As we try to get the next blog update ready in the next few days, it feels a little awkward to be writing about our travels and in our usual lighthearted way when so many are going through the worst – and that’s the lucky ones.
Our thoughts are with the people of Nepal and with everyone who has been affected by this new disaster. If you are interested in helping, please read these articles published in The Guardian on 27 April and today 29 April:
Round the World trip November 2014 – May 2015 week 16 and 17 of 24
Bogotá and the South
From Medellín we undertook a delightful ten hour bus journey to the capital, Bogotá. We stayed in a small, modern hotel in the business area right by the Zona Rosa (the dedicated nightlife district, filled with restaurants and bars and heavily policed; every Colombian city seems to have one). Bogotá is a great city to eat and go out, and we did a lot of both, as well as some compulsory sightseeing. I also particularly enjoyed getting around on the Transmilenio, the city’s main public transport system. A cross between a bus network and a metro, it was actually designed by my soon-to-be-former employer, and it featured in nearly every company brochure.
We visited the Museo de Santa Clara, a beautifully decorated church in which there was an exhibition of 18th century portraits of dead nuns who had lived and died in the adjacent convent. The spectacular Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) has an extraordinary collection of pre-Columbian gold artefacts – the biggest in the world. After what we had heard in the north about the Spanish conquest it seemed surprising that Colombia has so much gold left.
We took a trip to the nearby town of Zipaquira; here we visited the Catedral de Sal, an enormous underground Catholic church carved inside a salt mine. We spent several hours wandering through the network of tunnels, which only occupy a small corner of the salt mine. Given how huge the cathedral was, the full scale of the mine was almost impossible to imagine.
Whilst we were in Bogotá an earthquake struck to the north of the city. The city itself didn’t suffer much damage, but it was a very strange experience. First I thought I was having a sudden attack of dizziness, then I realised that the building was actually shaking. The streets were eerily quiet that night.
From Bogotá we took another ten hour ride, this time in a hot minibus, to the town of San Agustín. To make the journey more memorable, someone vomited at the back halfway through and it was unaccountably left to fester for the duration. San Agustin’s main pull for visitors is a series of pre-Columbian statues scattered in the surrounding countryside, some of which are over 2000 years old. A huge number of these were made and many are superbly detailed. It’s not entirely clear why they were built as little is known of the culture of the time; there are no written records. The statues were not for display but were buried in huge tombs with the dead leaders. Lucky people got to be sacrificed so they could join them – apparently considered a great honour at the time. Both the statues and the surrounding countryside were very impressive. We had a very relaxed few days here, staying just out of town, at a wonderful hostel where we made some friends (fellow travellers as well as the cutest dogs and cats). San Agustín deserves to get more visitors than it does – we were almost alone much of the time at the archaeological sites. Many people seem to be put off by the inaccessibility of the area and the (now well past) history of guerrilla activity.
From San Agustín our intention was to head straight for the border with Ecuador. As the crow flies this isn’t far – only about 200 kilometres (120 miles). By land, however, it is rather more difficult – bad roads winding through beautiful but not entirely safe areas, where you are told not to travel after dark due to the risk of attack by armed bandits. We opted for the more direct of the two available options, via a road reassuringly named the Trampoline of Death, which runs 80 kilometres (50 miles) between the towns of Mocoa and San Francisco. Harry, the hostel manager, assured us that it was a long time since there had been fatal bus crash on this route, but a quick Google news search showed that there had still been a few. Therefore it was with some trepidation that we took our motion sickness pills and headed off on the first day of the journey, to the city of Pasto where we would pass the night before heading on to the border.
The first few hours of the journey, to the grim and remote town of Mocoa, were uneventful enough. This is where the ‘trampoline’ begins: the road became a narrow dirt track which climbed high into the mountains, with vertical cliffs on one side and a sheer drop on the other, sometimes with a crash barrier but more often with just some yellow tape to mark where the edge was. The scenery was stunning, when we could see it through the clouds that shrouded the road; sometimes we could barely see out of the front of the minibus to the next bend and vertical drop. It was probably a good thing we couldn’t see, as in some places apparently the drop is 1,000 metres – though I hoped the driver could still see where to go. Fortunately, the fearsome reputation of this route inspired uncharacteristic diligence in Colombian drivers (trucks even pulled over to let us pass, which hasn’t happened anywhere else). It took three hours to cover the 80 kilometres to San Francisco. After another couple of hours, and over ten hours after leaving our hostel in San Agustín, we were in Pasto.
Pasto is a city travellers generally visit for one night en route to or from the border, and it didn’t seem like a place to linger, so early the next day we took our last Colombian bus, through more beautiful scenery, to the even grimmer border town of Ipiales. Here we made a short detour to the stunning Santuario de las Lajas, a church built on a bridge into the side of a mountain, where someone at some point had had a vision of the Virgin Mary. Whatever one thinks about religion, it has inspired some fantastic architecture.
We then crammed into a colectivo (shared vehicle) with ten other people for the remaining few kilometres to the border. Immigration was swift and customs control was non-existent, so we were through the border in no time. We shared a taxi to the Ecuadorian border town of Tulcan with a couple of Dutch travellers we’d met, and we didn’t even make it into the bus terminal before we were spotted by the bus company’s touts and loaded into a bus for Quito, another five hours away.
Round the World trip November 2014 – May 2015 week 11 of 24
NEW ZEALAND Aotearoa
After two great weeks in Australia, we arrived in New Zealand’s South Island, landing in Christchurch just after midnight. Our first couple of hours in the country were a little underwhelming: first, we had to declare our walking boots to customs as a biosecurity risk, then the elderly taxi driver who drove us to our hotel made a racist comment about people “in a turban” overcharging, and finally the night shift receptionist at the hotel greeted us with the warmth and charm expected of a US immigration officer. Welcome to New Zealand.
Christchurch has not recovered from the earthquakes that devastated it in 2011 and 2012. Whole blocks in the centre have been demolished and the sites cleared, but many buildings remain fenced off and empty, an eerie sight. There are, however, construction works all around the centre, as well as signs of regeneration, like Re:START, an outdoor shopping area made entirely of shipping containers transformed into shops and cafés.
After a day seeing what was left of the city we departed early the following morning on the TranzAlpine across to the west coast, heading to Franz Josef glacier. We passed stunningly beautiful scenery on the way that seemed straight from a film set – as, indeed, it is. Franz Josef glacier is unusual for descending almost to sea level, ending in a rainforest. Once settled in, we hiked around said rainforest and up to the edge of the glacier – which has retreated rapidly in recent years and it is now not safe to get too close to it, but it remains an impressive sight. The surrounding countryside brought back distant memories of geography lessons.
Our next stop was Queenstown. Actually there were numerous lengthy stops before the bus finally arrived in Queenstown, almost nine hours later. Despite more beautiful scenery (which after a few days here I almost stopped noticing), this was a painful trip: after a driver switch mid way, the new driver, when counting the passengers, saw that some were trying to sleep and said loudly “Comatose heh? We’ll do something about that!“, and then proceeded to talk over the loudspeaker nonstop for the entire trip, covering such fascinating subjects as his favourite type of apricot. After some other similar bus journeys I came to think that severe verbal diarrhoea must be a required qualification for bus drivers in New Zealand.
Queenstown is a centre for outdoor activities (such as the original bungy jump) but it was far too cold and wet to do anything like that. [Note from Xavier: yes, we definitely didn’t bungy jump because of the weather. Seriously.]
The area is also a wine producing region, so we visited instead one of New Zealand’s oldest wineries, where Xavier got to see what all the wine he drinks in a year looks like when in one place. [Note from Xavier: Simon thinks he is joking.]
On the road again, we drove a hire car to Te Anau on our way to the Fjordland at the far southwest, to visit spectacular Milford Sound. We stopped a few times along the way, including for a breathtaking (literally) uphill hike at The Divide through more rainforest, to barren mountaintops shrouded in clouds.
At Milford Sound the mountains drop directly over 1,500m to the water below, and when it’s been raining (as it had been in biblical fashion when we visited) hundreds of temporary waterfalls crash down along the vertical walls – and in some cases, where caught by the strong wind, vanish mid-air. We took a boat tour of the fjord, all the way to the Tasman Sea and back. The fjord is vast yet its entrance is very well hidden from the open ocean – so well that Cook bypassed it twice on his journeys along the coast. We were lucky enough to see a pod of bottlenose dolphins swimming and jumping out of the water very close to our boat, and a herd of sleepy seals on the rocks at the bottom of the cliffs. Also in the fjord was super yatch Serene, allegedly owned by Russian billionaire Yuri Shefler, which had made the local news.
New Zealand is one of the most expensive places we have come on this trip, which has entailed certain economising. Xavier has taken to this with unrestrained enthusiasm, particularly the need to stay in backpackers hostels (for Queenstown he suggested about twenty alternative places, all “just a little” more expensive) and prepare some of our own food (“but there must be good cheap restaurants” – with Michelin stars, presumably).
Next, New Zealand’s North Island. Watch this space!