Project Pitch

On arrival in Nairobi we immediately knew we were back in Kenya. After getting off the aeroplane onto the tarmac we had to guess where to go as there were very few ground staff pointing us in the right direction, we could probably have wandered onto the runway and no-one would have noticed! Luckily we spotted a bus and presumed we had to get on that. The only word I can use to describe the airport is chaos!! We spent 20 minutes (I’m honestly not exaggerating) filling in forms with our address, reason for visit plus answering many ridiculous questions whilst listening to a man screaming at security staff about yellow fever certificates. On completion we headed to the desk to get our visas and I kid you not the man didn’t even look at our carefully filled out forms. He just chucked them into a box with about a thousand others!!! Oh well, you live and learn. As we were only staying in Nairobi for one night and it was already 3am we just needed somewhere cheap and cheerful to stay and we’d been recommended a basic hotel near the centre. We hadn’t booked but we’d been told to just bang on the door until the night staff woke up! I swear if we’d done this in most other places in the world we’d be met with grumpy faces and unhelpful staff, but this is Kenya. They couldn’t have been happier to be awoken at 3am and cheerfully checked us in. One of the men also headed out to buy us some water, we’d have gone ourselves but we had no idea where we were and the ladies of the night hanging around outside kept waving at Tom…so we happily let the local man go for us!!
The room was very basic, but certainly wasn’t the worst place we’d stayed on our trip and was perfect for what we needed.

The following morning we were collected from the hotel by a lovely man called Austin who drove us the 2 hour journey to Nakuru. Before leaving the UK we had decided that we’d love to help out with a friend’s charity, Raise the Roof Kenya, at the end of our trip. The charity was set-up back in 2010 when Holly Bantleman visited a rubbish tip in Nakuru where over 250 people had set up camps there and had to rely on the rubbish trucks for food. The stench from rubbish, rotting cow carcasses’ and pig faeces was apparently horrific, yet this was the place that some poor people had to call home. Holly decided she had to help and Raise the Roof Kenya was born. Initially the plan was to provide tin roofing for the people of the rubbish dump and eventually provide a long term solution for them. She managed to do this through donations from the UK, and quickly realised that RTRK would become a long term project. After managing to help more families with things such as school fees and medical bills the ‘Think Big’ project was founded. Holly had noticed that there was a lack of opportunity for the older teenagers in the poor areas so she decided to build a community centre, sports ground and vocational school so people could gain an education and training to go on and live a sustainable future. Seven out of 10 teenagers in the village of Barut, the area she chose to build the centre, had never received a secondary education and many were surviving off a mere non guaranteed income of 30p a day for shovelling sand at the quarry. The thing we admired most about RTRK was the sustainability aspect. The charity wasn’t just there to raise money and help the poor by giving them handouts. The aim was for them to be able to help themselves and prosper, then eventually they won’t need the charity anymore.

Barut is about 20 minutes drive out of Nakuru and Holly kindly found us somewhere to stay in Nakuru for two weeks. Enroute we drove through the beautiful Rift Valley, and passed about 500 donkeys and tons of zebra, it was pretty amazing. Straight away we both felt at home in Kenya. It’s an unbelievably beautiful country and just driving along through the countryside reminded me why we came back to this place.

On arrival in Nakuru we headed to our home for the next 2 weeks. We didn’t really know what to expect as Holly had said we were staying in a flat belonging to her friends Haley and Benji, but we knew nothing about it. Well…it was amazing. A beautiful flat all to ourselves as Benji was only home at weekends and Haley was visiting friends and family in the states. After a trip to the supermarket we spoke to Holly via Skype about things she’d like us to do. She asked us concentrate on the sports facilities, which at present was just an uneven field which she wanted us to level, mark out, source equipment and hopefully if there was time arrange some sort of tournaments/sports day. As we hadn’t yet visited the centre we had no idea what to expect, and to be completely honest, I was pretty apprehensive about the whole project.mid never really done anything like this before and had no idea where to begin. Holly had also mentioned that she’d like us to try and increase participation as the girls especially weren’t always keen to take part in sport. She’d pretty much said that we should take the lead on the project with the help of the staff and the community. We both loved the charity and all that it stood for so failure wasn’t an option!

The following morning we were picked up by Denis, the strawberry seller and driver for the Barut centre. He arrived on his motorbike and we both hopped on the back. Apart from in South East Asia we hadn’t really been on many bikes but as this was the main transportation in Nakuru we quickly realised we’d have to get used to them. The 10 kilometre drive took about half an hour (by the end of our time there it took about 20 minutes, I think Denis was taking it slowly on our first day). The roads were no more than dusty and muddy tracks full of huge pot-holes and free-roaming sheep chickens and cows. It was an eye-opening journey as we passed through some very rural and poor villages on our way to the centre. We heard countless screams of Mzungo (White man) and “how are you” from the children as we drove by. We were constantly waving and shouting Jambo (hello) all the way to Barut, and were met with big smiles and laughter, that’s why I love Kenya.

On arrival at the centre we had a look around and saw the full extent of the task at hand.

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After our tour we wanted to get started so under the guidance of Denis, the security guard Wesley and the Agri-Business teacher Moses we started digging up the plants that were in the way of what would be the football field and moved thousands of stones which were under the soil. We could see straight away that there was a lot to do and we instantly realised that the two weeks we planned on staying weren’t going to be enough and in our minds knew that it would be three weeks at the centre. That still gave us a week at the end to do some sort of safari so we were both happy with the new arrangement.

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The first few days at the centre were really frustrating as we just didn’t know what to do for the best. The field was so uneven that playing football properly on there was near impossible, we had to level it. Moses assured us that the trainees would be keen to help out but the field was huge and after two more days of digging up the bumps and clearing dead grass it became clear that we were making minimal impact, even with 20 trainees helping us.

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As we’d never done anything like this before we had to take the advice of the locals. Luckily by this point Koech, the secretary of the Barut athletics club was on hand to help us out (and soon became a good friend) He thought our options were either to try and get a machine or hire local people to help. Looking at the progress we’d made with 20 trainees we thought a machine would be the best option and Koech got us a reasonable price to hire a Caterpillar road leveller. (which just so happened to be nearby) The only slight problem was it was broken, but assured us it was getting fixed and would turn up the following day. We were starting to realise that nothing happens quickly in Kenya so even though we wanted it to come straight away we agreed to the following day.

We arrived at the centre the next day to the news that the machine would arrive later. We waited, and waited, and waited but no machine turned up. Koech had rung them a few times and his news was always, they’re on their way. He then headed off to find the machine and rang us to say it was on its way. Half an hour later when it hadn’t arrived we spoke to him again and this time his reply was “it’s on the way to town!!” WHAT! Apparently it couldn’t be fixed and had to be taken to town for repairs. Why we weren’t told this hours earlier I’ll never know and we were really down about the whole project by this point. We really wanted to make a big difference to the centre but felt like we weren’t getting anywhere and we’d wasted another day.

We returned back to the flat that night really downbeat. Not only had we lost another day but we still didn’t know whether the machine would turn up the following day. If it didn’t we really had no other options lined up. As we didn’t know the area and to be honest didn’t really know what we were doing it was hard to find machines to help us. It’s not like we could just google ‘field leveller machine, Barut’!
We arrived at the centre to news that the Caterpillar was a no go. Apparently it was now fixed but the owner wanted a ridiculous amount of money it get it back to Barut and then return it to town afterwards. We were pretty much at the end of our tether but thankfully we had a break-through. One of the trainees had seen a tractor on her way into school so she headed off with Denis to try and negotiate for them to come and help…and amazingly it worked. Half an hour later and the field was being dug up by a massive plough!!!

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We were so happy to be making progress and finally felt we were getting somewhere, although I will admit at this point I was slightly concerned. Instead of just levelling the ground this tractor was ploughing it and was going to return to harrow it, which is making the big lumps smaller so we could then rake and flatten by hand. Moses, Koech, Wesley and Denis were certain that this would work and we had to trust their judgement. At that point all I could see was us digging up a grassy field and making it a muddy one!!!

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The drives home from the centre are always interesting and we both really enjoyed them. Driving through the little communities is always interesting and the kids we passed were always so excited to see Mzungos riding past. They loved to shout ‘how are you’ as we sped past and we always made the effort to wave or should back. Their stock reply when we shout back “how are you” was always, “I am fine”. No-one ever says anything but this and it does make me smile every time we hear it. One thing I did see the other day whilst on the bike was three kids playing with their homemade kites which was a piece of string with a dirty plastic bag on the end. They had huge smiles on their faces and were laughing together. It broke my heart a little bit to see this and really hit home how little these people have yet they don’t need much to be happy. I think we could all learn a thing or two from the lovely people of rural Kenya.

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That evening went out to watch Derby play Brighton in the first leg of the Championship play-offs. After traipsing around various bars we thought we were out of luck as it wasn’t meant to be on the main sports channel and we couldn’t find anywhere that screened the smaller channels. Thankfully though luck was on our side and for some reason the schedules had changed and the match was being shown in the sports bar. Plus Derby won 2-1 so all in all it was a very positive day.

Saturday came and with it the second visit of the tractor….I’m certain you can guess what happened!? On arrival at the centre there was no sign of the vehicle and Koech headed off to find out what was happening. When we paid them for the work on Thursday I had a little nagging feeling that we should have withheld the full payment for that day until the job was complete. It turns out I should have listened to my gut feeling! Koech returned with news that the tractor wasn’t coming. Apparently the owner of the farm vehicle had spent the money we paid him on getting drunk rather than buying the piece needed to attach the harrow machine to the tractor. Aaarrggghh. We were really annoyed about this but luckily for us Denis came to the rescue. He sped off on his bike to find us a replacement tractor, this was beginning to be a regular occurrence. We tried not to get too down-heartened and thankfully Denis came up trumps and an hour later we were watching a new and bigger tractor breaking up the massive chunks ready for raking and flattening the following week. The flattening the field process was a huge job but we thought there was no point in doing it half-heatedly. If we were going to do it, we were going to do it properly.

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That evening Preston were playing in the League One play-offs against Rotherham. As it wasn’t deemed important enough in Africa (I can’t understand why) it wasn’t being shown on TV so our only option was to watch it on the internet. As it was bucketing it down with rain I was concerned there would be a power cut at the flat, as that often happened when the weather was bad, so we headed out in the horrific conditions. The first place we went to were having wifi problems so we tried to get it to work for half an hour then gave up, we were 1-0 down at this point. Next place the wifi wouldn’t work either so after doing a lap of the town we headed back to the flat to watch the second half! Thankfully there wasn’t a power cut and we managed to watch the 45 minutes without any interruptions. Plus we got to see Joe Garner’s world-class goal to even the game out, the final score was 1-1 after the first leg.

Sunday was rest day, which was much needed. After a lazy day we headed out to once again watch football and this time it was the last day of Premier League season. It was all a bit of an anti-climax in the end. We were desperate for Liverpool to do it, but it wasn’t to be and Man City won the Premier League. After that it was the second leg of the Championship play-off semi-final which was far more exciting. It was a great game which a Derby won 4-1 (6-2 on aggregate) and coasted through to the final at Wembley. I was just praying that Preston could do the same…(we didn’t, we lost the second leg. That is all I’m going to write on the subject!)

Monday arrived and our lovely friend Denis couldn’t pick us up so he sent someone else instead. We also had to pick up some rakes enroute to the centre and carry them on the bike. The previous week we’d managed to carry 6 machetes, a rake and some garden shears on one journey and it wasn’t too difficult. We’d even transported live chickens with the three of us on the bike. However, trying to hold on for dear life on the most uncomfortable motorbike in the world whist trying not to drop 5 rakes was hard work!!

We made some real progress at the centre that day. All the trainees were really keen to help as they could see the pitch beginning to take shape and were excited about the prospect of a new playing field. We spent the whole day clearing dead grass, breaking up the small pieces and raking them flat. There was still so much to do and it still wasn’t anywhere near flat, but we were getting there! Plus we were getting to know the trainees better which was really important to us. We returned home that evening filthy and exhausted, but happy.

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The next few days followed the same routine. Manual labour in the hot Kenyan sunshine was hard work but we were really enjoying ourselves now. All the trials and tribulations of the first week were a distant memory and we were now making progress every day. One journey to the centre after a particularly rainy evening the night before was one I won’t forget for a while. Denis did well to avoid most of the mud and puddles until we got to a particularly wet section. Before we knew what was happening the bike got stuck and myself and Tom fell off the side! Luckily there was no harm done as we’d been travelling pretty slowly and at least we entertained the locals!!

When we were in South East Asia we were always entertained by the things people carried on their motorbikes from huge china vases to 12 live chickens. Here we were 10 months later and our motorbike comprised of three people, 2 rucksacks, 5kg of potatoes, a bag of rice, a bag of flour, various vegetables a football, a big bike pump and of course another rake!! How things change eh!

The field was really starting to take shape and it was so different to the field that greeted us on our first day. As the trainees had to concentrate on their lessons we managed to hire some local people to help us out. They did in 2 days what would probably have taken me and Tom a week!! They really worked hard and we couldn’t have been more thankful. We also bought the trainees a new football to try out and every spare minute was spent playing footy on their new field, it was great to see. All we needed now was a load of rain and the grass would start to grow back. Again that was something we were slightly concerned about but all the locals assured us that we didn’t need to worry.

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Whilst at the centre we met some of the local athletes. I was chatting to one guy about his training and he told me he runs the 10k in 29minutes! He asked me whether I enjoyed running and suggested we could go for a run together…I politely declined!! I probably run as fast as his walking pace!!

By now we’d done two weeks at the centre and we were both so pleased we’d decided to stay on for another week. The field was as level as we could make it but we still had loads we wanted to do before leaving.
That weekend we decided to head out to watch the FA cup final and little did we know how huge it would be in Nakuru. There were loads of Arsenal fans in the pub so the atmosphere was amazing. We made friends with some locals, Lennox, Larix and Empress. Empress was the only Arsenal fan and her boyfriend Lennox got a ear full every time he reacted to a Hull attack. It was hilarious and it was definitely as entertaining watching her berate him as it was the football. We also had a discussion with them about warm beer! Every time we went to the bar and ordered a drink the barman would ask if we’d like cold beers? I didn’t think much of it at first but I decided to ask our new friends about this. They said that the majority of Kenyans preferred their beer to be at room temperature rather than from the fridge…baffling. Empress, who’d had quite a few warm beers at this point, stopped shouting at her boyfriend for a few minutes to explain to us that cold drinks in general make her feel sick and everything from beer to coca cola has to be warm!!
After the footy we headed to the late-night venue we’d heard so much about, Rafikis. It was actually a lot of fun.

On Sunday we went to visit an absolutely amazing orphanage. Holly had told us all about it and suggested we visited whilst in Nakuru and I’m so pleased we did. The orphanage is called Springs of Hope and it was honestly amazing, a far cry from the horrific orphanage we visited in Oaxaca, Mexico. Driving up to the children’s home was like driving towards a hotel, it looked incredible from the outside. Once inside things were just as nice and it was exactly how an orphanage should be. The kids were unbelievably happy and all the staff were wonderful with them. We met lovely Molly who is the founder of the home which is run on donations and fundraising. Her passion for the project was so visible and the kids adored her. The children were really intrigued about what was in Tom’s bag and when they found out it was a camera they were desperate to play with it. Let’s just say we now have about 50 photos of the TV amongst the 400 odd they took plus over half an hour of videos!!

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Whilst we were there a delivery of unwanted clothes arrived and the youngsters were unbelievably excited. Even so they were so well behaved and waited for their turn to receive some new clothes. They couldn’t stop smiling and laughing about their new articles and immediately modelled them for us.

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Monday and Tuesday were spent at Barut marking out the various pitches and making the sports equipment. After speaking to the trainees and Koech about what the community would want it was decided that we’d mark out a football pitch, netball court and volleyball court. Trying to figure out all the measurements for the football pitch was hard work as there wasn’t room for a full sized pitch but we wanted to make the most of the area we had, we got there in the end though. Koech and Wesley worked so hard to help us complete the project and we were so thankful they were there to help and offer advice. We definitely wouldn’t have succeeded without their help and support.

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It was great to see the project finally coming together but at the same time we felt a bit sad that it was almost over.

I don’t know what it is about Kenya but what I mentioned earlier about everything taking so long is so true. One morning we headed off with Rich, the project manager, to collect a few things in his car. What should have been a 20 minute task ended up taking almost two hours! We met Rich at the sports shop to buy the equipment for the sports field. It should have been open, it wasn’t. Instead we went to the hardware store. Here you have to ask for what you want from one person they give you a receipt then you queue up and pay somewhere else. Then, oh yes it’s not over, you head off and try and find the items you’ve just paid for. Everyone we spoke to sent us to a different person in a different area until finally we got hold of the two items we’d paid for, cement and red oxide. Rich moved his car so we could load the things in. Once loaded he turned the key and the car wouldn’t start and As we were in a loading area we were blocking a huge lorry in. Rich went off to find a mechanic and the lorry driver returned and asked us to move. He didn’t seem to understand that because the car was an automatic it was stuck in park. He tried to push the car anyway, it didn’t move. The lorry then did a 16 point turn to get around us just before Rich returned with said mechanic. After a few minutes of poking around under the bonnet he said he could fix the car for 100bob (66p). We went back to the sports shop, which was now open, and picked up new equipment for the school and headed off in the now fixed car. Just a normal morning in Kenya, now you understand why everything takes so long!!

Wednesday was P.E. day and the first real test of our sports equipment and pitches. We headed to the centre early to make sure everything was ready for the 11am P.E. lesson. As mentioned previously often the girls weren’t that keen to participate, but I was adamant that they’d all take part and more importantly they’d all enjoy themselves. The girls played volleyball first then wanted to play netball so I taught them for about 2 hours and they didn’t want to stop. With a bit of encouragement every single girl played and seemed to love it. The improvements I saw in one session was actually remarkable and I’m certain they’ll continue playing as much as possible once we’ve left. We brought with us loads of photocopies of the rules for both volleyball and netball and I watched all the girls reading through them once we’d finished playing, they really were keen.

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Tom took the boys for football training and they seemed to be having a great time. He structured it well so they warmed up properly and he coached them not to chase the ball around all the time, amongst other things. I think the final score in the match was 9-8 or something ridiculous. Koech managed to play every single sport plus refereed the footy and tried to play two positions at once on the netball court until all the girls shouted at him! He had a massive smile on his face all day, as did Wesley. All in all it was a great day and one we won’t ever forget.

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Our friend and driver Denis invited us around to his house for some food, cooked by his cousin Faith. Before going there Koech wanted to take us to the sand quarry, which we thought was a bit odd but once there we could understand why he wanted us to see it. The conditions were pretty horrific and the poor men who’s job it was to dig out the sand by hand risked their lives every single day for 100-150 Kenyan shillings (60p-£1) The walls of the quarry were so unstable and Koech kept saying how he would never ever do that job. The men there wanted to greet us and after shaking our hands tried to hand us a spade to help them out, we kindly declined. We really saw the harsh reality of trying to make a living in Kenya.

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On the way back to the centre from the quarry we saw loads of school children in the distance and Koech said we should go and greet them as they’d spotted us and had started screaming “Mzungos” and “how are you”. Once over there ever single child wanted to shake our hand, which was made harder by the barbed wire and prickles which separated us from them. They were so cute and really epitomised Kenya for us, the happy children.

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We went to Denis’s house and his cousin made us some amazing food, then we watched one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s called the Reggae Boys and was a Nigerian masterpiece! Some of the acting was atrocious but it was addictive viewing!

The following day was our last at the centre so we’d arranged a sports day for the trainees. It really was the highlight of our three weeks in Barut. We had a volleyball tournament, football and netball matches, and competitions such as a penalty shoot out and shoot the hoop. The trainees loved it and so did we. It really was lovely to see them as happy as they were now they had new equipment and improved playing surfaces.

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We had a few prizes for the trainees who put in the most effort throughout the day and for the winners of the competitions. We handed them out at the end of the day and they all thanked us for all our hard work and sang us a farewell song. I really felt we’d bonded with the students and the sports day with the new equipment and facilities was the perfect way to end our time at Barut. Every single day we were at the Barut Centre, Mercy, the Head Teacher, came over to chat to me about what we were doing. Her words of thanks and encouragement always spurred me on and really made me realise what a difference we were making. We were both really sad to leave and will never ever forget our time there. I’m so pleased we succeeded in the task which had been set for us but none of it would have been possible without the hard work and efforts of the trainees, the staff at the centre and the local community.

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Saturday was the big day for Tom as Derby were in the Championship play-off final but before that we had to sort out our safari to the Masai Mara. We had tried to arrange it the previous day but trying to pay anyone in Kenya is one of the most frustrating things ever! (Nearly as frustrating as waiting for tractors!) They wanted us to do a bank transfer but if you haven’t got a Kenyan bank account it’s impossible to do, as is taking out enough money to pay them direct. It was such a frustrating morning, but eventually we sorted it and our amazing luxury safari was booked. From five-star lodges to a hot air balloon over the mara, we really were blowing the budget for the final week of our amazing adventure.

Once all that was sorted we headed to see one of the trainees who had invited us round to her house. Because everything at the bank had taken so long we almost didn’t go but I honestly cannot explain how pleased I am that we did. Dorisella and her sister had bought us fizzy drinks and bowls of crisps and snacks and if we hadn’t turned up it would have all gone to waste. In Kenya people like visitors and we were probably the first Mzungos to be in her house. We were there for about 2 hours and before leaving we had to wait for her father to return as he wanted to greet us. The house was a mud hut but it was really homely and Dorisella had worked hard in planting crops and rearing chickens and rabbits to sell. It is traditional in Kenya to offer a gift to deserving guests and the previous day Dorisella had joked that she’d like to give me a hen! Luckily we just got some eggs as I’m not sure a hen in the Masai Mara would have been a good idea!! They also had kittens and asked if we’d like to take one…until we explained that they wouldn’t let us on the plane back to England with a live animal! I’m so pleased we made the effort to go and see her as she was generally excited to have us in her house. When her Dad turned up he desperately wanted us to stay longer and kept offering us food and drink but unfortunately we had to leave as we’d promised Koech we’d go and see him at the athletics stadium.

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There we watched the 3000m walking race, the relay and steeplechase. It was just county qualifiers but it was great to see. Koech said if we’d turned up earlier he’d have entered me in a race!! Thank god we didn’t turn up earlier, everyone would have had a good laugh at the silly Mzungo coming last!!

From there we headed home to get changed before eating some Nyama Choma (BBQ’d meat) and got front row seats for the big game. I won’t dwell too much on this bit but Derby were well and truly robbed! There only looked like one winner and true to form in the play offs, this meant that the team who didn’t deserve it won, QPR were promoted to the Premier League. As a Preston fan I am well accustomed to play off defeats so I really felt for Tom. He dealt with it well though and didn’t let it ruin our evening with our friends. We’d managed to get a group together to watch the footy including Dennis and his cousin Faith, Rich, our project manager and his friend Steven.

Our last day in Nakuru was spent packing up and getting ready for our exciting safari adventure. We both spoke to our parents and they very kindly agreed to donate some money to Raise the Roof Kenya which meant that everything we’d done at the centre from the levelling and the painting of the lines to the football posts and netballs hadn’t cost the charity a penny. The budget that had been put aside for the sports facilities could now be put to good use elsewhere. We were absolutely ecstatic about this, as was Holly, and I can’t thank both our parents enough for their generous contributions.

I could write forever about our experiences but what really hit home for me was how happy everyone was. People walking past the centre just smiled and wanted to say hello. If we stopped what we were doing and chatted to them for a few minutes it made them so happy. The children we drove past just wanted us to wave and notice them, it made their day. Our time in Barut was incredible. It obviously wasn’t all fun and games and at times it was ridiculously hard and really frustrating. Even when we were at our wits end giving up was never an option and I knew deep down we’d succeed eventually. Watching the trainees play on their new playing surfaces with the new equipment on our final day made everything worth while. I am so pleased we made the effort to come to Kenya to help these wonderful people.

If you’d like to read more about the Raise the Roof Kenya or to make a donation please visit the website here

We have tons of photos from Barut, please click here to have a look.

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Now it’s Namibia!

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We said goodbye to our amazing hostel (Amber Tree Lodge) and Cape Town bright and early on Easter Sunday and headed on down to the Nomads office in town with two German guys, Benedict and Lenaurt who were staying in our hostel and were on the same trip. Before we even reached the office we could see the big Overland truck we would be spending a large part of the next 12 days in. As we pulled up we saw this beast was named Marvin so in true Gaye style, “Let’s get it on!”

Our first stop in Marvin was at Table View on the coast North of Cape Town. It was somewhere we’d wanted to go whilst family Eccles were here the previous week but we’d ran out of time. It was a really spectacular view across the Atlantic Ocean back to the city of Cape Town with Table mountain looming in the background.

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Our next stop on our trip was one of our least interesting as we spent two hours in a shopping mall whilst the guides purchased lots of the provisions for the next few days. We bought water, fruit and biltong (dried meat like Jerky just better!). Shopping done we set off to our campsite in the Cederberg Mountains.

We pulled up at a pretty decent looking campsite and there were lots of looks of confusion and terror from the families enjoying their Easter holidays. I assume they thought we were going to cause mayhem and keep them up all night. We then set about putting up our tents for the first time and luckily for us ours was all there and went up perfectly, whereas a few of the other pairs didn’t have enough poles or they didn’t match the tents so alternatives were called for and some poor guy had to bring them out from Cape Town. The tents that Nomads supplied were actually massive and pretty nice to be honest our only concern may have been our sleeping bags. We have excellent ones at home but didn’t want to carry them around the world for 10 months just for this moment, so heavily under the influence of ‘Thrifto’ Eccles I had had to buy the cheapest ones I could find a couple of days previously and had got some for just over a tenner which would allegedly keep us warm if it didn’t drop below 5 degrees Celsius! Only time would tell just how many extra layers we may have to sleep in as the Namib Desert can get cold.

When we did this kind of overland trip from Nairobi to Johannesburg in 2008 we’d had such an amazing time and a lot of that was to do with the incredible group of people we spent a month and a half with. We are still in touch with lots of them and will always have special memories of that trip. So it was always going to be a difficult first day trying to figure out if we were going to have another awesome group or not. To be fair the dynamic of the group couldn’t have been much more different as it was made up nearly entirely of Germans and Dutch. We were in fact the only English people in the group of 23! The good news is that we are so used to travelling and meeting new people that we can get on with anybody from anywhere, so it was great to have some new people to share our experience with.

In the afternoon we went on a little trek in the surrounding hills which was nice enough. The local guide, Skippe, was good although I was a little put off when I saw him pull out a turtle from his bag and hand it round the group. I just prefer to find my wildlife in the wild I guess. The most exciting part of the walk was when he caught a couple of Scorpions and held them on his hands without being stung.

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He also showed us some indigenous paintings on a wall which were approximately 1,500 years old. He explained what each of the three ‘chapters’ meant and it was basically saying how they were happy and were leading a good life here all those years ago. Later that evening we ate a pretty tasty beef stew and shared a few beers whilst getting to know people a bit better. We went to bed that night pretty tired and drifted off quickly using the pillows we’d stolen from the airplane the other week!

It had got a little chilly at night but not too bad, yet. So we were up, decamped, fed and packed by about 7:30 a.m. and prepared for a fairly dull day travelling on the bus heading up north to the Orange River.

The highlight of the journey was when we finally found an off licence that was open and everyone stocked up on beers and wines. When we reached the Orange River campsite we all decided it would a good time to cool off in the river as it had been a long hot ride in the truck. Whilst we were swimming one of our guides, Victor was busy cooking us up some Wors (South African sausage) on the Braai (SA BBQ!) along with veggies and pap (maize like mash potato). It was really good and Ecco and I decided to wash it down with a super strong caipirinha as we still had a bottle of cachaça with us from Brazil.

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The next morning was pretty chilled as some of the group went canoeing on the river. We decided to save a few quid for later in the trip and figured we’d already done some pretty awesome kayaking in Laos and New Zealand. We borded Marvin the truck and crossed the South Africa – Namibia border relatively stress free and carried on to our camp for the night at Fish River Canyon, which apparently is the 2nd largest canyon in the world after that Grand one in the States. We quickly set up our tents for the night, before heading off to the canyon to watch the sunset. It was an amazing place and was quite like the Grand Canyon but perhaps a little less orange. Having been spoilt with sunsets over the last 11 months this one only really fell into the OK category.

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Whilst we’d been doing that our guide, Victor, had been preparing a tasty Spag Bol. The only problem was we didn’t know we were eating here and it was getting a little nippy in shorts and flip flops. It was a quiet night around the campfire and everyone was in bed by 9 pm as we were up at 5 the next morning for another looooong 600 Km drive.

Fortunately we’d avoided the cold of the night by zipping our sleeping bags together and wearing as many clothes as possible. We spent the next 8 hours in the truck stopping only to stock up on the essentials (water, beer and biltong!!). When we got to camp we went for a short trek into a spectacular 60 meter deep canyon which apparently fills up with water when it rains.

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After our chicken curry that Victor had cooked up we all went to the campsite bar as they had a massive TV and we watched the Real v Bayern Munich match. The German guys were not too happy with loosing 1-0 but us and the Dutch didn’t mind Bayern loosing too much.

If the previous day had been early then this morning was ridiculously early. We woke up at 04:45 and were in the truck and away 15 minutes later. Our first stop was to the enormous sand dunes and we began climbing Dune 45 so we would be on its peak for sunrise. These are the biggest sand dunes in the world and walking uphill in fine sand is actually pretty hard as you just sink and slide all over the place and the cross-wind was pretty fierce. The struggle was worth it though as when we reached the top we only had to wait 10 minutes for the sun to poke its head over the distant mountains and dunes. It was really beautiful and worth the early start. When we made it back down we were greeted with a lovely scrambled egg and baked bean breakfast, a great reward!

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After the sand dunes we jumped in the truck and made our way to Dead Vlei, which looked spectacular in the photos I’d seen on the Internet, it looks like burnt trees in a river bed surrounded by sand dunes. Apparently they are formed when the rains fall in the desert and there is a flash flood in a river which runs all the way into a valley of the sand dunes. This water then gets trapped and vegetation begins to grow. In particular there are the camel thorn trees which are amazingly adapted to living in the desert and can grow roots 80 meters deep to find water. Eventually the water dries up and these trees are left to die and dry up in the middle of nowhere. The white flooring comes from the lime that gets washed down in the rain and eventually is left there when the water evaporates and hardens over time. To get there we had to get into a trailer that was pulled five bumpy kilometres through very deep sand by a tractor. When we pulled up our guide, William, said just wander around and when you’ve had enough come back. It was really pretty there and Caroline and I wandered around for an hour or so taking photos of the enormous dunes and tried to find a dead tree to take a picture similar to the ones I’d seen before. It was nice but I walked over to wait for the return tractor feeling pretty disappointed because it wasn’t anywhere as dramatic as I thought it should be. Whilst chatting to a few of the other guys from the group I heard them ask each other if they’d made it to the black trees in the valley. One of the Dutch lads, Tom (good name!), said yes and showed me his amazing photos. Shiiiiiiiiiiiit. Thanks to the lack of guidance from our guide and lack of any signage we’d missed perhaps one of the best photo opportunities on the planet. There was only one thing to do. We turned straight back round and headed over the two distant sand dunes to find this mystical place, it was time to be a little selfish as we weren’t missing out on this! It was a flipping hot power walk and we were out of water as I’d given our last bit to the little birds! As we climbed one last steep dune I saw exactly the place we were looking for and it was incredible. In the middle of the Namib Desert sat approximately fifty dead, dry and blackened trees in a white rock-like floor all surrounded by tangerine and orange ginormous sand dunes under the bluest of skies. It really was a photographer’s paradise and I was a little peed off at not having longer there but was so, so happy that we’d decided to turn back and find it. The photos are stunning and will be right up there with my favourites come the end of this phenomenal year. (Feel free to check out the extra photos in the link at the end of this blog!)

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After lunch we were back in Marvin the truck and headed to our next campsite via an Apple Pie Shop called Solitaire that used to be owned by a giant Scottsman called Moose McGregor. Poor Moose had passed away earlier this year!!! We were all excited about the sweet treat but unfortunately they had no apple pie ready. Our guides were not having a good day!

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Arriving at our campsite was pretty cool that day. We were literally in the middle of the Namib Desert and were camping on a farm. The dunes were a lot greener than you’d expect. Apparently the levels of rainfall have increased dramatically and this has caused the growth of lots of bushes and grasses.

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The guy who owned the farm was an awesome Namibian guy called Boes Man (Bushman). We spent the early evening on a desert drive where he taught us all about the land and the ways of the traditional Namibian bushmen who’d been hunted and killed to extinction by the 1930’s. He told us they were little yellow skinned people never bigger than 5 foot tall and amazing hunters. They used to hide in the undergrowth and could crawl to their prey so quietly that the could shoot a poisoned arrow as close as 5 foot away from a wild antelope without them knowing that they were there or what happened. He taught us about their hunting, food, history, lifestyle and amazing heritage. He even caught a little lizard and pretended to eat it, much to the horror of the females in the audience. He was completely captivating and everyone had a great time listening to his tales.

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On the advice of Bushman about 7 of us decided that tonight was the night to sleep under the stars and not in our tents. Although there was a watering hole which attracts a leopard, in the grasses apparently a few varieties of poisonous snakes and under the rocks there were scorpions he assured us that none of them would come anywhere near us, so seeing as it wasn’t that cold and there were no mosquitos we dragged our mats and sleeping bags out and drifted off to sleep whilst watching shooting stars fly through the most incredibly clear and bright starry sky you are ever likely to see. It was a cool feeling knowing that it doesn’t get much more basic than this and was amazing to wake up to the bluey orange sky just before sunrise.

Days 6 and 7 of our trip were to be spent in Swakopmund, which is the heavily German influenced adrenalin activity centre of Namibia. We decided that we were going to go Sand-boarding as it looked pretty awesome.

We checked into our lodge for the next two nights and were very surprised at quite how nice the rooms were. It was good to be able to sleep in a real bed after 5 nights sleeping on a PE mattress! That night we decided to all go out to a restaurant called Neopolitania. I had Orx (huge Antelope type creature!) steak for my dinner and it was superb. Like an amazingly tender piece of fillet steak. Eccles went for Kudu and was equally impressed. After that half of us headed out to the town’s nightclub and had a great laugh in a pretty strange place!

The Saturday was sand-boarding day and they came to pick us up at 09:30. We were glad the previous night’s Windhoek beers hadn’t caught up with us and we were hangover free. They drove us out to the sand dunes and explained what we’d be up to and kitted us out with helmets, boards and boots. Then we had the boring bit of having to walk up to the top of a massive dune. At the top we were separated into beginners and people who had snowboarded before. As I’ve been a good few times I strapped myself in and just went for it. To be fair it felt pretty similar and was a lot softer to fall over in! My first run was just a feeler and I went nice and slowly. It was nice and steep and probably about 300 meters long. Once at the bottom I had to begin the long task of climbing back to the top of the run again. Caroline had never been snowboarding so went in the beginners group. On my way up I watched her go on her first ever run. She seemed to be going pretty well until speed got the better of her and she had a pretty tasty wipeout. She had bashed her head a bit and was shaken up but being ‘Competitive Jane’ she gathered herself and we walked back up for run number 2. Next time round she was better and had begun to get the hang of how to turn a little bit. By my third time I felt confident enough I wasn’t going to hurt myself so took on the nice big jumping platform. In total I did 3 jumps and landed them all, only to come a cropper 5 seconds later each time because of the amount of speed if picked up! Still I landed the jumps and had a few cool photos to prove it! On Caroline’s last run for a bit she had got much better and was really beginning to enjoy herself. Thank god, she isn’t the best at learning things that require patience and wants to be amazing at everything instantly!! Confidence up and enjoyment levels high we switched to have a couple of goes on the lie down boards. These were sheets of waxed wood where you lie down and ride them like a magic carpet and extreme speeds for about 20 seconds! It was a great laugh and Caroline (Competitive Jane) was loving it and even managed to clock the second fastest speed of the day at 75 Kph. We knew this because a guy at the bottom had a speed gun! The other fun person there was Zac the terrier dog! He was a cool customer and very friendly. The best bit was when he chased his owner all the way down the dune when she went down on a snowboard. They even supplied a free DVD, lunch and beer. We’d had a great day and were really glad we’d chosen to do sand boarding.

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That night the four South Africans of our group had kindly volunteered to cook us all a Brai, which is basically a BBQ. It was a huge task for them as there were 25 of us eating but they did a great job and gave us tons of food including lamb chops, sausages, chicken skewers and lovely salads. Everyone was pretty tired after Friday night’s partying so we all got an earlyish night.

Spitzkoppe was our next destination. I think in German it means pointed mountain. The landscape was pretty dramatic as we approached our campsite for the night. It was a very flat grassy plain with huge orange coloured, bold, round granite mountains rising up out the ground at random points. We spent the afternoon exploring and went to look at some ancient bushman rock paintings. Just before sunset we climbed the huge Rocky Mountain behind our camp and were treated to a really spectacular African sunset as the huge orange fireball descended right between two of the tallest mountains around. After an excellent fish BBQ a few people spent another night sleeping outside their tents and under the stars.

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After Spitzkoppe we spent a bumpy 5 hours driving to spend the day with a local tribe called the Himbas. These are the tribes people you’ll probably think of when people talk about Namibia. The are one of the last traditional tribes left in Namibia. The ladies are painted with a red paint like substance which is a mixture of butter, ash and ochre to protect them from the desert sun. They are all topless, covered in jewelry made from copper and bones and their hair is tied in clay covered dreadlocks with excitingly designed head pieces. We were shown around their village by a lady called Marie and we first saw the local school which helped teach the kids of the village. Lots of us had brought exercise books, pens and rulers for them which they happily took from us. From there we were shown around their village and the kids had great fun hanging off us like human climbing frames and playing. We met a few of the ladies, saw some traditional dancing and looked inside one of their huts. They also showed us how they washed themselves and their clothes in smoke as they weren’t allowed to use water because of traditions and drought. They also had a Holy Fire that the chief had to keep lit constantly. We’ve been on a few of these types of tours so far this year and to be honest this one felt a little contrived and uncomfortable for us. We got a sense that we were just there so we could make donations and buy their crafts at the end. It was a shame really because they were fascinating people who still lived a very traditional way of life, it’s just I think they got the balance wrong between being a money making project and an interactive chance to see traditional ways of life.

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Up next was something we both were very excited about. A trip to Etosha National Park, which meant lots of game drives and wildlife spotting. Etosha means ‘Great White Place’ due to the enormous salty, clay pan that dominates the middle of the 22,000 square kilometre park. We did our game drives in Marvin (our giant truck) which gave us quite an advantage because we were that little bit higher than usual. We were going to stay in two different campsites with in the National Park which therefore gave us plenty of time to see the wildlife whilst driving to them. Not long after entering the park gates we saw our first giraffe and it was reasonably close. This was a few peoples first game drive so at first we stopped lots to take photos of Springboks, Impalas and Zebras. We however were seasoned game drivers nowadays and were holding out for the big cats and elephants!! Of all the trips we’ve done the one animal that has eluded us so far has been the famous solitary Leopard, so that was top of our list for the next two days. An hour or so into our first drive we made our way over to where there were three cars and a truck parked. To our delight there were three female lions just chilling out under a bush not far from the roadside. They’d obviously had a kill fairly recently as their faces were covered in blood. They are such beautiful animals that I could spend all day just watching them and nothing else. Unfortunately we had somewhere to be so after lots of photos we moved on. On the way to our ‘village’ for the night we saw hundreds more Springboks and Zebras and some giraffes.

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Our camp for the night was pretty good but the undoubted highlight was the floodlit waterhole. So after realising watching the Champions League was impossible we chose to spend our evening watching the Discovery Channel unfold right in front of our own eyes. At the waterhole we were really lucky because not long after we’d settled down a huge Rhinoceros came out of the bushes and spent about half an hour walking around and drinking from the hole. It felt so good just to see it doing what it does naturally. Later on we noticed there was a second one approaching and then a little third one came out the bushes close to the first. This however proved to be a mistake as the giant first one all of a sudden charged the little third one. The speed and the thundering noise of this amazing looking animal charging was a sight and sound to behold. That was a real spectacle and an unbelievable thing to witness. We stayed for another couple of hours but nothing came close to that.

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The following day we were up early to try and catch the animals in the first light of the day. The first thing we saw was a beautiful male lion just basking in the sunshine. Unfortunately the next male lion we saw didn’t look so well and was obviously quite old, frail and skinny. I guess that he wouldn’t last too long with the Hyenas around. Coincidentally that was exactly what we saw next. There were two Hyenas about 50 metres from the road and they had the head of an Impala or Hartebeest which they were feeding on. They are such odd creatures, with ugly faces, long front legs and short back ones. This leads to them having such a strange hunchback posture. Their food also meant that there were a couple of Jackals around trying to steal their breakfast. It was such compelling viewing watch the two tiny Jackals getting closer and closer to the Hyena with the food. It basically ended in a stand off with neither moving.

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After that we moved on and we found another three female lions shading themselves under a bush. As we approached one of them got up and crossed the road and started slowly crawling through the long grass. About 600 meters away there were loads of Zebras she had her eyes on. The Zebras came closer and I think spotted her in the undergrowth as after a while she just stood up and turned back to the other two. Even though we’d not see a chase or kill it was still great to see her in hunting mode. Perhaps she was just doing a recce for their dinner that night. We also went to see the expansive salt pan and our guides gave us a nice little talk about some of the animals we’d seen.

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The morning’s game drive was a monster and lasted nearly 6 hours in total. I chose to spend the afternoon just lazing by the nice swimming pool whilst Caroline went on another game drive. The reason I’d not gone in the afternoon was because we were off on a Night Game Drive. This was pretty cool as 7 of our group jumped in an open safari jeep and entered the park in the pitch black with our only light coming from the red headlights and lamp our guide Barnabus used to search out the reflection of animals out in the bush. Our first stop was for a fairly large pack of 6 or 7 Hyenas. Also there were a few Jackals meaning there must be food around somewhere nearby. Our guide turned his jeep to face the undergrowth and revved his engine. On the third attempt a female lion stood up about 100 meters away and dragged off some Zebra carcus deeper into the vegetation. Barnabus then showed us a nice big trail of blood from where the kill must’ve happened the previous night. It was so cool to be able to see all this. Later on in the drive we also got to see a huge pride of female lions and even better a large number of 6 month old cubs who’d been left on their own whilst mum was away hunting. Watching them in the red light of our truck was incredible. It was just like watching a bunch of giant kittens play fighting. They were leaping around, bitting each other’s tails and chasing each other. It felt special to be able to be so close to these wild little cubs. Eventually they began to get a bit inquisitive about our truck so it was time to move on. Unfortunately we didn’t manage to track down a Leopard and the closest we’d got to finding an elephant for Caroline was being able to smell them close by. Still it had been a really great experience and felt different to see the animals at nighttime.

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So that was that. We packed up our tents for the last time on our 12 day Namibia trip and headed out for the last 15 kilometres of the park. Suddenly one of the Dutch guys, Tom, shouted stop an uttered the immortal word, “ELEPHANT!”. There it was in the distance a big male wandering out of the trees and flapping his ears. Caroline had got her wish she must’ve made on one of the many shooting stars we’d seen over the last few days. Just to top it off, at the same time as finding an Elephant, a lion was walking straight down the road in front of us. It came very close before turning off and running into the bushes. What a perfect way to finish our time in Etosha. The Leopard may still be eluding us but we couldn’t have asked to see much more during our two days.

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The final day of the Namibia trip was going to be a fairly lengthy a dull 450 Km drive back down south to the capital, Windhoek.

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Upon reaching Windy it felt completely different to anywhere else we’d been to in the country. It was a really big city compared to all the small towns we’d been through. Our truck dropped us in the centre which confused us a bit as we thought they’d at least give us a lift. Nevertheless they helped get us a taxi and we said goodbye to some of the group but not our last goodbye to everyone as we were meeting up for our Last Supper that night. The Chameleon hostel we were staying at for a couple of nights was great and exactly what we needed after 10 days sleeping in a tent. It was really spacious with loads of areas to just relax and even had a small swimming pool. Before dinner I continued my domination of Eccles in our worldwide pool competition.

That night most of the group met up at a spectacularly massive restaurant called Joe’s Beer House. The menu was fantastic and we shared some Oryx carpaccio to start and for mains ‘Caroline the Brave’ had Zebra, medium rare obviously and I had some Ostrich, Springbok and Kudu. They were all absolutely gorgeous and it was really interesting eating these exotic game steaks. So after trying to split a bill 20 ways we said our final goodbyes to the group and although we had only spent 12 days together we felt quite close to some of them so it was a little sad. We sneaked in a final drink with a lovely South African couple from the group called Keith and Alison as they also we staying in a different hostel to the group. It was a very nice way to finish the evening, only tarnished by a wasted Japanese man who kept trying to steal our women away from us!!

It had been a fantastic 12 day tour with Nomads. Our only slight grievance was with our guides William and Victor. Perhaps we’d been really spoilt back in our 2008 Africa trip with our guides Sammy and Julius who were absolutely amazing, so, so friendly and couldn’t have done more for us. Unfortunately the same couldn’t be said about this year’s guys. Whilst they were really nice guys we just got the feeling they were there for the money and not too much else. William had really let people down with his lack of directions or guidance as to where to find the spectacular tree valley in Dead Vlai, which staggered us because it’s in the top three things to see in Namibia. It would be like going to London and not knowing where Big Ben was. He did apologise for that but I still don’t know how a guy whose been guiding for over 10 years didn’t know their location, leading to lots of our group missing out on one of the most dramatic places I’ve ever seen. We’d also had a disagreement with William about booking a night safari and when it was booked up he basically accused us of not asking the right questions and it was our fault. We didn’t stand for it and defended ourselves staunchly. Every night Victor cooked great and plentiful food for us but then would just sit in the truck or far away from us on his phone and wouldn’t really interact with the group which was a real shame as he was very funny and a nice young lad. William would always complain about being very tired after dinner and would try and get to bed very early on all but two nights. Which was fine but left us wanting a bit more from our guides. The biggest insult was that after the last night’s meal at Joe’s Beer House they just left without even saying goodbye to us. We felt pretty aggrieved and let down as we’d paid lots of money and even tipped them. But don’t get me wrong the 12 days had been beyond fantastic and an awful lot of that was because of William and Victor.

The last day in Namibia was spent just lounging at our fantastic Chameleon Hostel and getting our orange sand covered clothes washed before heading out for a great Indian meal at Garnish just around the corner.

So after missing out on Namibia 6 years ago we were so glad we’d fulfilled our promise to come back one day and see it. What a wonderfully diverse country with so much to see and do. The few minutes in the real Dead Vlai will stay with us for a long time and I adore the photos I got and can’t wait to make them into canvases. The safaris had been great and spying on the animals as they went about their business at night time was very special. We’d met some great people from all around the world on the trip and am sure they went on to have a great time in Botswana and Zambia.

That just leaves me to say a big thank you to Namibia and its people for not only living up to our expectations but exceeding them!

Next it’s time to say Jambo to Kenya.

There are an extra-ordinary amount of photos from one of the most photogenic countries we’ve been to. If you want to see more then please click here…….

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Tommy and Caroline ‘The Return!’ is getting scarily close. See you soon.

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The W (for WOW!) Trek

Torres Del Paine

The next thing on our fairly packed agenda was to head back into Chile to a small town called Puerto Natales which is well known for being the gateway to Southern Patagonia and an amazing national park named Torres Del Paine. We had decided we needed to challenge ourselves even further than we have done in the last couple of months and were going to take on a 5 day 4 night trek over 67 Km of pretty rugged, mountainous terrain with hopefully a dramatic last day sighting of the three rocky Mountain towers (Torres). This is know as the ‘W Trek’, due to the shape and direction of the walk.

W Trek route

We spent the first night in a fairly basic hostel but the second night we moved to a well renowned hostel named Erratic Rock. It has a great reputation, mostly because at 3 pm everyday they hold a free information talk for people wishing to visit the national park and undertake either the W trek or the whole circuit (the O trek which takes more like 10 days). The Chilean guy who have the talk was superb and gave everyone (about 30 people) in the room a great idea of what to expect and what to bring. This was going to be a pretty full on trek by our normal standards as we were going to be pretty much self sustained for the whole trip meaning we had to bring and cook all our food on a tiny camping stove, carry our tent, sleeping bags and clothes for all types of weather all in our world famous Two Bags!! So we spent all of the rest of Wednesday buying and packing as much food as we could and then thinking about what clothes we might need. By the time our bags were zipped up tight they were both pretty fit to bursting point and must’ve weighed nearly 15kg’s each which wasn’t ideal considering we’d be lugging them up and down steep mountains for up to 7 hours a day. However, as I don’t like being hungry I demanded we took all the food we could carry!

We awoke early on Thursday, wolfed down a hearty breakfast and set off up the road to the station and caught the bus to Torres Del Paine. After a couple of bumpy hours and a sneaky half an hours catermeran cruise over the lake we arrived at our starting point. Unfortunately for us it also started to throw it down, so we had to have a quick wardrobe change into more waterproof clothing and attempted to cover up our big rucksacks as best we could. Its fair to say that Caroline handled the testing starting conditions a lot better than me, as I struggled to see the point of climbing up these steep hills with a heavy backpacking in the cold, driving rain. Whereas, Eccles thought it was pretty and that a bit of rain wasn’t anything to worry about! Instead I switched myself into Grumpy Beast mode and got on with it setting a decent pace until eventually the rain stopped and we were greeted to some sunshine and some fantastic views over the mountain ranges, iceberg lakes and even the astonishing Grey Glacier (our second glacier of the week!). Once we weren’t cold anymore and we could see the beautiful views I started to understand why we were here, it was pretty spectacular and felt nice to be in the middle of nowhere, at the bottom of our planet!! Our first walk was 10.5 km, which was a pretty decent way to warm up for the next few days. Even though distance wasn’t enormous it was still pretty tough as our backpacks felt heavy and some of the hill climbs were pretty steep in both directions. We made it to our campsite in the Grey Refugio in about 4 and a half hours, which is not bad with food and water breaks every hour! The best bit was we didn’t need to worry about carrying tonnes of water as the water from the streams was a pure as it ever could be because it flowed straight from the melted ice and snow on top of the mountains! We pitched our minuscule tent, boiled a welcome tea and coffee before we headed off to take a closer look at the Grey Glacier. It was pretty fantastic and enormous in size but we had definitely been spoilt with seeing the even more stunning Perito Moreno Glacier a few days previous. We went back to camp, demolished the tasty chilli we made the previous and were left with little choice than to grab an early night as the temperature began to drop with the sun setting.

Caroline's view

Grey Glacier and its Icebergs

Woody the Woodpecker

Kayaks in front of Grey Glacier

We woke up around 7am and Caroline cooked up a tasty power porridge considering we only had powdered milk to work with, the added tinned peaches gave us plenty of energy to take on the 11 Km hike back along the route we had taken the day before. It was much needed as all the hills we had wandered down previously were even harder clambering back up them! The scenery was equally amazing as the day before and distances were covered quickly thanks to my strict 15 minutes per chewy sweet discipline! We made it back to where the boat had dropped us off and rustled up a strange but tasty concoction of soup, quinoa, tinned tuna (akin to cat food!) and salami. It was actually miles better than it sounds and again gave us a little boost for the afternoon which would be another 8 Km trek to our nights free campsite at Campiamento Italiano.

Lunchtime View

I think the morning’s power walking session had taken its toll as we both felt pretty tired by the time we got there at 15:30. I put up the tent as Ecco went on tea and coffee duty. As soon as we’d finished we went for an early tea as we were now working like athletes and demanding calories like crazy. On the menu tonight was mushroom risotto, peas and frankfurters!! Yet again it was pretty yummy and generally was a million times better than the vast majority of other people’s tea which was either pot noodle, plain pasta or plain rice. We were spending our night camping in the woods next to a very fast flowing river of glacier melt. It made for a beautiful place with the most fantastic place to grab your drinking water and do your dishes. As with the previous day it began to get pretty nippy early on so we climbed into our sleeping bags and went to bed by around 7pm (it’s not all rock and roll this year!!). Unfortunately it was pretty cold and uncomfortable so we didn’t get the best nights sleep and woke up at at 6:30 felling pretty jaded. A quick power porridge and coffee made us feel better and we packed up a much lighter bag for the morning to make our way up the nearby mountain to get an excellent view the surrounding glaciers and mountain ranges of The French Valley. The coolest thing we saw that day was that every now and then there would be a pretty huge avalanche which would fall from the enormous mountain opposite and would then be followed by massive rumble and crash. After nearly 3 hours of pretty steep uphill climbing through streams, boulder fields and forests all surrounded by a vicious flowing glacier river we reached the lookout point at Camp Britanico. The view was absolutely spectacular up there. We sat for a few minutes and took some obligatory photos before turning back around and heading straight back down. As it was downhill we got down half an hour quicker but were pretty pooped in time for lunch.After we had repacked our tent and bags we set off on a fairly straightforward 2 hour walk to our next campsite called Los Cuernos.

Steep hill climb

For once the path was a lot more straightforward and we reached our nights campsite earlier than planned and even managed to grab a fairly pricey beer with the sun still out. Again we watched more avalanches crash down the mountain opposite and saw a couple of huge ones! The added benefit of this campsite was that it had lots of hot water and meant we could finally grab our first shower after 3 sweaty days! It felt amazing to be clean again. A surprisingly tasty dinner of instant mash and veggie mince was again wolfed down before we both retired to bed before 9 feeling pretty knackered after another 6 and half hours of trekking and a big day of 11 Km walk ahead of us the next day!

Chilenos Camp Kitchen

So our last full day of hiking began pretty coldly again so we struggled to get out of our sleeping bags. We eventually set off just after 9 and headed to the campsite at Los Chilenos which was meant to be about 4 – 5 hours walk away.

The Morning's trek route

We felt pretty used to trekking with our heavy packs now so the first couple of hours went pretty quickly with the added bonus of a cookie an hour rations! After the third hour things took a turn for the worst as it was pretty relentlessly uphill for about 45 minutes thanks to us taking the ‘shortcut’ route. When we could eventually see the Refugio (campsite) at the bottom of a kilometre long hill we got an added spring in our step and I even ran a bit of it! We made it in just under 4 hours and were a little spent. We put our tent up and had a well earned lunch. During that meal we had the crazy idea of perhaps going up to see the world famous viewpoint of Las Torres (three spiked mountain towers!) as the weather was good and we somehow still had a little energy left. Boy did we need it as it was an hour uphill and over streams to the closed Las Torres Campsite and then a pretty remarkable and very tough 45 minute scramble up and over a boulder field.

The Final climb to Las Torres

As we neared the top the tips of the three peaks appeared and looked amazing. This was nothing compared to when we finally scaled the boulders. We were greeted with a crystal blue Laguna below waterfalls descending from glaciers beneath the three 2000 metre rocky peaks. It was so beautiful it had made all the hard work and trekking worthwhile. There were plenty of times my bottom lip had come out and I’d questioned this pointless walking but finally I appreciated just how beautiful this National Park could be. A special note must go to Caroline’s relentless happiness and positivity during the whole trek. Even when we got of the boat on the first day and got absolutely drenched and freezing she said, “it’s fine, it’s nice, it’s character building and I promise it will all be worth it!” I took some persuading and there were definitely times when I wasn’t overly enamoured with so much walking, I finally got into it (perhaps as the finish line was in sight!) plus I saw it as some pretty amazing exercise and a sneaky bit of leg training for the Tough Mudder I’m doing in July again!!

Conquered Las Torres

(If you want to see Caroline’s LIVE reaction to meeting Las Torres then click here for a short video!)

The last day began with a quick uphill trek and then a pleasant, relatively easy downhill hour which left us with just enough time to have one last gas stove cooked mushroom risotto before catching the bus back to Puerto Natales. Everyone was knackered and pretty much passed out asleep for the couple of hours it took to get back to town. That night we were invited out for dinner with the lovely couple we’d met during the W Trek, Benedict from France and Mitchell from Oz (plus another Aussie/Kiwi couple). Mitchell had done a little research an found an amazing restaurant called Afrigonia which was an African influenced Patagonian food. I ordered an amazing steak and we all shared some lovely red wine which was soon to become a standard pairing as we were heading back to Argentina.

The next morning we were up super early again to cross the Argentinian border on a 14 hour bus to the last City on Earth called Ushuaia. I’d been to a place called Ushaia before but that was a super club in Ibiza on my mate’s Stag Do so I figured this time would be a little different. Unbeknown to us we also had to cross the Straits of Magellan on a large ferry. We got an added surprise when some pretty awesome looking black and white dolphins started swimming in the wake of the boat, they looked similar to Orcas but a lot smaller.

A few Patagonian Wool Lambs

After arriving pretty late we spent our first day sorting and planning a rough itinerary for the next couple of weeks as my brother would be joining us in Buenos Aires for a couple of weeks. In the evening we went out for a few beers and an average pizzas with our new found friends, Mitchell and Benedict who were doing pretty much the same route as us just a couple of days in front. This was really great as they could give us loads of handy tips on where to go and what to do.

We got up early to take a catermeran cruise to see giant Sea Lions, an amazingly photogenic lighthouse and Magellan Penguins. Caroline was ferocious in her hunt for some King Penguins (the ones on the biscuits!!) as Mitchell and Benedict had seen them the day before, but unfortunately for her (or do I mean me!). As you’d expect being the last City before the Antarctic it was blooming freezing cold whilst you were stood on the deck, so photos were taken quickly before heading back to the nice warm cabin.

Ushuaia

Scrapping Sea Lions

The beautiful lighthouse

A Shouty Penguin

Cute

We reached The End of The Earth

Once more in the interest so saving a few pounds we chose an indirect route to Buenos Aires via El Calafate which was fine apart from the slightly dull 7 hours lay over in a small airport!! On board of the second flight the lady who sat next to Caroline spent 4 hours colour correcting all her photos of the King penguins she had seen somewhere in Ushuaia! Miss Eccles was not amused, her bottom lip was out and the illusive King penguins have been added to her ever expanding ‘must see sometime’ list!

The woman and her King Penguin photos

We landed in the Argentinian capital around 10 pm and jumped straight in a taxi to take us to the B & B my brother Will had sorted out for us. We were both really excited to see him after an emotional goodbye nearly 10 months ago. He’s a very talented little man and can get extremely busy so we were delighted he’d managed to find time to join us for a little slice of our trip. As we got out the taxi I noticed another taxi pull up an instantly knew that would be him. Even though he’d left from London three hours earlier than we had from Ushuaia (in the same country!) we pulled up at exactly the same time. I think when we first saw each other we were both distracted with paying our drivers so we had a quick very formal English handshake. Then we dropped our bags and had a huge group hug. It was going to be a fun 12 days!!

We worked hard on the W trek to see some stunning scenery so please forgive me for the number of photos, but if you want to see more then just click here.

Hasta Luego.

Tommy and Caroline.
x

Intrepid Explorers!

Iceberg Right Ahead!!

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We arrived in San Pedro de Attacama – a town in the driest desert in the world – and stumbled into a YHA Hostel that had room. It seemed nice enough at first so we dumped our bags as we couldn’t check in for another couple of hours and went to find something healthy to eat after a recent diet of fried stuff and rice. When we returned to our hostel and we were shown to our room which was pretty small for two of us. However it wasn’t just the two of us as there was allegedly enough room for five people in the tiny room; one bunk bed for two and an impossibly high bunk bed for three! It was going to be cosy in the room but at least the lads in there were some friendly other British lads.

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San Pedro is quite a cool little town in the middle of the desert where the majority of buildings are still made of mud and straw and then painted white. It feels very much like a modern day cowboy town but there were some really nice hotels and restaurants there. It is also nicknamed San Perro (Perro is Spanish for dog) as there are so many dogs in the town, which of course I was a big fan of. There were so many different breeds and not many of them dogs were skanky street dogs but more like nice breads you’d pay hundreds of pounds for in England. There were Labradors, Alsatians and even Corgis running around the sandy streets.

In the town there are a few touristy things to do. The most popular one is to go and visit La Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) where the sands and rocks are supposed to resemble the landscape on the moon, but seeing as we’d spent the last three days driving through exactly that sort of landscape I said I’d prefer to go to the salt lake at Laguna Cejar as the salty waters would be good for my poorly skin!! So not wanting to wait for the afternoon tour crowds and to save a few bob we hired a couple of mountain bikes in town and set off with basic instructions for our 40 Km round trip through the desert. The roads out to the laguna were pretty good apart from a couple of sections which were so bumpy it rattled your brain. After just over an hour Caroline (Victoria Pendleton) and I (Sir Chris Hoy) reached the laguna which was 20 kms away from town. We first went to see a salt lake that was too toxic to swim in followed by the highlight of swimming in Laguna Cejar which has a higher salt content in it than the Dead Sea. Sure enough when you went for a little dip you didn’t sink as you normally would and just floated on top of the surface. If you stood upright in the deep areas the salt water would just support you without needing to touch the bottom. It was a really bizarre feeling and the water was absolutely freezing. Whilst Eccles topped up her already ridiculous tan I sat in the shallows and gave myself a jolly good exfoliation with the salt and the water as apparently it great for Psoriasis. To be honest my skin felt pretty smooth after and I’m sure if you did it a few times in a week it would definitely help. Thoroughly cleansed, rejuvenated and refreshed we cycled back through the baking desert and had a few hours to kill before going on our Star Gazing tour in the evening. Fortunately the restaurant next us us was showing the Man City v Barca match so we settled in and watched our first bit of real footy for ages.

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Caroline is secretly a bit of a nerd and had researched a really good trip to see not just stars and constellations, but also planets like Jupiter through a very powerful telescope! We did the tour with these guys, www.spaceobs.com and would really recommend it! The guy who took the tour was a Canadian genius Astrologer called Alan and for the first hour at his ranch he gave us a really entertaining and fascinating guide of the sky above us and the best bit was that he used a clever laser pen to shoot a green line into the sky to show us exactly what he was talking about.

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He demonstrated to us just how quick the Earth is spinning by pointing at a star at the start of his talk and then showing the same star an hour later which had jumped a fair distance up in the sky. He also pointed out many of the zodiac constellations , the Milky Way and the more famous constellations. After the hours talk we all felt a little bit stupid compared to his genius but he took us inside and gave us a great cup of hot chocolate whilst the 12 telescopes were set up to look at and track many exciting stars and planets.

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The first telescope I looked through was pointing straight at Jupiter and it was fascinating to see the little yellow planet in a bit more detail, you could even make out two grey bands of cloud on the planet and 3 of its 4 moons. The other telescopes featured the brightest star in the sky, Sirius (not the North Star!), an area where new star were being created, a jewel box constellation and the highlight for me a real big close up of the moon where you could even take photographs through the telescope to get the moon’s craters in great detail. It had been a fascinating evening and one where we actually felt as though we’d learnt a bit too!!

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The following day is one of very few we won’t hurry to remember when we look back on this year as it was one where we spent 22 hours on a bus from San Pedro to the capital city of Chile, Santiago. We’ve now become so accustomed to travelling that in truth it wasn’t actually that bad and we both managed to sleep through the whole night.

When we arrived in Santiago we jumped straight on the metro and walked to our hostel (La Chimba) in the Bellavista area of the city. We’d chosen well as it was a beautiful and trendy area of Santiago, full of bars and restaurants and a really nice, but way out of our budget, courtyard with great bars! Instead we stuck to the bars at the side of the street for a few enormous bottles of Escudo local beer and went and demolished our tea as we’d not eaten properly for a day!! After that we went back to La Chimba and found out it was actually 10 times the size of what we thought and we discovered an awesome pool table where as usual I got the better of Eccles!

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Our second day in the city was spent (as usual) looking around the city and finding the Central Market for some lunch. As Chile is so long and thin it’s practically all near the coast line and subsequently the seafood is always very fresh and amazing. The Central Market is almost entirely made up of fishmongers and restaurants, so we carefully (find one that’s busy with Chileans!) picked one and asked our waitress’ advice as to what to have and hoped for the best. What we got were two amazing seafood soups made of fish, clams and mussels. Caroline’s was more of a broth and mine was a bit thicker with melted cheese thrown in too. They were both excellent and incredibly reasonable considering the quality of them both.

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In the evening I collapsed on my bed and Caroline went to explore the giant hill behind us called San Pedro Cerro where there were some incredible views over the city with the Andes Mountain range in the background. This led to some pretty awesome looking sunset photos…..

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Our final day in Santiago was a bit of a relaxing day as we were flying at 11pm that night so I took the chance to visit a cool little CrossFit gym called CrossFit Yagan and was pleasantly knackered out thanks to a few 400 metre runs! After that we took advantage of the hostel’s cable TV and watched Chelsea just beat Everton, England beat Ireland in the rugby and Man U struggle past Palace, it was nice just to see some English sport and even nicer to have some English commentary.

Our route to get to El Calafate in Argentina was not going to be a simple one. Unfortunately the price of flights in South America was a little scary so the only way we could realistically afford to get down to Southern Argentina was to take the highly inconvenient and long indirect flight via Mendoza and Buenos Aires. Unfortunately our first stop was at the very basic and empty Mendoza airport in Argentina where we landed at Midnight and had to spend the next 10 hours before flying to Buenos Aires. So we made the best of a bad situation and found a quite corner in the marble floored closed café and attempted to get what sleep we could. We both managed a bit but woke up pretty stiff from the rock hard floor. I’d like to say the next legs of the journey we fine but unfortunately when we got to our final destination of El Calafate only my rucksack had managed to make it all the way, Caroline’s was nowhere to be seen! After a fairly average conversation with the guy at the baggage desk we were told to go to our hostel and that hopefully the missing bag would turn up either tonight or tomorrow on one of the following flights!! Fortunately for everyone things like that don’t seem to really bother Caroline nowadays, so with only the clothes on her back and looking like a fake tanned, Swedish, raver in fancy dress she smiled and got on with it!! We jumped into a shuttle and went to our next hostel, I Keu Ken, on top of a hill in this quaint little town. That night we had an epic meal inn La Pura Vida restaurant in town. I had Granny’s Recipe lentil and meat casserole and Ecco had an incredible dish of stuffed pumpkin with Patagonian lamb, peaches and cheese. We washed it down with a pretty incredible tasting bottle of Benjamin’s Malbec. We hadn’t splashed out too much recently so it was amazing to do it for once and to be honest for what we ate that night it was very reasonable.

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The only reason we had busted our backs to get to El Calafate was to visit the incredible Perito Moreno Glacier and it must be said it didn’t disappoint us at all and was worth every penny, mile and sleepless hour we’d invested in it. We took the XL tour though our hostel and were taken to it along the a lot less crowded old road via some spectacular scenery and via a small, family ranch were amongst other things they had a pet fox cub.

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The great thing about our tour was that our driver dropped us right at the East end of the balconies (giant metal walkways) where it felt like we had the National Park all to ourselves. We spent the next 3 hours walking our way back along the balconies which faced out to the enormous mass of glacial ice that was across the lake. It’s the only glacier in the world that is advancing and not retreating and moves forward at a rate of 1.6 meters a day. With this movement and the strength of the glorious sunshine we were lucky enough to be greeted with some spectacular collapses / carvings of the 70 meter high ice mass opposite. It was pretty hypnotic just watching and listening to the miles and miles of glacial ice creek and crack. Sometimes the noises were so loud it sounded like gunshots and then every now and then a huge chunk would break off and splash down into the lake below with devastating effect. It would make an incredible noise and then leave a huge shockwave in the lake that would spread out like a tidal wave. We spent hours watching it and taking photos.

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Fortunately it saved its best for last because as we were back near the central balcony where it was busiest there was a loud crack and all of a sudden the whole face of the nearest point of the glacier just crumbled and cracked dropping over a hundred foot of ice and compacted snow into the water below sending an enormous surge of water down stream! It was an incredible thing to witness and I was lucky enough to capture it all on my camera!

CLICK HERE TO WATCH THE MONSTROUS COLLAPSE ON YOUTUBE!!

After that excitement we went on an hours boat ride to see this monstrous glacier from a lower point of view and up a bit closer. To be honest it was a nice boat trip but could match the excitement of the huge collapse we’d seen earlier that day.

Exhausted we went back to our lovely, homely hostel and had a BBQ they’d organised for us. For a tenner we got more meat than even I could handle and wine and beer all thrown in for the price. The chef cooked up some beautiful lamb, beef, chicken, chorizo and black pudding. We spent the evening talking to all the people from around the world in our hostel and I even spent most of the evening speaking in Spanish to the Argentinian guy sat next to me. The day had been like a lovely dream for us and we both collapsed into our beds content with the fact that today had been right up there with the most spectacular days we’ve had during our 8 and a half months up to that point!

From the lovely little El Calafate we caught a bus for 5 hours back to Chile and the small town of Puerto Natales where we would be going on a 4 day trek into the National Park of Torres Del Paine. That blog is already written and will follow pretty soon after this one as we have a little catching up to do. Must have been enjoying ourselves too much or something.

Lots of additional photos are available to look at here.

T and C.

x

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Breathtaking Bolivia

After our sensible (ish) behaviour at the fiesta in Puno we headed off to La Paz, a City with an elevation of 3,640 m (11,942 ft) with only slight headaches. We’d booked our bus through the hostel and generally whichever bus company we’d booked with in Latin America, that was the bus we travelled on. (unlike in Asia when it was sheer luck) The lovely looking bus we’d booked was nowhere to be seen and instead our transport was a bit rough around the edges. Apart from my seat being broken and seat-belt not working everything was fine!!
We arrived at the Bolivian border and realised that we (Tom) had lost my exit card from Peru…oops. Thankfully for us the authorities were willing to overlook this in return for a payment of about £6 so all in all it could have been a lot worse. Borders are generally a pain, and apart from the big queues this one was relatively straightforward and within the hour we were back on the bus continuing on with our journey. We stopped at a place called Copacabana and all piled off the bus and were told to meet again at 1pm to continue on to La Paz. Luckily for us Tom overheard the bus worker telling someone else that the time had changed and Bolivia was an hour ahead of Peru. Probably quite a useful thing to tell all the passengers!! That only gave us half an our so we grabbed a quick bite to eat and headed back to the bus.

We’d been on our new bus for about 20 minutes when the heavens opened and a hail storm commenced. Unluckily for us this coincided with the exact moment we reached the Lake Titicaca crossing and had to get off the bus and on to a rickety passenger ferry, it was very much like being back in Asia! The only slight problem being that our waterproofs were under the bus in the hold, aaah. We all huddled under a shop awning, attempting (and failing) to stay dry. As usual there were no instructions from the driver on what we were meant to be doing so we just followed some locals away from our rain shelter and onto the boat for the 5 minute journey across the lake.

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As our bus continued on I read up on La Paz. As Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in Latin America I wasn’t sure what to expect from the big city but my lonely planet informed me that the initial views were breathtaking, and not just because of the altitude…the book didn’t lie!!

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For some reason rather than going into the actual bus station our bus dropped us off just outside on a busy roundabout…why? After grabbing our bags and successfully negotiating oncoming traffic we headed towards the centre. We hadn’t actually got round to booking a hostel but I’d read about one near to the bus station so we decided to try there. It had a pool table, it’s own micro brewery and a free beer each day, you can’t ask for more from your lodgings!!

The hostel was actually great and they even had their own travel company so we could book our tickets for the death road bike trip!! Loads of people we’d spoken to who had already been to La Paz said that death road was a must see and to be honest, I don’t need much persuasion when it comes to extreme activities. There were umpteen companies to choose from for the trip but we decided a bit of research wouldn’t go amiss. Saving a few bolivianos wasn’t really worth the risk as we’d be hurtling down a mountain road at more than 30mph with vertical drops of 600 metres to our left…so we could probably do with a bike with working brakes!!

We finally decided on a company called Barracuda, they weren’t the cheapest but weren’t the most expensive and had excellent reviews. After booking the trip for the next day we headed into La Paz for a look around and to find some food. There was a nice feel about the place and we both liked it immediately. It did feel like a poorer city than ones we’d been to previously in Latin America but at the same time we didn’t feel unsafe. We’d heard reports of it being a bit dangerous but we didn’t get that impression at all. Tom read about a local steak restaurant up a hill so decided to go there and see what all the fuss was about. The steak was amazing and made us even more excited about the food we were going to eat in Argentina, a country famous for its red meat.

The next day was Death Road day and we were both really excited. Death Road was built in the 1930’s and earned it’s notoriety in 1995 after a study revealed that there were between 200-300 deaths a year on the 64 kilometre mountain track. Although a new road opened in 2006 there are still a few lorries and cars to contend with on the sometimes single track road, although not as many as in the past, thankfully. 18 backpackers have need killed since cyclists started tackling its hairpin bends 12 years ago, so it’s definitely not for the faint hearted!! We drove through some incredible scenery to get to our starting point, which wasn’t actually death road. We were going to practise first on a very steep downhill road but without the scary drops at the side!!

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It was great fun hurtling down these wide roads but it did make you realise the speeds you could get…we probably didn’t want to go quite so fast when there was a 600 metre drop at the side of the road!!

After the practice section was complete we got back onto the bus and drove up to the start of death road passing a sign with an arrow pointing to “the road of death”, lovely. Our guide was brilliant and gave us information on what to expect from each section along with his golden rule, don’t be a f**king idiot! He told us a story about a couple who’d been taking pictures of each other whilst riding and the girl turned around to smile at her boyfriend and went straight over the edge and died…note to self, eyes on the road at all times!!

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The whole day was absolutely amazing and actually wasn’t as scary as I’d anticipated. In parts the road was only the width of a single vehicle and was gravelly with large stones and rocks rather than lovely smooth tarmac like on our practice road. At one point a huge lorry sounded it’s horn, which was deafening as it came hurtling around the corner at us, that was pretty scary. There isn’t as much traffic on the road now, thankfully, I can’t even imagine watching 2 cars try and overtake each other. (There was a Top Gear special where they did this) The views along the road were amazing, although I only glanced at them very briefly for fear of ending up like the aforementioned girl.

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All on all it was a brilliant day riding through waterfalls and streams along the most dangerous road in the he world. At the end we stopped for some food and a well deserved beer and celebrated surviving a bike trip down the world’s most dangerous road!!

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The next day we went for a wander around the city. I wanted to go and see the prison (more about that later) and the witches’ market. The Witches’ Market is run by local witch doctors and sells weird and wonderful potions and powders used in Bolivian rituals. The most bizarre thing they sell are dried up Llama foetus which when buried under foundations of Bolivian homes bring good luck, it was so interesting to see. After that we headed to the main plaza where the pink prison was located. I can understand why people may think it’s odd to want to see a prison in Bolivia, but this is no ordinary jail.

San Pedro prison is the largest prison in La Paz and is renowned for being a society within itself. Inmates at San Pedro have jobs inside the prison community, buy or rent their accommodation, and often live with their families. The prison is home to approximately 1,500 inmates (not including the women and children that live inside the walls with their convicted husbands), with additional guests staying in the prison hotel. Within the prison walls there are shops and restaurants and it looks more like a town square than a prison. If you are rich you can buy a room in the 5 star area which has incredible facilities including jacuzzis whilst the poorer people are in the 1 or no star areas where they share windowless cells. Up until 2013 tourists could have a tour of the prison led by an inmate but this was stopped by the government because it was being used as a way to sell cocaine to tourists. (although apparently they can still happen if you bribe a guard) The weird part about it all is the guards don’t enter the cells. The prisoners basically do as they wish cook their own food and have to pay for everything within the prison. I was ridiculously intrigued by this place so wanted to go and see it. From the outside it didn’t look like a prison (probably because it was pink and right in the middle of the city plaza) and as we looked through the main door into the courtyard we could see a mass of prisoners just wandering around, bizarre.

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Our next stop in Bolivia was a place called Uyuni which was about a 15 hour overnight bus ride away. We’d heard reports that the roads were pretty bad and the bus journey wasn’t at all comfortable. We decided to try and counteract his by paying a bit more for a comfier bus but to be honest I don’t think it made much difference. The road seemed pretty similar to the condition of death road, albeit without the sheer drops, and we both got little sleep.

We arrived in Uyuni at 8am and headed straight to the office to pay for our three day two night salt flats tour which I’d booked the day before. This was the main reason we’d wanted to come to Bolivia as the famous salt flats and surrounding lagoons are said to be one of the highlights of South America. The problem was because there were so many people wanting to do the trip, there were tons of different tour companies with varying degrees of safety and reliability. I’d read stories of drivers bring drunk and falling asleep at the wheel, inedible food and disinterested guides to name but a few complaints. After scouring reviews I settled with a family run company called Quechua Connections, and kept my fingers crossed that I’d made a good choice.
First impressions were good and after paying for the trip we headed off for breakfast and to investigate the public shower. Uyuni was a very basic looking town in the middle of the desert so I didn’t hold out much hope for a decent shower in the public toilets, but I was proved wrong. Our standards are so low now that having a wash in an outhouse with stone floors, no roof and insects everywhere was actually an enjoyable experience all because there was warm water!!

Our tour began with with a trip to see 700+ year old cacti and the train cemetery. It was really odd to see so many abandoned trains in the middle of the desert. They were used for transporting mined minerals up until the 1940s but once they were no longer needed they were all dumped in the desert.

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From there we headed to the world’s largest salt flats, Salar de Uyuni, 3,656 meters (11,995 ft) above sea level. The flats are 10,582 square kilometers (4,086 sq mi) and were absolutely beautiful. It felt and looked like we were driving on ice but obviously it was salt. As we were visiting in rainy season we were a bit concerned that we wouldn’t get the funny photos everyone had been showing us, we needed have worried. We started off at the wet ice and it was like looking at a giant mirror. The effect it had on the horizon was amazing and at times it was impossible to tell where the land ended and the sky began, just beautiful.

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After sitting on the beautiful wet salt to eat some food we sat on top of the van and were taken to the dry flats. There, along with two people from our jeep (there were 6 of us in the jeep but a spanish couple didn’t want to take part!?) we spent an hour and a half having great fun playing with perspectives. Luckily for us our guide/driver Dion had brought tons of props and was brilliant at setting up the photos, we had so much fun.

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After we felt like we had enough photos we headed off to watch the sunset over the reflecting wet salt flats. Our driver took us away from the crowds and found us a quiet piece of salt with no-one else around and we just sat and watched the huge orange ball disappear beyond the horizon whist drinking coffee and eating biscuits. It was honestly one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen

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That night we stayed at a lodge run by more members of the family and we were thankful for an early night after an unforgettable day.

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After breakfast we headed off into the desert to see lagoons, flamingos and breathtaking scenery.

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The pictures honestly don’t do any of it justice and we were all constantly amazed at the vastness and prettiness of our surroundings. That night we stayed at a very basic but rustic stone lodge in the middle of the desert. There were a few other tour groups there and this was when we realised that we really had lucked out with our company choice. Whilst everyone else was eating pasta and sauce we say down and tucked into a 3 course meal with wine and then Dion and the other guide from our group Jose built us a bonfire and joined us outside to star gaze and drink red wine around the bonfire.

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The next morning We had to be up at 4.30 am so we could watch the sun rise up over the geysers. Wandering around the smelly geysers was a bit like something from a horror film and I felt like the ground would give way at any moment and I’d fall in to the stinky sulphuric cauldron. Luckily this didn’t happen and we couldn’t stay for more than 10 minutes due to the harmful gases.

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From here we headed to the natural hot springs. Our guide told us to go in straight away before all the crowds turned up, it was relatively quiet at this point. It was still only 6.30am and pretty chilly, the last thing I felt like doing was stripping off into my bikini in what felt like sub zero temperatures…but the steam coming from the hot pools was too enticing.

It was like getting into a bath when you’re really cold and the bath is a little bit too hot! Once we’d adjusted though it was amazing, although getting back out into the cold wasn’t enjoyable!

After breakfast and a quick visit to the green lagoon our whistle stop tour of Bolivia was over and we headed for the Chile border. I wish we’d had more time to explore this amazingly beautiful and diverse country but I’m really pleased we had chance to experience what we did. Bolivia may be one of the poorest countries in Latin America but it’s blessed with some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen.

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As usual we have lots more photos, please click here to have a look.

Amazonian Adventures

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The Beautiful Amazon

I, Tommy, have felt pressure at times writing this blog knowing that Caroline is much the better author, a qualified journalist no less and she is capable of conveying sentiment and feeling much better than me. However, if I can’t make our 5 days in The Amazon sound interesting I may as well stop writing now. It is beyond doubt the most fascinating and divers place I’ve ever had the fortune to visit and I’ve certainly seen some incredible places so far in the last 8 months and throughout my 34 years on this beautiful planet.

Caroline had done a magnificent job of researching just the right guides for us on this trip and had made sure we were going to get a real personalised tour and not be just part of a huge, safe, pampered, tourist group. Our guides, Gerson and Frank, met us at Iquitos airport and took us to our hostel in a little tuk-tuk, where they played us a video of the things we were going to see and do for the following 5 days and 4 nights in the Peruvian side of The Amazon, all set to some strange Elton John music!

It’s always been a dream of mine to go to this magical place and I’ve been fascinated with it for as long as I can remember. I have always watched every program possible on the Amazon, from nature programs by David Attenborough to survival programs by Bear Grylls and Ed Stafford. They’ve only ever fed my imagination and I’ve couldn’t believe we were on the verge of finally going there.

Back in Iquitos we spent the day trying to buy long sleeved tops and insect repellent. Apparently though this is almost impossible to do in a city where lots of people leave from for their Amazon tours. Bearing in mind the local people sell literally everything it seems somebody is missing a huge trick here. Iquitos is famous for being the biggest city in the world that cannot be reached by road, you’re only options are via the rivers or the air. It leads to it being quite a strange, isolated city.

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Tuk tuk to the port

It was a very early start as Gerson picked us up in a minibus at 5:30 am. There we met another lovely Kiwi couple called Heather and Dave who would be on the trip for 3 days with us. We drove to the port in Nauta from where we took our 2 hour long boat after demolishing a decent breakfast in town. There was an ominous sign when the sky turned very black and the lads started rolling down the blue plastic sheets that were to act as windows. Sure enough just as we set off the heavens opened. This is never a good thing when you are in a rainforest area and it absolutely threw it down for about an hour. We hadn’t quite had the amazing views of The Amazon we’d imagined to begin with but as the rain stopped we rolled up the blue sheet windows to see freshwater dolphins in the river just breaking the surface. That was more like it.

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Just after the rains stopped

We got to the village where we were staying and it was everything we’d hoped for. Very traditional, stilted, wooden huts with palm thatched roofs. Basic but just what we wanted, we didn’t wish to see The Amazon the easy way from a 5 star resort in a big boat. We wanted a small group with the best indigenous guide we could find and to be right amongst the real Rainforest. Gerson and his side-kick, Frank (The Jungle Clown), were absolutely amazing and it was fantastic to be with people who have spent all their lives in The Amazon.

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Our Bedroom for 4 nights

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Thankfuilly we had a mosquito net

Our first day was one we will struggle to ever forget. After a lovely lunch we headed out in our wooden long boat to go hunting for anacondas on foot! Unfortunately we didn’t find any that day but just walking around in the densest most beautiful rainforest in the world was unreal. It was like being on a movie set, only the dangerous animals were very, very real. Gerson and Frank pointed out lots of beautiful plants and birds and even convinced us all to eat a few very large larvae that were growing in a fruit. It was much like the big grubs you’ve seen them eat on ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!’ Gerson promised it didn’t taste that bad and to just think of coconut. To be honest the taste was a little bit like coconut, it was just the first initial crunch that was a bit off putting! Still we were up for pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones over the next few days and this was just the start. We also stuck our hands in a termites nest and ate them off out fingers. This time the taste was even more surprising, they tasted like chocolate orange!!

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Our Larvae breakfast

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Chocolate Orange flavoured termites

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Frank our Jungle Clown

After the trek we were back in our little 6 Seater long boat and just cruising along a river so thick with floating plants that you couldn’t see the water felt pretty special. As the sun began to drop and darkness took over, Gerson said we were no way near finished and proclaimed we were off to catch Caiman (crocodiles)!! So powering our way down the Amazon with only the power of head torches and flashlights we took a turn down a practically invisible tributary. About thirty seconds down this ridiculously dark and enclosed water way I spotted a small pair of orange eyes high up a tree reflecting my torchlight and alerted I the guides. Sure enough they were eyes and unfortunately for Caroline the belonged to a snake. At first it looked like a pretty small one but then as we got closer to it it was actually about 5 feet long. Not content with just looking at it from afar Gerson made some ninja type move and grabbed its head and brought it on board the boat for us all to have a closer look. As I’ve mentioned Caroline likes snakes about as much as I like Nottingham Forest so she was pretty on edge about it being less than a metre away from her. It was a beautiful light brown and black colour and had wrapped its powerful body all around Gerson’s arm whilst he kept hold of its head. We asked the two obvious questions, 1) what sort of snake was it? and 2) was it poisonous? To which Gerson calmly replied it was a Tree Viper and yes it was very poisonous and would we like to hold it? Knowing that Vipers are up there with the most dangerous of snakes we all politely declined the offer and instead took heaps of photos with the expert holding it. As Gerson put it back in the tree it gave one final warning of its danger as it coiled up in the famous S shape whilst dangling from a branch. Needless to say we left it alone and moved away. Next up the guides directed our boat into the floating plants and reeds so Gerson could catch a Caiman. Soon enough a small 2 year Croc was on our boat and being passed around for a few amazing photos of us all holding it. Carefully we put it back into the water and moved on. We tried once more to find another however, the only thing we succeeded in doing was getting the boat stuck in the reeds. As the boys struggled to untangle us we got bombarded with insects and 4 small tarantulas also decided to try and hitch a lift home. They were not the usual type of tarantula but were still big ass spiders all the same. Dave and Heather opted for the pretend they are not there approach until we got home. It had been a really phenomenal first day and after a good feed we all collapsed into our beds amongst the cacophony of noise you’d expect whilst sleeping in The Amazon. Fortunately we were all too knackerd to worry about what may or may not be crawling around our rooms whilst we slept, plus we had decent mosquito nets to keep the baddies away!!!

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Gerson with the first of many Tree Vipers

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Ecco and I with our Caimen catch

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You are free to go now!

The second day began with a fascinating jungle medicine trek where the boys showed us things like iodine trees, rubber trees and palm tree roots with such big barbs on them that they used to be used as nasty weapons by the tribes people as they were both sharp and toxic!! We also got to eat lots of weird wonderful jungle foods like fruits that tasted like figs, small coconuts full of water, palm hearts and small oranges! The many insects in there were all fascinating apart from the 1000’s of Mosquitos that were so strong they bit me through my clothes!! I must’ve ended up with about 200 bites on my elbows and back and had to try my best not scratch them.

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Leaf Cutter ants go about their business ignoring Gerson

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Gerson and his Jungle weapon

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Fresh water from the Cat Claw tree root

After a beautiful fish lunch we went off to Monkey islands loaded up with food to feed the apes. After a quick search with their amazing eyes the guides pulled us up next to the river’s edge and sure enough about 6 monkeys of all different shapes, sizes and species appeared to grab some banana and bread. They were incredible and were mostly Howler monkeys, not angry or aggressive like the other monkeys we’d met on our trip already. These little cuties were happy to climb aboard our boat and sit on your lap whilst they had their lunch. A little small one with a poorly eye took a special shine to Caroline and spent the entire time either sat on her lap eating its bread or on the back of her neck searching for nits!! It was awesome to get to see these amazing mammals up so close!

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Awesome Monkey Island

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Caroline and her new best friend

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Howler Monkey with his 16 year old boys haircut

Next we headed to a village where there was a house where a couple of sloths had decided to live in its rafters after the river burst its banks in 2012. One of them was down and we were allowed to cuddle it. It was so incredible. Even though you know they move slowly, having it wrap its arms and legs around you as it very slowly looked around and munched on was phenomenal and felt very special. After that I played a couple of games of footy with the villagers (all with money riding in them!!) Whilst I had a great time and sweated out some of the four tonnes of rice we’d recently eaten it wasn’t ideal to be playing in green wellies and I picked up a fairly gnarly blister.

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Two sloths, but which one is slower

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All smiles here

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Smith slots a killer through ball in his Nike Wellies

As the sun set we went on our night jungle trek to see what lurked in the shadows…..
We saw scorpions, a huge bull frog which pee’d all over me when I held it, poisonous frogs, scorpion spiders and tarantulas which we even put on our face under the promise they wouldn’t bite. At one point we turned all our headlamps off just to listen to the jungle noises in the pitch black. After the initial fear it was actually beautiful and kind of relaxing, but I wouldn’t have liked to do it without our guides being there. On the way home Gerson caught another viper and brought it on board again. This one was only a baby but was still highly toxic!!! He even released it back into the river so we could see it swim away, needless to say this didn’t help improve Caroline’s fear of snakes very much!

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A giant Bullfrog

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Poisonous Tree Frog

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Scorpion

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Caroline is now officially not scared of anything (except snakes)

On Day three heavens opened again in the morning so we had to wait a while before we set off on our piranha fishing expedition. When we did get in our little wooden boat we firstly went to see the giant Lilly pads and a after a brief history lesson from Gerson we made our way through a very dense tributary of the Amazon and set up our fishing rods. These were no ordinary rods though they were long sticks of bamboo with some fishing line attached and a little hook on the end, the kind of rod your Dad first made you! Our first bait was to be finely sliced beef. After a few near misses and a few snags on branches, Dave hoisted up a small catfish, quickly followed by Frank and Caroline catching the same. Our silent driver Bala decided this wasn’t good piranha territory so we moved round the corner to a slightly more open area. Sure enough within 5 minutes the little red bellied piranhas had turned up and were being caught by all of us (except me) pretty regularly. The switch to catfish as bait and the change of location had helped enormously. They were just like little versions of what you imagine them to be. They had horrendously sharp teeth and a nasty bite on them! Caroline was now flying and caught three more whilst I only managed to snag one. Caroline was happy to catch them but she was adamant that if they were going to be wasted we should put them back. However, this is The Amazon and nothing is wasted and everything we caught would be cooked for lunch!! Rightly so. The ladies of the kitchen fried the catfish, sardine and piranhas and it has to be said they were excellent. Piranha flesh was firmer than normal white fish but had a lovely gently flavour.
In the afternoon we had to say goodbye to our new Kiwi friends, Dave and Heather as they were taking a boat all the way to Columbia the next day. They were a really sweet couple who were up for doing as much in The Amazon as they could in their three days which was really important to us as if you don’t fancy it in the jungle it could be a pretty scary place!! They also took with them the other guide, Frank, who was a real character and provided a lot of the entertainment for us.

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The Giant Lilly Pads

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Fisher-woman Eccles

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Red Bellied Piranha for lunch

In the evening we went to a local village to see a butterfly conservation facility where they were increasing the population of endangered species such as the Owl Butterfly. It was pretty interesting and the nice man who owned it let us release about six into their butterfly house although most of them decided to land on my head instead. We then watched a simply stunning sunset whilst floating in the huge river before heading off for some night fishing. As if that wasn’t extreme enough it was also pitch black except for our head torches and was really raining hard as well! Undeterred and poncho’d up we cast our hand lines 20 meters away from our little wooden boat and sat patiently. After a few little bites each, Caroline squealed as her line was snatched from her hand and nearly into the great river! Bala (the silent assassin) grabbed the line and proclaimed it was “¡Mūy Grande!” This must have been ‘very big’ to get him to speak because we haven’t heard much from him in three days. As he struggled to get Caroline’s catch closer to the boat Gerson picked up a spear not dissimilar to Poseidon’s trident and thrust it into the beast beneath the water. As they lifted it into the boat the told us both to move to the other end of the boat as the catch was very dangerous!! Sure enough as they pulled the monster onto the boat (after killing it!) it became clear that it was a really large stingray that Caroline “old fisher woman” Eccles had caught. Gerson again assured us not to worry about waste as we will be having it for tea tomorrow! Bala pulled out its massive stinging barb and it was fairly easy to see how dangerous these creatures could be if you annoyed them like my poor hero Steve Irwin did. I had another go but failed to snag any of the bites so we set off home and had an excellent tea as always.

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The Owl Butterfly makes his home in Tommy´s hair

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There´s a storm a´coming

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Ecco´s haul

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The catcher (Ecco) and the killer (Bala)

The forth day started with a surprising breakfast of fried sting ray and plantain, the very stingray Caroline caught the previous night! This was definitely a first and it was actually really nice. It was like a nice firm white fish meat with no bones to worry about. It was the hearty feast we needed to power us for a three hour jungle trek. We went out for about 45 minutes in our wooden boat down one of the small rivers off the Amazon and then down a really tight and narrow estuary before we were dumped in the middle of dense rainforest with Gerson and Bala to guide us. It was real jungle exploring as we hacked our way through dense undergrowth with machetes stopping every now and then for some jungle survival tips about the plants and fruits you could eat and which plants you could get water from. It was fascinating. We ate palm hearts again (after chopping down the 20 foot tree with a machete), drank water from coconuts and also from the root of the cat claw tree. The dangers of animals and insects had kind of subsided now as things were much more dangerous at night time. We eventually made it back to another village and were rewarded with some bright Yellow Inca Cola in one of the villagers houses. We then went to another gentleman’s house who was a friend of Gerson’s. He was a really nice man and told us a really disturbing story about his eight year old daughter. He said a teacher in his village offered to help his daughter with her further education by letting her stay with a friend of his in the capital city, Lima, whilst attending secondary school. He said it had all been ok until one day he was speaking to her on the phone and it was snatched away from her and he hadn’t been able to speak to her since. It was really horrible to hear about and Gerson was very upset and angered by it saying it she was being exploited and promised to help using his friends in Lima and the police.

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The start of our Jungle trek

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In the middle of nowhere

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Caroline still finds mushrooms!

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Tough Mudder prep going well…

After a we’d finished our fish lunch we went out to find the river dolphins. We were meant to be swimming with them but they weren’t there in enough numbers to encourage us to jump in the murky brown Amazon. To be honest I wasn’t too disappointed bearing in mind we had caught Caimen, Sting Rays and Piranhas in there in the last 3 days; let alone the electric eels, anacondas or fish that can swim up your winkle (its true!!). To be fair Gerson does the swimming with his groups very regularly and insured us its not dangerous during the daytime. What was extra special about the dolphins was that we saw some of the Pink Dolphins which were an amazing bright pink colour and a slightly different body shape. We just sat for about an hour watching them playing and catching fish where two rivers joined as that is where there are vast amounts of fish swimming down from the flooded areas.

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Pink Dolphins just popping up!

The undoubted highlight of the day and probably the trip was the night fishing and jungle trekking trip we did that night. We stopped on one small area of land and got off the boat with Gerson telling us to watch where we stepped and put our hands as this place was full of scorpions!! Sure enough there were loads of them on the big trees and where they weren’t they were usually huge black furry tarantulas! However, they decided that this area was too flooded so we hopped back in our little wooden motorised canoe and cruised down the pitch black river again for about half an hour. Along the way Gerson spotted the reflection of his head torch in the orange eyes of a snake and ordered Bala to turn around. Sure enough it was another tree viper and with amazing skill and courage they grabbed the toxic serpent and brought it on board. Before I had time to say no, Gerson said I had to grab its head to show ‘my wife’ my courage by holding this poisonous beast! I grabbed its little V shapped head hard and half-smiled for a few photos whilst trying to not shake like a leaf! It was a beautiful reptile, measuring about four or five foot and it was felt strange having it wrap itself around my arm and squeezing. Holding it was perhaps the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done and that includes Great White Shark diving, bungee jumping and skydiving!! To be fair the whole Amazon trip had been pretty extreme but this evening was beyond everything else! We put the viper back in the river and watched it swim off and headed back on our way! In the middle of nowhere we turned down a hidden estuary and navigated our way under bushes and through trees in our canoe before getting out into the shallow waters. Here we went spear fishing and after an early miss by Gerson, Bala showed us how it was done by spearing a bass fish. Next up was my turn and I missed twice. We picked up the pace and tried to keep up with Bala in the very dark forest but he was moving way too quick so we were left a little behind. We were both surprised when Gerson shouted something from behind us and Bala turned around instantly. Turns out just off the ‘path/ mud trail’ we’d been treading there was a very poisonous Fer Der Lance viper coiled up and looking very angry. This is one of the horrible snakes I’d heard about in the 1000’s of Discovery Channel snake programs I’ve watched over the years and was obviously making Gerson uneasy. He said he had a duty to kill it as this one snake is responsible for 60-70 % of all Amazonian deaths, so if he didn’t kill it and someone got bitten he would feel very guilty. Sure enough he coxed it out of its dead log and bashed it on its head with the blunt side of his machete as he didn’t want to chop its head off and spray us with blood. We have seen scary stuff a few times now but knowing just how close we had walked to a real killer snake highlighted just how dangerous this jungle could be. Next up was more spear fishing. Caroline had another go and missed a couple of times and one of them was a biggun! Fortunately the big Wolf Fish she missed hadn’t gone too far and was nestled in the shallows of a nearby tree root. The honours fell to me and the guys gave me expert advice about how to spear it. “Boom’. I nailed it and it was actually a huge Wolf fish which we would be cooking for breakfast tomorrow. That was enough extreme night fun for now so we headed back and had yet another amazing fresh fish and yam chip tea served with rice and the mushrooms we had picked on the forest trek that morning.

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Tommy proving he is a real man by holding a deadly viper!

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Just a Fer de Lance Viper! One of the mostly toxic snakes in the world!

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Toxic but no match for a machete!

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Tommy´s Wolf Fish Catch

Today was to be our last day on The Amazon and we were going to really miss it as we’ve had such an amazing time. One thing we won’t miss though is the feeling of putting on damp clothes everyday. You see you have to wear long sleeves and trousers to protect you from the millions of Mosquitos that hammer you every second of every minute. The clothes end up getting pretty wet with rain, river and a lot of sweat and because of the humidity here nothing every really dries that well.

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Heron takes Caroline´s fishing spot!

We spent the last day watching the pink dolphins splash around the river and trying in vain to catch some catfish. The food at our accommodation had been great although not always the healthiest as everything was fried and served with lots of rice and the final lunch didn’t disappoint with some more beautiful catfish. After we’d finished our lunch our driver, Bala, who had been pretty silent throughout the tour walked in with a beer and brought over 3 glasses so we could all share it with him. In case that wasn’t enough Gerson did the same. It was a really nice gesture by them and the local beer was really nice. We also heard that Gerson had managed to get hold of the other villager’s daughter on the telephone and that she would be coming back to the village soon, which was a lovely bit of news to finish with. Beers downed, it was time to leave our jungle oasis, we said our goodbyes and headed back to Nauta on the bigger boat, we settled in and drifted off to sleep. We’d took a shortcut through a very narrow reed passage way and both of us got a nasty awakening when our boat smashed into a submerged tree stump. It sent the boat rocking and reeling and we thought we were going to capsize, but thankfully we didn’t, I’m not sure there’s ever a great time to fall into the Amazon. Gerson sorted us a car back to the city of Iquitos and a hotel for the night. Back at the hotel we said a huge thank you and good-bye to Gerson, he’s been a legend. The trip with him couldn’t have been much better to be honest and it was so great to do it with a real local guide as it felt we got to see places and villages you wouldn’t get to see with the large ‘comfortable’ organised tours.

Our flight out of the Amazon Basin was early in the morning and we took one of the cheap tuk-tuk’s to the airport, which was great until he pulled across the busy road to get petrol only to stop dead in the middle of the road! Oh crap, the traffic from the other direction was now heading straight towards us. The driver and I jumped out and pushed us out the way just in time to avoid the on rushing bus! His tuk-tuk never started again so we caught another one to the airport.

We’ve had amazing days in our eight months so far but without doubt these 5 days and 4 nights were right up there at the top and seeing deadly snakes and spiders in their natural habitat is something I’ll remember forever. We wanted to be pushed out of comfort zones, not just be pampered tourists and that is exactly what we got with Gerson’s company. It’s been amazing to achieve this ambition of a lifetime and it really didn’t disappoint. That only leaves me to say a huge thank you to Gerson and The Amazon.

As ever there are absolutely tonnes of extra photos for you to look at (more than usual as it was an epic trip) so if you want to see more of our Amazonian Adventure please click here!!!

If you’re reading this on a PC or Mac (not an IPad) you may be able to watch this fun little video I made of our trip on YouTube…. click here to watch it!

Hope everyone is surviving their own Amazons at home, I hear it’s been raining a bit.

Tommy and Caroline. xxx

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The Stunning Amazon

What-a-mala??

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After a great day for Caroline’s 21st birthday the previous day we set off from San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico in the morning with warnings from our lovely home-stay hosts to be careful as it was Guatemala and it could be dangerous. It was the last we needed to hear and made us question our decision to make a more independent way across the boarder to Guatemala than hopping on the easier but more expensive shuttle from town. In the interests of budget and experience we chose to do the following instead:
Take the 3 and a half hour bus to the Mexican boarder at Cuatamoç, do our immigration exits from Mexico, catch a taxi through no man’s land, do entrance immigration to Guatemala, change our remaining Mexican pesos with a boarder bandit, catch his brothers taxi to a bus station, board a chicken bus for 4 hours to random town’s (Huehuetentango) intersection (stand in the middle of a road looking like gringos!), catch another 2 hour chicken bus in the pitch black to Xela (Quitzemaltenago). It certainly wasn’t the easy option but it was interesting at least! We got some of the finest musical entertainment from a lad called Douglas who played the clarinet whilst his mate played the guitar and sang. Just to finish the day off when we got to the outskirts of town we jumped in one last minibus (collectivo) to the centre and landed on our feet when it dropped is within 100 meters of one of the hostels we were looking for. We booked a room for £12.50 and went and ate for the first time in 12 hours and demolished some pretty fine ribs.

Over the world’s biggest burrito breakfast we decided to head to San Pedro on Lake Atitlán and caught another chicken bus from the most chaotic bus station we’ve come across so far but £5 for the two of us to travel for 3 hours was a pretty good deal to say the least. Let me tell you a little about these chicken buses. They are the old style American yellow school buses that have been pimped up beyond belief with incredibly bright paint jobs and an insane amount of chrome on every available space. They really are quite a work of art. Inside they are not particularly glamorous but are pretty comfortable really. The only problem is that the roads are super bendy and the drivers pretty much go as fast as they can regardless of how high up a mountain they are or what’s coming in the opposite next direction. They are also never ever full so when all the seats have three people on each of them people then sit in the aisles and then stand. It was a fun experience but made typing this blog a bit more difficult.

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We had heard Hostel Santa Fe was beautiful so we thought we’d got lucky when we managed to book the last two beds for a few nights. However, all was not as we hoped for as when we arrived at a fairly shabby looking hotel we were greeted by an 11 year boy working the reception shift. In broken Spanish I proved we had a reservation which he seemed confused about as the hotel was full! He said his boss was out Captaining a booze cruise and wouldn’t be back for 3 hours. All of a sudden he had a little change of heart or an idea and said we could have room number one. It sounded like a good room so I went to have a quick inspection and was suitably disappointed. It was pretty reminiscent of a prison cell as it was just 4 walls and single bed but it did have the luxury its own toilet and freezing shower. In the interests of budget and not being bothered with wandering the streets in the heat we agreed to take the room with a promise of a bigger bed being put in to the room later when the boss returned!!

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Needless to say when the boss got back he was more than a little surprised we had been put into room 1 and it became evident we wouldn’t be getting a bigger bed, which was fine to be honest, all we needed was at least another pillow! To be fair to the boss (a young English guy) he was very nice to us and said we wouldn’t have to pay for the room and also said our first beers were on the house. So we just hung around in the great bar area overlooking the beautiful Lake with its enormous volcanoes surrounding us. Eventually we headed off to another bar called Buddha Bar were we had some pretty healthy food (for once) and more cheap beer. It sure has been nice to be back in countries that are cheap again after Australasia, beers here were back to being only a pound!! They certainly helped us get some sleep in our single bed for the night!

In the morning we decided to find somewhere slightly less chaotic to stay and went to check out. Amazingly enough they said it was all on the house! They didn’t even want us to pay for our 8 beers we’d had the previous night. It was a very kind gesture by them and even when I tried to give them some money the told me not to worry about and just enjoy our trip. The karma gods were back on our side again.

We had found a lovely hostel called Zoola which had a swimming pool over looking the lake, a really cool lounge area, big bar and a much more relaxed feel about the place. That night we settled into the bar and had a pretty fun night making friends with people from all over the world. Time got away from us and we had to make a late night food run and ended up eating some pretty tasty kebab style street food.

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Our final day in San Pedro La Laguna was a lazy one. It probably had a lot to do with the free tequilas we’d been knocking back the night before. We did however manage to achieve something meaningful! We finally booked our flights out of Guatemala to Peru and most excitingly to a city called Iquitos where we would be entering the Amazon from for 5 days! It’s always been a place that has fascinated me and its a real life long ambition to go. Caroline is also very excited whilst at the same time absolutely petrified of the fact that we are pretty much guaranteed to see a few snakes!! The flights were super expensive and have taken a huge chunk of our budget but they were the only realistic way of getting down to South America quickly and will hopefully be worth every penny.

Next stop was Antigua (a city in Guatemala) so we got up early and caught a shuttle minibus at 7:30 am. We were staying at Basecamp Hostel and when we got there the nice American dude, Victor, upgraded us from a dorm to a nice double room instead. A nice touch. Antigua is a beautiful little city with cobbled streets and old Spanish Colonial architecture. There are lots of really old churches and convents and despite the now customary police and security guards with guns it had a very safe feel about and there were many more American tourists than we’d been used to for a while.

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When we were in Playa Escondido the hostel we were staying in had some amazing material hammocks there and they had told us that their boss had brought them back from Guatemala and I promised to buy Caroline one for her birthday which we would send back to the UK somehow. We had failed to find them in Lake Atitlán but then found hundreds of them in the local handicrafts market in Antigua. After lots if haggling we left the market with a beautiful hand weaved blanket and hammock and a little pressie for my needle-skilled Mum! They are absolutely beautiful pieces of work and the vibrant colours will look great back in London if they survive the post and the bandits!!

Now, I’ve always enjoyed a cup of coffee and that love has only increased by visiting all these fantastic coffee producing countries so when we got to Guatemala I really wanted to go on a tour of a coffee plantation to see how they make this wondrous magic bean into the joyful drink! So we headed of to The Filadelphia Plantation just outside Antigua. Our guide then spent the next two hours telling us everything about their coffee starting with how the plants are grown and harvested by hand to ensure that the are 100% arabica beans and not the lower quality robust beans farmed more in Brazil. The level of detail he went into was ridiculous and it felt like we were on a biology field trip at times. It was however really interesting and good to see just how much work goes into making the beans. Next he took us around the mills, drying terraces, hand sorting rooms and roasting area. It was funny to hear that they only allow women to handle the baby plant cuttings as men’s fingers are too acidic and that only women were allowed to do the sorting of the final beans as men are more likely to be colourblind and therefore not spot a less than perfect bean. The best bit of the day however was the tasting session at the end. Caroline had an Americano and I had an espresso. The coffee was amazing and definitely the freshest we’d both every tasted. Unfortunately the R. Doltan coffee wasn’t for sale in England as it is nearly all entirely shipped over to Japan. At least next time I have a coffee I’ll know a lot more about what has gone into making it!

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That evening we headed to a Welsh owned bar called The Ocelot as we’d seen they had a pub quiz on. After out disastrous last attempt at a pub quiz in New Zealand ended up in us coming last we thought things could only get better. They did. Only not much better. We managed to come second to last this time after a strong music and movies round. It was only a small progression but it progress nonetheless!!

We spent about an hour of the next morning trying to figure out exactly how to post all our beautiful blankets and hammocks back to Blighty. Eventually after skanking a box from a super market and buying two large bits of brown mailing paper from a random stationers we managed to get the big box of goodies on its way back to England but only once we’d proved to the lady at the post office that we weren’t smuggling anything back to the UK. In all it cost us about £35 to send back and was going to take a month to get there hopefully!! Still the prices we had paid for the stuff still made it a good deal!

Guatemala is famous for being volcanic and the volcano of Pacaya has been very active in the last two weeks so we decided it was a great time to climb up it and hopefully see some glowing red lava!! However after a pretty steep 2 hour trek to near the top our guide informed us that there was no lava to see at the moment, however, there had been a small eruption just two weeks ago. As we were so high we were right amongst the clouds wandering over lava (solid grey magma) in a misty white atmosphere. It was a cool place and felt a bit like being on a movie set somewhere between Star Trek and Lord of the Rings. As it was still a very active volcano we weren’t aloud up to the crater but we were treated to toasting marshmallows in the searing heat escaping from holes in the rocks. It was surreal but a great experience.

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As we had a super early flight scheduled we decided we would be much better spending the night in Guatemala City than Antigua. After being told that it was a dangerous city and doing the wrong thing of reading the Internet stories we didn’t have great expectations of the city and after an hours chicken bus ride (for 25p) we jumped in a taxi to get to our hostel. It certainly was a pretty intimidating city, there were armed guards and police men outside most shops. We’ve kind of got used to seeing guards with guns in Mexico but the volume of them here was so much higher. Anyway we got to our hostel for the night which strange as we had to get passed an armed gate at the top of the road and then through more security gates. To be fair the house we stayed in was lovely even though the owner was pretty eccentric. There really wasn’t too much around and the lady told us the only food options were either take away or this little country club. So dressed like travelling tramps we went and grabbed some lunch whilst sat beside this posh club’s swimming pool. We felt a bit out of place although luckily there was nobody there.

That evening I visited Crossfit Sense and got truly destroyed by them and after a throughly average Chinese Takeaway we grabbed an early night as our flight was at 05:12 the next morning. However the local dogs and army barracks next door had other ideas about letting us get any sleep. We got to the airport about 3 am and thought we would just fly through check in. How wrong we were!!! The lady behind the desk insisted to see our onward ticket out of Peru. No problem we thought as we had our itinerary showing our flight out of Sau Paulo in April. She insisted this wasn’t enough and that she’d have to run it by her supervisor. This supervisor was a right jobsworth and said we weren’t going to be allowed on this flight without a ticket out of Peru as he said Peru Immigration can sometimes be funny about this. We had experienced this sort of thing before but as soon as we showed our round the world itinerary it normally had never been a problem. Today wasn’t going to be a normal day and they let us try and book a bus or flight on their computers upstairs. It however was to prove impossible to book a bus ticket from Peru to Bolivia online and flights were astronomically expensive. I asked them what time boarding was for our flight and they said in 20 minutes. It was at that point I realised they were going to make us miss this flight. We were not happy, not happy at all. They told us not to worry as they would put us on the next flight anyway but they still wanted proof of our exit out of Peru. At the end of our tether and with the check in lady also finding it impossible she had an idea. She basically temporarily reserved us a flight out of Peru in 4 days time. It was a solution to a problem they had created only now we knew we had to tell a white lie to immigration. Guess what, when we eventually got to Peru they never asked for proof of our onwards travel so all that stress and a missed flight was for nothing. We were however now in Iquitos, Peru and were off to The Amazon!!!

There are a few extra photos here if you want to take a look!

Hopefully won’t be too long before The Amazon blog is put up.

Tommy and Eccles

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