lashing rain and high winds at about 10.30pm, and the word was that bad weather was expected for the next few days.

But the next day dawned bright and clear, and I bought myself some provisions and set off for a two day hike, to Campamento Poincenot near the base of Cerro Fitz Roy. The walking was excellent, with the path quickly rising up to some incredible views back down over El Chaltén. After an hour or so, Cerro Fitz Roy came into view, soaring into the sky in the same astonishing way as the Torres del Paine. The path went through some woods for a while, and on this section I found a huge woodpecker hammering away at the trees. He was unconcerned as I took photos of him from just a couple of feet away.

I wanted to get up before dawn the next day to see the Sun light up Cerro Fitz Roy. My alarm didn’t go off, and when I woke up at 5.45am the granite tower was already blazing red in the dawn light. I grabbed my camera and coat and rushed out to a nearby viewpoint. Luckily I hadn’t missed the most spectacular light, but I had forgotten to grab my gloves. It was well below freezing, and very soon I couldn’t feel my fingers. As the Sun rose slowly higher, the light on the towers gradually got less spectacular, but the air got fractionally warmer and before too long I regained the use of my hands.


Moreno Glacier

Moreno Glacier

From Torres del Paine, I headed back into Argentina, getting my second set of Chile exit stamps and fourth lot of Argentina entry stamps. I got a bus past a series of minefields – legacy of long-running border disputes between these two countries – then along the shores of vivid blue Lago Argentino, to El Calafate. After the wilderness of Las Torres, this was quite a dramatic return to easy travelling. El Calafate is one of the major tourist towns of Patagonia, and it is well supplied with cafes, bookshops, hotels and tour operators. And I was here for the same reason everyone else was – to see the Moreno Glacier.

For independent travellers the options seemed limited. The only buses that went to the Glacier came with a guide, and so reluctantly I booked a place on a tour and hoped it wouldn’t be too cheesy. I was well out of luck though – the journey to the glacier was an exercise in herding the punters from sight to sight, with guides telling people to get off the bus and photograph whatever they were pointing at, and then thirty seconds later rushing everyone to get back on. I focussed my irritation on a spectacularly annoying man who was wearing inappropriately smart shoes and awful clothes, and telling everyone what an adventurous traveller he was when this was clearly just about the most daring thing he’d ever done. By the end of the day I really detested him.

When we got to the glacier we were shepherded along a short trail which took us down to the shores of the lake, and then to a view of the glacier. Even though I was trapped in tour hell I was still impressed at the vast towering cliff of ice, and the jumbled mess of icebergs in front of it. And thankfully, at this point the guides disappeared and said ‘be back at the bus in three hours’. Happy to be away from smart shoes man and the others, I had a look around the glacier.

It surprised me. I’d seen glaciers close up in Iceland, but they were nothing like as huge as this one, which pours off the South Patagonian Icefield and is one of the few advancing glaciers in the world. Most startling was the noise, an almost constant soundtrack of creaking and grinding. Clearly, something was going to fall off soon, and I was almost certain I’d be looking in the wrong direction when it did. And so it was, a couple of times, until I finally saw a huge lump of ice fall off just as I looked at a particularly precarious piece of glacier. An icy wind was blowing off the glacier, and it was raining occasionally, but later on the sun tried to break through. The weather over the icecap seemed to be improving, and the views of sunlight on the ice in the distance while we were still in gloom were pretty impressive. Not long before I had to get the bus back to El Calafate, two condors slowly glided down the glacier from over the icecap.

I had a day to kill before the next bus to El Chaltén, my next destination. I lazed around in cafes and caught up on e-mails from home, and also met an Irish air traffic controller. She was interesting as I’d never met an air traffic controller before, but also worrying because her sense of direction was so bad that she wore a compass on her wrist. “But as soon as I sit down at the controls, I know exactly where everything is”, she claimed, but I think I might avoid flying into Shannon for now.


Leaving Las Torres

Leaving Las Torres

The next day I walked 17km along the shores of Lago Nordenskiöld to get to Albergue Las Torres, my last destination of the hike. The first couple of hours saw the path rise steeply for a while, then drop down to the lake shore and a beautiful beach. I sat down and relaxed in the hot sunshine for a while. Every now and then I’d hear the roar of an avalanche on Paine Grande from behind me, followed a couple of seconds later by its echo from the mountains across the lake in front of me.

Further on I reached the Albergue Los Cuernos, and stopped for lunch. While I was there, two tiny colourful birds seemed to be having a fight, dive-bombing each other frantically by where I was sat. One of them landed about an inch away from me, squawking furiously at the other. When his opponent flew off, he sat for a moment before noticing me and flying off. After that it was a long walk under a hot sun to the Albergue Las Torres.

The next day I set off early to climb up to the base of Las Torres themselves. Still tired from the previous day’s walk, I hated the first section, known apparently to early British climbers as ‘The Slog’. It’s a relentless uphill stretch at an uncomfortable gradient, and it took me an hour to cover it. Then, all the hard work of getting to the top of the rise was undone because the path then dropped right back down to the banks of the Río Ascencio.

I stopped by the river for lunch, then pushed on. The next part of the trail followed the river for a while before climbing into the woods. I wound my way through the trees for about an hour, emerging at the bottom of a great swathe of huge boulders cutting down from a high ridge to the left. This, it soon became apparent, was the path, and I set off up, scrambling over the rocks. An exhausting 45 minutes later, I scrambled over one final huge boulder, and suddenly the towers were in front of me, soaring unbelievably into the clouds from a green icy lagoon in front of me.

I sat for a while by the shores of the lake, looking up at the tops of the granite towers, a mile and a half above me, as they appeared and disappeared within clouds. It had been a good hike to get here, but for serious mountaineers it would just be a prelude to the main objective of the towers.

Descending back down over the boulder field was treacherous, and I drew blood by falling heavily on my elbow. But from there things were easy, and I covered the ground back to the campsite more quickly than I had on the outward journey. I cooked up the last of my food, had a very weak coffee with all the grounds that I had left, and watched a beautiful sunset over the mountains. It was my last night in the park and I felt sad that the next day I wouldn’t be cursing my slightly-too-heavy pack on a wild Patagonian trail. But as I left Torres del Paine on the bus, a gale of astonishing violence starting blowing and I was happy that I’d be spending the night under a solid roof.


Middle of the W

Middle of the W

My next day was an easy one – a three hour walk around the west end of Lago Pehoé, over some low hills and then around the shores of the almost-as-blue Lago Nordenskiöld to Campamento Italiano, at the bottom of the Valle Francés. I walked slowly, enjoying the scenery, and particularly liked the last section which involved crossing the wild and turbulent Río Francés on a narrow and bouncy rope bridge. I set up camp in the forest and relaxed by the river for the afternoon, enjoying the amazing views of the towering face of Paine Grande. I met my friends the Australians at the campsite and spent the evening chatting to them over a hot fire, until it was almost too dark to find my tent. I was woken several times in the night by the roar of avalanches from Paine Grande. One was so loud that it caused me slight concern about possible flash flooding, but nothing happened so I went back to sleep.

In the morning I set off up the trail to the Campamento Británico, 600m higher up in the middle of the Valle Francés. It was a steep trail, but very quickly it was high enough for the views to be amazing. Paine Grande loomed to the left, and occasional icefalls sent rumbles down the valley. Far below I could see some people hiking along to the glacier that feeds the Río Francés. The weather was perfect, with not a cloud in the sky.

Higher up, the trail levelled out and went through some forest. The trekking was not so fun without the views, but eventually I reached the campamento, and then walked a few minutes further on to a rocky outcrop above the trees. From here there were views up to the Cuernos del Paine, which seemed very close by, and down over Lagos Pehoé, Nordenskiöld and Toro far below. I’d brought my stove and sat on the rocks cooking up some lunch, listening to music and enjoying the spectacular location.

After a couple of hours there I headed back down the trail. As the sun was setting at 9pm or so, I was relaxing in my tent when there was a huge roar. I walked out to the river to see what was happening, and lots of other campers were emerging from the woods as well. The whole face of Paine Grande was obscured by a cloud of snow, and there must have been a huge avalanche from right near the top. As the cloud cleared it revealed rivers of snow pouring down the mountain which lasted for several minutes. I waited to see if there would be any more avalanches but that seemed to be the evening’s show over. In the morning I packed up and headed east, towards the Torres del Paine themselves.


Glaciar Gray

Glaciar Gray

My first day of real hiking at Torres del Paine was to take me up the left hand end of the W and back, to Glaciar Grey. Despite being among some of the wildest scenery in the world I struggled to muster up enthusiasm for the hike for a while, thick cloud and heavy drizzle encouraging me to have a relaxed breakfast first.

Luckily the rain stopped, and I set off at 12.30. The first hour’s walk took me through a fairly nondescript gully, at the end of which the path climbed up to a small windswept lake. Cresting a rise a few minutes after that, I found Lago Grey, milky white and dotted with icebergs, stretching out in front of me. The path now wound its way along side the lake but high above it, and soon I got my first view of Glaciar Grey itself, basking in the sunshine and seeming to glow from within where beams of sunlight fell on it.

The path took a detour inland for a while, and without the lake views the trekking was not too spectacular. Occasional glimpses of the towering face of the glacier provided encouragement though, and I pushed on. I bumped into two Australians I’d met the previous day, when they’d given me some wildly inaccurate information about how far I was from the campsite. We chatted briefly but I made sure not to ask them how far it was to the glacier.

As it turned out, we actually weren’t very far from it at all. At about 4 pm I reached a sign to a viewpoint, and a few minutes later I reached it. A chilling wind was blowing off the glacier and I couldn’t stay there long, but the views were pretty incredible. Though I was high above the level of the lake, I was a good way below the level of the top of the glacier.

After a while scrambling over the rocks at the viewpoint, I headed back down the trail and down another path to a mountain hut on the lake shore. I cooked up some dinner there, and as I ate I heard two enormous booms from the glacier, which must have been icebergs calving off it. As I found later at the Moreno Glacier, icebergs inevitably calve just after you’ve left, or just as you’ve turned to look at something else.

I left for the trek back to Lago Pehoé, and though I didn’t see any calving, the glacier looked incredible in the late afternoon hazy sunshine. Back at the camp, I ate a carbohydrate-laden dinner and drank some restorative coffees. 7 hours of hiking had been a good start to my week on the W.


Gjógv

Gjógv

As it turned out, I didn’t even get to the Faroes that evening. We flew to Aberdeen, where we had a scheduled stop to pick up passengers, but the stop turned out to be longer than planned. Apparently the weather in the Faroes was too bad to land, and we were waiting to see if it would improve. After about three hours, the crew decided it was worth a shot, and we flew north. The Faroes are only an hour’s flight from Aberdeen, and we were soon circling over them, but all I could see below was an ocean of cloud. We circled for an hour, waiting for a window in the weather so we could land, but eventually it became clear it was not to be, and we headed back south. So in the end, after a day of drama and chaos, unbelievably, I found myself spending the night in Aberdeen.

Fortunately, the next day saw better weather, and I finally arrived in the Faroe Islands just before midday. I got a bus from the airport on Vágar island to Tórshavn, amazed to have actually made it, and stunned by the dramatic scenery, made gloomy and ominous by dirty grey clouds and persistent rain. From Tórshavn I travelled on to the Faroese transport hub of Oyrabakki and then to the village of Gjógv, on the northeastern coast of Eysturoy. I arrived at about 9pm, to find the few scattered houses almost invisible in fog. I went for a walk down to the sea shore and out onto the rocks, enjoying the strange atmosphere of a bright foggy arctic summer evening.

My plan here had been to climb Slættaratindur, the Faroes’ highest mountain, if the weather was good enough. But the next day still saw dense cloud clinging to the mountains, and the advice of the campsite owner was that climbing into the clouds would be a very bad idea. So I contented myself with a hike around the cliffs near the town instead, past nesting puffins and some good views over the straits to other islands in the archipelago.


Gauja

Gauja

After a long walk in the forest it was time to head back to Riga for my flight home. I got the cable car back across the valley.

The train back to Riga took almost two hours but only cost 70p. Latvian trains were cheap, but also ancient, and an icy gale howled in through windows that wouldn’t close. Back in Riga, I began to feel just a tiny bit bored of feeling seriously cold all the time, and spent some time in warm cafes and record shops.

I headed back to the milder climes of London. My flight was supposed to arrive at Stansted just in time for me to get the last train home, but it was diverted to Luton because of fog. Luton was chaos, and it took almost an hour for them to find steps to get us off the plane. I ended up getting home at 5am, shattered, but at least pleased that it was 25C warmer in London than it had been in the Baltics.


Sigulda

Sigulda

On my last day in Latvia I got an early morning train to Sigulda, and walked to the Gauja River valley. I’d heard good things about this place, and I was not disappointed. I got a cable car across the valley over the frozen river, and arrived at the ruins of Krimuldas castle on the other side. On a bluff upstream stood Turaidas castle.

I walked around the ruins and into the forest. I was the only person there, and whenever I stopped, the silence was total. I felt much more intrepid than I actually was being as I hiked through the knee-deep snow.


Dawn at the Roque

Dawn at the Roque

After my second night at the telescope, I drove up to the top of the mountain in the early morning sun. Like last time, the views were incredible and there was no-one else up there but me. To the north was a sea of clouds; to the south, I could see the chain of volcanic cones which runs down the spine of La Palma. In the distance I could see Tenerife, almost a hundred miles away but quite clear.

After that I headed home. I spent one night at sea level in Santa Cruz, and I had a little bit of time to look around. I wandered the cobbled streets, feeling a bit like I was jetlagged after two nights at the telescope. During my first trip I was still recovering from my African travels, and what with missing the flight on the way to La Palma, and then feeling wrecked by five nights of observing, I hadn’t really noticed what a beautiful island La Palma is. Now I could see that it was rugged and wild, but I didn’t have time to go and explore. I decided that if I ever got another chance to come back here, I’d see much more of the island than just Santa Cruz and the mountain top.


Great Wall: Simatai

Great Wall: Simatai

By the weekend, the mist had disappeared, and temperatures were into the high thirties. Early on Saturday morning I left my flat to head for the Great Wall at Simatai. I went to Dongzhimen bus station, where I spent some time trying to work out which bus I could get. It was kind of obvious that I would be heading for the wall, and one hopeful tout told me it would be 100Y to get there. His dishonesty was impressive – there were no direct buses to Simatai, and the bus to the nearest town at Miyun was only 6Y. I got the bus to Miyun, and from there got a taxi to the wall at Simatai. I had fun haggling over a price by pointing at numbers in my Mandarin phrase book, and once the deal was settled we headed off.

It was nice to be out of the city, and the countryside around Miyun was impressively rugged. After an hour or so, I caught my first sight of the wall, snaking along the top of a serrated mountain ridge, and soon after, we arrived at the base. I set off eagerly to walk up the wall.

Simatai is an incredibly steep section of wall, and in fearsome heat I set off slowly. For the first twenty minutes or so I was tailed by an incredibly persistent old woman trying to sell me postcards, but after a bit of acclimatisation to the conditions I was able to put on a burst of pace and shake her off. I walked a couple of miles along the wall, to a high point with amazing views over the surroundings. The wall snaked off into the green hazy distance, and I was impressed at the thought that it went all the way from here out into the Gobi Desert.

At the highest watchtower that I reached, there was a man with a cool box selling coke. I wouldn’t normally have wanted to buy something so foreign while walking up the national symbol of China, but in the baking heat I decided to relax my principles. The coke was so cold it had ice in it, and it tasted spectacular. My principles would never be the same again. I headed down, met my taxi driver at the bottom and headed for Miyun, Dongzhimen and home again.


Flåmsbana

Flåmsbana

The journey continued. We got the train from Flåm to Myrdal, a journey which takes you from sea level up to 860m above sea level in 12 miles. We climbed through snow-covered scenery, curling around corners so tightly that often we were looking right down on earlier sections of the line.

About half way up, we stopped at Kjossfoss. In summertime it’s a thundering and spectacular waterfall, so people said, but when we were there it was barely a trickle.

We climbed on to Myrdal. Here we realised that we’d made a huge error not buying lunch in Flåm – we’d thought that Myrdal would be bigger, being a stop on the main line from Bergen to Oslo after all. But Myrdal is not a town, it’s just a station, surround by high mountains, with no roads out and serving no purpose except as a place to change trains. We had a two hour wait on Myrdal station before the Oslo train arrived, but we enjoyed the fresh mountain air, blue skies, sunshine and total silence.


Down the fjords

Down the fjords

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.


Blue Mountains

Blue Mountains

I got an overnight bus from Melbourne to Sydney. It was almost entirely full but there was one single spare seat on the bus. It was the seat next to me, and I was very happy about that. We arrived in Sydney at 6.30am and I got straight on a train to Katoomba.

It was a beautiful day in the Blue Mountains. I walked from Katoomba station to Echo Point and along the edge of the Jamison Valley, to Katoomba Falls and beyond. The hazy blue valley looked vast and impenetrable. I only had a few days left in Australia before I had to head back to London, work and winter, but it was so peaceful here that such thoughts were very far from my mind.

After the bus journey I was tired. I headed back to Katoomba, and had a power nap at the hostel I was staying at. It had been a beautiful day and I woke up in time to go back down to the valley edge to see the sun set, but to my surprise it was now raining and misty. I got up early the next morning to see about seeing the sunrise, but thick fog was drifting through the streets. I headed back to Sydney.


Great Ocean Road

Great Ocean Road

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.


The Coorong

The Coorong

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.