Niagara

Apr 25, 2011 in Canada 2011

Niagara

Þingvellir

Jul 12, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

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.

Brazil, briefly

Oct 24, 2005 in South America 2005

Brazil, briefly

I got a bus from Cuidad del Este across the river to Foz do Iguassú in Brazil. Unfortunately, the bus didn’t stop at immigration so I found myself illegally in Brazil. I got a bus back, then walked to the immigration post on the Paraguayan side of the river, over the bridge, and into Brazil officially. If anything it was even hotter here than it had been in Paraguay, and Foz was a ghost town on a Sunday afternoon. I managed to mistakenly get off the bus in a distant suburb and walked slowly into the centre of town.

First task was getting some Brazilian money. I had a couple of worrying moments, the first of which was finding that two of my three bank cards wouldn’t work in the cash machines. The third was a Cirrus card, which the bank had told me probably wouldn’t work outside Europe, but strangely it did work here. Then, on trying to leave the bank I thought I was trapped inside. Turns out the Portuguese for ‘pull’ is dangerously similar to the Spanish for ‘push’. I was glad then that most of my trip was going to be in Spanish-speaking countries.

Next task was buy an ice cream, avoid the hotel touts in town (they were about the only people out and about), and find a taxi to get to my hostel, out of town on the road to Iguazú Falls. It took a while for me first to find a taxi driver and then to wake him from his Sunday afternoon sleep, and by the time I got to the hostel it was too late to go to the Falls. Luckily the hostel was probably the nicest I’ve stayed in anywhere in the world, with a swimming pool, bar, restaurant and internet access so I chilled out there for the evening.

In the morning I got a bus to Iguazú Falls. It’s one of the world’s most famous waterfalls, an enormously broad expanse of water falling 80 metres in hundreds of individual cascades. It’s also one of the most visited places in South America, and I really didn’t like the overwhelming weight of tourists. The crush was so great that I found myself often waiting many minutes to get close enough to a viewpoint to actually see the falls. And the overcast weather meant the falls didn’t look that great anyway.

But, as the day wore on, the clouds broke up and the falls began to look better. Despite the swarms, I began to like them a bit more, and when the sun came out properly I took a cheesy little train ride to a distant part of the falls where you walk for about half a mile over boardwalks above the river to get to a viewpoint right on the very edge of the falls, as they thunder into a semicircular gorge called the Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat). Here I decided the falls actually were pretty amazing. I’d never stood on the lip of such a huge waterfall before, and the waves of soaking spray deterred some of the tourists as well. I was seriously impressed and spent a while there trying to take pictures in the scant few seconds where the spray seemed to die down a bit.

Eventually I felt that I’d seen everything I could at the falls, and headed back to the hostel. The following morning I had planned to go to the other side of the falls, but an apocalyptic thunderstorm had started during the night, and carried on until the afternoon. I probably should have gone out anyway because hanging round at the hostel was extremely boring. At 4pm I got a bus to Puerto Iguazú back in Argentina, and got an overnight bus back to Buenos Aires.

Up the Rift Valley escarpment

Jul 05, 2001 in Southern Africa 2001

Up the Rift Valley escarpment

The next morning I had a fantastic awakening to the sounds of the lake lapping on the beach, and emerged from my tent to find the beautiful lake stretching away in to the hazy distance across to the mountainous shore on the Congo side. I thought my clock was wrong as it said it was 5.30am, and I’d been used to it getting light much later, but I eventually realised that all of Zambia runs on the same time but from east to west it’s about a time zone and a half wide. I’d covered a lot of ground over the past few days.

Today I planned to go to the Kalambo Falls, the second highest in Africa. Thomas, one of the builders, arranged for a couple of local children to show me the way and at 7.30am we set off. For the first half an hour it was very hard going as we climbed up the Rift Valley escarpment. Once we were at the top the way on was pretty flat, and the view over the lake was stunning. The walk took us through some beautiful scenery, with lots of baboons and colourful birds around, and after an hour and a half we heard the falls. Coming from my direction it seemed the falls were in the middle of nowhere, but there is a very rough road to them from Mbala, and a little entry hut at which foreigners have to pay about £3 to see the falls. I happily did so and walked down a small hill to the falls.

The Kalambo River is only a few metres wide. I stood on the Zambian bank, almost able to reach across and touch the trees on the Tanzanian side. But for such a small river there’s a lot of water in it, and a great white streak of water drops 200m into the valley below. Victoria Falls had been half as high, and Kalambo was so tall it was difficult to appreciate what a massive drop there was. I climbed over the rocks to the very edge of the cliff, and looked down into the terrifying depths.

A short while later another tourist arrived – it was Ralf, a German traveller who had been in Western Zambia for the eclipse. He’d got on the bus at about 2am, arrived with us in Zambezi at 4am and left for Chavuma at about 8am, and was therefore, we had decided, quite crazy. We swapped details of our travels so far and wished each other luck. After a little while longer at the falls, I reluctantly headed back up to the entry hut. Here I sat for quite a while chatting to the three guys who were there, about our countries and culture. We talked about the weather, and they were shocked that I was hot. For them it was a cool mid-winter’s day. They also asked whether we had the rainy season and dry season in England and seemed sympathetic when I told them it rains all the time there. I signed the guestbook, noted that I was the first Englishman to visit the falls for a month, and headed back to Mishembe.

The smoke that thunders

Jun 29, 2001 in Southern Africa 2001

The smoke that thunders

The security guard at the Red Cross woke us early the next day. He was very much the worse for wear, having clearly been drinking all night, and slurred at us that we should get out, that the place next door was much better, that we were being ripped off here, and quite a lot more that I couldn’t understand. We gathered our stuff and managed to check in at the Jolly Boys hostel next door. We spent the morning there doing washing, shopping, and relaxing, before finally working up the energy to go and see Livingstone’s raison d’etre: Victoria Falls

The Victoria Falls are Southern Africa’s greatest tourist attraction. The sluggish Zambezi, over a mile wide, thick and green, has its tranquillity interrupted by a cliff, one hundred metres high, which it plunges over. Downstream, the river is squeezed into a succession of gorges no more than fifty metres wide, churning along in a mass of white water for many miles. Touted as one of the great natural wonders of the world, it draws some 150,000 visitors each year. And it’s incredible: the vast, never-ending wall of water can’t fail to impress. But after the isolation and remoteness of the Ngonye Falls and the rest of Western Zambia, it was a bit disappointing to find little paved walkways, raincoats for hire and souvenir stands.

But even a traveller as snobbish as me could see that the falls were impressive. What impressed me most was that the river basically falls into a great crack in the earth, so you can stand on the opposite side of the crack and view the falls face-on. The river flows out through a narrow gap in the slot-like chasm, and forms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Though you can see less than half the falls from the Zambian side it’s still an awful lot of waterfall.

In the heyday of the British Empire, Cecil Rhodes had the insane dream of building a railway from Cape Town to Cairo, passing through British territory all the way. Between 1918 and 1960 the territory was all there, but by then the dream had died. The railway got as far as Lusaka, and at Victoria Falls crosses the second of the four Zambezi bridges, built so close to the falls that the carriages get wet with the spray as they cross.

We explored all around the falls, and I felt like I owned them. After all, I’d been following this river since Zambezi town, I’d swum in it, fallen in it, seen countless amazing sunsets over it, and now been rained on by it. Who did these tourists on day trips think they were?

Sunset here was possibly the finest of the Zambezi sunsets, and as it got dark the falls took on a new appearance. The previous two weeks of travel had been pretty strenuous, and at times I’d felt like the whole trip was stalling, so it was good to be here.

Going to Ngonye

Jun 27, 2001 in Southern Africa 2001

Going to Ngonye

We got up before sunrise the next morning, packed up all our stuff, re-stoked the fire for a quick breakfast and got on the way at 8am. Sioma was really not very far away, and the turn-off for the falls was just a little further, so by 10am we were being dropped off by the roadside and watching the truck disappear off into the dusty distance. We were about an hour’s walk from Maziba Bay, where the hitherto very reliable Bradt guide to Zambia said there was a lodge, from where you could easily walk to the falls, and also for very agreeable prices it was possible to hire boats and even microlights to see the falls. We set off eagerly through the bush, passing snakes warming themselves in the morning sun.

It was eerily quiet when we arrived at Maziba. We dropped our bags and had a look around, and there were certainly buildings, but no people to be seen. Eventually someone appeared, and we asked if we could stay. We certainly could, he said, but only to camp. And there was no hot water as the pipe had broken. We asked if he might have any cold drinks, but sadly not – no electricity for one thing, and (now the truth came out) the camp had been closed for seven months, so there were no supplies. Our dreams of boats and planes were rapidly falling apart, but we pressed on. Would it be possible to use the boat? It would, if it had any petrol. And (finally, desperately) the microlight? No fuel, it was broken anyway, and the pilot was in South Africa.

Disheartened, we set up camp, and sat for a while on the veranda of the deserted bar of the camp, looking out over to our old friend the Zambezi, over a stunning white sandy beach, relaxing after the tiring walk over deep sand to get here. At about two in the afternoon, just when the day was getting really hot, we decided it was time to set off for Ngonye Falls. Though the lodge was closed it was under new ownership and there were a few staff looking after the place. One of them offered to show us the way to the falls, and off we went. After about an hour’s walk through the bush, we got to the river at a point where a ferry crossed. Roy the ferryman came across to meet us, and took us jovially across to the other side.

Then it was more walking, to the edge of the river again, and now we had to wade across. Though no deeper than knee-high the river was flowing fast and the bottom was slippery. Our guide fairly raced across, but we moved at a slower pace, and even then I slipped half way, briefly dunking my bag, which had my camera in it – thankfully no water got inside. After the wading we had a quick walk over some mud and then some sharp rocks, and then we were at the falls. We were impressed – the river, narrower than it had been at Lukulu but still impressively broad, drops over a broad curved face about ten metres high, before racing on downstream in a turbulent mass of white water. There was no-one else in sight.

After taking in the grandeur of the falls we were about ready for a quick swim. The river was painfully cold, but refreshing after the hot walk. I asked our guide my usual questions about crocodiles but he seemed unconcerned. Curiously, though, he didn’t seem at all inclined to join us for a dip.

We walked back as the sun was setting, spectacularly as ever, arriving back at camp in darkness. We found two other travellers there, Remco and Susan from Holland, who had also been duped by the Bradt guide. We chatted to them for a while as we built a fire on the beach and cooked some dinner for the four of us – soup and beans and bread, but when cooked on a white sandy beach by the Zambezi river it became one of the great gastronomic experiences.

Onwards and upwards

Sep 23, 2000 in Central America 2000

Onwards and upwards

We had spent enough time around Arenal, so the next day, we moved on to our next destination, Rincón de la Vieja. Situated in north western Costa Rica, this is another active volcano, which last erupted in 1998. We hoped to climb to the top and camp the night there. We made our way to Liberia, via the towns of Tilaran and Cañas. During the three-leg journey, the weather got ever hotter. As well as talking to a crazy young Costa Rican called Jorge, who would occasionally lean out the window and do tarzan whoops as we passed through the forest, we met two Austrian travellers, Andi and Eva, who also wanted to go to Rincón de la Vieja. We decided we’d all go up together, and decided to try and find a way there the next day.

There is no public transport to Parque Nacional Rincón de la Vieja, but the owner of the hotel Moh and I were staying at had a 4WD, and said he’d take us to the park and pick us up the next day for $10 each. We hired him, and after we’d bought food and fuel, we set off.

It was an awesomely bumpy but beautiful drive up to the park. We arrived at about 11am, and after paying our park fees, we decided to go hiking. We left our backpacks by the ranger station and set out for Catarata de Cangreja (Crab falls), which the park ranger told us was the best of the many waterfalls in the park. It was a marvellous walk through the tropical dry forest (it’s a technical name – it really isn’t dry at all), and after about three hours we arrived. Much like the waterfall we visited near Fortuna, it was a perfect tropical cascade plunging into a shimmering blue pool.

We gladly swam, as it had been a hot and exhausting walk. By the time we set out for the return leg, the afternoon rains were approaching. The rains turned out to be light, but there was thunder so loud it made me duck. But we made it back to the ranger station OK, only to find that disaster had struck. Before we had left for the falls, a friendly racoon had wandered right up to us. He was quite an endearing little fellow, we thought, but when we got back, we found that he had opened Eva’s backpack, eaten all her bread, and just for a laugh, thrown her dried pasta everywhere.

Fortunately, Moh and I were unusually well prepared, and our contingency stocks were more than sufficient to feed us all well. We set up camp a few hundred yards into the woods, and as it got dark we cooked a marvellous meal of dried pasta and vegetables. Simple food, but when you cook it over a tiny stove in a jungle wilderness on a volcano in Costa Rica, it seems like the best food in the world.

In the jungle

Sep 20, 2000 in Central America 2000

In the jungle

It was a spectacular run through misty mountain forests and small villages, with an awesome thunderstorm erupting overhead as we passed through Ciudad Quesada. We arrived at the small town of Fortuna late in the evening, and checked into a cheap hospedaje. We noticed for the first time how quickly night falls in the tropics when we walked outside 20 minutes later to find it was completely dark. Unfortunately, it was cloudy and we could see no sign of Volcán Arenal, which was the reason we’d come here.

Volcán Arenal had caused no-one any bother until 1968, when it suddenly erupted violently, destroying a village and killing 78 people. Ever since then, though, it has been erupting constantly, with lava flowing constantly out of its crater. Occasionally larger eruptions take place – just three weeks before we arrived, three people had been killed by an unexpected explosion. We were pretty much certain of seeing eruptions here, if only the weather would clear up.

The next morning was cloudy, though, so we got essentials like washing done, then went for a walk towards the volcano. No sign of eruptions, though, and we had not yet even seen the summit. We turned back as the afternoon rains began, and hoped for better weather the next day.

It was sunny the next morning, but still the volcano’s summit was covered in cloud. Eruption watching was clearly out, so we decided to hike to a nearby waterfall. We set off early in the day, but it was still phenomenally hot, and it was an exhausting walk up a rough track for a couple of hours. Then thankfully the path went into the forest, where it was a lot cooler, and half an hour later we emerged from the jungle to find a beautiful cascade of water plunging 25m into a lovely blue pool. We cooled our feet for a while before wandering off down river. It was amazing to be right in the jungle, and the noise of all the animals (none of which we could see) was fantastic. After several hours exploring, we decided to head back to Fortuna. When we emerged from the jungle we were startled to see that the clouds had lifted and the top of the volcano was visible, a plume of steam rising from the top.

A spring in my step

Sep 06, 1999 in Iceland 1999

A spring in my step

We spent our second day at Geysir exploring the multitude of other mini-geysers and hot springs in the area. Several tiny geysers erupt constantly, throwing hot water about a foot into the air. A lot of springs just bubble impressively. All around, steam rises into the air. Most of the tourists just watch a Strokkur eruption or two before leaving, and so a short walk off the beaten path leaves the crowds far behind. Beyond Strokkur, a large hill rises over the valley, and we climbed this. From here, Strokkur looked very impressive, surrounded by acres of land from which steam was rising.

On the hill, hidden from the path by some bushes, is Haihver, meaning High Spring, which is probably only seen by about 30 people a year. We sat down in the sun by the spring, in a large patch of clover, appreciating the scene. Further on up, a view disc points out all the impressive sights around, including the Langjökull icecap, Iceland’s second largest, and, on a very clear day, Mt. Hekla far off to the south-east.

On our final morning at Geysir, we watched Strokkur again for a while, and then got the bus back up to Gullfoss. We stayed for two hours this time, and were once again impressed. In their favour, the veritable crowd of tourists there on a weekday did give a sense of scale to the falls. This time there was a bit more sun, but still no rainbows, sadly. Despite this, we were suitably inspired by the scene, and had much debate in the ensuing bus journey as to which was better, Dettifoss or Gullfoss.

Onward and upward

Aug 30, 1999 in Iceland 1999

Onward and upward

And then it was time to leave Mývatn. Unfortunately, a slight misreading of the timetable led to us arriving at the bus stop two hours early. However, this slight mishap aside, the onward journey was trouble-free. More spectacular scenery was seen, as we passed the huge lava fields east of Mývatn, and eventually came to the valley of the glacial river Jökulsá á Dal. Like most Icelandic place-names, it sounded mysterious and evocative to me, but actually means, rather prosaically, the Glacial River with the Valley.

The usual twenty or thirty beautiful waterfalls were seen, before we stopped for lunch at Egilsstaðir, in the far east of the country. From here, the ring road follows the deeply indented coastline, so that you sometimes travel for 20 miles to make half a mile’s headway. We arrived in Höfn, in the south-east, at 8.30pm, and stayed the night there. The mighty Vatnajökull icecap oozes into the sea through several valleys here, and in the evening twilight, it looked magnificent. The cool but calm weather gave the place a very Arctic atmosphere.

The next morning, day 10, we took the bus from Höfn to Skaftafell, from where we would explore the Laki fissure. This stretch of the journey included the magnificent Jökulsárlón, a large lake filled with icebergs carving off a tongue of the Vatnajökull.

We arrived at Skaftafell at 11am in glorious sunshine, again feeling fortunate with the weather. However, sadly, by the time we had set up camp and got ourselves ready to see the sights, the clouds had come in, and it was another grey day. Nonetheless, the wonderful things we had heard about Skaftafell were true.

Svartifoss, a striking waterfall, entranced for a couple of hours. Sjonársker, a large hill, provided a superb view over the flood plains south of the icecap. It was here in 1996 that a volcanic eruption deep under the icecap released a torrent of water as great as the Amazon. Finally, an hour’s walk took us to the edge of the Vatnajökull, the world’s third largest icecap (it’s about one-hundredth the size of the Greenland icecap in second place, and the Antarctic cap is seven times as big as Greenland, but it’s third nonetheless).

In the fading half-light and increasing rain, it was a very eerie place. Powerful rivers rushed out from underneath, and we were surprised to find that it was very solid. It took several heavy blows from a large rock to break any off. We had brought along our whisky in the hope of having a wee dram with a few chunks of glacial ice in it, but in fact glacial ice is rather filthy. So we knocked back some bad whisky straight, appreciated the gloomy scene around us, and headed back to the campsite.