Ghosts, Geysers and Galaxies
As a child, Westerns, whether on film, TV or in comics featured strongly and never more than when a ghost town was featured. There was something romantic and mysterious about the quiet solitude and eerie atmosphere of such places and in wondering how and why they became deserted. How then could I resist the opportunity of us visiting one such place deep in the Atacama Desert. Humberstone, named after the British chemical engineer who founded it in 1872, was a self reliant town where saltpetre, an important ingredient of fertiliser, was mined and exported to Europe. It thrived for many years and housed its own theatre, schools, hospital and its hundreds of workers. However, when World War 1 broke out the British blockaded and prevented its export and Germany developed a synthetic version which effectively destroyed the Chilean market and the town was abandoned to slowly crumble in the hot and dry environment in which it stood. Wandering around the old mining works and deserted town buildings, there still remains a tangible air of a community about the place despite its lack of human presence.
We decided to stay a few days in the tourist town of San Pedro, which despite its trappings of souvenir shops, pricy restaurants and tour operators, still maintained a level of Chilean charm. Two excursions appealed to us and we indulged in both. Firstly was a trip to the nearby geysers where we had to arrive before sunrise as the chilling, very chilling, night air was required to turn the bubbling water into vapour as it reached the surface. Having wrapped up as well as we thought necessary we stood shivering while surrounded by huge plumes of hot steam and boiling pools of water. We walked amongst them as the sun rose, taking great care as to where we trod, and wondered at the sheer power and beauty of these subterranean displays. Hot chocolate was heated in the steaming froth before serving and then, as the air warmed and the spectacle subsided, we headed back for a welcome breakfast.
Our second trip was a night time excursion to a very dark place in the desert where light pollution was at its minimum and the sky at its brightest. Here we were treated to a lecture from an astronomer who described the night sky, told some history and then introduced us to the nine various telescopes pointing starward. We were invited to visit each at our leisure where we could view new born stars, old and exploded stars, twin stars and even the planet Saturn whose rings were clearly visible. While this was all going on we could gaze above us where falling stars would occasionally blaze across the staggeringly clear and stunningly beautiful Milky Way.
One of the greatest pleasures for us while travelling untethered is the opportunity to roam at will and find little corners of life that would otherwise be missed. One such occasion arose in the town of Iquique. We had a whole morning to fill before catching our bus and decided to wander down to the sea. Carol had taken her binoculars as usual and we sat awhile watching the abundant sea birds that occupied the shore. Several Pelicans sat lazily on the rocks accompanied by an Inca Tern and Peruvian Boobies (stop sniggering at the back!). Once satisfied we had seen all we were going to we walked toward the masts of a large sailing ship to take a look but before we got there we came across a small alleyway that led down to the dock where the fishing boats were moored. Here was an abundance of stalls selling several species of fish and molluscs and an assortment of small plastic pots full of Ceviche. Some things we cannot resist and freshly prepared Ceviche is one of them and we bought a pot and sat and devoured the pickled morsels with relish. Carol asked the stall holder, in the broken Spanish I have not yet mastered, what type of fish had been used. Albacore she answered with enthusiasm adding “Grande” with a gesture indicating a very large fish. We were none the wiser but the terrible truth would soon be revealed. A few yards further and we reached the dock and looking over the edge we saw a floating platform on top of which lay a couple of large female sea lions along with an enormous male complete with impressive mane. A real treat which was to become even better when one of the fishermen pushed passed us and threw a bucket of fish entrails into the water. Pandemonium broke out as the three sealions were instantly joined by several others and the free meal was fought over in a frenzy of froth and splashing water. Quite a sight. Once the entertainment was over we decided to return to our hotel to collect our luggage and stopped off for a cup of coffee on the way. No sooner had we sat down than Carol suggested we go to a chemist to buy some cream for my face.
“What do you mean?” I enquired indignantly.
“You’re all blotchy” she wounded me further.
I had noticed my eyes were getting sore and that I was itching around my neck and worry began to set in.
“Can you look up the name of that fish I ate, Albacore wasn’t it” I asked Carol, getting a little more concerned as the itching started to spread.
She managed to find Albacore in her bevy of Spanish translations. “Oops” she said
“It’s swordfish isn’t it” knowing full well even before she answered. “Yep”
There are common allergies and there are rare allergies. One of the rarest and I believe the only species specific allergy in the world happens to be the one I have. An allergy to swordfish. At its worst my eyes swell, my neck swells to mump like proportions, my entire body breaks out into itchy hives and my respiratory system almost shuts down. The best way of controlling the affliction is to avoid swordfish, not a difficult or life restricting thing to have to do but I never considered avoiding Albacore, who would? Thankfully we had shared a very small pot and the attack was mild and Carol, being the grownup in our relationship, always carries antihistamine tablets for me when we are likely to encounter sea food and the crisis soon passed.
Undaunted, we collected our bags and stopped for lunch before heading for the bus station. We had managed to sidestep a couple of tourist restaurants and found a tarpaulin covered area where fresh fish dishes were being served up to the fishermen and so we sat and ordered a bowl of soup each. When it arrived the first thing we noticed were the two crab claws reaching skyward through the misty brown broth whose surface was bejewelled with emerald flecks of coriander. Dipping the spoon through the liquid immediately met with resistance as it encountered clams filled with succulent flesh along with thin slices of urchin and other fruits of the sea. The flavours were deep and varied and we savoured every mouthful, happy in the knowledge that what we were eating could not be fresher or more traditional. Our culinary journey had begun.
The journey has begun as Carol and I head off towards Chile to begin our 12 week trip from the hot and parched Atacama desert in the north to the chilly and windswept Tierra del Fuego in the south, a distance of approximately 2,700 miles. We intend to cover most of the distance by bus which we are led to believe are some of the most efficient and comfortable in the world. We wait to see.
The flight to Santiago, via Atlanta, was a long 21 hours in total and although arduous it proved uneventful and frankly we were grateful to be flying at all. On arrival at the Heathrow check in we were asked for our U.S. Visa Waver number. “Our what?” we asked anxiously.. Now, we knew we did not need a visa for Chile and were merely in transit for two hours in America but apparently need to apply online for permission not to have an American visa. Complete news to us but the authorities would not let us fly without one. We could get one online but the US government server was down and we were told to just keep trying and hope for the best. The best finally arrived with just a few minutes to spare and we were ushered onto the aircraft. Phew!
Following a stopover night in Santiago we took a flight north to Arica where we would spend two nights before heading to our northern starting point of Putre. The big surprise for me was the approach into Arica. We had enjoyed stunning views from the plane with the Andes on one side and the rugged coastline on the other but as we descended all we saw was the town surrounded by flat, featureless desert except on one side where the port stood and where the imports arrived explaining the town’s existence. We used our time here to adjust to our new surroundings and get a feel for what was to come and what we were soon to realise was how friendly, kind and helpful the people of Chile are, although it may sometimes prove challenging as there appears to be no English spoken here and we would be relying on Carol’s rusty “O” level Spanish, my incoherent sign language and the patience of our hosts. We managed to find a collectivo, a taxi that picks up multiple fares as it travels the streets, to take us a few kilometres out of town to the river fed Azapa Valley oasis where we enjoyed a stroll around the near deserted streets of single story dwellings, a hugely colourful cemetery where brilliant humming birds darted between the flower offerings and then we visited the small but very well presented museum of artefacts relating to the early tribes of the area. This provided us with an excellent grounding for the return journey when we asked our driver to take a detour to show us the geoglyphs scratched into the hillsides centuries before.
On next to Putre which I regard as our starting point as it is the most northerly stop before heading south. A very small town of around a dozen criss crossing streets, a handful of small stores and restaurants and a sleepy town square. This was to be our base for travelling into the less hospitable area of the Altiplano, the second highest Plateau in the world, very arid and surrounded by volcanoes, both active and dormant, at the widest part of the Andes. The air was very thin and although we had acclimatised a little, movement and breathing was still slow and laboured at this altitude, around 4,500 metres.
Despite the harsh conditions we were amazed and delighted at the life we saw here. Domesticated Llamas and Alpacas were seen grazing the sparse vegetation and we came across several groups of Vicunas, their wild relatives along with some rabbit like Viscacha who tried to join us when we stopped for lunch. Birdlife was also abundant, to Carol’s delight, but the real prizes to add to her growing bird list were the Ostrich like Rhea we came across and the mighty Condor that appeared from a volcano top and circled ever nearer before disappearing once more into the distance. I mustn’t forget the flocks of pink flamingos that waded in the shallow waters around the vast salt pans that dot the area.
Cape Cross Seal
Cape Cross Seal Reserve can be found on the west coast of Namibia and is the largest Fur Seal colony in the world with a population of around 250,000 seals. Fur Seals are categorised by the presence of ears which other species lack.
On visiting the reserve one of the first things you will notice is the distinctive and pungent smell as well as the cacophony of noise emanating from these creatures. The seals tend to ignore visitors but this individual seemed to take a particular interest in me.
The Diwali Festival has brought back memories of the remarkable night we spent last year in the blue city of Jodpur. We had been joined on our travels by our good friends Carole and Neil and were spending the two weeks we spent together in relative luxury by treating ourselves to a hire car and driver to take us between destinations.
What we had not realised until arriving in Jodpur was that we had arrived during Diwali and the roads we needed to reach our guest house were closed to allow the throngs of shoppers to spend their rupees in the traditional buying spree. We eventually arrived at the lodgings by parking up on the towns’ outskirts and jumping into a couple of tuk-tuks which transported us through the narrow back streets. At dinner that night we were surprised by the appearance of our driver who produced, from under his jacket, a gift of a bottle of whiskey for us. The noise of the fireworks outside was escalating and once we had finished our meal we decided to go onto the roof and enjoy the spectacle. The five of us joined a handful of guests and sat supping whiskey and beer and munching on finger chips as thousands of fireworks burst from the houses across the city. The noise was deafening as flashes from crackers burst every second and hundreds of rockets filled the skies. Many were simple trails of light but periodically the entire sky would light up with a great umbrella of colourful light which seemed to envelop the entire cityscape. We sat and wondered at the spectacle for hours until the need for sleep fell upon us but this proved difficult as once back in our room there was no respite and the doors and windows rattled from the explosions outside and it continued all through the night. It was a joy to see the pleasure and enthusiasm for the festival that the townsfolk enjoyed and an experience that will stick in the memory forever.
Working hard, too hard
It was noticeable during our travels how hard the women in the rural communities had to work to sustain themselves and their families. In many places the workload was often tilted more toward the women than men although we did feel a more equal share occurred in Nepal. The day always seemed to begin early with the gathering of wood for fuel and grasses for animal feed and the journey home looked long, arduous and tiring.
Zebra in Etosha National Park
One of the joys of visiting Etosha National Park is the time spent gazing at the activity around the waterholes. After a while the drinking hierarchy amongst the animals becomes apparent, with the zebra, giraffe, wildebeest and various antelope happily drinking their full until the elephants turn up. Once the family groups of elephants come into view the other drinkers slowly move away and stand peacefully at a safe distance, showing due deference, until their time comes again.
Temple Devotions at Pashupatinath
We experienced some very poignant moments while visiting the sacred Hindu temple at Pashupatinath in Nepal. It is a place of high devotion and an important centre for cremations. This man was preparing offerings for a recently deceased relative and is symbolic of the great care and dedication given to the details of these ceremonies.
The Frescos of Nawagarh
Nawagarh is a small town in the state of Rajasthan, India, whose main attractions are the many Havelis found there. These buildings were the homes to the many rich traders who travelled the silk route before it was closed due to the partition of India and Pakistan which effectively put an end to the town’s wealth. What makes these buildings particularly special are the fresco paintings that adorn both the inside and outside walls. These were commissioned by the owners as a sign of wealth and were produced by way of competition to indicate which of the traders were the wealthiest. Sadly most are now in a state of disrepair and many have been destroyed as owners with little or no interest in the legacy of their forefathers have plastered and painted over some while others just crumble from the walls. A handful of the houses though have been protected and restored as living museums and their splendour is preserved for all to see.
India on the buses
Apart from the occasional jeep, car or minibus our main choice of transport during our Cardamom Days adventure was on government buses. Before arriving in India Carol and I had preconceived ideas of what to expect. There would be overcrowded buses with people hanging off the sides and sitting on the roof. Although this was generally an exaggeration they certainly proved to be very crowded and we did on occasion stand in a crush while the bus was slung around bends at speed while avoiding the oncoming traffic on whichever side of the road was considered the best at the time.
The buses themselves are utilitarian at its most excessive. The outside are battered and dented where presumably the “get out of the way!” horn tooting method has failed and a hammer has been adopted to knock it back into something resembling the side/front/back of a bus. Some have a front and back door while others merely one. When I say door I really mean a rectangular hole in the side of a bus which sometimes has a door and often attached to a piece of string to help open and close it once the bus has pulled away. The occasional complete lack of doors is a bonus to passengers who wish to leap on and off despite the drivers determination not to stop unless at a bus stop.
Once inside the vehicle we are treated to blandness that only battleship grey has the power to inflict. The metal frames of the seats are painted in battleship grey and charmingly the two inch frame is painted with the same four inch brush used on the walls and ceilings and so adds a lack of colour to the rear upholstery which tends to be in a more acceptable shade of light grey. The seats are thin and uncomfortable and usually covered in plastic so as to add to the joys of overheating in the 35 degree temperatures although the usual lack of glass in the windows does help the cooling process a great deal. I bet monsoon season is a bundle of laughs. The rest of the interior is purely functional with a string leading down the length of the bus until it reaches a bell near the driver. This, along with whistles and fist banging is the communication method between the driver and conductor. There are often bits of mysterious electrical wire hanging from the ceiling and around the drivers cab and other bus parts show their value by being secured to the controls with string and bits of shredded carrier bag.
Every bus though does offer its own unique splash of colour amongst the otherwise drab interior. The driver always has a display of representations of his own chosen deity either as an image or effigy or both and often festooned with strings of fresh flowers and tinsel and this brings with it an element of reassurance in what is otherwise a white knuckle experience.
Finding the right bus to catch at the large and crowded bus stands was an education in itself and a real example as to the kindness we were often shown during our travels. Very little English is spoken by the officials but showing our desired destination written on a scrap of paper would usually bring the desired assistance. Often we would be sent to a far corner of the stand with a wave of the hand and once we arrived at a spot close to that indicated we would ask again and be ushered to another spot. Continuing this process we would walk in ever decreasing circles until we found a waiting bus or someone would point to the ground and tell us to wait. What we found amazing and endeared us to this process was that once our bus arrived at the place where we had been told to stand everyone we had asked regarding directions would suddenly appear from all directions and ensure we boarded the bus safely and often secure us a seat and arrange for somewhere to stow our back packs. There were exception unfortunately, such as the ticket seller who refused to sell us a ticket and the group of men who hustled and bustled me until they managed to nick my wallet but generally we were treated with nothing but respect and kindness.
The people at these government bus stands, the drivers and conductors and the other passengers (we only saw about six foreigners on board in all the months we were travelling) were a revelation and provided us with so many tales to tell that we think that our adventure would have been all the poorer without them and we would recommend them to anyone with time to spare and an extra sense of adventure.
The private buses though are a different story altogether…
Deadvlei in Namibia is one of the strangest places we have ever visited. The parched clay soil is cracked like crazy paving and the dune surrounded area is populated by nothing but the black skeletons of dead and ancient trees. Long shadows are cast across the table flat surface as the early morning sun prepares itself to bake the surface even further.
The area was once irrigated by floods from the Tsauchab River and pools of water would form which supplied the Camel Thorn Trees with essential life giving moisture and nutrients.
As the climate changed the huge dunes began to encroach and the river supply was cut of leaving the clay pan in a state of drought and the trees perished. The dry conditions prevent the trees from decomposing and these strange skeletal remnants are estimated to be a staggering 900 years old.