Tag Archives: Waterfalls

Milford Sound, New Zealand

Mark talks about Milford Sound aka “a geographer’s wet dream”

It seemed to rain for most of the time that we spent in New Zealand. June 2013 was one of the wettest on record, and July did not start much better. So it was unsurprising that it was pouring as we made our way to Milford Sound, particularly as this region recieves over 7 metres of rain a year (and we complain in London with a paltry 600 mm).

We opted for a coach trip rather than driving as the views are spectacular, even with the rain and low cloud.

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some dolphins frolicking in the fjord

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I have wanted to go to Milford Sound for many years. It is the prime example of fjordland scenery with huge towering cliffs and water tumbling off the hanging valleys. And the views did not disappoint, particularly as the sun came out about half way through the cruise.

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Rotorua and Taupo, North Island, NZ

Rotorua is in the middle of New Zealand’s north island and is also a centre of Maori culture. Many Maori settled here hundreds of years ago, attracted by the geothermal activity which ensures the ground stays warm during the harshest of winters and there is always plenty of pure, hot water for cooking and bathing.

Today, the town attracts visitors keen to soak in the therapeutic waters, gasp at geysers and swim in bubbling rivers. Many other parts of New Zealand are obsessed with extreme adrenalin rushes; Rotorua is also about relaxing and rejuvenating. Despite the distinct smell of rotten eggs from the volcanic sulphur wafting around town!

It is also still possible to see traditional Maori culture at the many shows in the area.

Mark and I chose Te Puia which includes boiling mud pools and a natural geyser. The geyser (pronounced “guy-zer” down under) blows several times a day and we were lucky enough to snap photos at full force.

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The Te Puia village is also home to a nationally renowned carving school, which teaches the skill to young men of Maori heritage to keep this aspect of their culture alive.

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Although I’m sure the performances and costumes are more showy crowd-pleasers than strictly authentic, the dance performance was in a completely different league to the one at the Auckland museum.

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The Haka especially was riveting and powerful, and the performers were suitably terrifying. The Haka was traditionally performed to prepare the warriors physically and mentally before battle – but its impact often frightened away the enemy before any fighting began.

I can see why – I wouldn’t want to mess with this gal!

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Mark’s version didn’t have quite the same effect…

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Te Puia also had a kiwi house, but we were forbidden to take photos in case flashes interfered with the bird’s nocturnal lifestyle. In lieu of images, I can share some good kiwi facts which may come in handy for a pub quiz one day:

• Kiwis lay the biggest egg of any other bird for their size: a fifth of their body weight. The eggs are not far off an ostrich egg in size!
• Although they look long, technically kiwis have shortest beak of any bird because scientists measure from the nostrils to the tip. Most birds’ nostrils are at the base of the beak near the eyes but the kiwi has nostrils right near the tip.
• They use their beak as a lance to poke around soft ground for food and have an excellent sense of smell.
• They mate for life and sleep 20 hours a day
• Population numbers have dwindled to fewer than 70,000

Enough geekery, on to the food! Part of the evening at Te Puia was a Hangi feast. Hangi is a method of cooking a mixture of meats and vegetables by using geothermal heat to steam it underground.

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Yummy!

We had a couple of days of more strenuous activity too. Waitomo is famous for its deep limestone caves full of glittering glowworms. These clever beasties give off a bright bluey green light to attract small insects carried in by water flowing through the caves. The insects mistake the light for a way out and fly towards it, only to become trapped on the sticky threads dangling underneath and eventually gobbled as glowworm lunch.

We signed up for a day of blackwater rafting, or floating through caves on rubber rings, which sounded like a lovely and relaxing way to appreciate the eerie, otherworldly surroundings. However when we arrived we were told that the blackwater rafting cave had flooded after heavy rainfall (heavy rain was a bit of a theme of our time in New Zealand), so we were going to be “upgraded” to a different experience.

This turned out to be a bit like when we were “upgraded” to a difficult-to-manage 6 berth campervan: all of a sudden our tranquil drift turned into a physical, high octane challenge worthy of Rambo. We had to scramble over slippery rocks, abseil down sheer cliff drops, squeeze between tight gaps and swim through freezing water. Exhausting but exhilarating – sadly no photos, cameras were not allowed down there!

The next day we did some white water rafting, which ended up being unexpectedly hilarious thanks to the other person who joined us on our dinghy. She was a rather “ample” lady to put it mildly (i.e. she was a massive great big fat bird). Mark and I still seize up with laughter at the memory of her trying to step off the bank into the boat, wetsuit bursting at the seams – it was like a French & Saunders sketch. Thankfully we managed to keep straight faces at the time and to her credit she kept up with the pace of paddling. Our guide helped us navigate level 3 and 4 rapids (which are fairly big) and pointed out native flora and fauna such as the silver fern (a symbol of New Zealand) on the calmer bits. Mark was the only one in our boat to fall out; amusingly on a stretch of river with barely a bubble breaking its surface (note from Mark: no bubbles maybe, but still a bloody great rock that we crashed into!).

After all this exertion, my body was screaming for a rest and I had to put my foot down to silence Mark’s talk of a long hike! Consequently we had a blissful day of soaking in natural thermal pools of various temperatures.

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Mark enjoyed the first 15 minutes before getting restless and asking “what now?”

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He got his hike the next morning, however. Waimangu Volcanic Valley near Rotorua is the youngest geothermal area in the world. It was created in 1886 following a series of eruptions and is home to Frying Pan Lake, the world’s largest hot spring.

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The volcanic pools have the most amazing iridescent colours from the minerals in the hydrothermal waters.

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Mark being naughty and ignoring the barriers. He ended up slipping and getting a bit wet as punishment!

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Near Taupo, we stopped to see Huka falls which is NZ’s largest waterfall and the country’s most visited natural site. All waterfalls are pretty but I’m afraid after the ones in Chapada Diamantina in Brazil and of course Iguassu, these jaded travellers were a little underwhelmed.

One thing that never fails to disappoint in NZ however is the quality of food and wine. Originally our plan was to go to Tongariro National Park but the same storms which flooded our blackwater rafting caves meant that the treks and ice climbs here were not possible. So we decided to reroute towards Napier and Hawkes Bay instead, aka New Zealand’s fruit bowl and mecca of food and wine. Don’t mind if we do!

Amazon rainforest in Ecuador

We missed out on visiting the Amazon while we were in Brazil; a combination of time constraints and unwillingness to take expensive and side-effect inducing antimalarial drugs meant we headed no further north than Salvador.

Although the majority of the rainforest is in Brazil, many countries in South America lay claim to a slice of the Amazon, including Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Since Ecuador would be one of the last places we would visit in South America, we decided to take the plunge and head into the mighty jungle.

First stop towards the rainforest was Baños, a pretty town surrounded by waterfalls and mountains.

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I managed to get Mark to relax in the thermal spas that give the place its name for about an hour before he insisted on a five hour hike up to the highest summit.

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We met a very affectionate blue eyed llama on the way…

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The next day was the first of the two day tour we had chosen. With just a couple of days it is only possible to see the secondary jungle on the outskirts of the Amazon; going deep into the primary jungle requires nearly a week.

We still saw plenty in those two days though.

One of the first stops was a sanctuary which had many different species of monkeys and primates, like the chorongo and capuchin blanco.

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After that we visited a local indigenous community, where we learnt a bit about their culture and customs. A bowl of chicha was passed around – after we tasted the lumpy, sour, fermented drink we were told that the ladies of the community prepare it by chewing and spitting out mouthfuls of yucca. Apparently enzymes in saliva aid the fermentation process. An acquired taste indeed!

We were invited to have a go at shooting darts through a traditional blow gun. Here’s a scary looking picture of me lining up a shot, with scary face paint to match.

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That afternoon we had a short boat trip in a traditional canoe that would have tipped without the practised local man steering and keeping it steady.

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Once back on dry land, we hiked up to a viewpoint over the jungle, where there was possibly the world’s best placed swing.

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Both Mark and I had a go – click here for a video of me whooping like a loon on my first swing.

This video is Mark’s second swing; he bellowed some very rude words the first time and only just managed not to soil his pants on this go.

We also found some natural swings in the jungle later, on the way to a waterfall.

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At the waterfall, I did a spot of skinny dipping…

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…only joking!

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As it got darker, we were dropped off at the primitive jungle cabins where we were spending the night.

The next morning a couple of cheeky lion monkeys joined us for breakfast.

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We visited the massive boa constrictor which the local people inexplicably thought made a cuddly pet. Mark enjoyed grappling with it…

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Me, not so much…

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Then we made our way through the jungle to a lake, carrying a bundle of fish heads wrapped in banana leaves to help coax the caimans up to the surface.

It worked!

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After the caimans swam away, we did some more thrashing around in the jungle and learnt about some of the plants and their medicinal uses.

This tree is known as “dragon’s blood” – when a small incision is made in the bark, the sap drips out dark red as if the trunk is bleeding. When the sap is rubbed into skin, it becomes creamy and white. This is used as a remedy for stings and bites.

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Our guide Delfin picked some leaves, crushed them in his hands and made us inhale. The strong menthol like smell sent us both into a frenzy of coughing. Amusingly, he insisted this was good for you, especially if you were trying to get rid of a cough or cold.

Another time Delfin plucked a large leaf and told us to suck at the part which had connected it to the stem. We obediently did so, and tasted a pleasant sherbet flavour. Delfin stopped giggling long enough to tell us that we had just eaten a mouthful of “lemon ants”; the insects and their eggs have a sour fruity flavour. Honestly it was tasty – I’m sure it won’t be long before restaurants in London charge a fortune for specially imported Ecuadorian creepy crawlies.

Some of the plants were pointed out more for their ornamental value, such as my furry beak below. Maybe to make up for all the tricks he was playing on us gullible gringos, Delfin sweetly made us necklaces and headbands, as modelled by Mark.

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His speed and skill at stripping fibres from leaves and twisting them into strong cords, or quickly weaving lengths of palm into pretty patterns was impressive.

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Back to the main hut for lunch and the lion monkeys decided to get more friendly. This little one hardly left my lap. The moment I would stop scratching his tiny head he would squeak and nudge me to start again.

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Soon the other, less sociable monkey got jealous and started a play fight.

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Meanwhile a couple of the dogs rolled around in mock fight – all the animals seemed to be going crazy at once. Jungle fever indeed!

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(Note from Mark: how ugly are these dogs! One of them is missing most of his hair and the other has these wonky ears!)

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After our post lunch siesta, we went back out, this time to a different lake to look for turtles.

Mark went into Bear Grylls mode and got hold of an enormous water turtle.

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Lifting the 50kg beast was a challenge – click here for a video of Mark’s efforts.

This one was a more manageable size…

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Delfin found more than one type and stacked a water turtle on top of a ground turtle (a bit mean – Mark)

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With squelching boots we left the turtles behind (after making Delfin unstack them) to see what else was nearby.

Mark befriended a boar…

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Just as the end of the day was approaching, we heard an unusual high pitched cry. Delfin recognised this to be a tapir, so off we went in search of him.

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Such a beautiful and placid animal – tapirs are endangered so this guy is the only one around for miles. It’s quite sad as he was obviously lonely and followed us back down our path for ages, until the boar scared him away.

Next time I’m in this part of the world I will definitely leave more time to explore the Amazon – the two day exploration of the secondary rainforest gave us a taste of what the dense jungle of the primary rainforest has to offer.

Iguassu/Iguaçu/Iguazu Falls

Mark posts again!

Like the Taj Mahal or the Great Wall of China, pictures of the Iguacu falls just don’t do it justice. So you might as well just ignore the photos below. You have to go yourself I’m afraid in order to get the slightest idea how impressive they are. The falls stretch for 3.5 km of roaring, frothing foam, and they are set in a beautiful national park with toucans, butterflies of all colours and fresh water turtles.

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We spent a couple of days in the area. The Brazilian side gives the grand vista, but it’s the Argentinian side where you really get up close and personal by strolling the walkways that take you over, under and around the falls (getting thoroughly soaked in the process). The highlight was the boat ride that takes you virtually underneath the falls themselves. Sorry, no pictures of that.

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Coatís, or Brazilian aardvarks, are everywhere.

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There is a fantastic bird park on the Brazilian side, that contains vast cages with macaws, parakeets, hummingbirds, toucans, flamingos and many others besides.

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This is not a bird

This is not a bird

Some of the toucans were really quite friendly!

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Certainly one of the highlights of the trip so far.

Chapada Diamantina treks

Mark’s first blog post!

Besides the food at Alcino’s, Chapada Diamantina national park is also renowned for some rewarding treks. The park has steep gorges, wide valleys, towering cliffs, extensive caves and around 300 waterfalls. As with everything in this country, the park is big, so we were only able to touch the sides of this beautiful place.

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We ‘warmed up’ with a day long minibus tour of some highlights of the park. Our companions were a British and Australian group doing a seven month overland tour of the whole of South America. It wouldn’t be our choice to spend so long on a bus with 20-odd complete strangers but they seemed to be getting along. Highlights were some stunning caves, with monsters lurking in the shadows…

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…and the sunset.

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Leila almost missed it as she was taking flying lessons and had to climb back up.

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We then found a local guide, Yuri, to take us on a three day trek: hard enough to test our stamina, and yet not break our uninitiated muscles. After a bumpy and sometimes fairly hairy ride on the back of a motorbike, the trek began with a 2 hour steep climb in the midday sun. Our water quickly finished and we were glad to reach the river on the other side of the ridge. All the water in the park is drinkable, despite its seeming muddy brown hue. In fact, the colour is derived from the tannins in the plant matter in the soil, so the water is rich in minerals. Good for anaemics and pregnant ladies apparently, though why they’d put themselves through a tough climb to get at it I don’t know.

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The jungle that we trekked through was a gardener’s dream; there seemed to be every type of fern and cacti. And there were butterflies in their millions, all flying the same direction – where were they all going?

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But the highlight was the waterfalls. There is something quite magical about a tumbling waterfall in a secluded gorge with just the three of us to admire it. Unfortunately we have no photos of the most spectacular one as it required leaping over boulders, climbing up slippery rock faces and swimming through deep pools to reach, so the camera got left behind.

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Whilst the distances were not long, the terrain (near vertical gorges and boulder strewn river beds), the heat and sleeping on the rocks took it out of us.

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So we were delighted by the finale to the trek, a stunning pool with a natural waterside and a friendly rasta selling ice cool beer under the shade of a tree.

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Ta-da!

Ta-da!

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Mark and our guide Yuri