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.

Friday 22 October 2010

Show us yer Titicaca!

From Buenos Aires we flew into La Paz, which is probably one of the most dramatic places to fly to in the world.  You scrape over the andes and drop onto the edge of a high plateau, with La Paz spread out below.  It is the highest capital in the world, at 3000 to 4100m, depending on which part you are in!

Sea-level to 4000m (whoops) unsurprisingly gave me altitude sickness in the form of mild headaches.  This was when I began my relationship with Diamox, which makes your blood more acidic and increases respiration.  Worked a treat.

Sadly we left La Paz and Bolivia pretty much straight away with our Gap tour, bound for Lake Titicaca and Peru.  I'd like to go back and see more one day.

Lake Titicaca is a massive lake (the largest in South America), very high (the highest navigable lake in the world), and we spent a few days seeing it:

  • Visited Isla Taquile, which was pretty touristy, but quite spectacular.  It is flourishing under tourism and a communist-style governing council.
  • Had a homestay on Luquina Chico, which was fantastic.  We knew just enough Spanish to have really awkward conversations with our host family :)  The kids Denis and Lucy were really cute and provided endless entertainment.
  • Visited the floating islands (Islas Uros), constructed using totora reeds that grow in the lake.  The island platforms, boats, houses etc. are all constructed from the reeds.  Super touristy, but interesting.
  • Saw Sillustani, the Inca and pre-inca cemetery near Puno. It was mildly interesting, but the highlight of the trip was a visit to a house on the way back that was pretty much a local zoo with lots of llamas, guinea pigs and other animals.

Saturday 16 October 2010

Deadly taxis, soccer fans break windows on buses: Buenos Aires is a cool city

First stop in our South America adventure was Buenos Aires, the 'Paris of South America' - loved it.
  • Our cab driver opened his door while doing 150 km/h to check if the wheel was going to fall off because the car was shaking so violently.  We also had the pleasure of driving down what is arguably the widest avenue in the world (18 lanes).
  • Visited Recoleta Cemetery, an exclusive place to be buried and the final resting place of Eva Perón.  It is chock full of mausoleums that range from amazing monuments like mini churches with multiple levels, stained glass and statues, to decrepit tombs with coffins exposed to the elements.  Wicked place to set a vampire movie.
  • Drank mate: not a fan.  Tasted like someone made tea out of lawn clippings.
  • Ducked a bottle thrown in famously colourful neighbourhood of La Boca (home of Maradona).  It was thrown by the rival soccer team fans who drove past in three buses while loads of police looked on holding their shotguns.  The fans had also broken some of the windows in the buses.  Can't imagine what they are like at the stadium...
  • Ran into Mafalda on a bench in the middle of San Telmo markets.
  • Had our first encounter of the South American way of eating - big lunch, small snack at about 6pm, and dinner at about 10pm.  Lots of restaurants didn't open until 8pm, and we saw plenty of families out for dinner at 11pm on a school night.

Thursday 14 October 2010

My house is better than your house, said the GG to the PM

After visiting The Lodge I decided we should also take the opportunity to tick off Government House, home of the Governor-General, from the 'things to do in Canberra' list.  Compared with the PM, Quentin Bryce definitely has the better job, at least in terms of appearances on Masterchef, and definitely has the better house.

Government House is beautiful, with amazing gardens and great views out over Lake Burley Griffin.  I learnt two things:
  1. ER, the initials used by Queen Elizabeth, stand for Elizabeth Regina, where Regina means Queen in Latin.
  2. Dieu Et Mon Droit on the royal coat of arms means "God and my right".  It is in French, which I thought was fairly strange for the English monarch, but apparently is like that because French was the language of the Royal Court after the rule of William the Conqueror.
Quentin was wandering around the house talking to the great unwashed masses, which was nice.  Sadly no photos allowed inside here either.  The dining room (oval shaped room on the ground floor in the picture) is very impressive, and has a fantastic view out over the lake.

Julia needs a new BBQ: The Lodge open day

We went and checked out The Lodge on the weekend, home of our new PM.  At the time she had spent all of four days living there (she didn't move in until after the election).

The house is surprisingly small and fairly unimpressive for the PM's residence.  There are plenty of nicer houses around Yarralumla that are owned by people with piles of cash who aren't the Prime Minister.  I can totally see why Howard opted for Kirribilli.

If you're reading Jules, I suggest getting rid of those horribly ugly floral print couches, they have Janette writen all over them, and get a new BBQ, the one you have got is rusty and worse than ours.  Sadly we weren't allowed to take photos inside, but here is the BBQ.

The Lodge is in need of being replaced with something better.  If I was PM I'd be embarrassed entertaining important guests there, but it will take a brave PM who is willing to wear the political flak of building a fancy new house for themselves.  It will be a bit like spending a billion dollars on new parliament house, something no taxpayer wants you to do...

Wednesday 6 October 2010

No katanas, but beard and halo present: RMS speaks at ANU

Richard Stallman didn't wield any katanas, or slay Microsoft lackeys, but he did put on a robe and halo as his alter ego Saint IGNUcius at a speech on free software for the Australian Computer Society held at ANU.

Stallman spoke well, and made a good case for free software - a movement he founded in 1983 that has since been taken up all over the world. I agreed with him that society would be better off with more FOSS, particularly in schools and government.

For schools I imagine parents would welcome not having to spend hundreds of dollars on Windows and MS Office for their home computers. But at the same time they may not be happy their kids haven't learned Windows and MS Office, which they are likely to need in the workforce (at least until FOSS is adopted there too).

I appreciated Stallman's history lesson of how GNU and Linux fit together, but he is fighting a losing battle to get people to call it GNU/Linux, even though GNU deserves at least half, and probably more, of the credit for modern Linux distros. Similar to hacker/cracker, I think we need to let this one go.

Good talk. And sorry Richard, I'm in the vi camp.