Posts Tagged With: adventure

Exploring the Ecuadorian Amazon

There are few places on earth that excite the imagination quite like the Amazon basin. The largest rainforest in the world covers more than two and a half million square miles and is spread across nine different countries. It also boasts an outstanding array of flora and fauna, a lot of which, including the mighty anaconda, is unique to the region. The vast jungle is also home to indigenous tribes who remain remarkably detached from the modern world. Put all of these elements together and it’s obvious why the Amazon is so beguiling for travellers and adventurers. Tours to the rainforest can easily be organised from Quito, the capital of Ecuador. The Cuyabeno National Park is located close to the Colombian border, and tourists can take four, five or six day trips into the Amazon there. Back in 2007, I took the five day tour into the jungle. Eight years on, it still remains one of my all-time favourite travel experiences.

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Day 1

The overnight bus from Quito arrived in Lago Agrio at 7:30am. This gave us two and a half hours until our transport arrived, which was about two hours and fifteen minutes too long to spend in Lago Agrio. This is not a city you’d want to hang around in. When we departed, we endured a bone shaking three hour journey to El Puente, the starting point for the tour. These were some of the worst roads I experienced in all of South America. Finally though, we arrived and were herded straight onto a canoe. A two hour journey down the river took us to the Samona jungle lodge. This journey was rather more pleasurable. Chirpy and colourful macaws sang in the trees and we also spotted three different species of monkeys. That evening, after settling into the lodge, we were taken out to the Laguna Cuyabeno where we swam and watched the sunset. At first I was sceptical. Aren’t there piranhas in the Amazon?! Don’t they like eating people?! Not according to our guide Jairo. He told us that piranhas are like sharks and will only bite you if you’re already bleeding. Good enough for me! In we jumped and swam in a lagoon in the middle of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Truly amazing.

Day 2

The second day commenced in a rather challenging manner. After breakfast, we were taken out on the motor boat and deposited a considerable distance down the river. We were then placed in traditional dugout canoes and told that we were going to paddle back to the lodge. This was difficult, especially because of the fierce sun, but also massively rewarding. Along the way, we caught fleeting glimpses of pink freshwater dolphins and the rarely seen South American Coati. The giant anaconda remained elusive though. In the evening we watched a mesmerising lightning display over the lagoon before embarking on a night hike through the forest, which was teeming with tarantulas and scorpions. Quite how our immensely knowledgeable guide, Jairo, could navigate his way through the dense dark forest so easily continues to be a source of wonder.

Day 3

Day three was the highlight of the expedition. In the morning we travelled upriver and met a local tribe, called the Sione. There we were shown how they farmed and made a living for themselves in an incredibly unforgiving environment. From the Sione, we moved onto the Cofan tribe, where we were hugely privileged to meet a Shamen. Wearing his traditional dress he talked to us about the training that he had done to become a Shamen, and the hallucinogenic drinks that the Shamen use to induce a higher state of consciousness. This was followed by a demonstration of how he heals people on the cook from our lodge. It’s debatable whether or not he cured the cook’s bad back, but it was certainly intriguing to watch. In the evening we returned to the lagoon where we went piranha fishing! They may not have attacked me whilst I was swimming, but they certainly went for the bait. I was lucky enough to catch a massive one, but certainly not brave enough to hold it! Its razor sharp teeth looked like they could cut through human bone very easily. This was no problem for Jairo who held it with ease.  He was a proper man of the jungle!

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Day 4

Our final full day began with an exhilarating three hour trek into the jungle. It was hard work but immense fun. The route took us through creeks and swamps and on a number of occasions Jairo had to hack at the foliage with his machete to find us a path. I got to fulfil an ambition by swinging from a vine, and then later in the trek we also ate ants from the bark of a tree. Not for the faint hearted! The trek did also have educational value as well, as Jairo explained to us which plants had medicinal qualities and what they could be used for. For example, many of the indigenous people believe that the milk that can be obtained from the bark of the Quinina tree can cure malaria. That evening we paddled the dugout canoes in another sadly futile attempt to find an anaconda. Our efforts to see the great snake were not rewarded. However, we did see a Toucan, the symbol of the Amazon region. Most impressively of all we were treated to the magnificent sight of a solitary vulture circling low looking for carrion. Another unforgettable moment.

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Day 5

All great adventures have to come to an end, and so unfortunately did my mini adventure. I wasn’t even looking forward to getting back to Quito, let alone having to kill a few hours in Lago Agrio. In what seemed like a consolation prize, we were taken out on a final hike through the forest, before the boat journey back to El Puente. Sitting on the boat I mused on the memories of a wonderful five days. In that time I had met indigenous tribespeople, felt like an adventurer and seen an array of wildlife that, in Ecuador, could only be bettered in the Galapagos. The Amazon didn’t just meet my expectations, it exceeded them.

TRAVEL TIPS

This article was originally written eight years ago for a sadly now defunct newspaper called The Ecuador Reporter. Whilst I have made every effort to ensure that the information is still correct, I haven’t been able to find current prices. I’m happy to recommend Gulliver’s travels (http://www.gulliver.com.ec/) and Trans Esmeraldas, the bus company that I travelled from Quito to Lago Agrio with. (http://www.transportesesmeraldas.com/portal/) However, if you want specific prices you’ll have to find them for yourselves!

Categories: Ecuador, Exploring the Amazon, South America | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mountain biking down an active volcano in Ecuador

At 5897 metres above sea level Cotopaxi, in Ecuador, is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. Visible from Quito on a clear day, the majestic monolith dominates the skyline from miles around. Its perfect cone and snow-capped peak make it the most stunningly beautiful of all Ecuador’s volcanoes. A popular challenge is to attempt to hike to the summit of Cotopaxi. Beginning from the Refugio at the height of 4800 metres, the brave climbers trudge through deep snow drifts and fight against debilitating altitude in their battle to reach the top. Whilst it is obviously massively rewarding for those who do succeed, the combination of the altitude and the notoriously unpredictable weather patterns that surround Cotopaxi mean that success is far from guaranteed. Unfortunately, many climbers return to Quito disappointed, having had their attempts thwarted. An interesting alternative for those who fancy a bit of adventure, but don’t want to go to the top of the mountain, is to mountain bike down it instead. Having already biked down Bolivia’s notorious “Death Road” a couple of months previously, this was definitely a challenge that I wanted to undertake!

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The Biking Dutchman was established in 1991 and has been running day trips down Cotopaxi ever since. It is easy to see why the company’s success has endured; the ride is utterly exhilarating. The minibuses leave Quito at 7am and make their way to the national park, eventually stopping 4500 metres up the mountain. From here the views of the mountain are breathtaking and provide wonderful photo opportunities. After a safety briefing, we tentatively began our descent. The first 8 kilometres of the ride were all downhill, on a frightening gradient, and we achieved some truly phenomenal speeds. Whilst the ride is suitable for most ability levels, I wouldn’t really recommend it to complete beginners as the bikes were basic and only had front wheel suspension. This meant that maintaining balance was a tricky proposition. I think my knuckles were white from gripping the handlebars so hard! Thankfully, I made it through this stretch with only a couple of minor falls.

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When the descent has been completed the ride slows down and takes on a more sedate nature. After the rush of going downhill and holding on for dear life, it was pleasant to actually do some pedalling and take time to appreciate the bewitching lunar landscape. The massive boulders that have been spewed from the volcano in its moments of fury make for particularly compelling viewing.

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Once we had eaten a delicious, and much needed, home-made lunch, we embarked on the final section of the ride. This took us across barren grasslands before plunging through lush pine forests. Pedalling across the grasslands and having to continually change gears was torturous. However, once we headed into the forest, all the effort seemed worthwhile. Here it was possible to really put my foot down, and get some serious speed up, flying over rocks and through puddles in the process. The speeds were comparable to further up the mountain but without the same fear factor, making this my favourite section of the ride. Finally, after four hours of hard riding, we reached the end point. Many of us felt seriously battered and bruised. None of us said that we didn’t enjoy every single minute of it.

TRAVEL TIPS

The trip is competitively priced at $55 per person. This includes lunch and transport to and from the national park. It doesn’t include the $10 entrance fee to the national park. Check out the Biking Dutchman’s website at http://www.bikingdutchman.com/

Disclaimer: This is an old article which I wrote eight years ago for a sadly now defunct paper called “The Ecuador Reporter.” I’ve updated the article so all price information is current, but please don’t blame me if anything else is out of date!

Categories: Ecuador, Mountain biking down Cotopaxi, South America, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A week in Morocco

There aren’t many countries that can truly say that they offer everything to the tourist. Morocco though, most definitely can. From the soaring peaks of the high Atlas mountains, to windswept sandy beaches, and rolling sand dunes in the Sahara, the landscapes are stunning and varied. Throw in ancient cities, a distinct and delectable cuisine, and the fact that it’s a shopper’s paradise, you can see why it holds such an appeal for so many travellers. Morocco had captured my imagination for a long time before I went there. I sensed my chance to finally go when I got a job in southern Spain in 2011. As soon as I arrived in Andalusia, I was dreaming of what lay across the straits of Gibraltar. The opportunity arose when we had a week off work for Semana Santa, Spain’s Easter week holidays.

Our journey started in our home city of Cordoba. From there we took the train to Algeciras, and then a local bus to Tarifa, where we boarded our ferry to Tangier. There was something gloriously exciting and old-fashioned about travelling between continents by ship. Upon arrival, we checked in at the Hotel Continental, which overlooked the port. The hotel had an air of faded grandeur, which added to the feeling of old-fashioned travel. It was probably THE place to stay in Tangier in a bygone era. After a while, we braved the labyrinthine streets of Tangier’s medina and our senses were assaulted in every way. This was our first taste of North Africa, and the Arab world, and it probably showed. An old man who was dressed like Yoda approached us. Upon hearing that we were from Manchester, he proceeded to tell us that he was a personal friend of Bobby Charlton and had guided him round Tangier in the 1960s. It was almost certainly nonsense but it was highly amusing. After he had finished regaling us with his tales, and quibbling about the tip we gave him, he took us to a local restaurant, which in fairness to Yoda was absolutely outstanding. The subtly spiced Moroccan cuisine would continue to work its magic on us for the entire week.

The next day we left Tangier and headed to Chefchaouen, the blue city in the Rif Mountains. There we stayed at a hostel called Rif for anyone, or Dar Scotlandee to the locals, in reference to the Scottish couple that owned the place. Terry and Suzanne, and their son Liam, were superbly hospitable and had what could be best described as a relaxed and libertarian approach to life. Other than exploring the blue painted medina, the thing to do in Chefchaouen is hike. There are a number of superb trails in the Rif Mountains. Unfortunately for us, bad weather (which was to follow us round for our entire trip) scuppered these plans so three days in Chefchaouen was probably one too many.

Our next destination was Fez. I’ve done a lot of travelling and consequently taken a lot of bus journeys. This was up there with the very worst of them. Admittedly, I’ve never driven a bus. However, for my money, the best way to approach tight winding mountain roads that are covered in potholes, is to take it slowly and carefully. Our bus driver clearly didn’t agree. His approach was to drive like an absolute madman, tearing round each corner at terrifying speeds. All round the bus people were being sick. It was one of the longest five hours of my life!

Fez, when we finally arrived there, was worth all the tortures inflicted on the journey. Going into the medina was like stepping back in time several hundred years. While we were exploring, we were approached by a young man named Hassan, who offered his cousin’s services for a trip to Volubilis. Against every traveller’s instinct we said yes. It turned out to be the best decision we made in our time there. The day trip was the undoubted highlight of our holiday. Volubilis is a remarkably well preserved set of Roman ruins, located about 100 kilometres from Fez. Due to Janey’s archaeological background this was one of the things that she was most looking forward to in Morocco. It certainly didn’t disappoint. The weather conspired against us again though. When we arrived at the ruins, the skies were blue. Within a few minutes, they had turned to black and a thunderous downpour ensued. At times it felt more like we were in North Wales than North Africa! The other two destinations that we visited on our day trip provided an interesting contrast. The small town of Moulay Idriss is auspicious for Muslims. However, it didn’t feel very welcoming to tourists and we were glad to be back in the car after a few minutes. Meknes on the other hand was a delight. The buildings were charming and we ate some spectacular street food for an obscenely low price. Said, Hassan’s cousin, also proved to be an excellent driver and guide.

After the tour, we were left with one more day in Fez. Janey, who had been holding back until now, went in search of souvenirs. I normally hate shopping with a passion but in Fez it was awesome! In Morocco haggling is obligatory and I loved it. Every transaction gave me the chance to test my skills against a true expert of the art. Overall, I think I did quite well. My haggling skills probably saved us a total of about fifty euros which is not a bad result when battling with the best!

Before we arrived back in Spain, there was time for one more challenge. We needed to get an overnight train from Fez to Tangier, so as to get the morning ferry back to Tarifa. This was made particularly tricky by our Riad’s refusal to organise a taxi for us. Therefore, we had to venture out into the Fez night to find one for ourselves. Thankfully after a few minutes we were successful, and all I had to do was stay awake until we had to change trains at Sidi Kacem. Eighteen hours after leaving the Riad we arrived back at our flat in Cordoda. This journey seemed to encapsulate our entire trip to Morocco. It was hard work, absolutely exhausting but utterly exhilarating.

TRAVEL TIPS

In Fez we stayed at a Riad called Riad Lalla Fatima. Upon first glance it looked beautiful. However, it turned out to be a dreadful place to stay. Firstly, at no other hotel or hostel in the world have the staff told me that they can’t organise a taxi, no matter what time I was leaving. Furthermore, on our final night we ordered a home cooked meal. Janey has been vegetarian for nearly twenty years. She was therefore highly distressed, and violently sick, when she discovered that her vegetarian couscous had chicken in it. Instead of apologising for the mistake, the staff had the gall to deny the visibly obvious. If I gave this place a 1 out of 10 rating it would be generous. Don’t stay there.

Categories: A week in Morocco, Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Climbing Mount Rinjani

When I was a young boy my parents always used to take my siblings and I walking. Every bank holiday weekend, when our classmates were going to the seaside or to a theme park, we were tramping up and down the hills of the Lake District or Snowdonia. Needless to say, at the time we hated it. However, over the years, this fostered a love of the great outdoors that still persists to this day. By the time I was fifteen, I’d climbed all the three peaks of Britain. However, until last year, my love for walking had gone cold for a long time. That was until I climbed Mount Kinabalu and it completely reawakened my enthusiasm. New challenges needed to be sought. A colleague suggested Indonesia’s Mount Rinjani, reputedly even more spectacular than Kinabalu. In no time at all, flights were booked and a reservation was made. We were going trekking up an active volcano!

Situated on the island of Lombok, Rinjani is Indonesia’s second highest volcano, no mean feat in a country that has over a hundred of them. The summit of the volcano stands at 3726 metres. However, the main reason for Rinjani’s popularity is not the summit, but a spectacular crater lake, with the volcano’s new cone rising out of the centre. There are a plethora of trekking options available, ranging from one day to four days. We booked a three day, two night trek, which gives the option whether to go the summit or not.

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On day one, our trek began from the village of Senaru. The first section of the trek was through the jungle and was actually very comfortable. The heat wasn’t too stifling and the gradient was only slight, a far cry from the steep steps of Kinabalu. After around three hours we stopped for lunch and we saw the first negative aspect of Rinjani. The picnic area was covered in rubbish. Furthermore, the lunch that the porters cooked for us, although delicious, was far more than we could possibly eat. This meant that large quantities were wasted. As trekking up Rinjani becomes more popular, the companies are going to have to try to manage their environmental impact much more carefully.

After lunch, the walk became more challenging. Once we cleared the tree line, we emerged into savannah style terrain. Here the topsoil was almost non-existent, making maintaining our footing extremely difficult. The dust that this created stung our eyes, throats and nostrils. I resorted to drastic measures and wrapped my sweat towel around my face to combat it! Finally, after about seven hours of walking, we arrived at our campsite overlooking the crater rim. The second part of the trek had been arduous and the night time temperatures were freezing. However, the views of the lake, the stars, and Bali’s Mount Agung in the distance, made all the effort worthwhile.

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On day two we had the option of getting up very early and heading for the summit, or a trek down into the crater to swim in the lake, and visit the hot springs. Having been to the summit of South East Asia’s highest mountain a couple of months earlier, we had nothing to prove to ourselves and decided to have a few hours rest in the tent. On reflection, the walk to the summit probably wasn’t much harder than what we did. The crater is deceptively deep and it took us nearly three hours, down a steep winding path to reach the shore. Swimming in the lake was adequate reward, the hot springs much less so. Like the picnic area the previous day, they were absolutely filthy with food waste and even used toilet paper. It was a shame to see such a bucolic spot so tarnished. The trek back up to the crater rim was done in the height of the midday sun and took just as long. When we finally got there we wished we’d gone to the summit! Day two didn’t finish there either. Due to our desire to get to the Gili Islands the next day, we descended to Camp 3, just below the tree line. The dustbowl was even more precarious on the way down as our shoes had no traction at all. I took one very heavy fall, and awarded myself a large number of man points for bouncing straight back up!073093

Our final day began with a 5am wake up call. Following a delicious breakfast (the quantities were too large but the quality of the food on the mountain was consistently excellent) we embarked on a fairly straightforward three and a half hour trek to the bottom. Another three hours later, we were recuperating on the stunning Gili Islands, another of Lombok’s crown jewels.

The trek was challenging, but not as brutal as Kinabalu. The scenery, particularly the crater lake, was absolutely breathtaking. The only downside was the aforementioned litter problems. If you can get over this, I’d recommend Rinjani to any walking enthusiast. As for us, we’re taking a little break from climbing mountains for a while!

TRAVEL TIPS

We booked our trek through a company called Andreas Expedition. They were friendly and well organised throughout the booking process. However, we were not very impressed with our guide. Unlike the wonderful Diona on Mount Kinabalu, he was very impatient with Janey for her lack of speed, which clouded our opinion of him and the company somewhat.

Categories: Asia, Indonesia, Mount Rinjani | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Climbing Mount Kinabalu

Mount Kinabalu is the highest mountain in South East Asia. Standing at an impressive height of 4,095 metres it towers over the rest of Borneo. Ever since I arrived in Malaysia last September, I’d wanted to climb it. Why? I don’t know. Because it’s there I guess. I’m not really much of a mountaineer. Prior to climbing Kinabalu the highest mountain that I had climbed was Ben Nevis which is a molehill in comparison, at just 1,344 metres. There was something about Kinabalu that really made me want to take on the challenge though. Therefore, in May this year, Janey and I headed to Sabah, with the intention of ascending the great peak.

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On the first morning of our two day trek, we departed from the Timpohon gate, at 9:30am. Part of what makes Kinabalu unique is that for the first day of the climb you can’t actually see the peak of the mountain, as you’re trekking through fairly dense jungle. We’d been warned to expect sweltering heat and to sweat profusely. This didn’t really transpire as the temperatures were pleasantly mild. Nor did the steep steps seem too sapping. I naively congratulated myself for the many hours spent on the cross trainer and stairmaster in preparation for the trek. This wasn’t going to be that difficult after all! However, at about the 2.5km mark we started encountering people who were gingerly making their way down the mountain. One girl told me that she was so exhausted that her legs were shaking. Maybe that confidence was slightly misplaced.

Rain has a habit of following Janey and I around. Maybe it’s because I’m from Manchester. Just after we’d stopped for lunch, it decided to make its customary appearance. This wasn’t the warm tropical rain that we’re used to in Penang. This was ice cold, torrential and it meant business. We tried to take shelter for a while but as it showed no signs of abating we ventured out for what would be the toughest part of the trek. Between 4.5 and 6 km the trail maintains its steep upward gradient. Just to make it more difficult though the steps disappear and the walkers have to navigate their way over or around some very larger boulders. The added challenge of the torrential rain made it akin to walking up a waterfall. Finally though, the tree line cleared and Laban Rata, our home for the night, appeared like a beautiful beacon of light. Soaked and miserable, we staggered into the hostel. There was only another 2.5km to go in the morning, with the prospect of more rain to come.

At first you can’t believe it. Is my alarm clock really going off at 1:30am? Then it dawns on you, it’s time to get up and attempt to summit. After trying to force down some beans on toast (seriously difficult at 2:00am) we departed Laban Rata and started our ascent to the summit. The most difficult aspect of this part of the climb is not the darkness, but the volume of climbers. Around 150 people all leave at the same time, which makes progress painstakingly slow. Eventually though, the stronger hikers get to the front and the line starts to spread out, and you can relax a little bit. Until you reach the rope. This is definitely the most dangerous point of the trek. We had to tightly grip onto a rope to enable us to inch along a very narrow ledge, with a sheer drop to the right. This torturous ordeal lasts for about fifteen minutes until you reach the final checkpoint. After that the rope continues but only as a marker to guide you across a long ridge. Strangely, for me, this was one of the easiest parts of the climb. Gone were the steps and boulders. We were just walking across smooth granite at a slight gradient. The challenge though is mental. In the approaching light, the summit is visible for a very long time before you get there, cruelly playing tricks on tired minds.

After what seemed like an eternity the ridge levelled out and we only had to scramble up a rocky crag to reach the ironically named Low’s Peak, the highest point in South East Asia. The sense of elation was overwhelming. I had done the Inca Trail some years earlier, but Kinabalu was easily the toughest physical challenge I’d ever undertaken. For that reason it’s also one of my proudest achievements.

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Once you have finished revelling in the magnificent views, it’s time to go down. And believe me, this is just as tough as the ascent, even with a stop for second breakfast (definitely the best meal of the day) at Laban Rata. Janey, who had performed heroically up to this point given the fact that she had twisted her ankle a month beforehand, started to suffer from exhaustion. This made the descent very slow. Throughout this section, we were indebted to our wonderful guide Doina for her seemingly endless patience and indefatigability. Finally, we dragged our battered bodies back through the Timpohon gate at around 4:45pm. The whole trek had taken about 16 hours from start to finish. Was it worth the agony and several subsequent days of muscle pain? Of course it was. Every single bit of it.

 

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TRAVEL TIPS

We booked our 2 day, 1 night package through a company called Sutera, who seem to have a monopoly on climbing packages and accommodation. Expect to pay about 1000RM. This seems pricey, but it includes 7 meals, 2 nights accommodation and all climbing insurance etc. Ss the official Mount Kinabalu website http://www.mountkinabalu.com/ for details.

 

 

Categories: Asia, Malaysia, Mount Kinabalu | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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