Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Final Leg Through the Altiplano

Unbelievable. One minute we were at sea level, looking up at mountains whose snow-line only began a few hundred metres up from the shoreline. Next minute (well ok, a couple of thousand kms travel up Argentina, as it turns out, but it was barely a second in geological time, and hardly more than a minute in Argentina Travel Time, which is of necessity very different from Anywhere Else Travel Time, because Argentina is so phenomenally BIG!), and now we're so high we genuinely struggle to breathe at rest. Forget doing anything vigorous like going camping. Although, naturally, camping was exactly what we most wanted to do.

Andeans call it "the Altiplano". The rest of us just call it extremely (puff) very (puff) bloody (puff, pause for breath) high! And then, when you get there, it's this extraordinary, surreal desert.

For us it all started rather gently. Our last campsite before heading up was a spectacular setting at the base of a mountain by a river, in which we gambolled innocently, entirely unaware of the fact that our next camping night would be a very different affair.

Bright and early next day we began climbing
2,945 metres altitude
 And the scenery began changing....
Salt flats on the altiplano
We climbed some more......
3,968 metres
 Right up into the clouds (amongst which we rather bizarrely encountered one of the largest fields of sand dunes ever seen, whose dunes disappeared up into the sky at quite dizzying angles),

Sand dunes at 3,000 metres plus
And then we burst through the clouds out on to the altiplano proper, at an astonishing altitude of 4,560 m,

Where, although a brisk and refreshing wind blew constantly, it was at least sunny!

Thank goodness for the sunshine!
Lucky for us that the sun was shining, as it turned out we would stay up on the altiplano for quite some time. Since there is in fact rather a lot of it. And whichever direction you travel on it (we chose north, but it wouldn't have been very different if we'd chosen any other direction), it just keeps going.

Along the way we encountered great lakes of salt,

Replenishing the salt cellar from the ominously named "Dead Man's Salt Flat" 
 (across which we injudiciously drove...),

 Large and unexpectedly tenacious cacti,

And then at some point, an entirely new country. Most of which resides exclusively on the altiplano.

Along the way we had some novel camping experiences. One night the wind blew so hard there was no chance at all of us erecting a tent. Thankfully a local took pity of us and offered us a room in his house, which he hadn't quite finished building yet.

Our camp at the building site
A not un-scenic building-site, as it turned out........

On another night, we had a puncture next to an old Incan ruin, which seemed a good spot to set up camp.

On this particular night we elected not to use a tent, but instead to sleep out under the stars (except, naturally, for the matriarch, who wisely chose relative warmth of tent over the romance of a star-lit sky).

Our camp in an Inca ruin
In the morning, Ben says "Dad, it must have got below freezing last night, mustn't it?!". "Oh no", I replied, breezily, "it can't have got that cold. If it had done, the water in the washing up bucket.." at which juncture I bent over to demonstrate my point "would have froz...", tailing off,  "Aah. Well maybe it did freeze last night", I said, as extracted a lump of very solid ice from the bucket.

The frozen water in the washing up bucket
Sudden panic as to whether there was any antifreeze in the car's cooling system. We're a very long way indeed from anybody at all, and we don't want to find our car can't move because all the pipes have split. Thankfully there is antifreeze and all is well!

In Bolivia we got to visit the world's highest silver mine, where we donned the latest in fashionable garb for today's miner,

Indulged our much-suppressed Christmas shopping urges in some very colourful markets,

Saw several saints being taken out of their boxes for their annual jaunt around the village square,
Saints go marching on.....
And, best of all, got a sneak preview of 2015's Dakar rally route.
2014 - Argentina/Chile - Personal
Dad's Dakar fantasies that just won't disappear!
We were rather sorry when finally we descended back down to normal altitudes, although it was very definitely a relief to be warm again.

Basking in the sun next to an outpouring of volcanic pumice. Fantastic to be warm again!
From the altiplano it was down into the rainforests and swamps of eastern Bolivia and the Brazilian Pantanal.
Traffic jam on the backroads of Brazil
A sweaty stopover in the Pantanal
And then, after several days of almost non-stop driving, we were back at Fazenda Iracambi, ancestral home of the Le Bs in Brazil. From where we have a couple of days to gather our wits before starting the loooong journey home in time for Christmas carols at Miombo Park. We can't wait!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

INCAS - by Ben

I wonder how many people can say they've slept not only in ancient Incan ruins, but also on the Andean altiplano over 4000 metres above sea level. That's right, not many. But for the record, we have. And for those who are wondering, altiplano is the name given to a high altitude plateau on the east side of the Andes mountain range. The altiplano is home to several salt pans, and many llamas and vecuñas. There are not many signs of human existence, except for a few salt mines. And although it is a plain, much of the surrounding land is covered by active volcanoes, all over 5500 metres above sea level.
Over 500 years ago, the land was also dotted with hundreds of Inca villages. The Incas were a tribe of Indians, the natives of South America. Before the Spanish colonized, the Incas ruled the land. They are easily confused with the Mayans or Aztecs, which were also groups of native Indians from centuries back, but they were from southern and northern Mexico, and specialized mostly in gold.

We stayed in an old Incan ruin on the Andean altiplano. It was incredible. It gave us an idea of how the Indian tribes must have had to live. It is mid-summer currently. That didn't stop it from getting below freezing in the middle of the night. We were wrapped up in 3-4 layers, in our sleeping bags. We still weren't warm. Now imagine the Incas sleeping out in only an alpaca-wool jersey. Also imagine this; how do you feel after you've sprinted a 100 metre race? Tired, right? Your heart pumping furiously, your blood roaring in your ears, you're struggling for breath. This is exactly how you feel after a casual walk to the car when you are 4000 metres high. Thankfully, these were the only symptoms we suffered in a potentially dangerous environment. We enjoyed our experience, and we really got an idea of how the Incas led their lifestyle over half a millennium ago. 

Peninsula Valdes - by Max

 If you choose to visit an area in Argentina, I recommend Valdes. This almost-round island is connected to mainland Argentina by a stretch of arid land covered in  scorched bush. In other words, you could say it was a bridge. Whether it is or isn't an island...nevertheless, it's very windy and rainy there. There are several hotels in the small and only town on the peninsula, but only one campsite. Luckily, the area is covered with trees, which provide good shelter from the howling winds. If you go there, you will need sun cream, water proof jacket and ear buds. You might think it weird the that you need sun cream when you're wearing wind breakers and ear buds, so here's why... When the sun is blazing but you're cold from the icy wind, it means you won't notice getting badly sun burnt. It often rains and is always windy on Peninsula Valdes. At night time, the wind is at its worst, so it makes lots of noise from the flapping tent and the rattle of trees. It may sound sound horrible and you never want to go there. But you won't regret it, for if you see the massive sand dunes, beaching orcas that are seeking food in the form of baby seals, the fat, lazy elephant seals, the sleeping penguins, or enjoy warming up at a coffee shop drinking hot milk with chocolate, you will change your mind!
Island or not, Valdes is a special, unique, isolated  area of land that is non-stop fun. It is an unspoiled reserve filled with surprises. How lucky one is to experience this amazing part of South America.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Ten Reasons to Love Argentina!

A few reflections on this fantastic country, now that we have left and are in Bolivia...

1. Patagonia  -  though seemingly with nothing more to offer than an endless horizon, the vast wilderness of Argentina is surprisingly soulful. Mile after mile after mile, it is almost hypnotic; the stillness and isolation cannot but turn your thoughts inward to greater wonderings of Life, almost to the point of conjuring up a mystical presence of this age-old barren land. Darwin wrote, in the final chapter of his Voyage of the Beagle, about how the ‘boundless plains of Patagonia’ enable “free scope given to the imagination”.
Being so remote from anywhere, with little to distract the traveller’s eye, there are nevertheless small and infrequent clues to occasional life form in this desolation: every once in a while, a small armadillo may scurry across the road, or a desert fox can be seen trotting purposely Somewhere. Every 50km, or so, there will be a gate, indicating an entrance to Somewhere; we rarely saw where the track past the gates led to, though we assume they meant there was a remote estancia (farm) somewhere beyond in the Nowhere distance. Naturally, there would also be vast flocks of hardy sheep, the raison d’etre for these old farms in the first place.
SO MUCH of Nothing, and yet of Everything...
2.    Ruta 40  -  Travelling southward from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, you drive on the National Route 3 road; it is long (over 3,000km) and more or less straight and very predictable. On the return journey northward, you take the National Route 40, otherwise known as the Ruta 40, or even simply as the Cuarenta. This is the route that takes you through the mountains, the Alta Montana, and the Altiplano. It takes you through the desert and God-forsaken, dust-filled, Who-the-Hell-Wants-to-Live-Here towns. It’s almost as if it has assumed the job that no one else wanted: being the loyal pathway to all these out-of-the-way places; joining the dots from all the dust in a brave attempt to bring civilisation to the desolate western regions. For this reason alone, it deserves its affectionate reputation of national service, and is easily forgiven for its rough dirt roads and hotch-potch, indirect, often-confusing illogical direction. It is simply One of Those Things you have to do when travelling Argentina.
One of the many obligatory photos with Lola the Landie
3.    Ushuaia  -  Argentina’s southernmost town: characterful and colourful, perched at the very bottom of our inhabited Earth. In spite of it being so far away from the rest of the world, it is surprisingly busy, functional and independent. Its main source of income, tourism, offers many exciting and unique adventures (skiing in the winter, whale watching, boat tours along the Beagle Channel, hiking in the dramatic mountains that encircle the back of the town, and even a jazz festival). Of course, everything you do, see and buy there comes with the ubiquitous label of being “the southernmost…” whatever. It’s kind of clichéd, but undoubtedly unique. Its duty-free status is a surprising bonus, too, especially when you walk down the quaint, cobbled streets, looking at incongruous designer-named shops everywhere!
Ushuaia: such a cool place to live!
4.    Mountains  -  Once you’ve driven down through Patagonia, on the eastern half of the country, you hit mountains. And then, as you start driving up the western half of Argentina, that’s all there is! Mountains, mountains, everywhere. Of course. For this magnificent western border is where the majestic Andes’ mountains begin. Mostly snow-covered in the southern range, the mountains get bigger as you go further North, until you reach the Alta Montana, or Altiplano, where you feel you have found yourself at the birth place of Earth: raw, powerful energy surrounds you, as you look on in awe at such richly coloured, shaped and patterned HUGE chunks of rock that have been pushed out of the Earth’s belly however many million years ago. Inspiring, soulful and truly breath-taking natural monuments.
Strolling the foothills of the majestic Aconcagua
5.    Animals  -  Coming from Africa as we do, we are more than used to being treated with sightings of exotic savannah animals, many of which can be deadly dangerous. None of the animals we have come across in Argentina are remotely dangerous, but to us they are just as exotic. The guanaco, a silkier version of the llama, is the most common wild animal wandering the cold parts of Patagonia. The llamas are fluffy and often decorated with ribbons, maybe their mark of identification from their owner. And third version of these hardy camelids, are the vicunas, the smallest and shyest of the llama cousins and the ones found in the most remote mountain stretches. All these are the classic symbol of South America, the llama being the most domesticated and thus commercialized. All beautiful and strange to look at. As already mentioned, we have also come across many an armadillo and desert fox, the latter that so resembles our African jackal. On a much more ordinary note, but one that impacts us literally on a daily basis, the domestic dog must be mentioned here! Partly because they are everywhere in every village and town we have been through in Argentina, all seemingly stray, but partly because they are also such sweet-tempered animals, with whom we have made many friends across the country.

 6.   Dinosaurs  -  Earlier this year, there was a new and magnificent paleontological find in the middle of Argentina; one that has surpassed all others, for the evidence shown in the unearthed bones boast a creature far bigger than anything ever discovered before. So big is it, indeed, that it has been named something like Tyrannustitanic and is thought to have measured as high as 40m. This is the jewel in the crown of many other dinosaur discoveries found throughout the province of Neuquen. 

7.    Panaderias  -  Pan is Spanish for bread and although bread is not strictly speaking the staple diet in Argentina, it certainly (unofficially) seems so, going by the abundance of panaderias that are everywhere through this land. Just as well, because our daily lunch demands have depended on these places in every part of Argentina. They also offer tantalizing sweet morsels; you know that mouth-watering smell that wafts out of any bakery that is so hard to resist? And we thought we’d lose a bit of weight on our travels…
Sometimes, when it's too hard to choose, you just gotta try them all!
8.    Helados  -  Anyone who has been to Argentina knows exactly what I’m talking about here! If you thought there was nothing better than Italian ice-cream, you were wrong. No matter how small a town is in Argentina, you will always find a heladeria at which to have a delicious treat!
Tiramasu, mocca, dulce de leche, berries, lemon meringue…need I continue?
9.    Bife and Bebidos  -  Beef and Drinks. There is a surprising micro-brewery business blossoming in certain towns of Argentina and it has to be said, some of these artisanal beers rate just as well as what we sampled in Alaska and Oregon. As for the red wine, even the cheapest boxed vino tinto (at a ludicrous $1,50 per litre) is perfectly palatable. Mmmmm is all I can say about that! Now, as for the beef…at great risk of offending our gorgeous Zimbabwean cows, and let me tell you, Zim nyama is GOOD, I have to honestly say that there is nothing more succulent and juicy and tasty as an Argentinian steak. It sucks, to tell you the truth, because I was trying to come to a decision about withdrawing animal foods from my diet, which has been impossible whilst here. But however I decide to pursue this philosophy on our return to Zim, I have no regrets for the delicious bovine indulgences in the meantime. 
OK, so this grilled meat isn't beef, but grilled Any Meat is what Argentinians do best

10. Good Value  -  Argentina and Zimbabwe have a special economic history that they share: both have suffered from disastrous economical policies and landed up in hyper-inflation states, which then resulted in a forced new currency. Whereas in Zim we changed to a completely different currency, Argentina has persevered with the Peso. Unfortunately, the leaders of this wonderful country, do not seem to have learned their lesson and once again Argentina’s economy exists on a two-tier status. Officially, the Peso is valued at 8 to 1$ (US), but there is a ‘Blue Rate’ which is tolerated, at which you can change from 12 to 17 Pesos to 1$. This, of course, means take lots of US cash with you when travelling to Argentina, and it will ensure you have a terrifically cheap and great value holiday!
Argentina has offered us so many amazing experiences; for us as a family, it has been an awesome and superb-value holiday!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego (delayed posting)

What an unforgettable experience Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego have treated us to! We have driven down through 2,500km of mostly flat, non-descript land, that has often been written about in less than favourable terms over the last three hundred years. And it has to be said, we agree with much of those descriptions. BUT unlike most, its featureless monotony has not disheartened us; it has amazed us! And has served to highlight a deep sense of privilege to be here at all. And even better, in our ‘own’ vehicle, so we are free to explore whatever and wherever we want. 
Lots of Nothingness on the East Patagonian highway, Ruta 3
Nothingness sometimes broken with the presence of a lot of sheep, a legacy from the Welsh settlers of the 1870’s
Nothingness sometimes decorated with scrubland    
It would be unfair to suspend Patagonia’s description on such a dull, uninteresting note, for although 90% of it is bland, there are the inevitable treasures on the coast that lifted our spirits and dropped our jaws in awe. Such as the unexpected sandy desert…
Reminiscent fun from the Sahara, minus friends Robert, Nicky, Big Max & Xander
Huge sandy cliffs, precariously unstable
The South Atlantic Ocean does not immediately conjure images of much less than cold swells of hostile waters, but the up-close, coastal experience is so very different. We spent a day exploring the Valdes peninsula and being treated to the exciting appearance of a 7-orca pod. Known on this exact beach for their sudden beaching, in order to snatch unsuspecting seals, the orcas swam perilously close to the shoreline. Unfortunately (or fortunately), it is not calving season, so the orcas were not interested in coming ashore. It nonetheless felt like an incredible privilege to see so many so close…
In some parts down the loooooong road of Patagonia, there are animals. Most common, is the guanaco, a smaller cousin to the llama, covered in gorgeously warm and fluffy fur. We’ve also spotted the odd desert fox, pangolin, hare and nandu, an emu-like bird.
         Not every animal we saw was alive, such as this skeletal evidence of a whale
Then suddenly, after days of Flat, we not only reached the end of mainland continental South America, but we also spied mountains in the distance on the far shores of Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego. Big, snowy, majestic mountains! Our hearts raced with the novelty and promise of exciting snowy adventures to come!

Not only  were there now mountains in Tierra del Fuego, but cars too! And communities. How weird?!
In order to reach La Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego, we took a ferry on which to cross the famed Magellan Strait
Our goal was to visit Ushuaia, the southernmost Argentinian town and the second southernmost town on Earth – the furthest town being Puerto Williams, which is across the bay and belongs to Chile. Sadly, we couldn’t make it there, but Ushuaia made up for it with all the amazing treats it had to offer…
A great moment of truth and appreciation for Max!
We took a boat trip into the Beagle Channel, on which sits Ushuaia’s port, where we saw the regular South Atlantic residents and landmark (southernmost, of course) lighthouse
This is the lighthouse that was written about in Jules Verne’s classic The Lighthouse at the End of the World
And finally, what the boys had been waiting so impatiently for, was a Day in SNOW! We hiked one of the mountains that surrounds the back of Ushuaia, heading steadily upward through beautiful mature forest, until, at the end of the tree line, we hit real snow. Deep snow. A frozen lake. And best of all, slopes covered with the magical white stuff. The reason for making such a big deal of snow, you must understand, is because our African-raised kids have barely seen snow before, least of all played in it to the extent we did in Ushuaia. It was a day of manifesting their dreams!

Indeed, reaching Ushuaia in itself was a manifestation of all our dreams!