Cotopaxi

2012/07/29

Listos para partir

There is a great sense of satisfaction in arriving with our bikes at a altitude of 4500m above sea level, one that is marginally tempered by the fact that we arrived, with our bikes, in a 4×4 belonging to the Biking Dutchman, who treated us to an excellent day out despite the failure of the weather to co-operate.

Its perfect cone towering over the city and the ever present threat of an eruption, Volcán Cotopaxi is an impressive sight when not covered in cloud.

The cone of Cotopaxi shrouded in mist.

We were happy enough not to witness at close quarters an eruption, though we were told that the official activity level had recently been raised and one – which could well threaten the city of Quito – is expected in the next few years.

Tres hermanos Tyrrell delante del volcán Cotopaxi

Despite being downhill, the road was challenging at times, especially for Ailsa (only 9 at the time).

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The fierce cold of the 4500m parking spot under the cone gave way quickly to a pleasant warmth and then an oppressive heat, so that by the time we reached lunch at a guard hut at the entrance to the national park and a light rain started to fall the coolness of it was a relief.

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Julie and Ailsa opted to take the car in the afternoon, fortunate because with yet another puncture we were running out of spare parts for the bikes.

Another puncture

Síle was happy to carry on, clearly enjoying the chance to get out into the country.

Síle en bici en la bajada

The afternoon’s descent was more varied, passing along a river valley and through farmland, with some small ascents that reminded us that, at over 3000m, the air was still thinner than we were used to although the mist and rain were not – hence, no photos from the afternoon. Tired but content, we headed back to pack for the highlight of our trip to Ecuador, the Galapagos the next morning.

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They paved Paradise and put up a Camelot

2012/07/20


They paved Paradise and put up a Camelot, originalmente cargada por Bass Tyrrell.

Lonesome no more …

2012/07/03

Its is probable that no extinction event in history has been as well flagged or indeed so well-defined. Lonesome George, the last Pinta giant tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni ) was found dead in his pen on the 24th June 2012. The species has been functionally extinct for decades: one member is by definition the last of his kind.

Our trip to the Galapagos, three years ago it shames me to say, has remained unblogged not because I didn’t have anything to say but because I couldn’t think of what to leave out. It was an extraordinary week of tortoises and turtles, seals, snorkelling, a submarine environment that seemed to have been taken straight out of the Pixar archives, slave traders, volcanoes, forest, beaches, iguanas, excitement, adventure and really wild things. Maybe even more importantly the people of the Galapagos seem to have huge pride in the unique place in which they live and its scientific importance and this really came through to me as a visitor: I felt privileged just to be there.

Even in the midst of all of that the Darwin Research Centre is an extraordinary place, with breeding programmes in place to preserve the many species and subspecies of tortoise and allowing us to see all stages of the process, and this was a highlight of our second-last day.

The star of the show, George, wasn’t in a co-operative mood and my memory of him is of a back view as he disappeared into a thicket. It wasn’t me apparently, he just didn’t like people very much. Or other tortoises, and he probably wasn’t a great fan of most other life forms either for that matter – as a fellow grump I sympathised.

Compañera(?) del Jorge Solitario

One of his companions, females of a different but closely related species, did deign to have her photo taken. Although a clutch of eggs was found in 2008 they all turned out to be infertile.

Many factors contributed to the collapse of these unique populations of tortoises, many thankfully brought back from the brink of extinction. They were seen as walking larders by the sailors exploring the world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: they could survive for a year with no food or water making them ideal fodder for a long sail voyage where it was quite uncertain when you would next spy land, let alone find a supermarket. It was this ability, ironically, that helped them get to the Galapagos in the first place, adrift on rafts of vegetation washed out to sea millions of years ago. After millions of years as the only large species on the islands they were unprepared for the arrival of rats (which eat the eggs) and goats (which tear the vegetation up by the roots). And of course it takes a long time to grow a giant tortoise, so the populations never had time to recover.

Another subspecies, the Hood Island tortoise, provides a more cheerful story.

Diego = Hood Island tortoise

In the early 1970s there were only 13 of these tortoises known, and only two males, which didn’t augur well for the gene pool. A cry for help went round to the world’s zoos and San Diego zoo replied that yes, they did have a Latino male in custody. Diego, as he was inevitably christened, was duly deported back to the Centro Darwin where he has for forty years led a pampered existence. He is rather less shy than poor old Jorge, and quite happy to pose.

Diego in profile

Later in the day we headed up to the mountains of Santa Cruz where we drank local coffee and came across the local Santa Cruz tortoise – which likes to use the roads to get about but then sits down in the middle of them as soon as it hears a car coming.

Éanna and Ailsa with Santa Cruz tortoise

George may be gone, but the effort to understand and preserve the fantastic laboratory, the unparalleled window on evolution, that is the Galapagos continues.

Cycling with the Wells

2012/06/03
IMG_2124 StitchIMG_2115IMG_2121IMG_2139IMG_2140Libby (our guide)
IMG_2144IMG_2148IMG_2155IMG_2156IMG_2157IMG_2159
IMG_2160IMG_2170IMG_2177Bamboo raftIMG_2190Under water
Our sinking raft causes much amusementThough the captain is not amusedGuanxi farmer, punting a bamboo raft (with us on it) across the river LiIMG_2200IMG_2204

Cycling with the Wells, un álbum en Flickr.

The rail less travelled by

2011/02/16

Bike-less (its waiting for me to pick up the trail in Manchester again) and with time to spare, I decided to take a route less travelled by, at least by me. There is a little train that trundles – that is definitely the right word – across the middle of England from Birmingham to Stansted Airport. I became familiar with it while doing some work in Cambridge and used it to travel between there and the airport but the collection of smaller towns after that and their sheer variety evoked an interesting picture: the route links the brash coarseness of Stansted with its budget airlines to, well, the brash coarseness of Birmingham, but on the way takes in the ancient and modern centre of learning and high-tech that is Cambridge, the city of Ely with its equally ancient and magnificent cathedral and the quintessential English rural market town of Melton Mowbray, home of Stilton cheese and the pork pie.

I had cycled through some of this area a couple of days previously, and was also interested to see whether I got the same perspective: I had moved from a kind of reasonably well-off suburbia, through villages with a real rural feel – though to be truthful always with a sense that there were too many people, and far too much money, for it to be genuinely supported by a local economy – and slowly back into the dormitory towns of the industrial midlands.

The train was pretty full for most of the journey, though few of us seemed to travel the whole way – not surprising, as it is in fact quicker to travel from Birmingham to Cambridge via London. .For the first hour of so the train winds through dormitory towns, row upon row of terraced or semi-detached 1930s housing, with the occasional patch of farmland, as we pass Nuneaton and head for Leicester. After Leicester there are more clustered villages, open land with the occasional steeple on the horizon and far fewer housing estates – at least until Melton Mowbray, which to my slight surprise looked, from the train, bigger and more urbanised than I had expected.

By Ely, sadly, the watery winter sun had given up the unequal struggle and gone down: I couldn’t see the famous cathedral. One more sight left for next time. All in all a pleasant journey through a varied and fascinating part of England.

Completely flat and all uphill

2011/02/13

I’m not quite sure exactly what picture I originally had in my head about this trip. It was always planned for winter, partly because the thought to doing in the summer heat with lots of insects flying into my mouth nose and ears really didn’t appeal. But I think it was a different winter: one with cold, crisp, still mornings, blue skies and possibly comely maidens at the crossroads handing out cheese (with age, I become more realistic about what comely maidens might offer). Not, it should be said, one with a roaring gale blowing straight from the direction I was heading.

I was getting a little annoyed with myself, this was not eating up the kilometres. It wasn’t even eating up the metres very quickly. In the beginning, I thought it was the lingering hangover and the late start as I headed off up the banks of the Rhine, leaving the city of Düsseldorf behind me in a grey, dingy, February light. Even after an hour or so as my head cleared though, it still felt as if I was cycling through treacle and by the time I arrived in Venlo, just over the Dutch border I was wrecked. A shower, pizza and bed called, in that order, and I never got to investigate the intriguing, tiny, bar (called the “Altied Zondaag“, if anyone wants to check it out) that was absolutely packed to the seams while every other bar in town seemed utterly deserted. Tomorrow would be better.

Well, tomorrow dawned and off I set. It wasn’t quite that immediate: if I were Bill Bryson I’d have found lots of interesting facts out about Venlo, but I’m not so I slept longer than I should, lingered too long over breakfast and then got lost trying to find the exit. I can say that it seems a nice town, with some fine old herenhuizen and a plethora of roadworks.

The wind roared in my ears, it made it hard to think let alone hear the traffic behind me. Sevenum, 10 km away, took an age to reach and had an unfortunate shortage of decent coffee, at least anywhere obvious on my route. It’s main square is probably lovely in the summer sun, though you would have to look at the church and I’m not sure it was just my jaundiced mood that made me think it was one of the ugliest I’ve ever seen.

With coffee, and a soup at the next stop, things picked up a little. Partly because I got on to a very well signposted set of bike routes that gave me a clear indication of the nice paths to take on my way, and partly because I was beginning to think that I wasn’t just being a complete wimp about the wind, little clues such as blown down signs, dead birds – at one point two lying entangled on the ground that must have just been blown into each other and the fact that people were looking at me as if I were possibly insane began to alert me to the idea that this wasn’t all about me. When I later heard on the news that one runway had been closed at Schiphol and various rail services cancelled because of the high winds I felt strangely vindicated, despite having to take a train for the final 20 km of that day’s journey: 8 hours cycling got me 100 km from Venlo to ‘s Hertogenbosch but by then it was nine in the evening, pitch dark and anyway, why do I need an excuse?

The Hotel Gorinchem was unprepossessing on the outside and buzzing, rather unexpectedly, on the in. Those comely maidens I mentioned were all, it transpired, there, learning to dance the salsa and the music was booming out as this sweaty, smelly old fart on a bicycle landed up in reception thinking “oh, no, is this noise going to go on all night?“. But they cooked me chicken and chips, gave me a room away from the noise and generally confounded my expectations.

Windmill on the outskirts of Gorinchem

Windmill on the outskirts of Gorinchem

It would be nice to report that, after a shower, I went to join the salsa dancers, stunned them with my skilful footwork and politely but firmly declined the many offered temptations, and indeed in my dreams two of those three things may well have happened. Sleep has rarely come so easily.

Lazing on a Tuesday afternoon.

2010/02/10
Vista al lago / View of the lake

Wind from the Andes brings clouds and waves

I have no notes for the 10th February and all the indications are that we had a great day doing absolutely nothing. The photos tell me that it was a windy day, and I remember we jumped – oh, ok, tiptoed – into the lake for a swim but the wind was pushing a current that made it quite difficult, especially for the smaller ones.

So we chilled, and pottered among the rocks.

Vista a Bariloche desde el lago / View of Bariloche from the lake

Waves on the lake.

The Fogarty-Collises were still with us – I’m trying not to feel jealous that as I write they are actually off to India, but then they weren’t away all last year.

David on the rocks

David on the rocks

Ailsa, Julie and Síle with the wind in their hair

Ailsa, Julie and Síle with the wind in their hair

Swinging through the trees.

2010/02/09

There must be something quite primaeval about swinging through the forest, calling to us from the distant origins of our evolution. Or possibly its just the effects of Disney and the Jungle Book: we all see ourselves as Mowgli even while heading for the size and shape of Baloo.

So it was that we decided to spend a hot summer’s afternoon on what was advertised at the time as the world’s (or possibly South America’s) longest canopy adventure, a 2 1/2 excursion involving a drive up the side of a mountain – it was hardly even a track let alone a dirt road – in a well-worn jeep followed by a series of 10 James Bond-esque swoops down cables, covering a total distance of 2.5 km.

Síle gets ready for the canopy

Maybe it wasn’t quite Daniel Craig, who would presumably have eschewed the helmet, safety harness and all those hooks and pulleys, sliding down on his wolfish grin while fending off all manner of strange assailants whose bullets could never quite penetrate the sang-froid of a British secret service agent, but it was fun nonetheless and we were, as promised, treated to some breathtaking if fleeting view through the trees and over the Lago Nahuel Huapi and on to the mountains beyond.

View of snow capped Andes behind the Lago Nahuel Huapi

It was great fun, if not excessively challenging. After sliding down ten different wires I was feeling that, while each was certainly different, there was a certain generic similarity and I could have done with some variety. I remember doing a series of tree-top courses in France that included the wire descents as part of a much more complex (and difficult) tour and felt that this facility could have done with branching out a bit, if you’ll excuse the pun.

Ailsa disappears from sight.

Tired but happy, we headed back to our lakeside apartments to watch the moon rise over the mountains after another glorious day

The moon over Lago Nahuel Huapi

Las Torres: majestic towers and raging floods.

2010/01/22

21st January 2009:  Éanna and I spent the day climbing in the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, in Chilean Patagonia. Windswept, desolate and utterly majestic the Torres themselves dominate the landscape but the attraction doesn’t end there. Glacial lakes, rivers that can turn from gentle streams to roaring torrents in the space of a few hours and peaks that remain snow-capped even in midsummer.

There are those who like to climb to see the sunrise on the Torres, we were not in their number. Teenagers are generally allergic to early mornings and in the refuge – chock full – even a few minutes extra sleep leaves you at the back of the queue for the bathroom and indeed for breakfast, so by the time Éanna had roused and I’d had the obligatory second cup of coffee we could tell ourselves that it was cloudy anyway, so getting up earlier would have been pointless.

The path continued along by the river whose waters had created a thin green corridor quite distinct from the desolate rock of the mountain-sides.

It was an hour or so’s walk to the next camp, a very basic site used by the real hard trekkers that consists of a few small tents, one basic latrine and a bored park warden who informed us that the longer route we’d planned was closed, and that even if it wasn’t we’d have needed a permit, which we didn’t have. Nor did we have climbing equipment, knowledge or ability so the closure on the whole probably saved us a good deal of embarrassment.

Not that the next stage of the path was particularly easy as it took a sharp turn up the mountain, at first following a small mountain stream but then emerging on to a wide, steep scree.

This seemed to go on forever, and the cheery greetings of our fellow hikers on the way down telling us we were nearly there and that it was all worth it was no help.  Eventually they were right, and it really was worth it.

Lunch, maté, and photos and some quiet chats with other hikers but unlike being on the trail itself, no-one was very communicative. There was a communal sense almost of awe, people sat and lunched and enjoyed the serene beauty of the place in a companionable silence.

All good things must, eventually, come to an end. The descent was much quicker and easier of course (at least, once off the scree) and we felt we would have time to drive to one or two other lookout points before heading back to join the others. But Patagonia had other plans.

The road – the only road – from the trailhead back to the park entrance crossed, near the entrance, three separate channels of the same river via two rickety bridges and one ford. No longer 3 separate channels, the unseasonal snows of the previous week had melted in the equally unseasonal heat of the last few days and the resulting flood had turned the mild mannered river of the previous day into a raging torrent. The road was completely submerged, much of it under fast flowing water.

The hotel, itself cut off, began ferrying its guests to and from the tour buses by boat.  As the evening wore on and some slight ebbing of the water became apparent a truck driver decided to try it out and made it across, though with water well above the axles. With our low-slung hire car this was clearly not an option, but with a place booked on a ferry the next day and the car needing to be returned to the hire company in another country and 3000 km away nor really was waiting it out.

Still there was nothing to be done that night, so we headed to a refugio to try and get more information and ponder the possibilities. There was little enough of the former, but we did discover that the nearby hotel’s transport department could probably organise a transporter to get us out. For a price.

With this comforting yet worrying thought, we retired to bed.

Homeward bound.

2009/11/12

It’s been a bit of a wrench, but having clung on for as long as was practically possible I’m writing this on my way home. Watching the moving map trace our route from the cities of China, over the frozen Siberian tundra, to the familiar cities of eastern, then central Europe and now Dusseldorf, Amsterdam and London are the key reference points. For the first time in a year, no-one will want to stamp my passport and I won’t to fill out immigration or customs’ forms: three cheers for the EU! The night has chased us all the way, never quite catching us though as we skirted the far north it made a valiant effort.

Homeward bound

Homeward bound

What a year. There is a real world waiting for us of course – the others are all immersed already – but whatever problems that brings it has been worth it. We won’t be the same again, and we will do it again! Not necessarily a year of the same sort as this one, well, that would be a bit pointless, wouldn’t it. But even taking the van – or the bike – around Ireland, Britain or Eastern Europe will be different now. And Asia, such a vast place that we have barely scratched the surface of is just crying out for another visit.

But then so is South America, and there are so many places– Africa, Australasia, India –we didn’t even get to.

We’ve seen the world through different eyes, learned a different outlook. Hopefully learned to put ourselves in others’ shoes.

Not a bad lesson.