Tag Archives: UNESCO

The Top of Europe

You’ve got to love the Swiss. Only they would be crazy enough to build a railway tunnel through one of the highest mountains in Europe just to take you to a lovely view. But I love the fact that they did, because it makes a fantastic half-day out from Wengen if you happen to be there for the skiing (or walking, if you’re there in summer).

Trains at Kleine Scheidegg station on the Jungfraubahn switzerland

Kleine Scheidegg - start point of the Jungfraubahn

Based on my visit though, it would appear that the trip to the highest railway station in Europe is of little interest to skiers – as I was the only one on my train. Maybe they think they’re getting a good enough view from the slopes, maybe they’re enjoying the skiing too much to take the time out, whatever the reason, I think they’re mad, it was a trip I wouldn’t have missed for the world.

St Bernard dog on a railway platform

Aw, cute


Being the only skier didn’t mean I was the only tourist though – in fact the train was quite full with an entirely different group of tourists, who it appears to come to the area just to visit the Jungfraujoch – Chinese & Japanese tourists. I first encountered them at Kleine Scheidegg station (where you have to change trains if you’re coming up from Wengen). It was pretty early in the morning, as I wanted to have a full afternoon of skiing, and so there weren’t many skiers around – but the platform was full of these tourists, mostly being photographed clustered around a stereotypical St. Bernard dog (complete with mini barrel around his neck).
Jungfraubahn tunnel through the Eiger

The tunnel through the Eiger

The journey up to the Jungfraujoch – the saddle between the neighbouring Mönch & Jungfrau peaks – takes quite a while, as the rack railways climbs steeply, up past the highest ski lift at Eigergletscher before entering the tunnel through the Eiger and continuing its steady ascent, on the way pausing for a while at two stations. The first, Eigernordwand, gave me a chance to get out and wander out to three huge windows cut right into the legendary North Face of the Eiger. 64 climbers have died since 1935 attempting to climb it, and today the windows have a dual function – as well as allowing tourists like me to get a view across the valleys, it’s also the start point for missions attempting to rescue climbers in trouble. The next stop, Eismeer, has spectacular views out over the Lower Grindelwald Glacier – from where you used to be able to ski all the way down to the town of Grindelwald, until it retreated in recent years.

Lower Grindelwald Glacier, switzerland, from Eismeer station

Lower Grindelwald Glacier, from Eismeer station

Finally we arrived at Jungfraujoch station, which at 3,454m high is the highest in Europe (and cheekily named ‘the Top of Europe’ in their marketing materials, which it clearly isn’t). For such a remote and beautiful location, the complex itself is surprisingly tacky – there are several very touristy restaurants, and an ‘ice palace’ carved into the glacier, full of cheesy ice statues of polar bears and the like. These distractions didn’t detain me for long, for I was only really there for one thing – to get outside and see the view.

Corridor cut through Ice at the Ice Palace, Jungfraujoch

The least tacky bit of the Ice Palace


Jungfrau

The Jungfrau

It didn’t disappoint – with the Jungfrau and Mönch rising up on either side, and impressive views out towards Wengen and on towards Interlaken, and best of all, from the open platform at the top of the observatory you get a truly spectacular view over the start of Europe’s longest remaining glacier, the Great Aletsch.

Konkordiaplatz the start of the Aletsch Glacier

Konkordiaplatz - the start of the Aletsch Glacier

Right behind the Jungfraujoch, three small glaciers converge at the massive Konkordiaplatz, at which point the ice is estimated to be a full kilometre thick. The scale of it is ginormous – it covers a whopping 120 square kilometres, and bends away into the distance on its long, 23 kilometre descent towards the Rhone Valley. I’ve only seen tiny glaciers before elsewhere in the Alps & in the Andes, but this one is a monster, and it’s one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen.

Aletsch Glacier, by MrUllmi on Flickr

Further down the Aletsch Glacier (by MrUllmi, on Flickr)

I stayed far longer than planned, it was so breathtaking, and headed back down amazed that so few of the people visiting Wengen or Grindelwald for the skiing make the effort to go up, especially when you consider that the cheapest way to visit by far is if you’re already skiing. Non skiers have to pay €133 return from Interlaken, which must be one of the most expensive train fares in Europe. Skiers with a 6-day ski pass for the area pay a massively reduced rate – about €40, which is still pretty pricey considering the distance, but easily worth it.

You can see all of my photos from my visit to the Bernese Oberland here.

Cock Fights & Naughty Monkeys

Relaxing as it is to spend time diving, snorkelling and island hopping, even that gets a little strenous after a while (it’s a hard life), so it was time to leave El Nido for somewhere even more relaxing.

Picture of Port Barton beach in Palawan Philippines

Port Barton beach

Port Barton lies on the coast of Palawan, about half way between the tourist centres of El Nido & Puerto Princessa, and as soon as I arrived I fell in love with the place. While the beach was lovely, the sea inviting and the hotel pretty comfortable, none was the best I’ve seen so far – and yet there was something indefineable about the place that had me feeling at home as soon as I arrived. It’s a bit harder to get to than other spots in Palawan, which serves to keep it considerably quieter – and that suited me fine. I practically had the beach to myself that first afternoon, and I the sleepy atmosphere of the place soon had me feeling as relaxed as I have anywhere on my trip so far.

If that had been that this could have ended up as quite a dull post – but the repeated sound of cocks crowing quickly roused me from my slumber. A short walk into town revealed what I’d suspected – a cock fight (which is pretty much the national sport). It wasn’t just any old cock fight either – I’d stumbled into the town on the final day of their annual fiesta, and they were celebrating in part with a massive all day event.

Cock fight in Port Barton Palawan Philippines

3 cock derby

I really don’t approve of animals fighting for sport – but despite that I was drawn in, and in turned out to be every bit as barbaric as I’d feared. The arena was a small, square patch of dirt, surrounded by benches packed with most of the village’s male population, frantically shouting and signalling across at each other as odds were altered and money quickly and confusingly changed hands around the ring. Soon, after a period of taunting and winding up by other birds brought on especially for this purpose, the bookies and the trainers left the ring, with just the referee there to set the cocks at each other.

Pretty soon it was all a blur, as the cocks flew round each other, biting away, and slashing away with the sharp blades strapped to one of their hind legs. That first bout was all over pretty quickly as one of the cocks was slit right open across its chest. It doesn’t even end in a quick, painless death as I’d thought – fighting cocks are pretty valuable, so unless they’re killed outright, a vet is on hand round the back to stuff the organs back in, sew them up, and send them on their way to recover, ready to fight again some months down the line. I didn’t stick around after that. Not my cup of tea.

Elsewhere in town I got to have a more entertaining animal interaction. The best (and friendliest) place to eat in town is Judy’s, so I headed down there for dinner with my friends, which turned out to be a fair bit harder than anticipated, thanks to the resident baby monkey (named ‘Small Monkey’). Apparently she’d been recently rescued after hunters killed her mother, and now hangs out in the restaurant, harassing customers (but getting away with it by being so small and cute). It’s pretty tough trying to eat when at any moment you risk having something stolen off your plate (which Small Monkey will then proceed to eat whilst sitting on your shoulder. Half of it normally ends up in your mouth, and the rest scattered through your hair and down your back). It was all pretty entertaining, but I do hope that they end up taking Small Monkey to a rehabilitation centre soon – she may be cute now, but she’ll turn into a real handful as she gets older (and anyway, entertaining as she is, it’s really not best for her to grow up around humans).

Puerto Princessa Subterranean River UNESCO World Heritage Site Palawan Philippines

Entering the Subterranean River

Final stop in my trip through Palawan was Puerto Princessa and the nearby Subterranean River. Before I went to Palawan, this is the one thing I’d heard about the island, and it appears to be pretty agressively marketed as an attraction by the local and national government. It certainly deserves its fame – as the world’s longest currently navigable underground river it’s a very unusual attraction – but I must admit the boat road down the river was a little disappointing. Don’t get me wrong, it has some pretty spectacular formations inside, but ultimately it was just like being in a big cave, except with water underfoot rather than rock. I actually found the caving experience in Sagada much more fun (because it was more active, rather than passively sitting on a boat being rowed). I wouldn’t miss it if I was in the area and had time – but for me, the best bits of Palawan were quite definitely further north.

Puerto Princessa Underground River UNESCO World Heritage Site Sabang Palawan Philippines

...and coming back out again

You can see my Port Barton photos here and my Puerto Princessa ones here.

Next stop: Tracking down the world’s smallest primate in Bohol.

The stunning rice terraces of Batad

It’s never a nice surprise to arrive in a new town, bleary-eyed after a restless night on a bus, to find it pouring with rain.

“Isn’t it supposed to be the dry season in January?”

“Dry season? Ha ha. No. That doesn’t start here til March”

Serves me right for trusting the Lonely Planet when it comes to planning for the weather. For it turns out that yes, while the dry season starts in January in most of the Philippines, high up in the Cordillera Mountains of North Luzon it’s a different matter. Which was a bit of a problem. We’d made the epic journey up north for one main reason: to see the spectacular 2,000 year old rice terraces of the Ifugao people – and looking out of the hotel balcony, we couldn’t see a thing, as the entire valley was shrouded in cloud.

On arriving in Banaue I’d met up with an English / Ecuadorean couple (Matt & Carolina) and a German (Dominic) and we quickly abandoned our plans to go up to the viewing point over the town. The view would be even worse there. So instead we donned our raincoats and headed out for a wander around the valley in the hope we might actually get to see something. After a while the cloud lifted a little bit, but unfortunately the rain just got heavier and heavier (which is no fun at all when you’re walking along a very muddy unpaved road) so we had to admit defeat and turn back before we’d seen anything but a few smaller terraces.

Rice Terraces close-up

We’d only planned to stay two nights in the area before heading on to Sagada, so despite the weather we optimistically booked ourselves on to a trek for the following day.

The following morning only offered a slight improvement – the clouds were a smidgen higher, but the light drizzle continued. It was our only chance to see the terraces, so we jumped into the Jeepney for the bumpy one hour ride down the road praying for miracles. The weather continued in the same vein throughout the first section of the walk, down very steep, slippery steps and along yet another muddy path as we headed to our ultimate destination – the village of Batad.

We weren’t all that hopeful about our prospects of a good view, but as soon as we came round the corner and saw the village’s rice terraces in all their glory, suddenly the weather didn’t matter any more. For even with grey skies and persistent rain, the sight was spectacular. The guidebook describes them as looking like an amphitheater surrounding the village, and that’s pretty accurate – they rise high up the hillsides in a semicircle all the way round the village, and continue down the valley below as well. As we were there just before the new planting season, every terrace was full fo water – and as they completely surround the village, from our viewpoint above it made Batad look like an island.

The Batad amphitheatre

Trying not to fall in

An island in the mountains

The hike then took us out onto the terraces themselves, walking right along the narrow dividing walls The sight alone is impressive and beautiful enough – but it’s also quite incredible to think that they were carved straight out of the steep mountainsides, at over 2,000 metres, such a long time ago – and not just in Batad, but over a huge area (apparently laid out end to end they’re stretch the whole way round the world several times).

Rainbow over the rice terraces

It’s one of the most beautiful sights I’ve seen on my trip so far – and pretty unexpected too. If I knew anything about the Philippines, it’s as a destination for beaches and diving. I really wasn’t expecting such stunning mountain scenery. Just four days into my stay in the country and I was already falling in love with the place.

You can see all of my photos of the rice terraces here

I wanna hold your (furry) hand

Lake Toba was a pretty lovely place to spend a couple of days chilling out, but I was really only in Sumatra for one reason: Orang Utans.

A couple of hours north of sprawling (and not particularly exciting) Medan is the tiny little village of Bukit Lawang. It’s a charming little place, but it’s not the village everyone comes to see. Sumatra is one of only two places in the world (the other being Borneo) where Orang Utans still live in the wild. Just outside the village is a national park that protects both the rainforest and the animals that live there; on the edge of it is an Orang Utan rehabilitation centre that has been so succesful that the park can take no more of the animals, with the result that a second centre has been opened up elsewhere.

With that many Orang Utans living so close to the village, it’s no surprise that a steady stream of tourists head to Bukit Lawang to trek into the jungle to see them up close (although with this being Indonesia, that stream of tourists is more like a trickle compared to the flood that would visit if it were in most other South East Asian countries).

First monkey of the day

So at eight thirty in the morning, I met up with our guide, Alex, and the group of seven others I’d be trekking with – unusually for Indonesia, they were all English. It took us just a few minutes from the hotel to make it into the jungle, and in no time at all we came across our first close contact with some apes – a troop of Thomas Leaf Monkeys. They weren’t shy at all, and the adult male of the group came down from the trees to have a good look at us (and pose for photos), whilst the kids crashed around the trees above, chasing each other round, swinging from vine to vine and performing rather impressive leaps from tree to tree. Being a young monkey looks like a lot of fun.

It was a nice way to start the day, but we all knew we were there for one reason only, and so we soon moved on to try and find some Orang-Utans. Soon we came across another group standing at the bottom of a tree in silence staring straight up – and we quickly realised what the spectacle was. Perched right at the top of a tree was an adult female Orang Utan in her nest, while her child swung around the tree-tops above her. Exciting as it was to see one, she was so high up, with the sun directly behind her, that it was pretty hard to get a good view.

Getting close to Mina

The day continued in a similar vein, with regular glimpses high up in trees, often obscured by branches, and moving away as soon as we approached. Trying to spot wild animals is always going to be tricky, but it was pretty frustrating all the same. Our luck was about to turn though: as we sat down to have lunch, another group came running past us, as they were trying to get away from the notorious Mina. We’d heard all about her – before she was in the rehabilitation centre, she had lived with humans and had no fear of them. In fact, we had more to fear from her, as she knows humans normally carry food, and she can be quite aggressive in her pursuit of it. So we quickly finished our meals and headed in the direction she was supposed to be, and soon found her. She made a beeline for our guide, who managed to placate her by feeding her bananas one at a time, but as soon as they ran out she started heading straight for us, forcing us to make a quick exit down a steep hill to escape. While they may be shorter in height than humans, they are heavier, and much, much stronger, so it’s really not a good idea to get on the wrong side of one.

With all the excitement over, we headed back down the hill, down some waterfalls, to our camp by the river, with all of us on a real high from getting to see an Orang Utan so close up. We had no idea the best was yet to come.

Jackie

Soon after we made camp, we were all sitting around drinking tea, when Alex pointed out that another semi-wild female, Jackie, was heading down the waterfall and in our direction. She soon made it over to us, and perched on a short little tree just a metre away from where we were sitting, with her adorable little baby (with a cool little Mohican) hanging off her side.

She sat there for a good half hour checking us out, before coming down from the tree and holding the hands of the two nearest people from our group, Helen & Sheri. I really hadn’t expected to get quite so close to an Orang-Utan, and for the next twenty minutes or so, she sat in the middle of us, at one point even giving Sheri a great big hug (which sounds great, but with her huge size and vicelike grip I think Sheri was quite glad to be released again).

Making her way down from the trees

Hugging Sheri

Getting close

It soon became clear that Jackie is quite a bit smarter than Mina – rather than using aggression to get her way, Jackie lulled us into a false sense of security with her affection, and once our guard was down she made a beeline towards the kitchen tent. The guides managed to stop her just in time, and I ended up holding her hand and walking her back across the rover and away from the camp while one of the guides tempted her with some bananas.

Getting ready to walk her away from the camp

She knew she was on to a good thing with us, because as we woke up the next morning she was back in the tree above camp, and soon came down again to get close to us. This time chaos ensued. A troupe of long-tailed macaques had decided to take advantage of our distraction by sneaking round the kitchen tent from the back to try and get at the food, and as soon as we realised what they were up to we stopped watching Jackie for a second and she was off – straight into another tent where she had clearly sniffed out our fruit supplies. In no time at all she’d nabbed all our bananas, oranges and lychees (as well as Helen’s breakfast) and was back up in a tree just out of our reach munching away at her prize.

A Macaque takes advantage of the chaos to steal some toast

We were all pretty speechless. I’d come along on the trek hoping to see the Orang Utans, but I had no idea I’d be able to get so close to one as to be able to hold her hand. They are such beautiful creatures, so human-looking in some of their actions and facial expressions, and clearly very intelligent too. Bukit Lawang had never been on my original itinerary, but I am so glad I made it now. It was my last day in Indonesia after two months, and what a way to go out, as it’s without a doubt one of the best memories of the entire trip to date for me.

You can see all of my photos of the trek here

Sailing off in search of dragons

I was faced with three options when it came to getting to Komodo. Would it be the expensive flight on a dodgy Indonesian airline? Or maybe the uncomfortable 31 hour bus-boat-bus-boat overland option? Or perhaps the four-day all-inclusive boat trip island-hopping all the way from Lombok to Flores, taking in Komodo along the way?

The boat's route

It was a pretty tough choice as you can imagine, but in the end the boat won out and early on a saturday afternoon we set off from Lombok. We’d been promised many delights along the way, and the first of which turned up just a few hours in. We were all stood on the deck watching yet another gorgeous Indonesian sunset, and just as the sun went down, the sky began to fill with a huge flock of birds rising up from the mangrove trees on a small offshore island and heading back to the mainland to sleep. Except as we got closer, we soon realised they weren’t birds at all, but thousands of huge flying foxes. I’ve only ever seen tiny bats before, and these ones were a whole different kettle of fish. It was quite a sight watching them silhouetted against the red sky, and the spectacle continued for a good five or so minutes, as more and more made their way out of the trees and joined the migration.

The beginning of the nightly Flying Fox migration

Dinner (Nasi Goreng, of course) gave us an opportunity to get to know each other better, and I was once again lucky to be with a great little group. Alongside myself and Victor, the Swede I’d spent the week with in the Gili Islands, there were three more Swedes (you’re never very far from one in Indonesia), two Belgians, two Swiss, and one each from Germany, Holland & Quebec. It’s probably a good thing we all got on so well, as of course it being a budget boat (there are a few other options, but a bit too pricey for most backpackers) it turned out to be a big floating dorm, as the upper deck was completely filled with twelve mattresses with no gaps in between.

Tight squeeze on deck

It’s funny the things that travel agents miss out when they’re describing a tour to you – like the fact that the boat would be travelling all night on the first two nights. And of course the boat’s engine was the loudest imaginable, and was conveniently located right underneath the dorm. If the waves weren’t enough to keep us sleeping lightly, we all soon realised the engine would be. Predictably enough day two began by most of us being up and about on the lower deck soon after sunrise, everyone looking rather frazzled.

Perfectly calm sea near Sumbawa

Still, everyone was in good spirits, for as soon after breakfast we sailed up to a thickly forested, national park island, with its beautiful, white sandy beach, and inviting turquoise water. This was to be our first snorkelling stop, and it turned out to be fantastic. The coral here was far healthier than in the part of the Gilis I’d done it in, and the variety of corals and fish was huge. Best of all, I got to see my first ever sea snake, a huge black and white one slithering through the water looking remarkably similar to the way they move on land. That was followed by a quick trek through the jungle to a big waterfall with a huge pool for swimming in (and giant vines hanging over it that allowed all the boys to practice our best Tarzan impersonations as we swung into the water).

One of the things I’ve really began to appreciate on this trip is the miraculous healing power of salt water. No matter how tired (or indeed hung over) I am, all it takes is a quick dip in the sea and I feel completely restored. Getting back on the boat everyone had woken up, and we soon settled into a wonderful routine of sailing from island to island, occasionally hopping out for a quick snorkel or to laze on yet another perfect beach. It amazes me the effort people make to find the ideal, undiscovered beach in Thailand, when there are literally thousands in Indonesia, many of them on completely uninhabited islands – although other than doing a trip like the one we were on, getting there might be a bit of an issue.

Our own private beach

We realised we were nearing our destination when the boat hit the hugely powerful currents of the Komodo Strait – so powerful that you could see them on the surface of the water like rivers running through the sea, creating huge whirlpools whenever they hit an islet or some submerged rock. At one point we crossed into one and the whole boat lurched as if it had been hit by an object. Nature can be quite a powerful beast sometimes – something we were hoping to see in action again as we sailed into Komodo harbour. The big question was…after all the effort to get there, would we actually get to see any dragons?

Three days in the Red Centre: Uluru

“Why would you want to go all that way just to look at a rock granny?”

is apparently what the granddaughter of a Scottish woman I met on the way to Uluru said to her before she left home. I must admit I was worrying the same thing. After all, it’s a very long flight from Perth to spend what I knew was likely to be the most expensive three days of my trip…just to see a series of rocks.

On arriving at Yulara (the only place to stay if you want to be near the rock), I checked into my obscenely expensive ($36 per night), twenty bed dorm, rushed straight out to book my tours (on the bright side at least I managed to wangle myself a nice discount from the nice lady at AAT Kings thanks to it being my birthday that day), and then hopped straight onto a bus to see the famous Uluru sunset.

After a short drive, we arrived at the sunset viewing area, sat down to enjoy some red wine, and waited for the dramatic colour show to start. Or so we thought. What instead happened, was that it went from a dull brown colour to a dullish purpley colour.

Uluru Ayers Rock

Before


Uluru Ayers Rock

After

Uluru itself is pretty stunning, but the sunset was not exactly the birthday treat I’d been hoping for. The only thing for it was to retreat to the bar, have a few celebratory drinks (while listening to an old codger sing Waltzing Matilda and Down Under) and get an early night before trying again the next day.

After the slight disappointment of the sunset, getting up at 4am the next day to go see the sunrise was not exactly that enticing a prospect. Especially as I’d read the previous week various articles in the Australian press about how poorly situated the brand new, multimillion dollar sunrise viewing platform was. Having seen it, I must say I agree – it’s really much further away than I was expecting, it’s not big enough to fit everyone trying to view the sunrise, and possibly worst of all, there are several trees blocking some of the view. Luckily the platform isn’t the only option, so we followed some paths down in front of the platform, from where we got a much better view – and at least this time we got to see some decent colour change, as the rock was lit up a beautiful bright red colour.

Uluru AYers Rock at sunrise

Uluru at sunrise

After the sunrise, next up was the base tour (and optional climb). Now I’d been wrestling with my conscience – to climb or not to climb? – for quite some time, and I still hadn’t made up my mind on whether or not I was going to even as we headed over in the bus. On the one hand, I do respect the fact that the local aboriginals, the site’s owners, ask that you not climb the rock, and I really don’t want to go around offending people. On the other though, is that fact it’s a damn impressive-looking climb, and apparently the top of the rock isn’t even particularly sacred – it’s actually the base of the rock that has all the culturally significant sites, so I’m wondering how offensive it really is. But as we arrived the decision was taken out of my hands – the forecast temperature and wind speed were too high (the climb is so exposed that high winds can be deadly) – and the climb was closed for the day. In the end I was quite glad really not to have to make the decision – and instead headed off for the 8km walk all the way round the base.

Uluru

Uluru's north side

Actually I’m quite glad it turned out that way, as the full base walk is pretty special, getting to see the rock up close, and appreciating how odd-looking a formation it is, sticking straight, almost vertically up from the surrounding flat landscape, with all sorts of weird rock formations and different textures all the way round. As well as just looking at the rock, there are some rock paintings, a couple of waterholes and some small caves you can look round. All in all, getting close to the rock turned out to be more rewarding than either the sunrise or sunset views, and if you do go, I can highly recommend going the whole way round rather than just doing one of the shorter walks (although with temperatures rapidly heading over 40 degrees even in the morning it’s pretty tough going).

Next up was an afternoon trip to see the sunset at nearby Kata Tjuta (the Olgas)…hoping that it would turn out to be more impressive than its Uluru equivalent.

You can see all of my photos of Uluru here.

Chilling out in Melbourne

On my previous two trips to Australia, I’d only made it to the East Coast states of Queensland & New South Wales, but I’d long heard from other friends who’d travelled to the country that Melbourne was easily their favourite city.

Melbourne Tram

After a hectic few months of travelling, I was really looking forward to spending a little over two weeks there – partly to relax and unwind, partly to catch up with Matt again, and for the practical reasons that I needed a bit of time to try and get my dead camera repaired and to apply for my sixty day Indonesian visa.

I wanted to get the dull stuff done nice and early, so on my first day I headed straight out to the eastern suburbs to visit the Canon repair centre. After being told by Canon Chile that it would take at least a couple of weeks, and probably cost a few hundred dollars, I wasn’t all that optimistic – but within five minutes of getting there, the camera was working again. It turned out there was just a bit of grit caught in the mechanism, and after a quick clean it was back to life. And the nice people didn’t even charge me a cent. Which was a fantastic start to my stay.

I was soon brought back down to earth after visiting the Indonesian consulate. Tourists only get a thirty day visa on arrival, and I want to spend longer there. But I couldn’t apply for my sixty day visa before leaving the UK, as I’d have needed to enter the country within ninety days, which wasn’t going to happen as I’d still be in Central America at that point. So I popped into the consulate only to find that they’ll only issue visas to Australian nationals and residents – so I was out of luck, and my plans to spend longer in Indonesia went out of the window. Time for a new plan – but as write this, on the day I’ll be flying into the country, I still have no idea what that plan is. Time for a little spontaneity, which is probably a good thing.

Federation Square

With all the dull stuff out of the way, it was time to explore the city. And I absolutely loved it. We stayed the first few days in the lovely beachside suburb of St Kilda, and spent our time wandering down the coast, enjoying the beaches and seeing all the Melburnians out enjoying their weekend relaxing on the coast. Highlight for me was getting to ride on the rickety old wooden rollercoaster at Luna Park.

Luna Park

St Kilda sunset

The rest of my time in the city continued in a similar vein, exploring the various different areas, just wandering round the city, doing a bit of shopping, stopping from time to time in some of the many cafes in town. I’d heard before I left that Melbourne had a great ‘European style’ cafe culture, and it’s so true. Melbourne doesn’t really have the famous sights like Sydney’s harbour bridge & opera house (and I have to agree with Gary from Everything Everywhere – the Royal Exhibition Building is easily the most disappointing World Heritage Site I’ve been to. It’s a lovely building and all that, but there is no explanation whatsoever about what’s so special about it that it deserves to be ranked alongside Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat) – instead it feels like a much nicer place to just relax and wander round. It was even better getting to see the city with a local, so I spent no time whatsoever in backpacker ghettos, instead getting to go to parties, and some much nicer local bars that I doubt I’d have ever found had I been on my own.

Royal Exhibition Building

There was one downside to my stay in the city, that I had thought would be an upside – my final weekend in the city was Melbourne Cup weekend, Australia’s biggest horse race and the first big public holiday of the spring. The first downside was that the weekend is so popular that all the hotels and hostels massively jack up their prices, meaning I ended up spending more than my total daily budget on accommodation alone (and more than three times as much as my previous most expensive accommodation, in Miami). The second downside was that the streets in the evening were full of drunken racegoers in suits and posh frocks, falling over and generally being rather annoying. (Although it certainly created a surreal atmosphere on the Saturday night, which was Derby day down at the racecourse and halloween for everyone else, meaning in the evening, the city streets were half full or racegoers in their finery, and half full of people dressed as zombies and werewolves).

All in all, Melbourne was one of my favourite stops so far. It’s been a long time since I spent two weeks in a place, and it was the perfect place to recharge my batteries after South America.

You can see all my photos of Melbourne here.

Going down the mines

If the Death Road turned out to be nowhere near as scary as I’d been expecting, my next big excursion turned out to far more.

Potosi was once the biggest and richest city in the whole of the Americas – and at one point even bigger than Madrid, the imperial capital, and all because of one thing: silver. The city is the highest city in the world, and owes its existence and its fortune to the hill that dominates the city’s skyline.

The Cerro Rico, Potosi

The Cerro Rico, Potosi

Legend has it that one night a local Quechua llama herder ended up spending the night on the hill, and lit a fire to keep himself warm. He was soon surprised to see a shiny molten metal trickle out of the fire – he’d accidentally stumbled on the richest seam of silver ever discovered. It’s now thought that the Inca had long known of the hill’s riches, but kept it secret from the Spaniards. Which was probably a wise thing – as soon as the colonisers found out, they soon began a massive mining operation in the newly named Cerro Rico (rich hill), that helped fund the Spanish Empire for centuries – apparently still in Spanish today, the phrase ‘valer un Potosi’ means ‘to be worth a fortune’.

Working in the Cerro Rico would have been a particularly horrible experience – for a start, with the mines being at well over 4,000m, the low oxygen makes altitude sickness a constant threat. Aside from that natural effect, the conditions in the mines themselves were pretty awful – constant dust inhalation caused silicosis, the techniques for extracting the silver caused mercury poisoning, and there was much potential for mining accidents. Some estimate that as many as 8 million indigenous people have died in the five hundred or so years of mining, a truly horrifying figure.

The silver is mostly exhausted today, but the mine continues to operate, mostly producing zinc and tin, and it’s possible to visit them as a tourist. We signed up for a tour with Koala Tours, a company owned and operated by former miners, and that provides an additional source of income for one of the mining cooperatives.

Geoff the Miner

Geoff the Miner

After an early start to get kitted up, we headed down to the miners’ market to get gifts for the miners – coca leaves (to be chewed to help cope with the low oxygen levels), 95% proof alcohol (used as an offering to ‘El Tio’ – aka the devil, who ‘owns’ the mine), dynamite, and soft drinks.

El Tio...smoking a fag and having a drink

El Tio...smoking a fag and having a drink

From the moment we entered the mine, it soon became clear it was going to be a pretty claustrophobic experience – even the main passageway was narrow, and with a low ceiling, and choked with dust. From there we travelled deeper and deeper into the mine, with the air getting thinner, the temperature warmer, and the tunnels narrower. At some points they were so small we couldn’t even crawl, instead we had to lie down and pull ourselves along with our elbows.

One of the narrower bits

One of the narrower bits

Even a couple of hours in there was pretty unbearable – and after meeting the miners and seeing the conditions that they work in, it’s quite incredible to think that these men spend years of their lives down there, all hoping to strike it rich by finding an as yet undiscovered seem of silver. Every time the guide stopped us to check everyone was OK, we all smiled and answered in the affirmative – but on the way out all admitted to each other that actually all of us had been suffering a bit.

Potosi miners at work

Potosi miners at work

Final excitement of the day was the chance to hold a lit stick of dynamite (don’t worry, I’m not that mad, it had a pretty long fuse), before getting to see it blow up a little section of the mountain in the distance. Still, claustrophobic and scary as the whole experience was, getting a chance to see such an interesting piece of history, and to see the rather terrifying conditions the miners work in was well worth it, and I’m glad I did it.

Happy to be alive, well, and safely back out of the mine

Happy to be alive, well, and safely back out of the mine

Although now I’ve done it, wild horses wouldn’t manage to drag me back in to do it a second time.

You can see all my photos of Potosi here

Seeing Machu Picchu (despite the clouds)

It has been noted in the past that I can be somewhat…competitive, and the prospect of competing with two hundred other trekkers to get to Machu Picchu made me determined to beat them all.

So despite a few two many beers the night before, Adrian & I found ourselves getting up at the ungodly hour of three to make sure we made it to the starting point for the final stretch before all the others. Despite our best efforts, when we made it to the gate at around 4.15am, we found that two Americans had beat us to it – but we were soon very glad we’d left as early as we did, as just fifteen minutes later pretty much all the other hikers were lined up behind us in the dark, waiting for the gate to open at 5.30am and start the final hike up to the Sun Gate.

Now bizarrely enough you’re actually at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to getting to Machu Picchu before everyone else if you do the Inca Trail, as they say it takes about an hour to get from the campsite entrance gate up to the sun gate, and from there another half hour or so to the main site – whereas all the day trippers enter right into the main site from 6am.

With that in mind, we were determined to try and negate as much of that disadvantage as possible, so the moment the gate opened we sped off, almost running the final stretch to get to the sun gate as early as possible, see the sun rise over the mountain and get a clear, empty view of the site itself. All that effort paid off, and at 5.59am Adrian & I were the very first people of the day on site. Only to be greeted by a wall of clouds. Yep, as we came through the sun gate, we couldn’t see a damn thing. Which was especially annoying after having really clear mornings every other day of the trail.

Being first through the Sun Gate. Priceless.

Being first through the Sun Gate. Priceless.

The view of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate

The "view" of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate

Still, all was not lost – the other reason we’d been determined to make it to the site early was to get a chance to climb Huayna Picchu, which is the tall, steep-sided mountain that you always see in the background of the ‘classic’ photo of Machu Picchu. Again, doing the Inca Trail means you are at a disadvantage of getting to climb Huayna Picchu, as tickets are limited to 400 a day, and are given out to people in the queue for the main gate. So, after rushing to the sun gate, we then had another rush to make it all the way down to the bottom of the site, out of the gate and back into the queue (!) to get the tickets – and we just managed it, they’d already given out 350 of the 400, but at least we made it, especially in the knowledge that we’d be among the very few who get to do both the Inca Trail and the Huayna Picchu climb.

The steep climb to Huayna Picchu

The steep climb to Huayna Picchu

What we hand’t factored in was the difficulty of that climb. It looks ridiculously steep in photos. And that’s because it is. I can honestly say it’s the steepest section of mountain I’d climbed in a month of trekking in Peru, and after four days of Inca Trail we were exhausted when we got to the top, yet again to be confronted with more cloud.

Waiting...

Waiting...

But we had time on our hands, so we sat and waited…and waited…and eventually they cleared, giving us a totally different view of the site to all the usual photos you see. Beautiful, and well worth the hike. The site is absolutely incredible, perched on a steep mountain, surrounded by other stunning mountains, it is rightly one of the most famous tourist attractions in the world, and I can recommend it to anyone.

Machu Picchu from Huayna Picchu

Machu Picchu from Huayna Picchu

When we made it back down, we had time to wander round the site. But to be honest, after taking in the impressive views, we had no desire to spend ages there. After seeing so many impressive (and empty) ruins along the way, and working so hard to get to the site with hours of walking every day, to be suddenly confronted with thousands of (clean and fresh) daytrippers was a bit of a shock to the system. So we decided to leave…only to find out that in a final infuriating error, our tour company had forgotten to give our guide our bus tickets (and we had no money left on us to buy more). So, absolutely exhausted, we had to walk the hour or so down the steep hill to Aguascalientes, made all the harder by having shiny air-conditioned buses whizzing past us every step of the way. (Note to anyone reading: do not under any circumstances book your Inca Trail with Exotic Adventures of Cusco. Aside from the mistakes I’ve mentioned here, there were countless others too dull to go into. But really, please avoid giving any money to the bastards).

Well worth the wait (and the stern telling off I got afterwards for jumping on an archaeological site. Whoops)

Well worth the wait (and the stern telling off I got afterwards for jumping on an archaeological site. Whoops)

Despite the slightly infuriating ending, a couple of hours later we’d recovered with a refreshing soak in the hot springs that give the town its name, eaten pizza and drunk beer (by now my traditional post-hike celebration), and the problems with the tour company suddenly seemed not to matter so much. The Inca Trail & Machu Picchu are worth every bit of time, money & effort it takes to get there.

You can see all my photos of Machu Picchu here.

The Inca Trail

To think I wasn’t even going to do the Inca Trail orginally. I’d fallen into the trap of listening to too many other backpackers talk about how it’s too touristy, too expensive, and not even as good as the many alternatives such as the Salkantay Trail.

Luckily, a comment from Gillian on this post started to bring me to my senses, and when my friend Adrian decided to fly out to join me for three weeks on holiday that settled it – as Gillian says, it would be a shame to travel all that way and settle for the first runner up option. Because after doing the Inca Trail, I’d have to say anything else would be a disappointment – don’t believe the naysayers, it’s worth every penny.

The start of the trail

The start of the trail

We were lucky to make it onto the Trail in the first place though – the company we booked with forgot to give our entnce tickets to our guide, meaning we had an agonising three hour wait at the start for them to be driven down all the way from Cusco – and the guide had already told us that if they didn’t arrive before 12.30 they’d have to start the trail without us in order to make the camp by nightfall – and we wouldn’t have got a second chance, as the tickets are for a specific day only. Luckily, the arrived with minutes to spare, and we were finally on our way.

Walking along the sacred valley

Walking along the sacred valley

Day one is a relatively gentle start, heading along the sacred valley. I’d heard beforehand that we’d pass some other minor Inca Ruins along the way, but I was expecting themto be pretty small. So when we rounded a corner and found ourselves looking across at the vast ruins of Llaqtapata I was stunned. They’re pretty huge in themselves, and served as a guardhouse at the start of the trail and was also used for agricultural purposes.

Llaqtapata

Llaqtapata

We reached camp around nightfall, and settled in for an early night to get a good rest as we knew the next day would be the toughest. Day two has the longest day of walking, and includes the trail’s highest point, Dead Woman’s Pass. It’s called that because it allegedly looks like a woman lying down, although to be honest other than a vaguely nipple-like bump on top of a mound, you have to really stretch your imagination to see it.

The climb itself is pretty relentless – we started climbing right at the start of the day, and just kept going and going. While not as steep or as high as several of the passes I’d tackled elsewhere in Peru, in some ways it’s tougher going, as several chunks of the trail are on original Inca stone steps, which are much more punishing on the legs than a standard slope. As we slowly slogged our way up hill, it was amazing to see our porters racing past us carrying huge packs with all our food, tents and spare gear (pack animals aren’t allowed on the trail, so everything is carried by porters). Every day they left camp after us (giving them time to pack up) and every day they had everything erected again by the time we made camp. Quite incredible.

Eventually we made the top…just in time for it to cloud over, after a beautfiful clear day. Typical. But we made the most of it by taking lots of photos of us jumping at the pass.

Happy to have made it to the top

Happy to have made it to the top

The third day was definitely the most special. After winding our way up to a smaller pass, and past another couple of minor ruins, we found ourselves on a narrow path that basically hangs off the side of a cliff, with sheer drops to the valley below and stunning views across the snow-capped mountains in the distance. The path passes through an Inca Tunnel in the rockface after a while, before finally reaching a ridge with incredible views down onto the Sacred Valley, the town of Aguascalientes, and the back of Machu Pichhu mountain itself. Just below the ridge sits yet another set of ruins, and when we got there we had them all to ourselves – despite the fact that 200 people a day do the trail, everyone sets off at different times and walks at different speeds, meaning it’s still pretty tranquil most of the time – giving us the time to sit down, chill out, and marvel at the views

More ruins on day three

More ruins on day three


With the toughest bit of the trail out of the way, all that remained to do was make the final descent to our last campsite, by the ruins of Winay Wayna, reward ourselves for all our hard work with a few beers, and get some sleep to prepare ourselves for a stupidly early rise the next day: we were determined to be the first people to reach Machu Picchu itself the following day…
Wiñay Wayna

Wiñay Wayna

You can see all of my pictures of the Inca Trail here.