Tag Archives: Wildlife

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!

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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.

A Glorious Week in the Galápagos Islands

I grew up on tales from my biology teacher father about the voyages and discoveries of his hero, Charles Darwin. I have always wanted to visit the Galápagos Islands, where Darwin’s observations of the shared traits and subtle differences of species which make up the diverse wildlife inspired him to develop the theories of evolution and natural selection.

Actually setting foot in a place I have known for my whole life via teachers, books, pictures and museum exhibitions felt like visiting the Promised Land.

Most people on the islands are Darwin geeks who care passionately about nature and conservation. But the Galápagos attracts all walks of life; even creationists come to marvel at the flora and fauna, some of which exists nowhere else on earth.

One guide we met believed that these islands were the Garden of Eden; the animals have a carefree life without fear of humans or other predators. There is even a forbidden fruit: the apple-like manzanilla, poisonous to humans but a key part of giant tortoises’ diet.

The main island of Santa Cruz is surprisingly busy, with 20,000 inhabitants – I had always pictured the Galápagos to be more of a wilderness.

We went to pay respects to “Char-less Darwin” as he is known here (my last name is always pronounced “Dook-ess” throughout South America).

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Although this statue was a respectable tribute to the local hero, in other places on the islands Darwin is depicted as a freaky Poseidon-like deity…

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There are several giant tortoise reserves around the islands, all committed to preserving endangered species and preventing another sad story like that of Lonesome George, who lived for decades as the last surviving member of his subspecies, and died recently without passing on his genes to any offspring.

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Thankfully, many tortoises are thriving at these sanctuaries. Mark and I were lucky enough to visit during feeding time, which only happens once every couple of days.

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It was quite hypnotic watching these ancient creatures creak over like grumpy old men, to munch painstakingly slowly at the leaves.

We were also allowed to check out the breeding area. Tortoise eggs are taken from their underground nests (mothers don’t miss them as they abandon their eggs once they’ve been laid anyway). The eggs are incubated until they hatch (fascinatingly, the sex of the tortoise s determined by the temperature of the eggs during incubation) and then the tortoise babies are kept safe from dangers like hungry rats and careless goats for the first three years of their lives. This ensures the babies have a much greater chance of reaching maturity and ultimately helps to keep tortoise population numbers up.

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Although much more wildlife exists on the more remote and less populated islands, Santa Cruz island is home to many sea lions, who seem to enjoy much of what the town has to offer. Sea lions snoozing on park benches, lounging in small boats, or begging for scraps at the fish market are a common sight.

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Similarly, the pelicans on Santa Cruz use the main harbour as a convenient lookout point before they dive for fish.

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Santa Cruz’s beach at Tortuga Bay is a fantastic place to spot marine iguanas.

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Usually the black reptiles can be found on dark lava rocks, but here, against the super fine white sand that looks and feels like talcum powder, they stand out beautifully.

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While we waited for a multi day trip to the more far-flung islands to become available, we went on a couple of day trips.

Isabella island has a lagoon which white tipped sharks use to sleep in. Although these sharks do not attack people, I was glad that we could see the lagoon from the safety of dry land.

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Dangerous or not, something about the way sharks move gives me the shivers!

The Galápagos islands have some of the best scuba diving spots in the world. As a diving novice I wasn’t allowed to go to Gordon Rocks (you need at least 30 dives under your belt before you’re deemed experienced enough to navigate the changeable currents). For the first time in months, Mark and I split up for the day: I went on a dive boat headed for the more manageable, but still excellent, dive site at Seymour while Mark went off to Gordon Rocks.

Although you’re virtually guaranteed to spot dozens of hammerhead sharks there, Mark was unlucky and saw none at all, but still saw plenty of white tipped reef sharks, sea turtles, rays and many types of big pelagic fish.

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Amazingly, a snorkelling excursion we signed up for at Kicker Rock on San Cristobal island was miles better than either of our scuba dives, or indeed most of the 70+ dives of Mark’s whole experience.

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The water was cool, clear turquoise and just brimming with wildlife: Galapagos sharks (which don’t bother humans unlike tiger or great white sharks), massive sea turtles, rays, and about a million different kinds of colourful fish.

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At one memorable moment we had to swim through the narrow channel of a gorge between two tall, sheer towers of rock.

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As the channel was only a couple of metres wide so it was a bit of a thoroughfare for sea creatures passing through. Because of the narrowness, the current of the water passing through was really strong and we had to swim hard to navigate the ebb and flow of the swell. It was incredible doing this with a snorkel mask on, able to see all these different species right under us, all swimming hard against the current like we were. It was like being part of a wildlife documentary!

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A motor boat took us between the three snorkel locations – at one point Mark and I were sitting on the bow of the boat as it roared past mini islands, through stunning turquoise water with the sun beating down and the wind in our hair, thinking of our friends slaving away at work back home…and how much they would hate us if they could see where we were!

The final snorkelling spot was one of a few places where we were able to play with sea lions in the water. So memorable!

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We managed to get a deal for a last minute, 4 day 3 night cruise. It may be more fitting to say “boat trip” as this poky thing, ironically named “King of the Sea”, is hardly the type of luxury vessel normally associated with the word “cruise”.

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It was big enough for some impressive jumps and divebombs from the roof though, and we had a fun, young group.

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Over the four days we visited the islands of San Cristobal, Española and Floreana. We saw hundreds of sea lions…

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There are about 28,000 sea lions living on the Galápagos, the same number as human inhabitants. They’re so chilled out around people that you can join them for one of their many naps…

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As well as black marine iguanas, some of the islands like Floreana have coloured species…

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I think the one on the bottom left looks like he is showing off full sleeve tattoos. Well ‘ard. Look at the chap on the top left, eating a discarded sally lightfoot crab shell (for the calcium, apparently).

Here are some which got away…

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After a few days in the Galápagos, we saw so many sharks while snorkelling that I stopped feeling uneasy about them. I love this photo – two white tipped reef sharks sleeping ON TOP of a ray!

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There are also huge flocks of blue footed boobies – apparently their feet become even bluer when it’s mating season, but they were pretty blue!

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Like the sea lions, they’re totally nonplussed by humans so you can sit and chill with them.

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Hundreds of them can be found around the cliffs of Floreana, where they circle overhead and dive down to pluck fish out of the crashing waves.

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The waves hit the cliffs with such force, the spray is as strong as a geyser. Sometimes unfortunate iguanas get shot 20m straight up into the air by the water!

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There always seemed to be a new type of bird to look at in the sky.

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Clockwise from top left: oystercatcher, mockingbird (Darwin had his eureka moment when studying the beak lengths of mockingbirds from different islands); albatross, flamingos, frigate bird (with its red chest puffed out to attract a mate), Galápagos hawk.

Although visiting the islands is famously expensive (flights, entry fees and costs of mandatory tour guides add up), we let our credit cards take the hit. Knowing this would be a once in a lifetime experience and that access is very likely to restricted in the future for conservation purposes made the eye-watering cost easier to bear – and the experience was worth every penny (and subsequent debt!)

Please can I stay forever and be a castaway, or a stowaway on a pirate ship?!

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Southwest Bolivia tour

Post written by Mark

People often describe the tour of Southwest Bolivia as the “salt flats tour”, but this is a misnomer, as the salt flats themselves are but one of an array of incredible sights on a three or four day jeep excursion. Indeed, at present the Bolivian tourist agency is trying to get one of the other landmarks, the Laguna Colorado (more below) listed as one of the new seven natural wonders of the world. The reality is that the real wonder is the range of incredible natural sceneries, each appearing one after the other in the front window of our Land Cruiser.

We chose to do a four day tour starting in Tupiza, a real Wild West kind of town, where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid stayed for a short time before being reputedly gunned down a few miles away by the Bolivian army.

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Very quickly the car ascended out of Tupiza (already 3,000 metres above sea level) to pass strange rock formations…

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…marsh land…

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…several llama estancias (the colourful earrings are to help identify the owner of each llama)…

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…and rare wild vicuñas…

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…before coming across a series of beautiful lakes, teeming with flamingos. These photos are from lagunas Cerillos and Polulas.

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(By the way, there are no fish up here – the flamingos eat algae growing in the lake).

First stop on the second day was the Desierto de Dali, a Martian-like landscape, the rocks stained by sulphur from the volcanoes, so named as it resembles the backdrop of a painting by Dali. In fact, some think that Dali must have visited the site as a child, though this has not been proven.

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Before lunch we stopped at an idyllic hot spring for a bath. Our driver was always keen to leave slightly earlier than other tour groups and drove faster, so we had the pools virtually to ourselves.

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We then continued climbing to 5,000 metres (chewing great wads of coca to ward off the altitude sickness) to see some geysers and bubbling mud pools. Neither of us had ever seen anything like it. The heat of the earth was intense beneath our feet and it was possible to stand directly over the boiling mud pools watching the splatter and steam.

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The day finished at the potential “natural wonder of the world” site, the Laguna Colorado. This lake has, as a result of the mix of volcanic minerals in its water, developed a rare algal bloom that turns the water rust red. Borax in the water solidifies and forms structures that look like ice shelves on the water. Together with the flamingos that enjoyed showing off in front of our camera, the effect was magical.

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Day three contained the Desierto de Siloli with wind carved volcanic boulders and more beautiful lagoons, including the Laguna Negro, named after the black fungal growths.

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Also at the Laguna Negro were these rabbit-like creatures that could climb! This one was about eight metres up!

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The final day was spent on the salt flats themselves. The salt flats are vast, 10,582km square in area, but is the remnant of a much larger prehistoric saline lake, which dried and deposited the salt as it did so. The old lake remains, hidden under a thick crust of salt.

We awoke before dawn in order to see the sun rise over the plains. This is our tour group enjoying the experience but getting very cold in the process!

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Breakfast was had on one of the “islands” in the salt flats. These cacti are several hundred years old and up to 12 metres high.

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We then took the obligatory trompe l’oeil photos. They are surprisingly hard to perfect, but these are our best attempts.

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One of the surprising things to me about the tour was the amount of agriculture and industry that we saw along the route. One would think that in such a harsh environment, where the days are hot and the nights below freezing it would be tough to get anything done. But there were estancias herding llamas for their fur and meat (dried and made into charqui), settlements collecting the minerals from the lakes for export to Chile (borax for porcelain and toughened glass, and another mineral for shampoo), a geothermal power station, mines, and of course the collection of salt for Bolivian and Chilean tables and chemical industries. The salt flats also contain something like 50-70% of the worlds lithium reserves. These photos are of one of the early silver mine settlements (with reputedly the oldest Catholic Church) and of the old railway, which brought salt to Chilean markets.

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Our food was cooked by Reyna (who, bless her, burnt her face on the second night when a dodgy gas oven blew up on her). Bolivian food is definitely not the country’s strong point; it is usually very simple, stodgy and bland, although the produce in the markets is often fresh and excellent. While Leila goes crazy for the fruit, a highlight for me was the potatoes. I love a good spud, and in Bolivia there are hundreds of varieties.

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Pique a la macho is a classic Bolivian dish and a good example of the typically rustic cuisine. Onions, peppers, tomatoes, llama meat, garlic and chillies are all bunged into a pot together, then served with hard boiled eggs, frankfurters and chips. Leila was reminded of the kind of “splodge” her father likes to make after scouring the reduced items shelf at supermarket.

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One of the highlights of Reyna’s repertoire was this cute heart-shaped cake – especially since baking is very difficult at altitude!

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She also made us llama lasagne; we began to develop a taste for llama meat, which is like a cross between beef and lamb but much leaner – actually quite tasty. When we arrived in the town of Uyuni after the end of the tour, we couldn’t resist a llama and pesto pizza from the famous Boston outpost, Minuteman Pizza.

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Overall an incredible and unforgettable trip in a beautiful and underrated country.

North West Argentina: Salta, Cafayate, Cachi

Our last stop-off in Argentina was the charming city of Salta in the North West, which gave us a great base to explore the picturesque towns nearby, Cafayate and Cachi.

Some of the best sights were actually on the way, along the National Route 68 road which cut through the stunning landscapes of Quebrada de Cafayate.

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We saw spectacular and awesome rock formations such as the Garganta del Diablo (Devil´s Throat):

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El Anfiteatro (The Amphitheatre), where some musicians had squeezed through the narrow entrance to demonstrate the excellent acoustics of the circular space:

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Holes in the rocks looked like giant windows:

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Less awesome, more amusing was El Sapo (The Toad):

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Thousands of tall, broad cacti with seriously sharp needles:

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There were also plenty of cute llamas and alpacas along the way – this first picture amuses me as it looks like Mark is trying to push the animal over. Llama-tipping, anyone?

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The Cafayate region is known for wine made from the Torrontés grape, an up-and-coming Argentinean variety which is tipped to become the white counterpart to the famous red Malbec.

Torrontés is also known as “mentirosa” or “the liar”. This is because the aroma is ripe with tropical, fruit and floral notes, indicating that the taste will be sweet but actually it is as dry as a bone.

The altitude of the Cafayate region is a perfect home for Torrontés, because the cooler nights encourages the grapes to keep their acidity while developing subtle flavour.

Torrontés is grown almost exclusively in Argentina so of course we took the opportunity to taste a glass or to while we were there! We also found an ice cream shop which made Torrontés sorbet – Mark was in heaven.

We had heard Cachi was the most beautiful out of the whole Valles Calchaquíes and sure enough, we were instantly charmed by its picturesque serenity.

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The fields around the little town grow spicy red peppers. We could see farmers spreading them out evenly to dry in the sun.

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Salta itself was a fun place to spend a couple of days. After we dutifully checked out the landmarks such as the Cerro San Bernado hill, which we climbed to get this view…

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… and the ornate Iglesia San Francisco…

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…we gleefully arrived at the Patio de la Empanada to try what are reportedly the best empanadas in the whole of Argentina.

There is a fiercely judged empanada making competition each year, in which winning a prize is a proud accolade. The rest of the time, these empanadistas serve their wares alongside each other from tiny stalls which overlook a shared patio in the centre with plastic tables and chairs.

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As well as empanadas, humitas (mashed corn, seasoned and made into a dough and steamed, often with cheese) and tamales (mashed corn dough stuffed with meat, vegetables and other fillings) are available.

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Hands down, the best street food we ate in Argentina and a great way to celebrate this fantastic country before we crossed the border over to Bolivia.

Trekking the “W” in Torres del Paine national park, Chilean Patagonia

This is what trekking food for five people, for five days looks like:

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Pretty dismal. But of course the trekking mentality is that food is simply fuel to get you to the most remote, wild and beautiful areas.

Torres del Paine national park is world famous; as well as the mountains, lakes, glaciers and streams which abound in Patagonia, there are the distinctive granite towers which inspired its name.

Extremely hardcore folk trek the full circuit (also known as the “Q”), which takes around nine days. As a born and raised city girl I suspected my love for nature would seriously wane after that long, plus Mark and I were conscious that we wanted to have as much time as possible in Peru and Ecuador.

So we settled for the more manageable, but still challenging, W trek, named after the shape of the route, plus a bit extra (which we dubbed the “Q tip”, geddit?). This trail navigates up and down out of the mountain valleys, via the park’s must-see attractions: Los Torres, Los Cuernos, Valle Frances, Paine Grande, and Glacier Grey.

We hooked up with an English couple we had met in El Calafate, Jack & Jenna and Derek, an American from San Francisco who had been travelling for five months already. We made a good team – the combination of Jack’s impressive supply of games, Jenna’s organisation and feminine solidarity, and Derek’s Spanish speaking skills was a winner. (I’m not sure what Mark and I brought to the group; Mark was an excellent packhorse and his melodic farts were an endless source of amusement. My role was pacesetter for steep uphills thanks to my geeky walking sticks or “power poles”)

The self-styled "Team Salami", named after the supersized sausage that was the cornerstone of every meal we prepared at camp.

The self-styled “Team Salami”, named after the supersized sausage that was the cornerstone of almost every meal we prepared at camp.

Our French pal Cyrille joined us for the first couple of days before peeling off to complete the full circuit on his own in search of spiritual discovery. (He had the world’s heaviest pack and a pair of self-whittled walking sticks; the rest of us joked that his discovery may be that actually, he hates camping and should have stayed home.)

We took in some amazing views:

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The glacial water was so fresh and delicious, you could literally lap it up like a dog:

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As a special end to our trip, we woke up in the early hours of the last day to start trekking in the dark, under a full moon and a canopy of stars. The goal was to arrive at the main Torres viewpoint before sunrise, after an hour long uphill slog.

We made it with enough time to spread out our roll mats and get comfortable with our sleeping bags and thermos flask, ready to watch the moon drop and the towers glow pink and orange as the morning sun came up.

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Totally worth the shockingly early start.

Of course, trekking isn’t all photogenic vistas, perfect weather and happy camping – there were some truly miserable moments which had me swearing never to put myself through this ordeal again. And swearing like a fishwife in general (sorry Mum). Over the five days we hiked over 100km (70 miles) and most days were at least eight hours of solid trekking. By the end, most of us had shattered muscles, knackered joints, bruises, scrapes, blisters, mosquito bites and numerous other painful niggles. And we stank.

Look at our hangdog expressions on the last day.

Look at our hangdog expressions on the last day.

Towards the end of the trek, the main thing keeping us going was thinking of the celebratory feast back in civilisation, with all the heavy, unnecessary treats we had to leave behind (and BOOZE!). Team Salami headed straight for a local brewery for pitchers of beer and this kilo of chips smothered in cheese, bacon and fried chicken – definitely deserved.

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Personally, I was hallucinating visions of fresh fruit, salad and veggies after nearly a week of cereal bars, dried noodles and salami. I very nearly climbed into this trough of apples in excitement.

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Perhaps this is easy to say from the comfort of a warm, cosy room, but having to walk miles through crazy weather magnified the beauty of the landscapes. Seeing the Torres light up at sunrise would not have been as special if we had been dropped off by a tour bus (obviously this isn’t possible anyway!). The sense of achievement after all that hard work made the whole experience more profound and utterly unforgettable.

Argentinian Patagonia: El Calafate and El Chalten

Our first stop in Southern Patagonia was El Calafate in Argentina.

The words spectacular, dramatic, astonishing, jaw-dropping, and stunning still don’t quite capture the scenery, which made Mark and me feel we had somehow magically stumbled into the pages of a glossy coffee table book.

So thank goodness for Mark’s camera.

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The Perito Moreno glacier is 250 sq km (97 sq mi), 30 km (19 mi) in length, and more importantly, stable.

Look at the tiny person on the viewing platform, to give you an idea of how vast this glacier is.

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The sounds here were as impressive as the sights – the peace would be broken frequently by eerie noises of the ice creaking and groaning as it cracked deep inside the glacier, or as chunks larger than family cars broke off at the edges to crash and splash into the water. It was as though the glacier was a living, powerful being.

El Chalten is a charming hippie village at the foot of the mountains, full of picturesque, shanty-style buildings in pastel colours. It’s properly remote; just 400 inhabitants (the population grows to around 2,000 because of visitors in peak hiking/tourist season) and there is a very shaky satellite connection for Internet. We were a bit alarmed to see this sign warning us that there were no more pubs for miles (I thought my father would appreciate this).

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Luckily there was enough trekking and more beautiful scenery to quench our thirst instead (not to mention a great microbrewery and pub on the main street).

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The wind in Patagonia is notorious – the multitude of coastline, lakes, peaks, and glaciers all near each other create many different microclimates which cause powerful and unpredictable bursts of wind.

This isn’t an ocean, but a mountain lake.

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On this day, all but one of our group of five were literally swept off their feet by the wind. All you can do is drop to the ground and clutch while at rocks or bushes to avoid getting blown away. We attempted to reach the peak of Lago de Los Tres, but couldn’t fight the wind even crawling on our hands and knees. The very next day the same lake was as calm and still as a mirror.

One of my favourite things about hiking is how it sharpens your appetite and gives you a great excuse to feast. Not only do you deserve a hearty meal after ten hours of stomping around mountains and hoisting yourself up steep slopes, you can indulge merrily knowing you’re in no danger of putting on weight.

A local specialty is Patagonian lamb, barbecued in the traditional way and served in huge portions.

I've heard of "food porn" but this splayed, legs akimbo pose is something else. Hellooo boys!

I’ve heard of “food porn” but this splayed, legs akimbo pose is something else. Hellooo boys!

I also learnt about the local calafate berry, which is part of the barberry family (Persians – barberry is zereshk) and resembles very tiny blueberries. You can find all sorts of things made with these berries: jams, jellies, booze, cordials, salsas and sauces. There is a legend that says that if you eat calafate, it means you will one day return to Patagonia.

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Knowing this, I tucked in to this calafate ice cream with gusto; I would definitely love to come back.