Thursday, 30 December 2010

Top ten-ish songs of 2010

  1. Hot Chip - I Feel Better
  2. Duck Sauce - Barbra Streisand
  3. Pendulum - ABC theme news remix
  4. The Wombats - Tokyo (Vampires and Wolves)
  5. Ou Est Le Swimming Pool - Dance The Way I Feel
  6. Darwin Deez - Radar Detector
  7. Miami Horror - Summersun
  8. Yeasayer - O.N.E.
  9. Sia - Clap Your Hands
  10. Gypsy & The Cat - Jona Vark
  11. Yolanda Be Cool/DCUP - We No Speak Americano
  12. Cee Lo Green - Fuck You
  13. Crystal Castles - Baptism

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Christmas in Sydney

We made an overnight trip to Sydney this week for our visa interviews. There was just enough time to check out the Christmas decorations around the city. David Jones had their traditional window displays, which would make perfect horror movie scenes if you switched the Christmas carols for some ominous music - the marionettes are really creepy.

Less creepy and more awesome was the light show projected onto St. Mary's Cathedral. We didn't have a camera, but luckily someone recorded it for us. Check out the 'rain' that follows the architectural features at 8:00.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

On the bus in South America

Ecuador bus crash 25/12/10, Photo: AP
Buses in South America are scary, and unfortunately they are also the cheapest, most convenient, and often only way to get around.  The buses themselves range in quality, but most are in good nick, and some of the overnight buses are actually quite comfortable.

A nice bus doesn't help too much since the drivers are all insane.  Overtaking on blind corners and driving far too fast for windy mountain roads with sheer drops are par for the course.

At one point we passed a massive truck that had tipped over on one of these roads, and I had an ominous feeling that we might be next.  Thankfully we weren't, but there was a deadly bus crash in Ecuador shortly after we got back.

The other hazard is that you might get something stolen.  We didn't have any problems with bags in the luggage compartment of buses, but someone on our tour got their bag slashed in the cabin on a local bus coming into Lima.  The thief crawled under our friends' seat from behind and cut open their backpack as it sat on the ground at their feet.  Nasty!  The first our friend knew about it was when she picked up her bag at Lima and a whole lot of stuff fell out.

The moral of the story is to keep your bag in your lap, especially on local buses where people frequently hop on and off, facilitating an easy getaway.  Unfortunately it makes an already uncomfortable journey just that little bit more uncomfortable.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Chicha is an acquired taste: Ecuadorian amazon jungle

Watching one of the goriest movies ever made, hungover, on a bus that alternated between nauseating breakneck speed around corners and stopping every 100m for 6 hours or so was not the most enjoyable travel I did in South America.  However, we finally made it to Tena, jumped in a ute, and were shortly in a village in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

The next four days were pretty fun:

  • Sweating it up on walks through the mud and mosquitos in the jungle
  • Seeing a cave full of creepy scorpion-like spiders and bats
  • Killing gigantor cockroaches that climbed out of the toilet in our room
  • Hanging out in the village, visiting the school, playing with the kids
  • Eating and drinking all sorts of local food, including disgusting chicha made from Yucca (like a potato)
  • Floating down a tributary of the Amazon in an inner tube
  • Visiting a wildlife sanctuary that rescues animals from all sorts of bizarre situations (like anacondas from hotel rooms).

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Dónde está Baños?

Baños (the town) is Ecuador's answer to Queenstown.  It is also the word for toilet (well, more like bathroom), so we were used to saying "Dónde está el Baños?", which is fairly confusing when you say it in a bus station in Baños, as one of the girls on our tour found out...

The town is an adventure sport mecca.  Sadly we only had 1.5 days there, so I opted to cram in rockclimbing, ziplining, and canyoning.

For rockclimbing it was just myself and a guide.  We took a taxi to the cliff, where Paulo promptly solo-ed a 20m 5.9 in his sneakers (!?) to set up a top rope for me.
me: Where are the bolts?
Paulo: At the top.
me: Aren't you using any protection?
Paulo: No, is easy.
me: OK...
The rock was basalt, and super slippery.  I did what he called the 5.9 comfortably, had a couple of rests on the 5.10b, and a really messy attempt at the 5.10c.  I am sooo out of practice :(

A quick, head-first zip line across the river and it was back to town to meet the canyoning guide.

It was my first time canyoning, and I seem to remember reading that you are supposed to avoid canyons when it is raining due to the risk of flash flooding.  This was making me uneasy since it had started pouring with rain at lunchtime and didn't look like stopping any time soon.  Our guide looked at the water in the canyon and decided it was OK, which didn't inspire me with confidence but we went anyway.  The guide, Marta (from the tour) and I abseiled down 5 waterfalls, ranging from 8 to 30-something metres.  Awesome fun.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

North Peru: surfing and archaeology

Huancachao, home of a great surf break, and some amazing adobe archaeological sites.

Huaca de la Luna (The Temple of the Moon) is a adobe (mud brick) temple built in stages from 100 to 700 AD.  Archaeological work to unearth the site only began in 1991, and revealed amazingly intact paint throughout the temple, and a huge multi-tier façade, the bottom tier of which was only uncovered in 2007.

Work is yet to begin on the adjoining Huaca del Sol, seen at the back of the photo below.  This whole area is an archaeological goldmine, just waiting for someone to fund the digs.

We visited the rainbow temple and the only palace that has been unearthed from the giant complex of palaces called Chan Chan.  It is the largest adobe city in the world, and covers 36 sq km.  The partially restored Tschudi complex we saw was massive, and wasn't even the biggest in the area.

From Huancachao we travelled to Mancora, Peru's answer to Byron bay, near the Ecuadorian border.  Great surf and a party atmosphere.  I hired a board, but lacked any real surfing fitness so the paddle out battling a strong current was tough.  Below is the view from our hotel, which opened straight onto the beach right at the surf break.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Boobies, lots and lots of boobies: Islas Ballestas

We did a day trip from Paracas to the Ballestas Islands, nicknamed the "poor man's Galapagos".  We saw dolphins, penguins, sea lions, and more birds than all the birds I have seen in my life added together - mainly vultures, boobies, and cormorants.  The dark patches on the island in the photo are not rocks but hundreds of thousands of cormorants.

The islands are periodically mined for guano (bird poo, used for fertiliser), which is very valuable and necessitates full time staff on the island to guard the poo.

Along the way, the boat drove past the Candelabra geoglyph, which no-one seems to know anything about, including who created it, when, and why.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Turns out I suck at sandboarding :(

Sandboarding at Huacachina, a tiny oasis nestled amongst gigantic dunes and pictured on the S50 note, was amazing.

Riding the dune buggy was like being on a roller-coaster, and I thought we were going to flip the car the entire time.  We were all freaked out when they got it up to 100 km/h on a 'flat' bit and the back was sliding around in the sand...

Especially since we blew a tyre (see below) at one point, and started sliding back down a dune...

Turns out sandboarding is very different to snowboarding.  I tried standing up on one dune, but was rubbish at it, so went headfirst from then on :)

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Land mines for graffiti prevention: the underwhelming Nazca lines

I was really looking forward to seeing the world heritage listed Nazca lines after reading an article in National Geographic about them, but to be honest I was fairly underwhelmed.

The lines were created by a number of different cultures in the Nazca desert from 900 BC to 600 AD - I believe these dates were arrived at by dating pottery found inside the lines.  Theories abound as to what their purpose was, but the most plausible to my reckoning was that they were walked as part of a water-worship ritual, i.e. a prayer for rain - each geoglyph is constructed in a single continuous line.

The lines were made by scraping away the dark surface rock to expose the light sand underneath.  They are actually quite thin - the ones we saw were less than a foot wide.  I seriously think I could knock one out in a day or two.  Apparently the lines are surrounded by land mines, which is probably the only reason we haven't seen something like this happen in the past few years:

I also don't buy the argument that you need to see them from the air, and subsequent speculation the Nazcans had primitive hot air balloons.  We viewed the hands and the tree from a 20m platform (the flights were too dangerous, there have been a lot of accidents and some recent deaths) - I'm sure the Nazcans could have imported enough wood to build something similar.  Even without a platform, you can accomplish a lot through careful design and measurement: put 'crop circles' into google image search :)

Monday, 1 November 2010

Cañón del colca

Colca Canyon is an impressive place.  It is 100km long, with depths of 1000 to 3000m (according to lonely planet) or 4160m (according to Wikipedia), and it was or is, the deepest canyon in the world, depending on which information source you trust.  Lonely planet claims neighbouring Cañón del Cotahuasi is the deepest, because it is 150m deeper :)  In any case, it is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon.

We got up early to visit Cruz del Cóndor in the canyon, and hopefully catch the morning exit of condors as they ride the thermals from their nests in the canyon wall.  Despite a lot of waiting around, we didn't see much more than a few condors high-up from a distance.

We went for a short walk and were treated to a couple of condors flying directly below us, before popping out of the canyon and exiting in formation.  They are awesome birds.

We took a lot of photos that looked like black dots on a blue sky, so I've included a photo by someone else with a better camera, also taken at Cruz del Cóndor, so you know what a condor looks like :)

Photo credit:

Thursday, 28 October 2010

¡Vamos chicos! The Inca Trail

From Cusco, we travelled to Ollantaytambo, where we had just enough time to scramble up to the Inca ruins and see a spectacular sunset over the valley and archaeological site.

The next day we started the Inca trail from the point known as Kilometre 82.  We gave our 6kg of luggage to the Gap porters, and shouldered our day packs.  We watched the porters' luggage get weighed - regulations have been introduced to limit the amount carried by porters to 25kg, to protect their health.  Other regulations regarding pay and conditions have dramatically improved the treatment of porters on the trail.  Gap seemed to act responsibly as far as we could tell.

The first day is quite easy, and you see an inca site on the way.  We also got a chance to try a local chicha (alcoholic drink) made from ground-up cactus and fermented for a day.  We collectively decided it tasted like what drinking bin juice out of a rubbish bin would taste like.

When we arrived at camp each night, the porters had run on ahead, set up our tents, set up a marquee for dinner, heated water for us to wash our faces, and were ready with a cool drink.  They also all lined up and clapped when we arrived - probably with a heavy dose of irony, given what they had just achieved :)  For the 15 of us we had 18 porters, 2 chefs, and 2 guides!

All the lunches and dinners were three courses: usually soup, meat and rice, and a simple dessert.  We also had happy hour at about 4:30pm each day, which was popcorn and hot chocolate.  And the porters woke us each morning with a cup of cocoa tea.  And they baked a cake for one of the girls who had her birthday on the trail.  Easily the most decadent 'camping' I have ever done :)

To make up for that luxury, the toilets were uniformly terrible.  My favourite was the one with a regular porcelain toilet but no seat, so you had to decide to hover or hang onto the bowl, topped off with a giant pile of used toilet paper in one corner.

Day two and three were the hardest.  On day two we crossed Warmiwañusca or "Dead Woman's Pass" at 4198 m, so called because the pass looks like a woman lying down in profile, with a really perky breast.  It decided to piss down rain, which turned to hail at the top, and I managed to get a bad head cold overnight to make things just that little bit harder.

From the pass there was a knee-jarring descent to the campsite, and another big climb the next day.  Along the way we saw some more cool Inca ruins.

Lunch on the third day was at a spectacular spot with views over the Urubamba valley.

Em and I opted to go the long way and see one more speccy Inca ruin (Intipata), despite my cold combining with altitude sickness to make me fairly miserable.

The final campsite was next to a restaurant with electricity and hot showers (although the queue for the showers is so long it isn't worth it), and most importantly, cold beer.  In fact, the beer I got from that restaurant was the coldest I have ever had in my life.  There must have been just enough alcohol to keep it from freezing.  There were lots of people from other tours getting pissed, which would make the early start the next day a little tough...

The next day we were woken at 3:40am to join the queue to get to the sun gate.  This is the only time we saw all the other groups in the same place (a maximum of 500 people start the trail every day, and it is usually booked out).  It was an easy and beautiful hike through the misty forest to the Sun Gate, but the pace was amazing - everyone was busting to get to Machu Picchu.

When we got to the sun gate, instead of an amazing view of Machu Picchu we had a wall of cloud.  So after sprinting to the gate, we all sat down and waited about an hour for the sun to rise further and burn off the cloud.  To pass the time one dickhead Englishman decided to moon the crowd.

The cloud eventually lifted, we got a great view and heaps of pics, before walking the last bit down to Machu Picchu.

Our guide gave us a tour around the ruins, and then we wandered around on our own.  One of the guys on our tour snuck off with his girlfriend and came back engaged!

The trail and Machu Picchu were both amazing and made my number one experience in South America.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Iron road to the sacred valley of the Incas: my first via ferrata

We hit Cusco, a Peru tourist mecca, and had a free day to get our adventure on.  I opted for a brand spanking new via ferrata (italian for 'iron road') in the sacred valley, not far from Ollyantaytambo, the gateway to the Inca trail. 

The guys who built and operate the via ferrata were really friendly.  It took them 4 months to drill, bolt, and cable the route.  It is only one year old.  You ascend 300m via a series of ladders, including a cable traverse, all while clipped onto a steel cable with a special via ferrata safety line. 

The safety line is attached to the cable with two carabiners with locking mechanisms that can be operated with one hand.

From the top, you take a series of massive zip lines to the bottom, the longest of which are 500m and 480m.  The top speed you achieve is about 75 km/h - it could be faster if you have a strong tail wind!

The gear provided by the guides was good quality, and I didn't see any loose bolts or rungs.

They have plans to build a capsule hotel at the top of the cliff, so you could ascend the via ferrata, stay in a basic room at the top of the cliff for the night, see the sunrise, and take the zip line back down.  Wicked!  They also preparing to put up a via ferrata in the US and one in Canada.