Saturday 9 December 2006

Learning to dive in Cape Verde

The clear, starry sky that greets our arrival at 3am has given way to clouds when we get up 5 hours later. Still, it is warm and the sun peeks through from time to time.

We settled on Cape Verde because we wanted a relaxing week by the sea where we could learn to dive without going too far. More travel, more new experiences, more learning.

The principal centre for diving in Cape Verde is at Santa Maria on the little island of Sal. A flat, small rock in the Atlantic ocean, it is buffeted by the wind that blows sand across from the Sahara. It is perhaps the least attractive of the 10-island archipelago lying 450km from Senegal on the West African coast.

Our first diving lesson is at 9am so an early start after little sleep. The Hotel Morabeza provides us a good breakfast buffet and then we’re set. We meet our dive instructor at the ScubaTeam Dive Club not 50m away. After a few formalities he suggests we return at 10am. So we take a walk along the fine sandy beach, watching the waves rolling in across the green sea.

The PADI Open Water Diver course consists of 5 modules of theory with 5 dives in ‘confined water’, usually in a classroom and swimming pool, followed by 4 open water dives, going down to a maximum of 18m below. Our classroom is the dive club beach hut; and for a swimming pool, we have the warm shallow waters a little way out to sea.

In the hut, we watch a DVD and seek clarification on any points that remain unclear before taking short tests to ensure understanding of each module. We’ll have an exam at the end of the course.

In the afternoon, it’s my first ever experience of breathing under water. We get kitted up, check over our gear and waddle down the beach to the water’s edge. We swim on our backs to a little buoy and get ready to go down. I find it difficult breathing and as we go down I have trouble ‘equalizing’, ie matching the pressure of the air in my airways, particularly ears, to the increased pressure from the water overhead. This creates a painful ‘squeeze’.

The problem stops me breathing normally – slowly, deeply, continuously. I have a small panic, motion to the instructor that I have a problem – using the sign language we’d learned in the classroom in the morning – and head straight back up. On the surface, I get myself together quickly and return gradually to the bottom, where Perrine has sunk like a rock.

I begin to feel more at ease and manage to do the 5 exercises without hesitation. I find myself surprisingly calm at taking out my breathing apparatus, letting the air bubble out of my mouth, then replacing it and blowing hard to clear the water out, before continuing to breath. End of module 1 and back up to the surface.

Module 2 involves a couple of rescue exercises on the surface then another descent. This time all good. It’s starting to feel natural already. By the time we’re back out on the beach I’m looking forward to the next session on Monday.

We take a shower to desalinate and a siesta then head out to make our 6pm appointment with l’Homme Tranquile. At lunch time, we’d been anticipated by a friendly local man who’d taken us to see his little craft shop. After Ghana, this was not a novel experience. He had some nice items but we had no cash and were in a bit of hurry to get to our afternoon dive. He didn’t believe we’d be back even after I’d given my word. He was amazed, therefore, when we showed up as promised to buy the items we’d seen and liked earlier.

We had dinner at a very small restaurant, Nocturno. It’s just a little kitchen with a window onto a small terrace. There are perhaps six tables with maximum seating of 14 or 15. The food is very good value. We enjoy some excellent grilled fish, wahoo and bica, with rice, chips and salad. Plus a couple of beers, of course.

Tuesday 28 November 2006

Six weeks to go

A relatively early start today. After Perrine leaves home at 8.20 to get to work late – as is customary for employees in the final week – I find myself unable to get back to sleep. Luckily I’m up and dressed when the doorbell rings a few minutes later.

Our Eurostar tickets have arrived. These are for the penultimate trip before it all gets real and it’s fast sinking in how little time is left and how much is going to happen in the next few weeks… Eurostar to Paris, TGV to Lille, back to Paris, flight to Cape Verde. Back a week later, take the van to London, collect stuff, head to Lausanne. Back to London for Christmas, drive to Champéry for the ski trip, picking up Perrine in Paris on the way.

So this morning I call UBS and make sure that I can still get my account all sorted this week, if I send all the necessary documents today. Yes, I’ve left it late but it can be done.

Last night I got an email from my mother offering me a financing option, which is very tempting. It involves something a little complicated as well as my little brother, so I discuss it with him. He seems keen. We’ll see how it pans out.

This afternoon, I intended to settle down to some nice financial management but the sun comes out while I’m having lunch and decide instead to head along the canal by Little Venice to take some pictures. Plus there are some workmen in my bathroom tearing out the shower floor, which has cracked and is leaking water through to the flat downstairs. Or at least I thought there were. They departed quietly, without saying word, leaving the front door on the latch. I begin to understand my mother’s lifelong frustration with builders etc.

So I finally get down to some nice financial ratios when I’m consumed by the urge to look at the MBA diary. The whole year, it seems, has been about transition for the class but in these final few days it’s about transitioning from a period of transition to stability. Something similar is happening to me. After nearly a year out of work, travelling, discovering places, peoples and myself, it’s fast coming to the time to switch to a different phase, yet it’s all still about shifting from where I was about 3 years ago to where I’ll be in 2008.

And all that thinking about life gets me thinking about writing about thinking about life. So here it is...

Sunday 19 November 2006

Goodbye to the Shoreditch Sharks RFC

Sunday 7.45am and I get up and get ready to drive over to Shoreditch Park. My boys are playing Away to Ealing RFC this morning and I need to make sure they’re all there by 10am to get ready for an 11am kick-off. It’s going to be tough: they’re a well-established club whose top team plays in London 1 against the likes of London Scottish. But it’s taken me two years to get this fixture into the diary and I’m happy that this will be the last game I take the boys to.

By 9.40, with only six boys, I’m forced to call Stuart to cancel. I’m apologetic and embarrassed. I’m also disappointed and angry that the communication and organisation within the club has started to crumble. For some reason, the updated fixtures list that was circulated did not have this game on it. Crappy way to end two years of dedication, getting up early on Sunday mornings to share a passion with some other peoples’ children.

To make the most of the situation, Tom Nicholson, who’s going to be a great replacement for me, and I decided we’d do a mini training session with the boys we had. At around 10.15 some more lads turned up thinking it was only training today. In the end, it was quite a good session. Some defensive drills, some attacking, finished off, at the request of the boys, with some high intensity fitness work. Meanwhile I took a couple of the boys off to coach them kicking.

After about 10 minutes of this, Tom called us back over to join the group. Charlie, who’d joined us when the club started up with no previous rugby experience and had made it into the Middlesex U14Bs, thanked me for my efforts with the boys and presented me with a replica shirt of the Pumas. It was touching.

I was then attacked by the biggest lads, including the inappropriately-named Junior, who’s a massive presence at 6ft4, as well as Joe, probably 6ft1 and spends his life body-building. I thought I did ok. I was wrestled to the ground and pounded. The rib I think I might have broken in the game I played last week seriously ached for the rest of the day. Even walking hurt. Did I say, ‘it was touching’?

I wish the club all the best in the year (or more) that I’m away.

I drove home, had lunch with Perrine, who’d got up at 11.30 to go for a run, then we caught the bus to Holland Park to enjoy the last of the sunshine. A typical winter’s day. Cold, clear and crisp. If there is something that I will miss in London, it will probably be the light in the winter time. The evening was rounded-off ice-skating at the National History Museum.

So passed one of the last Sundays in London: packing away the rugby coaching and saying our goodbyes to parts of the city we don’t usually visit.

Sunday 29 October 2006

Madrid Part 2

It was hot Saturday afternoon and, under the sun’s glare, the alcohol seeping through my sweat glands was bubbling on my skin. I could have flambéed a pancake on my forearms. Fortunately the terrace of our lunch spot was fully taken and we were forced to seek shelter indoors.

The glare of the waiter as we all traipsed in was as potent as the sun’s. By the end of lunch, though, he was laughing a little and taking pleasure in mimicking Sophia’s Portuguese pronunciation of six and my Argentinean pronunciation of vanilla.

Back out in the square, Javier informed us of an occasion when a hotel on one side of it had a certain room curtain left open in the early evening so that all could see in. It would, however, be inappropriate for me to repeat the details of the allegation.

OJ and Thomas went on a recce mission to see if the said hotel - now fully refurbished - had a roof terrace on which to enjoy a siesta. Thomas came back first and informed us it opened at 9pm. A few minutes later OJ reported that there were people on the terrace and so we headed up.

Greg made full use of the new white cushions to catch a nap, while Paul went to order some champagne. A lot later, 3 bottles arrived. And only a few minutes after we’d filled our glasses and taken the obligatory photos, the bar manager told us to leave and go back downstairs because the terrace was closed. Roland was quick to point out that we’d enjoyed the best part of the afternoon up there and the sun was starting to dip.

So we continued to drink champagne in the bar downstairs. Then caipirinhas. Then around 9pm we headed to another little tapas place for a couple of beers and some pre-dinner ham and cheese. I got to learn a little more about the business activities of my future classmates. Ivica is an equipment manager for the Croatian U19s women’s football team, specialising in balls. Thomas is an undertaker. Jonathan, in fact, is a vicar from Orkney, preaching in Ireland; or was it Irish vicar on a mission in Orkney? Paul, meanwhile, is an air steward for a defunct airline. So it was that I, a fashion photographer for plus-size catalogues, was now feeling at ease amidst this company.

Our dinner appointment was set at 10.30pm, nice and early to give us time to enjoy the nightlife later. Javier had once again pulled strings to obtain a booking for 21 at a restaurant that is such good value and good quality that reservations are not taken. You simply have to turn up and queue.

Finally, sitting down to dinner together, at three tables, I knew to expect a good, intellectual debate about pertinent economic issues. And so it was. Jorge, a madrileno who works in Zurich, joined the group now at this happy hour and was clearly drawn-in by Greg’s instincts for online enterprise. His ideas on interactivity and the use of avatars is surely ground-breaking. For some, it might even make the earth move.

So then, back up to the roof terrace to drink mojitos and watch the clocks go back an hour at 3am. Then, as it was starting to freshen up a little, we set off to a basement bar led by Jorge, where Thomas demonstrated his negotiating skills to get us in without queuing. Well, to be precise, some went back to the hotel, others to the bar and the rest remained with OJ’s compatriots.

The basement was packed full of young revellers plus the man with the widest grin in the world flinging his arms manically on the stage. It was some feat of engineering, surely, that kept his limbs attached to his meagre body as he flailed wildly. Still, nice to see young people turned out immaculately in a suit and tie of an evening. Perhaps he was connected with the man from Brazil that Paul had once met.

A Heineken later, it was time to savour a more upmarket place and so we waddled off to the Palacio Gaviria. Thank you to Ming Teck for supplying the photo with the name so that at least I know the name of one of the places we visited during the weekend. Well, some more dancing and a couple of drinks later, it was time to head back to the hotel. Another 7am finish.

I felt fine when I got up at 11am, joining Ivica and Thomas for coffee downstairs. After checking out, we then joined Javier, Alison, Bianca, Jonathan and, later, Ming Teck and Paul in the Parque Retiro for a drink of water in the shade. This is a really fun park, with lots of activity: puppet shows for kids; shiatsu specialists; rowing boats on the little lake and cafés offering drinks at reasonable prices.

After the rest had gone, Ivica, Ming Teck and I went to find lunch. A veritable feast of ham, cheese, salad, tomato bread etc and a couple of bottles of wine. With just enough time, we grabbed a taxi to the hotel, picked up our stuff and headed on to the airport to catch our flights to different European destinations.

Friday 27 October 2006

Madrid Part 1

Way back in August, I’d read a thread on the IMD MBA 2007 web forum about a get-to-know-your-classmates weekend in Madrid, organised by Javier Asensio. With some Airmiles to burn, I thought I’d take full advantage of the opportunity. This was going to be a serious weekend, with Javier pulling strings at the Prado for a private tour of the museum’s special collection.

OK, I exaggerate a little. Still, I knew in advance that the people I’d be meeting were not run-of-the-mill: these are the business leaders of the future. After all, IMD bills the MBA class as 90 exceptional people who will shape the future of business. Hmm.

So when I got an email from Greg Davis to meet up in London last Sunday, I gratefully accepted, partly so that I wouldn’t be too overwhelmed meeting everyone at the same time. Greg managed to bring Amir Ahmad, Chief Simplification Officer of mobile telecoms to internet company Txtfo. Perrine and I were also glad to meet Greg’s wife, Jodie, and Michael, the partner of another of our classmates, Anna, who coincidentally is in Ghana right now.


Greg and I happened to be on the same flight but didn’t spot each other until we arrived in Madrid airport. In the taxi to the hotel, I was ashamed to admit that I’d let him down by not bringing my running gear, as I’d promised back in London. He eased my conscience by telling me he probably wouldn’t go for a run. Except that as soon as we’d checked in, around 6pm, Greg went for a run and I went with Ivica Pavic, with whom I was sharing a room, to join some of the rest of the group at a tapas bar. I imagined they were having coffee in the last of the sunshine and a shot of caffeine would do me some good.

I didn’t realise, however, that I was out for the evening, that we’d be heading to dinner from there and that my first drink would be beer. I had the privilege of meeting some of the finest young business minds around Europe: Caroline Hamrit, Thomas Buss, Bianca Chinescu as well as Paul Gabie.

We had a couple more beers before taking the scenic route to the next tapas bar via the Plaza de Espana and the Royal Palace. By the time we left the second bar, the rest of the group had joined, we’d consumed several bottles of wine and a lot of beer. I had also gorged myself on a small piece of bread with a lump of tuna mix on top - dinner.

Another bar and OJ got to know some of his compatriots.

If the next paragraph appears to be in note form, it is because my recollection is in note form. A little walk and a long-ish queue to get into a small bar with a dance floor downstairs and a balcony upstairs. Some dancing and drinking. The world’s fastest/shortest dance act ever performed on the miniscule dance floor while the many punters were shoved into the tight corners to allow the performers to show their skills. Very impressive. Some actividades incontroladas. OJ got to know one of his compatriots even better. Some people stayed longer, some left earlier. I think it was late when I took my leave. Well, it was some time after 7am when I got to bed.

Meanwhile, Goncalo and Sophia, having driven from Porto, at 4.30am were busily trying to check in to their room at the hotel, except that between Ming Teck and Paddy Jansen, the couple’s room had been occupied. I’m not sure I’d have been quite as jovial as they were about it over breakfast.

Breakfast, actually, was a quick coffee and croissant in the hotel café, around 1.15pm, before the scenic route to lunch. With just a little dinner and a lot of alcohol, even my rarely hungover constitution was performing below par. But I gave up regretting drinking excessively some time ago.

Wednesday 12 July 2006

On to Keta

There are two ways to get to Keta from Ada Foah. You can back track along the road to Sogakope and cross the Volta there over the bridge; or you can - on market days only - catch the ferry across the mouth of the river to the little village of Anyanui. Market day is once a week, on Wednesday, and it just so happens that today is Wednesday.

The ferry is due at 8.00am and the people at the hotel advised me to checkout by 7.00am to make sure I get to the boarding point on time, apparently a 10-20 minute walk away. Checkout takes 20 minutes, in the end, with manual writing of receipts and VAT invoices, credit card authorisation etc. I decide to skip breakfast. $10 (USD) for a paltry-looking buffet just doesn’t seem worth it. I plan to eat something on arrival at Anyanui.

It actually only takes 5 minutes to walk down a dusty track from the Manet Paradise Beach Hotel to the shore in the fishing village of Azanzi. En route I get a lot of attention from kids heading to school: "hello!", "how are you?" and, of course, "obruni!". I wander along and miss the turning to the boarding point. A girl of 14 or thereabouts comes up to me and asks where I’m heading. She then guides me to where I should be. An older woman sitting outside one of the mud huts jokes that the girl has found herself a white husband.

With chickens running about at my feet, I sit on a bench by the water’s edge next to a colourful wooden fishing boat, alongside a house where young children are getting ready for school or playing about. The oldest of them begins to ask me questions. She says she likes my backpack and then asks who’s in it. I tell her it’s just "clothes". She asks me: "who’s clothes?". I understand "whose clothes?". I say "my clothes". She persists: "who is clothes?". Ah! of course, sacks on backs are for children in Ghana and are usually carried by women. So I say "clothes" and indicate what I mean by touching my t-shirt sleeve. "Sheds!", she says. I can see how the word has come to have that meaning: shed your clothes, hence just sheds. "Yes, that’s right", I tell her.

Then shes says "Give me something!" and I begin to lose interest as does she when I flatly say "no".

A small group of men come and check out the morning’s attraction. They’re eager to know who I am, where I’ve come from, where I’m going. They reassure me the ferry will arrive at 8.00am. I receive a text message - yes, even on the shore of a remote fishing village, courtesy of areeba. I take my phone from my pocket and they are awestruck. What a beautiful phone! (it’s the Motorola V3i aka RAZR).

They ask me if it can take pictures so I duly oblige. They gaze at it strangely as I take the picture and the image is less than flattering. They ask how much it costs. I decide it’s best if they don’t know that it’s about twice the annual GDP per capita of Ghana. So I say it was a gift and don’t know. That way they won’t try to barter for it.

As the ferry approaches, they help me to the actual boarding point, 20m away, where some live chickens and various other bags and boxes are waiting to be loaded and taken to the market at Anyanui. The ferry, the MS Sogakope, according to the Bradt Guide to Ghana, can carry about 250 passengers and is already crammed with market goers carrying tomatoes, smoked fish and all sorts of other goods. I clamber up the narrow gangway and take my seat on the upper deck, where it’s a little less crowded. The ticket costs me 3,000 cedis, around 20 pence.

On the way, we stop at a number of small villages on little islands that have no other means of communicating with the world other than the ferry once a week and the little boats - canoes, essentially, sometimes with sails - that we pass, taking children to school and others to whatever place there might be nearby.

Anyanui has a tiny landing point and long canoes full of passengers, either just heading off or arriving, are crammed around it. Right by the water are large piles of wood, big sticks in big bundles piled high in to cuboid towers that are being taken apart and reassembled precariously on to small trucks and vans. Some men call to me "where to?" and they direct me to the tro-tro that will take me some of the way to my destination.

A tro-tro is essentially a mini minibus that ought to have about 8 passengers but in reality carries 14 or 15. I got a seat at the front, next to the driver, which gave me a little more space, to load my rucksack, camera bag and tripod on top of me. A local chief gets in next to me and I have the impression that the front seat is usually for white people and people of rank.

I have no chance to get any food or drink, which I’m in need of now, at 9.00am, two and a half hours after getting up. I manage to squeeze off a couple of pictures through my telephoto lens and hope that they might capture some of the sense of colour and movement.

These tiny little battered cans hurtle along at unmeasurable speeds. Unmeasurable because the speedo doesn’t work. They feel like they could topple over at any moment and apparently have a knack for it. I’m glad that I can use my luggage as an airbag, should the need arise. The tro-tros seem to race each other so that they can pick up the next people waiting along the route. These are private vehicles and the idea is to make as much money as possible, even if that means having the ‘conductor’ hanging half out the door as we dash along broken roads.

At a small town, we jump off and I’m guided to the station, where another tro-tro (they actually call them cars here, preferring the english approximation) will take me on to Keta. Again I’m sat at the front with a chief next to me holding his staff. It’s hot and humid now but I’m largely oblivious to the discomfort.

On reaching Tegbi, in the Keta area, I jump out at Lorneh junction and walk half a mile down the road towards the beach to Lorneh Lodge, the hotel where I’m hoping to stay. I settle in and go to the poolside for brunch and a swim. I get a club sandwich and after a very quick swim head back indoors. It’s extremely hot now and I think I’m going to blister if I stay out any longer.

I meet an American in the grounds of the hotel. Charlie is a baptist ‘worship pastor’ (his business card says) from Tampa, Florida, USA. There is a cult, he tells me, that involves sexually abusing children, who after a certain age are simply abandoned. Their parents don’t want them back and they are outcasts from society. His goals are to educate people against becoming involved in this practice and to buy land to build an orphanage for the abandoned children. He seems to be doing other things too, like providing medical assistance while he’s around and a whole series of ‘workshops’.

He offers the services of his driver, George, to take me into town. I’m not sure what I’m looking to see but I’m thinking of just wandering about. But George tells me it’s not safe and so I settle on being dropped off at Fort Prinzenstein, an old slave fort built by the Danes and sold to the British in the late 18th century.

Actually, the Brits were relatively late to the whole slave-trading bonanza. The Portuguese had got here 300 years earlier and the Dutch and Danes had been at it for perhaps 200. Staggeringly, there were 42 slave forts in West Africa, of which 38 were in Ghana.

The Brits cottoned on to the idea of improving the conditions of the slaves, while banged up in the forts awaiting deportation to the Caribbean or wherever else. But this was not out of altruism. Quite simply they realised they’d make more money by keeping the slaves alive and that enlarging the windows to allow air to circulate around the cells was a good idea. It was a Brit too, William Wilberforce, who pushed for the abolition of slavery by 1832. However, the records at Fort Prinzenstein show that trade continued for another 60 years.

I enjoyed this visit far more than my visits to Elmina and Cape Coast castles in 2004. Although the buildings there are far more impressive, the guides were thoroughly politicised and moralising, as though the tourists standing in front of them were personally guilty of the rape of female slaves and the barbaric conditions in which they were all kept.

The story is more complicated and happened more than 100 years before my birth. The guide at Prinzenstein tried to keep things factual. Yes, the Europeans committed this and that outrage. The local chiefs, however, were complicitous and aided the Europeans in kidnapping people in return for guns so that they could wage war against their local enemies. It’s a sad period of history from which not too many people come out well.

Later we talked about English and Ghanaian football and our marital status. I was guided to the road where I could pick up a tro-tro back to Tegbi and he and a friend wait with me until it arrives, to make sure I’m safe. Again, I get a front seat.

I walk on to the beach to see what activity there is and take a couple of pictures. Not too much to see at this time but I’m assured that tomorrow morning is the best time to have a look.

As I walk back up to the hotel, I get a text from Will. He’ll be joining me in Ho on Friday morning. In the meantime, IMD have called and want to offer me a place on next year’s MBA!! Woohoo!!

Monday 10 July 2006

James Town

The plan of going to James Town first thing in the morning failed to materialise. I awoke just before my alarm sounded, so I switched it off and promptly got back to sleep.

A couple of hours later, it was too hot to wander about so I headed off to BusyInternet to update the blog and check on emails.

On the way home, I decided to go back down Oxford Street, as it is affectionately known to try to find the chap who wanted to sell me a wrist band thingy. I had decided that I quite liked it after all and if I could pay next to nothing for it, I would have it. When I eventually switch out of traveller mode, I’m sure I won’t ever wear it again. Needless to say, our man today was transformed into a painter not a craftsman and didn’t have what I wanted. I was good enough to let him show me his art before scampering.

Later I went out via the bureau de change where I managed to exchange a crisp $100 bill for 91 10,000 cedi tatty sheets. I flagged down a cab and got him to take me to James Town. My intention was to find the man from the little craft stall, whom I met a couple of days back, and to ask him to ‘guide’ me around while I took some photos ie talk the same language, steer me away from danger and persuade people that I’m not so bad after all.

I stopped briefly to watch the street football and as I approached the stall, he came out and called my name. He took me inside and I said to him that I’d like to take some pics around before coming back to buy a couple of items but that I thought that people didn’t much like photographers around here. He offered to take me. I managed to squeeze off a few frames of life in a shanty town. Hopefully, the outcome will be worth the hassle.

Back to his shop and I asked him for elephants. I haggled a little but gave him a good deal, knowing I was getting one too. Plus, rather than giving him cash for his help, I was paying a little bit more for the goods.

As I was leaving, he said ‘I like your sneakers’. I told him I needed my footwear and that I was heading out of Accra tomorrow. I would be back on Sunday but might not be able to make it back since I was flying to London that night. He said he understood and that he’d be waiting for me at 6pm on Sunday. I’m not entirely convinced he did understand.

Tomorrow I head off to Ada Foah, directly East along the coast.

Thursday 6 July 2006

Accra Shuffle

I set off from Will’s Cantonments residence, carrying my brand new camera bag over my shoulder. In it, my loaded camera, 2 lenses plus some filters and spare film. First stop, forex on Oxford Street. As I come out, I make friends with a chap who wants to sell me a boy bracelet. He tells me his name is Black Africa and he knows someone living in Coventry. The bracelet is made of 3 different metals and signifies ‘Unity’, an important theme in Ghanaian art and craft. I thank him and tell him I have no money, despite 1m cedis burning a hole in my bag, and that I’ll pass by later, which I don’t intend to do. Not very nice of me but I don’t, as a general rule, wear jewellery.

I head south from there past the Noble House Chinese restaurant, with Heritage curry house upstairs, down to Independence Arch and Black Star Square. From there I continue in my flip-flops along the dusty pavement past Usher Fort, an old slave fort that currently stands unused and on to James Town. There I’m hoping to get pictures of the fishing boats and what is frankly a squalid township on the coastal side of Accra city. I recall it vividly from my last visit when I was struck by the bustle, the colours and the sheer poverty.

James Fort was converted into a prison at some point and a sign makes it clear that loitering and taking pictures are not allowed in its vicinity or that of the lighthouse but in theory it’s ok to snap away once you’re out of sight of it.

There’s no escaping I’m the only white face around here. I can’t pretend to belong, as I did in Argentina. There are a lot of eyes on me and I feel uncomfortable.

Here is a very basic way of life, marked by small stalls selling veg or smoked fish, children playing in the street and fishermen mending their nets. Lunch is eaten sitting on the pavement around a metal pot. A mother washes her young child in the stagnant stench of the gutter.

A pair of very small boys are playing football on the pavement. One kicks the ball and slices it off to the right past me in the direction of the road. I stick my foot out to stop it and the balls bounces back into the field of play and between the posts of the opposition. The oppo objected as I walked on but the other little footballer raises his hand and as I lower mine he gives me 5 and a broad grin.

Despite spotting a few photo opps, I didn’t have the bottle to get my kit out. The camera stayed in its bag. I don’t want to attract extra attention with it in my hand or around my neck, let alone with my eye to the viewfinder.

My new flip-flops have caused my feet to bleed (ok, they’re a little rubbed) so I catch a taxi back to base for lunch.

I spend the late afternoon planning what to do in the coming days. Probably head off along the East coast plus move on from there to the Volta region. Will is planning to join me at the end of next week for a saunter into Togo.

In the evening, I experience more expat life at the quiz night in Champs bar, part of the Paloma hotel ‘complex’. We come fourth by one point but I maintain that we were robbed. Sunflowers was definitely not painted by Monet, as the panel suggested, but by Van Gogh. Monet was obsessed with poppies mostly. Like my Murphy’s, I’m not bitter.

Wednesday 5 July 2006

African Drums: a fortnight in Ghana

Just a short one... 12 days in West Africa. I was last in Ghana a couple of years ago. As soon as I quit my job, I thought it would be great to spend some of my BA Miles, earned largely from travelling for work... that one-way upgrade to FIRST (seat 1A) on my way back from Bangalore last time really helped. Two objectives: to catch up with my brother, who in June visited London while I was in Jujuy and Salta provinces, NW Argentina; and to take some photos, especially of the fishing boats and food sellers, that had so struck me last time.

Unfortunately, it looks like Will can’t take any time off. In fact, he’s travelling back to London for 48 hours, leaving me in his house in Accra at the end of this week.

So here I am at 35,000ft. British Airways has redeemed itself by giving me a free upgrade to World Traveller Plus, which gives me a bigger seat, much more leg room and noone sitting next to me. I don’t know what I’m going to be doing in the next 10 days, 10 weeks, 10 months or 10 years. It’s very exciting. Unlike the people around me, I’ve been very comfortable and relaxed about the lack of clarity over what comes next. Will IMD offer me a place? Will INSEAD give me a place in Fontainebleau, rather than Singapore? Should I accept the offer from LBS, close to home?

So, later, I’m back in Accra and have dinner and a couple of drinks at Ryan’s Irish Pub. Ostrich fillet. I guess it’s imported from South Africa rather than local. One of Will’s friends comes round to join us later. Jane, from Washington DC, currently working with disabled children, about to go to the UK to do a PhD at Sussex Uni.

Tomorrow, Will goes to work and I plan to walk about Accra.

Friday 30 June 2006

MBA Interviews - IMD

I had an idea of what to expect from IMD. Their typical interview schedule is on their website. Unlike IESE, INSEAD and LBS, they refused me the option of interview in Buenos Aires but allowed me instead to postpone it by 3 weeks so that I didn't have to return early. Well, with the mini ordeal they put you through, it would have to take place in Switzerland.

I was due at the IMD MBA Admissions Office at 8.30am. First interview at 8.45. She questioned everything I've ever done, my motivations, my reasons. Wasn't it a bit risky to give up my job without an MBA programme to go to? Why hadn't I worked overseas? How confident am I, on a scale of 1 to 10? I felt like I'd made a whole series of bad decisions in life. I could tell nothing from her body language or responses as to whether she liked what I had to say.

Straight out and into 30 minutes to prepare a presentation. The topic: you've been given a new mobile telecoms licence. What would be the first services offered? How would you work out your market penetration? Who would your customers be? What is the price structure? What is the cost structure? 3 or 4 slides on overhead projector.
Then into the presentation. 5 minutes max followed by questions. And out of nowhere 3 minutes to think about and give an answer to "what would be the headline and article of your life story?". Thanks for that.

A short break to share the pain with a couple of the other candidates. Then a short interview with one of the admissions officers. This one much more straightforward. What other schools had I applied to? What offers? How did I feel the GMAT had gone? etc

Then lunch in the restaurant, outside on the terrace. Beautiful. A full buffet with a fantastic desert table and an icecream stand. This comes free to the students every day. So they don't waste time off-campus fetching lunch.

Finally, the case study discussion with one of the long-standing professors. Four candidates discussing the 17 pages of material we'd been emailed a few days before. This was less painful. Actually enjoyable, even.

There was supposed to be a fifth candidate. He'd booked on to the last easyJet flight the night before and it was cancelled. He didn't make it to Lausanne until we were already in the discussion.

At the end of the day, we needed to go and have a beer.

I tried to get an earlier flight home. I'd booked the last flight back to London since I didn't know what time the day would finish. The woman at the ticket sales desk told me I'd bought the cheapest ticket and couldn't change. I said I understood but since there were seats free, there would be no loss to British Airways. Well, she said, they might sell them in the intervening period. Theoretically possible, although the flight was due to depart in an hour. So I checked in and decided to go to the gate and see if I could get on just before the plane takes off.

Well, all flights to London were delayed about an hour. I sat and watched Argentina get cheated out of the semi-final. Then went to the gate. First response: no seats. I told the guy I knew there were seats. So the girl says yes, there are, but she'd have to check my ticket type. Once again I'm told I can't get on. I tell her the seats will go empty. She tells me I'd need to buy a new ticket. There was no point reasoning.

I didn't know whether to be annoyed with British Airways or with the Swiss mentality of order and precision. I went to find some food but it was all sold out. So I sat grumpily awaiting my delayed flight, which was full to the rafters. Perhaps, if I'd gone on the earlier flight, there'd have been a spare seat on the last one to sell to someone else...

Sunday 18 June 2006

Back in Buenos Aires... in pensive mood

It really is autumn here now. Skies are grey and the temperature has dropped. I switched the heating on for the first time last night; it's been raining. It's a stark contrast with the heat and sunshine of the past couple of weeks in the NW.

My mood is also autumnal. I feel tired now of so much travel, experience and discovery. I've seen and learnt a great deal. My body and mind are telling me now to take a break. With just a week left before I return to London, I'm not sure I feel like taking the intended trip to Iguazú. The other option I've been contemplating is going to Peninsula Valdés, Chubut province, on the Patagonian Atlantic coast to see the endangered Southern Right Wales.

I've taken over 400 pictures now and hope and reckon that there are probably 5 to 10 really good ones that I might be able to exhibit or publish.

Looking at the map of Argentina, curiously I've stuck mostly to the Andes: from Ushuaia through Bariloche, Mendoza up to Humahuaca in the North West. Only Buenos Aires is over on the coastal side. There are so many bits left to fill in: the northern/northwestern/western provinces of Tucumán, Catamarca, La Rioja and San Juan; the central provinces of Córdoba, La Pampa, and the Patagonian Atlantic coast as well as Andean Chubut, which I hopped over flying from El Calafate to Bariloche. I'd also like to climb Aconcagua, the tallest peak in the Americas at just under 7,000m.

The Footprint guide to Argentina reckons a "month is the ideal time to spend in Argentina". Spending nearly 3 months in a country where people live in a thriving, wealthy metropolis or a poor, dusty mining town; whose landscape spreads over high mountains, desert and rainforest; which stretches over 5,000km from North to South, from the Tropic of Capricorn to the Antarctic Circle... well, it seems almost churlish.

It's been amazing and I've left so much more to do.

Thursday 1 June 2006

MBA Interviews - INSEAD

I was thinking of going for a run this morning but my legs have seized up a fair bit after Tuesday's run... and I'm a bit short of time. I've got to buy a suit, prep for the interview, finalise the videoconference booking for tomorrow, check the details for the interview this evening, phone my grandmother about Friday and call my young uncle Fede and my cousin Guadalupe to meet up.

I should have bought the suit yesterday or the day before and I don't get to the shop I saw yesterday until about 2.30pm. The interview is at 6pm. I should be fine. Except these are decent suits with unfinished trouser legs, at great prices. I look at a few suits and wait for someone to hover. Eventually a man apologises and tells me someone is on his way. When this chap comes over, I tell him I have a job interview (explaining the concept of a business school interview was going to be too laborious) and want to look the part.

He asks me where I'm from. As soon as I say England he takes me over to the pricier suits. These are great superfine wool. At around £300, they're excellent value. Less than half the price of the equivalent in the UK. And they look good. I try on a jacket then another. Yup, that's the one. It's now 3pm. I ask when it can be ready. The sleeves need a little shortening, the waist needs to be brought in (yes, my waist is proportionately small for my torso), and the legs finished. He asks when I need it. In 2.5 hours. No problem. I pick out a tie to go with my shirt and a belt.

Back home, I change into my inteview shirt and head back out. Just before 5.30 I reach the shop. It's all ready. I wasn't expecting it. I try it on. Perfect. I keep it all on and head straight out to the interview, getting there just on time.
I get shown into a meeting room, offered coffee etc and wait for Mario to arrive. He turns out to be a good guy. 41 years old, ex-BCG, INSEAD 93. He has his own business advising acquiring companies on targets and sometimes takes a stake in the process.

He asks me a few simple questions about work experience then asks what I think my odds are. I say I can't be sure. I don't know what the other candidates are like. He tells me he reckons my chances are pretty good, given my score in the GMAT. Of course there are other factors, I point out. Well, he tells me, his job is just to sell the school to me now. Ultimately, he says, LBS, IESE and INSEAD are all pretty much the same and you just have to pick where you want to live. There's also the issue about the length of the course.

I leave feeling pretty good but I know not to count chickens. There's another INSEAD interview to go on Monday.

I go and check my email and find that the conferences manager at the Hilton has sent me an email saying the booking is cancelled because she hasn't received payment details. I panic calmly, go home and make a phone call. She's finished for the day. I insist that I have to speak to someone and fortunately there is a chap there. Yup, the booking is all here and the videocon equipment is in place. And relax.

Next I call Wendy (short for Guadalupe), my cousin, to arrange to meet. It's as though she recognises my voice straight away. I haven't seen or spoken with her for 23 years.

Time for a pizza and I start getting my thoughts together for the videocon tomorrow.

Saturday 27 May 2006

Mendoza Province: Rugby at last!

I've finally managed to get some rugby onto the scene. Well, back in early April I saw probably the world's most southerly rugby club ground, in Ushuaia but no action. I met up with my 'uncle' Gustavo, who played in a first tier club in Argentina - obviously, it runs in the blood. He's now coaching his club's first team, Teqüe, in Mendoza.

What an awesome set up they have there! They've just moved their ground... actually, they've just bought a large piece of land outside Mendoza city, where they will have 3 rugby grounds and 1 for hockey (for the girls, women don't play rugby here, really). They have a brand new club house and a large parilla out the back, where they cooked a chivito (goat)... yum. They're going to build 84 houses around this area for the mutual owners of the land.

Well, on to the rugby. I was invited to coach their U13s but Gustavo had forgotten there was a tournament on so the kids would be playing. No problem. I watched them for a bit before tucking into the barbeque along with the directors of the club. I met an ex-Puma player and his brother, who plays for the Pumitas, the U21 national side. Both members of Teqüe. The Pumitas head coach was also there along with a director of the UAR (Union Argentina Rugby). All the players have just resigned over pay and conditions so they're scratching their heads about what to do, with the Welsh coming over for a couple of tests in a few days.

Later, the 1st team was playing. The match was between the two as yet unbeaten sides in the Cuyo (the area containing the Western provinces, just north of Patagonia) league: Teqüe v Marista. Unfortunately, by the end of the day, it was the oppo who remained unbeaten. Too much turnover ball at the breakdown meant that good attacking platforms were lost. I could almost hear Old Street coach Bailey groaning about body positions going into contact. First tackles were also missed, allowing the oppo to get behind and score a couple of tries. The final score: 3-20. I'm looking forward to next season, although I'm still not sure if I'll be in the UK. It depends on what happens with my MBA applications...

Sunday 21 May 2006

Mendoza Province: Malargüe

PayuniaA small town in Southern Mendoza province. Apparently has 22,000 inhabitants. I don't think more than 22 of them are actually resident. There is not a lot happening here. It's the short off-season, when there are just a few summer travellers around before the skiers arrive mid-June. On the second night I have a 4-person dorm room to myself.

I want to do some trekking. Feeling itchy for action. But it's not going to be possible. They've made the interesting bits into Reserves so you can only visit with a 'guide'. I really want to go into Payunia, where there are between 700 and 2000 volcanoes, depending on who's talking. A horse ride would also be cool. The guide books and the excursion agents' windows make reference to 3-day rides but they don't happen in the off-season. So I take the only possible option, a full-day excursion in a 4x4. And that was pretty hard to come by. I decide to move on to San Rafael day after tomorrow.

Payunia turns out to be a very strange landscape. The whole area is covered in a black, or occasionally red, grit, like the old athletics tracks. Occasionally there are large boulders that have been spewed out by the volcanoes. There is next to no vegetation, just some yellowed grass. Apparently in the spring/summer, it's very colourful when the grass is flowering. It's like nothing I've ever seen before, completely different to the Andean mountains and entirely unrelated in their development. I take a lot of pictures and hope that some will turn out well.

Just outside the reserve it's a little different. The area around Malargüe was 4 times a sea. The 200m year old peaks surrounding it have been eroded into smooth lumps. There is a lot of oil here and YPF, the former national petrol company, is pumping out a lot from the area and undertaking further exploration.

I have just one real question for the 'guide'. Why are there so many volcanoes in the area? He couldn't answer it. Apparently no one has asked the question before. The 'guide' in the other land rover gets tetchy. He says that's what people are trying to understand. That's why there are studies going on. I thought there must be some theories but I didn't ask. I could see he didn't really know much about it and was agitated.

In the hostel, I met a French guy, who was travelling around on a moped. He called it a motorbike but I think the engine was barely a 1-stroke, 1cc. A little lawn-mower engine attached to a push bike. Interesting chap. He was working for some socialist organisation in Europe and was writing reports on economic conditions in Argentina. He was a little sketchy on the details.

And that was Malargüe.

Thursday 11 May 2006

Buenos Aires: the first few days

My knees are knackered. I need to take a break. But what I really want to do is go running round the park in Palermo, right by Expedition HQ (parents' flat). The weather is unseasonally beautiful. T-shirt weather. So I take it pretty easy the first couple of days. Just wandering about, catching some sun in the park and taking advantage of the great exchange rate to make some cheap purchases. CDs, especially, are a steal. New releases, almost up to date with UK, are just 30 pesos. That's £6.

My PC is also knackered. Picked up a nasty spyware thing in the UK, which I thought I'd sorted out. Spyquake looks like a legit programme but it installs itself onto your machine and is very hard to remove. I had to do a ton of stuff to stop it blinking up on my screen telling me to pay up and upgrade. Eventually I succeeded. Seems it was hiding something else, though. My PC won't boot now. It doesn't detect the hard drive. Ouch. That's a serious problem, which I'll deal with when I'm back in London. All my contacts are on it. A lot of my work, including CV etc. Fortunately my MBA applications are on a USB stick.

I went round to see my grandmother for the first time in who knows how many years and my aunt, my mum's sister. It's great being able to reconnect finally with this side of the family.

And I also went to the cinema one night, at midnight, of course. Nothing happens early here and I've plugged straight into the way of life here. I'm not sure how Proof was received in the UK but I wasn't too impressed, A Beautiful Mind for chicks, basically.

All the time, I'm planning, planning, planning. First, making arrangements for my interviews with IMD and INSEAD. IMD is now postponed to June 30th. I'll be taking a short trip to Lausanne for a day-long interview. INSEAD gave me two contacts in the UK for the interviews but are now sourcing alumni in BA instead. Anyone who thinks we're not plugged into a global, wired world should look at my experience of applying and setting up these interviews. I've submitted applications in a number of different forms (asp, word, html online entry) from places as far apart as London and Ushuaia. The interviews, meanwhile, I'm coordinating through a mixture of email and phone, making the time difference almost an irrelevance.

Second, the rest of the trip. Well, basically, 3 destinations, I've decided. West: Mendoza; NW: Salta and Jujuy; NE: principally Iguazu Falls.

Did a few touristy bits, like taking a look at the Casa Rosada... think the White House but pink. Puerto Madero, the BA docklands, is great, with appartments apparently fetching US$500,000. And unlike the London Docklands, it's very easy to get to and there are lots of places to eat and drink so it stays alive at night and through the weekend. The cow exhibition that passed through London is now here. But to be honest the tourist attractions don't do all that much for me. I want to get to know the city more like a porteño, someone from BA, not a tourist passing through. And for that I have largely have the benefit of Leo, the friend I made in Ushuaia...

Sunday 7 May 2006

The End of the Patagonian Adventure

Musician at El Jarro, BarilocheMy last day/night in Bariloche and Patagonia. I was determined to make it a good one. I was going to take Nico (F) up on his suggestion of going up to Refugio Frey for the day, enjoy the short trek and have a look around. As it happened, the weather was grey this morning, so I decided to skip it. It cleared up in the afternoon, so I had a bit of a wander around enjoying the sunshine.

I popped down to the internet place to check up on emails and found that while I had been up in the mountains, both IMD and INSEAD invited me to interview. Woohoo! Definite celebrations tonight!

Later, I went back to the hostel and sat down in the common room chatting with some of the guys there. A young lad from Dorset, Brandon, challenged me to a game of Scrabble... he'd lost just yesterday to a Dutch guy, so I didn't think too much of it. Rightly so. He then got beaten by the Dutch guy again.

Getting lateish, Brandon and I went down to the supermarket to get dinner. He was on a tight budget tonight so opted for some crappy food. I went for a prime cut of steak etc and a nice enough bottle of wine, a Norton Roble Malbec. That went down a treat.

We decided to head out for a few drinks later, along with the Dutch guy and one of the two Germans. Given that nothing happens before midnight at the earliest, we sat down to watch Terminator 2.

12.30, we moved out to El Jarro (means something like 'the tankard'). What a great, little place! Almost entirely full of Bariloche locals plus a couple of Italians in the corner and someone claiming to be from Buenos Aires behind us. An old chap was sitting at the front strumming his guitar, singing Argentian folk songs. This isn't Morris dancing pap. And he was very good. Later, he was replaced by a couple of slightly younger guys playing the same kind of music. Well, the night flowed on, so did the Quilmes and when the munchies came on, we starting ordering rounds of delicious meat empanadas.

Brandon revealed possibly the most ridiculous tatoo ever. He claimed it was a joke, the result of some bet: plastered across his belly, in gothic characters was 'Extreme!!'. He turned out to be anything but extreme, flinching at the slightly warm empanadas. By 2am, he was under the table and crawled home.

Around 4am, 3 Argentian guys came in, one wearing a River shirt. Along with Boca, River is one of the two top football clubs here, based in BA. They sat at the table next to us and we were soon chatting and taking the piss out of River, just because he was wearing the shirt and his friends were too. Soon enough we were best of mates. Mr. River was talking away to the German guy, both of them fully aware that he couldn't understand a word of Spanish.

They ended up paying for nearly our entire bar tab plus a whole load more empanadas. The night cost us around 30 pesos between us. At some point after 5am, the music finished and we headed out. On the way back, we decided to drop into a nightclub. I was walking ahead of the Belgian and German, with the 3 locals. When we got to the door, the doorman turned us away. We walked on, then turned and noticed the two other guys walking into the club. So we went back and asked why they'd been let in... apparently locals weren't allowed. I managed to get in after that.

I have no idea what time we got back to the hostel. It was light, so after 7am.Needless to say, I woke up late. About 1.45pm. My flight was 2 hours later. Quick shower, pack, pay and jump into taxi to the airport. Familiar story.

That's it for me and Patagonia on this trip. Sniff. Onto other adventures. Buenos Aires, next.

Thursday 4 May 2006

Nico, Pisco and the other Nico

Nico, Refugio Meiling, Mt TronadorPisco is basically a Chilean (and Peruvian) colourless brandy made from muscat grapes. Mixed with these ingredients...

3 Glasses of pisco
1 ½ Glass of sugar
2 Glasses of lemon juice
White of an egg
Shaken ice
Add drops of Amargo Angostura
(Dash of Cinnamon on top) you a pisco sour, the national drink of Chile, although Peru claims it too.

So why am I writing about Pisco when I'm no longer in Chile? Actually I didn't even try it in Chile. But it does join my very short list of mixed drinks that I will be happy to drink, including
  • Old Fashioned
  • Mojito
  • Caipirinha
  • G&T (obviously)
  • Cosmopolitan
  • Rum and ginger ale
  • B52s
So I've joined an excursion to Pampa Linda to go see the stunning Mt Tronador up close and personal. The bus no longer runs there, this late in the season, so this is my only option. The plan is to head over the Paso de las Nubes and take a close view of the mountain from all sides in Argentina. The 'International' peak itself is right on the border of Argentina and Chile. The guys at Club Andino in Bariloche (CAB) tell me the route is open but I'll need to take a tent. No problem with that.
But when I get there, things aren't quite as planned. First the excursion has dawdled along stopping to take pictures at all the favourite spots so it's much later than planned. Second the people at the Gendarmeria Nacional tell me the way is closed due to water, fallen trees and all sorts of other problems.
Change of plan. I head up the mountain to the Refugio Otto Meiling right between 2 glaciers on the mountain. They tell me the refugio is open. It's stunning up there. The sky is completely blue, making the view fantastic.
When I get there I find the refugiero doing some end of season work to the building to make sure the winter, snow and wind don't destroy it. He looks at me, seeming displeased. I quickly work out I'm the only customer tonight and he's fuming that they haven't told him someone's on their way up. He likes everything just so. The place is immaculate and in far better order than the other refuges I've seen. But he's very unfriendly. So I decide to get my book out, eat some food and wait for dark, then catch an early night.
Later, he puts the kettle on to make mate. Well, he couldn't possibly drink mate by himself when there's only one other person there. So I get the impression he's mellowing out and going to invite me to join him.
I pop out to the loo. When I come back, the kettle is off the boil and he's holding a bottle of what looks like vodka. Actually, it's pisco. And he asks me if I'll have one. He makes an entire cocktail shaker of Pisco Sour. Meanwhile he rants about the state of the APN, which takes care of the National Parks. There was supposed to be a guardaparques at the bottom of the mountain but he'd gone off somewhere. And he is supposed to let the refugiero know that people are on their way up in case anything should happen to them. Back in November, two tourists died. It's not a difficult walk but these things can happen. When I tell him that the Gendarmeria had stopped me going over the Paso de las Nubes, he suggested that it was all lies about the route. Just to stop me going. Too much hassle keeping tabs on a tourist.
A friend of his is due to join him this evening for some wine and a steak. They both happen to be called Nico and run refuges. The other runs the Refugio Frey, on Cerro Catedral, near where I passed on the Nahuel Huapi Traverse. For ease they are Nico M (Meiling, where I am now) and Nico F (Frey). Nico F is running late so Nico M gets the first bottle of wine out of his impressive cellar (half way up a mountain). A great bottle of Escorihuela Gascón Sangiovese from 2001. This is one bodega I'll have to visit when I go to Mendoza, where it's located.
When we've polished off the bottle (that's after we've had the Pisco Sour), Nico F arrives. We've moved on to the 2003 Eschorihuela Gascón Syrah. And when that goes we have the 2004 EG Cabernet Sauvignon and then the 2003 Malbec. It's gone 5am, we're pulling stupid faces and taking stupid photos. Definitely time for bed. I want to get up at dawn to take pictures of the sunrise over the glaciers....
I wake up at 11.30. It's a beautiful, sunny day. I open the curtains and a condor flies past. Well, I guess I missed sunrise. I have some coffee and bread for breakfast, but first get some pictures.
Around 2.30 we have a big spag bol, then Nico F and I head back down the mountain. He's going to give me a lift back into Bariloche. There is no other option, given that my excursion was a day tour and returned the same day. I had intended to get a boat back from the end of the Paso de las Nubes walk.
In the end, I had a stay in the refugio, a huge amount of drink plus lunch the next day thrown in. All free. More important, it turned out to be good fun. I was very impressed by Nico M's entrepreneurialism. Essentially he's a concessionary in the property owned by CAB. It's up to him to make as much money as he can from customers. Well, I guess he didn't make a lot on the night of 4th May but he runs a good ship and invests in areas that will make good returns and keep customers coming back, as many do, judging by the visitors book.

Tuesday 2 May 2006

Chilling in Bariloche

Well, I've found myself the perfect daytime haunt in Bariloche, a café bar on a street corner, aptly named La Esquina. It's a lovely little place serving coffee, lunch, drinks, dinner. Locals meet here and the occasional tourist crashes the party.

I sat having dinner here last night reading the history of the Rugby Club de Bariloche. It is the inspirational story of the the club's stuggle not just to bring itself together and survive but to get a whole league under way in the Lakes district, to keep rugby alive and develop it. I have such a strong urge now to play, coach or just watch a game. Might be one on here before I head back to BA on Sunday. Or I could find a game to watch in BA probably more easily.

Today is Bariloche's birthday with festivities planned throughout the day and the rest of the week. I picked up a copy of El Andino, a local freesheet, which details everything that's going on. Amongst the processions, football matches and musical performances, at 2pm today there will be a hot chocolate in the Town Hall.

As I sit here, I see the name Herbert Read on a book in the café. I knew his grandson at school. I can't remember the relationship to Piers Paul Read, although I know that Piers went to the same school and wrote 'Monk Dawson', apparently about my housemaster (made into a film by another old boy, a few years ago). Piers is also the author of 'Alive: the Story of the Andes Survivors'. It's a book about a plane crash in Patagonia and the survival of the passengers by eating the remains of the dead. The story has twice been made a film, most recently 'Alive!' in 1992, I think. Meanwhile, I picked up a copy of Bruce Chatwin's 'In Patagonia', translated into Spanish, which is very entertaining reading.

The weather is due to continue unseasonally fine for a few days. So tomorrow morning I'm heading out to Pampa Linda to get a closer view of Mt Tronador and do a 3-day trek to Refugio Otto Meiling up by a glacier on the mountain, then the Paso de las Nubes. I think I'll go and watch the procession now, then sit on the lakeside beach.

Monday 1 May 2006

Bariloche: Nahuel Huapi Traverse Day 3

Refugio Lopez, Nahuel Huapi, BarilocheI'm heading all the way back today. There is the option of staying at Refugio Lopez, about 1.5 to 2 hours from the bottom but I don't see the point of breaking the day up like that. There's another option of leaving to Colonia Suiza, a short, direct route along the valley floor but that would be cheating. And anyway, I had decided back in London that I wanted to go the full route via Lopez, seeing as it's my mother's maiden name. Bailey was staying at the refugio on the basis that it would save him a little money, not having to pay for a night's stay in Bariloche.

I brew a nice mug of coffee, eat some biscuits and bread and wish that I'd brought a more substantial breakfast. Today's route, though, is supposed to be easy. Slight climb to go over into the next valley. Long descent. Bit of a climb over the next pass and an easy gentle descent to Lopez.

Actually, the first ascent is a bit treacherous with lots of loose rock. No problems with the descent. Then the climb starts. I have a quick read of the guidebook... a climb up a steep gully with loose rock making it slow going and slightly dangerous. And so it was. Some of the time I thought the rocks sliding beneath my hands and feet were moving faster than I was going up. There are way markings but they don't help here. As the rocks slide, the route changes. So several routes are marked out and conflict with each other. I decide to make my own way up.

I get to the top. A condor glides over to check if I'm still alive. Ahead of me is a view to the vast Lago Nahuel Huapi and Bariloche. Behind me is an amazing view to Tronador and over into Chile. Stunning. The wind's blowing hard and cold but I spend about 15 minutes trying to get a couple of good shots.

It's already 2.30pm. I was expecting to have reached Refugio Lopez by now and be starting my walk to the end. The bus leaves Colonia Suiza at 5.45.

The descent is way tougher than expected. It's a clamber not a saunter. My muscles and joints are aching from the constant pounding of each step down. My feet are sore from treading on to hard rock. I'm running out of water. Dehydrated and tired, I get to the refuge some time after 4.00. I take a quick snap of myself on my phone. I look a wreck. I drink a whole litre of water then try to eat. The salami, cheese and slightly stale bread don't go down easily. The apple's welcome, though.

I get chatting to a guy from Bariloche, who's walked up with his young daughter on his back, since it's such a beautiful day. Today is 1st May, which here is the Day of the Worker, a holiday. He offers me a lift into town, which I accept. First, though, we have to get down to his car. He's carrying a knee injury, I'm carrying a corpse. My own. We walk down fast. I think we're somehow pushing each other on. Or we both just want the pain to stop. Meanwhile his daughter is just enjoying the ride and the view all around.

The hot shower, back at the albergue, is beautiful. I've picked up: a small gash on my forearm from slipping on a wet log bridge; bruises and cuts on knees from bashes against rock; a bruised elbow, don't know what from; a massive bruise on my hip, which I think is from the slip on the bridge; and a bit of a tan on my face and hands. The hair on my thighs has been totally rubbed off. Looks very strange. I promise it isn't shaved: I haven't used a razor in weeks. Quite a beard I`ve grown.

Dinner. Smoked venison. Steak with a delicious mushroom sauce and chips, along with a big tomato salad. A nice big bottle of Quilmes to wash it down.

And so to bed. Lazy day tomorrow. I contemplate my next options. I'd had the idea of doing a 2-day trek by Tronador, with a 1-day extension taking me into Chile. I could then take a boat to the start of another 2-day trek. I've got just about enough time to do it. But does my body want it?

Footnote: I've written out an Australian couple from this story. They're the first people I've met on my travels that I haven't wanted to know.

Sunday 30 April 2006

Bariloche: Nahuel Huapi Traverse Day 2

On the Nahuel Huapi Traverse, near Bariloche
This is rock climbing. I have 35-40lbs on my back, big trekking boots, no rope and I'm 50ft up a cliff. There's black ice on the rock face. Next, 2 week old iced up snow lies across the track (such as it is). To step on it would mean a fast slide down the mountain. So we skirt round the top of it, find some rocks to climb up and head on. Actually, I start to climb a sheer rock face, lose my nerve and remain stranded. I don't know how to get up or down. I ask Bailey for advice. He managed it no problem. He's trying to help but can't remember what he did. Besides from the top you can't see the rock face. I take a minute. Shut out everything. Decide that I'm not going to spend the night here then find a way up.

On to the next pass. Hop over and along. Then, instead of passing below Cerro Inocentes, we go the wrong way, climb to the peak, go over to the other side and clamber down before realising we're in the wrong valley. Back up. My climbing is getting better but it's challenging me. Along to Cerro Navidad. And what an amazing view of Mt Tronador. At 3,500m, it's the tallest mountain in the region. An extinct volcano, its slopes are covered in glaciers that keep it white all year round. I switch on my phone to take a couple of quick snaps. In view of Bariloche, way over to the North East, 2 text messages come through. I can't reply, though.

A condor flies overhead, checking us out. Finally, the long steep descent. Tough and a little monotonous. Then straight ahead on the other side of the valley we can see the path, a series of switchbacks climbing a near vertical 400m. That will take us to Laguna Negra, where we're stopping for the night. There is the option of camping at the valley floor. Tough choice. Take the climb and stay in a refugio or stop earlier and camp at the bottom?

We reach the start of the ascent at 6.30pm. Last light, we were told at Jakob, is at 7pm. Already the sun is behind the mountains. Bailey races up. I try to keep up but can't. He's way better at this than me. But I'm feeling grateful to Signa for making me do all those deadlifts and power squats. The strength in my back and legs from it is helping.

I'm dehydrated. Gasping for water, I drive myself on, telling myself how much beautiful mountain water I'll drink when I get to the top. This is the reward I'm offering myself for keeping going. I should have stopped for a quick drink, really, but make the wrong decision to plough on. I have to make it before dark. Light is fading fast and my legs are starting to give in. First my right quad starts cramping. I guess my body compensates and puts additional strain on other muscles. My left calf goes, then the right. I'm in pain. I push on. I'm telling myself to push for 2 minutes. Then another 2. And on. I can see I'm nearing the top but each time, there's another switchback and more climbing. Finally, I reach the top. 7.12pm. Not quite dark. Just ambient light left.

Bailey's fetching water from the stream. "There's already a fire going in there", he tells me. Inside there's a number of others. 6 Argentinians and a Dane, living in Bariloche. There's a couple from Ushuaia, although he's originally from Bariloche and has come back to join in the festivities for Bariloche's Birthday on 3rd May. Two girls from Bariloche. A school age local girl and boy. Her father runs the old refugio on Mt Tronador. And the Dane, who came over to do the ski season last year and has stayed on. We spend the next few hours chatting, cooking, sharing stories and mate. I'm so hungry, I eat 250g of pasta and 250g of tomatoes, half a packet of biscuits and an apple. At least the pack will be lighter tomorrow.

My legs are bad. After eating, they start to cramp. I don't sleep well. At least it's warm and pleasant. Tomorrow is the easy descent to Punto Lopez.

Saturday 29 April 2006

Bariloche: Nahuel Huapi Traverse Day 1

The Nahuel Huapi Traverse, near Bariloche
Is it still walking if you're using your hands?

The Nahuel Huapi Traverse is billed in the Lonely Planet guide to trekking in the Patagonian Andes as a 5-day classic pass-hopping moderate-demanding trek. That basically means that for 5 days you're going to be ascending and descending steep slopes covered in loose rocks, scree, sand, boulders and other difficult terrain. You're definitely going to need to use your hands and, probably, on the occasional descent, make use of the technique known as 'sliding down on your bum'. And, of course, I choose to do it in 3 days instead of 5.

Day 1 was supposed to be easy. It wasn't. After a short steep climb to a mountain pass, I get moving along the ridge, manoeuvring over large boulders, careful not to slip and end 300m down to my right. Then the descent: step, slide, step, slide, bring half the mountain down with you. Nice walk through the wood at the bottom lasts 30 minutes max before starting the long ascent to another pass. It's warm today and the going feels slow. Half way up, I unzip my legs and remove them. That's my detachable trouser legs. So I'm in shorts now with my dayglo legs out for the world to see. Except there's no one to see them.

When I finally reach Refugio San Martín at Laguna Jakob, my knees are feeling a little sore. Each big step down on to rock with the weight on my back is putting a strain on them. The refuge, I was told by the guys at Club Andino in Bariloche, yesterday, was closed but I arrived and could hear music from inside. Definitely open. No camping tonight. Total wimp-out. I've had 8 nights in a tent for 12 days walking (including today), out of 21 days since leaving BA. Bear in mind 5 days of transfer, that's 75% of the time walking and 50% of nights spent in a tent. Tonight I have a mattress, indoors, in my sleeping bag, with a blanket should I need it. 20 pesos. £4.00.

I met a guy from Montana in the albergue in Bariloche, by the name of Bailey. After I told him what I was planning, he decided to come along. He didn't have all the kit he needed so set out later. He's camping tonight, just to show me up. Bailey works in a bar in Montana. Working evenings means that during the winter months he can ski during the day. That's 75 days skiing per year. Jealous. He also spends a lot of time out trekking and camping. Great way to live.

Tomorrow's leg is supposed to be demanding and both my book and Club Andino Bariloche strongly recommend going with a guide. Should be ok, if the weather stays good. I hope. Like today but tougher.

Thursday 27 April 2006

An opportunity opens up

Monte Fitz Roy
So I now have a few more days to spare before taking off from El Calafate to Bariloche. Originally, I wasn't planning to do anything around Calafate, simply using it as a take-off point to get to Bariloche: there are no flights from Puerto Natales there.

Sunday I get my laundry done, then Monday up for 7.30am bus to Calafate. James and Nicky recommended the America del Sur hostel, so on arrival I looked out and found, amongst the throng of hostel people, for a rep from there. I arrived, checked in and within moments Maria had booked me on a trip to Perito Moreno glaciar that afternoon. Sadly, the weather was poor but it was still spectacular.

The young staff at America del Sur are fantastic. They're incredibly helpful and friendly, which makes a huge difference to the stay.

The following day, I got the bus to nearby El Chaltén. I had planned to do the overnight Laguna Torre walk, taking in views of Cerro Torre. Majo, in the hostel, advised me that I could also take in Monte Fitz Roy by connecting onto that track via the sendero Madre y Hija. Finally, talking to the gaurdaparques from APN in El Chaltén, I opted to start at the northern end at El Pilar, camp at Poincenot to see Fitz Roy at sunrise then head via Madre y Hija to Laguna Torre.

I'd met a Dutch chap, Sander, at the hostel in Calafate and a South African pair, Blane (M) and Alex (F) on the coach. I suggested we do the trip together. The S.Africans had little kit, no tent, but between the four of us, we could easily make do. Then Sander decided he didn't want to rush out and would spend a night in the hostel in El Chaltén. So now we're in the interesting situation where I'm going to have 3 in my tent again.

Alex and Blane. Both early 20s recently finished studies in Cape Town. Alex is travelling for 6 months ending up in BA to work a bit. Coincidentally, her mother is also Argentinian. Blane, 1.5 years out of university, is a keen photographer and was trying to build his portfolio since he wants a career in photography. Despite being S.African and bearing the surname Venter, he doesn't play Rugby.

During the course of the day, we see, first, a pair of Magellanic Woodpeckers. That's Woody Woodpecker (El Pajaro Loco). Just the same red head (but black body) on the male. Female all black. While he was pecking holes into the wood, she was meandering about the branches, laughing like a lunatic, just like the cartoon. A little later we saw a Patagonian skunk. This animal has a bad rep but is actually rather a beautiful little creature.

It's warm in the tent that night and we oversleep! The bottle of Norton Roble 2003 Cab Sauv might have had a part to play. 8.20am and the sun will be rising very soon. From down here, in the early light, Fitz Roy looks spectacular. We move as fast as possible up a steep climb to the viewing point from Laguna de los Tres. I get ahead but still don't quite make it for sunrise and now clouds are forming around Fitz Roy. I manage to get some pics. It's great to be above the snow line, though. Cerro Torre, on the other hand, never shook off its cloud and I never saw more than the base of it.

Next day was leisurely. Catching the flight at 16.40 to Bariloche, I got myself generally organised and had delicious empanadas for lunch at La Lechuza, as recommended to me by Maria and Majo at the hostel.

Saturday 22 April 2006

Episode 2. Torres del Paine Day 7 'The Final Push'

0700hrs Sir Guestie's solo British Expeditionary Force in Argentina (and Chile) sets out into the snow to make the final ascent to the base of the Torres del Paine, to see the famous view for real. Overnight, the weather conditions were adverse. Pitched near a rushing river, at times the sound of the cascade was inaudible due to the power of the wind ripping over the top of the ridge and rushing through the trees. It is easily below freezing now and just outside the campsite, snow lies on the ground.

Wearing 4 layers, hat and gloves, carrying a camera tucked inside my waterproof jacket, I set down the first footsteps of the morning into the snow. The ascent steepens, the boulders grow larger and the track disappears. Under about 10 cms of snow, the waymarkings are invisible. I make a point of brushing them down, when I find them.

The wind is stiffer further up, the snow coming down harder. Visibility zero. My footsteps are filling in fast. I don't like the look of it. Near the top, I call it a day. I can't see anything and I don't like the idea of slipping and nobody finding me very soon - I don't expect anyone else to have a go today.

I decamp and descend into the gorgeous valley below. The weather, I see, is clearing further down. By the time I reach the bottom, I'm in shorts and t-shirt. A Swiss German, who followed my footprints an hour later comes down and shows me the great pics he'd got. I feel robbed.

I met with James and Nicky and we arranged to go out for drinks and dinner. TdP D8 is cancelled. Campamento Japonés, the entry point for the Valle del Silencio, a little further on from Camp. Torres where I spent last night, was cut off due to snow. A great week in the Park but plenty of reasons to return:
  1. the circuito grande
  2. Paso John Garner
  3. A decent view of the Glaciar Grey in sunlight from above
  4. A clear view from the base of the Torres
  5. El Valle del Silencio

Thursday 20 April 2006

Episode 2. Torres del Paine Day 5

What a great day! Each day brings more experiences.

Up early and off up Valle del Francés. Despite a little drizzle - it seems my light pack days are doomed. The views of the Glaciar del Francés on the way up to Camp. Britanico were fantastic surrounded by orange and red autumnal beech forests. Of course, while the Italians chose a nice cosy campsite at the bottom of the valley, the Brits moved on up to an exposed area much further up. The campsite now is rarely used, it seems. Please understand, though, that the only luxury of Camp. Italiano was a flushing toilet. It's a free site with no other facilities other than a roaring river providing delicious fresh water.

Beyond, the view from the mirador was not quite as good as I`d hoped, so I continued up on a vague track marked with the occasional cairn. I scrambled up a steep ravine, eventually reaching an exposed plateau. Up here the wind was blowing very hard bringing snow off the slopes around me. From here I could see all the way down the valley I'd ascended to Lago Nordenskjöld. Around me I could see Paine Grande, Cerro Castillo and the Cuernos del Paine behind me. It was exhilirating feeling the raw power of nature and seeing how it had been molded over millions of years.

After taking a few pics, I descended quickly to Camp. Italiano. I had lunch and decamped, heading a short way to Albergue Los Cuernos. I felt sluggish and decided to take it slowly. In the end I was moving fast. On my way out from the campsite, I met an English couple who looked very familiar but I quickly discarded it as a deja vu. Later I discovered that they'd asked me the way to Grey while I was sitting having lunch at Pehoé. James and Nicky, married and living in Edinburgh, have understanding employers who have given them each 6 weeks off to travel South America.

Rounding Lago Nordenskjöld, I found a beautiful beach with black and white pebbles. The tide had raked it to look like a Japanese garden. The sun was out and I felt warm from the walking. I thought it would be lovely to have a swim. Then I thought, it WOULD be lovely to have a swim. I stripped down to my undies took a couple of steps into the water and dived in. Very cold. Very. This is a glacial lake. The water just above freezing. I got straight out. The temperature change gave me an awesome feeling. I quickly towelled down, put on some fresh undies (mmm), dressed and took a couple of pics.

At Los Cuernos, I didn't have enough cash for a bed and dinner, so I opted to camp and have a 3-course dinner cooked for me. I took a long, hot shower then enjoyed my dinner. Returning to my tent at 10.30pm, the sky was totally cloudless and I could clearly see the stars and the milky way. You just can't see stars like this pretty much anywhere in the UK, with all the light pollution.

Wednesday 19 April 2006

Episode 2. Torres del Paine Day 4 'My last day at Work'

Woke up last night, cold. I'd been asleep 4 hours. It was only 11.30pm. Another 7 hours to go before I could escape the night.

Yup, today, 19th April, is my last paid day at work. Maidenhead or Patagonia... not a tough choice.

I had a very pleasant walk from Campamento Grey down to Lago Pehoe (pronounced Pe (as in Pistol), We (as in Wistol), not Pee Hoe). Final views over the glaciar.

A sunny day, I was in the shadow of 60m year old Paine Grande until I finally reached Pehoe. I sat down to have my lunch in the sunshine by the lake, gazing across to the mountains beyond. Immediately it clouded over.

The going had been good in the morning but my pack felt heavy in the afternoon. I thought about ploughing on to Albergue Los Cuernos and having a nice hot shower and maybe some dinner and even a bed. I stuck to my plan and stopped at Campamento Italiano, at the bottom of the Valle del Frances. Tomorrow I'll head up to Campamento Britanico and beyond to the mirador above.

I met a couple of American travellers at the campsite, John and Jeffrey. They'd met on the Navimag boat from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas. Jeffrey had spent the last 3 years travelling, doing occasional work, in Australia, New Zealand and South America. He was carrying his whole world with him. He had a lot of little luxuries like spices for his food and really good tea. It's amazing how important these simple things become.

John, from Seattle, had like me left his job. He was on a 6-month trip. He'd already passed through Asia and was now in South America.

Jeffrey insisted on building a campfire and I insisted on sitting by it. What a great fire! It was ringed round by a circle of stones to keep it from spreading but also to hold the heat in. It kept us warm till about 10.30pm. A late night for me!

Tuesday 18 April 2006

Episode 2. Torres del Paine Day 3

Wet. It was only light drizzle when I awoke and I hoped that it would clear. I set off early with just a few essentials in my pack to head up to Paso John Garner from which there are supposed to be amazing views over Glaciar Grey. Steady climb from 200m to 500m and then a final steep ascent to 1200m. But the rain got worse, the ground extemely muddy and slippery and those ravines less and less inviting. I reached the Campamento Guardas about 5km on, stopped to look out from the mirador over the glaciar then decided it simply wasn't going to happen. So I turned back. So I'm leaving something behind to do. In reality, since I wanted to do the circuito grande and was unable to do it, I'll have to come back anyway.

I sat in my tent drinking my mug of soup feeling something but since I can't read the notes I made, I have no idea what it was that I was feeling. Looks a bit like 'choked' but I wasn't. Anyway, I sat and watched the steam rising off my trousers as they dried in the relative warmth of the tent and watched the mist rising off the mountains once the rain had stopped. Nature suddenly seemed perverse to me. The clouds come along. Wet everything. It warms up. The water rises back up to form clouds. The wind blows the clouds into the next mountain, where they break into rain... etc... Well, somehow it seems to work.

There were a dozen members of 16 Squadron RAF, on R&R from the Falklands, staying overnight at the Refugio Lago Grey. These guys were doing it in relative luxury. Small packs, no tents, staying in the comfort and warmth of a hut. Food provided at each hut, so no need to carry provisions. I guess it worked in my favour. I chatted to a few of them for a while then one of them gave up a couple of boil-in-the-bag sausage and beans. Lovely. MoD cooked breakfast for the next 2 mornings.

Later I spent some time chatting to a Spanish couple. They had been living in Dublin. Chucked in their jobs and after a few months travelling were returning to Spain, where they reckoned they were going to struggle to find worthwhile jobs.

I took the opportunity of the downtime to do some admin: cleaned out the tent etc.Later I went to the mirador to take some more pictures. The ones I'd taken first thing this morning were probably not as good as they might have been, in the limited light.

I revised my plans for the rest of my time in the park...
  • D4 Campamento Lago Grey to Campamento Italiano
  • D5 Campamento Italiano to Campamento Britanico to Mirador then back to Campamento Italiano and on to Albergue Los Cuernos. Long day.
  • D6 Albergue Los Cuernos to Campamento Torres.
  • D7 Campamento Torres to mirador back to Camp T then on to Campamento Japonés on to Valle del Silencio then back to Camp T.
  • D8 Camp T to Hosteria Las Torres then on to Laguna Amarga for coach back to Puerto Natales.

Monday 17 April 2006

Episode 2. Torres del Paine Day 2

It seems a long time since I got on the coach from Puerto Natales. I woke up this morning, calm and refreshed. The rain had come and gone intermittently throughout the night... one of my favourite sounds. The occasional burst of strong wind woke me but I stopped thinking the tent was going to blow away.

I quickly brewed some (nasty powdered instant) coffee and had a little breakfast. I had the tent down and everything packed away by 8.00am. I left my pack at the campsite and headed on with camera to the mirador Zapata, looking up Zapata glacier and mountain. The autumnal colours of the beechwood in the early sunlight were beautiful.

I had to make it back down to Lago Grey for 2pm to catch the boat across the lake, so I then hurried back to the campsite, picked up the pack... and some water... and moved quickly. The weather was mostly sunny with occasional showers that left numerous complete rainbows: the kind where you can see the entire bow against a backdrop of blue sky. I put my waterproof jacket on during one more persistent shower and succeeded in tearing a gash into the arm on a tree as I tried to find a crossing over a flooded brook.

At 11.00am, I scared the life out of a girl walking alone in the opposite direction. I later found a solitary 1-person tent at Campamento Pingo at the start/end of the track. Assuming it was hers, she probably hadn't seen anyone since about the same time as me the day before, 4pm. That's 19 hours, if I can still add up.

I made good time, pushing it hard and stopping for a few photo opportunities. Gazing at a pink cliff, with a curious rockface of curved layers, I stepped on a solitary rock protruding quietly on to the track. The weight of my pack, with 8 days' provisions, caused me to slip and I ended up with my arm buried in a thornbush, unable to stand up with the pack on my back.

Walking into Hostería Lago Grey, a US$275 dollar per night place from which I had to catch the boat, I got some very strange looks. I made use of the bathroom, then seeing myself in the mirror, it became clear why they were looking at me like that.

On the way across the lake, I was lucky to be able to see a condor feeding its offspring. It seems that the young bird had fallen while learning to fly, so now the adult was having to feed it on a ledge off a cliff in full view of us on the boat.

Across the lake to Campamento Lago Grey, my initial plan was to head up to Campamento el Paso, so that I could climb the pass the next morning. But it was much later than I'd expected. The temptation of a hot shower at Camp LG won the day and I decided to stay there 2 nights, making the climb of the pass tomorrow and moving on the day after.

The feeling of a hot shower was just amazing.

The camping experience here was totally different. Yes, it was by water surrounded by mountains but there were several people there and it was all more civilised, though not necessarily itself a good thing. It was also warmer and more sheltered.

Through the night, I could hear the sound of Glaciar Grey dropping huge chunks of ice into the water. It sounded like thunder but it was curiously soporific.

Sunday 16 April 2006

Episode 2. Torres del Paine Day 1

Up early-ish to catch the 7.30am coach to the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine (henceforth TdP).

A few TdP facts picked up from the very friendly and helpful guardaparques at Administración...TdP is located at the Southern end of the Andes on the Chilean side. On the map, have a look at where Puerto Natales is. That's pretty much where it is. The result of tectonic activity, it is part of a range of mountains starting with the Rockies in North America, stretching right down to Tierra del Fuego.

The Andes themselves are about 60 million years old. But TdP is only 12 million. At the foot of Cerro Paine Grande, there was a major depression in the ground. When a fissure in the rock caused the ground to subside, magma rose to the surface, forming, essentially, a volcano. Later, the whole area was covered by a glacier, which tore into the rock of the TdP. The top parts of the TdP are black because they were above the level of the glacier. Fossils have been found in the rock of the TdP, including ichthyosaurus, the dolphin-like, water-dwelling dinosaur.

The TdP are inhabited by puma, guanaco, european hares (introduced in C19), condors and many other animals. The trees are principally a variety of southern beech. I saw some National Geographic footage of Hugh Miles, who apparently IS the National Geographic, filming puma in the wild in TdP. He spent two years there getting to know one female puma.

Unfortunately I had to give up my plans to do the circuito grande. The northern section of the walk was closed, being close to the end of the season. So I quickly revised my plans and decided to do the 'W', which covers the same ground excluding the northern section and adds in a couple of side trips. I decided that I still wanted to spend a good length of time in the park, since I had put aside the days. So I resolved to spend 8 days in the park, which was way more than what is needed to complete the W.

I started off on a separate track, the Pingo-Zapata, overnight trip. After spending half the morning finding out about the park, I was left with just a few hours to get to the campsite before nightfall. I strapped on my pack and got moving fast, uphill. I set off without enough water and it began to make me feel tired after 4 hours hard march. To compound it, when I took the side walk to the Pingo Cascade, I was unable to get water, despite watching it rushing over the rocks.

Campamento Zapata, located at the top of the river Pingo, seems to be rarely used. I pitched my tent as the wind was picking up before it got dark. Immediately, I got cooking while there was still some light and once that was gone and I'd eaten, at about 7pm, I got into my sleeping bag.

The sound of guanaco and other animal shrieks, the howling wind shaking my tent and the desolation by the river made me panicky at first. My thoughts were... there are guanacos nearby... puma eat guanacos... I can't run as fast as a guanaco (let alone a puma), especially stuck in a tent... I'm easier prey than guanaco... I'm going to be killed by a puma.

But soon enough I realised that my tent could take a lot of blowing... I can defend myself against any pussy that tries it on... And then the sounds of the patter of the rain on the tent and of the flowing river began to put me to sleep.